CAST meets the man in the chair

Heather McKinlay meets Charlton's new chairman:

The new man at the club’s helm had quickly and readily granted half an hour for this interview with CAST, proof of a stated commitment to engage with fans, even in the face of multiple calls for his time and attention on a busy match day as Charlton prepared to face West Brom for the second time in a week.

I awaited Matthew Southall’s arrival at midday in the Chairman’s Suite, its floor to ceiling windows overlooking the main reception at The Valley. I looked down on the scene as the tall distinctive figure posed for photos with groups of kids and chatted briefly to the many who recognised him as he made his way, smiling and patiently, to the entrance. I couldn’t help but be struck by the turnaround. Not long ago, Katrien Meire had been in my position, smirking from this bird’s eye view at ranks of protesting ‘customers’ below.

“You’re more famous than the players,” I joked as we talked about the adulation he is receiving. “Oh no, I wouldn’t go that far!” he quickly retorted, allaying any concerns of an ego trip. Southall clearly feels quite overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome he and his colleagues have received at the club. And he appreciates that it brings responsibility. “I think I know pretty much everything about the fans from the way they’ve welcomed us. All the fans want is someone who cares about the club and shows a little bit of leadership. That’s also true for the staff. The heads of department had no-one to answer questions, no set targets.” He goes on to describe even Steve Gallen being a little taken aback by being able to call him for advice and receive an immediate response rather than having to wait three days to hear back on email.

Although born locally, Southall moved to the North West at a young age, where the local club, Blackburn Rovers, was in the ascendancy under the ownership and investment of Jack Walker. “Of course, I was into football. All the family were into football. At Christmas, my cousins were all on FIFA or out in the garden playing,” describes Southall. “The first club I supported was Arsenal – dare I say that? We didn’t have much money – my parent was a single mum. I wanted a Blackburn kit. But we went into the shop and the Arsenal kit was on sale. I was the only one wearing it at school…”  We laugh that at least it wasn’t Charlton. “Yes, it might have been even cheaper, that one,” he cheekily quips.

The new man is well-connected in the UK football world. He has direct experience of not making the playing grade at Blackburn: “I was released at 15. I wasn’t good enough,” he candidly tells me. “There are so many kids coming through – only a small percentage make it. With the Academy, I know what it’s like. I can encourage them that they can still do something – maybe even stay in football like me. I was lucky that I was academic. My father put me through university and I got into the business side of football. I love doing deals!”

He speaks with sensitivity about his long-term friend, Kieran Richardson, once of Manchester United and England. “He’s retired now. It’s strange that I’m going up the way [in football] as he’s coming down.” He mentions that Jonathan Fortune and Leroy Lita have been in touch: “They came and saw me the other day – they have an agency looking after younger players. They know what it’s like, being young and having money.” Andy Holt’s name crops up as a previous CAST pre-match guest. “He’s not shy and retiring!” comments Southall. “He’s very active on Twitter. It’s exemplary the way he runs his club - in the community and properly sustainable.” They haven’t yet met in person but it will be intriguing when they do. Charlton may not have ambitions to emulate Accrington Stanley on the pitch but Holt’s respect for fans and off-pitch outlook is not a bad template to follow.

Matt is also a prominent user of Twitter and does take notice of responses from fans. “We want to be honest, transparent and visible. We’ll sit down with groups regularly. I get feedback already via Twitter such as the beer’s flat, the pies are expensive. My matchday experience is not the same. We’ll work together to make it a better experience for fans.” He stresses the need to develop the club in a sustainable and stable way, a key pillar of which is to grow revenues from ticketing and hospitality. I mention past joint initiatives between club and fans in this area. CAST have now received an invitation along with reps from other fan groups to an initial meet and greet on Friday 24th January so a future of co-operation looks on the horizon.

