How Roland Duchâtelet and Katrien Meire are killing Charlton Athletic
In June 2006, a stocky man interrupted a press conference at Charlton Athletic, just as new head coach Iain Dowie was being revealed to the football world’s press. The man served a writ on Dowie, who had recently resigned from Charlton’s bitter south London rivals Crystal Palace, claiming he wanted to be reunited with his family in the north-west of England.
At the time, Charlton were a model Premier League club. After years of obscurity followed by financial strife, Charlton spent more than half a decade in English football’s top tier, with bumper crowds turning up at The Valley to see the likes of Darren Bent, Scott Parker, Danny Murphy, Claus Jensen and Paolo Di Canio don the Addicks’ red shirt.
Meanwhile, Palace were seen as a bit of a basketcase, run by erratic entrepreneur and keen self-publicist Simon Jordan.
Nearly ten years on, it’s easy to see that Dowie’s appointment — replacing long-serving manager Alan Curbishley — started a sequence of events that have left Charlton as the basketcase.
The Addicks lie second from bottom of English football’s second-tier, the Championship, at least £44m in debt, with no permanent manager, chief scout, or director of football, tumbling attendances and with every prospect of a New Year fire sale of players to raise money.
Meanwhile, and most painfully for Addicks fans, it’s Palace that are now reaping the rewards of sustained Premier League success.
But most incredibly of all, Charlton’s current owner, Belgian tycoon Roland Duchâtelet, shows no signs of wanting to join them at English football’s top table.
He’s content to watch the team that played with the best of them all become a feeder side to the likes of Palace — and is insisting he doesn’t want to sell up.
What’s more, his chief executive has actually said as much — angering fans who fear Duchâtelet is trying to shrink a former Premier League club into a lower-league side whose only ambitions are in selling young players. Attendances are plummeting and fans are revolting. With the club seemingly set on another dive into League One, what’s gone wrong?
Relegation, relegation, and a false dawn
Iain Dowie didn’t even last five months in the job at Charlton, sacked after blowing £10m of the club’s money on hopeless signings that saw the club sink to the bottom of the league. (Dowie later came off second best in the court case with Palace, with a High Court judge ruling he’d lied his way out of the Eagles. A later appeal by Dowie was settled out of court.) A short but agonising spell with internal appointee Les Reed was followed by Alan Pardew trying, but narrowly failing, to keep Charlton in the Premier League.
Pardew lasted a season and a half in the Championship, but was given the boot after another alarming slide in form. His successor, Phil Parkinson, couldn’t turn things around and in 2009, Charlton were relegated to the third tier for the first time since 1980.
With the club haemorrhaging cash, chairman Richard Murray — who sat alongside Dowie at that 2006 press conference, and had been propping up the club with his own cash — sold up at Christmas 2010 to Michael Slater and Tony Jimenez.
But as soon as they were back in the Championship, the cash dried up. Powell was forced to make do and mend. By the end of 2013, Charlton were in trouble again — bills were going unpaid and there was no cash to renew players’ contracts. The embarrassment was summed up by the Valley pitch itself. Once one of the best in professional football, it had become so unfit for action that matches were abandoned or postponed.
In early January 2014, Slater and Jimenez finally sold up — to Roland Duchâtelet, who also owned Belgian side Standard Liège. His company, Staprix NV, now owns the club. Duchâtelet did, at least, fix the pitch — but almost everything else that has happened since has raised alarm bells among a rapidly dwindling band of Valley regulars.
Doing business the Duchâtelet way
Duchâtelet, 69, made his half-billion pound fortune in selling electronics components. By all accounts, he appears to see himself a visionary figure in business and politics. In one interview, with Belgian journalist Douglas de Coninck, he compared himself with wartime codebreaker Alan Turing.
In 1998, he founded a liberal political party, Vivant, pressing for a basic income for all citizens and flat taxes on income. For three years from 2007, he was co-opted onto the Belgian Senate, the country’s upper house of parliament.
