Dear Mark and George,
Many Charlton Athletic fans were dismayed and angered by your coverage of the club’s current situation on the Football League Preview on Radio 5live on Tuesday evening. It was unfortunate that a poor phone line meant there was no opportunity for Steve Clarke to answer any of the points presented by Mark Clemmit. I am therefore writing this open letter to you on behalf of Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust to provide a rebuttal to some of the comments made by Mark. We would also be willing to send a representative for an on air discussion with Charlton Athletic CEO Katrien Meire, should Radio 5live see fit to host such a debate.
Mark Clemmit gave an account of a conversation with Meire when enjoying the club’s hospitality at Charlton’s pre-season friendly. Your audience did not hear directly from Meire, either live or on tape. We understand that she refused this opportunity – this in itself is telling and should perhaps raise questions. When Meire first arrived at Charlton in January 2014, we welcomed her and many found her charming and a breath of fresh air. However, a small amount of research into the present situation at the club would quickly show that the majority of fans have since lost all respect for the CEO. She has made comments about not caring about the club’s history and has done her best to alienate older fans.
When the first protests took place in November 2015, triggered by the appointment of a manager from the Belgian third division, she claimed it was “just 2%” protesting and that all five managerial appointments in the 18 months since the regime took ownership had been the “right decision”. At a conference in Dublin at around this time she stated, with disdain in her voice, that Charlton fans could watch the future stars of the Premiership at The Valley, giving away Duchatelet’s strategy of simply cashing in on Charlton’s Academy. At another public conference on the Business of Sport, Meire compared the chanting of fans at the protests to “noises made whenever there was a black player” which she claims to have heard in Belgium fifteen years ago. In contrast, Charlton fans have been at the forefront of anti-racism initiatives in football over decades and consequently CAS Trust made a formal complaint about the CEO’s comments to the FA. Meire has continually refused to listen and engage in proper dialogue with fan representatives.
Already from the above you may realise why any admissions of failure from Meire ring hollow with fans. Yes, the regime have appointed their first British manager and we have signed four outfield players with lower league experience. But we have sold, loaned or released fifteen players. Russell Slade himself commented just ten days ago that we are “miles away” from having a competitive squad, saying he wanted to bring in five or six more, yet there has been minimal progress on that front. Until the signing yesterday of Declan Rudd on a season-long loan, we had no senior goalkeeper, with three having been sold or transferred. Slade’s body language and recent comments prove that he has found the situation much more difficult than he envisaged.
George Riley trailed the segment by asking whether Charlton might “do a Blackpool” with a second successive relegation. This is a genuine concern among a number of fans, yet Clemmit made no attempt to scratch the surface of Meire’s spin.
Clemmit recounts how he witnessed a few angry fans berating the directors’ box when a young Charlton player twice missed a penalty in the end-of-game shootout, suggesting that this was way over the top as a reaction at a pre-season friendly. Again, a little more research would not have gone amiss to understand this situation more fully and to appreciate the frustration and anger from the fans’ perspective. The player in question is Karlan Ahearne-Grant. He was an excellent young prospect but his career has been very badly managed by the Duchatelet regime, throwing him into the deep-end of the first team in a struggling squad. His confidence is now shot to pieces. Fans are angry at the way the owner views players as commodities and Karlan’s plight is symptomatic of that.
Mark Clemmit claimed that Charlton fans’ protests are “dangerous for the sporting integrity of the competition”. We dispute this very strongly. The tone for the protests is set by the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet (CARD) who openly condemn any illegal activities and are very sensitive to the impact of any protests on the team and the game. The Burnley match was never in danger of being abandoned. The pitch invasion at the end was led by the Burnley fans, who headed straight to the Charlton fans, applauding us and starting their own chant of “We want Roland out”. This was a display of solidarity among football supporters, who are sympathetic to the plight of rivals. May I suggest that, as journalists, you should in fact be much more concerned by the actions of absentee rogue owners whose mismanagement and financial motives are the real threat to the integrity of football? Roland Duchatelet has previously stated that he does not care about winning and he shows utter contempt for football fans. That is the real story at Charlton Athletic. It’s been commented on repeatedly by past players and managers, also covered extensively by many other media outlets, including Owen Gibson of the Guardian, Oliver Kay of the Times and your colleague Phil Parry at BBC London. Indeed I note that former Charlton player and reporter for BBC London, Steve Brown, has offered to provide you with a more balanced view.
Finally, Chris Wilder was asked to comment on the situation of managing a crisis club. It was very disappointing that you did not ask him for a specific view on Charlton, seeing as he was offered the manager’s job before Russell Slade but turned it down after meeting with Katrien Meire. As it was, he showed a lot more empathy and understanding than Clemmit did, noticeably talking about transparency and honesty, values which have been in short supply at CAFC in the past 2.5 years.
I appreciate that you have a lot to cover across many football clubs so cannot necessarily know nor report on all the ins and outs of each situation in depth. However, both of you focus extensively on the lower leagues: George, you hosted several discussions about Charlton on Channel Five’s coverage last season; Mark, you claim to be the “champion of the underdog”. I can also understand that you may have been a little taken aback by the strength of the Charlton fans’ reactions on social media to the piece. We have shown over decades that we are some of the most patient and reasonable fans in the world of football. However, we are now in the midst of a battle for the very heart and soul of our football club. We are deeply concerned at the state of the club. We see beyond the superficial charm and platitudes of the CEO. We had hoped that reporters for the BBC would do likewise.
We would be grateful for a reply to the points raised in this letter to firstname.lastname@example.org and we repeat our offer to provide a representative for a face-to-face hosted discussion with Katrien Meire.
On behalf of Charlton Athletic Supporters' Trust