Panic on the Streets of Charlton (Sorry)

by | Jan 2, 2016

Those long, lazy days of summer must feel like a long time ago for the supporters of Charlton Athletic. When the new football season began, Charlton couldn’t have had a much more successful start to it. An opening day win against Queens Park Rangers was followed by going a further five games unbeaten before the month of August ended with a first league defeat of the season, at the hands of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Since then, however, the club has entered a precipitous decline which leaves it entering 2016 staring relegation to League One in the face and its supporters have had enough. This afternoon, The Valley will bear witness to a protest against the owners of the club.

The problems that Charlton Athletic face come as a result of often bewildering decisions taken by Roland Duchâtelet, who has been in charge of the club for the last two years. Over the course of those two years, the club has had four managers – Chris Powell, José Riga, Bob Peeters and Guy Luzon – but at the same time has had no permanent manager since October, when Luzon was dismissed and Karel Fraeye was made the club’s interim head coach despite an almost complete lack of experience in such a position and absolutely no improvement in results. There’s no director of football and no chief scout, an unusual position for a club whose owner has stated its intention to survive by developing young players to sell on to Premier League clubs. And there doesn’t seem to be any clear and co-ordinated plan to lift the club back onto its feet.

Much of this might be forgiven by a lot of supporters – the fortunes of clubs do wax and wane, after all – were it not for the shambolic way in which the club is being run off the pitch. In February of this year, for example, a CCTV clip of a couple of having sex at night time was “leaked” into the public domain. The club initially stated that it was to hold an inquiry into how this had come to happen, before admitting that it had itself recorded the video as a publicity stunt for a summer pitch hire programme called “Score At The Valley.” In August of this year, the club installed a sofa in one corner of the stadium, to which supporters selected via the ground’s big screen would be invited to watch that day’s match. With this sort of PR, who needs enemies?

When Roland Duchâtelet arrived at The Valley a couple of years ago, he was at least not the people that he was buying the club from. The club had slipped into League One before being bought by Michael Slater and Tony Jimenez but the club bounced back as champions, although a lack of investment meant that debts were starting to rise and bills were starting to go unpaid. Duchâtelet, who made his fortune selling electronics components and already owned the Belgian club Standard Liege, although his proposals to merge one of the biggest clubs in Belgium with another club that he owned in the Netherlands had been met, understandably, with widespread supporter protests.

The idea was that Charlton would become part of a “network” of clubs  –  Standard Liège, Sint-Truiden (the club with whom Duchâtelet had tried to merge Standard Liège, to the extent that he threatened to withdraw Standard from the Belgian league if the merger didn’t go through), Hungarian first division side Újpest, Spanish second division team Alcorcon and Carl Jeiss Zena, from the third tier of the German league system – which would share players, avoiding agents’ fees and developing young players to sell on to bigger clubs. At the heart of this idea was Katrien Meire, a lawyer who had been a supporter of Sint-Truiden, been employed by  Standard Liège, and was hired to be the chief executive of Charlton Athletic upon completion of the takeover. Duchâtelet himself hasn’t been seen at The Valley for more than a year. Meire became the club’s primary spokesperson.

This networking idea didn’t exactly go quite the way that many might have expected or hoped it would. Young players of dubious playing ability began being foisted upon the club’s coaching staff without their consent. There were even stories of players turning up unannounced at the club’s training ground with suitcase. All of this might have been tolerable had these players been, well, any good. But it soon became apparent that not only were they not, but that perfectly good players were being moved along to make space for them. Yann Kermogant was a popular striker at The Valley, and when he was sold the Bournemouth the club stated that it “reluctantly” sold him, having offered a two year extension on his contract. Kermogant’s version of events was somewhat different:

I don’t want people to think I have gone for the money – it is so far from that,” said Kermorgant. “I’ve always said I couldn’t think of leaving Charlton, only for a deal I couldn’t refuse. I am 32 and have to do the best for my family. But that was not the case between Bournemouth and Charlton. I’ve not left for the money. It is because I feel they have pushed me to the exit. I think they accepted the first bid from Bournemouth. That is not the way to do it when you really want to keep a player. For me the biggest thing is the way it happened. They did nothing special to keep me.

