If there is one thing every Brighton fans know about Charlie Oatway it is that his name isn’t actually Charlie.
Most can tell you he was named after the 1973 QPR team. Some can even recite his full name of Anthony Philip David Terry Frank Donald Stanley Gerry Gordon Stephen James. His gran, so the story goes, said he ‘looked like a right Charlie’ and the name stuck.
But, what has become clear throughout his time as a player, community worker and coach at the Albion, is that there is more to Charlie than just his name.
Between 1999 and 2007, Oatway played in more than 200 games for the Seagulls, mostly in what he quickly established as his own combative central midfield slot. Alongside Richard Carpenter and Paul Rogers, Oatway was water carrier in chief – tasked with winning the ball and shifting it out wide as Micky Adams’ charges developed a style of old fashioned wingers supplying the goal hungry Bobby Zamora.
Much of that spell coincided with one of the Albion’s most successful periods, with Oatway featuring in two championship winning sides as well as a play-off winning outfit which saw the Stripes propelled to the second tier of English football.
But, while everything on the pitch was rosy, off it, things were not exactly going to plan.
Brighton might now boast 23,000 season ticket holders and a £93million state-of-the-art award-winning stadium but, as the club’s fans know only too well, it was not always thus.
“When I look at where the club is now compared to when I arrived it really is amazing,” said Oatway. “When I arrived I signed a three-year contract and was told we would be at the new ground by the time that contract ran out. As it turned out, it took a little longer.”
More than a decade to be precise. But, despite the fact he never got the chance to run out at the new ground, Oatway is one of a clutch of former players who has found a home at the new stadium.
After an injury cut short his career he was unsure of what to do. The club encouraged him to work in the Albion in the Community scheme and from there he got into coaching. Now he is once again a key figure in the first team dressing room – not as a player, but as a respected coach.
“Of course I would have loved to have played at The Amex,” he said “The facilities are amazing, but it is great to be involved on a day to day level.
“The club helped me out so much and I am really grateful for the support I have had. To be at the club during such an exciting time is brilliant.”
But was he worried when Gus Poyet arrived with footballing revolution on his mind?
“Very much so. I spoke to him and Tano [Mauricio Taricco] and Gus said he wanted me to stay for a couple of weeks and help him find his feet. “Thankfully, after about five days he asked me to stay for good.
“It has been great working with him and Tano. I am learning all the time. Football has changed a lot over the years and when you look at how we play now to how we played when I was in the team, it is a world apart.
“I am picking up things every day. Football changes and you have to change with it.” True. But would Oatway have fitted in with Poyet’s masterplan as a player? “I don’t know, it is hard to say. I am under no illusions as to what sort of player I was but I know one thing, I would have loved the chance to try.”
Tough tackling midfielder to football connoisseur, Oatway’s transformation is remarkable. A soccer Luke Skywalker to Poyet’s Yoda, he is a definite convert to the free-flowing football currently being lapped up by the Amex faithful.
But he is the first to admit, he was not always so sure.
“I remember talking about it to Gus and Tano and telling them I didn’t think they could achieve what they wanted playing the way they wanted. That shows how much I know.
“I have had to learn to accept the new approach in the same way the fans have. I might not have been convinced to begin with but even after eight to ten games you could see the impact Gus was having. It might have not been so obvious on the pitch, but at training and round the club in general you could see things changing for the better and look where we are now?”
He is right. Albion sit comfortably in the top half of the Championship in a brand-spaking new stadium with more season ticket holders than AC Milan. The times, as the Bob Dylan song goes, they are a-changing.
Having been through footballing hell to get to where they are today though, Brighton fans will always have a penchant for fonly looking back. And, when do, they will remember Oatway at his hard-hitting best, flying into tackles, berating referees and harassing so called better players.
But what games stick in his mind? “Obviously the play off final in Cardiff. It was probably the worst we played all season but the result was all that mattered. Other than that the games against Chesterfield at Withdean were great. There was no holding back and I used to love playing in matches like that.”
Those titanic and fondly remembered face-offs with Chesterfield were loved by players like Oatway and Danny Cullip. Whole-hearted affairs not for the squirmish.
Oatway’s comfort zone, it would be fair to say, was in the heat of the battle.
