Long before Florentino Perez introduced the world to the term ‘Galáctico’, European clubs had been buying superstars in the hope of success both on and off the pitch. In 1982, Barcelona set out to buy its very own galático in the form of Diego Maradona and inadvertently set in motion a series of events that saw Allan Simonsen, then one of the world’s deadliest strikers, leave Catalonia for English Division Two side Charlton Athletic.
Few would have predicted that the Danish striker, who won the European Footballer of the Year Award in 1977, beating Kevin Keegan and Johan Cruyff in the process, was going to be forced out of Spain to make way for the Argentine superstar. The Great Dane had been with Barcelona for three fruitful seasons, having finished as the club’s top goalscorer in his debut season and even scoring the winning goal in the 1982 European Cup Winners’ Cup final.
Despite his best efforts at Camp Nou, Simonsen was quickly deemed surplus to requirements. At the time, Spanish league rules meant that only two foreign players could be chosen for a team’s starting eleven. Prior to the arrival of Diego Maradona for a cool £5 million, Simonsen and Bernd Schuster made up Barcelona’s foreign contingent. It was soon made clear to Simonsen that Schuster wouldn’t be dropped from the starting line-up. His choice was simple: settle for a place on the bench or leave the club. Simonsen chose the latter.
Interest soon began to trickle in from across Europe. Clubs from Italy, Germany and England all clamored to get Simonsen’s signature. It took a number of days before it became clear that Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid were leading the race to sign him. London or Madrid? It was a choice that was soon complicated by the entrance of a third bidder, Charlton Athletic.
Charlton’s bid of £324,000 outstripped anything Real or Spurs were willing to offer. It was twice as much as Barcelona had paid for Simonsen three years previously and few were surprised when the bid was accepted – albeit many were surprised it had come from a Second Division side in England. Fewer still took Charlton’s bid seriously until Simonsen publically revealed that he liked the idea of playing at a less stressful level of football. A more relaxed way of life combined with a contract worth £82,000 a year saw Simonsen move to the Addicks. Charlton had secured their first galático.
Simonsen’s transfer had been a huge gamble by Mark Hulyer, Charlton’s new chairman. Seeing his beloved club struggling to attract 7,000 fans to games in a stadium that held 75,000 saw Hulyer resort to desperate measures. Looking to pull off one of the most audacious PR stunts in football history, Hulyer hoped that a big name signing would help fill The Valley. Gate receipts would soon exceed the money needed to bring Simonsen to Charlton; that was Hulyer’s thinking. Sadly, the reality was anything but.
The previous season, in which Charlton finished 13th, had seen the lowest ever gate receipts in the club’s history. The last time Charlton had attracted 40,000 fans into their stadium, never mind 75,000, had been during the 1948-49 season. Hulyer was banking on a huge change in fortune, something Barcelona were acutely aware of.
When Charlton’s massive bid had come in for Simonsen, the Catalan club had accepted the offer on one condition: that it was all paid up front. So adamant were Barcelona on this point that the deal was nearly scuppered midway when a bank guarantee couldn’t be found, for very understandable reasons. The numbers weren’t adding up.
In 1983, Charlton’s total income amounted to somewhere in the region of £270,000. Despite this, Charlton eventually managed to pay Barcelona roughly half the fee up front with promises that the rest would be repaid as Charlton’s fortunes improved. Both clubs were banking on the fact that gate receipts would surely rise with a bona fide legend lining out for Charlton. It was a risky assumption to make.
The financial disaster waiting to happen was slightly dampened by Simonsen’s on the pitch impact. His first appearance for the club, a reserve match to Swansea, saw over 4,000 Charlton fans come out to cheer on their new signing, an attendance that rivalled their usual turnout for league games. Four days later, 10,000 fans came out in force to see Simonsen play in a 3-2 league defeat to Middlesbrough. Although Charlton lost the match, the Addicks’ fans were practically salivating over the future ahead. Simonsen had put in an impeccable performance, creating opportunity after opportunity and even bagged himself a goal. In his first 16 games with the club, Simonsen scored nine goals and was routinely singled out as the best player on the pitch, unsurprising considering he had been playing in front of 90,000 fans in Spain.
Simonsen’s finest moment for Charlton at this time undoubtedly came in a league match in March against fellow strugglers Chelsea. Charlton went into the game off the back of a humiliating 7-1 loss to Burnley the week before. They had been losing the game 2-1 with only 13 minutes left play but somehow Burnley managed to put five past the Londoners in the dying minutes of the game. Unsurprisingly, when Chelsea travelled to The Valley, hopes were high that some pride could be restored. The pressure was on for Simonsen to deliver and initially he struggled. The Great Dane was a passenger for much of the first half as Charlton put two past Chelsea.
When Chelsea leveled the game in the 57th minute, it looked like Charlton’s poor form would continue. Luckily, Simonsen sprung into action. Taking ownership of the game, he glided around the pitch like a man on a mission, notching two goals in a 5-2 rout of their fellow city men. It was a performance that lives long in the memory of any fan lucky enough to have been in the ground that day.
In his five months at the club, Simonsen’s performance against Chelsea was undoubtedly the highlight. It epitomised what the Dane offered Charlton, namely clinical finishing, an impeccable first touch and devastating pace. Sadly the game also displayed how Simonsen’s fellow players seemed to be playing many levels below the former European Footballer of the Year. Deadly through balls, sublime crosses and clever link up often went wasted on his fellow compatriots. They were playing to a different beat.
Whilst Simonsen had greatly improved the quality of the Charlton side, he hadn’t done much to help their finances. His arrival had helped bump Charlton’s attendance up from 6,000 fans the previous season to 13,000 at its peak. He had more than doubled the attendance but it was far below what was needed. The emptiness of the Jimmy Seed stand was a stark reminder of that. By the beginning of 1983, word went out that Hulyer was interested in selling Simonsen.
Simply selling Simonsen on and recouping losses wasn’t as simple as Hulyer had envisioned. Simonsen’s agent, rightly suspicious of Charlton’s ability to afford the Dane, had fought for a release clause in his player’s contract. When Hulyer explained to Simonsen that the club could no longer afford to pay his wages, Simonsen enacted the release clause and promptly returned to his boyhood club, VB, in Denmark. The English press displayed little mercy for Charlton’s plight:
“Charlton’s great gamble … to boost their gate receipts and promotion prospects has failed.”
Hulyer was left with a financial mess on his hands. Soon after Simonsen returned to Denmark, the chairman was slapped with a £145,000 tax bill from Inland Revenue, a fee Charlton simply couldn’t afford. By the end of the 1982-83 season, Charlton had finished 18th, five places lower than the previous season, and were staring bankruptcy in the face.
1984 saw the club faced with debts totalling over £400,000 with little chance of repayment. Left with no other options, the club restructured, entered administration and left The Valley, its home for over 60 years, to ground share with Crystal Palace. Charlton’s Galático experiment, however brief, had been an unmitigated disaster.
By Conor Heffernan. Follow @PhysCstudy