Roland is looking like a new Ronnie

One month since the end of 2013/14, the fractious atmosphere that has surrounded Charlton Athletic for the last two seasons shows little sign of dissipating, writes Matt Wright.

 

Furious arguments among fans are widely evident on the messageboards and on social media, while the club's official Facebook page contains more swearing than an entire series of The Thick Of It.

 

Any message mildly in favour of the club's current direction leads to that person being accused of being oblivious to the wider picture, while those who express the smallest concern or critical view regarding Charlton are viewed as troublemakers or obsessed with predictions of woe.

 

Then there are those, probably the majority in fact, who have seen signs that vary wildly between being encouraging and worrying, and are waiting to see how events develop.

 

Whatever your stance, though, the oddest aspect of the club's plight is that it really shouldn't be like this.

 

When Roland Duchatelet took over at The Valley in January he was facing, in club ownership terms at least, an open goal. Something similar to the one that Liverpool's Ronnie Rosenthal sized up in 1992.

The final 18 months of the preceding Tony Jimenez and Michael Slater era, the period after the League One triumph and after their financial backer had withdrawn his interest, saw the club embark on a self-destructive downward spiral, with no support given to the playing staff, no leadership provided to the business, a complete absence of proper communication with supporters and the team in danger of being relegated.

 

The money had clearly run out, and while administration remained unlikely all the while that it meant Jimenez and Slater would lose their entire investment, it was certainly more than an indistinct dark shadow on the horizon.

 

Merely by agreeing to take over, the wealthy Duchâtelet put an end to that danger and saw off a hugely disliked regime, and within a matter of months he oversaw a successful escape from relegation danger. He has shown no interest in moving from The Valley, indeed he is investing in the renovation of the pitch, and he has given the order for the training ground redevelopment to be taken forward. 

 

So why is he not feted by all and sundry, his name chanted from the rooftops around SE7 and beyond?

 

Much has happened in the past four months, and much has been interrogated and analysed to death, from the sacking of Chris Powell and departure of Yann Kermorgant and Dale Stephens, to the announcing of cheap season tickets and a U-turn on the unpopular decision regarding Crossbars; from the decision to wait to offer contracts to existing players, to announcing the exit of 11 players with nary a kind word dispatched in the direction of the back of their heads; from disputes about the chairman influencing team selection and the arrival of players not good or fit enough for Championship football, to reportedly sizeable bids for highly regarded talent.

 

For the purposes of this piece therefore, I'm only going to focus on events of the past week or so - and what a strange few days it's been.

 

It began with the much-rumoured departure of Jose Riga, a man who despite replacing one of the most popular Charlton figures of recent times, quickly endeared himself to players, staff and the Valley faithful and steered the club away from relegation. At the outset, he was only a short-term contract, but he clearly grew into his role, enjoyed his time at The Valley, and wanted to be given the opportunity to continue his work.

 

That Duchâtelet ultimately thought otherwise, and appointed someone else, isn't the main issue. That's his prerogative. Of greater concern is his treatment of a man who, given a decidedly difficult task, delivered exactly what was demanded of him yet ended up feeling that he had to make clear to Sky Sports News his criticism of the club.

 

Coupled with Alex Dyer's insightful interview with the South London Press when he confirmed what had been happening behind the scenes was precisely as most suspected, it wasn't a good few days for the Addicks. And then Bob Peeters was appointed as the new head coach.

 

I'm writing this almost exactly 72 hours after it was announced that Peeters would be Charlton's 23rd permanent manager, yet not a word has passed the lips of the man chosen to carry on the lineage from the likes of Jimmy Seed, Lennie Lawrence and Alan Curbishley. What's more, it's Friday night, so it's a strong likelihood that at least a further 48 hours will pass before there is the remotest possibility that fans will get some insight into what the club believes Peeters will bring to SE7.

 

Has there ever been a club, anywhere, that when announcing a new manager - sorry, head coach - has been unable to rustle up two lines from the incoming boss or, in the event of his unavailability, the chairman? What about a director, a member of the 'leadership team'? Someone. Somewhere. Anyone. Anywhere.

