When Ismabard Kingdom Brunel built the Great Western Railway line south of Leamington, he put constructing a tunnel at Harbury in the ‘too difficult’ box. Instead, the navvies dug out an incredibly deep cutting before a short tunnel. 350,000 tonnes of earth are poised to engulf the line which is to be closed until Easter. My usual route to London is therefore unavailable. If I went via Coventry, I would only be able to attend tonight’s CAS Trust meeting for an hour and a half and even then would not get home until midnight, and I have a long journey to Plymouth on the following day.
Therefore I cannot attend this important and necessary meeting, so I have given some views in a rather long piece here. The meeting will need to be well chaired to keep control of one or two fantasists found around The Valley. I would also assume that the organisers have thought about possible draft resolutions to identify a way forward.
The CAS Trust has produced a summary of questions and answers at last night's VIP meeting. Some good questions were asked, but the answers were not always satisfactory in my view: Question and Answer
Charlton has had some comedy owners over the years, and there’s only one regime that I have been really happy with. Let’s start with the Glikstens. Before the war, they put a lot of investment into the club and really built it up. But for the war, we might have won the league. As it was, just after the war, we won the FA Cup which had a much greater significance in those days.
However, then the momentum slowed, investment dried up, and we became a selling club. In Jimmy Seed’s view, we had a chance to become the ‘Arsenal of South London’ and we blew it. A key turning point was the death of Albert Gliksten in 1951 and his replacement by his brother Stanley.
I remember my father pointing out to me the figure of Stanley Gliksten standing in the stand, peering round the ground before the match. ‘He is trying to work out the gate and his takings,’ said my father somewhat sceptically. Indeed, some fans uncharitably suggested that not all the takings were recorded in a way that allowed the then entertainment tax to be collected.
Following the return to The Valley, there was a special atmosphere at Charlton under what I call the Murray/Varney regime. I did not get on with Peter Varney, but I pay full tribute to his energy, professionalism and dedication. This was a period when communication and involvement was good. I remember going on 606 after one victory and saying that everyone from the board to the fans was pulling in one direction. There was a fans’ director on one of the board, even if there were limits to what he could do. The Supporters’ Club was very active and involved in projects such as Target 10,000. At the Mercury sports editor Rick Everitt saw that Charlton’s message got out to a wider audience.
It is not surprising that fans thought there was something special about Charlton. The club got a lot of good publicity. However, towards the end of the period, mistakes were made. Now we have reverted to something that is closer to the norm. Indeed, there are clubs that are worse off: for example, Blackpool, Coventry City and Birmingham City. Richard Murray is a shadow of his former self and seems to be more or less invisible. It is difficult to see him in the role of fans’ friend on the board. Apparently, he did speak at the VIP forum last week and said that Roland would be a good long-term owner. So that's all right then.
I have never based my support for the club on what I think of the owner, otherwise I would have left long ago, and certainly under the last regime who get a relatively easy ride from supporters because they appointed Chris Powell and got us out of League 1.
We have had some poor managers over the years, fortunately we also had three outstanding ones: Jimmy Seed, Lennie Lawrence and Alan Curbishley. Both had relatively long tenures and showed the advantages of getting the right man in and keeping him there.
When I saw Dowie for the first time, my heart sank. Why was he on the pitch warming up the players when he had people to do that? Was he massaging his ego? Dowie tried to put on a show of determined energy, but what he obviously meant to be a focused and inspiring expression simply looked glazed as if he was already on a rocket ship to Mars.
I felt that at the end of last season José Riga deserved to carry on, but Roland had other plans. I have my doubts about Guy Luzon, but I hope he succeeds. For me, the club means more than the owner, the manager or even the players, although at any one time there are usually at least a few players I can identify with.
It has been suggested on the boards and in the ‘emergency’ edition of Voice of the Valley that Katrien Meire is not up to the job of chief executive. It is difficult for me to judge, as I don’t know her: I have only recently established any form of contact then and only, I suspect, because our mutual connections with University College London.
Ms Meire took her first degree at Leuven. Having taught there and worked with people there, I think that it is a very good university, arguably the best in Belgium. As a fellow of UCL, I clearly have a good view of that institution.
Ms Meire is a competition lawyer by trade. Competition law has had a substantial effect on football (think transfer windows), as has EU labour law (Bosman). Whether that qualifies her for the day-to-day practicalities of running a football club is an open question, particularly when she has a mercurial boss in Belgium.
