It was barely remarked upon at the time, but Charlton Athletic’s reaching the League One play-offs at the end of last season was probably a more significant achievement than many gave it credit for being at the time. The team’s defeat over two legs at the first hurdle against Shrewsbury Town notwithstanding, that the team managed to clamber its way up to sixth spot in the table in the first place considering the state of disrepair in which the Club has found itself over the last few years or so is significant, especially when we consider the decision to part ways with manager Karl Robinson “by mutual consent” at the end of March and drop Lee Bowyer, a familiar face to supporters but not a man with any previous managerial experience, in to oversee team affairs until the end of the season and, ultimately, beyond.
Following another fractious summer, Charlton have retreated back into stagnation in League One again this season, currently occupying thirteenth place in the table following a run of just one win in their last six league matches, albeit it after having won four matches in a row. The club’s non-playing staff are unhappy at the club’s failure to pay bonuses that they claim to have been promised, whilst the club itself continues to operate with no chairman, no chief financial officer and no chief executive, whilst takeover talk continues to splutter and stutter, with repeated communications from the club stating that new ownership is close to completion, all of which have thus far come to nothing.
There was some degree of celebration to be had amongst supporters with the news last winter that the club’s unpopular CEO Katrien Meire would be leaving her position at the end of 2017. Meire has since departed (she took up the CEO position at Sheffield Wednesday on New Year’s Day), but nobody was appointed to take her place and even the club’s official website now only lists two directors – owner Roland Duchatelet and long time director with occasional portfolio Richard Murray – whilst other members of staff have been leaving the club in a steady trickle throughout this year, with tensions rising over the reported non-payment of a ten per cent bonus that was promised by the club but then not paid, which resulted an in open letter being issued by staff expressing their “extreme disappointment” over this non-payment.
Meanwhile, harsh cost-cutting has also been digging in at the club’s training ground, with food, water, electricity and WiFi all being strictly rationed for anybody that isn’t in the first team squad, which led to academy players having their free breakfasts withdrawn and having to get water from a tap rather than having access to bottled water. In August (and with the summer of 2018 having been, of course, one of the hottest in many years), protesting supporters arranged delivery of one hundred bottles of water to the club’s training ground, with a statement from the Campaign Against Roland Duchatelet (CARD) reading as follows:
We were disgusted to hear that Roland Duchatelet, our billionaire owner, is no longer willing to pay for academy players to drink water or eat breakfast at the club’s training ground.
We believe staff and players at the Charlton Academy work incredibly hard and are a credit to our club. So, this morning we delivered 100 bottles of water to Sparrows Lane on behalf of Charlton supporters everywhere.
This is sadly where we are now. We have a billionaire owner willing to sell our most promising academy players for millions of pounds but not provide them with basic provisions.
When the open letter from the club’s staff went public, we might have considered that the sensible thing to do would be apologise and make the payment to those who were wronged. This being Charlton Athletic, though, Duchatelet decided to go on the offensive. A series of articles in the Daily Mail in August had outlined the cost-cutting that Duchatelet introduced, detailed Duchatlet’s reneging on the agreement to pay the bonuses, and laid bare the absurdities that had come about within the club itself as a result of all of this, but it still took a month for the club to respond.
When it finally did so, it was with an ill-advised statement which, rather than showing any actual humility towards those they’d let down – and to be clear, we’re talking about ordinary office staff here rather than players on comfortable salaries, here – seemed more interested in the fact that CARD tweeted the letter shortly after it was delivered to the club itself than repairing any damage that this fresh embarrassment may have caused the club:
After the club confirmed on August 22nd that no bonuses will be granted for last season but contractual bonuses would be paid, the owner received an unsigned letter from “the administrative staff at The Valley” – there was no mention of the employees at the training ground. This letter was received at 4.35pm and was Tweeted out by CARD at 5.53pm. Their communication made it appear as if all employees were involved, that the bonuses were an obligation and that consequently the club was failing to fulfil its contractual obligations to its employees.
An employee or small group tried to use the external pressure from the media to get their discretionary bonus despite the huge reputational damage to the club. It is unclear if a majority of the employees at The Valley supported the external communication of this letter, although it was written in their name, since nobody signed this letter to the owner. Although CARD has been very keen that the club’s management should always be accurate, the requirement does not seem to apply to their own communication.
The “reputational damage” that has been done to Charlton Athletic has come about because of this absurd cost-cutting, by back-tracking on promises, and ultimately by acting in exactly the way and making exactly the decisions that Roland Duchatelet has chosen to over the course of his entire period of involvement with the club. There’s a thorough take down of the club’s September statement here, on the Voice Of The Valley fanzine’s website.
Meanwhile, a much-reported takeover of the club has been proceeding at what can only be described as at best a glacial pace. In February, it was reported that a price for the club had been agreed with two separate parties. A couple of weeks later (and only eight days prior to his dismissal), however, Karl Robinson described the takeover talks as being “completely up in the air.” By June, the BBC was reporting that the Australian consortium that seemed to have pushed its way to the front of the field was “closing in on a deal”, with due diligence and “the need to satisfy regulatory complexities” being among the reasons given for this delay. Tellingly, though, the BBC report also added that, “No timescale has been put on when the sale of the Addicks, who are owned by Roland Duchatelet, would be completed.”
Two weeks ago, the Football League confirmed that Sean Harvey would be stepping in to speak to the staff about the situation regarding their unpaid bonuses, but hidden away in the body of the Evening Standard’s report was some curious extra detail about the so-called progress of this takeover, with Harvey confirming that the consortium “have yet to submit to the EFL relate to the precise make-up of the consortium and the source of their finances”, which are, under normal circumstances, considered pretty fundamental aspects of the takeover of any football club. To put it another way, the Football League don’t know at present – formally, at least – who is behind this group or how they intend to pay for their proposed acquisition.
It may, of course, be a coincidence that takeover talk was ramped up in the middle of a summer during which season ticket sales were reported to be very sluggish indeed. By September’s statement regarding the bottled water situation, the club’s failure to pay the bonuses had come as “a significant blow” to Duchatelet’s “reputation” and had affected his ability “to sell the club”, for reasons that have not, of course, been adequately explained. But the takeover itself doesn’t seem to be any nearer to completion than it did six or seven months ago.
Small wonder, then, that some Charlton supporters are starting to cast doubts on the viability of this bid, or whether there might be an element of “be careful what you wish for” regarding Duchatelet selling to this particular consortium. Is it possible that the new owners could end up being even worse for Charlton Athletic than the current owner? A few months ago this probably would have been considered impossible by most, but patience amongst those supporters who haven’t already started drifting away from The Valley is running out and the feeling is growing that if this takeover was going to be the panacea that it might have been, it would have happened by now. At this stage, we might even wonder who will be left at The Valley by the time that Roland Duchatelet finally surrenders the reins there.