From Ballon d’Or to Barcelona to, erm, Charlton Athletic…

Date published: Friday 22nd September 2017 2:35

In December 1977, a panel of 25 journalists selected by the prestigious France Football magazine cast their votes for the Ballon d’Or.

In third place – just ahead of Johan Cruyff – was Michel Platini, Nancy’s impishly skilful forward who had just enjoyed what would remain the best goalscoring season of his career and would, in a few years, go on to win the award for an unprecedented three successive years. Ahead of him was Kevin Keegan, the implausibly muscular all-action centre-forward who had won every trophy on offer with Liverpool and had just jetted off to join German giants Hamburg; he would take home the award the next two years running.

The real object of the journalists’ affections, though, was a scrawny, hunched figure with a messy blond perm and an uncertain stare. Allan Simonsen did not look much like an elite athlete but he certainly played like one, a free-roaming forward for Borussia Monchengladbach with explosive pace and an unerring finish. Monchengladbach were in the midst of the sort of imperial phase that is these days associated with their Bavarian counterparts, winning the German title three years on the trot and reaching the 1977 European Cup final; it was time their star man got his due recognition.

Two years and 28 Bundesliga goals later, with his contract running down and various green-eyed vultures circling, Simonsen did what any self-respecting footballing superstar would: he made a beeline for the bright lights of Barcelona. In his first season there he was the club’s top scorer; in his second he helped them to a Spanish Cup win; in his third, his predatory header in the Cup Winners’ Cup final paved the way for another trophy and gave him the distinction, which stands to this day, of being the only player to score in the finals of the European Cup, Uefa Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup.

So far, so sporting megastar. Not so much the next part, though: within months of his cup-final heroics, Simonsen, in his sporting prime at 29 years old, had departed the Nou Camp to join the ranks of Charlton Athletic, and was gearing up for a gruelling season in the English Second Division against the likes of Grimsby Town and Carlisle United.

If the development in retrospect has the ring of Escape to Victory meets The Twilight Zone, it seemed no less bizarre at the time. The move was the brainchild of that ever-perilous footballing character, the Recklessly Ambitious Chairman, in this instance Mark Hulyer, a big-thinking club exec – and, at 28, a ludicrously young one – who, in the grand tradition of his trade, saw an exotic glamour signing as the best way to boost his club’s ailing fortunes.

In the summer of 1982 Hulyer was a man in trouble. Seven years earlier, the Safety of Sports Grounds Act, passed in the wake of the Ibrox disaster, had seen the official capacity of The Valley, Charlton’s home ground, reduced from 66,000 to a mere 20,000 and had obliged the club to undertake half a million pounds’ worth of renewal work on their crumbling stadium – funds which were largely raised by the fans.

By 1981, with attendances continuing to plummet ceaselessly, the club still had an overdraft of well over £200,000 (no little money in those days), a state of affairs that led the then-chairman, Michael Gliksen, to sell his shares in the club to a local entrepreneur. Mark Hulyer was a well-meaning if less than dependable figure, a boyhood Charlton fan who had gotten his foot in the door at the Valley through a one-off deal to sponsor the stadium’s West Stand, and had since been working to elbow that door open ever further, even becoming a regular presence on the team bus.

Already frustrated with this businessman’s self-appointed proximity to first-team affairs, Charlton manager Alan Mullery responded to Hulyer’s takeover by announcing his immediate resignation. In the background, the club’s larger problem of desperately dwindling gate receipts – home support at the Valley, once regularly as high as 50,000, was now dropping as low as 4,000 – had not gone away. It was a state of affairs that jarred badly with Hulyer’s public promises of a rapid return to the top flight. The new chairman needed a lift, a quickfire way of reacquainting fans’ arses with their seats.

His initial plan was to sign Simonsen’s old nemesis Keegan, who was by now thumping in the goals for Southampton, but the deal proved impossible. His fortunes would be turned, however, by Barcelona signing a pudgy whippersnapper named Diego Maradona, who had distinguished himself at that summer’s World Cup with a soon-to-be-familiar mix of sumptuous attacking and dead-eyed violence – in this case, a couple of goals against Hungary and the application of his studs to the genitals of Brazil’s Joao Batista, the latter of which proved his final act of the tournament. The Spanish league limited its clubs to fielding no more than two foreign players, and with moustachioed playmaker Bernd Schuster a mainstay in midfield, Barcelona’s acquisition of the Argentine effectively rendered Simonsen jobless.

The news had ears pricking in Turin, Tottenham and Madrid, but also in the ramshackle part of south London that Hulyer called home. A hurried bid was tabled for £320,000 – no matter that Charlton’s annual income hovered somewhere around two-thirds of that, and the club’s operating losses far exceeded its earnings anyway – and Simonsen himself was offered a handy yearly wage of £82,000, a figure which was about seven times that of his colleagues.

After weeks of negotiations – with well-justified suspicion, Barcelona held the player’s international clearance until the banks could guarantee Charlton would actually hand over the cash, and as such Simonsen did not kick a ball until November – a deal was finally done, and Charlton Athletic, scrapping for their lives at the bottom of England’s second flight, had signed a European Footballer of the Year. “I’ll be heartbroken if people do not come and support the team now,” said Hulyer, taking an oddly prescient glass-half-empty tone at Simonsen’s unveiling.

On the pitch, Simonsen largely did what was expected of him, scoring at a rate of two in three and doing his bit towards a season where the club’s future hung in the balance. “Simonsen’s touch and talent are immediately evident,” remarked one commentator on Match of the Day, as the Dane lunged wildly into a bloodthirsty, and in 1983 perfectly legal, two-footed challenge, “but in such journeyman football company, there’s always a danger that one star will shine alone.”

As far as the bigger picture was concerned, Hulyer’s gamble was ultimately a dud. Simonsen’s time in south London was short-lived: after five months, 16 games and an ever-spiralling debt on part of his employers, he duly jumped ship, enacting a release clause in his contract and heading back to Denmark. “I have made mistakes and, yes, I’m lying a bit to myself when I say it was good that I moved from Barcelona,” he would confess some years later.

The A-list arrival had indeed nudged up home attendances, but not to the terrace-filling extent Hulyer had envisaged. “It’s a larger financial gamble now than it was anticipated to be at the time because of the lack of response from the supporters,” murmured an ashen-faced Hulyer in February.

While Charlton ultimately escaped a potentially cataclysmic relegation that season with a skin-of-the-teeth final-day win, the ensuing months would be marked by court cases, winding-up orders and an increasingly vengeful Inland Revenue, as the club’s financial house of cards finally collapsed on itself. Hulyer may not have set Charlton on their path to fiscal calamity, but his speculate-to-accumulate antidote, embodied by Simonsen, certainly helped them on their way.

It was a path that led to the administration and reformation of the club in 1984 and ended, in September 1985, with the club being forced out of their home. The Valley, Charlton’s ground since 1919 and once the biggest in the English league, had reached a state of untenable disrepair and the destitute club could not afford to revamp it; seven years of groundsharing with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park would follow.

To say that a Ballon d’Or winner contributed to that wretched chapter of Charlton’s history would be wrong. But, through little fault of his own, Allan Simonsen remains perhaps the most enduring emblem of that wretched chapter.

Alex Hess

This first appeared on the ever-excellent The Set Pieces


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