Charlton Athletic chief executive Katrien Meire reiterated owner Roland Duchatelet’s stance on how tightly he would hold on to his majority stake in The Valley, despite notable fans protests which have increased in size and dissent over the past 12 months.
In conversation with talkSPORT, Meire told presenter Jim White that Duchatelet had no intention of selling Charlton even though fans have held a mock-funeral, 4,000 elected not to renew their season tickets for the 2016/17, and the fact Duchatelet has failed to attend a home match in two years.
Criticised for overseeing the club’s plight into the lower half of the League One table when then-manager Chris Powell helped the club keep a stable foothold in the Championship, fans have equally be frustrated by a lack of communication and will to be transparent in ownership’s operations as a community club.
Read below for a rare interview with Meire, discussing matters with Jim White, ex-Addicks midfielder Danny Murphy, and Dean Saunders.
JW: Many fans say that Duchatelet is clueless and you’re out of your depth. Are you?
Meire: Good morning and thanks for having me, if I was I wouldn’t still be at the club and wouldn’t be say here in front of you today I think.
JW: What do you say about the allegations that he’s an ‘absent owner’, Duchatelet, he doesn’t come and watch his team. He owns a club but he doesn’t bother to come.
Meire: It’s true that it’s been a while since he last attended a game at The Valley…
JW: Why is that?
Meire: … “however, he watches all games via the live stream which is provided by the English Football League and it’s something they have provided for a while now. It’s a service that has been provided for a while now because I think they recognize they have a lot of foreign investors in the Football League and they don’t always have the time or they cannot commit to attending all the home games or away games.
JW: Katrien, I was talking to a lot of fans – I was at Gillingham and I was talking to you there at the weekend. They say to me Duchatelet has appointed a series of little-known managers all of whom have been a disaster. He’s an engineer, he’s a politician in Belgium as well, isn’t he? So he’s a very well respected man and yet he’s made these appointments which has plummeted Charlton into this mess. The fans say ‘this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing’.
Meire: I think I understand the fans’ frustrations and in particular with all the managerial appointments. When we took over most of the managers we appointed had no experience in the English game, or were Belgian or even linked with Belgium, and so obviously there are question marks around that. We did well apart from last season when we were relegated and we paid a high price for those kind of choices. But, I cannot stress enough, we have turned a corner this summer – we realised where we went wrong the last couple of seasons and that is why we appointed Russell Slade, as a manager who is experienced in League One. This is the way forward for us from now on.
JW: Are you confident in Duchatelet knowing what he is doing? Am I right I thinking that he was driven out of Standard Liege by similar fans protests?
Meire: There were obviously issues with the fans at Standard Liege but that completely is a different matter.
JW: He (Duchatelet) bought the club £15m, I think he’s invested around £30-40m – am I right in those figures?
Meire: More or less, yeah.
JW: So what next?
Meire: To come back to the point nobody buys a football club to fail or to get relegated. Charlton were fighting [to avoid] relegation in 2013-14 and the big task ahead that season was to stay and we managed to do that on almost the last game of the season. And then the second season we finished comfortably 12th and the idea was always to build on from that moment to get promoted to the Premier League. Everybody in the Championship wants to be in the Premier League. But we went wrong horribly with recruitment that summer, especially looking back at it now we made a point [earlier] of an experienced English manager. We recruited players this summer which had experience in the league and played a lot of games over the last three seasons, because last season we found we had a lot of injuries. Players were not up to playing 50 games which you need to in this division. We need players who can play Tuesday/Saturday/Tuesday and based on that we learned from our mistakes – maybe it’s a year too late, which is unfortunate but I cannot change the past; we can only go forward. I just hope that from now on we can get it right and get back into the Championship as soon as possible.
Danny Murphy: The owner, his intention is honourable and he actually wants to take the club forward?
JW: So he is going to stay Katrien? No matter what.
JW: I know you have had offers of late, is he tempted to sell?
Meire: No we haven’t had offers to be clear. The club is also not for sale. There will always be people interested in buying a club in London and also the club is not for sale. That’s quite simple.
Dean Saunders: I’ve been a manager and signing players can be a problem. Russell comes to you and asks you ‘I want to sign this player, he’s going to cost this much. What do you think?’ Do you then have to go to the owner before Russell gets an answer, and get an answer. Or does it take a week?