Kermogant’s replacement was Piotr Parzyszek, whose Charlton Athletic career lasted a total of three minutes as a substitute before he was shuffled off on loan. He’s been away ever since, with Charlton continuing to pay a proportion of his wages. With Powell having been sacked, his replacement Jose Riga was proving no more inclined to pick the players that the club’s senior management was bring in. Loïc Négo signed a three and a half year contract upon signing from Újpest, but played just one game for Charlton before returning to Hungary. Riga lasted seventeen matches as the Charlton Athletic head coach. His replacement, Bob Peeters, lasted twenty-five. His replacement, Guy Luzon, a coach with no previous experience in English football, lasted thirty-six.

Karel Fraeye became the club’s interim head coach in October. Fraeye  began as a youth coach with KAA Gent and FC Destelbergen before pending three years as the manager of the Belgian fourth tier club Eendracht Zele. He was then briefly an assistant to Jose Riga at Charlton, and it has been rumoured that he was behind at least some of the club’s more eccentric transfer decisions since Duchâtelet has been involved at the club. Since being appointed into this “interim” position Fraeye has overseen two wins from eleven matches, but there has been no indication from the club that there is to be a new head coach brought in on a permanent basis.

Meire, for her part, has hardly been covering herself in glory in her position as the club’s chief executive, either. In an interview with the Belgian magazine L’Echo published at the end of September, Meire made her contempt for her critics clear, mocking supporters “who know everything better than anyone”, while, at a tech conference held in Dublin, she compounded her apparent ignorance of how to speak of supporters of the football club that she is apparently running by comparing Charlton fans with mere customers, stating that:

Whenever I get friendly emails from fans they say ‘get out of our club’, so it’s not the shareholders’ club. They say they pay, but they go to the restaurant with their family every week or they go to the cinema, and they’re not satisfied with the product, do they go and scream to the people in charge of it? No they don’t! But they do with a football club, and that’s very weird.

Meire should, however, perhaps be a little more wary of the supporters of Charlton Athletic. After all, this is a club at which the supporters once mobilised themselves to get the club back to The Valley and eventually got their way, running for election to the local council as a part of their protest. At the end of October, Meire and Non-Executive Chairman Richard Murray met with selected supporters to discuss their “vision” for the future of the club. It couldn’t have gone much worse for them. Meire introduced it all by saying, “ I thought we had already explained this several times” – precisely the sort of condescending tone that one should probably avoid under such circumstances, and went on to describe protesting supporters as “the 2%.” In the second minute of the team’s next televised match, thousands of supporters held cards aloft saying “We are the 2%.”

The club’s route out of this dreadful situation seems to have been systematically ignored or rebuffed. Peter Varney was the chief executive of the club, and has offered significant investment under the right circumstances, to the extent that he has offered to travel to Belgium to meet the absentee landlord Duchâtelet. The Charlton fanzine Voice of the Valley, however, reported over Christmas that Meire has refused to meet with him, that emails have been ignored and that scheduled meetings have been ignored, even making public a copy of the emails sent between the two.

The best hope for the change that supporters now crave seems to be Richard Murray, who is a link to only to the club’s successful years in the Premier League, but all the way back to the campaign to get the club back to The Valley at the start of the 1990s. His reputation has suffered enormously as a result of his involvement with Duchâtelet et al, but both this and his financial interests in the club could, perhaps, be rescued by persuading them that their “project” for Charlton Athletic has failed, and that they should pass it over to somebody that will treat it with the care and attention that it deserves.

But will Murray act at all, and if he does, can he do so in time? If Charlton Athletic needs significant investment in its playing resources, it needs this to be done by the end of this month, and the prognosis for the club if it fails to do so is bleak. The financial gap between the Championship and League One is not as great as that from the Premier League down, but it is still sizable, and for a club that is more than £40m in debt a swift return back to this level would be far from guaranteed, whilst any pretence towards pushing towards the Premier League would slip so far from view as to be unthinkable. If Charlton Athletic can be returned to its community in some form, it can be saved. After two long years, the project overseen by Roland Duchâtelet and managed by Katrien Meire has failed. Whether these two will listen to this afternoon’s protests is not known, but what we do know for certain is that the supporters of Charlton Athletic have a long history of not giving up on lost causes. The 2% will doubtless make themselves heard this afternoon.

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