by Rick Everitt
The news that three Charlton directors will hold an online question and answer session with fans on Wednesday may prove as interesting as anything which eventually emerges from it.
Announcing such a plan at four days’ notice, with the team on a dismal results streak of historic proportions, smacks of damage limitation, especially from an administration whose attention to fans’ concerns has previously been slight.
It should be recognised, even so, that it is a positive development. There remain numerous unanswered questions about the takeover which was completed last summer. Whether this panel is able or willing to answer any of them remains to be seen.
What isn’t important for this meeting, in my view, is an update about negotiations with players who might be signed in the January transfer window, questions about the way the club prioritises ticket sales or complaints about the service of food and drink.
These are all second-order issues and the only remaining interest in this season is avoiding relegation and planning for the next one. The crisis of confidence in Charlton among large numbers of supporters is now existential, as shown by dwindling attendances. It will only be resolved by a different approach from the ownership, alongside a long-term improvement in results.
The team’s performance this season has generally been abysmal, under both former manager Dean Holden and current head coach Michael Appleton. This can be attributed in part to an over-reliance on young and injury-prone players, and it is clearly no accident that the best spell featured the otherwise unavailable Chuks Aneke and Miles Leaburn. However, it is not enough to blame bad luck, or even former owner Thomas Sandgaard, albeit each is a factor.
Technical director Andy Scott was also in the building last January when Todd Kane, Gavin Kilkenny and Matt Penney arrived as reinforcements. None had any impact.
Of his August additions, James Abankwah and Slobodan Tedic have already been jettisoned because they were not good enough. Chem Champbell and Louie Watson have each found it hard to get into Appleton’s injury-hit matchday starting line-up.
Cases can be made for and against the rest of the summer arrivals, but only 28-year-old Lloyd Jones and 30-year-old Alfie May can confidently be considered successful signings at the halfway stage of the season. May, in fact, is an excellent professional and an outstanding addition, but given his goalscoring record at Cheltenham he was hardly a punt.
In short, it is obvious from the fact the team is currently below Leyton Orient, Lincoln City, Bristol Rovers, Northampton Town, Stevenage and Oxford United that there has been something seriously wrong with Charlton’s recruitment – and/or management - in 2023. This is economics, not entitlement, and it appears that Scott is either working to an inadequate budget or he has not been very good at his job so far. He was also “effectively responsible” for appointing and subsequently sacking Holden, according to Charlie Methven.
This failure takes us back to the lack of any clarity about who is steering the ship and how they intend to get it to its destination, whether that is the Championship or above. Nobody in their right mind could imagine that the club can ever be financially sustainable in League One.
To understand any of this we have henceforth largely been reliant on various public statements by Methven, the architect of the latest ownership structure and seemingly a disproportionate influence within it.
Methven was described by the Sun in July as a “blundering PR consultant” and by chairman Jim “call me James” Rodwell in the South London Press as having no day-to-day role, yet he has largely been the public – and private - face of the club.
In September, Methven explained the club’s recruitment in terms of the League One Salary Cost Management Protocol, which restricts player expenditure to 60% of annual turnover. The club had hit that ceiling, he told the “Where’s The Money Gone?” podcast, which had forced the owners to inject extra equity, but claimed that Charlton were well placed to deal with that constraint because players under 21 do not count and the club has a strong academy.
Accepting that the current owners were saddled with some poor contract agreements by Sandgaard, this goes some way to explaining the extensive use of young players this season, a number of whom are clearly not ready for the first team. However, it doesn’t tackle the problem that the assumption you can make up the numbers with youth and still be successful is naïve and almost certainly being oversold.
Charlton’s turnover remains well above that of the other clubs listed above and if they are performing worse than them despite the trumpeted strength of the club’s academy then it is reasonable to assume that the decision-makers are at least partly to blame.
As for where the club is heading, Methven told the Sun: “The rest of my ownership group is very wealthy – at least the larger shareholders are – and really the increase in capital value from moving from League One to the Championship wouldn’t be of any financial interest to them. Really this project is more about passion. They are successful people and successful investors, and they want to be successful.”
He later told the Daily Telegraph that the solution to Charlton’s problems is getting operating losses down to £1m-2m a year (in the Championship) and aiming to make a net profit in the medium term on player trading, adding: “You will do that if you have any kind of competence at all, and particularly if like Charlton, you’ve got one of the most productive academies in the country."
Now we can probably agree that competence has been in very short supply at The Valley for many years, but the idea the club can limit its operating losses in this way short of a revolution in wider football funding is pure fantasy. Charlton have regularly reported eight-figure operating losses over the last decade, albeit in League One, and the failure to spend the extra central income received in the Championship in full in 2019/20 is the main reason the team was relegated.
No owner or management team is going to be able to cover the losses by increasing matchday revenue, which was £4.5m in 2019/20, or commercial income, which has rarely passed £2m since the Premier League days, by introducing “competence”, even if there was any evidence of that.
What we have seen so far is the introduction of an apparently top-heavy management structure and further cutbacks in the ranks below that. One way of looking at that might be “jobs for the boys”, given the extent of pre-existing relationships.
