How protests should be carried forward in the coming season is very much an open question and I am very pleased to publish a thoughtful contribution from a longstanding Charlton supporter on this subject.
'I have supported Charlton since 1957 and my family have held season tickets for over 30 years. We have seen more than one bad owner in that time. For my recent 70th birthday my 8 year old grandson James (a very keen Charlton supporter) created a birthday card and at a football coaching course in London he asked Johnnie Jackson to sign it, which he did. On the front of the card James wrote: "Grandad forget what’s happening now with all the protests and remember the good times." At a game last season when the protests were very loud James became quite distressed and wished to leave. That set me thinking about the whole situation and what “getting our Charlton back” means because it was never about discouraging young children. Therefore I have set out below some thoughts on where the Club seems to be now and how I think the time has come for a change of approach from supporters.
Although the last few games of Charlton Athletic’s 2016/2017 season were a welcome relief from the depressing inconsistency displayed for much of the League 1 campaign there is little doubt that overall the season marked yet another step in the decline of the club. It is true that injuries affected the progress of the team, as did the change of managership, but that cannot excuse many poor performances from a squad that possessed several good quality players. Despite the sustained protests and season ticket boycott, Duchatelet remains in ownership and Meire remains as Chief Executive. Some supporters commenting on social media are suggesting that C.A.R.D has failed in its efforts to restore Charlton to its former status and so should abandon its protests.
There is another view which recognises that C.A.R.D has had some success but that evolving circumstances suggest a change in direction is now required. Since the C.A.R.D campaign began there have been significant changes and developments.
Duchatelet has largely abandoned his experiment of importing players and management from his network of clubs. He no longer seeks to use Financial Fair Play measures to shape the management policies and has reduced his interference in the running of the club. Supporters of many other English League clubs are now protesting at the incompetence of their owners and are calling on the English Football League and the Government to introduce and enforce management standards for English professional football clubs. Katrien Meire has publicly admitted to failings in the management of the club since the takeover and apologised for those errors. Recruitment of players is now in the hands of a British management team which has knowledge of the EFL and has the authority to sign suitable players. Johnnie Jackson has been promoted to a role which can have influence on the management of Charlton. Lee Bowyer’s appointment as assistant manager reinforces the links with Charlton’s past. Despite considerable financial losses since 2014, funding is maintained to support the improvement of an already successful youth academy. Charlton’s work as a community club not only survives but its reputation continues to grow as it works within and for the local community with great success.
The C.A.R.D campaign has been characterised by intelligence, unity of purpose, imagination, good humour and determination. It has always been carefully lawful. Although the current management of the Club might disagree, some of the developments listed above can reasonably be credited to the consistency of the C.A.R.D campaign and the willingness of many supporters to maintain the pressure in the long term. To that extent the protests have achieved some success.
But Duchatelet retains ownership and, despite press stories about a potential takeover, it is possible he will remain for some time to come. Katrien Meire remains as CEO even though she has presided over a period of continuous decline. But she was installed as CEO at the age of 30 without substantive knowledge of English football, without relevant training or experience. In any business this would be a recipe for failure and so it proved. She deserves some credit for, unlike the owner, admitting to the mistakes, changing management policies and meeting hostile supporter groups. It has clearly been a painful learning experience for her. There is no certainty that a replacement of her would help “bring our Charlton back”. Duchatelet might well parachute in another favoured associate from his organisation, then the same problems could occur again.
There is also no certainty that if a change of ownership does come about it would realise the dream of “bringing our Charlton back”. (After supporting Charlton for several decades I am not sure how to define what “our Charlton” means, but as there seems to be an understanding among supporters of what has been lost and needs restoring, I go along with it). Duchatelet will sell when he judges it is in his best interest and to whom he chooses. The best interest of the supporters is unlikely to be a determining factor.
What direction should supporters take now? Of all the developments listed above the most significant might be the promotion of Johnnie Jackson to a player/coach role. Throughout the last three years of decline he has remained a beacon of hope for the restoration of “the Charlton way”. He represents all that was good about the club in its best times and his relationship with the supporters has never wavered. Now that he is taking up a position where he can have more influence, we are at least partly getting “our Charlton” back. So the question arises, can we get our Charlton back if Duchatelet and Meire remain? Although this is a scenario that would seem unpalatable to those supporter groups who have worked so hard to oppose the mismanagement of the Club, this is the reality that has to be faced. Other supporter groups who have long opposed their club owners seem to have had limited success in bringing about change and in some cases the protests and boycotts appear to have contributed to further decline, which harms everyone associated. There is a danger that if boycotts continue to cause Charlton to lose money the decline could get to a point where it is very difficult to turn it round in the future. It’s possible that recruitment is already being adversely affected by the club’s perceived poor condition.
If Duchatelet continues to provide financial support without interference and if the CEO provides appropriate administrative support to the football coaching staff, what is the best way to continue on the path of “bringing our Charlton back”? Here are some thoughts.
Restrict protests against Duchatelet to the Belgian context as these seem to have most effect. Avoid protests inside the Valley stadium; instead maximise support for the team. Widen the protest efforts to include other club groups with incompetent owners and put real pressure on the EFL to introduce higher standards for the management of professional clubs; involve national media and Government ministers if the EFL proves incapable of reform. Consider that pressure on Duchatelet to sell to a reputable buyer might bring a result more quickly if the club is achieving well rather than continuing to decline.
Utilise the power of the C.A.R.D organisation to bring back supporters to matches and regenerate the optimism and hope that was so effective in the back to the Valley campaign of the 1990s. Revive measures used at that time to increase crowd numbers and so demonstrate the vital role that supporter groups can play in the restoration of the club’s fortunes. Acknowledge that most young supporters have limited understanding of the back to the Valley years and just wish to see a good game of football. They enjoy it most when there is an exciting atmosphere within the Valley. If they become alienated by protests within the ground then the protesters could inadvertently cement the long term decline of the club.
Continue to press for improvements in commercial management, particularly marketing and ticketing policy. The hospitality areas such as lounges and boxes already have high standards of provision but this should extend to concourses behind main stands to benefit all supporters. Demand better provision for visiting supporters, such as that offered at Brighton’s Amex stadium where efforts are made to make visitors feel welcomed. Maintain pressure to establish formal supporter representation within the management structure of the Club to help repair the relationship between the Club and the support base.
The current club manager divides opinion but there is no doubting his commitment and enthusiasm and his desire to produce a first team that plays attractive, attacking football. Nor is there any doubt that he is prepared to develop youth potential and is motivated to gain promotion. He also has the knowledge of the EFL that some recent managers lacked. With the presence of a management team that includes former players who understand what it means to be part of Charlton, there is more reason now than a year ago to be positive and proactive in supporting the Club.'