by RICK EVERITT
Former Charlton Athletic plc chairman Derek Chappell is behind legal action that could yet reverse the January takeover of the club by ESI.
A week after executive chairman Matt Southall left The Valley in acrimonious circumstances, watched over by police and security staff, and with his reputation among fans shattered, Charlton’s future remains mired in confusion.
It has been a rare blessing of the coronavirus crisis that the decision to shut down all professional football has served to prevent the team having to continue its relegation battle amid the destabilising arguments at the top of the club.
Charlton dropped into the Championship’s bottom three following their most recent match, a 1-0 home defeat by fellow strugglers Middlesbrough on March 7th, and now wait to see when or if the season is able to resume.
Manager Lee Bowyer might well like to turn the clock back to the beginning of January in terms of his team’s results – now a legal action is attempting to do just that in terms of events off the pitch, in a move which could see Belgian businessman Roland Duchatelet back in charge before another ball is kicked.
Voice of The Valley has previously reported that the emerging details of the takeover did not appear to be consistent with the terms of existing legal charges held over the club and its holding company’s main assets, The Valley and Sparrows Lane.
These appeared to prevent the freehold interest in the land being separated from the football club without the seven ex-directors’ individual consent, and disallow Duchatelet’s new charge over the football club’s lease and other assets.
That consent was neither sought nor offered, in at least several cases, which led a group of ex-directors including Chappell to take legal advice to protect their interest. However, it is thought that they had no immediate intention to intervene until ESI imploded. The expectation was that matters would come to a head if and when ESI failed to buy the freehold of The Valley in the summer as Southall had publicly promised.
Had the new owners paid off the total £7m debt in January, as some initially expected, the ex-directors would have had no locus to intervene, which may explain how the deal got past lawyers in the first place.
Now some of the previous shareholders, who with the exception of Richard Murray all ceased to be directors a decade ago, could be set to play a crucial role in securing the club’s future. Murray remained on the board until this year and is said to have played an important part in facilitating the ESI takeover, although he has held no shares since 2014.
Chappell briefly became plc chairman in 2008 when the board voted to demote Murray to football club chairman. Relations between the two have never been repaired, although Chappell – who has made significant money in private hospitals and, more recently, restaurants – is a close ally of fellow ex-directors Bob Whitehand and David Sumners, both of whom remain regulars at The Valley.
He also travelled to Belgium in 2016 on his own initiative in an attempt to reason with Duchatelet over Charlton's future, following the team's relegation to League One.
Duchatelet may not want the club back, but he is unlikely to allow it to slide into administration because that could result in tens of millions of loans from his Staprix NV being wiped out, as well as a likely ten-point deduction which could lead to relegation.
ESI major shareholder Tahnoon Nimer was behind the removal of Southall, eventually effected by Charlton staff amid farcical scenes last Thursday evening. But his stated intention to appoint a new board and chief executive to oversee the club faces multiple obstacles.
Most immediately, there is the question of whether he can satisfy the EFL over the source and sufficiency of his funds to operate the club, with the South London Press reporting on Tuesday that Nimer will have to satisfy the league he has £17m to put on the table.
That funding has to be supported by a detailed business plan to June 2021 and current management accounts, information that may not have been immediately available following the suspension of financial officer Shaun McHugh alongside Southall.
On Wednesday, Nimer was reported to want the former Barnsley chief executive Gauthier Ganaye to take charge at The Valley. The 31-year-old spent 18 months at Oakwell after leaving a senior position at Racing Club de Lens. He then moved to OGC Nice, which at the time had same ownership as the Tykes, in early 2019.
Nimer had previously – and more controversially – been claimed to have appointed the Romanian businessman Claudiu Florica, who was also linked with him over the possible purchase of Dinamo Bucharest. An ex-Siemens chief in his home country, Florica has previously been the subject of corruption allegations, although he was not convicted.
But until and unless Nimer satisfies the EFL, the club’s ability to pay its bills – including player and staff wages – is in question, due in part to a spending spree on consultants and lifestyle benefits for Southall and a string of associates since the turn of the year.
Voice of The Valley has been told that Southall had already been warned the club was fast running out of cash, despite him telling the playing staff last week that they could be paid until the end of the year.
The postponement of the QPR game on Tuesday night and the now confirmed deferral of the three April home games club will be offset by an emergency payout from the EFL designed to support clubs through the crisis.
However, Charlton have yet to announce their 2020/21 season-ticket arrangements and cannot expect an enthusiastic response amid the current uncertainty if they do.
Even if Nimer’s funding is forthcoming and satisfies the EFL, the Syrian faces the complication that Southall owns 35% of the shares in ESI.
While Nimer may be able to remove Southall as the club’s executive chairman, it may prove harder to force the latter to relinquish that stake.
Following a flurry of wild posts on Instagram last week, Nimer has presented a more professional public face in recent days, partly through the intervention of his lawyer Chris Farnell, who himself previously represented Southall.
It has led some fans – and maybe Duchatelet, who believed he had secured an outlandish payment of around £60m for the club – to put their faith in him to restore some sense of order to the club’s affairs.
Ultimately, however, the more stable course may be a reset that invites Duchatelet to engage in serious negotiations with a number of other interested parties. But that will depend on the courts being willing to intervene.