Charlton AthleticSport

Alan Curbishley on his key season in charge of Charlton, putting record straight over his exit and being ‘picky’ over other boss jobs

Alan Curbishley has had a stand renamed after him at The Valley – and the man himself reckons that his first season in the job was crucial in ensuring there was a future for Charlton Athletic.

The club announced in April that their East Stand would become the Alan Curbishley Stand from the 2021-22 season. The new lettering swiftly went up in May.

Curbishley’s record as Charlton’s boss is an exemplary one. He won two promotions to the English top flight – including the old First Division title in 2000 – and they were an established Premier League outfit when he left in 2006. He had 729 matches at the helm – although the first four years were in joint-charge with Steve Gritt.

The duo picked up the managerial reins in 1991 when Charlton, forced to leave The Valley six years earlier with the club’s new board unable to retain the freehold of the ground, were groundsharing at Upton Park.

Curbishley believes the siege mentality fostered during those testing times were key in the eventual return home and holding their own against England’s top clubs.

“The main component when me and Steve took over at Upton Park is that everybody understood where the club was at, and what was needed,” Curbishley told the South London Press. “Firstly to survive at Upton Park and then, once we got back to The Valley and what that meant, to improve on that.

“It wasn’t like us against the world, but it was a little bit – if you know what I mean.

“It’s easy for people to forget about us doing the five years at Selhurst Park and the two years at Upton Park, then coming back to a dilapidated stadium.

“All the players we signed understood what we were trying to do. We made it quite clear that if they did well for us, then it would be very difficult for us not to let you go if someone comes in for you.

Paolo di Canio with  Alan Curbishley

“So there was always that incentive there, especially for the young ones, to go to a bigger, and if you like, better club.

“But whenever we signed them, and even when we got into the Premier League, they all knew where we were going and what we were trying to do.

“We said we were going to try and build the stadium back up in the early years. When I got to the last couple of years, the mentality was changing – in terms of the players we were attracting.

“Perhaps it wasn’t all about us against the world. It was about us being a bit of a force. Some of the players we were attracting then didn’t know we went to Upton Park or played at Selhurst Park. They only knew us as Charlton. Players like [Paolo] Di Canio, he only knew Charlton in the Premier League. He didn’t know the history of the football club.

“That first season at Upton Park with me and Steve, and the players then, are the reason the club is still around – plus the directors.

“We actually performed at Upton Park and finished seventh, when a lot of people thought we’d be a disaster. That enthused people  around the club to stay with the club and invest – for example Richard Murray, Martin Simons and Roger Alwen.”
Charlton were held up as an aspirational model to be followed.

Even when they did suffer relegation out of the top flight in 1999, the prudent way they had managed their finances ensured no fire sale of talent. Danny Mills was sold to Leeds but  other assets such as Mark Kinsella and Clive Mendonca were retained – along with strengthening the spine of the squad by snapping up keeper Dean Kiely and striker Andy Hunt.

Curbishley said: “The plan when we went up after the [1998] play-off final was that a third of the money we got was going to go on the stadium – because we played Ipswich in the semi-finals and the West Stand was still going up; a third went on the team and a third went in the bank for a rainy day.

“We didn’t have to sell everybody – like you saw with a lot of clubs at that time. Danny Mills left, but we didn’t have to sell Danny. It was a big move for him, to Leeds. And we spent the money.

“The first thing I did after we got relegated is I went to see Richard Murray [then chairman] at his house and he gave me a three-year contract. I wasn’t expecting that!

“I went around to have a chat about what we were going to do and he said: ‘Let’s sort this out first – I want you to sign a new contract’. I signed a three-year contract after getting relegated – it doesn’t often happen.

Photo: Paul Edwards

“The nearest club to us now is probably Burnley. They bounced straight back and have been in the Premier League for six or seven years now. It’s very difficult when you go down to do that. Although the finances are so different now, teams like Norwich and Watford can do it [bounce back] straight away. But it wasn’t the norm then.”

One thing that still irks Curbishley is the suggestion he left because fans had grown restless that Charlton could not kick on and clinch a European place – their highest finish was seventh in 2004. Scott Parker, a driving force in midfield, was sold to Chelsea for £10m in late January.

The false version of events was even trotted out by Roy Hodgson in February as he told Palace fans to be “careful” what they wished for, adding that Charlton “kicked downwards” afterwards.

“It was nothing to do with the fans,” said Curbishley. “It was to do with the situation that myself and the chairman found ourselves in.

“I had one year left on my contract and the chairman wanted me to extend it to three years.

