by Matt Wright
Every football fan dreams of being able to construct their fantasy team. It’s now clear that at Charlton, that dream has become a reality for one mysterious 20-something scout-cum-analyst. Throughout the last two and a half years in SE7, managers and head coaches have come and gone, yet the man who played a key role in putting together a series of failed teams has retained the confidence of club owner Roland Duchâtelet.
The regime would prefer fans knew as little as possible about Thomas Driesen. They want him to continue to lurk in the shadows. They don’t want supporters to know how he watches endless videos and pours over statistical models in his pants until the early hours of the morning. How his advice is preferred to that of better qualified and more experienced coaching staff. And how he wields huge levels of power at Charlton from afar.
That’s all changed since a Belgian magazine article last month named the enigmatic Driesen as the pivotal scout in Duchâtelet’s network: “One name keeps coming up: Thomas Driesen… Apparently a 20-something with little football experience. That’s all anyone knows. Try to find out more and you hit a wall of silence: Duchâtelet won’t talk about him; neither do his close associates.”
It’s not a new name for those with knowledge of what has been happening behind the scenes at Charlton. But even fans aware of the network and Charlton’s bizarre recruitment methods will be shocked by the extent of Driesen’s influence.
Voice of The Valley can now reveal:
Driesen first came to the attention of supporters in March 2014, when José Riga was appointed following the sacking of Chris Powell, and he was pictured – with a crazy mop of hair – alongside the head coach on a Sky Sports News report. But by that stage his influence had already been extensive – and he had helped to force a club legend out of SE7.
According to the article in the Belgian Sport Magazine, Driesen was appointed by Duchâtelet shortly after he had purchased Standard Liège in June 2011, when Driesen sent the owner an email outlining a series of things that were wrong with the club.
Intriguingly, his message also apparently detailed how Italian striker Mario Balotelli never failed to convert a penalty. So perhaps there was an omen of Driesen’s fallibility when Balotelli missed the first spot-kick of his professional career, for AC Milan, in September 2013, just a few months before the former was given unprecedented influence in Charlton’s recruitment strategy.
At first, both Driesen’s identity and role were unclear. He would occasionally visit the training ground, where staff at Sparrows Lane noted how out of
he appeared in the football environment and around football people, and would film matches.
But it was at away games that his presence was particularly noted by the travelling Charlton press pack – although he appeared so young that most assumed he was simply on work experience.
Louis Mendez, who covers the club for the South London Press and BBC LONDON, recalled: “I remember seeing him at a couple of away games, because the analysts tend to be located closer to the press. But he was so young, I just assumed that Charlton were letting some kid have a go at doing some sports analysis – that he wanted to get a job somewhere.”
Few realised the extent of Driesen’s influence. Yet at the same time that the Charlton media thought the club was merely helping someone take their first step on the analyst ladder, he had the ear of Duchâtelet and was recommending that existing players be sold and actively sourcing their replacements.
“It turns out… that this kid, with no football experience, is the guy who was making decisions such as Yann’s not good enough, Solly’s not good enough, let’s get in the likes of Négo…” added Mendez.
Perhaps the best example is goalkeeper Yohann Thuram-Ulien. Despite the presence of established number one Ben Hamer, who had been extensively scouted by Arsenal earlier that season, solid pro Ben Alnwick and promising youngster Nick Pope, Driesen decided a goalkeeper was needed and told Duchâtelet that Thuram was better than all three.
Unrequested by manager Chris Powell (“I’d go to training and get a phone call: ‘there’s a goalkeeper downstairs'”), Thuram was the second player to arrive on loan from Standard Liège (after Astrit Ajdarević). What’s more, he was told he would be first choice, which immediately became an issue among the coaches and his fellow players when they saw him in action during training.
He went on to distinguish himself by looking completely out of his depth in the four Championship matches in which he featured and, when dropped to the bench, he caused a furore when he refused to travel to a match at Leeds United.
Powell, speaking to talkSPORT in January 2016, said: “I was told that I needed a new goalkeeper, a striker better than Kermorgant – who is one of the best players I’ve ever managed – and a new full-back, when I had Chris Solly and Rhoys Wiggins. I knew there was a network of clubs and he was saying ‘we’ve got the players that will be better than them’.”
Also in that notorious first batch of signings sent across to Charlton were Loïc Négo and Anil Koç, who made a combined single senior appearance for the Addicks between them. According to the Dutch-language article: “Driesen seems particularly drawn to short footballers, good with their feet: excellent for futsal but easily bullied in the tough Championship.”
Driesen – who was dubbed Mowgli by staff at the training ground, after the Sky footage of him with Riga suggested a strong resemblance to the man-cub in The Jungle Book – has also advised Hungarian side Újpest and Belgians Sint-Truiden.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that he was responsible for every debacle in that first transfer window after Duchâtelet took control. Our sources say he told
the club’s owner that infamous Polish striker Piotr Parzyszek, the much heralded replacement for the forced-out Kermorgant, wasn’t good enough, only to be overruled by Duchâtelet himself.
Even a stopped clock can be right twice a day.
Ultimately, Powell refused to deal with Driesen, and left that thankless task to assistant manager Alex Dyer and first-team coach Damian Matthew. Head scout Phil Chapple, a Charlton stalwart as a player and a significant part of the 2011 summer squad transformation that led to the League One title season, would eventually be forced to leave in September 2015 after being continually undermined and ignored.