Meire: I’m there to support Russell. I am responsible for the budget, so ahead of the season I will meet the owner and we will discuss the transfer budget and the player (wage) budget, then I give Russell the perimeters. Whatever falls within the budget we are able to do. This summer we acquired Nicky Ajose from Swindon Town for quite some of money for League One.
I learned that it is better to stay within budget because you might have injuries along the way.
Danny Murphy: Can I just clarify this because this is important for supporters… what you’re saying is the manager now in charge of the team, has had control of the transfers – is that true?
Meire: Yes. Russell has confirmed this on several occasions already and it was one of his conditions.
Murphy: I understand some of the anger at yourself and the owner, but why has the manager – who has brought in 15 players and the club is sitting 17th in League One – not been to blame for this? It sounds like you’re taking a lot of flak.
Mending relations with supporters
JW: Charlton lossed 4,000 season ticket holders in the summer, the largest year-on-year percentage reduction in the history of the club. How are you going to get those fans back?
Meire: It’s the not ideal situation. When relegation comes It’s hard to convince the fans to come back. One of the strategies that we did from the start was to make football affordable for everybody. For two years I think we had the most affordable season ticket in the entire Football League. We reach out to local schools, to local communities so that’s one strength. And, the most important part is that the retention of and increasing the fanbase. That’s a commitment from myself, I am meeting all the fans’ groups ahead of home games, I’m inviting them for a Q&A, an open and honest conversation is how we can make things better again. One of the mistakes we made is we haven’t utilised the knowledge and the passion that the fans have for this club and Charlton is very unique in this sense. Next year, we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of returning back to The Valley and fans played a key role, that’s why we need to be using their passion more.
We are developing a new website they’re involved in the design of that, and yesterday we announced a new deal with Hummel and fans will have the opportunity to design the kit for next season.
JW: All that sounds great, but is the damage already done? With Duchatelet appointing so many poor, mediocre manager which has landed you in the position you are in now.
Meire: That is the past. We are here today and we have to look forward.
JW: But I’m trying to get the fans on side with you, and this is why they’re so embittered with him.
Meire: I’m determined to make this work. I invited even the people from CARD (Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet) – the protestors – to meet with me because this war, if we can refer to this as a war, is resolved through talking to each other. They have refused, but the door is always open to them and they know that. I hope at some point they will come around.
JW: So just to re-emphasise, Duchatelet isn’t going he is staying?
JW: And because of that you are staying. How depressed do you get though when you see the 3,000 foam pigs be thrown onto the pitch or the plane that we saw fly over at Gillingham – it must get you down? As I understand it, there was a forged letter of resignation, a letter with your forged signature on it, handed in to Companies House. This must get you down?
Meire: Well you had that and you had fans visiting my parent’s house in Belgium and I can distinguish those were actions by certain individuals that crossed the line. But I understand the fans protests throwing the pigs and the plane – it’s part of their frustration. I’m a football fan myself: for over 22 years I’ve been supporting my team, going to games, and we had promotions and relegations. But the unfortunate thing with the pigs is that it obviously interrupts the game. The aim is for the players to improve on the pitch and we need avoid those situations
JW: What happened with your parent’s house? This incident in Belgium?
Meire: Some fans went to my parent’s house in Belgium and they rang the bell, and my father opened and they asked him to confirm if he was my father and they gave him a letter which had some information about myself.
Murphy: That’s too much. That’s disgusting. I don’t condone that at all. Everyone has a right to protest and air grievances. Dialogue’s crucial.
JW: So you’re expanding the training ground. What’s going on there right now then?
Meire: We have a four-phase development for the training ground. We got planning permission finally for the completion of all phases. We started with Phase One which is two artificial pitches with a big water system which irrigates the pitches when we renovate all of them. Which allows the academy team to train more flexible, the the Women’s team and also the Community Trust and expanding all their buildings. It’s a £1.5m investment.
Phase Three and Four will be the rest of the pitches and the building. Charlton has a great academy, we’ve always produced great players for the first-team, we’re seventh in the country for player productivity and that’s something we’re immensely proud of and we need to continue to support the good work that the guys are doing in that department.
JW: In a Belgian newspaper interview, is it true that you said ‘I know I shouldn’t say this but I don’t care about the club?’
Meire: No. It’s again a perfect example of something that has been misrepresented about what I said. What I meant by the comment is that I respect the history, but in order to move forward I don’t have any background, so I can make decisions or have ideas.