However, there were times when he was less at ease. And he would be the first to say that many of his hardest battles were off the pitch.
Growing up in a rough estate in London, Oatway almost missed out on a career as a professional football after being sent to prison weeks after signing for Cardiff City.
He got into trouble defending a friend (and at the time QPR player) from racial abuse in a Shepherds Bush bar. A fight ensued and Oatway found himself up before the beak expected a wrap on the knuckles. He chirpily told his then manager he would be back in Wales in time for the next day’s training - only to be sent down after his friend swerved court and robbed him of his main witness.
For Oatway, who readily admits his family has a less than squeaky-clean past, a spell inside could have been seen almost as a rights of passage. But no. Instead it provided him with the stomach-turning realisation that his career had been put on the line.
From there he moved around the lower leagues before being snapped up by Micky Adams. He hasn’t looked back since.
Surely though, not even in his wildest dreams did he ever imagine working every day with a 38-cap Spanish star like Vicente? “No, definitely not.
“When I was playing the one player who made me think ‘wow, how did he do that?’ was Paul Watson. He could use both feet and some of his passing and delivery from set pieces was amazing.
“But that is where we are as a club now. We can attract people like Vicente to Brighton and it is something we are all getting used to. If the fans think the stuff he does on the pitch is special, they should see what he can do in training.” As someone who has always been integral to team spirit wherever he has played, Oatway admits he is still tormentor in chief around the Amex, but how do the foreign players take to his carry on? “Oh we get them chuckling as well don’t you worry about that.
“There are hand signals and other ways of getting your point across. We have a great bunch here and everyone joins in.”
Can it be a challenge though to knit together people who have been at the club a long time with those stellar signings arriving all the more regularly? “There are things you need to do differently yeah. I have to try and help people settle in, sort out English lessons for them and make sure they feel part of it here. If anything you have to help the foreign players feel even more at home then everyone else but we manage it.”
Outside of playing and coaching there is another string to Oatway’s bow.
In 2011 he released a book about his career, Tackling Life, which was published as part of a series called Quick Reads, designed to appeal to people who would not usually pick up a book.
It was particularly pertinent given that Oatway himself had overcome problems with reading and writing, helped along by the people at Albion in the Community.
As someone who portrayed himself as a hard as nails footballer who loved to dish out the banter, admitting such personal problems must have been hard?
“It was,” he reveals. “Sometimes you have to do things which you might not want to do in order to benefit others. If you can help someone overcome something holding them back of make someone’s life a little better, well, that is a wonderful thing.”
Oatway signed up to an adult literacy course and tackled his problems head on. It was not easy, but he got through it and became the poster boy for the scheme, showing other people what could be achieved with hard work and dedication – a mirror of his attitude on the pitch if you will.
He fast became a community relations manager at Albion in the Community and now works to inspire other people to take positive steps to help themselves, as well as doing what he can to support vulnerable people in the local area.
A large chunk of the money raised by his testimonial year will go to Albion in the Community and Oatway is clearly proud of the part he plays in what has been recognised as the best programme of its type in the country.
“Half the money will go back into the local community,” he says. “I got so much help from the people at Albion in the Community, it is the least I can do to offer some help back.”
That quote sums up Oatway and it is that approach to both football and life that has made him such a popular figure among the Brighton faithful.
He is living proof that even the hardest of football hard-men can have a heart of gold.
And, whether or not he appears in the Albion line-up for his testimonial match, we may well see an Oatway running out at The Amex in the near future.
His son, Charlie Oatway Junior, has been given a one year deal with the development squad and, like any proud dad, Oatway Senior is hoping for the best for his boy.
“It is great he has got a chance at a professional football club but he needs to work hard at it. I rarely deal with him at the club but it would be lovely to see him progress to the first team, although I feel like that about all the young lads. We want them to do well and emulate the players they see in the first team.”
Charlie Oatway then. Much more than a just a name. But how we he like the fans to remember him? “That is a tough one,” he says. “It is difficult to pigeon hole yourself. You can never say that you would never let someone down but I would like to think that if I ever did let the fans down, it wasn’t very often.”
- For more information on Charlie Oatway’s testimonial year – which starts with a dinner at the Hilton in October – visit www.charlieoatway.co.uk. And to find out more about Albion in the Community, visit www.albioninthecommunity.org.uk.