December 5th 1992 was a day of mixed emotions for me. As a Charlton fan, the elation I felt making the walk along Floyd Road, was immense. Particularly as for a good few years it was uncertain as to whether this moment would even be possible. The day was also tinged with more than just a little bit of sadness.
I was quite a sickly child. For the first ten years of my life I was constantly in and out of hospital with severe bouts of respiratory difficulties. My parents were in a constant state of worry and took the decision to have me tutored at home rather than send me to school. My father was exceptionally good friends with a former school master from East Ham who agreed to take on the role as my tutor.
Now, despite being from West Ham, Michael King, my tutor, was a huge fan of Charlton Athletic. The first memory I have of The Valley was when we took a break from lessons and we went for a walk. We strolled past the station and into Floyd Road and came upon this huge structure that to me, looked so out of place. But I was awestruck. I remember walking up to the gates and pressing my face between the bars, just trying to get a look at as much as I could. Michael said that he would be willing to take me to a game if my parents agreed.
So Michael fulfilled his promise and he became the first person to take me to watch a football match. I remember little of it. As a child it was often hard to see what was going on when surrounded by hundreds of men on a football terrace. I do remember being more interested in the atmosphere than the game itself. The singing of songs, the shouts and cheers, and having a snigger to myself when hearing the odd swear word.
My relationship with Charlton had begun, and there were many more trips to The Valley with Michael, who often brought along his own son, and occasionally would convince my father to come along with us too. As I grew older and started to understand the game more and more, I wanted to talk about football with Michael all the time. He was very disciplined however, and would always ensure that my academic education came first, and my football education second.
My parents moved us away from Charlton in 1983. By this time I was a regular at The Valley for the majority of home games. Getting to Charlton from Eden Park in Beckenham was a fairly straight-forward journey yet my parents, still worrying over my health, point black refused to let me make the trip without an adult to accompany me. Luckily Michael came to my rescue, on match days he drove from his home in East Ham, took me on the 54 bus to Charlton Village where we made the short walk down the hill to The Valley.
By the time the club had moved to Selhurst Park, I was going to a mainstream secondary school. It seemed I had outgrown many of my childhood health issues, yet Michael was still a huge part of my life. Despite declaring he would never visit Selhurst Park, Michael continued to escort me to matches. Standing in the Arthur Waite was never the same. The football on the pitch was of a higher quality than we'd seen for some time, but the surroundings were all wrong. We watched a number of matches at Selhurst Park, attending most home games, yet we longed, as other fans did, for a return to The Valley.
Unfortunately Michael became ill in 1990 and eventually passed away after being diagnosed with cancer. We had talked much about the return home. Roger Alwen's declaration of our return probably had most Charlton fans fired up and desperate to go home. Eventually it became a reality, but Michael was not there to share that amazing day with me. It's something I regret a great deal. We should have walked side by side through those gates in 1992, yet it wasn't to be.
My father offered to take me to the match on that day. Of course I accepted, and in fact other than Michael, there isn't a single person that I would rather have been with. The entire day was a roller-coaster of emotion. It was amazing to see the work that had been done on the stadium. The smell of the food vendors brought back great memories, and bumping into a few friends that I had not seen in years all helped to make a fantastic day. Colin Walsh helped cap a perfect return for Charlton and the majority of it's fans. For me it wasn't quite perfect, but I know Michael would have approved of the homecoming had he been there to experience it with me.
I want to close by giving my thanks to everybody who worked so tirelessly to bring about our return to The Valley. It's amazing what a group of dedicated people can do. Not only did they give us hope during the wilderness years, they turned our dream of going home into a reality.
But most of all I'd like to say thanks to Michael King, if it wasn't for him, I would probably be another West Ham fan!