It’s been a stinker of a weekend for us Charlton fans, with our team getting relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time since 1980. One of my early memories of Charlton was watching Dickie Davies on World of Sport rustle up a third division table showing us second to Rotherham United – hopefully our stay in League One will be as brief as our last stint there.
But salt could be rubbed in the wounds this week as the Royal Oak, the best-known fans’ local, goes up for sale in Lincolnshire. The pub, at the end of a pretty row of cottages on Charlton Lane and just a stone’s throw from The Valley, has a connection with the club going back almost as far as its formation over a century ago, becoming its team’s headquarters in 1908 when it spent a period playing at Pound Park. Ever since then, it has been seen the tears and cheers that all football clubs inspire, helping subsidise its existence as a quiet, but cosy off-the-beaten track local.
The size of the pub was always a problem on matchdays, and when its long-serving owners sold up a couple of years ago, the new proprietor got to work in expanding the building into an adjacent yard to create a bit more space. Unfortunately, the results were underwhelming – the extension feels a bit like drinking in a garage, while work on creating a bigger bar detracted from the cosy atmosphere that could steal whole Saturday nights after a good game. The extension had been botched, most fans agreed.
But worse was to come, as relations between regulars and new landlord deteriorated. Posters appeared a few months into the new regime berating those who’d criticised the changes… never a good sign. With the bar staff replaced by a motley crew of agency staff who had severe difficulties dealing with the work involved in serving thirsty football fans – I remember one who genuinely did not realise that Magners was a drink to be served in a pint glass with ice, and wasn’t to be drunk from a bottle – customers started to vote with their feet. Some organised boycotts online, others just shuffled off elsewhere (the Liberal and Conservative clubs which sit quaintly on Charlton Church Lane have enjoyed a boost), or went home instead. With matches themselves becoming dire performances, there now wasn’t even a place to comiserate afterwards.
It didn’t take long for the landlord to throw in the towel. Earlier this month, an attempt was made to sell it by auction at the pub itself. An astonishingly high reserve price of £85,000 for a 22-year-lease was, unsurprisingly, not reached. Experienced pub trade bidders dropped out at around £50,000.
Charlton fan blog Drinking During The Game, whose author lives close to the pub, reports that “the pub continues to be badly run by an absent landlord who relies on part-time, non-professional bar staff. The pub gets tattier by the week and the locals continue to find that beer has run out or that the pub’s “closed temporarily” due to staff sickness etc”.
The pub’s fate now rests with a sale in Stamford, Lincolnshire, on Thursday. Charlton isn’t exactly a hotspot for quality drinking; the derelict Victoria by the Thames Barrier seems to sum things up, really. Two other pubs, The Valley and the Horse and Groom – both of which attracted healthy football crowds – closed during 2008 and the loss of the Royal Oak would be real a blow to the community.
Hopefully, whoever buys it will want to keep it as a pub – and hopefully there’s enough will in the planning authority to make sure it stays that way. And that Charlton fans can celebrate promotion there in a year’s time. Fingers crossed.