CHARLIE Oatway had not long earned his break in professional football with Cardiff City before he found himself behind bars in Pentonville Prison.
Up on a charge of GBH for his part in a fight, when an Afro-Caribbean friend was racially abused, Oatway didn’t expect to get incarcerated but ended up serving two months of a four-month sentence.
Before he headed off to court in London on a Monday morning, he had told Cardiff’s general manager, the former Leeds and Wales international Terry Yorath (broadcaster Gabby Logan’s dad), to expect him for training on the Tuesday morning!
The story is explained in detail in Tackling Life, the book Oatway published about how he turned his life round to become captain of Brighton and part of three promotion-winning sides.
The tale reveals how imprisonment was just one of the hurdles Oatway had to overcome in a life that’s taken many colourful twists and turns.
It was sadly ironic that his career as a player with Brighton was cut short in a Boxing Day clash against Queens Park Rangers, the team he followed home and away from an early age.
The family lived a stone’s throw from Loftus Road and Charlie – a nickname given to him by an aunt – was named by his Rs-daft dad after the whole of the promotion-winning 1973 QPR team: Anthony, Phillip, David, Terry, Frank, Donald, Stanley, Gerry, Gordon, Steven, James.
Albion reaching the Division 2 play-off final in Cardiff in 2004 was the highlight of Oatway’s career – but a feature in the match programme was angled on the disappointment he had suffered the year before, when he had gone as a spectator with all his family to see QPR lose to Cardiff.
“Everything about the day was perfect apart from the result,” Oatway told reporter Alex Crook. “Being a QPR fan at heart, I felt the pain of the defeat just as much as the other 35,000 fans. But this time I am going up there as a player and not as a fan and I am determined our supporters will not go through what I did last season.”
The youngest of five kids, Oatway grew up in Shepherd’s Bush and even though he started to struggle in school from an early age, he displayed quite a talent for football.
“I knew by the time I was eight that I was as good as any of the eleven-year-olds I was playing with,” he recalls in Tackling Life. He had trials for the West London District schools team and played for Harrow Boys Club and Bedfont Eagles.
Oatway reveals how it was Wally Downes, the former Wimbledon player and later loyal assistant manager to Steve Coppell, who helped to get him noticed, along with his cousin, Terry Oatway.
The young Oatway joined up with Wimbledon in the year they won the FA Cup – 1988 – and played for the youth team, but he was let go at the end of the 1989-90 season and joined non-league Yeading on semi-professional terms. Off the field, life was by no means straightforward. “By the age of 19, I had two children with two different mothers,” he said.
After helping to get Yeading promoted in 1993-94, Oatway found a pathway back into the professional game when a community worker (Ritchie Jacobs) on the estate where he lived organised a trial at Cardiff City for him and two pals.
He was the only one of the three invited back and he said: “When Cardiff asked me back for another month, I knew it was the chance I’d been waiting for, and I was going to grab it with both hands.”
Not surprisingly, the two months he spent in Pentonville didn’t greatly help his cause but remarkably he was welcomed back to the club and accepted by the fans. However, in his absence there was a change in team management and ownership and, before long, new team manager Kenny Hibbitt was instructed to send Oatway out on loan to Coleraine in Northern Ireland.
On his return to Cardiff the following season, they had by then been relegated to the Fourth Division. Still he was unable to get back in the first team and he happened to play a reserve team game against Torquay United, who were managed by his old Cardiff boss, Eddie May. May asked if he fancied a move for first team football and, although he only joined just before Christmas in 1995, by the end of the season he had been voted Player of the Year.
When May moved on to become manager of Brentford, he put in a bid for the combative midfielder and took him back to west London to play in the Bees’ third tier side.
In 1998, Oatway had a brief loan spell with Lincoln City but on his return to Griffin Park he came under the managership of Micky Adams for the first time.
Adams had taken over the manager’s chair at Griffin Park but he was sacked when owner Ron Noades thought he could make a better job of running the team.
