Charlton fans celebrate promotion at Wembley, a rare high point for the club over the last decade

Yes, there's an agenda and it's all about Charlton

by Rick Everitt

 

In December it will be 50 years since I first set foot in The Valley, as a six-year-old to see a 3-0 defeat of Norwich City in a Second Division match. It would be no exaggeration to say that it was a life-changing event, except of course that family loyalty had determined I would be a Charlton fan long before that.

 

I was captivated by the revival of the club in the 1970s under Andy Nelson and enraptured by the thrilling spectacle and swashbuckling exploits of Derek Hales, Mike Flanagan and Colin Powell, which first showed me the heights of joy that can be reached watching football.

 

And it was that sense of pride in our team, our club and our community of supporters that drove my frustration at the move to Selhurst Park in 1985 and motivated my efforts, along with many others, to bring Charlton home, which eventually succeeded in 1992. There were plenty of tears that day.

 

I changed my career, from computer programmer to journalist, documenting the progress on the road home, campaigning for the Valley Party and then evangelising for the club we all built back at The Valley in the pages of the Mercury. It was hugely rewarding work, but not especially financially. I just saw it as helping Charlton.

 

In 1994, along with the late Craig Norris, I devised the Target 10,000 scheme, which oversaw a range of innovative ticket schemes to encourage new and returning fans, and along with many other volunteers I helped deliver the structures that made it a success, while serving as secretary of the supporters’ club for seven years. With  Glynne Jones and club photographer Tom Morris, I started what soon became the official website, again unpaid, in 1995.

 

I was surprised, when this resurgent Charlton won promotion to the Premier League in 1998, to be asked by Peter Varney, the new chief executive, to establish and manage its first proper communications department, and I agonised long and hard about leaving the Mercury, where I had by then been sports editor for five years.

 

Nevertheless, I recognise how lucky I was to work for Charlton in various capacities for the next 14 years, revamping the programme, helping to write and editing the autobiography of Keith Peacock – an early hero – as well as devising and operating Valley Express with Wendy Perfect and putting together a whole new set of successful ticket initiatives under the Target 40,000 banner.

 

It could be hard work but I never lost the thrill of seeing those crowds arrive and knowing that we had made a difference, made the club stronger, and shared the exhilaration of watching Charlton with these new generations. And I have never stopped being proud of what our club became in the 2000s, never more clearly defined than by the expanding Valley. It was a privilege.

 

So when the current owner, who has never met me and necessarily relies on second-hand information, accuses me on the official website of having an “agenda” in the club’s current travails, as others have in the past, he is absolutely right. 

 

That agenda is to help Charlton be the best that it can possibly be, just as it was when my exasperation at the South Circular traffic queues of the late 1980s spurred me to start a fanzine that gave voice to the pain of the generation ripped from The Valley. That potential, quite clearly, is never going to be realised under this egotistical, erratic and incompetent stewardship. 

 

Roland Duchatelet is a stubborn, belligerent individual. Well, so am I, at least according to some. However, only one of us understands the rush of joy that comes from seeing the team succeed on the field and is motivated by that. Only one of us has spent decades standing in the cold and rain waiting for those precious moments to arrive. Only one of us knows what it is to be a Charlton supporter. 

 

The other, to borrow from Aneurin Bevan, is a desiccated calculating machine.

 

Duchatelet is also a liar. In his highly selective “ownership timeline” published yesterday, he claims that there were “no protests in 2015”. In fact, 400 people attended a protest meeting in Woolwich in February 2015, alarmed by the plight of the team under his ownership. The black and white campaign began well before Christmas that year. The so-called 2 per cent identified by a smirking Katrien Meire as protestors at a pre-match demonstration held up posters to identify themselves at the televised game against Ipswich Town in November 2015.

 

It is not true that the team’s relegation from the Champiomship in 2015/16 was principally caused by “serious injury problems early in the season”, a claim which takes no account of Duchatelet’s appointment of a Belgian third division manager, Karel Fraeye, who was severely out of his depth, in October 2015; of the ludicrous turnover of coaches at Sparrows Lane; or of the succession of expensive and sometimes laughably inadequate players signed from 2014 onwards.

 

The Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet (CARD), of which I am part, began in January 2016 to unify various strands of protest started by different groups, but all with one motivation – to get rid of Duchatelet, because he and his foot-in-mouth chief executive Meire were clearly the problem. It isn’t true that CARD – or any one person – began the protests. 

 

He now says, in his latest statement, that in 2016 he was ready to sell the club. At the time, Meire had refused to meet Varney and insisted that was because the club was for not sale. Duchatelet claims he didnt know the investor was a potential buyer. Didn't Meire tell him? Duchatelet refused to sign an NDA so he could meet Varney’s investor in Belgium in January 2016 on her advice. So which is it? Either they were lying then, or he is lying now.

