‘…It was like being part of a special family’

By 17th April 2020 No Comments

During the 1990’s when I worked for The Football League I had the ‘honour’ of being the ‘President’ of the Charlton Athletic FC Veterans Touring Squad. Each summer, under the team management of Peter Varney and Keith Peacock, a tour party of some of the best players ever to play for Charlton – plus wives, girlfriends and a small group of dedicated supporters who collectively sponsored the trips – would fly off to sunnier climes to play a couple of matches against foreign opposition, themselves former professional footballers.

Our summer tours were all memorable and not just for the standard of football that was played! It was like being part of a special family who all got on so well with each other and from start to finish we just had so much fun. That said, our squad were all ex-professionals and so when they got into the dressing rooms and pulled the kit on, they became footballers again with the same focus and commitment to win that they had in their careers.
Over the years our tours took us to Italy, Malta, several trips to Spain and one memorable tour to Birmingham – but that is another story!

One of the most memorable tours we had was in 1997 when a strong CAFC Veterans Squad took on Espanyol and then followed that up a day later by playing in and winning a gruelling four-team tournament in Barcelona. This was the trip where our tour party were given an incredible private guided tour of the Nou Camp Stadium by none other than Bobby Robson, then Barcelona’s manager and later to become Sir Bobby of course.
Here is my diary account of that memorable trip:

Thursday 5th June 1997

I was picked up by taxi at 7.15am and I arrived at Charlton’s training ground at New Eltham at 7.40am. There was a buzz of excitement as the squad all began to arrive. All the former Charlton players get on so well, many of whom were colleagues of mine from the Selhurst Park days, and it was obvious that the trip was going to be a happy one.
We set off by coach at 8.30am, bound for terminal 2 at Heathrow. Several of our group were making their own way to the airport. Our squad included some of Charlton’s most famous names. The full squad was:
Bob Bolder, Jeff Wood, Mike Bailey, Keith Peacock, Mark Penfold, John Humphrey, Alan Pardew, Brian Kinsey, Peter Hunt, Colin Powell, Richie Bowman, Colin Walsh, Steve Gritt, Mike Flanagan, John Bumstead, Alan Curbishley and Trevor Aylott, who Keith said ‘qualified’ for us as he once wrote in for a trial at Charlton! Jimmy Hendry was our physio and John Rooke was the kit-man. I had the title of ‘President’ and Peter Varney was the General Manager. Our good friend Barry Neville who had played a huge part in arranging the trip, made up our ‘management’ team.

Our hotel in Barcelona was the Hotel Mikado which, whilst being extremely clean and comfortable, was probably the smallest hotel I had ever seen. We had to walk into reception side-ways to get in!

Friday 6th June 1997

After breakfast, the whole party set off for Barcelona’s Nou Camp training ground. We had planned with Bobby Robson to watch Barcelona train and then to meet up with Bobby for a Q&A session and a short tour of the stadium. Bobby was brilliant, he spent nearly 2 hours with us. Obviously, a lot of our squad such as Keith, Mike, Brian, Steve, and Alan had met Bobby before, but it was amazing to be given a private tour of such an iconic stadium by him personally.

We set off for the Espanyol match at 5.30pm. The game was played at ‘La Caixa’ stadium which is Espanyol’s Training ground. This game was the return match from an earlier game a few weeks ago when Espanyol visited The Valley. We won that game 4-3. The professional pride of our team kicked-in and it was clear that the players were determined not to lose this match.

Our squad was a mixture of recently retired and long-retired players, but the team spirit was amazing. The game ended 1-1 with Trevor Aylott scoring our goal, however the score line flattered Espanyol as Colin Walsh, Mike Flanagan and Keith Peacock all hit the woodwork!

After the match Espanyol put on a fine spread and we had several presentations. As President I gave a ‘speech’ in my best ‘pidgin Spanish’ to thank our hosts, which seemed to be well received by our friends at Espanyol. The game was memorable for the flamboyant display by the referee who brandished yellow cards like they were going out of fashion! He ‘booked’ Trevor Aylott three times and John Bumstead twice! He was a great character though; at the reception he arm-wrestled Alan Pardew and brandished the red card at me when I was delivering my speech! The evening was a great success and we had maintained our unbeaten run.

