Sixteen years ago today on the gloriously warm spring afternoon of April 29th 2000 Charlton Athletic collected the League Championship trophy in front of a capacity crowd at The Valley.
Sixteen years sounds like a long time ago but I’ve reached an age now where it doesn’t feel like it. The sensations of that day are still vivid; I can still feel the sunshine on my face and see the net making waves after Andy Hunt headed home John Robinson’s free-kick from six yards and ran towards us at the front of the Covered End. I can still feel myself wobbling about standing on my seat as the trophy was presented and the lap of honour began.
It turned into a long night; a bunch of us ended up taking over the Plume of Feathers in Greenwich, the landlord sending over bottles of champagne despite the Crystal Palace scarf and rosette that still hangs behind the bar there to this day.
It was a remarkable feeling. Charlton Athletic, our club, league champions by a mile and returning to the top flight thanks to a brilliant bunch of committed players marshalled by an inspiring manager approaching a decade in charge and backed by a boardroom hierarchy made up largely of lifelong supporters.
It was just eight years since we’d returned to a Valley with portacabins for dressing rooms, a capacity well under ten thousand and no money in the bank (three down in an FA Cup quarter-final a couple of years later to a Manchester United side who’d had Schmeichel sent off, their fans had crowed at us, “We’ve only got ten men”, to which we responded, “We’ve only got two bob”). We’d already been up to the Premier League and back in the meantime.
It was a time of incredible hope underpinned by the tangible sense of dreams being realised. The millennium gave us all a sense of a new beginning and a new future: we’d even straddled it on a record run of twelve consecutive wins. Dreams were taking wing.
The celebrations of Andy Hunt’s goal that afternoon were a little muted because by that time we were already three down. That didn’t really matter though (“Wrighty, Wrighty, what’s the score?” we’d sung at Richard Wright in the Ipswich goal after his side’s third; bemusedly he held up three fingers to massive cheers) because we were the champions.
The match programme that day, with a delighted Chris Powell draped in a ‘champions’ flag as the main cover image, was full of excitement and triumph; one feature trailing how the club had formed a partnership with Internazionale of Milan, one of the biggest teams in Europe – anything had seemed possible. The result didn’t matter. It was all about the bigger picture: the future.
I’ve felt the same sense of results being largely irrelevant while attending matches at The Valley this season. I wish it was because we’d won the same division at a canter and will again be sharing canapés with Serie A executives in expensive suits offering us a taste of the game at its very peak. But no. We’ve been relegated by miles, are stuck with a scruffy septuagenarian from the Low Countries so far out of his depth the coastguard is on permanent alert and the canapes will be served next season at Rochdale and Northampton Town.
Since Belgian micro-electronics magnate Roland Duchatelet bought the club in January 2014 almost everything the fans hold dear has been systematically dismantled, to such an extent one suspects it’s a wilful attempt to reduce Charlton Athletic to a soulless husk. It’s as if Duchatelet and his people want to cleanse Charlton Athletic of everything that’s gone before and create an entirely new club with a new set of spectators that happens to have the same name and plays at the same ground.
So, the reason our parlous run of results this season has felt broadly irrelevant is because, thanks to Duchatelet, right now relegation is the least of our worries.
Others have documented the details of how Duchatelet is destroying the club better than I could, but the most crucial aspect of his catalogue of idiocy is that he’s messing with the wrong set of supporters.
Because it’s not his club. It’s ours.
We want him out, and we will win.
We know we’ll win because we’ve got form. Much has been made of how Charlton was once the archetype of how to run a football club properly, but in the context of the club’s history that was just a blip. Before that there were decades of postwar neglect under the Gliksten family, the catastrophic early eighties reign of Mark Hulyer that nearly drove the club out of existence (signing former European Footballer of the Year Allan Simonsen from Barcelona when we were playing in a crumbling stadium in front of barely 4,000 in the lower reaches of the second division was always going to work) and the disastrous naiveté of his successor John Fryer that led to us losing The Valley for seven long years and further flirtations with oblivion.
The club’s more recent decline can’t even be laid solely at the feet of Duchatelet: his predecessors Slater and Jimenez were hardly shining examples of club ownership, but at least they’d facilitated Chris Powell’s assembly of a team greater than the sum of its parts – in true Charlton tradition – to storm out of League One as champions and then to within three points of a play-off place and, later, an FA Cup quarter-final.
The decade and a half in the sun we enjoyed around the turn of the millennium can’t hide the fact that we’re kinda used to the club being run by crackpots and hence we’re well equipped for it. The campaign to get the club back to The Valley included the Valley Party gaining 14,838 votes in the local elections, an extraordinary political result for a single issue party, an achievement often cited as one of the great fan campaigns of all time.
In the light of this, the fact that the current protests against the owners under the banner of the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet have been imaginative, ingenious, effective, entirely legal and slickly organised (and will ultimately succeed) is no surprise, because we’ve won before and we’ll win this one too, no matter how long it takes.
