Sports really don’t matter. That’s why they are such a healthy channel for emotion and tribalism, natural human characteristics that cause trouble when misdirected. We go mad for strangers in the right-coloured shirts, and it’s better to chant for them than to chant for politicians. The invigorating uselessness of these rituals means that when our sporting communities are attacked it is right to be angry, and when they are defended it is right to be proud.
My European club, Charlton Athletic, is owned by Belgian entrepreneur, small-time politician, and faintly Social Credit-ist basic income crank Roland Duchâtelet. He owns several other clubs around Europe and last year was pressured into selling Standard Liège by fan opposition, but lately Charlton has been the squeakiest wheel.
When Duchâtelet bought Charlton in 2014, the club was hopelessly broke and, on the field, at their best since the Premier League era. Having escaped League One, they finished 2012–13 three points short of the Championship playoffs. Under manager and club icon Chris Powell the paltry bank balance had been invested with uncommon shrewdness. Bargain signings like Ben Hamer, Yann Kermorgant, and Dale Stephens outperformed, while the Academy turned out a bevy of useful players from Chris Solly onward. Non-competitively, there was the well-earned reputation as a community club and considerable long-term support that had kept attendance strong even in the third division. It was not a sure-fire investment for Duchâtelet: the grass at the Valley was in urgent need of replacement, contracts were expiring, a proper training ground was long overdue, and there were even unpaid bills. But he had the cash, and that looked like the only missing ingredient.
He spent it, too. That cow pasture was replaced as part of a suite of stadium upgrades, a training centre seems mired in almost permanent delay but has had shovels put in the ground, and no creditors claw at the door. But on the field Charlton is not only back in League One, they’re not favourites to go back up.
The club recently sacked manager Russell Slade and replaced him with former MK Dons man Karl Robinson, the club’s eighth permanent boss* in the two-and-a-half-year Duchâtelet era. Many favourites have left both the roster and the front office, starting with the sale of Kermorgant and Stephens in 2014 without adequate replacement. The club’s media relations are a shambles, changing hands with bewildering frequency. Even the ticket office and gift shop have been put on reduced hours. This level of incompetence would suffice to irritate fans, but Charlton’s had lousy or skinflint owners before. They’ve spent the past decade putting a brave face on failure; for their first two seasons in League One the Addicks’ attendance was behind only fallen giants Sheffield United and still strong by Championship standards. Duchâtelet is different.
Of course there’s the usual “modern football” stuff. The much-ridiculed “UK’s first pitchside fan sofa.” The degradation of the match-day programme, which in the British tradition had once been a genuine collectible and is now entirely supplanted by the Voice of the Valley independent fanzine. Reported, but highly hush-hush, plans to sell part of the Valley for development, and the imposition of price-gouging surcharges at the Valley ticket office despite diminishing attendance. Anti-ownership banners have been confiscated at the ground and four plain-clothes security men were recently sacked for attacking fans. A fan was told he’d lose his season ticket unless he agreed to stop slamming the club on social media. The club’s PR men even distributed a bogus video of a couple having sex on the field to drum up attention for their pitch-hire service. Contemptible, top to bottom, but hardly unique to Charlton Athletic.
No, this level of venom comes from the personalities of Duchâtelet and his appointed Charlton chief executive, Katrien Meire. Ignorance is hard enough to forgive; ignorance combined with condescension is poison.
Duchâtelet himself does not attend Charlton Athletic games, even when business brings him to London. As early as March of 2014, with the club still safe in the Championship, fans were nervously seeking a meeting with Duchâtelet and Meire, but the lofty powers descended from their heaven only to sack managers, send out players, and interfere in squad selection. Powell, the Charlton legend, realized he was doomed when he first met Duchâtelet and was told to replace top players with mediocrities from his other clubs. New signings Powell had never heard of, let alone signed would appear at Charlton’s office or their training sessions. Reportedly Powell was fired having just signed a new contract offer. Charlton never said a word in praise of one of their most beloved men, which given their treatment of him might actually be integrity.
Meire, at least, goes to many conferences and makes frequent statements. Early on, she bluntly said fans “must accept how owner Roland Duchâtelet runs the club.” The first protests brought an angry Meire telling fans to “stand up” to protesters and not “give them a platform.” Not long after, she dragooned anguished-looking board members and captain Johnnie Jackson into a meeting with supporters. They sat silently behind a CEO who insisted they were a team while she spoke at aimless length and showed a meaningless PowerPoint presentation she took credit for. Almost her first words were an irritated “I thought we already explained this several times,” later adding a pronouncement that only 2% of fans objected to their regime. She was almost immediately proven wrong. At one of her many conference appearances she seemed genuinely confused that Charlton fans thought they were owed any more respect or loyalty than movie theatre patrons†. To contain criticism, Meire and Charlton launched an astroturf “Target 20,000” supporters society, an insulting callback to the Target 10,000 group that revived the club’s fortunes in the mid-1990s. Like everything else to come from the front office Target 20,000 has been secret and duplicitious.