But Driesen, from Limburg, wasn’t just involved in recruitment. His influence stretched to assessing Charlton’s matches and players, and recommending action to Duchâtelet.
There has been plenty of speculation about the extent to which Duchâtelet interferes with team selection, and extensive rumours about Powell and other coaches receiving regular emails from the club’s owner. Asked by talkSPORT’s Andy Goldstein whether Duchâtelet had ever told him to pick players or to pick a formation, Powell replied unequivocally: “Yes.”
Goldstein pressed further: “He told you to pick a certain player?” Powell replied: “Oh yeah.”
This pressure on Powell and co, along with the existence of the emails, has been regularly denied by Meire at fan events. In November 2015, she said: “It is a bit out of reality the Chris Powell quote… the manager picks the players. I can assure you that [it] is not the case that the owners or anyone else interferes.”
Yet now the truth of the emails – instigated by Driesen, who reputedly sits in his underwear all night watching videos of games, and then files his reports to Duchâtelet in the morning – has been independently confirmed for the first time.
“After a defeat, the coaches would often find an email in their inbox, full of comments and recommendations for what they should do in the future,” said the recent article. “The email was signed by Duchâtelet and cc’d to Meire and Driesen.”
Riga replaced the sacked Powell in March 2014 and steered Charlton away from relegation despite playing no more of the January arrivals than Powell had. But it was Bob Peeters who was subsequently entrusted with the long-term future of the Addicks.
That summer’s high-profile capture of striker Igor Vetokele, who had previously played under the new head coach at Cercle Brugge, suggested that the influence of Driesen might have waned after the failure of Thuram, Négo, Koç and more. But while more discretion seems to have been given to Peeters as he made eight summer signings, including Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, Driesen and Duchâtelet resisted his wishes to strengthen the squad further.
And although Charlton lost just one of their opening six fixtures, supporters were not alone in recognising that the squad looked weak in the event of injuries or suspensions. As the end of the August transfer window approached, Peeters said: “If you look long term you need more bodies because after the international break we have a lot of games. At this moment everybody is fit and well but if you’re going to be struggling with suspensions and people who aren’t fit then we’re going to need a lot of bodies.”
His appeals fell on the deaf ears of Driesen and Duchâtelet, however, and Peeters and Meire were left to hint that the owner would invest further if the club was still challenging for promotion in January. Ultimately, Peeters was sacked in that month after a run of nine games without a win.
Next to enter the Valley hotseat was Israeli Guy Luzon, who would last just ten months. Thanks to a series of interviews he gave following his dismissal, we already know many of his views. In March 2016, just one month after Duchâtelet had claimed that “the manager plays a crucial role” in player recruitment, Luzon told the News Shopper that it was “the network scout”, Driesen, who ultimately made the decisions.
“I was not the one who chose how to do the recruitment – the last say was from the network scout, not from me,” said Guy, repeating previous coaches’ assertions that
it was Driesen who had the power to give signings the green light, or stop them in their tracks.
“The transfers were done through the scout in Belgium. I would give him my opinion on a certain player but the last say was from the network scout.”
Even Karel Fraeye told people during his time at the club that he didn’t agree with how some of Charlton’s scouting and recruitment was carried out. Given this was the same head coach who was planning not to bother to scout cup opponents Colchester United and rely instead on former U’s loanee Callum Harriott until senior players intervened, at least one under-qualified and inexperienced member of Charlton’s staff could recognise another when he saw him.
Throughout this period Driesen was regularly spotted in the “manager’s office” at The Valley after home games, the most restricted area in the stadium on matchdays.
Over the summer, it’s been clear that there has been a greater focus on recruiting British players. This was coupled with the appointment of Russell Slade as manager, instead of the latest head coach from the network production line. This, along with the rejection of offers for Ademola Lookman and Morgan Fox at the end of the August transfer window, has been hailed by some supporters as definitive proof that the regime has changed.
But if that was the case, why have there been reports, confirmed by multiple sources, of blazing rows between Slade and Meire over the club’s recruitment strategy?
Why, with the club’s relegation obvious from March (if we’re being kind) onwards, and with several more months to prepare for the current season than any of our rivals, do Charlton still have such an unbalanced squad, lacking strength in depth?
Part of the reason has been an internal battle raging between the newly appointed manager and the network scout, which is best illustrated by the signing of Andrew Crofts.
We can reveal that a key part of the arguments between Meire and Slade about Crofts stemmed from the fact that Driesen insisted that the midfielder, who has spent the last six seasons playing at a higher level than Charlton’s current League One status, simply wasn’t good enough.
Instead, Driesen spent the summer recommending a series of unimpressive foreign players, who have been resisted by Slade to the extent that he has declared he’s not interested in any of Driesen’s views.
The episode leaves many questions. Why did Slade have to expend so much time and energy to make what should have been a relatively standard signing of a 32-year-old free agent? And how many more players slipped by as a consequence?
Recently, there has been a persistent narrative emanating from the club that the regime has “learned from its mistakes”. Ignoring how many times Meire and Duchâtelet have already said this during their spell at the helm in one of the worst periods in the club’s history, the continuing secretive involvement of Driesen in such a key role proves exactly the opposite.
As Slade found out last month, signings of the ilk of Christophe Lepoint are still being suggested by someone the regime refuses to acknowledge publicly even exists, never mind admit he plays an active and influential role at the club.
While the Driesen deception continues, how can fans trust the club? Just as in The Jungle Book, Mowgli must be brought into the light.