Duchâtelet came into football after buying Sint-Truiden, a side based forty miles east of Brussels. He went onto buy Standard Liège, one of the biggest clubs in the country. While in charge at Standard, he annoyed both fans and the footballing establishment, at one point threatening to pull the club out of the Belgian League if it didn’t merge with its Dutch counterpart.
At one point, enraged Standard fans even broke into the ground and confronted him in his office.
A young lawyer who supported Sint-Truiden, Katrien Meire, offered him help dealing with TV rights, and the two kept in touch. He gave her a job at Standard Liège, and she helped him with the purchase of Charlton.
When that went through, Meire was given the chief executive’s role at The Valley.
Former owner Murray made up the rest of a three-strong board running the club, but in practice, 31-year-old Meire has been the sole spokesperson for the club . Her boss hasn’t been seen at a match since October 2014.
Duchâtelet’s original proposition was that Charlton would be part of a “network” of clubs — Standard Liège, Sint-Truiden, Hungarian first division side Ujpest, Spanish second division team Alcorcon and Carl Zeiss Jena of Germany’s fourth tier. Shuttling players between the sides would avoid the hugely inflated agents’ fees that blight other clubs, Meire argued.
But in practice, what actually happened was that a production line of sub-standard players started to descend on The Valley, without the consent of Powell or his coaching staff.
Tales abound of players simply turning up at the club’s training ground, Sparrows Lane, with suitcases. Five out of six new players that month came from the “network”.
Duchâtelet’s dud players
Usually, English football sides are run by managers, who have a wide-ranging role in team affairs. But Duchâtelet wanted Charlton to be run by a head coach, who would have little say in what players came into the club. So he started interfering with the team behind Powell’s back.
Duchâtelet’s first moves included selling popular striker Yann Kermogant to Bournemouth. He was replaced with the hopelessly inexperienced Piotr Parzyszek; a player so out of his depth, he made just one substitute appearance, three minutes before the end of a match, before being bundled off to Sint-Truiden on loan.
Nearly two years on, Parzyszek remains on Charlton’s books, exiled to Danish side Randers, where the Addicks are subsidising his wages.
Goalkeeper Yohann Thuram-Ulien was also imposed on Powell, ahead of the effective and experienced Ben Hamer, who later escaped to Leicester.
Powell clung onto his job, trying to keep the team he’d built up together and avoiding the duds from Duchâtelet’s network. But it was all in vain. He was sacked in March 2014, with Duchâtelet blaming “a strain in the working relationship between Chris and the board”.
Unfortunately for Duchâtelet, Powell’s replacement — former Standard Liege coach José Riga — also refused to play many of the network flops.
They included include French right-back Loïc Négo, who signed from Ujpest on a three-and-a-half year deal, but only played one match before being sent back there. Turkish midfielder Anıl Koç arrived on loan, but didn’t even get a game.
Exactly who was making these disastrous decisions wasn’t made clear. And despite keeping Charlton in the Championship — and winning a hugely sceptical fanbase over — Riga departed after 17 matches, at the end of the 2013/14 season.
The merry-go-round continues
Riga’s replacement was Bob Peeters, but he only lasted 25 matches. On 12 January 2015, Katrien Meire promised an exhaustive search for a new coach — but former Standard coach Guy Luzon was in place the next day.
Luzon, who had no experience of English football, only survived for 36 games. Sacked in October 2015, he was replaced by “interim” head coach Karel Fraeye, who became the Duchâtelet regime’s fifth team boss.
Fraeye came from Belgian third division side VW Hamme, a semi-professional outfit who play to crowds in their hundreds rather than thousands. More significantly, he had worked alongside Riga at Charlton, was already on Duchâtelet’s payroll, and is suspected by Addicks fans of being behind many of his dud signings.
There remains no stability in the team. There appears to be no strategy to add to the team, either. Chief scout Phil Chapple departed for Championship rivals Fulham in September and hasn’t been replaced.
