Close Encounters of the Charlton Kind

When Karl Robinson was appointed, he stated at the outset that he knew little about the protests and wanted to understand from fans why they were happening. So CAS Trust wrote to him. A few weeks’ later, we received an acknowledgment from him, suggesting he would meet when it was less busy. In mid-January, the club initially got in touch about this, but with no specific dates. At the beginning of this week, they contacted the secretary and offered Thursday evening. In good faith, we accepted. Final details of time, location and attendees were confirmed at less than 24 hours’ notice. Below is my personal account of the meeting, written up on Friday.

This morning (Saturday), we have also been made aware of a lengthy interview with Robinson by Henry Winter in The Times. 

On the evening of Thursday 2nd February 2017 I was making the short journey from home in SE12 to a pub in SE10 to meet with my fellow CAS Trust Board member, Jonathan Bangs, and our latest manager, Karl Robinson, plus his assistant Richie Barker. Tom Rubashow (CAFC’s new Head of Communications) would also be in attendance, along with two other fans invited by the club. The basis for the meeting was to give some background to Karl on the reasons behind the protests, as he had requested shortly after his appointment.

I had a little time to spare so I went via The Valley to remind myself why I do all of this, the good (and bad) times, the fight to return to The Valley, the Premiership years, the promotions, the relegations and all those other moments and games that gave me and so many others such great memories. I want my children as well as future generations to be able to enjoy similar experiences down in SE7.. I’m sure as I came down the A102M there was a mist rolling in from the Thames...

I also needed to compose myself. My thoughts had turned to my late mother, a somewhat closet Charlton fan as was her father before her. (He did dabble with ‘The Arsenal’ from time to time but can be forgiven as he grew up around the time they played next door in SE18.)

The day was particularly poignant. It was the anniversary of my mother’s passing, nine years ago. As I stood outside The Valley North Stand, I wondered what she would think of the last three years. Would she approve of my participation in the protests? Of me spending the anniversary evening of her passing in a pub meeting with the latest in a long line of managers to explain how the relationship between supporters and the club has reached this low point? I quickly came to a very easy conclusion: damn right she would approve!

Fast forward 30 minutes: Jonathan and I entered the chosen public house in Greenwich where Tom was waiting for us. The other supporters, together with Karl and Richie, arrived shortly after. Introductions out of the way, we spent a good while on general football matters such as Karl’s observations about Ba's work ethic, Watt's fitness, Konsa's excellence, his admiration for Johnnie Jackson and the fact that he didn't know what Kashi looks like. We also chatted about Charlton history and other things already in the public domain, before moving on to the core reason we were there. At this point, Richie and the other two supporters continued in their own conversation, while we spoke with Karl and Tom.

Before I begin in detail, it has to be said that Karl came across as a ‘stand-up guy’ to me. That may be the Scouse in him. I have always had a soft spot for Liverpudlians, growing up with Brookside and admiring the way the city conducted itself post the tragic Hillsborough disaster. It became abundantly clear to me throughout the evening that he genuinely cares, as does Richie: both are very much football men. Despite the indications from his sometimes-lengthy video interviews, Karl seemed really prepared to listen, something his employers should have done more of three years ago. Whether the information we provided will have any effect or not, Robinson should receive credit for asking and then following that up by listening.

So how do you start to explain the long list of continuous calamities by the regime and their utter contempt shown to supporters, or should that be customers? We described the complete mismanagement of the club from the owner down, including some of the finer points of Katrien’s ‘alternative facts, Roland’s rants and ‘that {…} message’ which led to the resignation of the then Head of Communications barely a month into her new role. We already realised the conversation could last until well after closing time.

We covered the hiring of four illegally unidentified ‘security guards’ who allegedly attacked a fan (still part of an ongoing Police investigation), the CEO referring to war with fans on national radio and stating in the Belgian press that she cared nothing for our history. We recalled the statement that five changes of manager (at that point) was always the right decision. We mentioned the advert that was banned, the fee to buy a ticket on match days, Roland’s recent comments about not only supporters but club legend Chris Powell being stupid. We referenced the day during May 2016 when we had no manager, no assistant, no director of football, no chief scout, no doctor, no sports scientist, no head of communications, no commercial manager and no stadium manager. Karl listened.

Jonathan explained his reasoning for boycotting games. He is part of the 40% who didn’t renew their season tickets, some of whom are actively staying away from The Valley. (CAS Trust’s survey last April had suggested 44% wouldn’t renew so a few - like me - must have buckled under the weight of the habit.) We both shared our view that we need to rid the club of this ownership, even if we sometimes have differing ideas about the shape of personal protest. This highlighted the coalition among fans. Despite some differing opinions, there remains a common goal among the vast majority, developed over the past two to three years. You underestimate Charlton supporters at your peril - just ask Greenwich Council.

The issues on the playing side almost went without saying to Karl: having as many managers in the last three years as the previous 30, the turnover of players, long list of contracts cancelled and lack of suitability of so many, ‘that’ network scout, not to mention the owner’s interference on the playing side. Karl was quick to state that the latter is not happening currently. He also assured us that concerns on the medical side had been identified and addressed.

We touched on the claim ‘we have learnt from our mistakes’ when clearly there remain so many signs that the club have not. And what is the result of what we described in football terms as unforced errors and own-goals? Significant debt by way of loans from Staprix, with interest charged to the club to the benefit of Duchâtelet.

The list, of course, is endless and we got as many specific points over to Robinson as time allowed. It’s only when you say it all out loud that you realise how much of a basket case our club has become, both on and off the pitch. We know it, we talk about it, but when you ‘spell it out in black and white’ the sheer level of failure and embarrassment under this ownership is overwhelming. The one shining light is that we have a pitch we can play on regularly - as long as it’s not too cold.

To draw to a close, I used an analogy to explain where I believe Charlton Athletic supporters find themselves in this debacle, trying to remain fair and balanced on all sides.

It is as if we supporters are in a marriage with our club. Gradually we realised the regime’s incompetence and disrespect to supporters was tantamount to the club having an affair. Do you forgive the first one and carry on to see if things will change? Wait to see if the relationship can be rekindled? Have they truly learnt from their mistakes? Some waited longer than others, while probably knowing deep down that the relationship had no viable future as the incompetence continued at pace. Some even gave them a third (and fourth) chance. But over the course of two years the incompetence and “affairs” carried on. Slowly but surely, trust was lost, never to return for the majority. And that’s what led to the formation of CARD and gave momentum to the protests. The most recent CAS Trust survey (October 2016) confirmed that 92% feared for the future of the club under Duchâtelet.

Robinson was clear that his brief was to listen and learn about the protests and he made little comment on them or the current ownership regime aside from asking Tom specifically to note down a few things, especially concerning the financial investment in the form of debt. We, of course, all wished Karl well in his role as manager and asked for the promise of three points on Saturday. We didn’t quite get that guarantee but I’m personally optimistic for the visit of the mighty Fleetwood.

We hope that the manager now has a better understanding of the reasons behind the protests and why they will continue. We were grateful for the three hours of his time, roughly the same amount of time Roland has spent physically watching football at The Valley these past three years. Like us, Karl and Richie are passionate football fans, even if one is the red side of Liverpool, the other the blue side of Sheffield. We will all have our views on individual players, managers and the like. For me, Robinson is a manager who certainly talks the talk and we’ll soon see if he can walk the walk – provided, of course, that he is afforded the time and the backing from above to do so. Sadly, as we know too well from the last three years, and whatever he may himself currently believe, he may not receive much of either under this ownership.