A new central funding deal might help in the Championship, but it won’t confer a competitive advantage compared to other clubs without parachute payments. Its effects on the bottom line can only be assumed and hypothetical.
At the same time, the inability of our current young players to step up on a consistent basis in League One surely suggests that they would struggle more at the next level up.
For this reason, it is inevitable that for the club to regain and retain even its former status will require very substantial further investment. We simply do not know what the owners’ appetite for this may be. A key question therefore is whether they truly understand that.
The cumbersome ownership structure, including seven parties with a shareholding of more than 5% in Global Football Partners – Gabriel Brener, Joshua Friedman, Warren Rosenfeld, ACA Football Partners, Munir Javeri and Marc Boyan, as well as Methven – may mean limited individual exposure, but it also risks a divided grasp of the realities of the situation.
That’s before we even get to the issue of Roland Duchatelet’s continued ownership of The Valley and the remaining 11-year lease with its break clauses in favour of the club in 2025 and 2030. Should the club ever return to the Premier League it would need to make a scale of investment in the stadium which could well leave the owners over a barrel. What is the plan for that?
The shareholders are already on the hook for the eight-figure purchase price from Sandgaard and two seasons’ losses in League One, at say £7m a time, before we get to the additional player expenditure necessary to get promoted. Leaburn apart, it isn’t obvious any current players will generate big fees to help offset that.
Of course, many fans are only interested in what happens on the pitch and it’s reasonable to say that getting back to the Championship is all that matters in the short term. But when the team is unsuccessful you need a narrative and a basis of trust to fall back on. This is particularly true when the fanbase has been used and abused by fools, charlatans and egomaniacs in the way that ours has over the last decade.
We can see the football for ourselves and we can recognise that for the most part it is rubbish. There are some good players doing their best, others asked to do jobs for which they are not equipped and some who appear to be going through the motions. It’s not unreasonable to make a connection between the club's lack of credibility off the pitch and the apparent lack of belief on it.
Even if the resources are in place, as indeed they were under Sandgaard and Duchatelet, you will still fail if you cannot harness them to maximum effect. The question marks over Appleton, who seems to have undergone a charisma bypass, are clear to all.
One of the key drivers in Charlton’s extraordinary rise in the 1990s and 2000s was the connection between the fans and the club, up to and including the board. This was possible because supporters knew the club was open, honest and engaged with them.
That has not been true for at least a decade and while it would be harsh to blame the latest owners for that, they have done nothing yet to change it. In an era when the club has more communication channels than ever, it says less of substance than it has since the 1980s.
Compare and contrast the output today with that 20 years ago – and full disclosure I was the Mercury sports editor in the 1990s and then in charge of the club’s communications until 2003. But that is why I am very clear that it is qualitatively different now and that this weakness comes from the top. It’s not just details that are missing, but identity. If the club has any reputation currently, it is as a train wreck. Well, we all like a railway analogy.
A benign interpretation of the situation would be that this vacuum is the product of an old school belief that only results matter, which might be a passable approach if you were actually achieving anything. More likely, it derives from a confusing and hands-off ownership structure in which no one really speaks for the club, and no priority is given to doing so. That in itself could be read as being indicative of an attitude towards supporters which regards them principally as useful idiots.
Then there is the ongoing failure to take advantage of the professional knowledge that exists around the club, encapsulated by Appleton’s recent assertion that fans “need to move on” from Alan Curbishley. To most it is patently absurd that such an experienced and successful manager is on hand to share his views with fans via Charlton TV, but he is not utilised within the club when its football performance is so obviously wanting. Then again, he’s not part of the gang.
It shouldn’t actually be difficult for Charlton to do better than this is League One. They even managed it under Duchatelet, in the end. In fact, the current level of failure is itself quite an achievement, just not in a good way.
To be fair to them, it is probably unrealistic to expect Rodwell, Paul Elliott and the Ontario-based “minor shareholder” and fan Gavin Carter to give the answers that supporters need, even if the real questions are put to them.
Rodwell is the boardroom equivalent of a journeyman footballer, with six other clubs on his executive CV, although he didn't quite make the league grade as a centre half. Elliott had a considerably more illustrious playing career in the same position, but he hasn’t played an active role in our football club since he was sold to Luton Town as a youngster in 1983. Please don't mistake past involvement in the community trust and sitting in the directors' box as a useful proxy.
In any case, this Charlton board is substantially the senior management team acting up a level. It cannot sensibly scrutinise itself, never mind shine a light on the owners.
But who are executive post-holders Rodwell, finance director Ed Warrick and Scott accountable to in practice, and how are they judged? Is there actually a business plan covering all areas of the club?
Why do the executives not take the opportunity to engage with supporters in the lounges on matchdays, apparently preferring to keep their own company in the boardroom? Why are they suddenly talking to us now?
I have nothing against Larry and his mobile bar, but it seems a fairly pitiful level of commercial partnership to be promoting on the electronic advertising boards around the pitch. What does it say about the club’s current approach to business partners?
We should at least be asking the bigger questions, not least because it’s unclear whether the funders are doing so. Somebody needs to answer them, before another tranche of long-term supporters drifts away in frustration.