The Valley, SE7 — Home of Charlton Athletic Football Club (Photography by Dave Lockwood. who is also the stadium announcer)

Charlton Athletic make a “Statement”

It’s a sad day when the football club you love refuses to correspond with its fans. It’s an even sadder day when they decide to try and shout louder than you via the power of the press though…

Yes, I’m another Charlton fan who is going to rant online about the clubs ownership. Again. It must be getting boring by now, with even those unconnected to the club joining in — Stan Collymore via talkSPORT, James Corden via Twitter as well as reporters from the likes of The BBC, The Evening Standard and The Guardian.

You may have heard about our recent protests which are estimated to have attracted over 2000 fans, or you may have heard many of our fans claim that the club CEO — Katrien Miere — is “out of her depth” and “unfit to be an executive”. Today the club’s ownership decided to respond to recent events and comments such as these.

Yesterday morning a local journalist for the South London Press, Richard Cawley, tweeted that there would be a statement from the club. Shortly after, another local paper tweeted fans to inform them that the statement was not regarding any changes to the club staff — clearly The Club had briefed the local press, despite never communicating their intentions directly with the fans. Even their twitter feed - @CAFCOfficial - had neglected to mention the impending statement.

In what would soon demonstrate itself to being a mere PR exercise, the club released a written Q&A session— complete with what appears to be questions sourced without any fan interaction.

Enter Richard Murray, a man who has stood proudly behind Charlton Athletic for over 20 years — 20 years that have included some incredibly successful periods. Such a figure for Charlton that he has been, he decided to continue his impressive stewardship in a non-executive role when the club was purchased by its current owners in 2014. Unfortunately though, today the paint further dried on his new portrait as a pantomime villain — in part due to his peculiar Q&A session which has firmly cemented his position against that of the fans.

Very soon after the release of the “the statement” it became clear that the supporters were not the intended audience — and when this session was reproduced in Evening Standard it became evident that the Q&A was little more than an attempt at damage control after a dreadful week for the club. If the poorly selected questions raised an eyebrow, then the answers are sure to confuse even more so.

So what’s so bad about the Q&A?

If you’ve read the PR piece, you may be understandably confused as to why the fans are so distraught; Murray successfully paints the picture of a club which strives to be run both sensibly and sustainably, whilst continuing it’s vital work in the local community.

Sadly though, Murray’s explanations don’t live up to even the most casual of investigation. Let’s explore his answers a little more closely…

Our strategy for Charlton Athletic is that we are a financially stable club, who can be competitive in the Championship, but has Premier League ambitions.

Charlton Athletic’s CEO, Katrien Meire, has recently regretted rather a lot of the soundbites she’s provided the media. Particularly of interest in the context of the above quote was a “proposition” she delivered during a disastrous appearance at WebSummit 2015 (A digital conference, in November).

Katrien’s proposition for the future of the club was “a unique, real football, fan experience [to] see the next stars of the premier league that we will have play at Charlton in the first team, that we’ll sell on to the premier league”.

Clearly, Katrien’s own vision for the club remains outside the top flight — albeit with the objective of providing players that will subsequently play for other clubs in the top flight. I’m not quite sure if cementing our status as a club supplying talent to the Premier League, whilst on the outside and peering in, was quite the ambition that Murray was trying to imply during this Q&A session.

Then in a peculiar move, Murray answers a few questions regarding the finances of running a Championship football club — this becomes quite a strong theme during the Q&A. Whilst certainly insightful, it’s perhaps disingenuous to imply that fans are protesting simply because they wish to see more money injected in to the club.

Equally, by being financially prudent, we’re not in the situation where we have to sell a player to pay the wages next week. I’ve been in that situation before with Charlton Athletic when I was one of the owners, and that was also the case with the previous regime.

To go further and insinuate that anybody would wish to jeopardise the safety of the club they love is incredulous; Charlton Athletic is the club that saw itself exiled from its home, The Valley in SE7, during the 1980s — partly due to circumstances that arose following the club entering administration.

Charlton Athletic was also the “model club” who were praised for how they ran their finances and affairs whilst in the Premier League. The fans, perhaps more than most, know from experience that money doesn’t equate to success.

