Just over a year ago, Kyle Goldsmith wrote a piece on his beloved Charlton Athletic, who at the time were on a run of eight games without a win. If you thought it was bad then, then the situation at the Valley is even worse now. Kyle is back, with the Addicks in the Championship relegation zone, lamenting the club’s Belgian owners. It’s a fascinating and passionate read, but horrible to hear that these things are going on at a former Premier League club.
“Fans don’t see themselves as customers. And so whenever I now get very ‘friendly’ emails from fans, they say: “Get out of OUR club.” So it’s not the shareholders club? I think it’s quite funny because they say they pay – obviously the ticketing system is one third of our revenue stream, but they go to the restaurants with their family every week and they go to the cinema, but if they’re not satisfied with the product, do they go and scream at the people in charge of it? No they don’t, but they do it with a football club. And that’s very weird because they feel a sense of ownership.”
I took this quote from a business summit held in Ireland late last year. It came from the mouth of Charlton Athletic CEO Katrien Meire, present to talk about her ‘achievements’. She was held up as an example for other women who wish to become involved in the world of business and perhaps even the ownership of a football club. However, the truth is, the only example she should be held up as is how not to run a football club.
She arrived in the January of 2014, with her boss/sexual partner Roland Duchatelet taking sole ownership of the club. Meire was to be put in charge of things, whilst the 69-year-old Belgian Businessman stayed and ran his other clubs. Duchatelet owned a series of clubs across Europe, and they proudly announced this as being called the ‘Network’. One of the clubs in the Network at the time was Standard Liege, a hugely successful Belgian club who regularly played in the Champions League. Despite this success, it is still hard to argue that they were the biggest club in the Network, as Charlton averaged higher attendances in League One, the third tier of English football, than Liege did in their equivalent of the Premier League.
However, at the time, Charlton were 21st in the Championship. The Duchatelet and Meire era for the Addicks didn’t begin well. Some of the best players were sold and replaced with reserve players from Standard, clearly not good enough for the Championship. Charlton dropped to the foot of the table. Club hero and then-manager Chris Powell was sacked after an FA Cup defeat to League One outfit Sheffield United. Again, he was replaced by a manager from the Network named Jose Riga, who had previously been working in academy football and his previous managerial job- yep, you guessed it. Standard Liege. Fans were angry yet, somehow Charlton survived the drop to League One and Riga had won over the fans.
To the bewilderment of just about everyone with the slightest interest in Charlton, Riga was not offered a new contract, taking the Addicks back to square one. He was replaced by Bob Peeters, another Belgian manager with almost no Championship experience (apart from a 25 game stint with Millwall, the Addicks’ biggest rivals). The experiment begun again and after a good start, poor form again plagued the South-East Londoners and the manager was sacked again, a year after Miere and Duchatelet arrived. That makes it three managers in one year. It would be almost impressive if it wasn’t so sad.
Charlton’s thin squad did have quality sprinkled in there. Igor Vetokele, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and new signing Tony Watt gave the Addicks a menacing front line. Other players from before the Network arrived in SE7 were also impressive, such as Chris Solly and Jordan Cousins. For some reason, they just wouldn’t play well. Maybe it was the lack of a manager who knew the English game. It was blatantly obvious to almost everyone, apart from sheltered OAP Duchatelet and his evil business partner. Instead, they decided to appoint Guy Luzon, just days before a game away at Watford. Guess who the Israeli used to manage? You guessed it, Standard Liege. Is there a recurring theme yet? The day before the game at Vicarage Road, news spilled out of the Valley that Luzon hadn’t even received a work permit yet, so he could only watch the game from the sidelines. The Charlton fans were angry, and during the sadly appalling 5-0 defeat at Watford the atmosphere in the away end was acidic. There were arguments between fans, abuse towards players and the board, and support to the cause of getting the club back into the hands of people who know what they’re doing. After the game, CEO Katrien Meire foolishly decided to get the train back home. Of course, she chose the wrong train and ended up with a carriage of angry Addicks fans. A video popped up on the internet of a not-so-friendly conversation between her and a fan.
Unbelievably, messages of support for Katrien poured in from people who had no idea how she and Roland Duchatelet had torn down 110 years of proud history. These people dismissed the Charlton fans as just bitter and criticised them for being abusive. What a load of tosh. She deserved everything she got that day and since, as well as whatever she receives from now until she finally decides she’s finished toying with a historic football club and packs her bag and hops on the Eurostar back to Belgium.
Since that day at Vicarage Road, things have only got worse. Charlton again narrowly avoided relegation and started this season well, however once again the manager Guy Luzon (work permit and all) was sacked. Would Charlton finally get a manager with Championship experience? Don’t be silly. With Roland and Katrien having run out of any previous employees with any managerial skills at all, they installed Karel Fraeye as ‘interim’ manager. Who? Good question. Fraeye’s previous job was at a Belgian third division team, who averaged lower attendances than one of Charlton’s local non-league teams, Erith and Belvedere (in the ninth tier of English football). Instead of dealing with 100 fans as he was used to, Fraeye had to deal with 15,000 fuming South-East Londoners. Protests begun, with 1500 fans outside the reception area, where Katrien Meire ate her dinner, laughed and took pictures on her phone of the mob.
Unsurprisingly, with the poor form continuing the protest crowds grew larger and larger. During the summit I mentioned at the top of the article, she insisted that only 2% of the fans were unhappy. This was followed up by almost every fan in the Valley holding up a sign with ‘2%’ on it. 4,000 gathered outside after the draw against Nottingham Forest. Finally, the media interest began to pick up. Talksport had callers talking about the protests and it was in almost every paper. They were trending on Twitter with impressive videos and pictures showing the sheer size of the anger and urgency to get them out of the club. As anger grew, so did the media spotlight and the awkwardness of the owner’s position. The last time Katrien was seen was after an FA Cup defeat to Colchester United, who had lost nine of their last 10 games. She was reportedly bundled into the kitman’s van after seeing the crowd outside waiting for her, alongside ‘interim’ manager Fraeye. This ‘interim’ tag became a joke. It was blatantly obvious that this was a lie, Fraeye had the job to lose, not to win or look after until somebody who knew what they were doing took over.
A 5-0 defeat to Huddersfield finally led to the ‘interim’ manager being fired. He refused to do the post-match interview, instead heading straight to the team bus and hiding. There was a reported brawl in the changing room between players. One of the only players with any dignity, goalkeeper Stephen Henderson, did the post-match interview instead and almost cried. What a mess. Fraeye was sacked. He was replaced with Jose Riga. Doesn’t that name look familiar? He was the first manager appointed at Charlton by the Belgians, and this was almost as if they had admitted a mistake, despite Katrien stating at a meeting between the board and fans that every manager appointed had proven to be the right decision. How did she work that one out? We had dropped two places in the league since she walked into the Valley for the first time. The first result of Riga’s tenure was a 6-0 defeat to Hull.
It has been three weeks since the last protest after the last home game against Forest. Three games, three defeats and 13 goals have passed since then. Anger has grown. How many will there be after Saturday’s game?
We aren’t talking about fair-weather fans. Charlton Athletic are a club that has a large and passionate fanbase. They are a club who were saved from the brink by their fans. Addicks fans formed their own political party to save their ground that they cherish to this day. They went through ground sharing with their rivals and won the Valley back. They saved their club once, now they have to do it again.