The ‘infamous’ Thomas Driesen
JW: A few fans on social media are not having this player recruiter Thomas Driesen. Who is he and what does he do?
Meire: Yes, the famous and infamous Thomas Driesen! He is obviously one of the scouts, we have several scouts abroad and in the UK. Currently we are averaging over 100 player reports a month so we are getting well prepared for the January transfer window.
Meire: Currently the system is we get three different scouts watch a player home and away and when they get a certain percentage in the marks, I think 75%, they get through to the second round where the chief scout will watch them. Then the last round is someone of the manager team; either the manager or his assistant.
We missed out on two targets over the summer but every player we did sign was scouted by several scouts and approved by the manager, [who] did a reference check on the player’s personality.
Murphy: If the chief scout recommends a player to the manager, and the manager watches him doesn’t like him, does the manager have the final say?
Meire: The manager? Yeah.
Murphy: The chief scout can’t say ‘you’re having him’.
Meire: No. Russell said no to a couple of players to great disappointment (to the chief scout). But he’s the boss.
Murphy: But that’s fair. I can’t see a fairer system than that.
JW: We are running out of time – I want to put this to you: some of the supporters at the weekend said to me, unkindly or not, ‘Duchatelet stays, Katrien stays. But Katrien is out of her depth’. Would it not be prudent of Roland Duchatelet to appoint an experienced English director of football to work alongside you – and to pay them whatever it takes?
Meire: I mean not all clubs would work with a director of football and just to be clear my role in the negotiations of the deals: I’m not involved in choosing the players, that’s the task of the manager and chief scout.
JW: Right. But if order to free you up more and reduce the pressure on your Katrien, would Duchatelet not be better employed putting in someone alongside you, who is English and experienced, to bolster you to help you? He’s going to stay in Belgium no matter what, he’s got multi-million pound companies to run.
Meire: To be fair, I love doing the deals and for the first time this summer I worked alongside an English manager and I could see what an advantage that is in the game having much more contacts. When I negotiate a deal with another chief executive or with the board or the owner and then Russell would phone the manager and asked if this would happen. I think that’s why we were so successful in recruiting players this summer because from both angles we could put pressure on making the deals happen. I think we have the experience and the team to successfully recruit players.
Dean Saunders: My advice to Charlton is: Leave Russell Slade in charge for two years. Let him get on with his job, let him pick the players. Just let him get on with it.
Murphy: What if they’re in the relegation zone come February?
Saunders: Then they have to have a rethink!
JW: Does the fans backlash cause you many sleepless nights, Katrien?
Meire: Yeah, obviously…
JW: They love their club, they think it’s badly run and they want change. You say you’re going to stay, but you’re going through a lot emotionally.
Meire: It hurts me as much, I may not have grown up as a Charlton fan; the last two years Charlton has been my life and I want this club to succeed and I want to help to achieve that.
JW: Is Duchatelet fully aware of what you’re going through here? With the situation of the demonstration at your parent’s front door in Belgium?
Meire: Yes, he’s aware and obviously if he thought I couldn’t handle that I wouldn’t be sitting here.
JW: So he’s going to back you no matter what? And he can give us a cast iron assurance that he’s going to put more money, many more millions into Charlton Athletic, is he going to do that?
Meire: Anything we do from the start at Charlton Athletic it’s all about the long-term plans, the long-term investment, the academy. We did the pitch after it had been neglected for 16 years. We invested over £5m so far in the facilities.
JW: What’s this guy like? Is he a football man? Because the fans don’t think he is.
Meire: Errr, yes. He enjoys he football and he enjoys drinking a beer during and after a game. He believes football is a big importance in the life of people and can really make, socially, an impact in people’s lives and that’s why he invests in football.
JW: Is he the best man for the club?
JW: Why don’t you phone his up and ask him to come over this weekend you’re at home at The Valley against Chesterfield?
Meire: What? For him to come over? I could but he’s a very business man and he’s in charge of many businesses – he’s responsible for 7,000 employees worldwide. Be assured whenever I need him he makes sure he makes time for the club and for me.
JW: What’s going to make the fans happy, Danny?
Saunders: If you sign 15 players you don’t expect them to gel together in five minutes. So you’re going to get into some dodgy runs. Russell Slade knows what he’s doing, he’ll get it right.
Meire: We’ve come on along well after last season and when we hired Russell we made it clear we knew it was a hard task because we not only needed to completely change not only the team but also the backroom staff and it just takes time for us to gel together.