High hopes for Sandgaard – the VOTV interview

RICK EVERITT spoke to Charlton's new owner Thomas Sandgaard (above) over Zoom in December. This is a slightly edited version of the interview published in VOTV163.

 

If Addicks boss Lee Bowyer was disappointed by the reaction of fans who watched Charlton’s home game against MK Dons at the beginning of December, he could at least be sure of solid support from one man who would be sitting behind him against AFC Wimbledon on the second Saturday of the month.
 

New Addicks owner Thomas Sandgaard flew in from Colorado to watch the team in person for the first time since October. And when I spoke to him on the Tuesday before, there was no question of him packing an axe in his luggage, despite a recent hiccup in results.


“The first team has had a great run, but in the last few games we’ve been taken a little bit by surprise and that wasn’t very pretty,” he admitted. “As always in English football, there’s a part of the fanbase that says: ‘You need to do something about that, Thomas.’
 

“Maybe I’m not like some football owners, but I don’t run my businesses like that. There might be a time when we make a change, but it won’t happen just on the basis of losing a few games, or drawing the last one, whether it was pretty or not.”


In the real world there could be hardly any Charlton fans who believed that Bowyer should be replaced at that point. However, a feature of Sandgaard’s impressive early days at the club has been his willingness to engage with fans on social media, which can easily act as a distorting mirror.


Another trademark has been his huge personal positivity. In fact, the overall return in points since he took over is more than respectable, so the club is hardly in crisis. But there will inevitably be times when criticism is justified, making social media exchanges potentially more difficult.  


“I’m emotional,” he admits. “I’m a fan when I’m watching the game. But the minute the game is over, I’ve got to look at it from a business point of view. Lee is obviously the right guy for [the job] at this point in time. We’re working hard to get promoted, so it’s not even a question.”


The two are in regular dialogue anyway: “I either talk or text or email Lee a couple of times a week,” he said. “Right after the game we usually communicate, so I get some flavour of what went wrong, etc. I speak very frequently with the whole football side – Ged Roddy, Steve Gallen. 


“Steve Avory from the academy I might not speak to so frequently, because he’s just doing his thing and there’s not a whole lot there for me to change. 


“We’re making sure we keep refining the first-team squad and that Lee is as driven and motivated as possible. And on the technical side we are significantly improving our ability to keep a healthy squad. Those things are pretty important.”


Ironically, it was the October sequence of six straight wins that sent Charlton fans’ hopes soaring. If the victories had been spread more evenly through the fixture list, the mood now would probably be more upbeat.


“Sixth place is not bad, after that poor start and the squad we had,” agreed Thomas. “We were at risk of getting relegated again if we hadn’t had that much success putting a squad together before the transfer window closed.”


The Addicks added nine new faces between the takeover on September 25th and the domestic deal cut-off on October 16th.


“All the other clubs had plenty of time to put their teams together, so that was quite a scramble,” he said. “I’m very pleased with what we got there.”


He reckons there are about eight clubs that can realistically aim to compete at the top: “As long as we’re in the top half of those eight, it’s very probable that we’ll get promoted.”


There’s not much doubt, either, that there will be further recruits in January. Sandgaard had already said that he has a ten-year plan, and hanging around in League One isn’t part of it. Neither is he impressed by the idea that he should temper his ambitions.


“I’m sure that when it comes to this, English culture is not that different from Danish culture,” he said. “Denmark comes up year after year as number one in the list of the happiest countries in the world. How I look at it is that if you have relatively low expectations in life then you are relatively happy. That’s one of the reasons I don’t live in Denmark anymore!


“I am kind of ambitious, but I also know myself well enough to know when I can have an impact on creating the success that fulfils those ambitions. I learned that early in business, and that’s the level of ambition I am taking with me to Charlton.


“It’s absolutely my ambition to be in the Premier League and then spend the next couple of years making sure that we don’t become an ‘elevator’ club. In eight to ten years from now, I want to have done everything we possibly can to make sure that we always have a decent chance of playing European football.”


Talk is cheap, of course, and few other sets of fans have been sold so short, so often, over the last decade, so some scepticism is to be expected. It might also be justified, but we’ll come to that. What’s clear is that Sandgaard isn’t spinning a line. He believes it, his enthusiasm is exciting to hear after so many years in the doldrums, and what’s more he’s already walking the walk by investing in personnel – like technical director Roddy and commercial director Wayne Mumford – and new equipment.


“The first thing I did was buy a very expensive lawnmower for the groundsman, because that had been a sore point for a long time,” he said. “But I’ve noticed that’s really been infectious in terms of the good mood at the training ground. It keeps permeating into all departments.”


