by Rick Everitt
“The grand old Duke of York he had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.”
Charlton fans might feel they have been marching up and down their own hill – or perhaps the old East Terrace – since April 2017, when Mail Online first revealed details of the Australian Football Consortium’s interest in buying the club from Roland Duchâtelet.
As the transfers windows have rolled by since, with one false dawn succeeding another, the Addicks army has long begun to dwindle away, excitement replaced by apathy, hope succeeded by resignation. It’s hardly surprising then that the latest takeover story has been met with more than a hint of scepticism as the Belgian's tenure reaches its fifth anniversary on January 3rd.
Some fans have even suggested that the whole thing is a fiction designed to excuse a lack of investment in the playing side during January or even just to manage a scheduled fans’ forum meeting on January 9th, although it is unclear why Duchâtelet would make any such effort or manager Lee Bowyer would co-operate with it.
The timing may well be related to the transfer window, but that is more likely to be because it is the optimum period to buy a club.
In practice, there have been a number of straws in the wind over recent weeks, including Bowyer’s comments in the Evening Standard on December 20th.
“I heard two or three weeks ago that it was quite positive and it could happen any time,” he said. “There is a chance it could happen for the January transfer window.
“Hopefully it happens sooner rather than later. I have heard it a couple of times now but nothing has changed, so let’s hope it happens this time.
“It could be as early as January from what I have heard. Maybe at the end of January. The owner wants it to happen and I would like it to happen and then everyone knows where they stand.”
The following weekend Voice of The Valley was told by a supporter who had spoken directly to Bowyer that the manager had been asked by the Australian group to identify his transfer targets.
A talkSPORT radio interview with Duchâtelet on December 21st did not offer much evidence either way, with the Belgian insisting that the situation was unchanged since his previous discussion with host Jim White in October, although the owner also claimed that the club could be sold in January when pressed on his plans for the transfer window.
Duchâtelet avoided saying that he would not sell players, arguing that he had not discussed the situation with Bowyer. Neither would he confirm that he would not raise the price of the club should the team should be promoted from League One, although he continued to insist that the price was not important, while still refusing to say what it was.
Behind the scenes, however, we are aware that the Belgian was continuing to take a very bullish approach on price, on the basis that he had already agreed a high figure with the Australians. This is also likely to be the key to his willingness to engage with their long-running approach, despite its failure to progress to completion over so many months.
A deal was anticipated in February by former chairman Richard Murray, declared done by a legal source that month, looked close again in May when members of the buying group were seen in the directors' box at The Valley and submitted documentation to the EFL, then had its prospects reaffirmed through a joint official statement later in the summer.
There have been multiple fans' forum briefings in the intervening months, each detailing extensive interest from other groups, but with the Aussie-led one always at the forefront.
The situation heated up again last Sunday when a party, including an Australian investor in his mid-30s with Aussie Rules connections, was shown around the training ground and The Valley by Duchâtelet’s point man Lieven De Turck – particularly remarkable given the time of year and the fact that he only usually visits from Belgium in midweek.
VOTV soon heard that the group had been introduced as “the new owners” who would be announced in the next few days, however accurate that might ultimately prove to be, but we waited until we could get further independent confirmation of the visit before disclosing it on Tuesday via Twitter.
This was followed up on Wednesday morning by White, who informed talkSPORT listeners that he had been told the takeover was “closer than ever” and could be completed before the weekend, subject to the “group providing proof of funds in an acceptable form”.
VOTV has had no interaction with White since Christmas and did not reference that timescale publicly, although we also heard it was possible from a club source on Tuesday. In the light of previous experience, it would seem unwise to rely on it.
There is little doubt, however, that Duchâtelet is anxious to sell the club and believes that he is close to doing so. The question remains whether he is realistic in his own approach and whether the Australians – augmented by whatever other nationalities they may have added to their number – can put the money on the table.
One speculative suggestion made to us is that the deal includes staged payments which the Belgian may want legal guarantees around. That would fit with the wording provided by White. There is also the question of EFL approval and the £7m owed to the former directors, although the latter would be removed from the equation if repaid in full.
On Saturday, fifth-placed Charlton face promotion rivals Sunderland at The Valley in their biggest home match of the season so far. News of a takeover by then would be likely to add several thousand to the crowd and set the scene for a memorable afternoon.
What remains of the red-and-white army stands at the top of the hill once again. Waiting and hoping.