Hang on, I need a paragraph break. Before a critical, televised March game against Middlesbrough, fans staged a mock funeral and bombarded the pitch with beach balls while chanting “we want Roland out.” After this protest an un-bylined statement was posted to the club website stating that “some individuals did not come to The Valley to watch the game and support the team, but came to create disorder on the pitch and interfere with the players and the game” and that “some individuals seem to want the club to fail.” Both Duchâtelet and Meire are referred to in the third person, but the statement was reported to be by Duchâtelet himself and led to the principled resignation of recently-appointed Charlton communications head Mel Baroni. When former Charlton executive Peter Varney made an approach representing an interested buyer, Meire accused him of wanting to move the club and provoked an irate Varney to threaten legal action. Facing a critical storm, Meire publicly accused fans of “abuse and criminal offences” against her, while in a visit with Target 20,000 Duchâtelet dismissived Charlton as 1.5% of his business interest. Just a week and a half ago Duchâtelet, responding to yet another protest and yet another managerial sacking, texted a radio station saying “these protests have nothing to do with reason” and that the “whatever we do or say, the core actors within that group will always criticize” while reportedly telling his local paper that the malcontents were simply misogynistic, bitter ex-employees‡.
Salvation seems unlikely: Duchâtelet supposedly wants his money back on a club that’s gone from near the Premier League to mid-table League One and has been hopelessly gutted organizationally. Neither the owner nor the executive seem to give a damn. There is no reason for a Charlton fan to hope for better.
Yet the protests continue, and only grow in intensity. Ticket sales are thousands below the last run to League One, and the club’s regular “Football for a Fiver” promotion was an unprecedented disaster. Gates of 8,745 against Oldham Athletic or 8,992 against Port Vale is horror show stuff by Charlton standards, and that’s without counting the barely-four-digit crowds for the running joke of the EFL Trophy. Almost all the passion at a Charlton game comes from the protesters.
It is enough to make a fan, even a fake fan from across the Atlantic who follows the Addicks because he liked them on TV and has never even been to the Valley, feel genuinely proud.
A list of protests could be a blog post in itself. From humble beginnings, requests for meetings, and optimistically promises of better communication, came protests that only grew in strength under the executives’ pressure. The “2%” cards were a visual hit, but the great beach ball extravaganza got Charlton international notice. At the last game of the 2015–16 season, also televised, with Charlton relegated and opponents Burnley set to clinch the title, Addicks fans went all out. A sitting protest outside the ground, match-long pyrotechnics, two hours of vicious anti-ownership chanting, and at last a pitch invasion alongside celebrating, friendly Burnley fans culminating in destruction of the hated sofa. All this alongside boycotts of club concessions and merchandise, a vibrant social media campaign under the fairly unified auspices of CARD (the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet), and the inevitable attrition of ticket-holders.
The first weeks in League One were protest-free to give the team a chance. A false hope, nothing improved, so come October it was all back on. The Charlton – Coventry City game got more than the usual chants and rallies. Coventry supporters, with their own hateful owner to protest, pitched in, and thousands of toy pigs flew onto the Valley turf. With anti-regime displays often confiscated, an airplane was hired to take a banner over Gillingham’s stadium on match day saying it was #TimeToFly. Finally, since Duchâtelet was so unwilling to come to England, the protesters came to him, crossing the Channel in a personalized taxi to celebrate Duchâtelet’s 70th birthday and spreading the message at his business, the European Parliament, and his remaining Belgian club, Sint-Truiden.
It’s gotten to the point where CARD can break the news of Slade’s sacking hours in advance of the official announcement. A protest kit, bearing the name of a disgusted former club sponsor, sold nearly a thousand copies and raised £7,000 for charity. The grandson of another club legend, former manager Jimmy Seed, withdrew support from an attempt by the front office to renovate a sign in Seed’s honour out of protest for what the club has become. The Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust, which as an organization precedes Duchâtelet’s ownership, as a concept is an heir to the fan-derived ownership and “Valley Party” that kept the club alive in the ’80s and ’90s, and represents thousands of Charlton supporters, has been utterly ignored by the regime and inevitably come in against it.
It’s funny that a club which currently exemplifies everything that’s wrong with soccer can lead to such positive feelings among their fans, but that’s the strange, almost contradictory nature of sporting passion. The satisfaction of unifying in a just cause is rarely so well-earned. Not every fan agrees with the protest, not every protesting fan has been civilized in his objections, but by and large when Charlton gets in the news it’s because its supporters are doing something dramatic and decent to stand up for a club they love, being killed before their eyes. That level of defiance in the face of the odds is beautiful; no less so for being spent on sport.