Matt’s enthusiasm to build the crowds back is already evident from his Twitter campaign #RockTheValley. He sees no issue in aiming to convert fans of other clubs to come along to SE7. “When Charlton were in the Premier League they were everyone’s second club. There’s a lot of goodwill around London. We were shopping yesterday afternoon – my first time off since I’ve been here and even then I was on the phone – and I bumped into a friend – a Chelsea fan - who’d heard about the takeover: ‘How did you manage that?’ he asked, ‘What a club!’” Matt’s partner, Jade, is present while we chat and enthusiastically joins the conversation: “I love seeing families here. It’s what football is about – a chance to enjoy the day together, it’s something you can bond over and that’s so important as you might not have the time otherwise.” Matt adds: “We want the kids coming through – not wearing Tottenham/ Chelsea shirts. Get them into Charlton shirts and get them to come and visit – make it their weekend tradition. They’ll grow up as fans and we’ll build that for the future.”

Nevertheless we’re facing a bit of a battle for the affections of his young daughter, Sahara, who became an Addicks’ lucky charm via social media when she attended the festive season win over Bristol City. I ask where Sahara is just now, only to discover that she is being looked after by Jade’s parents – and they are taking her on a tour of the Etihad. “We’re Manchester City through and through,” Jade admits without hesitation, “and Matt arranged the tour for them.” Sahara’s proud father pipes up at this point: “She likes both clubs – we’ll have to let her choose.” From his own formative experience, Southall believes that you can certainly like – if not passionately support – more than one club.

As we talk about Charlton’s potential, it is clear that winning over families and capturing the next generation is high on the priority list, broadening the demographic beyond a traditionally older, white and male fanbase. We’re joined in our discussion by Lee Amis, who had a role in brokering the takeover deal, and who is a lifelong Charlton fan. He’s keen to stress the “takeover bundle” – the offering of free tickets to season ticketholders to bring a friend along for the Barnsley game plus Football for a Fiver versus Blackburn.

Southall describes his own business style as “very hands-on” and repeats that he loves “making deals”. Jade has no hesitation in confirming this, conjuring up pictures of interrupted family meal-times while Matt negotiates on his phone. “The January window is a difficult one, prices are inflated, everyone knows who our board/ investors are. The other day, a midfielder had agreed terms with Steve Gallen. Then at the last minute his agent called – he wanted another £1K per week. I asked Steve if he was worth it, and he said probably not, so we pulled the deal. Then Blackpool wanted double the amount for their striker from August. We said no. We need to lay the stall out.” It is clear to me from these comments that he intends to ensure that ESI’s spend is handled wisely.

I enquire how the process works for approval to spend on new players but Southall paints a bigger picture. “It’s about moving the business in its entirety forward – looking at where we need to strengthen off field as well. The training ground is now a bit dated. We’ve got plans approved so we will bring that forward to put the wheels in motion, get that sorted as soon as possible - starting in the summer. The priority now is to stabilise. Come the summer, let’s see where we can go from here. Make sure we stay in the Championship then push for the top half.”

I ask how the takeover idea arose. Southall explains that he came out of football in 2014 (he had been an agent) and had then been working between the UK and the Middle East. He got to know His Excellency Tahnoon Nimer through giving him advice in different business areas. “One day he said to me, ‘You’ve been in football – what’s it like?’ I described it as like nothing else! He asked if I knew of a club in London for sale, so I said, ‘Well actually, maybe – Charlton.’ He replied, ‘Where’s that?’ I explained and he Googled it and 24 hours later he said ‘Do the deal – just tell me how much.’ This was in August.” Matt confirms that the plan is for His Excellency to attend a match soon, though it probably won’t be by the end of January. “It will go into meltdown, won’t it?!” he acknowledges.

He describes his boss as a real football fan. “He knows Steven Gerrard, knows the owner of Rangers. It was a natural progression for him to get involved. It was an honour for me when he asked me to run it. We speak regularly – I get input from him and Jonathan Heller around twice a week, and I speak to his advisors twice a day – he has quite a few advisors across different businesses.”