Tomorrow was another challenge though, day one of a two day, four-way Club tournament featuring our friends from Eynsford FC and two Spanish sides, C.E Sabadell and hosts Terrassa.

Saturday 7th June 1997

We left the hotel for the ‘Estadio Municipal Olimpico de Terrassa at 3.30pm. This was a lovely stadium and it is where the Olympic hockey tournament took place. The pitch is high quality astro-turf. We played C.E. Sabadell at 5.00pm and the match proved tough. The Spanish side were a lot younger and fitter than us and were used to playing on the artificial surface. The match ended 1-1 but we won on penalties, to go through to the final with Jeff Wood saving a penalty.

It was tough and there was some walking wounded in our team, including Mike Flanagan who made himself doubtful for the final. After the match we watched Eynsford play the host club Terrassa. The class of the Spaniards told though and Terrassa ran out 4-0 winners.

Sunday 8th June 1997

An early start this morning as we had to travel back to the stadium for the final matches. Eynsford were first on, playing Sabadell to contest 3rd and 4th place. The heat was intense, and it was getting ever hotter. This seriously worried us because we were due to kick off at 12.00, the hottest time of the day! Eynsford asked me if I could play for them but there was no way that my damaged calf, which I had torn playing squash just a few weeks before this trip, would have been able to cope. Keith Peacock already knew that I was not able to help him to give a much-need rest to one of the players, which seriously disappointed me as I would have loved to have played with the Charlton ‘Vets’.

Eynsford put up a strong fight, coming back from 3-0 down to lose 4-2, which was a great achievement against a team of ex-professional players.

In the dressing room Keith was trying to select a side, which was proving difficult due to the injuries and the fatigue of our squad. Mike Flanagan was definitely out; Colin Powell was struggling with his knee and Mike Bailey’s groin was a serious doubt. Then there were the players who had bad injuries anyway which had curtailed their careers, such as Richie Bowman and Peter Hunt. These guys could never play a full game in the midday heat of Barcelona. Incredibly these matches were played without proper linesmen and with referees who, let us just say, interpreted the laws of the game in their own unique way!

Terrassa took the lead with a goal that was so far offside as to be laughable. This only served to increase the Charlton team’s resolve to win. Led by inspirational performances by Alan Pardew, Steve Gritt, Colin Walsh, John Humphrey and Mark Penfold, we took control of the game. Mike Bailey, at the age of 56 was superb and Peter Hunt, who shouldn’t really have been playing due to his knee injuries, did a great job when he came on to give us ‘fresh legs’ and Richie Bowman ran himself into the ground. Watching from the bench with Peter Varney and Barry Neville, we were all so proud of our mates.

Steve Gritt equalised and our opponents, given license by the referee, now started to pay very ‘close attention’ to Steve. He was being kicked to pieces by his former Spanish international opponent. At one stage late in the game, Steve got an elbow to the face which resulted in a split lip. This only served to spur the team on even more. Big Trevor Aylott had given his all and was dead on his feet. We therefore replaced Trevor with equally as big, Bob Bolder, who although a top goalkeeper is also a particularly good outfield player too. Bob did brilliantly and his fresh legs really helped the team. After yet another foul just outside their box, Alan Pardew stepped up to take the free kick. Wearing his very bright red boots, Alan let fly and the ball arrowed straight into the top corner of the Terrassa net to put us 2-1 up.

The referee was playing well overtime but finally he blew the whistle and we had won the tournament. We were all so proud of the team, they had literally put their bodies through hell to win this trophy.

It was a great trip and one that I’ll remember for the camaraderie, the laughter, the friendship and above all else, for the sheer skill, passion and resolve of our squad who all, to a man, became professional footballers again for those few days spent in Barcelona in June 1997.