Charlton Athletic & the PR suicide note
One of the small consolations that comes with any relegation is the hope that next time around, things might not be quite as bad. Playing at a lower level should secure a few more wins than the previous season, maybe even promotion back from whence one came. The likelihood of things being as bad again is reduced. There are, however, caveats to this, and one of the more obvious of these comes when the supporters of a club are in a state of revolt against its owners. Under these circumstances, it can feel as though the summer break is little more than an intermission, a protracted version of the Boxing Day football match between opposing troops during the First World War. On a whistle, hostilities resume where they left off at the end of the previous season. The battle of attrition continues as though nothing has changed. And very often, nothing has.
Football supporters are, by and large, a reasonable bunch. Club owners get away with an awful lot because we have a tendency to forgive and forget, so long as they keep their mouths shut and the team picks up a few wins. Over the course of this summer, it looked as though Charlton Athletic might have done enough to quieten the worst of the protests that rumbled along like the funereal soundtrack to a dismal season on the pitch. Russell Slade was appointed as manager, a solid, doughty choice to follow a succession of bad decisions. And Slade built a team that looked as though it may be capable of holding its own in League One, perhaps more. It looked from the outside as though, if The Valley would fall short of becoming a place of happiness and bonhomie this season, at least a state of some sort of detente might be achieved.
But then the football started again. Last Saturday, Charlton travelled north to play a Bury team that had finished last season in sixteenth place in League One. A winnable fixture, one might think, for a team that playing Championship football last season. Bury won by two goals to nil. On Tuesday night, Charlton travelled again, this time to play Cheltenham Town in the First Round of the League Cup. Cheltenham were promoted into League Two from the National League at the end of last season, so their confidence going into the match would likely be high. But never mind. After all, Charlton were a Championship side last season. Cheltenham won the match by a goal to nil. A cup run scythed down before even the middle of August had been reached.
Against such a backdrop, it is hardly surprising that tempers amongst supporters might already be starting to rise again and this state of affairs was hardly helped when the Football Association decided that Katrien Meire, the thirty-two year old Belgian lawyer who has been doing something approaching the job of being Charlton’s Chief Executive since January 2014, considered exactly the person that they needed to join the FA Council as one of four representatives of the Football League. The same Katrien Meire who mocked Charlton supporters “who know everything better than anyone” and described them as being no more than “customers”, last year. The same Katrien Meire who had to be surrounded by security guards at Charlton’s last home game of last season in the face of incandescent protests from supporters. Sometimes, it feels as though the FA isn’t so much out of touch with supporters as openly thumbing its nose in our general direction.
To top it all off, the club found itself at the centre of another public relations disaster this week when details of a letter sent to a protesting supporter were passed into the public domain. The anonymous supporter had, it would seem, been in the act of renewing their season ticket when they received a letter from the club advising them that their season ticket would be renewed unless he went to the club and signed an “Agreed Behavioural Contract”, not only to control their behaviour at matches but also demanding that they “refrain from posting derogatory or inflammatory about the Club or people representing the Club in the future on any social media websites”. Note the use of the word “derogatory” rather than “defamatory”, there. This didn’t seem to be a matter of defamation – presumably if it were, the word “defamation” would have been used, or perhaps even the law might have ecome involved. This gave every impression of merely closing down criticism of those running the club.
By yesterday afternoon, the story had been discussed at great length by TalkSport, Sky Sports, and all over social media. It’s highly likely that thousands of people who hadn’t previously been aware of the state in which the club finds itself are now fully versed in the way that this club seems to have been being mismanaged over the last couple of years or so. And somebody senior within the club – whether it was Meire or not will almost certainly never been known, though given her fairly open contempt for her “customers” in the past, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if it was – authorised this. In order to silence one individual, the club has now had its dirty linen quite publicly broadcast instead.
The club issued an official statement, commenting that this was the only letter of this nature that was sent – which begs the question of how awful what was said by this one particular person that singled them out for such a letter, or whether it was merely a matter of the fact that this particular person was, say, easily identifiable from their social media username – and that the individual concerned has apologised for their previous behaviour and there will be no repeats of it. Quite why the club opted to send a vaguely threatening letter on the matter rather than seeking to deal with it in a more tactful manner, however, remains a mystery. It is also not known why the club used terms such as “derogatory” and “inflammatory” in their original letter before conflating this to “abusive” as soon as the matter entered the public domain.
Ultimately, the behaviour of this particular individual might have been awful and appalling. It might not. Such questions are often a matter of personal prediliction, and everybody’s different in this respect. What we do know, however, is this: it doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe that Charlton Athletic have not sold out on season tickets this season, and their first home match is today. Yesterday was just about the final opportunity for the club to sell season tickets for the last time, if purchasers are to get their full allocation of matches for the season. By early yesterday afternoon, the message making its way across the radio, television and social media was that if you’re critical of Charlton Athletic, the club will rip up your season ticket and might report you to the police, for good measure. Now, this might be an exaggeration, but by this time the club was not in control of the message, as was always going to be the case from the moment their sent their letter. And it doesn’t seem unreasonable to posit the possibiblity that their were supporters who were wavering over whether to buy a season ticket for this season who had their minds made up for them by the club’s dreadful handling of what should have been a minor matter.
It is possible that the owner of the club and those running it on his behalf might not be aware of this, but the truth of the matter is that all lower division football clubs need all the friends they can get. It’s also worth remembering that Charlton play their first home league match of the season this afternoon, against Northampton Town, and that this letter will most likely only have an inflammatory effect on supporters who are already sick and tired of the way that their club is being run and increasingly the way that they are being treated. It’s difficult to imagine that The Valley today will be a happier place than it would have been had the club not sent this supremely ill-advised letter. And it’s also difficult to imagine that this won’t have further negative ramifications for Charlton Athletic that the individual who authorised this letter has given no thought to whatsoever.
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