by CRAIG NORRIS
Conversations with my non-Addicks mates have had a different tone this summer. Gone are the “what the hell is going on with your lot?” and “I saw your team and had never heard of half of them” comments, to be replaced with opinions that we seem to have bought some useful players.
I’m happy to agree with this and having seen the obviously improved style of play, team spirit and fitness, I tend to admit to a cautious optimism for the season ahead. But when my mates suggest this might be the time for Addicks to accept Roland Duchâtelet’s ownership and put away the pigs, beach balls, etc, I have to disagree.
To explain why, I need to return to those earlier conversations. Trying to explain Duchâtelet’s policies among ourselves was a time-consuming business: trying it with people who hadn’t experienced selling Yann Kermorgant, buying players simply unable to cope with English football, and appointing head coaches with no relevant experience, was impossible.
Voice of The Valley readers don’t need me to explain all that nonsense in detail. Suffice to say the usual result was friends with glazed expressions and a mutual agreement not to discuss Charlton.
So if we now have a manager with EFL experience and a squad with players who can cope, why do I not simply give thanks they’ve seen the light and move on? It’s because the damage is serious and long-term, and impacts all areas of the club.
Compared to when Duchâtelet took over, the club is a division lower, has a manager who is inferior to the one he inherited and has season-ticket revenues which have fallen sharply.
And this is before one looks at the balance sheet. Those useless signings: Reza Ghoochannejhad, Christophe Lepoint et al and incompetent head coaches – Karel Fraeye, anyone – were not just inadequate, they were expensive, and that is reflected in the debt the club now owes.
Transfer fees and long contracts on high wages were agreed for players who barely featured and then had to be paid to leave. Every aspect of these failed signings and appointments has contributed to the massive growth in the club’s debt to its owner under Duchâtelet – from £18.6m in January 2014 to £54.1m in the last published accounts.
This is not just an accounting issue. If Duchâtelet wants to sell, he will look to recoup some of this money, making the club more expensive, or he will agree to leave the debt in the club and expect to be repaid over the coming years. This will impact the team going forward. Any new owners’ business plans will have to take account of it: either by selling players or reducing the budget available to the manager. Obviously, this will make success on the field harder to achieve.
Of course, Duchâtelet could simply write off some or all of the debt, as it is down to his desire to prove he knew better than everyone else and his capricious approach to running the club. Or he could agree to be repaid if the club reaches the Premier League and its untold riches, as members of the pre-Slater/Jimenez board have done.
Do you seriously think either is likely to happen? No, that debt will be choking the club for seasons to come.
Operating losses have also added to the debt and this is exacerbated by the collapse in season-ticket revenue. Rick Everitt, who knows more about this than anyone, estimates the latter has halved since Roland and Katrien Meire rolled into SE7.
Poor form and unappealing football have no doubt contributed to this, but relegation to League One did not produce such a calamitous decline last time. The failures of Football for a Fiver compared to previous seasons in League One also show that the polarisation between owners and fans is aggravating the problem.
And this is where my last and possibly most important reason lies. Charlton fans know what can be gained by genuine dialogue and co-operation throughout the club. Much of what was achieved in the 25 years the club is “celebrating” is proof of that.
Despite repeating ad nauseam the mantra that lessons have been learned, it appears clear that the most important one has not: fans are not simply customers and this should be at the core of how you treat them.
Contrary to Duchâtelet’s narrative, protests didn’t start because a few people decided they should. While sceptical of what appeared to be the business model and despairing of the sale of Kermorgant, I wanted to hear what Duchâtelet and Meire had to say. Indeed, I attended the video-recorded meeting with the fans’ forum in November 2015, at which Meire was listened to with courtesy, and waited for the promised dialogue to begin. Of course nothing happened, the football got worse and Fraeye was exposed as an insult to supporters’ passion for the club.
After that came the FA Cup tie at Colchester United: a strong contender for the worst day of my Charlton-supporting life. Listening to my son’s despair when he
reported on his trip to Huddersfield Town a few days later added parental concern to the mix.
Incidentally, David was insistent that Reza had got sent off deliberately. I said I was sure that wouldn’t be the case, but later learned my son was correct: how can you trust any owners whose recruitment policy brings players who do that to your club?
It is the fact that trusting Duchâtelet is almost impossible which lies at the root of my continued opposition. His intemperate rants about fans and Meire’s petty vendettas, like that which lead to the cancellation of the player of the year event for the first time in nearly 50 years, show that they do not understand or respect the fans and have no real intention of seeking to learn any meaningful lessons.
The end-of-August news that no striker of note has been signed and Andrew Crofts had been pushed out even took the gloss off the latest transfer window. Hopefully the football continues to be watchable and with any luck we have a tilt at getting out of this awful division. But with Duchâtelet still in charge I have no great confidence. So I’ll still be supporting CARD’s efforts to get him out.
Craig Norris is an ex-chair of Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Club and was as an elected member of the Charlton board from 1995-97. He is a retired senior tax inspector.