“I had a season ticket at Charlton for 44 years. 44 years. That’s a lifetime, but I’ve given it up. Can any football fan know what that takes?”
A man, Nigel, stands bereft outside the London offices of the English Football League. He stands alongside plush boutiques, cars with gleaming onyx sheens and an equally bereft hoard of his fellow football fans. He’s there because his lifelong club, Charlton Athletic, is dying.
Since January 2014, Belgian businessman Roland Duchâtelet has been the owner of this south-London team. His bruising tenure in charge has seen Charlton regress from famously embodying the beating heart of a tightly-knit community to an almost abandoned shell of its former self: hemorrhaging both money and fans at an unprecedented rate.
The club are losing £10m per annum and have seen season ticket sales half in the last four years (now at around 5,000 for a 27,000 capacity stadium).
Roland Duchâtelet therefore stands at the helm of a sinking ship, eyes closed to protect himself from the forthcoming leap to safety. But while he may be content with jumping, supporters aren’t – they’re making a stand.
For over two-and-a-half years now, Charlton fans have protested against the regime that’s suffocating their club. From staged funerals to stopping play with a shower of crisp packets, groups of Addicks – united under the organisation Coalition Against Roland Duchâtelet (CARD) – have lead 18 colourful demonstrations against their tyrannical owner.
Receiving little to no support from football’s governing bodies, it’s fallen upon those who’ve followed their club for as long as memory serves to take matters into their own hands. Because while Duchâtelet’s alleged crimes are numerous, they’re going as yet unpunished.
In Charlton’s case, the judge, jury and executioner have all been passionate, but ultimately powerless fans.
Now, however, things have up stepped up a league. Specifically, they’ve stepped up to the English Football League as fans are calling upon heavier reinforcement against south London’s equivalent to a crushing dictatorship. The current leaders of this particular coup wear polos and trainers, much like most football supporters. What’s needed, however, are those clad in suits and ties: precisely who protestors are targeting.
As if to test whether they’re listening, a black cab – the unfaltering emblem of a working man’s London – rings out its horn as the Charlton contingent respond with their own single-toned reply.
Behind closed doors, the suits and ties will have heard this call-and-response and the call to arms that it encourages. The football fan and cabby, however, have thus far been ignored by the bureaucrat and businessman.
So why should things change now? And just why are the two at loggerheads?
Well, the simple answer is that the battle’s perennial. When has football ever experienced a time that both watchers and white-collars are simultaneously happy across the country?
For Charlton, their grievances are just part of the latest wave of footballing disenchantment.
Frustrations and the wash of disillusion that’s swept south London lately began when Duchâtelet’s motivation for buying Charlton became clear. Owning Belgian Pro League teams Standard Liège and Sint-Truidense, Duchâtelet sought to make Charlton a ‘feeder’ club for his better loved sides at home.
Jean-François De Sart, who oversaw development at Standard Liège, made this evident for all to see when he claimed that “the objective is to share the players. When a player not good enough for the first team needs some experience he can go to Charlton. When we have a big talent of Charlton’s, he can come also to Standard Liege.”
This wouldn’t rub with the recipients of players needing experience and outsourcers of “big talent,” and so the friction between fan and owner was borne.
Today, the mismanagement of the club sees it currently operate with no executive director, no finance director, a manager – Lee Bowyer – only offered a permanent position after almost six months in the job and an owner who hasn’t seen a game live in four years.
At the base level of club operations, academy players are being refused breakfast and bottled water, staff are having their internet and electricity limited and they’ve recently been refused the bonuses that they were promised over summer.
An anonymous source from the club has stated that “the atmosphere in the office has changed. Staff aren’t feeling valued and people don’t feel like they have any job security due to recent cost-cutting.” Employees have confirmed that the rumoured sanctions recently placed upon them exist, such as no longer being allowed lunch away from the canteen. The reason? The club won’t employ enough cleaners to cover the larger area.