Ahead of a crucial Boxing Day fixture at fellow relegation strugglers Bristol City, and with the team conceding goals at an alarming rate, Fraeye startled fans by picking four strikers in his starting XI. It was a defender, Harry Lennon, who nabbed a crucial equaliser in the last minute.
As the second anniversary of Duchâtelet’s takeover approaches, “interim” coach Fraeye has lasted for 10 matches, and lost eight of them. There is no sign of him departing, less still any indication that a team boss with experience of the intense demands of the English Championship will be appointed any day soon.
The club remains second from bottom of the Championship — four places worse than when he arrived.
A one-man stand against English football’s economics
The Championship is now as every bit as much of a global set-up as the Premier League. But its income is dwarfed by its larger counterpart — particularly with a lacklustre TV deal that offers little exposure beyond pay-TV — with many clubs losing millions before they’ve even kicked a ball.
Just as he used Standard to rage against the limited ambitions of Belgian football, Duchâtelet appears to be using his acquisition as a one-man stand against English football’s barmy economics — even though the consequences for Charlton could be catastrophic, as incomes in League One are even worse.
His policy of forcing cheap imports onto Charlton has left his coaches relying heavily on the club’s home-grown young players, such as striker Karlan Ahearne-Grant and defender Tareiq Holmes-Dennis. They’ve been thrown in the deep end in the early stages in what are often short, unpredictable careers.
The fate of highly-rated striker Ademola Lookman will be telling. Just 18, he made his debut in the first team in November, and his performances have been the highlights of a depressing season at Charlton.
After scoring three goals in nine matches, he’s already being touted as a potential transfer target for predators such as Chelsea and Arsenal. Many fans are already resigned to him going — even though his goals could keep Charlton in the Championship.
The Duchâtelet strategy — become a feeder club
At a tech industry summit in Dublin in November, Meire outlined the Duchâtelet strategy for Charlton.
“My proposition would be a real unique football fan experience — and see hopefully the next stars of the Premier League, which we will have play for Charlton in the first team and then sell onto the Premier League.”
Charlton’s academy has long been a source of pride for fans — particularly those who have been subsidising it by paying monthly £10 subscriptions into a regular prize draw, Valley Gold.
But Valley Gold members expected the club to invest in senior players too, giving the academy players every chance of turning out in Charlton shirts in the Premier League — as Scott Parker and Paul Konchesky did — rather than their hard-earned cash funding a production line for “bigger” teams.
In any case, going to see teams featuring bright young players is not a “unique” experience — clubs up and down the country offer that.
What attracts people to football teams — those that go to matches, rather than watch TV — are the quality of football on the pitch together with local and family connections to the club. Under the Duchâtelet regime, the quality of football has plummeted, and all hope of seeing top-level matches one day in the future is fast fading away.
Duchâtelet has, to his credit, invested in the academy. But with his actions making the club so unstable at present, there are real fears the club may not survive to reap the benefits of that academy.
Falling out with the fans
So if Duchâtelet and Meire are content to run Charlton down, what of the fans? Duchâtelet refuses to talk about Charlton. In Belgium, he’ll talk about a citizen’s income. He’ll tell a university where it should be based. He’ll even open a new cafe at Sint-Truiden’s ground.
But talk to Charlton fans? No. And it’s clear that Meire doesn’t think very much of them either.
An interview with Belgian magazine L’Echo saw her declare she did not care for the club’s past, mocking complaints from supporters of 60 years “who know everything better than anyone”.
“Fans don’t see themselves as customers,” Meire complained at the tech summit in Dublin.
“So whenever I get friendly emails from fans they say ‘get out of our club’, so it’s not the shareholders’ club. They say they pay… but they go to the restaurant with their family every week or they go to the cinema, and they’re not satisfied with the product, do they go and scream to the people in charge of it? No they don’t! But they do with a football club, and that’s very weird.”