No owner wants to run down a football club, it defies logic. What I know has happened is that there has been a 40% increase in the player budget, our players are on longer-term contracts, he has invested £2.5m to improve a stadium in need of renovation and made a multi-million investment in the academy’s facilities.

Once again, these protests have not been focused around finance — but Murray touches upon an interesting claim here nonetheless.

By his own admission, a “40% increase in the player budget” when compared to the previous regime who were so cash strapped they would “sell a player to pay the wages next week” doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement.

During the previous regime’s last transfer window, Charlton Athletic found themselves woefully unprepared for the following season — relying on free transfers and loans (i.e Simon Church and Marvin Sordell) who proved unable to impress on the pitch. A 40% improvement on that particular situation is, to be fair, not quite as impressive as it would first sound.

Even in respect to Charlton’s championship rivals, club CEO Katrien Meire has conceded that “the fans need to be realistic because our budget is the third lowest in the Championship”.

However, I think it’s fair to say — and he [Roland Duchatelet, Charlton Athletic’s owner] admits this — that he has underestimated the challenges of the Championship. […] We have put a little too much faith in our overseas players to suddenly come in and play 46 games a year.

In Murray, Duchatelet has a board member that has extensive experience of running a Championship club. Murray is a man, after all, that has played pivotal roles in Charlton leaving England’s second-tier both via the top and the bottom. Murray is a man, you could argue, who should be able to recognise the mistakes and warning signs that occur before a relegation even if Duchatelet can not.

So are the fans to believe that Murray hasn’t been warning Duchatelet? Or are we to take this as a rather embarrassing admission that Duchatelet is quite happy to ignore his advice, and that he carries no sway in the higher echelons of Charlton Athletic anymore?

Aspersions on the boardroom dynamic at Charlton aside, it’s currently the fifth transfer window of the Duchatelet regime. To make mistakes in the first and second ones can be seen as an accident, the third could potentially be a gross mistake. However, to still repeat the same mistakes is just negligent. (Arguably, so is ignoring the expertise of a fellow board member.)

If you look at many of the overseas purchases we’ve made historically, they have not played a lot of games. Even in the Premier League you find many of the overseas players take a year before they become accustomed to the British way.

Charlton currently possess a team that relies upon a backbone of players who originate from a variety of different European leagues. These are players that, although perhaps skill-full, clearly lack regional experience. As Murray points out, this is also an issue which has happened “historically” — typically resulting in situations where such players “have not played a lot of games”.

That fact that Murray can point to previous examples of a practice that is now core to the entire recruitment strategy failing, is very disappointing — albeit refreshingly honest.

An incident which underlines the current strain on the team, even if it did go largely un-noticed, was the half-time substitution of Addicks midfielder Jordan Cousins during the boxing day clash with Bristol City.

After the final whistle the reasons for his substitution were revealed, and the club “confirmed that [he] fainted in the dressing room at half-time”; after playing despite the fact he “suffered during the week with illness.

If the team is stretched to the point in which players are being used during medically questionable times, then one could go as far as asking whether the club are failing their duty of care to their playing staff?

After all — you wouldn’t ask a waiter to work in a restaurant when they were ill, let alone to the point they would faint mid-shift. So why is that acceptable for a footballer?

The obvious strand missing has been the number of experienced Championship players. […] But we have acted quickly and got in players like Roger Johnson, Diego Poyet and Rhys Williams, all of whom have a lot of Championship experience

Of the three players that Murray mentions here, it’s very interesting that he chose the Championship experience of both Roger Johnson and Diego Poyet; two players who have experience at the club as well as the league. The circumstances of both the players leaving the club provoke more questions though.

Diego Poyet was Charlton’s Player of The Year during the first season of the Belgian regime. Coming from Charlton’s academy he soon become a fans favourite with some impressive performances. However, after just half a season in the team he opted to make a transfer to West Ham.

Whilst players moving to other clubs is, sadly, an inevitability for most second-tier clubs — there were questions regarding whether the regime had made his decision easier. Diego’s own Twitter account hinted that he felt some disappointment with the changes associated with the new ownership, for instance through this tweet he favourited:

Unfortunately, the joke was yet to reach it’s punchline during January 2015 — and a year later things would be worse

Roger Johnson, on the other hand, was signed one year ago to help us out of another period of time when Charlton’s championship status was at risk. Despite Charlton staying up, Johnson was released and has since been playing in India.

