Charlton Athletic: The Forgotten Club
Sometimes the best way to get a view of yourself is through the eyes of others. As Charlton Athletic wave goodbye to manager Karl Robinson this morning, the club’s long-suffering supporters may have already spotted a headline from the Plymouth Herald that reads, “Why it’s the perfect time for Plymouth Argyle to take on Charlton Athletic.” It’s a sobering thought, the realisation that an opposing team is actually relishing taking on yours, in the belief that the sense of stagnation that has come to hang over Charlton Athletic like a cloud of mustard gas coupled with the departure of a manager who’d done something resembling a half-decent job at The Valley under testing circumstances offers an opportunity to pick up three easy points. Plymouth are amongst the clubs currently challenging Charlton for a place in this season’s League One play-offs.
Talk is that Robinson won’t be out of work for long. The Oxford United job has been up for grabs for a couple of months now, and with Oxford sliding down the table – last weekend’s narrow win against Peterborough United ended a run of five matches without a win, four of them defeats – it would be understandable if Oxford were to feel that now is the time to finally bring in a new coach to end this period of instability within their club. There had been complaints from Charlton supporters that Robinson had erred a little too closely to the tactically inflexible end of the spectrum, but overall the sense is that, considering everything, he hadn’t done too bad a job since taking charge, and that lasting almost a year and a half in charge under the absent ownership of Roland Duchatetlet is, in its own perverse way, something of an achievement in itself. It’s been reported that he’d already had his resignation rejected twice by the club in the last nine days prior to this morning’s announcement.
Charlton Athletic has become a forgotten football club, a ghost club, with no chairman, no chief executive, no finance director, and an owner who hasn’t attended a match in three and a half years. The current board of directors consists of just two people – Duchatletet and Richard Murray. Murray cuts a curious figure, a remnant from a bygone age. He was one of the key players in getting the club back to The Valley in 1992 after an absence of seven years and was chairman of the club for twelve years, during which the club was promoted into the Premier League, relegated back, promoted back again, and then stayed there for seven years. The heady days of the 2003/04 season – when Charlton finished in seventh place in the Premier League – all seem like a very long time ago now. Three years after that seventh place finish the club was relegated, and with debts mounting and Duchatelet now running the show, a return to anywhere near the top flight feels further away than ever.
Small wonder, then, that apathy is starting to filter through The Valley. Charlton Athletic supporters have a history steeped in campaigning – their activism to get the club back to The Valley in the early 1990s involved forming a political party and picking up almost 15,000 votes in local elections, for goodness’ sake – and the formation of CARD (Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet) came with a promise to make the club “unmanageable” for the owners. The protests were held. Tennis balls were thrown onto the pitch during matches, causing their stoppage, whilst in May of last year an estimated three hundred Charlton supporters travelled to Belgium to protest against Duchatelet’s ownership of the club at the ground of Sint-Truiden, the Jupiler League club that he also owns. No matter what happens, this flame will always burn brightly inside those who have proved time and time again that they will stand and fight for the survival of the club.
It’s difficult to avoid the feeling, however, that apathy is starting to take over amongst others of a slightly less motivated persuasion. Last weekend’s match against Fleetwood Town was unlikely to sell The Valley out, but just 9,865 people made up the recorded attendance for the match. Observers, noting that recorded attendances include all season ticket holders, whether they turn up to matches or not, have estimated the actual crowd – ie, the number of people who actually turned out to watch it – at less that 6,000 people, which would be somewhere around the smallest attendance that Charlton have managed for a league match since the days of sharing Selhurst Park with Crystal Palace. How much lower might these attendances fall as end of season, nothing left to play for, apathy starts to settle in? With ten matches of the season left to play Charlton are still just five points off the play-offs, but they’re heading in the wrong direction and supporters may well be wondering how much better the team would be doing had their been any involvement in the January transfer window.
There wasn’t, of course, unless we include the sale of key player Ricky Holmes to Sheffield United for an undisclosed sum. Some were critical of Holmes for leaving the club when he’d only signed a contract extension last summer. Others, however, were more sympathetic. Could an almost thirty year old player who’d spent the whole of his career in non-league football and the lower divisions of the Football League really be blamed for leaving the stasis of The Valley to take a step up to the Championship and a club on the rise again? Ultimately, though, January’s (lack of) transfer activity felt to many like another broken Duchatelet promise. The owner had promised investment in the team if it was in a position to be able to challenge for a promotion spot. A small number of loan players along with the sale of a first team regular didn’t look much like the “investment” that had been promised.
If Duchatelet’s plans to throw money into an attempt to get promoted this season were derailed somewhat, it’s likely that this happened as a result of the advancement of takeover talks which followed the departure of the club’s former much-hated CEO Katrien Meire at the end of December, even though these don’t seem to be moving particularly quickly. It was announced by Richard Murray at the end of February that the club had agreed a price with two separate parties to sell the club “within the next few weeks”, but just two weeks after this Karl Robinson blew a hole in the idea that it would be completed imminently when he confirmed that, “I’ve been told today it’s [the takeover] completely up in the air.” Indeed, there was perhaps more than a hint at what was to follow when Robinson stated that:
Our CEO was gone at the end of December. Our financial director has gone now. We were told the club would be done in two weeks. That was seven or eight weeks ago in the beginning of January. We thought we’d have somebody in in mid-January to try and push us forward and give us some funds. I’m stood here in mid-March and being told it’s nowhere near.
In the owner’s defence, he’s trying to sell the club. But it’s no good in relation to us not knowing what corner to turn next. I feel for the people that come and watch us. When you’ve got family and kids and not knowing what’s happening in the summer – it can put you in a predicament.
Such frustration has become fairly common currency at The Valley over the last couple of years, and it’s not difficult to see why. Charlton Athletic is a club that is capable of Premier League football, although it’s now spent so long away from the top flight that getting back there is going to prove to be a significant challenge, no matter who the new owners turn out to be. It wouldn’t be surprising if this season ended up feeling like a wasted opportunity for the club should it not at least go some of the way towards reclaiming its former status by getting promoted back to the Championship come the end of this season. The club can still do it. That five point gap is hardly insurmountable. The team, however, has only won four of its last nineteen league matches, and three of those wins came successively in the middle of January. New owners and new impetus seem like a cocktail that could rejuvenate the club and push it back towards the status that it once held. But until Duchatelet is gone and the fog starts to lift from over The Valley, Charlton Athletic will continue to resemble a ghost club, perpetually walking a tightrope between recovery and potential oblivion. Progress has been made. This much is definitely true. But it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that many connected with the club are on hold at the moment, waiting for the end of this particular spell in footballing purgatory.