It’s never been easy to park near The Valley on Charlton’s matchdays. So before the club generously offered me a spot in Valley Grove behind the away end, I tried my luck up on the heights around Charlton House, which made it a piece of cake cruising down Charlton Church Lane, but not so pleasant toiling uphill later on, especially when we lost.
Anyway, me and the kids shlepped up and down for years until some all-about bright spark tipped me off about a new cul-de-sac, cut into Victoria Way, called Frank Burton Close. Talk about your Eureka moment! This little diamond serves straight into Delamere Road, leads up to the Valley cafe and a few minutes later you’re among your own. There were signs warning that it was resident parking only but nobody seemed to mind and the busies never turned up to make life unpleasant. Every one a winner, so to speak.
At some point or other, I made desultory enquiries as to the identity of our benefactor and the consensus was that Frank Burton was probably some councillor in search of immortality. These were the days before the peerless Colin Cameron put things in order for us and certainly before the likes of Google and Wikipedia revealed all. To be honest, I was always a lazy so-and-so and quickly lost interest in him.
And that’s how it stayed until I woke up to the fact that Frank “Bronco” Burton was among the most interesting men who ever played for Charlton. Interesting – and indisputably brave.
Born in Mexico in 1890, Frank was pursuing a non-league football career with West Ham when World War 1 began. Enlisting in December 1914 in the Sportsman’s Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers before joining the regiment’s 1st Battalion, he spent the entire war on the Western Front, taking part in the battles of Ypres, the Somme and Cambrai. Sgt. Burton was wounded six times and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and Medaille Militaire by the French Government. Details of his individual heroism have proved elusive but a visit to the Royal Fusiliers’ museum might be worth the effort.
Not demobbed until 1920, Frank returned to West Ham while still a soldier and scored his only goal for the East Enders in their first ever League victory at Lincoln City on September 6th 1919. Signed for Charlton by manager Walter Rayner in May 1921, the 6’1″ 12 st defender made 25 appearances during the club’s historic 1921-22 campaign, added 38 more the following season and was ever-present throughout the fledglings’ amazing progress, as a Third Division (South) side, to the 4th round (quarter-finals) of the FA Cup.
After knocking out Northampton Town and Darlington in qualifying rounds, Charlton polished off First Division giants in Manchester City (2-1), Preston North End (2-0) and West Bromwich Albion (1-0) before eventual Cup winners Bolton Wanderers got the better of them (1-0) at The Valley on March 10th 1923. Legend has it that Frank’s colourful teammate Abraham “Kosha” Goodman was poised to equalise when the collapse of a low wall behind the covered goal distracted him. Whatever the truth of that, seasoned war veteran Bronco Burton was ideally equipped to assist the many casualties.
Fifteen more league games during 1924-25 brought to an end Frank’s war-interrupted football career and he turned out for Charlton for the last time in a 2-2 draw with Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic on November 8th 1924. Following a stint as player-trainer with Grays-Thurrock, the swashbuckling Spanish-speaking adventurer briefly became the second manager of Real Oviedo in the Asturias region of Northern Spain, a relatively new club which escaped almost certain extinction just three years ago.
Frank “Bronco” Burton’s subsequent obscurity might be explained by the fact that he died in Auckland, New Zealand in 1967. After what he had been through, no doubt a quieter life had its appeal. But from Mexico to New Zealand, with desperate experiences on the Western Front and more pleasant memories of a career in professional football in between, this was clearly a bloke who gave life all he had to give.
I very rarely park in Frank Burton Close these days and I’m hoping against hope that I haven’t ruined it for those that still do. Thanks are due to Greenwich Council for their imagination in commemorating this remarkable man. They wouldn’t go and spoil it by climbing all over the Charlton fans “in the know” about this parking loophole, would they? God bless his memory, Frank would take a dim view of that.