Adams then took the reins at Brighton and, as the Albion began life back in Brighton & Hove after the two-year exile in Gillingham, Oatway and Bees teammate Paul Watson joined the Seagulls for a combined fee of £30,000.
Adams wanted the pair to join a nucleus of players who’d all played under him previously at Brentford and Fulham.
In an Albion matchday programme profile of Oatway to coincide with the visit of his former club, Torquay, on 2 September 2000, it noted: “Despite getting sent off rather stupidly in one of his earliest games for the Seagulls – he bit a Darlington player’s face – he soon became a great favourite with the Brighton crowd, who hadn’t seen a midfield scrapper like him since Jimmy Case retired.”
He went on to be a vital midfield cog in the back-to-back league title winning sides of 2001 and 2002. Although he was in the team that was relegated from the second tier in 2003, he was full of praise for the effort made to avoid the drop. “Steve Coppell was one of the best managers I’ve ever played under because of his attention to detail,” he said. “Steve’s team talks on the day before a game were brilliant.”
When the departed Coppell was replaced by Mark McGhee, Oatway remained a cornerstone of the Albion line-up and described that 2004 play-off final at the Millennium Stadium as “the best day of my career”.
But at one point it was touch and go whether he was going to be able to carry on. In October 2003, he underwent major back surgery to repair a slipped disc and trapped nerve.
He was out for nearly three months and he admitted in an Argus interview: “There was a good chance I wouldn’t play again.”
When the Albion cashed in on captain Danny Cullip in December 2004, selling him to Sheffield United, Oatway took over the skipper’s armband full-time, a role he had previously embraced as a stand-in.
The following season’s Boxing Day clash with QPR at Withdean was only two minutes old when Marcus Bean tackled Oatway from behind and escaped without even a booking.
Oatway was stretchered off and McGhee later told the mirror.co.uk: “Charlie has been a tremendous leader and captain and this is a huge blow. I’m very upset about it.”
Oatway had four different operations to try to fix the ankle injury, but he never recovered sufficiently to return to the required level to play league football.
“I tried to get back to playing again but by the pre-season of 2007 I had to call it a day,” he said.
However, even when he was out injured, Oatway was always a strong influence on the dressing room.
Stand-in skipper Dean Hammond said in an Argus interview in November 2006: “Charlie has been out injured but he has been fantastic for everyone. He comes in, he gets everyone up for it, he’s always laughing and joking. He’s got the enthusiasm and he is still determined, even though he is not playing.
“His personality is fantastic for everyone and I think he deserves a massive pat on the back.”
He also used the time productively, studying how the coaches worked with the youth team players and starting to take his coaching badges. When it was clear he wouldn’t be able to return to play full-time professional football again, he got involved with the Albion in the Community scheme as a community liaison manager.
Rather than give up the game completely, Oatway took the opportunity to become player-coach at Havant and Waterlooville and, in January 2008, he found himself in the national media spotlight when the Blue Square South minnows played away to Liverpool in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Oatway wasn’t fit to start the game but he got on as a substitute in the 74th minute and later recounted how his former teammate Bobby Zamora fixed it for him to swap shirts with Liverpool’s Yossi Benayoun, who scored a hat-trick in the Reds’ 5-2 win that day.
Then, in 2009-10, Oatway began helping Brighton manager Russell Slade to coach the first team and, after Slade’s departure, continued in the role under Gus Poyet.
When Poyet left the Seagulls to join Sunderland, Oatway went with him and he was also in the dug-out alongside Poyet and his assistant Mauricio Tarrico at Chinese Super League team Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, AEK Athens and Seville-based Real Betis.
However, he didn’t follow him to French Ligue 1 side Bordeaux and in spring this year was helping out his former mentor at Albion in the Community, Dr Alan Sanders, now director of education, sport and health for Charlton Athletic Community Trust, delivering football courses for the community scheme, and sharing his experiences with schoolchildren in south east London.
Pictures: matchday programme; The Argus; Tackling Life (Quick Reads, 2011).