 

It is, of course, preposterous – and insulting – to argue that protests sprang up because fans blindly followed one individual or group of individuals and did what they were told. They reacted because they saw their club being torn apart by fools who, unlike them, did not have Charlton in their hearts and who saw its history and identity as dispensable – and said as much. They saw and heard Meire's disdain for them on a video recording from Dublin which surfaced that Christmas. 

 

But the owner had a consistent ally in all this, and in many this is the saddest part of the story. Richard Murray had been a key player, perhaps the key player, off the pitch, in the resurrection of the club and a willing partner of the fans who worked to make it happen. He was responsible, personally, for the appointments of Alan Curbishley as sole manager in 1995 and Varney as managing director, then chief executive, in 1997, which were decisive in establishing Charlton as a Premier League club.

 

For that he deserved and received much kudos, only some of which was dissipated by the appointment of Iain Dowie to succeed Curbishley and the subsequent double relegation. But by 2014 Murray had fallen from grace. Never the majority shareholder, he argued seriously with his fellow directors in January 2008 and was unanimously removed from the chair of the plc at a bad-tempered and expletive-laced board meeting.

 

Importantly, Varney quit as chief executive as a consequence of that meeting, believing the board was unmanageable, but remained an ally of Murray, returning to help at his request in the troubled years that followed. 

 

By late 2010 Varney was involved in finding new owners to bail out the financially overwhelmed Murray. The latter had lost the confidence and support of most of the boardroom colleagues who had previously helped fund the club and who had now reached the end of their tether, leading them to write off millions and bail out.

 

The next regime imploded too. However, not before Chris Powell, working closely with Varney, but not Murray, had engineered the team’s return to the Championship in 2012. Was Murray jealous of that working relationship, which he had had with Curbishley? 

 

Then in the spring of that year that the money ran out and the atmosphere inside Charlton began to turn toxic. Believing that the club may have been used for illegal activity and conscious of their legal responsibilities as directors, Varney quit as executive vice chairman, and Steve Kavanagh resigned as a director and was then sacked as chief executive by announcement on the website. 

 

Identified, correctly, as an ally of theirs - but incorrectly as an accomplice in the publication of a story about the club’s failure to pay Stevenage for signing Lawrie Wilson, which triggered a fishing expedition through staff computers, including Kavanagh’s - I was sacked on the pretext of an old email to a coach supplier managing their non-payment concerns, and a dishonest and contradictory narrative was put together in justification.

 

I spent the next year fighting that towards an employment tribunal. The witnesses due to appear against the club in September 2013 included its own HR manager, its own chief executive and its own executive vice chairman at the time of the alleged gross misconduct. Chairman Michael Slater’s confected case dissolved on production of an exactly contemporary email from head of finance David Joyes which showed categorically that one of their key arguments – that the club was paying its bills on a specific day in June 2012 - was a lie. 

 

The club conceded on the day of the tribunal and paid substantial compensation, having never offered to settle or negotiate at any previous point. 

 

But my dispute was with Slater, Tony Jimenez and Varney’s replacement Martin Prothero, who did Slater’s bidding. It never involved Murray, who was excluded from the disciplinary process by Slater. It didn’t colour my attitude to the team or the club because these people were obviously intruders. But was I going to leave under a cloud because they felt they could get away with lying and bullying? Unlikely.

 

What Murray did do was align himself with Jimenez and Slater, and against Varney and Kavanagh, in the months that followed their departure, participating in Slater’s pursuit of Varney, which became a court case, and even trying to threaten Kavanagh through his new employers Southend United in order to try to get him to drop his tribunal claim. 

 

He knew about Varney and Kavanagh’s legal concerns. He knew about the role of Kevin Cash in the ownership of the club, which was hidden from the EFL and a direct contravention of its rules. He chose to ally with the rule-breakers and collaborate in the attempts to intimidate his loyal ex-colleagues, Varney and Kavanagh, which went as far as Slater making threats to sanction another member of Varney’s family. 

 

Did he also know that Cash, Slater and Jimenez were conspiring to force the club out of The Valley in pursuit of private profit through releasing land for residential development on the Greenwich peninsula, which the courts would eventually reveal was the real motive for Cash’s involvement all along?

 

Slater folded when it was time for Varney’s case to come to court, the club settling the latter's claim for outstanding sums in full and dropping its own fanciful allegations. Slater waited until 2014 and then did the same for Kavanagh’s employment tribunal, paying a six-figure sum to close the case down.

 

A succession of High Court cases finding that Jimenez had obtained money by false representation or improperly diverted sums for his own purposes have since laid bare the true character of that administration. Varney had helped introduce it, to rescue Murray and the club. But while he and Kavanagh stuck to their principles when its true character emerged, Murray sacrificed any that he had to retain his position on the board.

