There is an image of a near-empty Valley that has stayed strong in mind for almost 13 years. A positive, powerful image that I would never wish to forget. An image from my first visit to SE7 in 2004.
Entering the ground early for a Premier League game against Aston Villa, a much younger version of myself was overwhelmed by Charlton Athletic’s home. The floodlights just coming into effect on this late August evening, and The Valley glimmering in beautiful fashion under an orange-tinted sky. It an incredible arena, and I would soon learn that it possessed bundles of character and charm.
My naivety meant I made this relatively average ground by top flight standards into an aesthetically pleasing coliseum. At least without spectators inside, The Valley has never looked so wonderful inside my own mind.
But in competition with this moment of beauty from my first to The Valley comes a moment of joy. A moment of joy experienced as one of a near-capacity ground for this midweek fixture. And as one of a near-capacity Covered End.
Francis Jeffers, scoring 66.6% of his Charlton goals in the process, had converted twice during the first half, so Luke Young’s third just before the hour wasn’t particularly important in the grand scheme of things. Villa a bit of a shambles, and the Addicks comfortably in control.
But Young’s finish from close range, followed by a Shearer-esq raising of the arm in celebration, was the first goal scored in front of the Covered End while I occupied it. An incredible roar, which nine-year-old me attempted to contribute to, from Charlton’s packed and most partisan stand, that confirmed by dad dragging me along to SE7 had ended in success. I was now an Addick.
Those images from my first Charlton game in some contrast to my latest.
Arriving inside The Valley around an hour before the original kick-off, there barely a fellow Addick inside the ground. An empty Valley, that would barely fill. If that not the bleak picture, then the one as the game got underway most certainly it.
The official attendance suggesting just over 9,000, but the reality appears to be something more like 5,500. An unbelievably low attendance. Or at least it would be if attendances like this aren’t to be expected in the environment that Roland Duchatelet and Katrien Meire have created.
Supporters feeling distant, detached, and unable to attend. And for the majority that do attend, there is still detachment and apathy. The horrible echoey atmosphere heard again on Tuesday night, reflecting a group of supporters who are struggling to care. An atmosphere of apathy heard plenty of times since Duchatelet has taken control of the club.
And even when Tony Watt converted his winning penalty, the atmosphere that followed was hardly one that will be remembered forevermore. Relief and a degree of joy, undoubtedly, as the Addicks finally ended their winless run, but even in those emotions there was a reasonable amount of apathy and detachment. Appreciation of the moment, and a moment that all enjoyed, but a half-empty Covered End unable to create a memorable moment of celebration.
Of course, you can look at other factors that contributed to The Valley being near-empty on Tuesday night. The travel issues that delayed the game possibly preventing some from attending, the fact it was a rearranged fixture, and the quality of this Charlton side that were eight without a win going into the game.
But the emptiness of The Valley has provided sadness throughout the season, irrespective of the circumstances. A similar attendance for the previous Tuesday night fixture against Oxford United, and even more obvious apathy, while Football for a Fiver has failed to attract crowds.
This isn’t the first time The Valley has been empty in my time as a supporter. Not the first time there has been a side that supporters have struggled to trust. Not the first time echoes have gone around the ground, single shouts can be heard clearly, and the atmosphere depressing.
But it’s never been like this. Never has there been such a level of detachment, apathy and sadness displayed through the medium of empty seats. Never have so many committed Addicks not been in attendance.
It would be unfair to properly scrutinise this with a comparison to the Premier League era, though it does provide the most dramatic evidence of decline. Comparisons with other League One seasons, the seasons in the Championship prior to Duchatelet taking control of the club, and the seasons prior to this one while the Belgian has owned Charlton.
So let’s take a similar fixture from a Tuesday night fixture from the 2010/11 season in League One, which was also an emphatic failure. The Addicks hosting Southampton following a run of eight games without a victory, with little to play for but pride, and having suffered the infamous defeat to Dagenham and Redbridge three days earlier. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, Franck Nouble started.
But 16,000 were in attendance at The Valley on that Tuesday night. There was genuine encouragement and something of an atmosphere as the Addicks showed improvement in the second period against a side set for promotion. An 86th minute equaliser from Bradley Wright-Phillips celebrated with real gusto.
Charlton supporters beaten and bruised by their side’s efforts in the previous weeks, but The Valley crowd able to create a positive moment. The club failing, but the soul and identity of the club still there.
We could look, too, at a packed Valley celebrating promotion to the Championship at the end of 2011/12 campaign, after a season of unrelenting success.
Or at a crowd just shy of 16,000 singing Chris Powell’s name for the majority of the period in which the Addicks found themselves two goals down against Cardiff City in 2012. They were rewarded with a remarkable comeback, and an incredible 5-4 victory. A special Valley night.
Or the Covered End completely losing themselves as Johnnie Jackson scored a last-minute winner against QPR in 2014, right at the start of Duchatelet’s reign and during a period where Powell was under immense pressure. A special Valley moment.
Comebacks and last minute winners since. Dorian Dervite and Jorge Teixeira heading late winners against Bournemouth and Birmingham respectively among them. Where The Valley has celebrated, and moments have been formed that stay in your mind.
But they few and far between, as attendances have dropped and apathy has risen while Duchatelet has controlled the club. The Valley losing its charm, its character and its identity. Even if you want to suggest it’s not a result of Duchatelet’s destruction of the club, it’s a result of his failure.
The empty, almost soulless Valley, one of the most painful symptoms of this disease. And not just because of how deflating visits to SE7 now are, particularly under lights. The current atmosphere, and the amount of empty seats, at The Valley really does break your heart.
Supporters who have followed the Addicks for many years no longer in attendance, unable to support their club while this regime remains. Call it boycotting, call it turning their back on the club, call it detachment. Whatever it is, that’s the real tragedy.
Some will suggest they’re not proper fans, despite evidence showing quite the opposite, but most will support their decision and feel the sadness and sympathy I do. Deeply upsetting that they feel they can’t attend. That the regime have done this to them.
And you worry, will they ever return? Will they return once there is change? They’ll have found other things to do with their Saturdays, and winning them back even with a new ownership might not be straightforward for all.
And if they don’t return, will their sons and daughters grow up without Charlton? Will this generation of Charlton fans ever be healed of the disease they have been inflicted with, and will the next be able to support a club in a healthy state? Will there ever be a packed, bouncing Valley again?
It, more than protest and more than failure, is the one thing Duchatelet and Meire can’t ignore. It’s right there in front of them, or at least it is Meire, and the damage is theirs. Still, they blindly ignore it.
There will be a packed and bouncing Valley once again. When this regime sells.