Respite and Redemption at last for Charlton

There hasn’t been a club in English football like Charlton in the past decade. Sorry, I know that’s set off the cliche klaxon- Adam Hurrey is onto me, but it’s also a fact. Really. There is no other club which has been so perennially mired in ownership issues, off pitch scandals, and future uncertainty. Granted, there are a few clubs who could give them a run for their money- Sheffield Wednesday are one, starting this season with a 12 points deduction, Birmingham City another, who have been docked points on two separate occasions in the last 5 years. Bolton Wanderers have suffered three relegations since 2015 due to ownership negligence. But with Charlton, there has never been a period of respite, and nor, perhaps except for Blackpool and the Oystons, has there been a club where the fans have been so impactful in resolving this.

It would be easy for myself, Alfie Wilson, head of the Sports team, to do a quick, simple article on how elated we are as a whole that these ownership issues have finally been put to rest since Thomas Sandgaard took over the club in September. But that would do the matter injustice. There is so much more to unravel than just optimism for the future, though that is arguably the most important. And so, with that, the whole sports team have chipped together to help me write this piece, and to discuss the shambles of the last ten years, with the opinions of lifelong Charlton fan and previous Sports Editor Louis Jacques at the crux of it all.

And so, we start off by going back to the start of the decade. Charlton had experienced the glitz and glamour of the Premier League in the noughties, relegated in 2007. Charlton sunk further, going into League One for three seasons, before returning to the 2nd tier in 2012 with club legend Chris Powell at the helm. Two average seasons in the Championship followed, with a crushing quarter-final defeat in the FA Cup to League One Sheffield United thrown in. Crucially however, In January 2014, Belgian businessman Roland Duchâtelet bought the club in a deal worth £14 million. Powell ended up resigning before the summer, citing a ‘rift with the owner’ as the primary reason.

On the initial news of Duchâtelet coming in, “it was a time where, honestly, it was like the same first reaction as to when [Tahnoon] Nimer came in or when Sandgaard came in” Louis remembers. “There was lots of excitement, lots of flags around The Valley, lots of talk of serious investment. The thing is, since the Prem years, people had looked at Charlton as a sensible club, a club that weren’t going to bleed much money, even if they did get relegated. We also had, and still do have, an exceptional Academy to boost and sustain that. What started to happen in the Prem was good teams going up not necessarily good or big clubs, maybe Blackpool under Holloway were an example of that, but Charlton were the reverse of that- to outsiders, it was like ‘here’s a good club with a good team on top of that’. When ownership switched over in 2010, it was like, OK, we’re more serious about immediate results and TV deals now. Duchâtelet came in, said we were going to be a stable, frugal club, who want to be around for a long time- he’s a businessman at the end of the day”. This of course grew in irony.

“People forget that in the 2010s, at least at the start of the decade, financial prudency was really valued during the financial crisis. People forget that Charlton, being in southeast London, and in Greenwich itself where, you know, it’s a Labour stronghold, a lot of Charlton fans aren’t from Greenwich but from areas further south and east, like Dartford, Sidcup and Bexley, and loads of those are Tory seats, or at least where the Tories get a good share”. He’s not wrong- the Tories with 60% and more of the vote share in the 2019 General Election in Dartford, Bexleyheath & Crayford, and Old Bexley & Sidcup.

“Thus, a good chunk of Charlton fans are [the 2019 version] Boris Johnson type Tories. Think of the days when we were in the Prem, it was because we were a well-run Premier League club and we were prudent, and in 2014 we wanted to be smart again- and everyone was on board with this. It’s a blue-collar club, but in a modern blue-collar club way. Maybe you get laid off from the factory, or from the docks (an industry inseparable from Charlton, where their nickname The Addicks, a play on the word Haddock, comes from), but when you get a bloke in who says he’s gonna do things proper, i.e., the aim is not about getting European football or big TV deals- it’s about people enjoying their club, it resonates. I think there was a different brand of excitement between him and Nimer. Nimer came in and said ‘were gonna spunk money on the club’ whereas Duchâtelet was advertising to Charlton’s M.O.”

After Duchâtelet dug his feet in at the club, Charlton’s fans grew in suspicion of his motives. One said reason was perhaps the import of unknown and unproven from the Belgian Pro League for undisclosed fees- some successes, notably the now-Burnley winger Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, but also some disasters- Christophe Lepoint and Tony Watt arriving from Belgium for undisclosed fees with Tal Ben Haim mixed in.