In some ways this campaign is easier because the regime plays into the hands of the protestors at every turn. When it comes to the fans, Duchatelet and his Chief Executive Katrien Meire by their actions seem to think that we’re a slack-jawed, monosyllabic mass of knuckleheads who spend our waking hours shuffling around glassy-eyed chanting “Chow’un, *clap clap clap*”; numbskulled obsessives united by a blind loyalty that accepts with deference whatever we’re told is good for us.
As with most of their strategies they’ve got this startlingly wrong.
The people being systematically alienated and insulted by the Duchatelet regime are from all strata of society. A football club is a community and like any community it comprises a range of people: some as successful in business as Duchatelet himself; the rest generally articulate, intelligent and rational. Normal people, in other words. Normal people with opinions, knowledge and the choice of whether or not to accept the way the club is run.
Many protesting fans interpret this short clip of Katrien Meire speaking at November’s Dublin Web Summit as the chief executive calling Charlton fans ‘customers’ and ‘very weird’ and expressing disbelief that fans could feel a sense of ownership of their club, one that doesn’t equate with a favourite restaurant or local cinema. While her choice of words is certainly clumsy and ill-expressed I’m inclined to think she was trying to make a broader point about the unique nature of a football club’s relationship with its ‘customers’ when compared to other businesses.
She didn’t do it very well. But look at the way she says it. The eye-roll at the mention of receiving e-mails of complaint from fans. She doesn’t quite do dismissive finger air-quotes around the ‘our’ of ‘get out of our club’, but it’s close. It’s the contemptuous tone of what she says rather than the actual words that are most revealing for me: the underlying mix of mystification and frustration that the fans won’t just be told what’s good for them ‘because it’s the shareholder’s club’.
Even allowing for her accepting the undeniable truth that football fans are a unique customer base, she and Duchatelet have come down resolutely and entirely on the wrong side of that fact. Instead of embracing this unique relationship to mutual advantage the Duchatelet regime has tried to pull up the ladder and cut off the very people who can help them achieve success for Charlton Athletic. The people they need to help them.
It’s all down to the arrogance of certainty. Roland Duchatelet made a great deal of money in a particular part of the electronics industry, I’m sure with good reason and deservedly so. However, that spectacular niche success has led him to the lunatic conclusion that he can be equally successful in whatever field he chooses.
He believed, for example, that he alone knew best what the entire nation of Belgium needed and launched a political party with a manifesto largely comprising his own philosophies. It didn’t exactly set the world on fire and Vivant remains firmly at the margins of regional Flemish politics.
This has failed to dent an unshakable belief in his own genius and next he convinced himself he could single-handedly cure football of its financial ills and revolutionise the European game. He now has a controlling stake in five European football clubs of which Charlton is the largest (where we were once tied in to Inter, now we’re enmeshed with the likes of St Truiden and Carl Zeiss Jena). None of them is doing well. Charlton have, of course, just been relegated to League One after an abject season by probably the worst Charlton team I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something, a team put together by Meire, Duchatelet and the succession of numpty inadequates from his network that have passed through the manager’s office in the past two years.
There are many contributory factors to the team’s demise, all of which rest at the door of Roland Duchatelet. Despite having no experience whatsoever of football other than buying clubs with his micro-electronics money, he sends his coaches players, seemingly purely on a whim, and tells them who should play. Earlier this season he installed a coach in charge at Charlton, Karel Fraeye, who had never managed a team at a level higher than the Belgian third division. The Belgian third division. Surprisingly, Fraeye’s thirteen match reign at The Valley was cataclysmic and proved to be the undoing of Charlton’s hard-won Championship status.
“Roland doesn’t do failure,” said Katrien Meire last year. Well, clearly he does. Indeed, as far as I can see, in recent years he’s specialised in little else. Nothing he’s tried outside his core business has worked. Nothing.
‘Roland doesn’t do failure’ is one of those vacuous phrases used by people in business to avoid asking questions of themselves; a crass piece of sloganeering that betrays the complete absence of nuance and depth in the regime’s strategic thinking. It’s precisely what is causing the collapse of Charlton Athletic: this arrogance of certainty, the sense that they know what’s best because they say they do, no matter how obvious it may be that the complete opposite is the case.
Another phrase coined by Meire in Dublin was ‘unique real football fan experience’, again the kind of empty posturing devoid of meaning that’s popular with some business people. She says the regime is working at Charlton to create a new ‘unique real football fan experience’ whereby fans get to see homegrown youngsters before they are sold on to Premier League clubs.
What the chief executive appears to be saying here is that the club is abandoning all hope of reaching the Premier League ever again: its aim is to break even financially by selling on valuable playing assets to other clubs while treading water in the lower divisions.
Now, exciting young players leaving is undeniably a fact of footballing life and we at The Valley have seen it as much as any other club of comparable stature. One thinks of the great Robert Lee being sold to Newcastle United for a paltry £700,000 in 1992 because the return to The Valley had cleaned out our meagre coffers, even a young Jermain Defoe being poached from our youth set up by West Ham before going on to great things.
