Forgotten EFL: When Charlton Athletic Signed a Ballon d’Or Winner

In a new Real EFL series, Gary Hutchinson will look at some of the weird and wonderful stories that may have been partly forgotten by the passage of time.

We’ve got some shocking match fixing coming up, bizarre games and transfer stories, and all sorts of other exciting stories that have been forgotten (by some) over time. To start with, we’re looking at what was the most sensational transfer of the eighties.

The seventies were not kind to Charlton Atheltic. After being a staple of the old First Division throughout the fifties, they fell on hard times. They were twice relegated to the third tier during the seventies and early eighties, and in 1982, they were desperately hunting a way back to the top flight. Crowds had dipped – they averaged 6,000 in a stadium that, at the time, could hold 75,000. They needed the wow factor, something to bring the fans back. Winning football? No, Addicks’ chairman Mark Hulyer had another idea.

He wanted to sign one of the best players in the world.

At the start of the seventies, a young Danish player called Allan Simonsen moved to German side Borussia Mönchengladbach from his homeland. With his boyhood side, Vejle BK, he had won two Danish titles and a Danish cup.

He broke into the Mönchengladbach first team in the 1973/74 season and became a huge success. Mönchengladbach were a massive side at the time – they won the Bundesliga three times in a row at the start of the seventies, and once Simonsen got firing, they did it again. He lifted the title in 1975, 76, and 77, each time reaching double figures for goals. In 1975, he scored twice as they lifted the UEFA Cup, whilst, in 1977, he scored in the European Cup final, only to see his team defeated by Liverpool. The same year, he won the Ballon d’Or, pipping Kevin Keegan and Michel Platini to the honour.

It got better from there – he secured a move to Barcelona in 1979, costing the Catalans £150,000 (£700,000 accounting for inflation). Whilst there, he won the Copa Del Rey and the European Cup Winner’s Cup, scoring in the final. He is the only player to have scored in the final of all three of the old European competitions.

His time at Barcelona was scuppered by a rule limiting the number of foreign players a team could field. Barcelona had him and German Bernd Schuster, a lynchpin of their side. In 1982, they added a young Argentinian by the name of Diego Maradona to their ranks, and Simonsen needed a new club. Spurs, looking like a major European force, registered an interest. Real Madrid wanted to take him across the Spanish football divide.

Instead, Hulyer convinced him to sign for Charlton.

The deal was costly – £324,000 (£1m with inflation) and an £80,000 a year salary. The numbers were eyewatering back then, and Charlton almost lost the deal as they couldn’t afford to pay for everything upfront. To put that into context, Charlton’s yearly income for 1983 was £270,000. Eventually, Barcelona agreed to release Simonsen, with the player agitating for the move. “For God’s sake, stop messing about and give me the clearance to play for Charlton – that’s what I want to do,” he said.

The move initially looked like it might pay off. Huyler wanted a huge increase in crowds, and 4,000 turned up to watch him play in the reserves. The attendance shot up to 10,000 for the first Football League game against Middlesbrough, an increase of 5,800 from their previous fixture. Simonsen scored, and Huyler’s gamble began to show signs of paying off. However, the club were languishing in the middle of the table, and with Simonsen out for the next fixture against Rotherham, the crowd halved.

Scoring against Chelsea

The novelty quickly wore off – by the time he returned, crowds were back down to around the 5,000 mark, even with the exciting Dane in the side. On the field, he didn’t disappoint, scoring eight further goals in 15 outings. The game most often mentioned from his short stay at the Valley is the visit of Chelsea, his penultimate appearance for the club. It was 2-2 after 57 minutes, but a masterclass from Simonsen saw him bag a brace, earning his side a 5-2 win. He left the pitch to rapturous applause, having scored his eighth and ninth goals in 15 outings, but it would be the last time he graced the Valley.

A fortnight later, he was named in the press as playing against Leeds, but didn’t appear. Instead, it was revealed he hadn’t received his £1,300 per week wages, and with former chairman Michael Gliksten pushing for bankruptcy, Simonsen was part of a firesale, but Charlton didn’t recoup any funds. There was a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave for nothing if he wasn’t paid, meaning the Addicks were simply stung with the huge outlay and no return.

He returned to his first club, Vejle BK. English fans hadn’t heard the last of him – in September 1983, he scored the only goal of the game in our Euro 84 qualifying clash with Denmark. That goal eliminated us from the competition, and by the time in came around, he had another Danish title to his name. Sadly, he broke his leg in the opening game of Euro 84 against France, and would only add eight more caps, taking his total to 50, with 20 goals. He did make a single appearance at the 1986 World Cup, but by then was past his best.

As for Charlton, the gamble backfired. By the end of 1984, they had debts of around £400,000, and we were left with no choice but to go into administration and be reformed as Charlton Athletic (1984) Ltd. At the beginning of the 85/86 season, following the Bradford Fire, they were forced to leave the Valley and groundshare with Crystal Palace. They had rolled the dice on signing one of the world’s greatest players and lost.

Still, they’ll always have that win over Chelsea.

 

 

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