by Rick Everitt
One last home game, one last opportunity for Katrien Meire to peddle her line that lessons have been learned, she is here for the long-term, and this next transfer window will be better than the seven previous ones the current ownership of Charlton have got wrong.
Well, admittedly, that bar remains very low indeed. It would hardly be a triumph to stumble over it. But who can have any confidence that she will?
At 10am on Sunday, the club’s chief executive will stage her final question and answer session of the season, with members of the Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust. She won’t be looking forward to it, but the lines have been well rehearsed by now. It’s not the outcome but the taking part that counts, you know. These days it’s when she goes off-piste that the message comes undone.
Take last weekend’s trip back from Chesterfield, for example, when supporter Tim Cross reports that Meire told him, among other things, that the Jimmy Seed Stand is “becoming unsafe". It’s very odd then that the council’s statutory safety licensing committee has never been briefed about any serious problem, as confirmed on Charlton Life by fans’ representative Nick Hannam, who firmly denies such a problem exists.
Then again, we know and reported more than a year ago that chief operating officer Tony Keohane had rocked up at Leyton Orient with an architect to look at how they had incorporated flats into the corners of their stadium. That’s just a coincidence, obviously.
Tales get twisted in the telling, but one might wonder what kind of chief executive engages in gossip about a major piece of infrastructure with a random fan on a train. Except of course that we already know the answer - one who is comprehensively out of her depth.
Meire has much history on trains, including the famous video-recorded confrontation with a fan on the way back from the 5-0 defeat at Watford in January 2015, immediately following the appointment of a fourth head coach in ten months, Guy Luzon.
Less known, but perhaps more telling, was her meeting with Charlton Athletic Supporters' Trust board member Heather McKinlay at King’s Cross station on the eve of head coach number five’s first game, away to Middlesbrough.
McKinlay had previously interviewed Meire for the Trust News and was initially inclined to be supportive of a fellow professional woman in a difficult working situation.
She told me: “I met the squad by chance at King’s Cross on the Friday before the game. I spoke first with Jason Euell and congratulated him on his role as first-team coach. He said they'd been working hard in training all week and were very focused on getting something - at least a point - at Boro. [Charlton lost 3-0].
“I then went over to Katrien, whom I had met before. She recognised me. I said things were a bit tough at the moment and that I'd been at the supporters' trust AGM the previous evening, where a lot of concerns had been aired over the problems.
“She replied: ‘For us there is no problem. It's just the fans.’
“To this day I am unsure whether she meant only the fans see the problems or whether she meant more literally that the fans are the problem. I was extremely taken aback, especially as this was at a point when a meeting was planned between her and the new trust chair [Steve Clarke].
“That meeting did subsequently take place, but the club did not fulfil or follow-up on anything discussed or agreed, i.e. the make-up of Target 20,000 and formation of a strategy group.”
This chance encounter took place just days before Meire would make her fateful remarks on camera in Dublin about the “customers” and her idea that Charlton could have a “unique selling point” of producing players who would move on to other clubs, swiftly followed by the recorded meeting with fans where she claimed that all four managerial changes to that point had been a success.
However, it’s the alienation of obviously credible people like McKinlay, who runs her own business in Glasgow, that gives the lie to Meire’s continued insistence that protests at Charlton have somehow been orchestrated by “former employees” and wouldn’t have happened without some malign hidden agenda.
As it happens, there are no ex-employees involved in CARD (or any other protest group, to my knowledge) who weren’t fans long before they worked for the club; indeed, there are none who didn’t become employees because they were supporters, rather than the other way around.
But this claim about “former employees” is the big lie at the heart of Meire’s explanation of the events since 2014. She is still pushing it and may even believe it; she certainly seems to have persuaded her patron Roland Duchatelet of it. Yet it is unsustainable on the facts and grossly offensive to the mass of protestors.
Some will choose to give it credibility it nevertheless. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of Meire’s tenure is that she has often made a good first impression, but the better people have got to know her the less they believe her. The dwindling attendance and membership of the fans’ forum, which she attends quarterly, is a good example.
Dom Matthews, who represented Eltham Addicks; Jean Huelin, previously from NW Kent Addicks; and Vernon Roper, from the West Sussex and Brighton group, but who represented Valley Express passengers, all confirm that they stopped attending after realising that engaging with Meire was a complete waste of their time. They are not alone.
Long-serving former club development manager and Valley Gold promoter Wendy Perfect was one of the first to share her disillusionment with the chief executive publicly in the pages of Voice of The Valley back in March 2015.
As she wrote then of her attendance as the forum as a Valley Gold employee, Meire "didn't seem able to grasp the concern that members expressed about Valley Express or willing to take the complaints about the lounges forward in a way that was likely to resolve them."
And: "I sent Meire a friendly email after the meeting... I didn't get the courtesy of an acknowledgement, never mind a reply."
The supporters’ trust, which Meire had kept at arm’s length for 18 months, then tried to work with her through former elected director Steve Clarke, then its chair. It soon found she did not keep her promises, as McKinlay describes.
Sponsors and other former members of the Charlton board, not just elected ones, have been similarly unimpressed and have reported as such, publicly and privately. The email exchanges with former chief executive Peter Varney from the second half of 2015 told their own story.
Current staff, too, are a long way from being united behind this regime, even though the most disaffected ones are often those who love the club and only want the best for it. Some have already walked. They know the truth about Meire and the small group of sycophants around her.
None of these relationships were destroyed because Meire’s words were taken out of context or mistranslated, as she has often claimed of her media appearances. On the contrary, these are individuals who have tried to work with her and got nowhere, or simply been snubbed in the first place. They speak as they found.
