22 January ~ Is it a football match or an unveiling? The Charlton fans couldn't care less. "We've got our Charlton back," they sang last week at Sheffield Wednesday, and it'll get another airing at home to Plymouth today. The arrival of Chris Powell, the second black manager currently working in the League at the first club to host an anti-racist day, is one of the better things to have happened at Charlton for a very long time. Last year Powell compared footballers' wages with the national average in order to make a point. I doubt the number of footballing professionals who would even know the average wage would be a large one.
But this fixture provokes its own, bittersweet memories, for the strangest of reasons. A decade ago, both clubs agreed to take part in a television programme called Turning the Tables. It was not a complicated premise – someone from a big business (Charlton) would go and work in a small business (Plymouth) and vice versa. "Big" person would stroll round, joking at the size difference, suggesting improvements and patting heads. "Small" person would repeat the phrase "We can only dream of such riches" or words to that effect. That was certainly how the footballing version worked.
A decade on, however, and like so many British financial schemes, it's all fallen apart. Plymouth's failure to follow Charlton's advice led them to the brink of disintegration while Charlton's failure to follow Charlton's advice threatened, before a recent takeover, to achieve much the same. Both sides need money simply to survive and dreams of hitting the big time are firmly on the back burner.
They are, in their own ways, two teams who tell a similar story – of decisions wrongly made and chances ineptly taken. The whole span of footballing life exists between the two dugouts, from the first outing of Powell in one to the millionth or more of Peter Reid in the other. Since that film was made, Plymouth have employed nine different managers, Charlton seven. A couple were caretakers, a couple might as well have been, but the numbers tell the story. Between them they've lost millions, slipped down a few divisions, lost thousands of fans and just about lived to tell the tale.
And yet, despite all that, the game remains about escapism – even while it gives us ever more to escape from. Powell's arrival was sorely needed, not just at Charlton but throughout football. It's a huge responsibility but it's been handed to a level-headed individual, who appreciates what is important and what is peripheral. Most importantly, he realises that the game cannot divorce itself from reality and hope to prosper. That national average wage that footballers don't know about – that money buys the tickets, the Sky boxes and the replica nylon tat that keep the whole thing afloat.
In a small, quiet corner of the press box, those of us who have persuaded a friendly sports editor that The Valley would be a good place to spend this Saturday afternoon will be discreetly humming along to "We've got our Charlton back", wishing the game's brightest new manager, in every sense of the word, all the very best. Mick Collins