 

What’s the relevance of this now? Well, Murray’s simmering feud with Varney – initially prosecuted by the former in off-the-record briefings of fans at meetings – played straight into Duchatelet’s takeover in 2014. Murray had to forfeit his remaining 10 per cent shareholding in the club to get that deal done, but his reward was reinstatement as chairman.

 

Whatever Duchatelet may be, there has been no suggestion that he flouts the law or associates with those who do. The last thing Murray would have wanted was for Varney to reappear and expose his complicity in the skulduggery of the previous 18 months. Instead, he told a story about Varney’s history at Charlton which painted himself as the victim of a mercenary and unprincipled rival. In fact, he probably believed it by then. So the scene was set for Duchatelet and Meire’s disrespectful treatment of Varney, with dire consequences for the club. We can’t know how it would have played out otherwise, but we can say it didn’t help.

 

Even now, in the current takeover saga, Murray is viewed by many of his former shareholder colleagues as a malign influence on Duchatelet, as the former again seeks to continue his presence on the board under whatever regime eventually succeeds. It is no exaggeration to say that many ex-directors despise him. They certainly don’t trust him.

 

Meanwhile, in 2016, one of them, Derek Chappell, travelled to Belgium of his own volition to tell Duchatelet that Murray had led him up the garden path and that he should engage with Varney. The irony of this is that in 2008 Varney had resigned in the aftermath of Chappell’s elevation to the chair of the plc. It was Murray to whom Varney gave his personal and professional loyalty, until the point when Murray turned on him. Likewise Kavanagh.

 

Chappell never knew who Varney’s 2015/16 investor was, although I have long thought he was responsible for Duchatelet’s view that it was the Ebbsfleet owner, which is confirmed in this latest statement. If Chappell told the Belgian that, he was guessing. It was what Meire meant in 2016 when she gratuitously accused Varney of wanting to take the club out of The Valley. But that never made any sense, because Stonebridge Road is wretchedly inadequate for Championship or League One football, as the Belgians would realise if they had ever been there. In any case, it simply wasn’t true, as Varney remains adamant.

 

The point about that approach is not who the real money man was but that it destroyed the belief that there was no one else willing to buy the club, which until then was the apologists’ major line of defence, as well as exposing in her own words just how unprofessional Meire was. 

 

Fans know that it’s the seller, not the “customers”, who gets to choose the next owner. In any case, the character of the last two buyers would not have been known until they revealed it, negating the argument. But Duchatelet is also right. By 2016, fans were ready to take a chance, rather than be stuck with the Belgian. They still are. But they did not protest to support Varney’s bidder. They were already protesting about the state of the club in 2015, a fact which Duchatelet is desperately trying to overwrite with his latest lie, since the actual timeline destroys his case.

 

In May, Charlton fans enjoyed their sweetest moment in many years when the team won the play-off final at Wembley and now it has made a fantastic start to the new season with opening wins over Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City, which are a huge credit to the accidental manager, Lee Bowyer. 

 

It tells you everything that Duchatelet wasn’t there to see any of it. He hasn’t been since October 2014, which according to him is long before there were any protests. 

 

Why’s that? Because he wasn’t interested enough to come, and never has been. Charlton is just a spreadsheet to him, a computer game for Thomas Driesen, who “approves” Steve Gallen’s recruitment choices and hung around the team like a bad smell after the play-off game. 

 

Your emotion doesn’t touch Roland, but it’s his loss - literally. He says he wants to sell the club and that he has done so since 2016, but a stream of credible people interested in buying it have found him impossible to deal with. So he remains the owner and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future. He shouldn’t ever be allowed to feel comfortable, though, which is why CARD will target him, but not matches.

 

Some people, of course, with a variety of motives, will choose to agree with him that those of us who were at Wembley, whose spirits soared when that last-minute winner went in and who jumped to their feet in excitement when the goals arrived at The Valley on Saturday, are the problem.

 

It’s easy to pretend, in these sunnier moments, that all is right with the Charlton world and we can forget the background politics. I get that totally. But Bowyer still has the lowest budget in the Championship and there is still no chief executive or functioning board to provide the club with a strategic direction. Reality will bite, even if it’s not until Bowyer is headhunted by another club. Hopefully, there will be more good times first.

 

You can cover your eyes and put your fingers in your ears if you like. You can decide to trust the desiccated calculating machine and the duplicitous Murray more than people who have always had the club in their hearts and acted accordingly, because it’s easier and suits some people’s prejudices anyway.

 

In the meantime, I’ll just keep plugging away, challenging the liars and their lies, presenting the facts as I understand them. And I’ll do it not because I “hate” Duchatelet or Murray, but because Charlton fans deserve better, just as they did when we were stranded at Selhurst Park. And because I’m a Charlton fan - first, last and always. That’s why I can’t just walk away. What's his excuse?

 

Duchatelet's claims:

https://www.cafc.co.uk/club/club-overview/ownership/ownership-timeline

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

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