Bromley Addicks’ forum representative Ian Wallis has been one who has tried to stand aloof from the conflict, but even he has run has out of patience following Meire’s latest foot-stamping posturing over Huelin’s involvement in the player of the year, which led to this year’s event being cancelled.
The other defence that’s offered for Meire is that she has been the subject of vile misogynistic abuse, embodied most graphically by the “Naby Sarr song”. That’s certainly true and it’s unacceptable, but does anyone really believe the people I’ve identified as trying to work with her have ever been involved in that?
The narrative of victimhood is a convenient one for garnering sympathy from the media and others insufficiently familiar with the facts to form their own judgement, but it’s also one that avoids the inconvenient truth that previous chief executives, including Varney, also received aggressive and personally unpleasant private abuse.
Indeed, I would argue that both Duchatelet and Meire have used her gender to deflect attention and gain sympathy. If sexist abuse was the issue she would have my support and that of many other reasonable Charlton fans. It is deplorable, but ultimately it is not the reason she is failing. And failing she is.
Not everything that has happened has been Meire’s fault. Few would place the parade of incompetent head coaches at her door, indeed I’m confident she was horrified to learn that Duchatelet had suddenly sacked Russell Slade last October.
You could argue that she is paid to suck up the humiliation when that happens. But it’s equally inconceivable that Duchatelet is able, in the 1.5% of his time he famously said he has for Charlton, to micro-manage the business, and he certainly isn’t responsible for her serial failure to build and maintain relationships with key partners.
It’s notable that the few substantive successes of the current regime have all involved professional expertise being bought in, like the 2014 pitch renovation or the overdue switch to a controlled access system at the turnstiles.
Not only supporters but Meire herself struggles to identify areas where she has added any value personally. She cites signing up young players, but if you pay over the odds and offer too many long deals to prospects that don’t really merit them that is not really much of an an achievement.
I would arge that some transfer fees achieved, principally for Ademola Lookman and perhaps Joe Gomez, do appear good in isolation, but see how poorly much more money has been spent. The list of bad deals for mediocre players brought in runs off the page – and even better signings, like Jorge Teixeira, appear to have been made on disastrous terms.
Other Meire claims, around season-ticket prices, activities for younger fans, community work and even, on occasion, the Charlton museum are tenuous at best. They were either part of the club’s DNA long before she arrived or in some cases are delivered by other people not even under her jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, the club’s ticketing structure is a running joke, along numerous failed gimmicks and initiatives we don't need to rehearse here. Gates have collapsed and commercial revenues have fallen. Sources say that Charlton are having to pay penalties to out-sourced caterers DNC after failing to attract the promised crowds to buy their food and drink.
What no one could seriously say of Meire - and something I would challenge even her to argue - is that at any point in the last three and half years she has provided leadership. Indeed, time after time, she has gone missing from public view in a crisis. That is now her default response.
The best that could be said of her is that she has proven resilient, but as a leader she is an empty chair. That simply isn’t good enough for a chief executive in any organisation, and particularly one with an absent but overbearing owner who does not appear to have a coherent strategy himself.
If Meire has her own plan it seems largely to be self-promotion. Don’t forget that she travelled to Dublin when the hapless Karel Fraeye was taking on and losing his second game in charge at Milton Keynes, apparently oblivious to the symbolism: another empty chair. What value did that expedition conceivably provide for Charlton, as opposed to her personally? In practice, it was a disaster.
Admittedly, few people would make good chief executives. I certainly wouldn’t, for one, but I am self-aware enough to know that, whereas Meire appears to lack any ability to see herself as others do. Or at least she depends and publicly positions her "success" solely around how Duchatelet sees her, as if there was no other and more objective performance indicator available.
Whatever she says, I seriously doubt that she has moved on from what she said to McKinlay on King’s Cross station 18 months ago, or even begun to grasp that when Russell Slade and Karl Robinson have talked about putting basic structures in place at Sparrows Lane it is her failure, in 2014, in 2015 and in 2016, that they are addressing. She couldn’t have done it, but it was up to her to ensure somebody did. Who else?
The subtext of all this is that the capacity of the football side to succeed in future under this regime, if it is still here, will partly be determined by the playing management’s ability to keep her out of the way, not by anything positive she might contribute.
No serious person close to Charlton could be oblivious to the very widespread and informed view that Meire is a walking, talking disaster as chief executive, or still imagine, as the esteemed Professor Wyn Grant once argued, that despite her shortcomings “learning can take place”. Instead, it has become abundantly clear to most that the lady’s NOT for learning.
As each of the last four seasons has come to its conclusion, I have encountered a steady stream of Charlton fans with ten, 20 or 30 years’ loyal support behind them - or even more - insisting that he or she will not be coming back until “they” have gone. This spring and last, that has become a flood.
And that’s the real story of what has happened, not some Machiavellian plot in which thousands of people have been duped into believing the club is falling apart as if they’ve been administered en masse with a hallucinogenic drug. Whether fans protest or not, the vast majority are hurting.
Meire says that for the last three and half years, Charlton has been her life. Maybe or maybe not, but it’s yet another tone-deaf response from someone being paid a substantial sum to thousands of fans who have committed much, much more to the club than her, emotionally, financially and practically, and over a much, much longer period of time.
That’s why there will be more protests on Sunday and more next season and more for as long as it takes to get “them” out. That’s why the problem won’t be solved by Karl Robinson, whatever his merits as a manager, because it starts at the top and has poisoned the whole club.
I won’t be going to Sunday’s Q&A, but I do have one question for Meire and it is simply this.
Have you no shame?
Sadly, I think the answer has long been very clear.
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