It happens. It’s always been part of football, part of the food chain, and we hate it when it occurs. Seeing a former local starlet who’s risen through the youth system, broken into the first team and shown glimpses of what he might achieve trotting out in the colours of another club (and in our case always scoring against us) is hard to swallow but it’s never been a stated policy. Until now, it seems.
We fans are supposed to accept this, keep turning up week in week out, greeting every departure to a Premier League side with a shrug and a chuckle and just keep blindly turning up to watch a team with absolutely no ambition. Just what do they think this game is about?
There are countless reasons to object to what’s being done to Charlton Athletic by the current regime, but for me this is the most idiotic (and it’s certainly the most contemptuous of the supporters). Not because balancing the books isn’t important, of course it is, but because with this policy Duchatelet and Meire are not just trying to take away our club, they’re taking away our dreams.
Football fans, especially those of clubs like Charlton, are nourished by our dreams and our memories: take even one of those away and you’ve ripped the heart out of your club’s supporters.
Our dreams and our memories are precisely what make Charlton Athletic our club. Roland Duchatelet may own the assets of the business, the stadium, the players’ contracts, the ticketing, the training ground, but the club is ours, a shared ownership gleaned through a collective experience that’s fuelled by our dreams. That is the true ‘unique real football fan experience’, it’s one with substance, depth and built from sheer humanity.
If any club’s fans are united in a ‘unique real football fan experience’ it’s the intensity of that experienced by the fans of Charlton Athletic over the years. We’ve seen our club come within minutes of extinction. We’ve seen our ground taken from us and fought hard for the best part of a decade to get it back. We’ve had the tragic, preventable death of Pierre Bolangi that traumatised the place from boardroom to training ground to the stands and pulled us even closer together.
I was brought up on 3,500 crowds watching 1-5 defeats at home to Rotherham in a crumbling, undulating concrete bowl ostensibly capable of accommodating 66,000. In 37 years of supporting Charlton I’ve seen extraordinary highs and wincing lows on the field. I’ve seen dreadful games, I’ve seen classic games, brilliant players to take the breath away and utter carthorses with the football intelligence of a dugong. Charlton Athletic is where I grew up, it’s the one constant in my life outside immediate family. Like all those around me at The Valley I have a bank of memories and experience, mine stretching back nearly four decades, and even Roland Duchatelet can’t take those away.
I also have dreams, the same as every other football fan. I’ve nourished myself in the bad times with the hope that it will get better, that anything might be possible. My expectations are realistic: just about every moment we spent in the Premier League we were punching above our weight, for example, and it was amazing. Take the dream of repeating that away and, well, there’s no point really, is there?
Nothing will ever top the feeling of standing on the threshold of unimaginable things after Sasa Ilic flopped onto Michael Gray’s penalty in the play-off final at Wembley in 1998.
Nothing will top the collective joy of December 5th 1992 when the team stepped out at The Valley for the first time after seven years away, The Red Red Robin played and the sky filled with red and white balloons.
Nothing will top the feeling at half-time in the away end at Old Trafford in that 1994 FA Cup Quarter-Final when the score was 0-0, Peter Schmeichel had just been sent off for the home side, Things Can Only Get Better pumped out of the PA system and we all joined in because at that moment it was true.
Each occasion listed above is special because it was about hope and about dreams. They’re special because they’re rare: they’re the pay-off for the bad times and the mediocre times. They’re what we live for. Those moments are part of the genuine ‘unique real football fan experience’. It’s not something you can read up in textbooks or cook up with a sharpie, a flip chart and a room full of earnest, pen-chewing ‘winners’ with minds full of buzzwords and an outlook forged from the arrogance of certainty. No, it comes from a history of shared experience and the collective clutch of dreams that supporting our club provides. Take that away, leave us only with the promise of bad times and mediocre times, and you’ve messed up. Massively.
Roland Duchatelet is taking away our dreams and destroying our club and that’s why we’re angry. That’s why we’re entitled to chant that “we want our Charlton back”, because he’s trying through sheer obstinate ignorance to steal from us the very heart and soul of our club. That is something no amount of money can buy. It can only be stolen.
Sixteen years ago today I stood up from the table in the Plume of Feathers, walked around the bar to the payphone, made a call and learned that my uncle Phil had died that afternoon after a long and horrible illness. He’d taken me to games as a kid and is mostly responsible for the 37 years I’ve supported Charlton Athletic. The first time I ever sat in the West Stand was on September 21st 1985 when Phil took me to what we all believed was the last ever game at The Valley and I broke my heart in the car on the way home. He promised me it would be OK. He kept that promise.
He was Charlton through and through. There were red and white flowers on his coffin and he’s buried with a copy of the programme from the day he died, the day we were officially crowned league champions, in his hand.
Today, on this joint anniversary, I shall raise a glass to my uncle Phil and to Charlton Athletic.
I can’t have my uncle Phil back, but I can, and will, have my Charlton back.
Sixteen years ago today on the gloriously warm spring afternoon of April 29th 2000 Charlton Athletic collected the League Championship trophy in front of a capacity crowd at The Valley.