Dark, menacing clouds are threatening to burst open over south-east London. Charlton and Millwall are hurtling down a path of grave uncertainty, the familiar early-season optimism already evaporated. Defeat in Saturday's derby at The Valley will only accentuate the feeling of doom, as both reside in the lower echelons of the Championship table after below-par starts to the season, while the tightening of their respective financial belts may well lead to further problems down the road. Victory for either side will steady the ship; losing could well plunge the vanquished into crisis territory.
This is just the third time in 16 years that both clubs have shared a division (they failed to meet once between 1995-96 and 2008-09) but the rivalry has by no means been diluted. Absence has only served to increase the intensity. Yet despite the passionate rivalry, it is hard to ignore the fact that both clubs are currently fighting many of the same battles. They share more similarities than they would like to admit, both on and off the field.
Up until last Tuesday's fixtures, Millwall were edging towards a serious slump: winless, rooted to the foot of the table and with calls for the manager to be sacked after only six league games in charge. Charlton were faring marginally better thanks to an unbeaten run of three games only for that to end away to Huddersfield, meaning they head into the derby level on five points apiece and teetering right above the drop zone, though Charlton have played a game less.
That the Millwall chairman, John Berylson, flew in from the US to watch their first win, over Blackpool, a revitalised performance which served to temporarily alleviate the pressure, could be construed as worrying for the under-pressure manager, Steve Lomas. They held talks before the game but when pressed afterwards, Lomas refused to reveal any details. Although a sign of improvement from the disastrous showing against Derby three days previously, where they were hammered 5-1, one result has not remedied all their ills. A sizeable proportion of the club's support remain unhappy that Lomas is manager and a fresh wave of criticism will follow if they come away from The Valley empty-handed.
Lomas was never going to be widely welcomed into the job considering he is a former West Ham captain but his comments in the past week are those of a man under strain. Following the Blackpool win, he said: "It is great for the chairman, he has taken some criticism for appointing me so I'm delighted for him and the players." It would be impossible for him not to be aware of that criticism, with chants of "Lomas out" ringing around the New Den more than once. Indeed he admitted after the Derby game that "I am not deluded enough to think my job is not at risk".
Receding attendances, their biggest ever wage bill and the requirement to abide by financial fair play rules have led to warnings that stringent cutbacks are imminent. Indeed with the FA likely to take action after one supporter encroached on to the pitch and pushed the Derby manager, Nigel Clough, during last Saturday's game, the problems are mounting.
"This is the toughest challenge the club has faced for a long time," said the chairman, Andy Ambler. "We already have the club's highest ever wage bill … without John Berylson, we would not be solvent."
Dissenting voices have been heard loud and clear a couple of miles east at The Valley too, particularly when 3-0 down to Doncaster Rovers in the farcical postponed game in August. Though Yann Kermorgant pulled a goal back when the match restarted after a 35-minute break where attempts were made to clear surface water from the pitch, it is a matter of concern when a postponement is cause for celebration. Charlton have been inconsistent since: inflicting defeat on the then table-toppers Leicester, drawing away to Watford and succumbing to Huddersfield (who also defeated them in the Capital One Cup) on Tuesday night.
Having exceeded expectations on their return to the Championship last season – a seven-game unbeaten away run helped the Addicks fashion a late surge to ninth place despite indifferent home form – it seemed they were a goalscorer short of a play-off push this time round.
Marvin Sordell, the England Under-21 striker, was brought in on loan from Bolton but after three disappointing performances he has been left to stew on the bench.
Of more concern at present are the problems which exist away from the field as supporters grow increasingly frustrated with the club's owners, Tony Jimenez, a former vice-president of Newcastle United, and Michael Slater. The excellent Voice of The Valley fanzine recently published details of a 21-page dossier which was circulated to attract a new buyer for the club in May and highlighted the need for fresh cash or the club would need to reduce costs further, denying the popular manager, Chris Powell, an opportunity to strengthen his squad.
And with Greenwich council reportedly interested in opening discussions over a move from The Valley to a new base on the north Greenwich peninsula, there is heightened consternation.
It would be premature to say Saturday's game is pivotal but the possession of local bragging rights will, temporarily at least, ease the worries of one club. The clouds will linger, though, as the financial restrictions mean both south-east London clubs run the risk of stagnation, if not worse.