There are also early plans for extra buildings: “The first visible signs of that will be on the 16th,” he said. “It’s additional office  facilities, just to get something in quickly. They are temporary offices that are modular, so that’s going to be a big improvement.
 

“We also bought a pretty expensive machine for very sophisticated muscle testing, so that in the long term we’ll at least end up not having any more injuries than all the other clubs we are competing with. All these little things are being put in place at the training ground.”


Although he doesn’t mention it, the sudden departure of Alistair Thrush, the club’s head of medical services for the last four years, on November 12th is probably not unrelated.
 

Sandgaard’s approach is “a mix of making sure we get promoted as fast as possible but also putting things in place behind the scenes that make it sustainable – whether it’s medical staff, training facilities or better recruitment – so that we don’t have a good season and get promoted, but then a season or two later go back down. 
 

“It’s keeping an eye on the long-term plan, so that whether or not we get promoted to the Championship and then the Premier League, we keep increasing the probability of 
success. You don’t always have lady luck on your side, but it’s all about increasing the probability. That’s how I approach pretty much everything in business.”

 

Where Sandgaard is less persuasive, at least to me, is on how this progress is to be funded. He has already made an eight-figure commitment to secure the club and fund its Covid-exacerbated losses in 2020/21, for which we all owe him a big debt of gratitude, quite apart from the time and personal energy it took to get where we are.
 

“I still believe we can run at break even or at a profit – not necessarily on a single-season basis but in general – so I am not worried about that,” he said.  “Some clubs are paying way too much for shitty players, and I don’t want to do it that way. That’s how you end up spending tens or hundreds of millions, and possibly getting relegated back down to League One, too.”
 

He agrees with me that historically Charlton’s commercial performance has been relatively poor, including in the Premier League. Even in 2005/06, Alan Curbishley’s last season, the non-matchday commercial turnover was around £7m. More recently, although it’s not a like-for-like comparison because of outsourcing, it’s been under £1.5m a year.
 

“That’s why I hired Wayne Mumford, so we can make a  significant difference in that from the early days,” said Thomas. “The brand of Charlton Athletic is so strong, we’re just not leveraging it, and historically we haven’t. 
 

“Having someone like Wayne on board who will be able to leverage the brand, whether it’s domestically or, long term, internationally, it’s going to help tremendously when it comes to sponsor income, and when we come back from Covid we’ll hopefully have the kind of ticket sales that match the current level of expenses.
 

“There’s a huge untapped potential here, simply because of the brand value. Inherently, it gives us a huge leg-up compared to nearly any other club in League One right now, and most of the Championship clubs.”
 

He understands that London-based support for Charlton is heavily concentrated in Greenwich and Bexley boroughs, plus parts of Bromley and Lewisham.
 

“That’s right, but that area is huge,” he said. “We have a big demographic left just for Charlton. A club like Chelsea, Fulham, Brentford, Wimbledon is squeezed, or up north (London) Arsenal and Tottenham. We have more real estate that ‘belongs’ to Charlton than any other club in the London area. The potential is gigantic.


“I have a much closer dialogue with the community trust than the club has had for the last seven years, and that’s a fantastic bearer of the message out into the community. Hopefully, we develop a fanbase that’s more representative of what’s right around the club. One of the first things we did was make sure Jason [Morgan, community trust chief executive] had a desk at The Valley, and just create stronger ties. I think longer term that’s going to get us a younger and more diverse audience.”


At least we’re no longer talking about looking for support in SW London. I make the point that Kent is home to nearly 2m people, very few of whom support its only league club, and that Charlton – although, to be fair, not the trust – have made no effort there in years.

Before the club can really focus on its future, however, it needs to finish dealing with its past. Sandgaard said that he is still spending half of his working day dealing with legacy issues  surrounding the “characters” who got involved with it during 2020. The way that he was able to extract the club from East Street Investments, regardless of the injunction, and the fact he remains dismissive of the latest legal claims, hardly suggests that those contesting ownership with him have been particularly astute.
 

“When it comes to a club the size of Charlton, you would expect that people who even got a chance to be involved with it are more professional than I experienced here,” he said. It’s also clear that they had no viable long-term plan.
 

“There is a lot of cash moving in and out of the club, so for some people it gave them the opportunity to enrich their friends and family,” said Thomas. “We’ve all heard about the Range Rovers – one of which we are giving away as a prize – but there were many other things.


He was absolutely dismissive of the latest pretender, Craig Freeman, who had just sent in another letter: “I’m thinking, why do you guys want to waste your time with this?” he said. “They obviously have absolutely nothing. 


“Apparently, this is the way Chis Farnell goes through life, at least business-wise, engaging with people that are in his network, like [Paul] Elliott, Freeman – and there might be a few other characters just associated with the Charlton thing. I’m learning a lot about that. I’m learning a lot about English football when it comes to that.”