Yet, according to Louis, “the tell-tale was not necessarily this. Again, it’s important to remember, in this era of the Championship, it was that hinterland era between the Coca Cola Championship and Sky Bet Championship- they, as a league, were trying to work out where they stood within the growing commercialisation of football, and new sharks were coming in to acquire clubs all the time. At that time, foreign signings meant, ‘OK, we don’t know a lot, but the scouts probably do, and he therefore should be good’. It’s a net sum game when it comes to results- if he gets goals, great. So, to be honest, fans were on board with it overall if they’d done it in the Pro League. It was after that when we started getting signings from Mechelen (a very niche Belgian side) and Pune City (Roger Johnson), and when we also had a transfer window where we had three players in a row come in who were 30 or above- that was when we knew something wasn’t right.” Here, Louis is referring to the 2014 Summer window, the players namely Roger Johnson, Oguchi Onyewu (who had played a total of just 2 league games in the two years previous) and Alou Diarra- who was surely on an immense wage packet for the division.

They stayed up in 2014/15, but had no such luck the following year. A dismal season, where on two separated occasions they went two months without a league win which saw them get relegated on 40 points, Burnley compounding their misery by winning the league in front of Charlton fans at The Valley on the final day (a feat Bournemouth had done to them the season before). They had three changes in manager, Guy Luzon lasting only until October in charge, and didn’t help themselves with what Louis calls ‘meme players’ in Yaya Sanogo and Simon Makienok. It would have been easy for Charlton fans to fear they would not return to the Championship for some time, but optimism was there at the core of it all.
“There’s a fundamental belief that we should be in the Championship, at least- we’re the only club from South London to have won a major trophy (depends on what ‘London’ is defined as), and we think we should always have that level and our players should represent that. Often there are dire results, but we have a knack of blaming it on the right things. Powell was the big turning point- when he resigned because of Duchâtelet we were like ‘bloody nora, we really have an ownership problem here’. “

Their first season back in League One, 2016/17, was more eventful off the pitch than on it. Notably, games home and away to Coventry (another club with ownership issues) where pigs were thrown on the pitch in protest. “I went to a different protest game. A few games after the [October] Coventry game, we threw beachballs onto the pitch. CARD (Coalition Against Roland Duchâtelet) was only one year old at that point, and was getting very popular, and The Voice of The Valley was also strong. Charlton is a very on-the-ground club, and if you were like me, you wouldn’t know too much about the protests. When we have stable ownership, it’s a sold-out Valley. Every club is like this, yes, but it manifests itself very much in this case. When there are protests, you really do know about it. CARD and Voice stood around The Valley on matchday- it was protest through physical presence and not word of mouth. The 2016/17 season was the year the atmosphere turned from ‘right, we may have an ownership issue’ to ‘right, we must get Duchâtelet out of the club’.”

The following season, Duchâtelet remained and Karl Robinson came in as manager. Robinson lasted until March before being sacked, Lee Bowyer, originally as caretaker, taking the role and sneaking them into the playoffs. They lost over two legs in the semi-final to Shrewsbury Town, a side unlucky to miss out on automatic promotion that season.

“After losing to Shrews, it wasn’t panic stations. We had our opportunities, and a lot of us thought we deserved to be in the playoff final. Bowyer pushed us there, not just with a common patch of good end-of-season form, we could tell he could get a team there again, and he was a gamble of an appointment. There was a formidable belief that we’d finish in the top six again next season and that we should be golden with Bowyer at the helm. Yes, it was a shame, but as a fanbase we’re not too temperamental. It wasn’t heart-breaking.”
Steve Gallen had come in in April 2017 to be head of recruitment, and a change in transfer policy to a more sensible, domestic approach was adopted. “We still had a lot of the Duchâtelet shite left over in our squad, and this didn’t change until Gallen was in charge. Nobody believed in Bowyer to start with, even he didn’t want the job. He was the only person at the club with his UEFA A licence- Johnnie Jackson was still working on his B licence. But Bowyer ended up being a good fit for the new approach in transfers, and we obviously love someone who’s played for the club and has the right mentality. A bit like Powell, we have someone who cares about the team, imposes cohesion, and has a point to prove”

They picked themselves up next season, entering an enthralling five-way title race with Luton, Barnsley, Sunderland, and Portsmouth. Luton were a surprise package, and there was a consensus that their form would drop off, but alas, it didn’t, and Charlton found themselves just short of automatic promotion in the playoffs. Again however, optimism wasn’t dampened as they won 7 of their last 8 games of the season. The blip came against Oxford United, managed by ex-manager Robinson, and as an Oxford fan I watched in happy disbelief in the home end that Charlton ended up losing to a side in the relegation zone with an academy goalkeeper making his league debut.

“Honestly, that Ox game was a peak Duchâtelet match- you can’t work it out so you just laugh about it. We knew our team could click on a good day- apart from Lyle Taylor, it was a starting XI of misfits toward the end of the season. Nobody expected Naby Sarr to turn good, Jason Pearce was supposed to be washed, Dijksteel was from the Nike academy, we had a load of players on loan, Aribo was meant to be a youth product who could only dribble. But there was undoubted quality in there. It was a Gallen and Duchâtelet hybrid team. After the 3-1-win vs Luton, that was the moment when we thought, ‘we’re serious about the Champ now’. I was certain about [the playoff semi-final against] Doncaster game, confident we’d batter them.”