The critical article published in VOTV makes a number of interesting points and concludes that the club would be better off without Ms Meire. I can understand why someone with a long record of service to the club might feel aggrieved at their treatment. However, it might be that Ms Meire wanted to distance herself from what she might have seen as ‘the old guard’ at The Valley.
VOTV also expressed concern about a conversation with Ms Meire in the street about her lack of interest in the Kent market. Clearly many long-standing Charlton fans have relocated to the Garden of England. However, I did feel sometimes in the past that there was an excessive interest in Kent and that there was an implicit message that Charlton was ‘the Kent club that played in London.’ I wasn’t bothered too much about upsetting Gillingham, and I am in favour of getting the likes of Derek from Dymchurch to the ground on the Rickshaw. But I also thought that perhaps sometimes we didn’t put enough effort in to possible new markets. So I have some sympathy with Ms Meire’s stance.
Some fans are clearly unhappy with Belgian ownership. I am interested in a player’s quality, not their nationality, but it is probably the case that we have had too many Belgian players of variable quality, although to be fair to the current regime they do have a commitment to the Academy. There is not much mileage in being ‘the Belgian club that plays in London.’ Arsenal have supporters who come over from France on Eurostar, but I can’t see the same thing happening with us, nor is there that big a Belgian community in London (certainly compared with French expats).
My memories of Belgium are associated with boring and often pointless meetings in windowless rooms in the Commission, trying to defend UK interests. As I got to know Brussels more, I did identify good restaurants that were not tourist traps and good places to drink unusual beers. I also regret that I have not seen more of the country outside Brussels.
It is important to remember that, given the ferocity of the linguistic divide, there are just two things that keep Belgium together: the monarchy (which has had its problems) and the national football team. Football has a special importance in Belgium, although most of the country’s best players play elsewhere.
What are the drivers for Roland’s flawed and utopian network model? At a general level, he evidently feels that his business success can be applied in football, having largely failed with his venture into politics. He considers, I think, that football is an excessively conservative sector, and in broad terms, I agree with him. There is often too much talk of the ‘world of football’ as if it was hermetically sealed off from the rest of society. Think of how long it took to get goal line technology introduced. Of course, the lack of change can be appealing in some ways, but there isn’t enough innovation.
He thinks that football should be able to run without big subsidies. He put his faith in the arrival of financial fair play leading to a more level playing field that would reward the prudent. However, any student of football could have told him that FFP was likely to be diluted. As it happened, political pressure was put on the Championship by the Premier League. In addition, there could yet be a legal challenge based on competition law, something that Ms Meire should be aware of. In my view, this is the fatal flaw in a well- intentioned strategy.
The other driver is Europeanisation. Roland has compared the network model to an Erasmus scheme for footballers. In the book I co-edited with someone from Spain (whose younger brother was a Charlton supporter) and a German on The Transformation of European Football we discussed the European Commission’s search for a Europeanisation strategy in football that went beyond the application of EU law or the Champions League and Europa League, specifically one that involved clubs below that level and networked them across Europe. (I do not believe that Roland has read our book).
Roland has provided such a strategy. It could be a wave of the future, and has worked to an extent at Watford. But it needs better quality clubs and better quality players than Roland’s network has been able to provide. I think arguments that the Championship is a very special league are overstated. But it is better, I would argue, than all other second tier European leagues and I do not think that Roland has realised this.
In response to the ‘what has Roland done for us?’ question, fans resent constant references to the pitch and planned developments at the training ground. I would give Roland some credit for not pursuing the schemes for relocating the club on the Greenwich Peninsula mooted by the last regime. However, it does have to be realised that the club is still running at a significant loss. Someone has to meet that deficit. The usual expectation is that owners will ‘invest’ in a club; although I am not sure that I would regard spending money on players as an investment in the usual sense of the term. However, it is clear that fans could not afford to buy the club or to meet the running costs.
Despite recent rumours, I don’t think that Roland is likely to sell the club, and it could be a case of out of the frying pan into the fire. If the club was relegated, or if fans stayed away in increasing numbers, its attraction to prospective investors would diminish.
The best hope is that Roland learns from experience and modifies his strategy. In any business, it is not a good strategy to upset your customers. He seems quite obdurate, so the chances may not be good. A report from the BBC suggests that perhaps Roland could be persuaded to come to London for a meeting with fans at which he would explain his strategy, but I don't think that is very likely: Absent owner