Premier League Clubs Managed: Charlton Athletic (1998-1999, 2000-2006), West Ham United (2006-2008)
Alan Curbishley enjoyed some notable success in his reign at Charlton Athletic. He ensured the Addicks became a solid, consistent mid-table Premier League side at the start of the millennium and enjoyed 14 seasons as manager of the Londoners. As soon as he decided to step down at the end of the 2005-2006 campaign, Charlton became a pale shadow of the strong sides he’d built up and they were promptly relegated the season after his departure.
Playing between London and the Midlands
As a player, Alan featured for five clubs over the course of an 18-year career which began with West Ham United in 1975, a club he would later spend a couple of chequered years as manager. He made 85 league appearances for the Hammers and often competed for a place in midfield alongside the likes of Billy Bonds, Alan Devonshire and Geoff Pike. After falling out with manager John Lyall, he transferred to Birmingham City in 1979, spending four seasons at St. Andrews. A controversial move to Birmingham’s bitter rivals, Aston Villa followed before his first spell as a player at Charlton Athletic began in 1984. He helped the Addicks to promotion from the First Division in 1986 and achieved a similar feat at Brighton & Hove Albion in 1987, only this time it was into the Second Division.
He returned to Charlton in 1990 in a player/coach capacity under the guidance of Lennie Lawrence and when Lawrence left the following season, Curbishley became joint-manager, working alongside Steve Gritt.
Between the two of them, they laid down the foundations for future success at Charlton, starting the careers of the likes of Lee Bowyer, Shaun Newton and Richard Rufus. They were also in command when Charlton played their first game back at The Valley in 1992 after several seasons away due to a financial dispute.
Gritt stepped down in 1995, enabling Curbishley to take sole control of the team. In 1998, the Addicks reached the First Division play-off final and would meet Sunderland at Wembley Stadium in what is still considered as one of the finest play-off matches ever seen. The game ended 4-4 after extra-time, with Clive Mendonca scoring a hat-trick. The match went to penalties and Curbishley couldn’t look at the drama any longer. When goalkeeper Sasa Ilic saved from Michael Gray, Charlton were promoted to the Premier League.
Learning lessons to be better
Charlton made a fabulous start to life in the Premier League. They thrashed Southampton 5-0 in their first home match in the division and earned creditable goalless draws away to Newcastle United and champions Arsenal. That meant Alan won the first Manager of the Month of that season. The 1998-1999 season would be a campaign of learning lessons for both manager and club.
Winter 1998 was not good. Charlton managed to lose eight successive matches and failed to win in 13 games before beating Wimbledon 2-0 in February 1999. Back-to-back victories over Liverpool FC and Derby County followed and another Manager of the Month award for this mini revival but the earlier run of form had done the damage to the club’s survival prospects. Despite an entertaining 4-3 away win on the penultimate weekend against Aston Villa, Charlton’s 1-0 home loss to Sheffield Wednesday on the final day confirmed their relegation back to the First Division.
The club stuck with Curbishley and their faith was rewarded. Charlton won 27 of their 46 matches back at second-tier and finished First Division champions in 2000, two points clear of Manchester City. A resounding 4-0 victory over City on the first day of the 2000-2001 Premier League campaign suggested Charlton had learned greatly from their first experience of the big league.
They beat Chelsea and Arsenal at home, held Manchester United to a 3-3 draw and recorded a league double over Manchester City. Charlton finished a fantastic ninth place, despite not having a prolific goalscorer with only Jonatan Johansson achieving double figures.
14th in 2001-2002 was slightly disappointing given the previous season’s highs but they were one of only three sides to beat Arsenal that season with a wonderful 4-2 victory at Highbury in November 2001. In early 2003, the club were sitting as high as sixth after five successive victories at the turn of the year which earned Curbishley his third Manager of the Month award. However, eight defeats in their last 10 matches saw the Addicks fade to a 12th place finish in 2002-2003.
A nice blend of youth and experience
Charlton’s best Premier League season came in 2003-2004. Curbishley’s development of youth and experience was proving to be a nice blend, with Scott Parker flourishing in the first part of the campaign before high-flying Chelsea came in with a £10 million bid which Charlton simply couldn’t turn down in January 2004. They were fourth going into the New Year and still finished a fine seventh, only narrowly missing out on a UEFA Cup place behind the richer resourced sides like Newcastle United and Aston Villa.
His excellent work at Charlton was always noted and Liverpool FC interviewed him for the vacant managerial position in the summer of 2004 which eventually went to the reigning La Liga championship-winning manager Rafa Benitez. He was also considered for the England job in 2006 and even received praise from the likes of Sir Bobby Robson. However, he missed out on this position too, with Steve McClaren taking over after the World Cup in Germany that summer.
By now, things had got slightly stale at Charlton. Solid, if unspectacular campaigns followed in 2004-2005 and 2005-2006. Both had their high points, including a four-game winning sequence at the start of 2005-2006 but both campaigns faded away into mediocrity. He was offered a new contract but declined the opportunity to stay. Moments before the club’s final home match of the season against Blackburn Rovers, he revealed that he was leaving at the end of the season.
He said: “It’s a time of mixed emotions, but it is the right time for me and right for the club. I have done 15 years and wanted a break. I want to freshen up and not do anything for a little while.”
He left after 720 games in charge of the Addicks. Charlton would experience relegation a season after his departure and haven’t been anywhere close a return to the top-flight since.
Masterminding an incredible turnaround at Upton Park
After a six-month break to spend more time with his family, Curbishley returned to the managerial dugout in December 2006, succeeding Alan Pardew as manager of West Ham United. They were in the bottom three and already facing an uphill task to stay in the Premier League.
There was an initial bounce, with a 1-0 victory over league leaders Manchester United in his first game in charge but a harrowing run followed, which included defeat at home to bottom-placed Watford and a 6-0 New Years’ Day mauling at the hands of Reading. When Tottenham Hotspur won a 4-3 thriller at Upton Park at the start of March, West Ham were 11 points adrift of safety. The situation looked incredibly desperate.
However, Curbishley masterminded an incredible turnaround. The club won seven out of their last nine matches, including 1-0 away wins at Arsenal and Manchester United. Helped by the goals of Carlos Tevez, West Ham stayed up on the final day with the victory at Old Trafford. There was huge controversy off-the-pitch with the club not being deducted points for breaking transfer ownership rules over the signings of Tevez and Javier Mascherano but Alan deserved great praise for turning around an almost hopeless scenario into one of the league’s greatest escapes.
A more calmer 2007-2008 season followed with the club finishing 10th in the final standings despite long-term injuries to the likes of Craig Bellamy, Parker and Kieron Dyer who had all been signed in the summer by Curbishley. Speculation increased about his future though at the start of the 2008-2009 season and unhappy about the departures of defenders George McCartney and Anton Ferdinand, he resigned three games into the campaign. He launched a case of constructive dismissal against the club a year later, winning £2.2 million in compensation from the east Londoners.
That was his last managerial role. He has since worked briefly as a technical director at Fulham and is occasionally seen as a TV pundit. In a world where managers get sacked far too often nowadays, we won’t see the likes of Alan Curbishley’s reign at Charlton in terms of duration anymore. He often maximised the resources he had available to him and deserves credit for what he achieved as a result.