Alan Davis, who led CARD’s protest at the EFL offices on Friday, feels that Duchâtelet’s interference has shattered the very core of what it means to be a Charlton fan. “[Supporting Charlton] means, until Duchâtelet came in, supporting a club that was interested in more than just the football on the pitch. It cared about and had a real engagement with its fans. It cared about and had a real engagement with its community. It treated customers and staff with respect. All of those things have gone out the window with Duchâtelet.”
He’s not alone either. Ben, a 27-year-old Charlton fan, tells us that “the community aspect from the club has just completely fallen down. Young kids from the academy aren’t given breakfast. This is an inner-city club: the kids in the academy are not rich lads, they could do with a helping hand.”
Because while the Addicks may be famous for their positive impact in the south London community and beyond, it’s all down, again, to the fans; not the management.
When Charlton were relegated from the Premier League in 2007, the Charlton Athletic Community Trust separated their finances from the club’s and became a privately sponsored organisation that could survive in an economic crisis.
Wherever Duchâtelet’s been involved, he’s cut. Had he had a hand in the Trust, it’s doubtless that cuts would have been made there too, regardless of the impact that they would have had on locals, their children and their wider community.
Clearly concerned, Ben explains this further: “the fans have kept the Trust going but the club used to be properly involved. Red, White and Black Day made us one of the first clubs to properly stand up to racism on a large scale. We’ve got Charlton Invicta which is our gay and lesbian team, we’ve got the Charlton Upbeats which is the Down Syndrome team. All of these things are now done by fans alone: there’s nothing from the club.
“The key is not about results, we just want a club we can be proud of again.”
Ian stands alongside Ben, holding a stack of flyers which explain the protest to puzzled, primly dressed onlookers. He, for Charlton’s standards at least, is relatively new to the club having started to support them only in his forties.
“When I first moved to south east London, you’d go to the park and see Newcastle, Blackburn, Manchester United and Liverpool shirts. After a few years of Charlton doing a lot of community work, suddenly there’s Charlton shirts because they’d been working so hard to get the fans back. It seems to me that what Duchâtelet is doing is making it difficult to love the club. He needs to go.”
Everyone we speak to talks with the underlying twang of a south-London accent, passed down from father to son like the inexplicable love of a football club. Their relationship with Charlton goes beyond match-days and enjoying games, it’s part of who they are. It’s an identity, a community and a source of belonging that once burnt the brightest as these everyday people’s passion in life.
Supporting Charlton means spanning and uniting generations, bringing whole families and neighbourhoods together under one shared belief.
Losing that is not an option.
Alan’s whole family are Charlton and have been for over 100 years. “When my grandad was demobbed from the First World War, his address was Floyd Road, Charlton. Within a year Charlton were playing opposite his house. When I was a kid, I lived in Charlton with my mum and dad. Dad was an Addick. So it’s Grandad, Dad, me, my youngest son and now he’s got a baby on the way. You can guess what their first kit will be.”
Perhaps it’s this unflinching rod that runs through the families of Charlton fans motivating them to save their club and ensure that there’s a team their children and grandchildren can care about in years to come. Perhaps it’s the unwavering community support.
Perhaps, however, it’s a simple reenactment of David against Goliath. Ben says, “if you look at our history we’ve always been an underdog and we kind of relish that. We’ve got a small fanbase, but it’s noisy. We don’t have a huge away following but we give it our all.”
The Goliaths of the corporate world are cutting out the heart and soul of Charlton Athletic and subsequently its entire community. But it seems like they’ve picked the wrong club to fight with.
The fans, like David, are winning against the giants and the EFL have now promised that they’ll sit down to meet with Duchâtelet so they can sanction his actions and encourage the selling of the club sooner rather than later.
The meeting may prove to save Charlton’s future: a rare victory for the underdog, for the small but noisy fanbase. It’s a victory for Alan, for Ben, for Ian, for every caring football fan in England.
And for Nigel, it’ll soon mean that he can return to his home of 44 years: back to the Valley and back to Charlton. Back to football and back where he belongs.