“What I wanted to do was see out my contract, get to the end of the season and then see the lay of the land – what Charlton wanted to do and where they wanted to go. I was then in a position if I said: ‘Look, it’s been 17-18 years, let’s sign a new contract or let’s not’.  The thought of me prolonging the contract, I didn’t feel it was right.

“I was prepared to do the year. I always liked to try and do a bit of business as the season ended, in terms of bringing a player in.

“I tried to do it on quite a few occasions. I knew people might have been after the player. A bit like Benty [Darren Bent] – as soon as Ipswich got knocked out of the play-offs we went and got him.

“The chairman said if the player or agent turned around and said: ‘You want us to sign for three or four years, but you’ll only be here one year – and we’re coming to the club because you want us – where does that leave us at the end of the season?’

“I understood the argument. And that’s why me and Richard decided it was the best way forward, we all moved on.

“It was better for the club at that time – because whoever came in would have had the whole summer to prepare for the new season, instead of coming in midway through.

“As I found out at West Ham, it’s very difficult going into a club during the season and learning about your players while you are playing proper games.”

Curbishley’s last managerial role was in September 2008. He resigned as Hammers boss and the following November won his case for constructive dismissal.

Alan Curbishley and Steve Gritt on their appointment as joint Charlton managers in July 1991

He was on punditry duty for Charlton TV last season and has also done media work for overseas television coverage of the Premier League.

It is a major surprise that no clubs  have come calling for his knowledge and expertise. Curbishley was strongly in contention to manage England while on Charlton’s payroll.

“It took me a year to sort out the West Ham thing, and in that year perhaps a bit of damage was done in boardrooms,” he said.

“I wasn’t getting offered the jobs that I thought were right for me. No disrespect to the Championship, but I was getting offered jobs there – or clubs who had 10 games to go in the Premier League and were in the bottom three.

“I wanted to have a clean run at it. I never really got offered that opportunity.

“Sir Alex Ferguson said it to me on plenty of different occasions ‘don’t be out too long, because you can easily be forgotten’. I think that is what happened. That’s why you see people like Brucie [Steve Bruce], [Sam] Allardyce and [David] Moyes jump back in.

“If I look back at it, and obviously I have, I was probably a bit too picky – that I’d find a club a bit like I left Charlton. A decent club, with the summer to prepare.

“New owners, new chief executives – things move on very quickly. I never really got offered the job that attracted me. Then suddenly you’re out for some time and you’re living a different life.

“It’s only recently I’ve dropped out of the top 10 for matches managed in the Premier League. I’m in the list for more than 100 wins in the Premier League as well, it’s because managers don’t do 10 years in the Premier League.

“I found a different lifestyle. I actually saw the kids and now see the grandkids, which is a bonus when you’re not doing it.”

Curbishley’s success in SE7 was a big part of building back up the fanbase after their nomadic existence at Selhurst Park and Upton Park. Their sustained period in the Premier League drew in supporters – lapsed and new.

Picture: Keith Gillard

US-based Danish businessman Thomas Sandgaard talked about Charlton regaining top-tier status within five years when he took ownership in September.

“I think one of the things that might have enthused Thomas is seeing the old footage,” said Curbishley. “He has seen some of the memory lanes [on Charlton TV] and what can be done.

“He knows the catchment area and pulling power of the club. Once you start getting on a roll and back into the Championship, who knows? If the club was in the Championship, because that has become so big now, I think Charlton would average 20,000 with the teams in there.

“There are so many big teams in there and it makes a big difference when the away end is sold out – and it would be quite a few times in the Championship, or even most occasions. He can see the potential of the club. There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘this is where I want to go’ but obviously you’ve got to get there.

“The first step, looking at League One and watching it for the last six months, there is a great opportunity if we get it right this summer.

“The club is in a unique position where they have an enthusiastic owner and they are also an attractive club. When Lee [Bowyer] was in charge they brought in some excellent loan signings because clubs around this area can come and watch their players play and realise they are going to be looked after.

“If Nigel [Adkins] gets the recruitment right this summer, I can’t see any reason we aren’t going to be up there.”

Now Curbishley is cast in the role of a studio guest. So how did he used to treat post-game analysis when a manager?

“You obviously pay attention to what people say and you know there is going to be praise and criticism – you’ve got to take it on the chin.

“When we first started doing it [Charlton TV[ I did feel sorry for Lee. He couldn’t get the results at home and he was coming out straight afterwards and giving his honest opinion, like he always did. I did think that was a bit tough because the TV thing had just started. It was taking off but we just couldn’t get the results at The Valley.

“It was the Valley form which made the difference [to not making the top six]. When fans did come back in for the play-off games you could feel the different atmosphere. It would have made a big difference if 4,000 or 5,000 fans had been in The Valley for some of the big games.”

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