Friday, 11 April 2014

Failing To Rediscover That Passion For Our Club

The shock-wave that was felt by Charlton supporters following the sacking of Chris Powell made for an uncomfortable night when Huddersfield visited the Valley barely 24 hours later. Since then, some have rediscovered the passion of supporting Charlton, as they get wrapped up in the battle to avoid relegation. But for others, its been hard to rediscover that special feeling you get when following your football club. The events were taken by many to simply have been made for footballing reasons - but from the club statement it was clear that it went much deeper. The way Charlton is currently being run jeopardises our independence - by placing us in the middle of a businessman's network our primacy as a club is diminished. It is a complex and as yet unexplained network, but enough signs have emerged to induce a feeling of fear, rather than excitement.

Debates have raged about events on the field, whether the sacking was right in footballing terms or not, but as the justification for it was given as a difference in "footballing vision", it is clear that the decision's significance transcends the playing field. Calls to "move on" have been misplaced in a number of ways. Some find it easy to take the moral high ground; to call those critical of past actions disloyal. They forget that we all still care about the football club, but instead this is couched in a concerned voice rather than excited one. My struggle to rediscover that passion for the game is not because I'm disloyal and planning a desertion, but because I care about what is being done to Charlton. When you step back and assess what's been done, not even events on the pitch prove a sufficient distraction because they are inextricably linked with what the future appears to hold.

Before making these broad arguments, its important to look at the chain of events this season.

The Impact of the Takeover:

It's been a difficult year for Charlton. Lack of investment meant we entered the season having lost four strikers who played important roles in 2012/13. The weaker playing squad meant results were a struggle, but the odd victories scattered through the winter months demonstrated that Powell's side still had that fighting spirit. Few expected relegation, despite some fearing it. A victory over Brighton at home on Boxing Day was superb, with it looking like things had finally clicked into place. Then January came.

Roland Duchâtelet's takeover was greeted with optimism in it's initial stages. Contracts needed sorting out to ensure that uncertainty no longer affected the players on the pitch, as well as the manager himself. A few players were sent from Standard Liege to boost our survival chances - but what was really needed was a couple of strong, dependable Championship players. In the final week of the transfer window, startling truths became clear. Ben Alnwick, Dale Stephens and Yann Kermorgant were all sold without being adequately replaced. These were not decisions Chris Powell would have sanctioned - three players who had played pivotal roles, with Stephens and Kermorgant clearly two of the side's most important players. But they'd been sold, justified as "good business" with their contracts running to a close. You only need to read Kermorgant's take on the issue to see the cold-hearted conviction with which the ownership made these moves happen.

Those are not the actions of a man with the interests of Charlton as a Championship club at heart. Kermorgant was not only a brilliant player, but a man who had an emotional bond with the crowd. It was a dreadful decision to move him out of the club given his importance to fighting relegation. A quick buck in January might look like financial sense in the short term, but if it costs us Championship status then long-term it will have been disastrous. It wasn't beneficial to our survival bid, but as counter-productive as it's possible to be. Not a decision that would've been made with the best interests of Charlton at heart.

It's not just a financial point of view from which the decision made waves. It struck at the heart of what Charlton means to us. "Football is a business" cry those defending the sale. Who wants to support a business? Football is enhanced by the emotional attachments people form, and a club is nothing without heroes to support on the pitch. "No man is bigger than the club", they say. Granted, but supporting a team with faceless players wouldn't be anywhere near as enjoyable or engaging as it would be with great men like Kermorgant on the field. It wasn't as if he was unimportant to us, especially in a season where we've failed to score goals.

Duchâtelet had successfully removed one of the pillars of our football club, and just over a month later he made sure a second central pillar was demolished.

Chris Powell was a brilliant manager, and a fantastic man to have as the face of our football club. Prior to Charlton beating a star-studded QPR team at home, and Sheffield Wednesday away in the FA Cup 5th Round, Roland spoke of Powell's qualities as a manager and a coach.

“We are discussing right now to renew his contract for the coming years,” Duchâtelet said, “I hope we can reach an agreement soon. There is no doubt in my mind that he is an extremely good coach, there is certainly a desire to continue to work with Chris. It’s important for the fans that Powell is a club legend, but for me it’s not the most important matter. The most important matter is just that he’s a very good coach.”

On the 11th of March, less than three weeks later, Powell was sacked.

