By Hugo Varley
If one were to look at Charlton Athletic’s start to the season it would be perfectly reasonable to make the assumption that all is well at the Valley.
A battling 2-1 defeat at promotion favourites Sunderland on the season’s opening day followed by victory over Shrewsbury last weekend appears to give the indication of stability.
However, if one scratches below the surface a true picture of the situation in SE7 quickly begins to emerge.
In both opening games the Addicks have failed to name a full bench, with the vast majority of substitutes being academy players, who despite being talented individuals cannot be consistently relied upon by a side seeking promotion.
Whilst Charlton were unlucky with injuries during pre-season, the real reason why the club have started the campaign with such a depleted squad lies in the boardroom.
Owner Roland Duchatelet has been locked in negotiations to sell the club throughout the summer and has therefore shied away from providing much needed investment into the first team squad.
Duchatelet‘s ownership hit the headlines during the 2016/17 season when Charlton fans, who were watching their side battle to stay in the Championship, began to organize a series of large scale protests against the club’s hierarchy.
Frustration over the regular appointment of inexperienced and unproven managers and the emergence of a growing fracture in relations between supporters and the board led to Charlton fans designing a number of creative protests, which quickly grabbed the media’s attention.
However, with the Addicks now plying their trade in League One and the Sky Sports cameras rarely frequenting the Valley, significantly less media attention has been devoted to events in SE7.
Unfortunately, since the turn of the year the situation at the club has deteriorated further.
The news that Duchatelet was looking to step aside was quickly followed by the departure of Chief Executive Katrien Meire, Chief Financial Officer David Joyes and Manager Karl Robinson, all of whom have not been properly replaced. Indeed, Bowyer is now into his fifth month as “caretaker” manager.
When last season ended there was a real feeling of optimism among Charlton fans that a takeover would be completed over the summer.
Members of an Australian consortium, believed to be close to buying the club, were pictured in the directors’ box with Charlton scarfs draped around their necks at the club’s final home game of the campaign.
Duchatelet’s tenure looked to be finally over…..or so we thought.
We are now three months down the line and the club is still in the hands of Duchatelet.
Apart from a brief article on the club’s official website, stating that the current ownership “is expecting a takeover of the club to be completed” and the minutes of a meeting between a fan’s forum and one of Duchatelet’s representatives, fans have been left in the dark about how close to a takeover the club actually is.
Whilst the takeover saga has dragged on it appears as though Duchatelet’s cost cutting measures have begun to bite.
A recent article in the Independent claimed that academy players are no longer given bottled water at the training ground or allowed a free breakfast and that Wi-Fi and electricity usage have become rationed. (Since this article was published, it has also been reported in the Daily Mail that staff at the club are considering legal action over unpaid bonuses, while a separate article in the Evening Standard claimed that due to cutbacks in the club’s cleaning budget a member of staff had to ask for permission from HR to eat a packet of crisps at their desk, while staff have been holding meetings in the dark to save money on the electricity bill.)
It is clear that a takeover has to happen if the club is going to progress in the long term. Too many bridges have been burned between the ownership and the fan base for any sense of unity and togetherness to be rebuilt under the current hierarchy.
The fact that only a little over 9000 fans were at the Valley to witness Karlan Grant’s injury time winner against Shrewsbury last weekend demonstrates how widespread disenfranchisement has become among supporters.
Attendances have dropped significantly over the last two seasons as fans who once threw inflatable beach balls and miniature rubber pigs onto the pitch in protest at Duchatelet’s ownership have decided to boycott attending matches entirely.
Plenty of my Charlton supporting friends have vowed not to return to the Valley until there is a change of ownership and from a personal perspective I have been struck by the sense of apathy that I now feel towards the club under the current regime.
If the elusive takeover is completed soon then a newly enthused support base coupled with a few January signings could well trigger a push for promotion this season.
However, whilst promotion would be fantastic, all I really want is for any potential new owners to embrace Charlton’s proud identity and make being a supporter of the club a special experience once again.
*This article originally featured in The Football League Paper which is available every Sunday and Monday (@theleaguepaper)