Charlton Athletic: a cautionary tale for the football establishment

© Getty Images Sport – Laurence Griffiths

© Getty Images Sport – Laurence Griffiths

Football fans should be careful what they wish for. A decade ago I was filing through the turnstiles at The Valley, home of my club – Premier League side Charlton Athletic – for a 3pm Saturday game. We were meandering about in mid-table and most of the conversations centred not on the game ahead but on the impending departure of our manager, Alan Curbishley. 

Curbishley had taken the club from on and off-field ruin – playing at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park as The Valley became a big, bankrupt Ozymandian mess in south east London – to First Division security, a return home in 1992 and, in 1998, the greatest game the club has ever seen, beating Sunderland at Wembley on penalties after a thrilling 4-4 draw to debut at England’s top table.

 

The club yo-yoed down and back up again the following two seasons, before cementing itself not only as a fixture of the league but as a nonpareil of financial stability and success, drawing increasing numbers of loyal, local fans from London, Kent and the Home Counties. We made Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool look silly on occasion. In 2003/04 we finished seventh. They could never get the pies quite right at The Valley, but otherwise Charlton’s fans were content.

But as that 2005/06 term wound down the fans began to want more. We’d begun buying seasoned internationals such as Dennis Rommedahl and Jorge Costa (who became one-quarter of our pleasingly punny Young/Fish/Costa/Fortune back four). There was talk down the Royal Oak, one of the club’s fan pubs, of us moving into the Millennium Dome – now the O2 – when its use as a giant, politicised femidom was over. 

Towards the end of the season we even began questioning the management. Maybe we needed a continental coach who could get us higher up the table? Our greatest adventure in European competition had been a handful of flirty approaches to tournaments like the Anglo-Welsh Cup. If we could wring a few more points out of next year, we said, we could go on weekend jollies to Lisbon; Madrid; Milan; Paris! 

 

We can chalk our own overjubilance up to a few too many Carlings. What the Charlton board’s excuse was, I still don’t know. The following season we chose Iain Dowie as the man to propel us ever further up the English footballing ranks. Dowie, who looks like a giant thumb, had just enjoyed a heady play-off semi final defeat to Watford. With that pedigree, who could doubt we’d achieve our Easyjet dream?

Everyone, of course. And so it followed that Charlton endured a painful relegation season, towards the end of which we were taken over by henceforth-unknown Les Reed, who would orchestrate a number of defeats so impressive in their ineptitude we’d leave the ground laughing in lieu of tears. I remember one such embarrassment – a comprehensive cup exit to Wycombe Wanderers – during which a huge, knobbled fan next to me hurled his programme at the dugout screaming at Reed, the “big, shiny-headed c**t.”

 

I always thought it a touch unfair to blame Les. After all, he inherited a side that had gone through a Dowie wringer that included playing Kwik Cricket in training and getting lost on a matchday jog through Newcastle. The former Northern Ireland international recently got a new job as regional sales manager of GoToSurveys.com. Too late for Charlton, but I’m glad he finally found his niche. 

Trips to League One ensued, sponsors went bust and the club looked a bit of a mess. Attendances dropped and the loyal fanbase cultivated during the Curbishley years began to dissipate. Then in January 2014 along came Roland Duchatelet – an electronics magnate from Antwerp who already counted Standard Liege, Sint-Truiden, Budapest’s Ujpest, Germans Carl Zeiss Jena and Spanish second-tier side Alcorcón among his burgeoning portfolio of European football clubs. 

 

Duchatelet’s aim was clear: using players and coaching staff from his other clubs he would bolster Charlton’s squad and facilities, eventually bringing them back to the Premier League. The issue, however, seemed to be that Duchatelet had no plan B. Charlton bought players from Standard who were nowhere up to that of the English Championship. 270-appearance club legend Chris Powell was sacked for voicing concern before Jose Riga, a little-known Belgian who had spent one unsuccessful season at Standard, arrived. He was replaced by Bob Peeters, a former Belgian international who had just stepped off the Waasland-Beveren hot-seat. Next, Duchatelet assured us that Israeli Guy Luzon could help us claw results out of a poor 2014/15 season. Duchatelet had just sacked him as boss of Standard.

In came players whose ties to Duchatelet clubs weren’t mentioned in Charlton PR, but for whom a cursory glance at their Wikipedia page revealed a season or two at Standard, or Ujpest, or some other poor relation. Clearly, Duchatelet wanted to be an owner in the vein of Giampaolo Pozzo at Watford, who has overseen successful spells there and at his other clubs, Udinese and Granada. But he didn’t want to spend. Keeper Yohann Thuram-Ulien was ranked at Conference (fifth division) level by Standard before arriving in SE7. Former France under-20 international Loic Nego had played just four games for Ujpest the season before arriving. Even competing in Hungary’s poor top division, Ujpest didn’t make it into UEFA’s club coefficient this year.

 

In 2015/16 Charlton have been in freefall. Luzon and Karel Fraeye (highest previous honour: managing Belgian third-tier side VW Hamme) have already bitten the dust, leaving Roland to call on his friend Riga once more. The club currently sits in 23rd place of 24 in The Championship, six points from safety with just six games to play. A minor miracle is required to avoid relegation. Duchatelet can barely muster a raised eyebrow. Chief executive Katrien Meire has infuriated protesting fans, mocking complaints from those “who know everything better than anyone.” Their protests have, in turn, made headlines across the continent. Even friends in Berlin and beyond have smirked when I mention my team. Charlton are an embarrassment.

It was suggested that we would get the cream of Standard’s talent when the new owner arrived. It is clear now that Charlton has become the feeder side. When I look at what has been achieved at Leicester, Watford or even (dare I say it) at Palace, I’d give anything for those stable, mid-table years again. When Charlton do drop out of the league this year it will be interesting to see whether Duchatelet reneges on the ‘long-term plan’ he chirped about upon arrival. At The Valley, fans will hope he’s as true to his word as he’s ever been, and leave. 

In some ways, though, we should blame ourselves. Let this be a plea to all fans of mid-sized Premier League teams: don’t complain too much. You’ve got it very, very good.

http://ourcharlton.org.uk

 

Sean Williams is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The New Yorker. You can see more of his work at www.seanwilliamswords.com and www.newyorker.com/contributors/sean-williams