“We have been working with Chris Powell and his representatives for a couple of weeks to try and agree a contract extension which would have seen us continue to work together. There was good progress, but we could not reach an agreement over the club’s football strategy going forward. The situation put a strain on the working relationship between Chris and the board. Therefore I think it is best for all parties that we part ways at this stage."

And people think he was sacked for footballing reasons.

“Given the club’s position in the league and the number of important fixtures upcoming, I felt this difficult decision was unavoidable at this time. I can assure supporters this was not an easy decision, but it has been made with the club’s future in mind. Time will tell if it is the right decision."

Hardly words of conviction. The position in the table was merely a secondary reference by Duchâtelet. Vague statements referring to the club's future did nothing to ease the pain of losing the club's greatest remaining asset. He'd been kicked out because he would not cede control of transfers to Roland and his fabled "network" of scouts. Powell quite rightly wanted to be able to identify and sign players himself, as he would have to coach them and make sure they fit into the side. When Duchâtelet would not allow this, he removed him. His replacement was shepherded in rapidly, Jose Riga having worked for him before. It was all planned in advance. It's hard to look at the timing and not be cynical. With a run of friendly fixtures upcoming, it would be as easy a start as possible for the new "Head Coach".

We were bottom of the league, but with four games in hand. People will gloss over that second piece of information. Significantly, Powell faced large gaps between league fixtures, which exaggerated the importance of victories as well as defeats, given others were gaining more ground due to their more regular league fixtures. Furthermore, Riga has had the benefit of a lot of winnable games in and amongst the more difficult fixtures, which means the impact of defeats has been limited somewhat.

The Perils of the Network:

Riga has done a decent enough job, and he deserves credit for not disrupting the team spirit that was such a valuable asset during the tenure of Chris Powell. But after the sacking, nothing has felt the same. Results have improved somewhat, but its been a struggle to enjoy football the way I did before, knowing how the club is being run.

Some have embraced the decision as if it was based solely on the performance in the league this season - due to their happiness, they've been willing to falsely perceive a radical change in style, hailing "better football", re-writing the past and suggesting it was dire under Powell. Others have been more circumspect, willing to continue in support of the players on the pitch, whilst maintaining their dislike for what is happening in the boardroom. But for me, the sacking was the final event that shattered any trust I was willing to place in the new ownership. As a result, I've become horribly disillusioned. 

Whatever happens on the pitch, knowing that we're being run this way means I can't enjoy it. Riga can do as good a job as he likes, but what use is that if the owner's priority isn't our club? We're in an experimental network, with players changing hands in order to make more profit for the central owner. Football is secondary for Duchâtelet. 

Powell was an obstacle to Roland and his network - you only need to look at the wording of the club statement to see that - but his removal meant that the club no longer has anybody in a position of power who hasn't previously been involved with Standard Liege. Isn't this quite a concerning development? Their actions to date don't suggest that they are trustworthy at all.

To demonstrate the fantasy of this network, and how in reality it is impractical, we already have a case study. Yohan Thuram was drafted in by Duchâtelet, despite Charlton possessing two quality keepers in the form of Alnwick and Hamer. Thuram started matches in February due to Hamer being injured, and Alnwick being sold against the wishes of Powell. His performances were characterised by indecision, with poor handling and a desire to save everything with his feet inspiring little confidence in him. Reports surfacing last week were that he refused to travel to Leeds with the team, protesting about his lack of first team football. His case shows that he was sent here by Duchâtelet for the benefit of the player, not the club, in his attempt to raise his profile and his transfer price. The return of Thuram in the squad just one week later was a disgrace - a player refusing to play for a club should be sacked, not merely forgiven. It was a serious breach of trust - something we're getting used to these days.

Similarly, Piotr Parzyszek was signed at the end of the January transfer window, but is clearly not ready for first team football. Was this signing made with the interests of Championship safety; to replace the huge hole left by the wilful sale of Kermorgant? Again, it's a ploy to develop a young player before he's sold on for profit. Some even suggest that it is to develop the player until he's ready to join Liege. Any benefit Charlton might receive won't last long.

It's not a network that will serve our club's interest. It's for the benefit of Duchâtelet. England is a place where players get noticed, and Charlton will become a nice feeder club for him, not in the sense that all our young players will be sent to a Standard Liege, but in the sense that we'll just be a conveyor belt for his talent. Players will come and go, without the understanding of what Charlton means to us all. Thuram clearly isn't interested. His rebellion is potentially a sign of things to come if we don't throw all these players we're handed into the first team.