A dim thing to say at any club, dimmer still at a club whose fans stood in local elections to force the council to allow it to return to The Valley after a spell exiled elsewhere. Many of these fans later became shareholders, losing their investments when the club plummeted through the divisions.
But what are fans complaining about? On top of the team’s lamentable performance, fans were also embarrassed when a video appearing to show a couple having sex on The Valley pitch was “leaked” in a stunt to promote pitch hire at the end of last season.
During the summer, season tickets went astray when the club messed up its marketing database — a cock-up Meire tried to blame on Royal Mail. And if you walked to the ticket office to sort it out, you might find it closed, as Meire has decided it should only open a few days per week.
A “fans’ sofa” by one of the corner flags — where contest winners can watch a close-up view of the game — has been widely mocked; plans are also afoot to ditch the club’s award-winning match programme in favour of a pamphlet of advertisements.
Most surreally, Meire decided to entertain the mostly middle-aged patrons of the club’s fans’ bar with a house music DJ.
We are the 2%
After fans protested before one match, holding cards and donning black and white scarves rather than the usual red and white (“spell it out in black and white”), Meire attempted to placate supporters by hosting a meeting with selected representatives.
Hugely popular club captain Johnnie Jackson was hauled in to sit on the panel, with all the demeanour of a man who’d just been taken hostage.
But her Powerpoint presentation on “building a better future together” did not convince — “I thought we had already explained this several times” was possibly not the way to have introduced it — and the full-two hour video is uncomfortable viewing.
Worse still, she derided the protesting fans as “2%” of the fanbase. One enterprising fan got thousands of cards printed with “we are the 2%” on.
When thousands stood up in the second minute of a televised game, brandishing the cards, Sky cameras focused on the cards, then a visibly uncomfortable Meire.
New investment in Charlton rejected — and protests grow
A minority of fans have continued to hand Meire defences to hide behind by focusing on her gender and nationality. Others have said that without Duchâtelet and Meire, the club would be in an even worse state.
But when fanzine Voice of the Valley revealed at Christmas that Meire had declined to meet former chief executive Peter Varney — who ran the club during its successful Premier League era, and now works with a Kuwaiti trust — about a possible investment in the side, squabbling fans finally came together.
Meire had not just declined Varney’s offer, she alternately ignored his emails, or cancelled meetings at the last minute — even though Varney had offered to travel to Brussels to meet Duchâtelet himself.
After news of this broke, when a feeble Charlton side conceded its first goal against Wolves on Monday, fans rose almost as one to condemn the club’s owners.
The biggest protest yet is now planned for Saturday’s match against Nottingham Forest. Fans fear that if Duchâtelet and Meire don’t sell up quickly — enabling emergency investment in the side in January’s transfer window — the club may enter an irreversible decline.
Squeezed from both sides — a bleak future in League One
The tragedy is that Duchâtelet and Meire aren’t wrong in their diagnosis of English football. Beyond the golden gates of the Premier League, its finances are shot to pieces, with a few teams making huge sums of money. The others struggle for a chance at a spell in the limelight.
Yet one club alone cannot change things. By not even countenancing the investment needed for Charlton to stay in the Championship, never mind going all out for promotion, Duchâtelet and Meire are gambling with the future of a club that has a hold on the affections of thousands of people in London and the south-east of England.
And by refusing to let go, they risk killing the club they bought just two years ago.
If Charlton are relegated to League One, it faces a possibly fatal squeeze. Meire talks of the club having the cheapest tickets in London — it does, but it does very little to promote this, despite sitting in an area gaining thousands of new residents through new housing.
On one side, West Ham’s taxpayer-assisted move to the Olympic Stadium — just across the Thames from The Valley, and with easy rail links from Charlton’s catchment area — will dump cheap Premier League tickets on the market to lure casual football-watchers. Crystal Palace’s expansion plans for Selhurst Park could do the same.