Such that the club have now signed a player that they released a mere handful of months ago, on an 18 month contract to boot, does underline the way in which the club is prepared to gamble on unproven players without any experienced ones to fall back upon.

This once again re-iterates that there is a certain naivety to Charlton’s activities during recent transfer windows.

We also have very affordable ticket prices. I still get questioned by other clubs how a London club can be charging £34 for a family of four to come. The main reason is because our own owner subsidises the club.

Taken at face value this is a remarkable attitude for the owner of a football club to take, and to give credit where it’s due — the current Belgian regime was responsible for the successful £150 season ticket scheme during their first full season in charge. In fact, CEO Katrien Meire is known to pride herself on the affordable tickets available at The Valley.

Cheaper ticket prices fit in with Meire’s idea of embracing the “match day experience”, essentially making a trip to The Valley a family day-out. However for this to work then Katrien needs to get to know and understand her intended audience; something she has so far failed to do, and appears completely unwilling to even attempt.

One example of a misguided attempt at providing entertainment to the fans, which wasn’t received as well as Meire would’ve expected, was the “Fans Sofa”; a pitch side sofa where randomly chosen supporters are allowed to sit.

However, if the “Fans Sofa” was received as slightly embarrassing, then the presence of a House DJ doing a pre-match set in one of the supporters bars, was simply calamitous.

Fresh from Phoenix Nights: A variety of ages were treated to 1pm afternoon House DJ set

Invoking scenes that would seem at home in the likes of Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, one disgruntled supporter even asked her to turn her music down.

Fresh from Phoenix Nights: The House DJ wasn’t well received

For the club to truly make the cheaper ticket prices work then they need to rely on a loyal fan base who are going to repeatedly attend and spend their hard earned cash.

I think we need to communicate with supporters better. The Board accepts it’s not been as good as it could and they are taking a number of steps to improve that.

If there’s any opinion that could be expressed that the supporters would definitely support, it would have to be this one.

Unfortunately, despite the timing of this “statement” it’s an excellent example of how the board, including Murray, really appear to simply be incapable of communicating with the fans.

Ultimately, it’s more worrying what he didn’t say.

Despite dedicating much of the Q&A session to financial strategy, detailing how the club is going to be run with a sustainable model in mind, I haven’t actually heard what this is in response too. As someone who has been present at all of the protests so far, I’ve yet to hear anybody demand the club go bust in pursuit of a Premier League dream.

In fact, the financial angle that Murray hints might be a source of concern for the fan base is actually sensible — unfortunately though, sensible is one word that bares no relationship to Charlton at the moment.

Two very popular chants at the protests have been “We want a manager” and “She’s going to lie in a minute”. Whilst the first chant refers to the fact that Charlton have had an “interim head coach”, recruited from the Belgian third division since October, the second refers to club CEO, Katrien Meire, and her unfortunate habit of being unable to tell the truth.

Despite these two issues being the core concerns for a majority of the fans, Murray neglects to even mention either issue — let alone address them and provide any form of explanation. This simply begs one question; “What kind of response would refuse to address the issues that the fans are actually protesting about”?

Quite clearly a response that wasn’t meant for the fans.

This is the part where we come full circle.

The response the fans received for their large protests and other fan action recently, has focused on finance, community relations and player recruitment. However, two of the main issues on the fans minds were not even mentioned once.

Ultimately yesterday was a sad day, not just for those who spent much of the morning awaiting the clubs “statement” and wondering whether it would mark an improvement to the clubs regime, it was also a sad day for those who had continued to trust and respect a man who had previously done a great deal for their football club — a man who had been an ally of the fans for a long time.

If you’re reading this Mr. Murray then I have one simple message for you: “it’s time to say goodbye.”. It’s quite clear that despite your extensive knowledge of running a Championship football club, you either haven’t warned the board based upon your previous experience — or you haven’t been listened to. It’s obvious that the potential that you bring to the board is sadly being greatly under-appreciated and misused, which begs the question — is it truly worth continuing to tarnish your reputation with the fans via releases like this?

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