The Pitfalls of Travelling From Northampton Town To Charlton
There probably couldn’t have been two more contrasting ways to experience the end of this Football League season than those of the supporters of Charlton Athletic and those of the supporters of Northampton Town last weekend. Charlton’s season has been one of abject failure on the pitch and increasingly bitter rancour away from it. Already well adrift of the dotted line that would have marked the line between safety and relegation, there were yet further protests as the team was swatted to one side with considerable comfort by the division champions Burnley, a sideshow of rage that promises to follow the club into League One next season.
Meanwhile, at the top of League Two, the supporters of Northampton Town had something real and tangible to celebrate at the end of a season that brought both silverware and a threat of extinction to the club. The near death experience came last autumn, when the fall-out the ownership of the club’s previous owner, David Cardoza, began to manifest itself. The whereabouts of the proceeds of a £10.25m loan from the local council to redevelop the East Stand at the club’s Sixfields stadium couldn’t be identified, and the club teetered on the brink of insolvency before new ownership provided it with some degree of salvation.
Subsequent to the sale of the club to the former Oxford United chairman Kelvin Thomas at the end of November last year, however, it took on a completely new lease of life, with a twenty-four match unbeaten run stretching back to the Saturday before Christmas which took the team to a total of ninety-nine points for the season, thirteen points clear at the top of the table. Work even restarted on the half-built East Stand in February, a prospect that had looked unlikely just three months earlier. A two-one win at Fratton Park against Portsmouth last Saturday was a promotion party for the visiting supporters, with another away win against a team that was amongst the favourites to get promoted before the start of the season – and will be competing in the League Two play-offs – only seeming to underline the transformation that has started to come over the club over the course of the last few months.
Yet barely had the dust settled on the end of the regular league season before the rumour mill began to grind into action, with the strong suggestion being that Charlton were interested in poaching Northampton’s manager, Chris Wilder. Wilder has been highly praised for his good work under circumstances which might have proved to be intolerable for many, and it is understandable that he would be one of the most highly sought after managers in the lower divisions of the Football League at the moment, but it certainly seems valid to ask the question of why he would wish to jettison what he has started to build at Sixfields to go to a club that has become one of the defining examples of basket-casery in the entire Football League over the course of the last year or so.
It would be over-simplistic to suggest that there are absolutely no good reasons whatsoever why Wilder’s head wouldn’t be turned by the interest of Charlton Athletic. This is, after all, a club with a Premier League stadium and what should be the potential to rise well beyond its starting position in League One next season. The Northampton manager isn’t a Londoner, but did have a couple of brief spells on loan with the club as a player at the very start of the 1990s, and in addition this his playing career took in twelve clubs so, although his managerial career has been less nomadic, moving at reasonably regular intervals has been a part and parcel of the vast majority of his adult life.
That said, however, should Wilder accept the Charlton job there can be no question that he would be walking into one of the most toxic atmospheres English football at the moment, one only really rivalled by the slow motion car crash that Blackpool has become in recent years. Relegation from the Championship felt like an inevitability long before mathematics made the club’s fall from grace anything like a certainty. Furthermore, all of this occurred against a backdrop of protest from supporters against owner Roland Duchatelet which showed no signs of diminishing as the season wore on and seem unlikely to tail off at the start of next season, either.
Duchatelet stands accused of overseeing the transformation of Charlton Athletic into little more than a shambles, with a half-baked plan to turn it into a conveyer belt selling young players on to bigger clubs which has seen countless inexperienced players thrown into a competitive division in which they have little chance of developing, whilst back office operations have been considered to have largely withered away to next to nothing. Added to this, frequent public relations disasters coming from the club as well as the mouths of both Duchatelet himself and chief executive Katrien Meire have given the distinct impression that those running the club hold the supporters in something approaching contempt. Protests have been vocal, well publicised and have met with considerable sympathy by the supporters of other clubs, while attempts on the part of the club to portray protest groups as a minority have been singularly unsuccessful.
Even in the face of this, it might still be arguable Wilder would fancy his chances. After all, he’s seen crisis clubs before. He was the manager of Halifax Town when that club went into liquidation in 2008m, prior to Northampton’s near-meltdown last autumn. Whether Charlton Athletic is the right club for a manager seeking to continue to build a career, however, is a question that is worth answering. Since taking the reins at The Valley, Roland Duchatelet has burned through five managers, with Jose Riga, whose departure from the club has sparked this current round of overtures, having had two cracks of the whip there. With the average lifespan of the Charlton manager under Duchatelet being something in the region of five to six months, what assurances are there that he would still be in charge of the club by the end of next season, or even by Christmas if he took the job?
Perhaps Roland Duchatelet has learned a few harsh lessons this season. Perhaps the forecasts for season ticket sales at The Valley next season have forced his hand. The answer to questions such as this, of course, will only come over the course of time. The appointment of a promising English manager may be seen by some as little more than bread and circuses, a relatively cheap and easy means of appeasing the supporters and beginning the process of dividing and conquering those who that have been standing against him. And who knows? Maybe, should Chris Wilder be amenable to the idea, it might just work. As for Northampton Town, well, it feels like a bitter pill to have to swallow at the end of such a successful season. When we consider that the Football Association has rules on tapping up players, it always seems a little surprising that no such rules seem to exist for managers, especially when the loss of a manager can have such a debilitating effect on the club that has just lost theirs. It may prove to be an interesting atmosphere, when Charlton Athletic play Northampton Town in League One next season.