BY PAUL BREEN
Charlton Athletic Football Club has been on a rollercoaster ride this past two years, taking in three seasons. During that time the club has had five managers, three brushes with the relegation zone, and a great deal of confusion about the future. But it has only had one owner, and the message that consistently comes from his people is that he is the boss. He bought our club and it now belongs to him, to do with it as he sees fit, regardless of what the ordinary fan thinks.
Roland Duchatelet, a Belgian businessman with a network of clubs spread out across Europe, bought Charlton Athletic in January 2014 at a time when Standard Liege was his flagship operation.
Upon arrival at Charlton, he brought his own people into key positions, including a young lawyer named Katrien Meire as Chief Executive, and loanee players from his other clubs. Members of the former management team have spoken of players turning up at the training ground with suitcases, with boots at the ready, like a scene from a comic strip years ago in Roy of the Rovers or The Sun.
Despite these odd incidents, at first the jury was out amongst many fans, myself included. I was concerned about some things such as the quality of players being offered to Charlton from other parts of the network, but there were one or two instances when this worked well.
I wasn’t alone in giving these owners the benefit of the doubt. They did rescue the club in a time of financial trouble, and they do have a vision that might stand a chance of working in an environment where Financial Fair Play rules are strictly imposed. That, though, is unlikely to happen any time soon in the English game.
Despite this the owners have shown intransigence in not accepting the realities of the environment in which they are operating, most of all in their refusal to countenance ideas from supporters. Some of those supporters have knowledge gained over decades about what works in British football and in this part of outer London. Others have the fresh passion of youth on their side, and want to make sure they have a club in the future that rivals London neighbours.
Sadly, in the eyes of this regime, the Charlton of the past is dead, and the club’s history doesn’t matter, not even the great achievements of the Premiership years and the infamous return to the Valley in the 1990s. That is the past and this is a new Charlton, part of a bigger and broader network with a vision belonging solely to the owner.
This is the message that we have been getting more and more at the club, not so much directly, but in random interviews given to magazines and television stations in other countries such as France and Ireland. It’s as if we live in an age before the Internet, or football supporters are seen as too stupid to access this information.
Freedom of expression on the part of the owners is perfectly acceptable, but they happen in an environment where they refuse to engage with fans, or when they do, they make statements that are either farcical or untrue. Such statements include a recent assertion that football teams are like restaurants and fans are like customers. To paraphrase the Chief Executive Katrien Meire, if you don’t like what’s on the menu, then go off and find another team to support.
These kinds of statements show a chronic lack of understanding of British football’s culture, especially at a club that is so strongly rooted in the communities of South East London and the county of Kent.
Trust has now broken down between fans and owners to such an extent that supporters openly mock Katrien Meire as a Pinnochio figure on social media and others such as the present manager Karel Fraeye are deemed to be little more than puppets.
Tonight, Saturday 2nd January, there has been a protest at the club where over a thousand supporters gathered in front of the boardroom to voice their frustration at what is going on. That’s an awful lot more than stood in the same spot when this protest first began little more than a month ago, as written about in a previous article on this site (http://footballpink.net/2015/11/15/the-power-of-the-scarf-everything-is-black-and-white-at-charlton/)
This protest is gathering momentum and attracting attention in both the local and national media. Even fans of neighbouring clubs have voiced their support because it’s beyond the context of what’s happening on the pitch. Those voices rising up at the Valley tonight are not just fighting for the future of Charlton. They are fighting for the future of the English game and clubs rooted in the communities they are from. This affects everyone and not just those clubs in the hands of owners they are not particularly happy with.
It could happen to any club in the league, regardless of location, division, or history. We at Charlton are just unfortunate it has happened to us. Please listen to our voice and lend your support where possible. We need all the help we can get in this fight and even if we’re divided in terms of our loyalties on the pitch, we should all be together in the spirit of this struggle. We are fighting for the future of the game that we love in a time of increasing ownership by people who treat clubs as play things and supporters as no more than consumers. Football clubs are not restaurants and as the crowd sang tonight at the Valley ‘we’re a lot more than just your customers.’
PAUL BREEN – @CharltonMen
Paul Breen’s first novel The Charlton Men is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X and a second work is in progress.