WORDS AND PHOTOS BY PAUL BREEN
Charlton Athletic’s Valley has known good times and bad through the decades. This afternoon was surely one of the darkest, ironically played out in 23 degrees of glorious sunshine. For months now, Charlton’s protests have been making the news as the supporters voice their frustration at the Belgian regime in charge of the club. Mostly these protests have taken the form of demonstrations after games. When the TV cameras come to town, the protests have also involved tactics to delay or interrupt the start of matches. The idea of this is to bring the cause to national attention without creating too much disruption or damage.
At no point have the Charlton protests ever been violent, but there have been attempts by the owners to demonise the protestors. First of all, they were branded as a mere two per cent – yes, 2% – of the fan base by those in charge of the club. But that reference to the 2% became a slogan of the protest. It was the blue touch paper that made anger amongst fans more visible and vociferous. The Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet (CARD) took shape and gained an incredible following amongst the fan base in a very short period of time. Many supporters, like myself, have stood shoulder to shoulder with CARD in recent months.
We have stood outside the stadium loud and proud chanting for change but always keeping our dignity. CARD have never advocated any kind of violence in either a public or private capacity. They have shown great restraint even when members and supporters have been manhandled. The official party line and personal sentiment has always been absolutely 100% (that’s 98 more than 2) that stewards and others are only doing their jobs. They are following the orders of a regime that would probably fire them if they disobeyed instructions.
That regime treats its staff with the same contempt as its customers. The word customer after all is the preferred term of the club’s CEO Katrien Meire. She holds the honour of being more unpopular in Charlton than the thought of a Millwall promotion and a Crystal Palace FA Cup victory in the same season. During protests she has been accused of smirking in front of the TV cameras.
The definition of smirking according to The Cambridge English Dictionary is “a smile that expresses satisfaction or pleasure about having done something or knowing something that is not known by someone else.”
There are many reasons why people might smirk. There are also different opinions as to whether we can unequivocally say that the club’s CEO has been caught smirking on camera several times at the height of protests. But the impression fans customers have taken from these actions is that she does not take seriously the rage within the club at the present time. She appears to look on football supporters with utter contempt and disdain.
Perhaps the very same disdain as that shown by the South Yorkshire Police at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on 15th April 1989. That was by the far the darkest day in football and one that we all expect to have taught us lessons on mistakes we will never see repeated. The portrayal of the Liverpool supporters and their city was a sickening demonstration of how violence can be carried out with words and actions just as much as with batons and truncheons. Ninety-six people died as a consequence of that disaster and it took almost three decades for the truth to come out because much of that time was spent overcoming social prejudice and negative portrayals of football supporters as drunken yobs.
Though Charlton’s situation cannot compare to the deaths of 96 people there are echoes of Hillsborough in what I saw at The Valley today. Despite CARD and others having worked tirelessly to advocate peaceful protest, the scenes at today’s game against Burnley could have been a series of images from the miners’ strikes photoshopped or imposed on the scene of a sunny afternoon. Dozens of stewards and as many more police armed like a riot squad turned up to control today’s crowd. Sniffer dogs appeared outside the stadium. Supporters were frisked on their way through the turnstiles, some asked why they were bringing cans or bottles of drinks into the stadium on an afternoon of 20 plus degrees of heat. This shows that the people in charge of the club have lost all sense of what is important, and who their supporters and customers actually are.
These are ordinary people, not violent thugs. Yet the Belgian regime is demonising, filming and frisking these people at every given opportunity. The filming of the protests has actually been one of the most ridiculous aspects. Surely the sign of any failing regime is when it turns the guns on its own people? That is how it feels at Charlton right now. The regime has lost the plot and by its refusal to engage in any purposeful way over the past few seasons has created a situation where the owners only feel comfortable when the ground is guarded and surrounded by dozens of hired hands and nightclub bouncers.
During the match, the sight of police and stewards was more striking than the football where Burnley sealed their Championship title with a 3-0 victory. Towards the end, three quarters of the ground stood sealed by the presence of stewards and police officers. When one young man ran onto the pitch (against the official line of CARD) he was brought to the ground with rough force.
This exacerbated tensions and a couple of flares were thrown, alongside a barrage of toilet rolls. Bizarrely, in an attempt to stop such actions, the club had erected netting around the North Stand, fencing in supporters there in a way that surely constituted a health and safety hazard. But then, as I say, these were only football supporters. Crush them in anywhere because that’s all they deserve. Now where have we heard that before? Yes, in all the papers and on our TV screens for the past couple of weeks. Surely the owners of Charlton and the police themselves cannot be blind to the symbolism of this, the very violent symbolism of enclosing supporters into a place from which they can’t escape.
Did the individual police officers ever see anything of the Hillsborough force reflected in themselves as they formed a ring of steel around the Charlton fans at the three quarter point of the game? What was it for? To stop the pitch invasion that CARD had already advised against? Whatever the reasons it was just another flame held to the blue touch paper. Those police officers kitted out and ready for battle are the best possible recruiting sergeants for the movement of opposition to Charlton’s current owners. What were they going to do if somebody ran onto the pitch? Beat the shit out of them in front of fifteen thousand people as a lesson to the mob baying in the background?
In the end, though, their strategy of containing the Charlton fans proved weak because they left the Burnley end unattended. Come the final whistle the away end exploded in claret and blue and yellow euphoria and burst onto the pitch. Nothing happened. Why? Because you are allowed to invade a pitch if you win? Yet when a couple of Charlton fans tried to do the same the stewards and police turned heavy handed. Heavy fisted too. But what happened next took them by total surprise. The Burnley fans made their way to the Charlton directors’ boxes and started chanting their solidarity with the home supporters and their shared hostility towards Belgian owner Roland Duchatelet. Suddenly it was not just the scene of police force and police numbers that echoed the miners’ strikes. It was the way in which communities from opposite ends of the country stood together, shoulder to shoulder, finding common cause even in their division.
By then the Burnley trickle had turned to a flood and The Valley’s historic turf stood covered in a sea of claret and blue. Charlton fans poured down onto the pitch too though found their route more restricted. Shoulder to shoulder with the Burnley fans they sang songs of resistance against the woman they accused of smirking in their face. This was beautiful and triumphant peaceful resistance, as grand a gesture as any ever seen at The Valley in its days of abandonment and supporter exile. The blue touch paper was on fire and burning with such ferocity the police and stewards did not even dare to dampen it. Sure, riot-type officers lingered in the background but what were they going to do?
They’d been effectively hired to contain one demonised set of supporters but suddenly they faced not just one club or two but the entire football family of Britain standing shoulder to shoulder and in solidarity. Burnley carried on where Middlesbrough and Brighton have left off before in lending their support to the Charlton protests. In doing so they have set in motion a calling to every football supporter in every club in England to do the same next season. Whenever fans come to The Valley or when Charlton go elsewhere, from Oldham to Bristol, or Fleetwood to Swindon, the supporters should stand shoulder to shoulder.
Violence as I said isn’t just about physical attack. It’s about a whole lot more than that as the people of Liverpool can testify to. We at Charlton have not suffered in anything like the same proportions but we know what it is to be demonised by those who hold power, those who smirk and belittle football supporters. But long after such people have left their high ground or been driven out, The Valley will still be Charlton’s ground or what’s left of Charlton. Today in a 3-0 defeat I went home feeling triumphant – moved by the experience.
The touch paper has been lit. Sadly it’s nothing to smile about, or even smirk about. The only good that has come out of it is that today I saw a new spirit stirring that suggests the protestors will win the war in the end no matter how many barricades are put up in the face of the protests.
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.