 

Also noticeable in their absence from the same story was any mention of the length of Peeters' contract and the detail that he once played for Millwall (although there was plenty of room to list his time with Cercle Bruuge, KAA Gent, Waasland-Beveren, the Belgium national team, Lierse, Roda JC, Kerkrade, Vitesse Arnhem, Racing Club Genk), and it's hard to imagine both glaring omissions were anything but deliberate.

 

Apart from being crass, this is also short-sighted. How can Charlton's owners ask supporters to trust in the long-term vision of the club without being prepared to make public whether the most important person on the playing side is here for that long term or not?

 

As for the Millwall angle, whatever the rivalry that exists between the two clubs and their fans,  is there anyone with a modicum of intelligence who believes that playing 20-odd games for the Lions a decade ago means he won't give his all in his new role? In fact, given the widespread fears that the new head coach would have zero experience of English football, let alone the Championship, this issue could and should have been confronted head on and spun to show one of the positives of Peeters' appointment.

 

What the other positives are, we're being left to guess. Given the circumstances, there is a compelling argument to 'sell' Peeters to supporters, but we're left with one solitary line from director Katrien Meire within an afterthought of a story thanking Riga for his efforts, that "all decisions come with an element of risk, but we balanced all the pros and cons and, finally, we came to a conclusion that we would go forward with Bob Peeters".

 

Of course, all this coincides with the latest season-ticket 'deadline' and at a time when Charlton are trying to encourage supporters to sign up for their 'Value the Valley' volunteer scheme. They might make more headway if they decided to value their supporters more themselves.

 

Elsewhere, Amaury Gerard introduced himself to Addicks fans on Twitter a fortnight ago by saying he was the media manager for Duchâtelet's network of clubs. He wrote that his "goal is to find synergies, share experience and improve the service", and that among the ways he could help was in the areas of "commercial (international exposure), sports (players exchange), operational (share experience, ideas, resources)". 

 

Looking at his biography now, though, all reference to Charlton has been removed in favour of the phrase 'Club media manager'. Indeed,  despite tweeting Upjest's Hungarian Cup success last weekend, Gerard hasn't been bothered enough to mention any of the recent events in SE7.

 

There may be good reasons for all of the above, for why there has been no press conference, for why there have been no quotes about Peeters. But if that's the case, then there is an opportunity to explain those good reasons to supporters. If you treat people with respect, they will - most of the time (you can't ignore the nature of football fans...) - return that respect.

 

Regardless of the actions of the club, in the modern football world there will be a conversation about Charlton that starts with supporters, feeds into the media and gets disseminated across the football industry. Given a key part of any company's strategy is to protect and enhance its reputation, the club must do its utmost to influence that conversation. It needs to set the tone, and you don't do that by only responding when you have to, or when you're forced to, or as a last resort.

 

You have to interact and engage with fans, you have to impart information that is of interest to them, and you have to have a genuine willingness to listen and react to their views. Where there is disagreement, and there is certain to be some disagreement, you must be prepared to spend the time and have the confidence in your position to confront those doubters, argue your case, and convince supporters of its merits. At present, the club has completely abdicated its responsibility on this front.

 

I had the opportunity to observe at first hand under Slater and Jimenez the vacuum that their secrecy created, and how it was filled with discontent. In some ways, the owners' actions made sense; seeking an exit, the only interest they retained in the club concerned its sale so they decided, in the absence of anything positive to say, to say nothing at all.

 

However, what I completely fail to comprehend is how, having seen and been told of the ill feeling caused by this stance adopted by the previous owners, and having clearly bought Charlton as a significant long-term investment, Duchâtelet seems determined to follow in their footsteps.

 

Whatever else this network project is, it's new and different. It also has more of a chance of success if it is backed - or at least not vehemently opposed - by the many thousands of supporters without which the club wouldn't exist. Convince them, embrace their views and maybe, just maybe, listen to their suggestions. After all, Charlton fans, when united by a common cause, have a pretty good track record.

 

Being better than Slater and Jimenez is perhaps the biggest open goal anyone has faced since Rosenthal, or even Harrrow Borough's Rocky Baptiste in 2009. And at the moment, I'm worried Roland is a lot like Ronnie and Rocky.

Voice of The Valley is part of the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet (click logo for more details)

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