Charlton fans have been in open revolt this season, dismayed by their Belgian owner's handling of the club and attitude to the fanbase. Here, Charlton fan of 30 years and member of the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet Matt Wright gives us the lowdown...
In any normal season, Charlton’s home match against Reading on Saturday would be one of the highlights of the year at The Valley.
Previous annual attempts to fill the 27,000-seater stadium by selling all seats at just £5 have seen supporters volunteer to give out leaflets at railway stations, flood offices and social clubs with posters, and join forces to get #FootballforaFiver trending worldwide on Twitter.
It’s a yearly event that saw Charlton put faith in their own supporters to encourage their family, friends and work colleagues to give just one Addicks game a go, and tempt back lapsed fans.
In the process, the supporters become the club’s biggest advocate: reinforcing the sense of community associated with supporting a football club, generating a fantastic atmosphere on the day and, by ensuring a close-to-sellout crowd, providing some useful extra revenue too.
Sadly, 2015/16 is far from a normal season in SE7.
While tickets for this weekend’s match have again been discounted to £5, the greatest noise on the day is unlikely to be heard until after the final whistle – when the crowd will gather outside the boardroom in the latest of a series of protests against Charlton’s owner.
Rather than a mood of celebration, the supporters will be condemning the actions of Roland Duchâtelet that have created a chasm between the club and its lifeblood, the fans.
Sofa, so bad.
Yet it could all have been so different. When Belgian Duchâtelet bought the club, in January 2014, he was afforded a warm welcome after staving off the threat of administration under the previous cash-strapped regime.
Just over two years later though, supporters are sick and tired of new “head coaches” (five appointed in 20 months); the recruitment of sub-standard players ill-equipped for Championship football (44 signings so far); constant PR gaffes by chief executive Katrien Meire; the revelation that Duchâtelet isn’t interested in results, which is handy given Charlton have only managed five wins from 32 games this season and are seven points adrift of safety, and so on…
The list is almost endless. After all, this is the club that proudly proclaims it’s the “only football club in England” to have a pitchside sofa.
Perhaps the most damage has been inflicted by Meire, who not only chose to travel to Dublin in early November to attend a conference in the wake of the sacking of head coach Guy Luzon, but then publicly described the affinity supporters feel for the club as ‘weird’ and called supporters “customers”. She really did – check it out.
Even some potentially positive steps Duchâtelet has overseen prompt suspicion. The electronics entrepreneur has undoubtedly invested in the stadium and the well regarded academy set-up – but that investment has come in the form of loans (being charged at 3% interest).
What’s more, fans fear that the club will merely become a player farm, content to produce – in the words of Meire in Dublin – players intended to be sold on to become the “next generation of Premier League stars”.
As you’d expect from the supporters who once formed a political party in the 1990s as part of their (ultimately successful) efforts to force Greenwich Council to support their return to The Valley, Charlton fans haven’t taken things lying down.
At the start of the year, several loose collections of fans who had been organising protests against the regime joined forces with the Charlton Life internet messageboard and the Voice of The Valley fanzine to plan a more coordinated approach. Members of the board of the Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust have also observed meetings.
The result was the Coalition Against Roland Duchâtelet (CARD), an umbrella organisation aimed at forcing the owner to sell the club – and the early results have been impressive.
In addition to almost 6,500 signatures on a petition, supporters have so far donated over £9,600 to fund protest activities that have included giant billboards, banners, 7,000 leaflets, 20,000 stickers, 2,500 beermats distributed to local pubs, regular videos, even a Google Adwords campaign, and there’s more to come.
CARD has also been helping to distribute 1,450 free black and white scarves, the colours chosen to echo the colours worn in the team’s 1947 FA Cup final success. The scarves have become an emblem of the campaign.
The protests haven’t lacked invention either. When the club invited around 3,000 schoolchildren to the last home game, to replace the same number of season-ticket holders the club admits are no longer attending matches, CARD responded by declaring ‘Pinocchio Day’.
Thousands of masks and stickers were given out before the game to call attention to Meire’s public comments, which are widely disbelieved and ridiculed.
What’s worse than relegation?
So what's next? Well, relegation for a start, as befits a team that has managed just five wins so far this term and has conceded more goals than all but one of the other 91 English clubs. Of course the one worse club, Colchester United, currently languishing at the bottom of League One, embarrassingly dumped Charlton out of the FA Cup last month.
The greater fear concerns the club's downward spiral, however, and the escalating disillusionment of fans, which has seen supporters of many years standing walking away from the club in their droves.
Indeed, a recent supporters' trust survey revealed that up to 7,000 of the club's current 10,000 season ticket holders were “not very likely” or “not at all likely” to renew their place next season.
And while the club's executives have professed concern at the huge rift between the club and its supporters, its token efforts to engage with the issues have been riddled with incompetence.
One of the most common chants at Charlton games currently is "stand up for the 2%", a reference to Meire's estimate of how many fans are dissatisfied. Of course the chant is observed by the vast majority of the entire crowd.
And what was billed as face-to-face talks between fan representatives, Meire and non-executive chairman Richard Murray was sabotaged when the club packed the meeting with other fans, club staff and even captain Johnnie Jackson, performing the role of a human shield instead of his more traditional goalscoring midfielder position.
But there is still hope. While an investment proposal from former chief executive Peter Varney, believed to be a significant takeover, was recently first rudely ignored by Meire and Duchâtelet, and then rejected, the club has admitted it receives approaches to buy the club ‘all the time’.
Elsewhere in the country, the walk-out by Liverpool’s supporters against Sunderland, to protest against rising ticket prices, successfully prompted the Reds’ owners to apologise and rethink their plans.
Charlton’s protesting fans have set their sights somewhat higher by campaigning for a complete regime change – but their results so far means few would underestimate how much they can achieve.
More immediately, the supporters will reassemble outside the boardroom at 5pm on Saturday. The protests go on…