Our greatest strength in the past few seasons has been our team spirit. With significant transfer activity in the summer, we might see better players come in, but also a number of players leaving. Exciting European talent on the pitch sounds great - but its not enough on its own to improve the side. You need a backbone. You need that fighting spirit. If we become a conveyor belt in this network, who can confidently say that apathy towards the cause won't become an issue? Thuram has already demonstrated as much. 

It feels like we could become a hollowed-out shell of a football club. "But Charlton will always be Charlton", they'll say. Such a vague statement. The Charlton I supported isn't the Charlton I see out on the pitch any more. There came a line in the sand. I don't have it in me to draw such clear distinctions between the pitch and the boardroom. Charlton as a football club is threatened by this new order, and I can't help but fear for it. Try enjoying football when that's all you can think about.

Charlton has always been an independent football club. Its always been the priority. We're merely a cog in a rich businessman's new experiment. I have no appetite for supporting something like that. 

Maintaining unconditional support in something you no longer believe in is impossible.

Failing to Rediscover the Passion:

What's been most disheartening is the fickle nature of many football supporters. The Valley Party did such incredible work to return Charlton to our home, but you wonder if we were exiled this summer, how many would simply say that it doesn't matter. In this day and age, a lot tend to perceive football as being all about results. It is frowned upon by many to develop strong emotional attachments to players and managers that mean we are sad when they leave - cries of many to simply 'move on' as if nothing had happened miss the importance of these emotional attachments in football. Less than a month after a hero was fired, hearing the Covered End singing Jose Riga's Red Army was like a knife through the heart. Its not his squad. He may be a nice enough guy, but his position and his appointment are a sign of what's wrong. A "Head Coach" doesn't have any control of recruitment, and he might not even stay beyond the summer. The singing of his name less than a month after the sacking of someone we all had faith in demonstrates that football fans would sing the name of any old bugger if he won them a game or two. You want people in a club who understand what its all about, but a month in South-East London won't teach Jose that. 

The fans of today that only care about results feel the need to vocalise their importance. That's all that matters to them. If we import a completely alien set of players from Europe, they have no attachment to the club at all, but we win more games, they'll see it as an improvement. We'll be expected to enjoy supporting our club more based on simply results, rather than by feeling encapsulated in the process of achieving them. Results mean nothing if you feel no connection to the victorious team. The greatest achievement of Powell was that he built a side we could identify with once again, full of players fully committed to the cause, who knew what the club was all about. That is what Charlton Athletic is really about. Ultimately, if results are all you care about, you can support any club and little would change. But at Charlton, we've always felt there was that little bit extra special about our own club, and that's what brought out that passion. 

Following on from the clear demonstration that team spirit is vital, its worrying to think what might happen in future withing this network of interchangeable talent. How can players be convinced of the club's ambitions when Duchâtelet keeps his plans such a secret? Football is rarely suited to rapid change, and grand ideas are rarely translated into great success without huge injections of capital. It took Powell two and a half years to get Charlton back to where it belongs in the Championship. Risking destabilisation for the sake of a network jeopardises the club, and with the kind of short-termism characterised by the singing of Riga's name, people will sleep-walk into the trap and only realise when its too late. "He's saving our season" misses the point - he's not in charge of our club. The destiny of Charlton rests with Duchâtelet, not a manager any more. He's shown that he'll put profit before points - just look at January.

Assessing the various actions during the tenure of Duchâtelet, its clear enough that his intentions are not based solely in our interest. I won't be fobbed off by a cynically timed contract extension, or the installation of stadium Wi-Fi, and made to think that everything is actually fine.

Powell was the best thing about our football club. We've got nobody left in a position of power that really understands what we're about. We've lost that, but we are expected to accept the new order as if it's enhancing our club. For me, it's ruining it. The passion I had still hasn't returned. It can't, not with so many fears unanswered regarding the way the club is run. 

