Charlton Athletic is a curious football club. Mention its name ten years ago and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t agree that it had, over the previous ten years, become a byword for stability and a blueprint for success for promoted clubs looking establish themselves in the Premier League. Mention it today, however, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone outside the club who would describe it as such. Instead you’ll get a rolling of the eyes, a tut and a trite statement about how you should be careful what you wish for and how the Charlton faithful got what they deserved for hounding out poor Alan Curbishley. Neither statement is entirely accurate and, indeed, the latter is an extremely simplistic reading of a far more complex situation that has built up at The Valley over time and has culminated in a tumultuous year for the club.
This last year has seen Charlton Athletic taken over by the Belgian businessman Roland Duchatelet and go through four managers in that time. These events have divided fans and now, with Guy Luzon being promoted through Duchatelet’s network to lead the team, questions are being asked about what direction the club is going and whether it can maintain its close links to the community that it serves. A battle is going on for the club’s soul and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in this age of hyper-inflated moneyball that cares beyond a few ‘die-hards’ that have formed the Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust. Last night the trust held a public meeting in Woolwich about how to react to the current regime, and perhaps the most interesting of this debate is that a lot of fans seem to be worried that the trust might annoy Roland to the point at which leaves, so want critics to keep quiet.
But how did it come to this? Charlton has a lot to commend itself for in its recent history. After nearly going bust in 1984 and subsequently being made homeless the club and its custodians worked tirelessly to try and get the side back to the Valley over the course of late 1980s. This single-mindedness over the importance of the club being at the heart of its community cost it a manager, top flight status while fans band together to create a political party to fight the 1990 local elections. This is something truly unique in English football and was something that Alan Curbishley used to use to sell the club to prospective players during his time at the helm. It’s fair to say that Curbishley and Richard Murray (his chairman) got the club back on its feet and a lot of credit for the success that followed during the late 1990s and early 2000s can be attributed to their management of the club.
From a stunning play-off final against Sunderland in 1998, the Championship winning team of Division One in 2000 and the subsequent Premier League years saw the club hit a glass ceiling in the mid-table of the Premier League. This, however, was probably Charlton’s most successful era since Jimmy Seed’s pre/post war side. Stability, the right decisions at board level and a true connection with the fans and the community were all hallmarks of Curbishley’s era and the manager knitted together a successful team that even saw a Charlton player win Match Of The Day’s Goal of the Season award in 2000/01. All this positivity has since disappeared from SE7 over the last eight years, however, aside from a brief renaissance under Chris Powell in the escape from League One. Fractured and farcical: the club now stands at a crossroads and the problems stem from Curbishley’s departure – but not necessarily in the way you might think.
First of all, let’s destroy this myth that Charlton fans forced Curbishley out of the club (or got him sacked, as I read some hack say a few weeks ago – funny how these narratives can grow, eh?) and then got the relegation their arrogance and hubris deserved. Who did they think they were demanding change when the club had been so successful? Silly little club. Well, actually, if you’re talking about fans forcing managerial change, then I would ask you to look at Stoke City who have clearly taken on Charlton’s mantle of ‘the blueprint club’ for Championship sides getting promoted. Stoke actually went through many of the same experiences that we had, at the end of Tony Pulis’ reign. There was a feeling that he had taken the club as far as he could and there was a disquiet about the style of football that the club had become wedded to. Both managers left to standing ovations and big thanks from the fans (and rightly so) but the main difference was that while Peter Coates made the right call in getting in Mark Hughes when Pulis left the Charlton board made blunder after blunder that culminated in the disastrous relegation from the Premier League.
You don’t hear the tired old line about Stoke fans getting what they deserved by ‘forcing Tony Pulis out’ because it worked out for the club, the fans and indeed Pulis, whose stock has risen further since his departure from The Britannia Stadium. Similarly, you don’t hear Stoke fans being castigated because they thought a change was needed and wanted to see a different style of football. Pulis had reached the natural end of his tenure at Stoke, and Charlton fans were similarly right to demand a mutual parting of ways with Curbishley. Both he and the club needed a change in direction. The problem at Charlton has been boardroom blundering which followed this decision, but it has often felt as if the fans have borne the brunt of the blame for ‘forcing’ poor old Curbs out.
The appointment of Iain Dowie to succeed Alan Curbishley was probably the most damaging decision that the club has made over the last two decades. What the board were thinking of in deciding to hire a man who had just seen his Crystal Palace side relegated to succeed the second most successful manager in Charlton’s history is anyone’s guess. Everything about the appointment seemed wrong from the very beginning, from the poaching of a failed manager from relegated rivals to the fact that we allowed a man like Simon Jordan to claim the moral high ground over the whole matter. The fact that he attempted to serve a writ on Dowie during his unveiling at The Valley should have been warning enough. Putting a new manager in place after one man has led the club for so long is a huge business (as Manchester United are currently finding) and something that a club absolutely has to get right. If they do then the rewards are there for all to see as at Stoke, but if they don’t then… well Jordan himself couldn’t have scripted what happened next any better.
Dowie’s reign was especially bad news for Charlton because a new television deal had been negotiated to start the following season. This was absolutely the season we had to stay in the Premier League in order to keep the club at the level to which it had started to become accustomed. What did we do, then? We spent money like idiots on players that hardly deserved the shirt and got relegated. In the meantime Dowie, already undermined and not trusted by anyone, was sacked and replaced by Les Reed, who couldn’t do anything to steady the ship, and by the time Pardew arrived at The Valley it was too late (although many fans will point to games in the run-in especially against Watford that could’ve seen us stay up), as the rot had set in.