What he has been unable to understand is how Roland Duchâtelet came to sell the club to Matt Southall and Tahnoon Nimer in the first place. He says that he found the Belgian and his point man Lieven De Turck “pretty easy and straightforward to deal with – very tough business people with very high expectations, not necessarily because of the club but because their negotiating style is to play people out and see who is the highest bidder, then turn them down at the last minute. Then they see if someone is willing to keep bidding up.

 

"After [Duchâtelet] had owned the club for three or four years, he basically put it up for sale like that and no one could ever deal with that kind of negotiating.

 

“What is really strange is how someone like Matt Southall could convince someone like that to sell the club for just £1 and then promise ‘within five years I’ll give you £50m for the stadium’ and all that. It was basically leaving them an open door to flip the club and sell it for a few million within no time. They would make a profit and then Roland would be: ‘What!?’ 
 

“That was obviously the plan, but you wonder why someone like Roland would even engage in that kind of business deal. But that’s what started the whole weird thing around 12 months ago.”
 

When Sandgaard got involved back in August, he found director Marian Mihail “very helpful, even though he was a very distant representative for Tahnoon Nimer”. 
“My perception is that Tahnoon Nimer got into it a little naively in terms of initially playing along with Matt Southall’s plans for the club,” he said. “That’s maybe why Marian Mihail got a bad reputation among the fans in the early days. He initially tried to represent Thanoon, just to get Southall and Southall’s friends out and provide a little bit of stability. 

 

“I would say in the later days when he was helping with my takeover, or some of the small decisions within the club while he was basically running things with Claudiu [Florica], he tried to do his best. I would say he had the club at heart, as much as he could being down in Romania. He did as much as he possibly could under these very strange circumstances.”
 

I asked Sandgaard whether, dealing with Duchâtelet aside, he had been successful in his 
efforts because he had shown a larger appetite for risk in dealing with the various parties than, for example, rival Andrew Barclay.


“The first several weeks were spent negotiating with the different people involved, so that I could limit what would come out,” he explained. “They would either indemnify me or I would make sure that it was already compensated for in the agreements, so I did a lot of risk limitation in that whole transaction.

 

"At the end of the day, I could look at the financial implication of the expenses that still could come, plus the cost of the transaction acquiring the club, plus at least the first season loss due to Covid. This is my investment in the club. Knowing what I can normally do, you hold that up and say: ‘Is this a good investment?’ 
 

“So, from a financial perspective there was very little risk taking. It was just complicated to get through and very entertaining.Sometimes I would be sitting at my hotel and someone from Hong Kong would walk in and say, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you, you’re Thomas Sandgaard. I’m here representing so-and-so’ – one of all these characters in the mix. He’s really here to give me that message. “I’d say: ‘I’m listening. Let’s talk.’ I made sure I made friends with everyone in the mix. That was probably what made it all happen.”
 

Of course, there was still Duchâtelet: “In order to get rid of the £50m obligation and many other of the intricacies in how that deal was put together, I offered up some things to Roland that made it possible,” said Thomas.


“One was to triple the rent. It’s nearly £500,000, which is three times more than it was for ESI. But the most important thing was something that was very uncomfortable for him, which was all the heat he was getting from the ex-directors who had provided a loan to the club which will be paid back at the time the club gets promoted to the Premier League. Just getting rid of that obligation was very important to him. That made the whole thing worth it to him.”
 

Sandgaard does not accept the view of three of the ex-directors who believe their legal charge gives them a veto over the issue of the new lease, were they to exercise it. However, he says: “I have a dialogue with most of them, and we have a good relationship. I will honour the loans to the exact same standard as the money was offered up in the beginning, because the people who have done that I have the highest admiration for.”
 

There’s another deal to do yet, of course, which is to buy the freehold of The Valley. 
“At some point we’ll probably negotiate the right price for all of that,” he said. “It was more important to make sure I got a deal done with Roland in terms of the ownership. It was obvious that we were either going to get nowhere with his negotiating style or he was going to drag it out forever, and we were facing administration within days.

 

“We got a very straightforward unrestricted lease deal done. I’m sure at some point we can get things negotiated and figured out.”

 

Thanks to Thomas Sandgaard and the Charlton staff for their help with this interview.

Voice of The Valley 163 (December 2020)

VOTV163 was published on Saturday, December 12th, and is now available to order for first-class posting out (and for dispatch abroad, via the drop-down menu if required). Prices listed here now include postage and some transaction costs as well as the cover price.

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Voice of The Valley 164 (January 2021)

VOTV164 was published on Saturday, January 16th, and is now available to order for first-class posting out (and for dispatch abroad, via the drop-down menu if required). Prices listed here now include postage and some transaction costs as well as the cover price.

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