Charlton Athletic & Coventry City: Brothers In Arms
There has been a definite change in tone in the nature of supporter protests against those who are mismanaging some of our football clubs. In years gone by, they could come to feel like an insular matter, and for those looking on from the outside it could feel a little like intruding a private matter to express much support. From joint protests between supporters of Oxford United and Reading when it was proposed that the two clubs should merge under the “Thames Valley Royals” name in 1983 through to the Fans United day held at Brighton & Hove Albion’s Goldstone Ground in 1997, protests that involved the supporters of more than one club, joint protests have always been the exception, rather than the rule.
The age of social media has changed that irrevocably, of course. Nowadays, the supporters of clubs that are demonstrating against something – or, more often than not, somebody – are canny about their public relations, issuing releases during the build-up to matches that may feature some form of protest apologising for any inconvenience but explaining the reason behind why supporters find themselves in a position in which they can’t, at that time, be completely focussed on the football. And more often not, shows of support from opposing supporters are gratefully received. We’re all in the PR business nowadays.
The notion of supporters protesting together will take a step forward later today, however, prior to the League One match between Charlton Athletic and Coventry City. The supporters of these two clubs, both formerly of the Premier League but now in the wrong half of the third tier of the English league system, have suffered more than most at the hands of the owners of their respective clubs in recent years, and this afternoon they will meet at the Liberal Club on Charlton Church Lane to march together to The Valley, although both sets of supporters are protesting different issues. It is hoped that, by banding together in such a way, their voices will be amplified to such a point that they might even actually be heard, for once.
There’s precious little evidence to suggest that anybody has been listening to them over the last few years or so. The Football League chose Charlton’s Chief Executive, Katrien Meire, to be one of its representatives on the FA Council in August, while Coventry City supporters saw their club moved thirty-five miles from the city of Coventry to play in Northampton for a few months after Sisu, the club’s hedge fund owners, moved the club out in 2013, whilst supporters watched on powerlessly as the a wearyingly familiar process of putting the club into administration and forming a new limited company to wipe its debts whilst not bringing about a change of ownership that was worth very much outside of Companies House.
At Charlton, both Meire and owner Roland Duchatelet have been the target of hostilities for the last couple of seasons. Duchatelet took ownership of the club in January 2014, making it the fifth that he owns across Europe. However, the ways in which players were moved around between these clubs was the initial source of anger amongst supporters, though the range of grievances has now widened to include the club’s decline on the pitch – Duchatelet has already overseen one relegation since taking ownership of the club and, on the evidence available thus far, may well be on his way to a second this season – falling crowds, and, in the case of Katrien Meire, injudicious comments referring to supporters of the clubs as “customers” and questioning their right to protest.
Such things aren’t a competition, but the supporters of Coventry City have a reasonable claim to be the worst treated of any in this country, over such an extended period of time. The club made a return to The Ricoh Arena following its period in exile at Sixfields, but Coventry City Council, who have been in a dispute with the club over the Arena for several years, ended up selling the ground to the rugby union club London Wasps, who opted to decamp to the city from the capital. Relief at this return, however, has proved to be temporary. Coventry only signed a short-term lease for this return which expires at the end of the 2017/18 season, and at the time of writing there is no indication that the club will be anything but homeless by that time.
This comes at the same time as the Coventry Telegraph – who have publicly called for the club to be sold – revealing that the Otium Entertainment Group, the arm of Sisu that currently owns Coventry City, have obtained planning permission to build seventy-five houses on the club’s training ground, and the club’s claims that nothing will happen regarding this until a new site has been located have, in the toxic atmosphere of distrust that has hung over the club like a dark cloud of late, been treated with contempt by supporters. And the icing on the cake of the club’s current woes has been its form in League One this season, which has already seen manager Tony Mowbray quit and the club occupying, at the time of writing, bottom place in the division, requiring eleven matches to record a first win of the season. The situation at Coventry is so poisonous that a cross-party debate between MPs was held on the matter was held at Westminster Hall last week, organised by Jim Cunningham, the current MP for Coventry South. Cunningham has already stated that:
The football club should not be a way to make a quick buck for faceless unaccountable owners.
The Football League and the FA must explain how the owners can pass the fit and proper persons test and proceed to run the club into the ground.
The vast amounts of money now pouring into the Premier League are making for envious glances from the clubs of the Football League, and there can be little doubt that there will be those whose attempts to turn a quick profit or take ill-thought out gambles in order to seek to reach the promised land. Charlton Athletic and Coventry City have different issues that require different solutions in a direct, practical sense, but the ultimate umbrella under which these two sets of supporters can march together is the governance of clubs in this new reality. Why do the Football League and the Football League seem so quiet on this subject? Why haven’t rules been put in place to set in stone the obvious truism that football clubs are more than just businesses? If angry supporters consider that the game’s authorities are not paying any attention to them it’s not difficult to see why. Perhaps this afternoon, somebody in a position to something about it will listen, for once.
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