I've failed to rediscover the love of Charlton. A victory against a relegation rival is supposed to fill you with happiness, but instead it was just mild satisfaction. Hearing the Covered End sing the name of a man they'd never heard of a month ago was painful. It was a demonstration of just how passive supporters can be to real changes; how blind they can be to the real issues. Hull City season ticket holders barely rejected the name change that struck at the heart of their club's history; Cardiff City have seen an increasing number of fans simply accept Vincent Tan's changing of their identity. People are coming into football clubs and making huge changes, which put at risk the identity which we all became so wrapped up in supporting. The willingness to simply accept and move on is alarming, and deeply saddening. You'd hope that people would be willing to stand up for their club and defend it if the time for action came - given recent events, though, you fear people won't bother.

People who say football is a business, spoken as if they think they're a clever detective, miss the point entirely. We don't support football because of it's likeness to a business. Justifying actions that undermine the club with the words "it's a business" strike at the very heart of what a football club means to people. I don't care solely about profit. I don't care solely about results, either. I'd hate to be a supporter of a team that wins every week, because it would be boring, and you'd be surrounded by glory hunters who demand a win every match. That's not what makes Charlton so great as a club. We've experienced the highs and the lows many times, but above all else the players we identify with have done so as well. It was a shared ethos, a community, an understanding that Charlton Athletic always seems to be punching above it's weight. Players like Jackson and Kermorgant, and men like Chris Powell knew that. They understood Charlton. They understand what values the club represents, and why it means so much to so many. It's a community, not a brand. But now there's nobody left in a position of power who sees Charlton in the same way. In this network, we are not the priority. We've lost our independence. We've lost our identity. And that is not something you can just forget about. Results mean nothing if you lose the passion you had for a club you could identify strongly with.

Even then, who says this network is going to be a success anyway?

If you trust Roland based on his actions to date, then you'll trust anyone...


  1. I see your fears. I can understand them. I'm as gutted as the next man that Sir Chris is no longer with the club. But, and it is a big but. I still will wait to see exactly what is to come before I react. Initially I was aghast about how events were transpiring. But with a step back I'll just wait and see what happens. The last lot certainly were in it to try and earn a fast buck. Their financial backer got pissed off and frankly pissed off with his wallet. This is what got us into this predicament initially. Roland D bought us and here's where we are at. Once the coveted conversation with supporters takes place we'll know exactly through intuition (maybe trains potters but a clever bunch us Addicks) we'll all know how sinister or not the Network is.

    It's at this point I'll either come out of my corner or simply keep calm and carry on. Keep the faith, it still is and will always be our club. If anyone needs running out of town, the. We're the one to do it.

  2. Brilliant blog Dan.
    You have expressed my feelings better than I could myself and then some! I am disgusted by the recent chanting replacing Chris's name with the probably temporary 'coach'. I do not understand what we now have or what will happen in the near future. I still have passion for my club but it is nowhere as strong as before. A win under Chris was so much more satisfying and emotionally fulfilling than under the new regime. I cannot imagine not supporting Charlton after 54 years attending but at the moment I will certainly not entertain the thought of buying a new season ticket and fear that I may never return after this season has finished - whatever division we are in!
    Desperate Pete

  3. In life we must adapt. We can't bring Chrissie back. Let's concentrate on making the future better.Once upon a tine I remember a football club moved to South West London. The fans came back, the fans battled and the fans won. I'm right behind exceptional young men like Johnnie Jackson. He doesn't let me down and im not going to let him down. I'm going to my bloody heart out for the club i love.

  4. Hi, life moves on. I am sorry you feel that way and i do empthasise with you but what is alternative? Just enjoy supporting your club through goid and bad. Things go in cycles and i think the longer term trend is up after a few years of going down.

  5. I agree 100% with this. I enjoyed going to Charlton to see a team put out and managed by Chris Powell - win or lose. But now? My passion has gone. Sure I still go, sure I still cheer the goals and sure I still clap the players off the pitch. But I find I'm enjoying it less, watching more disinterested than previously. Not helped it has to be said by Riga's baffling team selections and substitutions (and to think people used to criticise Powell for his substitutions!).

  6. This morning I put a entry in my Facebook Footy Photos Book - 'Striker light' and got this response:
    "Stop harping on about yann he's gone, he didn't want to stay". I replied: "I respect your comment Andy and you are right that Yann has gone - but this is a forum for all views as to the whys and wherefores of all things CAFC which we do not get to know. I wish I could move on..." This afternoon I stumbled across your ramblings and it resonated with me. I'm somehow feel a bit better for not feeling alone in my travail.