Relegation was disastrous for the club and money suddenly became an issue again. After ten years of relative success, the club found themselves in the mire after another year of mismanagement. Pardew tried his hardest, but had his best player sold from under him in the January of our first season back in the Championship and that campaign saw us eventually fade away and finish 11th. Further bad signings followed as the last of the Premier League money dried up. The following season saw Pardew leaving the club by mutual consent in November with the club sliding into the relegation zone and Phil Parkinson appointed to lead the team in the interim. Nothing Parkinson did suggested he was the right man for the job as the club sank to the bottom of the Championship, but he got the job permanently nevertheless. The club were the subject of several takeover offers but nothing materialised and it became clear that administration may well become an issue. The club was relegated to League One with a whimper, and a record breaking run of eighteen games without a win). In the three short years since Curbishley had left, the club seemed to be in ruins.
Parkinson worked hard to try and get the club back up the following season with them losing in the play-offs to Swindon despite only really being able to sign loan players. The club finally went through a takeover in 2011, with Tony Jiminez and Michael Slater entering the boardroom. They decided that Phil Parkinson was surplus to requirements and let him go. At this stage the relationship that the fans and the club had enjoyed in the past had hit rock bottom so the appointment of former Charlton player Chris Powell – who had served the club with distinction during its Premier League years and been called up for England while a Charlton player – proved to be a canny and popular one. Powell’s start was a good one but a run of eleven games without a win saw the club finish well outside of the play-offs.
The following season saw the return of a buzz to The Valley. Powell completely restructured the team and led them to the League One title. For the first time since Curbishley’s exit things seemed to be moving in the right direction again. It was following this time in doldrums that the Trust was formed in order to ensure that, if possible, they could prevent what had happened over the past five years from being repeated. The first season back in the Championship saw the club finish 9th and optimism was flowing again. The fans could feel the connection and Charlton were on their way back but money worries were never far behind and when Roland Duchatelet offered to buy the club last January Slater and Jiminez were in no position to turn him down.
After the takeover, however, the club hit the skids again. First of all, fan favourite Yann Kermorgant was sold to (now table-topping) Bournemouth right at the end of the Januray transfer window. Allied to that, Duchatelet sold Dale Stephens and brought in several players from Standard Liege, another club in his network. The club was turned upside-down overnight and results suffered as it became clear that Chris Powell was not long for his role. The club slumped to the bottom of the table. Powell was sacked and replaced with the little known Belgian manager Jose Riga. There are questions to be asked about how Powell was treated and what had happened since Duchatelet had taken over, but results matter and when Riga pulled the club out of the relegation mire fans were keen to give Duchatelet the benefit of the doubt. It was strange then when Riga was let go at the end of the season, though, with former Millwall striker Bob Peeters being given the manager’s role. Again the fans were happy to back Bob (helped by a good start to the season), but when results took a downturn Peeters was sacked, only to be replaced by another member of the network, in the form of Guy Luzon. Discontent bubbled to the surface again, this time amplified on account of the club’s reticence to communicate effectively with the fans.
The Trust meeting held yesterday was to arranged in order to gauge fan opinion, but an interesting backlash occurred when other Charlton fans expressed dismay that critics might destabilise the club and push Duchatelet towards selling the club. It’s fair to say that Duchatelet’s takeover was needed when it happened. He saved jobs, made sure people got paid and has seen the Valley pitch get relaid, meaning that it doesn’t resemble Woolwich Common after a particularly rainy weekend any more, but this doesn’t, critics argue, automatically grant him the right to run the club as a feeder club to Standard Liege. Charlton Athletic has gone from being a club so important to its community that a political party was formed to bring it home to one where fans are divided about rocking the boat and confronting the chairman because he saved us from administration and may have money that could get us back to the Premier League. Chairmen should be custodians of clubs, not dictators, and fans, who are the life blood of any club, should be able to voice their concerns. Even good chairmen can make massive mistakes and Charlton fans should know that more than many. How can they not want to find out exactly what Duchatelet’s long-term plan is?
This whole story also highlights another issue about how much power chairmen can wield these days and how much damage they can do it left unaccountable. A poor decision made in 2006 cost Charlton their Premier League status and the stability it had worked so hard to attain over previous seasons. Decisions made now are alienating fans and pushing them away from a club they can no longer identify with. It often that Duchatelet has no real regard for Charlton or its history, which is why a dialogue with the fans is so important and if that is not forthcoming then the fans find a way of making themselves heard. There shouldn’t be any fear that he may take his ball away and go home – the club and fans will ultimately still be here, no matter what.
It can be easy to ignore the impact chairmen can have at a club because every day seemingly brings new narratives. Every result is a new story and as such long-term goals and ambitions can easily be forgotten. A 3-0 win against Brentford doesn’t mean that things are all rosy in the garden now, just as a series of defeats might not have meant that Bob Peeters had to be dismissed. Football clubs ultimately live and die by results on the pitch, but with so much power being wielded in the boardrooms these days it’s seldom, these days, that short-termism is the only thing that fans focus upon. Football club ownership may have become the plaything of the ultra-rich, but without fans it’s worth practically nothing. We’ve been waiting for football’s financial bubble to burst for years now in the vain hope that things will go back to the way they were, but that ship has long since sailed and nothing in the culture of club ownership seems likely to change unless fans take steps to involve themselves at the top levels of their clubs and ask questions of those who are running their clubs. Last night’s meeting may well be the first step towards this, and perhaps, over time, Charlton’s cautionary tale might be able to be turned into a blueprint once more.
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