The game at home to Doncaster, the 2nd leg of the semi, was an epic. Fellow sports team members Navneet Ramloll and Bogdan Pietrosanu were there with Louis that night, who joined him in the emotional rollercoaster. Two minutes away from winning the tie in normal time, Doncaster equalised the aggregate before taking the lead in extra time, where Darren Pratley, 34 years of age and an EFL veteran, equalised with a scrappy finish in front of The Covered End.

“It did mean more that is Pratley who scored, it was beautiful”. Louis then begins to reminisce. “There was this sense that it had to be him, our most experienced player with a foxy, scrappy finish. You had a lot of EFL stalwarts in the squad- they were there because they knew how to win those crunch games.

Charlton won on penalties, before another epic in the playoff final- the denouement of which was all of the members of the Sports Team’s (Bogdan, Nav, Louis and Akshat Chandel) favourite Addicks moment, and they were all there at Wembley to savour it. In short, Patrick Bauer scrapped home a 94th minute winner with the last attack of the game. Cue limbs.

“Sunderland went into the game as favourites- they had the better players on paper. When it comes to the playoff final- it’s just one game- if you get a good bunch of players to click for one game then it’s over, and that could have been Sunderland- I was terrified when [Will] Grigg came on. Yes, we dominated the game, but the game felt so much tighter than it was in reality.”

Elation of course immediately followed, but the summer of 2019 quickly turned sour for them, with fans going into the season with the aim of getting Duchâtelet out and keeping their heads above water.

“Between the playoff final and opening day, the uncertainty around the club was stronger than ever. On the tube to the playoff final, I knew if Sunderland lost they could go again, but for us, it was do or die- we were f****d if we didn’t win the game. Championship football meant that we could keep players on. We had so many free agents and loans in 2018/19 (15 in total – ridiculous), and went through the entire summer not knowing who would stay- [Ben] Purrington and [Josh] Cullen a week before the season started. Not only that, but there was that whole Bowyer incident as well”.

Here, Louis is referring to the situation where everyone thought his contract had expired- it had even been put up on the website under the cuff as club employees refused to put in on the website due to how poorly Bowyer had been treated. South London Press’ Richard Cawley broke the story, but Bowyer signed a contract a day later for a year. A shambles. “We thought we may go into the season with a bare bone academy squad without Bows. ‘We might get 1 win and 2 draws!’ was the attitude. It was the biggest possible relief everything came off. Me and Aki went to all the August games and were obviously delighted with the August form, but even on the [Kingsway] Kickabout, I said that this form would slip- draws weren’t good and points mattered so much, especially getting them in clusters”. By November, Charlton had accumulated half of their final points total, showing the run’s importance, and the failure to replicate this led to relegation.

“I talked with Bog, and to be honest we went down due to a mixture of factors, including refereeing decisions, but we had too many draws, missed pens, red cards, stuff that we could control- the home games against Cardiff, Huddersfield and Hull were real crushers. There were so many knife edge moments” Butterfly effect notwithstanding, had Charlton not conceded their injury time goals to Hull and Birmingham after lockdown, for example, they would have stayed up. “It was a harsh relegation on 48 points, but ultimately no excuses”.

Again, off-pitch matters was where the real story lied last season however. My first experience of Charlton (from the home end) came at a crucial point in this story. On the 27th November 2019, I was hanging out with Louis- he had been kind in befriending me as a fresher after joining the Sports Team under his leadership. A football game of mine had been called off for the upcoming Saturday and was looking for something to fill the void. Charlton were at home to Sheffield Wednesday, and Louis persuaded me to come along. Little did I know what a significant game it would be. The Friday before the game, the same day as the tragic terror attack on London Bridge, it was announced that East Street Investments (ESI) had taken over from Roland Duchâtelet, and the atmosphere in the Covered End for the game was electric, myself and Aki have to admit.

