Twenty years ago this week, Charlton were fourth in the Premier League, well clear of Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City.
Managed by former Addicks player Alan Curbishley since 1991, the club was storming through the fifth of their eight seasons among the elite. The recently-extended Valley hosted capacity 27,000 crowds and the eventual seventh-place finish was the team’s best in half a century.
The club had a clear identity and was highly visible in its south-east London heartland.
Fast forward to Tuesday night and the now quarter-full stadium reverberated to jeers for Michael Appleton, the 13th man to take charge of the team in 10 years and the second this season, as his side slipped to a late 3-2 League One defeat by Northampton.
Thirty minutes after the game it was announced that Appleton had been sacked. It was, for once, a hugely popular decision by the club. Fans had found him passionless and lacking in leadership qualities. But few who celebrated believed it signalled an end to Charlton’s woes.
The Addicks have been in the third tier for seven of the past eight seasons. They are currently 16th. The immediate priority for Appleton’s successor will be to keep them out of League Two, a level at which they have never played.
Yet, a sometimes-overlooked context to this miserable position is that Charlton significantly over-performed during their turn of-the-century pomp.
The alchemy that took the club from sharing Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park between 1985 and 1991 to a rebuilt, vibrant Valley, quadrupling crowds along the way, was a product of hard graft, good luck and outstanding management.
Charlton’s fight to return, which saw The Valley Party take in 14,838 votes at the Greenwich local election in 1990, galvanised the fanbase. It united wealthy supporters, who became the club’s owners and took personal financial risks, and not-so-ordinary others, who developed and implemented their own plans to attract bigger crowds.
It was fortunate that the homecoming in 1992 coincided with the launch of the Premier League, and the game becoming fashionable.
And there was genius in the way that a team which could reach the top flight in 1998 was crafted by Curbishley and the board from limited resources, including a strong youth set-up.
By 2004, Charlton were a model club, with an enviable reputation, largely led and staffed by fans whose commitment was written into its DNA and often replicated on the pitch.
The fall, when it inevitably came, was hard to take. Curbishley left in 2006, with the cheers still ringing in his ears, but his successors were a series of mistakes. Relegation followed a year later. By 2009, the Addicks were playing third-tier football.
Five subsequent ownerships have tried to turn the club around, with a variety of motives and credibility. None has succeeded, and the fans have learned not to expect they will. Charlton lose around £7m a year before transfers and no longer own The Valley.
Each regime, in its different way, has held supporters at arm’s length — a strange approach, given the history. In 2016, the fans revolted, stopping matches under then absentee owner and continuing landlord Roland Duchatelet. More recently, they have dwindled away as the bombast of his successors was exposed on the pitch.
The latest owners, barely in position longer than Appleton, are the most anonymous. The shareholding is fragmented and the structure convoluted. Most are based overseas and any shared ambition is unclear. The club’s profile has never been lower.
"The latest owners are the most anonymous... Charlton's profile has never been lower"
This month, a first attempt by management to communicate directly with fans via YouTube included news that consultants had been hired to develop new support locally and to improve the matchday experience.
Director Paul Elliott, a distinguished former player sold to Luton 41 years ago at the age of 19, spoke on equality, diversity and inclusion. Meanwhile, fans wondered about Appleton and when the team would secure its first victory since November.
Chairman Jim Rodwell presented via Powerpoint, reflecting the club’s well-understood problems back to supporters, but was short on proposing solutions. He then invited fans to come up with their own ideas about how to improve the club’s engagement with them.
A flood of new signings admittedly followed, albeit some to replace players signed only last summer. The team will try again for a first win in 13 matches at Blackpool on Saturday, with Curtis Fleming and Jason Pearce in interim charge.
Meanwhile, the fans watch on forlornly and ponder why a club with Charlton’s resources cannot outperform the level of opposition generally found in the third tier.
Then they lift their gaze from the latest beleaguered figure in the technical area to the largely faceless men in the directors’ box above and wonder, with growing despair in their eyes, when — or if — the magic will return.
Rick Everitt is a Charlton season-ticket holder and former editor of Voice of the Valley fanzine