At the other end of the spectrum, a renaissance in non-league football, where the tickets are cheaper and the atmosphere is more relaxed, risks nibbling away at the disenchanted Addicks fanbase.
Clubs with a pull on different parts of Charlton’s patch — Dartford, Dulwich Hamlet, Ebbsfleet United, Maidstone United and Margate — are all posting impressive attendances.
If it’s possible to pay £10 and enjoy packed Dulwich Hamlet, or watch the resurgent Maidstone United for £12, why would you pay twice that to sit in a half-empty stadium at Charlton?
Can Charlton Athletic be saved?
Fans are now pinning their hopes on a white knight coming in and saving Charlton from the clutches of Duchâtelet and Meire. Peter Varney’s rebuffed approach shows there are potential investors out there.
Indeed, there are signs Duchâtelet is getting bored with football — he sold Standard Liège in summer 2015, complaining the fans there didn’t like him.
One man could hold the key to this — Richard Murray, the man who sat alongside Iain Dowie at that fateful press conference nearly ten years ago. He still remains on the three-person board alonside Duchâtelet and Meire, most likely to protect his legacy at a club he did so much to build up in the 1990s and early 2000s before that catastrophic decision to appoint Dowie.
If Charlton are promoted back to the Premier League, Murray — and other directors from that era — will be repaid the multi-million pound loans they put into the side when it first hit trouble.
There’s every incentive for Murray to act, and persuade Duchâtelet to cut his losses and leave. Once a widely-respected figure — even despite the errors that saw the club tumble down the divisions — his loyalty to the Belgians has destroyed his credibility with most fans.
On Saturday, hundreds of fans will gather outside the club’s boardroom window to demand action. It could be one last chance for Richard Murray to save not just his reputation and legacy, but to save this famous old football club from administration and a bleak future.
Thirteen days later: A club in chaos
Update, 13 January 2016: This piece was published on 31 December 2015, and was followed by a feature on The Guardian’s football blog on New Year’s Day 2016.
Meire had told fans in her Q&A session in October that every one of her managerial appointments had been a success. But the first 13 days of 2016 saw the crisis at Charlton accelerate at alarming speed.
About 2,000 fans demonstrated outside The Valley after the match against Nottingham Forest, attracting press coverage in the UK and Belgium. Duchâtelet and Meire did not respond directly to fans, but published an anodyne Q&A with Richard Murray — the man who sat alongside Iain Dowie a decade ago. “No owner wants to run down a football club, it defies logic,” he said. Murray’s statement was rejected by the supporters’ trust.
Meanwhile, former chief executive Peter Varney — whose name was chanted by protesting fans — expanded on his approach to Duchâtelet and Meire in an interview with BBC local radio and a statement to the South London Press, where he said a follow-up had been rejected.
On the field, Karel Fraeye’s tenure as “interim head coach” unravelled rapidly, with an embarrassing 2–1 defeat in the FA Cup at Colchester United, a team struggling in the division below. A story was fed to journalists that José Riga was being lined up to replace him… only for Riga to deny that Charlton had ever been in contact.
On 12 January, Charlton lost 5–0 at Huddersfield Town, with Fraeye refusing to speak to the waiting media and rumours of discord among the squad. Goalkeeper Stephen Henderson, clearly distraught, was sent to talk to the press instead. “I don’t know where to start,” he said. “The lads are lower than they they could ever be in their careers right now.”
Charlton remain second from bottom in the Championship, and are now looking for their sixth team boss in just over two years.
Postscript: José Riga was reappointed Charlton head coach on 14 January, two days ahead of a 6–0 thrashing at Hull City. Duchâtelet admitted to mistakes in the statement that accompanied Riga’s appointment, while the hapless Meire appeared to have completely disappeared from public view.
As local MPs started to take notice of what was going on, Riga’s first signing, Jorge Teixeira, came from… Standard Liège.
The Duchâtelet roundabout goes on…
Fans have now set up CARD - Campaign Against Roland Duchâtelet.