A Story of Pies, Pints and Reluctant Owners

No, it is not for want of trying in the last five years that the Supporters’ Trust have failed to secure a meeting with CAFC owner, Roland Duchâtelet. Yet, within a matter of days, we received an acceptance from Accrington owner and chairman, Andy Holt, to join us for a chat over a pie (courtesy of Trust member, Heather Alderson) and a pint – or several – in the upstairs rooms at The White Swan in Charlton Village. The meeting was chaired informally by Richard Wiseman of CAST, with many questions from the floor.

Persistence Pays Off

Andy opened by telling the gathered audience of around 50: “I never wanted to and I still don’t want to own a football club.” A local lad, born within four miles of the Accrington ground, Holt did not grow up a football fan. He successfully started and developed a number of businesses. Recognising that he earnt money from the town and the townsfolk, he felt compelled to give something back through sponsoring local sports clubs. Eventually the football club came calling. “They kept stumbling into me – six times, I think – I ended up sponsoring because I was sick of them.” Initially, he committed £200k over three years in return for his company brand name, WHAM, on the shirts and on the stand.

Shortly after signing the deal, he had the sobering experience of attending a pre-season friendly against Burnley. Accrington raced into an early 3-0 lead and actually won the match 4-2. But that was largely irrelevant. “At half-time, it were like the Gobi Desert,” explains the current owner. “No beer, no wine, no gin, not even any water in the toilets. I thought, ‘what a clown – you’’ve stuck your name on something that’s going down.’” But emotion was taking hold of the focussed businessman. “I was in the bar with the fans – it was a good laugh – I said I’d take a look at it.” The previous owner admitted he couldn’t afford the September wages. Andy stumped up another £100k to keep things going while he considered the future. He got lawyers and accountants to view the detail, while he “looked at the real club”. It struck him that the community trust were engaged with 10,000 people in a town of 35,000 – everything from walking football for the over 80s to toddlers kicking their first ball at the age of two. Despite all and sundry – including his wife and son – warning him off, Andy felt he could not let the club disappear. “I got involved to keep it going for the community and that’s still why I’m involved.”

Distorted Finances

Andy is well known for being outspoken about the current state of the game. The root cause of the issue is the disparity in the distribution of the TV income below the Premier League. The % split of what little is passed on was agreed – even then reluctantly by the Premier League – many years ago at 80% to the Championship, 12% League One and 8% League Two. Then you have parachute payments on top. It distorts competition as “It’s about money, not merit.” Andy’s philosophy is that you have to accept that football for a club like Stanley is not all about winning – instead it is about survival as a sustainable force for good within the local community. Maybe this is where Charlton and Accrington differ somewhat in their respective football league history. Accrington were a founder member, but Charlton have much more recent experience and memories of competing near the top. Accrington average 2,800 home crowd and currently turnover around £3M. Charlton’s average gate and overheads are about five times that. Holt already knows what he’d do if his club got promoted, gaining a windfall of £7M. He said to the manager, “I’d buy three deckchairs, for me, you and Jimmy [Bell, the coach]. We’d spend £1M and probably get beaten 35-0 every week, we’d go back down and we’d rebuild.” This attitude may seem rather defeatist but to Andy it is realistic. “We can’t compete with the likes of Derby, West Brom and Leeds.” The higher up you go, the more the picture is distorted. The Premier League is no longer the real world. A quick poll in the room showed that many would not be upset to see the back of the top six, at least in the short term, should they climb aboard a European Super League. There was concern, though, for the damaging impact on the long-term integrity of the competition.

So who is responsible for the disastrous finances in football? That is the biggest issue for Holt. “I’ve been to MPs. I’ve been to everyone in football. It’s broken. Who’s setting the rules? The Championship is breaking away. Clubs at the bottom of the Premier get £100M.” He highlights that matchday income accounts for just 8% of turnover for Burnley in the Premier League. At the other end of the ladder, clubs that fall out of the bottom go into a tailspin. Hartlepool and York City are doomed. Leyton Orient were saved by a community movement. In such circumstances it comes down to the supporters to keep it going.

