When Russell Slade took over as Charlton manager this summer, he knew that there was quite a job to do. That they had just been relegated was bad enough, but worse were the circumstances leading to them dropping into League One, which had alienated many of their fans. It takes a lot of time to build trust, says Slade. There were clearly things that needed addressing at the football club, and going forwards there will still be things that need addressing … It’s like putting little bricks in place, to build something that’s reliable and solid. To build something that the fans can identify with.
Yet since Roland Duchâtelet took over as owner in 2014, there has been very little for the fans to identify with. A few months after his arrival Chris Powell, not so much a club hero and more a Charlton god, was sacked, unwilling to buy into Duchâtelet’s plan to populate the Charlton squad with players (many of them substandard) from his network of European clubs, and unhappy with the owner’s meddling in team matters. In the two years since, five managers – José Riga, Bob Peeters, Guy Luzon, Karel Fraeye then Riga again – have come and gone.
Last season’s abject relegation was only half the point for fans, who feel they have been treated with such disrespect by Duchâtelet and the chief executive, Katrien Meire, that irreparable damage has been done to their relationship with the club. Meire, a lawyer with no previous football experience, last year expressed confusion that fans felt ownership of the club and compared them to patrons of cinemas, among other gaffes.
Supporters will never take Meire seriously, says Rick Everitt, editor of the Voice of the Valley fanzine. Never be accepted, never be respected, never be believed. Incidents such as the statement issued by Duchâtelet that suggested some fans want the club to fail, or the letter sent to one fan in August, warning him about his behaviour at the Valley but also about social media posts deemed not constructive, do not help either.
This disenfranchisement is even more sad at a club such as Charlton. In the 1990 Greenwich council elections, 14,838 votes were cast for the Valley Party, a group with no political affiliation but whose sole aim was to bring their beloved Charlton back to their home, which they had been forced to leave five years earlier. They did not win any seats but they did achieve their aim: in 1992 Charlton returned to the Valley, the help of their fans vital, and a plaque just inside reception at the ground acknowledges this as being the case.
It’s the first thing you’re told when you start supporting Charlton, says Kyle Andrews, a fan who runs the blog Chris Powell’s Flat Cap. The most important thing in Charlton’s history isn’t a cup final or a play-off win, it’s that Charlton fans got their club back to the Valley. I think there’s a greater bond and a greater connection that goes beyond just wanting a side to win a game of football, than at other clubs.
Now fans are displaying their disenfranchisement by not turning up to the ground many of them fought so hard to reclaim a quarter of a century ago. Season-ticket sales are down to 6,297 from 10,278 at the same stage last year and, while some of that can be accounted for by the drop in division, plenty more are boycotting. Wendy Perfect was one of the candidates who stood in those 1990 elections, but after supporting Charlton for more than 30 years, this season she is refusing to buy tickets for home games. Charlton’s a big part of our community, says Perfect. It’s part of our life. It’s a bit like going to church really, isn’t it? When you support a football club, you buy into the vision of the club, [you want it to be] something you can get behind. You can’t get behind something like this. It’s part of our lives and DNA but we can’t put up with the nonsense anymore. We’re so disenfranchised.
It’s a similar story for David Sturge, who went to his first game in 1962. He cannot bring himself to enter the ground and instead joins in with protests outside the Valley, largely conducted and organised by the Coalition Against Roland Duchâtelet (Card). Sturge says: I go down and help with the pre-match demonstrations, then follow the match on Charlton Life [a club message board] or on my phone. I’ll be back like a shot when these people have gone … It breaks my heart because I’ve been going such a long time and I’ve got so many mates there.
Supporting a football club is about a sense of belonging and these fans feel they do not belong there any more, but the protests seem to replace that for some. I really felt as if I was doing something positive, says Sturge. There were so many like-minded people there. I’ve made the decision and even if we get promoted I won’t be going back. Even if we draw Manchester United in the FA Cup at the Valley, I wouldn’t go [until a change in ownership].
That last hope looks forlorn, as there seems very little chance of Duchâtelet selling up. The most likely candidate to lead a takeover bid is Peter Varney, a Charlton fan and their former chief executive. Varney has approached Duchâtelet on behalf of third-party investors a few times but they have all come to nothing. The chances of Duchâtelet leaving soon seem slim.
But the protests continue and they have certainly been eye-catching. During a couple of games last season fans threw assorted objects on to the pitch to stop proceedings and make their cause heard, and a mock funeral procession was held, lamenting the death of the club as they knew it. But while protests have mostly been peaceful, some have taken things too far, and Meire claims she has suffered extreme abuse, which is easy to believe and something Card is careful to discourage.
Slade calls the fans this season absolutely terrific and it is worth pointing out that those protesting do not represent all Charlton supporters. Certainly, I wouldn’t like to be criticising the very people we depend on to support us, says a spokesperson for the East Kent Addicks, one of the club’s official supporters’ groups. We have an excellent relationship with the club and we have regular attendance from players and the manager at our meetings. I won’t say I’ve bought into everything but I think there’s been too many attacks on the ownership.
I’ve been going since 1952, and Duchâtelet has put more money into the club than any other owner, but he’s had more stick than any other. I think that’s down to social media.
The signs are certainly a little better this season. Slade, a manager with plenty of experience of English football (unlike his predecessors), has been allowed to recruit players who also know their way around the Football League. The club will also run fan surveys and last year started Target 20k, an initiative to bring more fans to the Valley. They are also holding regular Q&As, with official supporters’ groups meeting Meire and other members of the hierarchy, the latest of which saw the East Kent Addicks take part in an informal discussion (chairs in a group, no top table or restrictions on questions) before the home game against Bolton. People felt that Katrien was talking to them one on one, said the spokesperson.
The owners have also, crucially, admitted past mistakes – not that they could really deny them, but it is a start. Definitely, says Slade when asked if these mistakes had been brought up before he arrived. They wanted a new philosophy and a new strategy. I don’t think any of the previous coaches had been given a three-year contract at the club so I think they were looking for stability and sustainability. His side are 10th going into Saturday’s game at Fleetwood, but with a game in hand after international call-ups led to the visit of Scunthorpe scheduled for last weekend being postponed.
The club seem to be listening but whether they take in what they hear and genuinely do change remains to be seen. The fans have certainly heard platitudes before and for some it will not be enough. It’s reached a point where there’s nothing they can do to fix the damage they’ve caused, says Andrews.
The fans will carry on, though. Because we’ve had so much involvement there’ll be a nucleus that won’t give up, Perfect says. There’s enough of us that care enough, that we won’t give up without a fight.
News Source TheGuardianNews