“I’m a hype buyer. I was chanting ‘We’re f*****g richhhhhhh’. After that long, it was elation. Cawley and [Louis] Mendez did the takeover claxon on twitter, and you bought it after so many years of pain and toil.” However, the chaotic nature of the consortium soon emerged, with a rift between owner Nimer and chief executive Matt Southall. “I bought into Southall at first, it looked like Nimer didn’t care too much about football, and I do think Nimer would be owner today if he didn’t appoint Southall. It became clear that the business side of ESI were crooks. Thankfully, our CEO, Peter Varney, was an amazing custodian. He said he’d stick it out, and said he’ll leave when convinced a stable owner was there to purchase the club- which seriously raised alarm bells as he didn’t leave when Southall came in. Apparently, it was Nimer who initialised the whole spat with him. By this point, I had no energy left to give, it all went into the takeover in December- I just felt sad that vultures and a shambolic consortium had taken us over again. Nimer said that Southall spent club money on cars and apartments, Southall replied that this was a lie and that he considered himself owner. Nimer gave time to fans, did radio appearances, everything, saying you couldn’t trust Southall with the money, and that was fair enough. Removing himself was the only way to get rid of Southall. It was very naive from them not to acquire the training ground from Duchâtelet as part of the deal”

For Bowyer and for the fans, the loudest alarm bells sounded in the January transfer window, where no signings were made despite their faltering league position and obscene injury crisis. “People forget the injury crisis as well. Our trip to Kenilworth Road (Luton’s ground) in November was great fun, but we had just four players on the bench, and remember a quarter of that is a goalkeeper. Ben Dempsey hadn’t played a minute for the club, but was thrown straight in there, and we then had four first team debuts in a week. [Alfie] Doughty was meant to go on loan again but we couldn’t afford to do it. Bowyer had signings lined up and Gallen to back him, but Southall, despite his words in public, failed to deliver- and we knew it was serious then. We were deep in a relegation scrap and were never able to put a run together, it was a joke.”

Over the 2020 summer, during wider uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the future of Charlton’s mere existence was in doubt- and this isn’t hyperbole. ESI clearly weren’t investing, and a buyer had to be found quickly. And then, in August, after numerous touted owners, along came a mysterious Danish buyer…

“We’d heard about an Australian consortium, a Turkish consortium, this and that, tittle tattle, and we thought it was the same with Sandgaard. We all had a little laugh, like we did for the others. The case with Charlton is always until the fat lady sings. We then found out that Sandgaard was told to contact Cawley (a known and trusted reporter on Charlton). Varney allegedly talked to Sandgaard and said that he couldn’t complete the takeover behind the scenes, and that Sandgaard needed to endear himself to the fans, but also show Duchâtelet and Nimer that he was serious. He obviously then di the exclusive with Cawley for the South London Press. Cawley has been around long enough, and we trust him, but the advice was a godsend from Varney. We were excited to have Brentfordesque Moneyball owners, national stereotyping aside. The period of will he/won’t he was so confusing; we couldn’t know what was going on.” Alongside this, further details of ESI’s acquisition emerged, including that the £1 deal agreed to acquire the club from Duchâtelet, due the debts inherited, had not been paid either. A decade’s worth of a club’s ownership encapsulated in a quick fact right there.

“Sandgaard did 16 interviews with different papers, did talkSPORT, but conmen do this a swell. What was different was him going to a game. No one had done that before. We knew he meant business then, and when the injunction came back, we knew he’d made a bid. It was a scary period when the appeal for an injunction was approved, which was meant to last until November. Liquidation, worst case scenario, was a very possible one. Duchâtelet still owned the training ground and The Valley- it would have been disastrous as he’d just sell them off. For a week, it was a question of whether we can survive until then. This is when we knew Sandgaard was a fantastic businessman- when he struck a deal with Duchâtelet to buy the club’s assets, i.e. property of the club and not ESI, that was very savvy. The fact he paid one years’ worth of wages in advance showed he clearly cares, and I’m twice as excited than the day ESI took over.”

The saga is then over, and myself and Louis are now in the fortunate position of supporting clubs with financial stability, a characteristic that is like gold dust in these uncertain and crippling times. There is so much optimism for Charlton now.

“Bows is happy with his lot over the summer, Levitt and Bogle are really exciting additions. I’m unsure of the talk of automatic promotion, but we have a squad that deserves playoffs right now. We have the best manager in the league. People forget Bowyer is a phenomenal tactician, for example that Luton game in League One. We outclassed the opponent so much in certain games, it was Champions League quality tactics on certain occasions. Taylor had only played in a front two before as a target man. [Krystian] Bielik was on his last chance when he came to us. Similar with Pearce and Cullen. Bowyer gets everyone’s strengths out of them. It’s a modern vision in the sense that Bowyer picks a team, an ideal tactic, and the squad is built around that vision of a team, he works with Gallen on this- lots of clubs build a team around a squad, and we’ve talked about this on the Kickabout. Sheffield United are the first team in a long time to do the former in the Premier League. Through the weirdest possible ways, were now doing this.”

Indeed Charlton are, and with off-field matters hopefully not to be seen again, Bowyer can focus on building his vision with all the pieces in place. Perhaps I can summarise in two chants: “Bowyer a dream, to build a football team…”, but this following one more importantly:

They’re Charlton Athletic. They’re on their way back.

 

Utmost thanks to the amazing Sports Team for doing this big feature, especially Louis Jacques for his wonderful insights. 

Collector of Tesco clubcard points.

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