Questioning the Motives

The Accrington businessman is highly critical of the gamblers who risk all in search of Premier League fame and fortune. Consequently, he warns Charlton fans to question the motives of prospective new owners. “Why the hell would Australians and Americans want to own a club in South East London? What’s their rationale? I can’t give you an answer.” His suspicion is that the current structure of football purely attracts gamblers, aiming for Premier riches, but in reality more likely to lead a club into the depths of substantial debt. To some extent Charlton is already a long way down that path. Holt sees Roland writing off the debt as his only way out, “like Sunderland, Bolton and Blackburn, who have lost £500M between them!” He also remarked that those losing the most money seem to be the clubs where fans are most at odds with owners.

Specifically on Charlton, Andy created a bit of a stir among the audience as he wondered about our Belgian owner: “He didn’t join with the intention of Charlton ending up where they are now, but I don’t like his motives. You can’t have five clubs, like you can’t have five wives.” He has never met Duchâtelet and gives the impression that he cannot fathom him at all: “If I lost £60M, my mam would shoot me!”

Is there a solution?

He does not see how the “fit and proper” test helps very much, since it only looks at bankruptcy and criminality. The EFL focusses on company law, but football clubs are not like businesses. Like many fan organisations, Holt would love to see some form of charter concerning the relationship with fans and community and how an owner intends to build a sustainable future. “But what happens when it goes wrong?” he asks. “There needs to be intervention to re-set the bar and hand the club to the community to rebuild from there. It needs someone with the power to intervene but talking to the EFL, the FA, the Premier League, is like talking to a brick wall.” He dismisses the supposed rules of Financial Fair Play in the Championship which still allow a club to lose £39M over three years. He describes the lower leagues’ “Salary Cap Management Protocol” as a “complete waste of time”. The latter still allows loans to be put in, so in reality there is no limit. He has famously and publicly taken Gary Neville to task for throwing money at Salford City, thus distorting competition.

We are still a long way from any kind of solution when no-one will admit there is a problem. “They’re all doing a good job individually, but collectively it’s the wrong picture.” Andy brings the issue to life with the analogy of a posh street with three big houses, the PL house, the FA house and the EFL house. Each is surrounded by a great big brick wall. Inside each house and garden, everything is lovely. Outside the walls, it is chaos, with pot-holes in the street and kids arguing and fighting. (Looking back on this comment now, I can’t help but wonder if he was picturing his own players joining in the scrap…)

Who might put it right? “It’s either got to come from fans or the Government – it’s not going to be solved within football…There are more clubs having a tough time than we know about, owners looking for a way out, but what can they do? They can’t go to the EFL, there’s nobody to turn to. Without them the club goes under but they’ve got no money left.”

Holt is pretty much the only owner prepared to put his head above the parapet with such strong and lucid views. However, he says there are more that think like him, but they struggle to go against the collegiate nature of the EFL – it is an organisation by the clubs, for the clubs.

Who cares?

Answers for Charlton’s specific situation are not easy to come by. What Holt made exceptionally clear was the difference it makes to have an owner who looks to the long-term future. He described Accrington’s scheme to hand out a free shirt each year to every eight year old in the town to give them an alternative to Burnley, Blackburn or Manchester United. “You’ve got to start with that kind of first step.” He has undoubtedly become emotionally involved with his local club: “Accrington Stanley has given me far more than I’ve given it. You get your fancy cars and ideas above your station. This has brought me back to the people, back to earth. It’s like planting bulbs in the autumn – a lot of hard work – but you forget thathard work when you see the flowers in the spring. It’s hard work but we’re building a belting little club. It’s our job to make sure it is still here in 50 years – it’s not about getting to the Premier League.” There’s no doubt this owner commits more than 2% of his time to the football club despite his business interests.

Andy finished up by confirming. “I’ll come again for the pie.” His final words for Charlton fans? “You’ve got a great club. You need to get it back to belonging to people who care.” Don’t we know it.

Hear Andy Holt and Heather McKinlay of CAST interviewed on BBC Radio London from around 19 minutes and 45 seconds: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p06w5ry9

The Q&A session was also discussed on Sunday’s Charlton Live radio show: http://www.charltonlive.co.uk/2019/01/20/charlton-live-sunday-20th-january/

CAST are planning to hold more pre-match events upstairs at The Swan, so watch this space.