Comment – Hawks fans embrace FA Cup romance in amongst a swathe of empty seats at Charlton Athletic
The FA Cup once mattered to Charlton Athletic fans. Really mattered. It mattered in 1938 when a crowd of over 75,000 crammed into The Valley for a tie against Aston Villa.
It mattered then, alright. It also mattered nine years later when the Addicks attracted 56,340 for a quarter-final win against Preston. And it definitely mattered the following month, April 1947, when Charlton defeated Burnley to lift the FA Cup for the first and only time.
There is a degree of synchronicity here in that in this, the 150th anniversary season of the world’s greatest club knockout competition - the first ever FA Cup ties were held on November 11, 1871 - Charlton’s sole success came at exactly the halfway point.
A first round tie against Hawks yesterday was the south east London club’s opening tie in their 75th anniversary season since winning at Wembley, and Saturday’s programme cover recalled their greatest day.
Well, it SHOULD be their greatest day; no doubt, though, there are Charlton fans believing the Sky-driven narrative that football has only existed since 1992 who would choose promotion to the Premier League as their club’s most momentous achievement.
Charlton haven’t milked Rupert Murdoch’s cash cow since 2007, but once a Premier League fan - certainly those that have never bought into the romance of the FA Cup - possibly always a Premier League fan.
Perhaps that was why Hawks walked out at The Valley, in one of the biggest games of their club’s history, to a near empty stadium. At this stage of their 75th anniversary campaign, the FA Cup didn’t really matter to the home supporters.
Charlton, having been watched by the best part of 15,000 of their own fans the previous Saturday against Doncaster in a League 1 fixture, could only muster a crowd of 3,865 a week later - and 874 of them were supporting Hawks and making a din in the Jimmy Seed Stand behind one of the goals.
Seed is Charlton’s past who, thanks to the stand named in his honour 40 years ago, continues to be a part of the present.
His is a great tale. Seed was manager when the Addicks won the FA Cup, having overseen one of English football’s most astonishing rises prior to the Second World War. In 1934/35, his second season in charge, he led Charlton to the Third Division (South) title. Twelve months later, they finished second in Division 2 and, with it, another promotion. Then, in their first ever season of top flight action, Charlton finished runners-up to Manchester City. Imagine that sort of rise today?
Yes, the English football landscape was very different in Seed’s time and it is easy to be misty-eyed about a time we never knew. Back then, The Valley was one of the largest grounds in the country with the massive East Terrace running the length of one side of the pitch. Look it up on the internet – photographs of it packed look amazing.
(The Jimmy Seed Stand also has a remarkable history. Erected in 1981, between September 1985 and December 1992 it remained empty, overlooking a decaying stadium - with weeds running rampant on crumbling terraces - when Charlton’s board took the hugely controversial decision to move out and ground share with Crystal Palace. The club’s return, on the back of a superbly-organised fan-led campaign, and culminating in an emotional game against Pompey, remains one of football’s more heart warming stories of modern times).
Seed is not the only former boss whose name lives on at the ground. The Alan Curbishley Stand - named in honour of the manager who took Charlton into the Premier League (twice) - now stands where the East Terrace once did. It was virtually empty at the weekend, along with the top tier of the main grandstand and the home end. That meant Hawks fans could be heard nice and loud, but the Charlton fans’ general no-show was considered a bit of a kick in the teeth for the visitors.
On the back of caretaker boss Johnnie Jackson having restored some kind of feelgood factor to the club after Nigel Adkins’ sacking, Hawks boss Paul Doswell was hoping to see a crowd of around 10,000. With each club splitting the gate receipts 50-50 after expenses such as stewarding were deducted, a five-figure gate would have equalled a nice payday to go alongside the £18,000 Hawks had made from winning through three rounds.
But instead Doswell, greeted by swathes of empty red seats, was left to describe Charlton’s support as ‘terrible’ and anyone who loves the FA Cup - as I do - could only agree with him. But having had two home league games in the previous week - Charlton had drawn 1-1 with Rotherham on the Tuesday - perhaps a third game, even with ticket prices slashed to £10 for adults, was a match too far for many Addicks fans. Especially against a side from the sixth tier of English football.
Charlton attracted a crowd of 3,372 for a League Cup tie against London rivals AFC Wimbledon back in August. That attendance, more than the ones against Doncaster and Rotherham, should have told Hawks their day out at The Valley wasn’t going to be a hugely successful one - as it turned out, both on and off the pitch.
And it works both ways, I guess. In the second qualifying round, Hawks’ gate for a tie against lower division Beaconsfield was much lower than their National League South average. Even Pompey could only muster a crowd of 6,869 for Harrow Borough’s first round visit at the weekend.
While the FA Cup forever retains its romance and appeal for non-league clubs and supporters, in the top four tiers there are bigger priorities for managers and supporters. Yes, Charlton’s image of a ‘big club’ doesn’t correlate with a crowd of under 4,000 for an FA Cup tie, even against a non-league ‘minnow’. Addicks fans, though, will tell you they’d prefer to spend their hard-earned money on upcoming league home games against (leaders) Plymouth and (former Premier League rivals) Ipswich Town in the same way Hawks fans would prefer to pay to watch Dorking and Dartford than Beaconsfield.
Still, the bottom line is this - the Hawks fans who travelled to the capital were a credit to their club and non-league football. Doswell described them as ‘absolutely magnificent’ on what was a very big day for a club who weren’t even formed when Charlton defeated Sunderland 7-6 on penalties at Wembley in May 1998 - after a pulsating 4-4 draw - to reach the Premier League’s promised land of riches.
Only 33 clubs currently in the top four tiers of English football have won the FA Cup, and Charlton were only the third of those Hawks have ever played - Liverpool and Preston were the others (Notts County, who Hawks defeated in the second round in 2007/08, are now a National League club).
So days like Saturday don’t come around very often, and they have to be savoured. Hawks fans will certainly savour them more than the Charlton fans who turned up at the weekend, because the FA Cup romance thankfully lives on ... even if at the first round stage when, as the League 1 and League 2 clubs enter, it’s mainly found at Hawks, Horsham, Yate, Harrow Borough and other part-timers.
It’s those clubs, their fans, their players and their managers, who are the cheerleaders for the FA Cup in November and December every year. If the romance ever died among that lot, then the competition would really be in trouble. The sight of over 800 Hawks fans at The Valley, however, told us that remains, thankfully, far from the case.