I probe a little more on what he means by stable and sustainable. “We’re not going to come in and spend extortionate amounts on transfer fees and wages. You can’t double expenditure while the income stays the same. Any investors ultimately do want to know what the losses are, what am I going to have to put in? £20M-£30M [loss] per annum is no go, especially when there is no guarantee of reaching the Premier League.” I am relieved that he and ESI understand that breakeven is not a realistic strategy in the Championship. He states that the way Roland has been running the club means it would likely break even on this one season in the Championship but would probably also result in relegation. “We will spend to stay in the Championship. We are in this for the long-term. It is not about reaping rewards in five years – it might be seven, eight, ten...” As a shareholder in ESI, Southall has a personal stake in any such long-term rewards and has no problem acknowledging that he stands to gain from any future success.

While on the subject of the takeover, I ask Southall to clarify the structure of the deal. He confirms that ESI now own Charlton Athletic Football Club and have a “legal obligation” within the next six months to complete the purchase of Charlton Athletic Holdings Limited, where the freehold of both the training ground and The Valley sit as assets. “Our first conversation with Roland’s representative was in mid to late August – you can’t even buy a house in three months. There is no need at all for fans to get concerned.” He is being true to his stated aims of openness and honesty, though given this club’s history, even a temporary separation of the footballing side from the assets will make some supporters jittery.

The Chairman has not yet had the time to visit the Charlton Museum, but certainly intends to do so, and says he knows quite a lot about the club’s history already. He is familiar with Steve Bridge’s book of Charlton Athletic in Pictures 1975-2015 and has a second copy ready to give to His Excellency as early as this week when he is visiting him in the Middle East. “There’s a photo in it of Lee at England training – he looks so young!”

He does not wish to tread on any toes on the footballing side, admitting an initial reluctance even to visit the training ground. “That’s Lee’s area but he wanted me to come down so I went yesterday. They’re a lovely bunch, tight knit, there’s great energy in the group.” He goes on light-heartedly to reference meeting more players in the physio room than on the training pitch.

Southall talks with affection about The Valley: “I love it!” He describes walking around when it is empty and just taking it all in. Has he been tempted to hit a ball into the back of the net? “No, not yet, but every year with my university friends we have a North versus South match. So I’ve told them this year it’ll be at The Valley after the last game of the season. Everyone will be buzzing so I will be scoring.” Lee Amis interrupts to correct him – the Northern team won’t score. Like a kid again, bubbling with excitement, Southall joins in the banter: “I’ll be playing for the Southern team now – I’ve got my transfer! Lee Bowyer doesn’t know it yet but he’ll be coaching us. Curbs will be coaching the Northern team.” What a refreshing change from the previous regime’s idea of how to promote pitch hire by ‘scoring’ on the centre circle…

Aside from the exuberance at the thought of playing on the hallowed turf, throughout our discussion, Southall seems perfectly calm, a trait shared by Gallen and Bowyer. This contrasts quite starkly with the panicky ups and downs of fans on message boards and social media at each rumoured or actual coming or going, where every word is subject to scrutiny. “We’re saying the right things, and people are picking up on that. Now we need to do the right things,” he concludes.

Southall has already brought a new style to Charlton Athletic in his upfront communications to date, whether formal or informal, and in his classy matchday presence. The Directors’ Box at recent matches has been full to bursting, showing early signs of the desired broader demographic. Now it’s time for him and his ESI colleagues to show substance in contractual and business dealings: secure Championship status, complete the purchase of the assets, then develop and build from there.

Taking what the Chairman says at face value, the ambitions of Addicks to see sensible and steady progression for the club are closely aligned with his personal motivation and opportunity to succeed. Later that afternoon during the match, the massed Covered End Choir receive an immediate response to their call of “Southall, Southall, give us a wave.” That chant swiftly followed a loud rendition of “There’s only one Matt Southall.” The kid released at fifteen may finally make his fame and fortune in football.