Today marks one year since CAST was threatened with legal action by one of the then-owners of our club
For those of you who remember that particular battle you will recall that it marked the start of the escalation of hostilities and a path that took us via the High Court and the Court of Appeal, just avoiding insolvency and all its devastating consequences, and eventually to the door of Thomas Sandgaard.
You’ll be forgiven if you had forgotten all about that particular drama – there were, of course, many more drastic developments to follow. This episode arose out of the weekly Q&A articles being published by CAST at that time, containing Marian Mihail’s responses to fans’ questions. There had, in the weeks and months prior to Mihail’s appointment, been a very public falling out between Tahnoon Nimer and Matthew Southall, in which the latter had been accused by the former of stealing from the club. Southall was removed as a director, but continued to insist that he was the club’s owner.
The Q&A articles were an attempt to find out what on earth was going on and, from CAST’s perspective, to keep the lines of communication open, particularly given the very imminent threats of insolvency and our awareness that we would need to move quickly if the worst happened. We exist to represent our members and Charlton fans generally, and to preserve and protect the club for future generations. Never in our relatively short existence had that mandate seemed more real, more present, more important. The weekly articles were produced and published because we knew how desperate fans were for information, and we wanted to share what little news we had. We knew that we weren’t – couldn’t be – getting the full story, but we asked what we could and we published the responses we received.
Then, on a Wednesday morning in May, an email arrived from Southall, holding himself out in his email signature as “shareholder & director – East Street Investments Ltd, Charlton Athletic Football Club”. He was, in his words, “no longer willing to sit back and watch [us] post allegations against [him]”, and asked us to take the articles down. And so, a threat: if we continued to publish the articles, he would “have no alternative but to bring legal proceedings against CAST” for defamation.
The email came as a bolt from the blue. We were learning more with each passing day about the cast of characters who had infiltrated our club, about what they had done, and what they had tried to do. But a threat of legal action against the Supporters’ Trust was another level entirely. It was an attempt to intimidate CAST and, in turn, to intimidate our members and Charlton fans into silence. If Southall had known anything about our history and had understood our club at all, he would have known that we wouldn’t take it lying down.
Later that day, we responded. We set out the basis upon which we refuted his baseless claims of defamation, explaining the provisions of the Protocol for Media and Communications Claims and the Defamation Act 2013. We told him that our articles contained only the truth - an absolute defence to a claim in defamation. Finally, we invited him to withdraw his allegations and told him very clearly: “we will not be intimidated by the threat of legal action into removing publications (or parts thereof) which are in the public interest and more specifically – and importantly – in the interests of our members and the fans of CAFC”.
Southall told us that we’d hear from his lawyers (we didn’t) and objected to us publishing the correspondence. But the following day he contradicted himself and decided to publish his original letter to us via Twitter. Therefore we published the correspondence in full.
And the new members came flooding in. Charlton fan after Charlton fan told us they felt helpless, couldn't believe what was happening to our club and were desperate for someone to fight for it. We couldn’t have known then that just six months later our club would be the subject of legal proceedings, first in the High Court, and soon after in the Court of Appeal. We knew, however, that whatever came next, we would have to be prepared for the worst.
The work started in earnest. We continued to research the issue of fan ownership and supporter fundraising, preparing ourselves for an insolvency event. We launched the ‘Our Club’ initiative, and asked fans whether, if the time came and the need arose, they would be prepared to contribute towards owning the club we love. Within hours, thousands had signed up. We spoke to other fan-owned clubs about how they had done it, and progressed our plans, such that, if administrators were appointed, we would be able to present them with a fan-led rescue plan. We negotiated with crowdfunding platforms, discussed our plans with lawyers, and chose a launch date. We spoke with the EFL executive team, with local MPs and councillors, with the Royal Borough of Greenwich, with the Football Supporters’ Association, with the media. Lauren Kreamer, a barrister, temporarily stepped down from the CAST board to appear against Paul Elliott’s Lex Dominus in the legal proceedings.
The rest, of course, is history. Thomas Sandgaard saved our club in what seemed like impossible circumstances. He spoke with CAST prior to the deal being done and assured us of his intentions and told us that he had fallen in love with our club. We believed him. Within weeks of the takeover, he had agreed to a Q&A which was subsequently attended virtually by hundreds upon hundreds of fans desperate to thank him and to tell him what it meant to us and to ask him about the future. Thomas spoke for hours about his plans for the future – big plans – to get our club back where it belongs. We were pinching ourselves. We still are.
A year on from the day our owner threatened to sue us things couldn’t feel more different for Charlton Athletic Football Club. But all is not well in the footballing world. The attempts of the owners who announced their intention to form the so-called European Super League to circumvent their fans, to ignore their views, and to prioritise short-term financial gain over hundreds of years of footballing history sent shockwaves through football at all levels. The supporters’ trusts of each and every club dragged into this scandal released statements saying that they had not been consulted and that they would do everything they could to oppose the plans and the owners who had done this to their clubs. Under the weight of fury from fans, the plans collapsed within days. Owners are now making proposals for formal fan involvement in the running of football clubs. Politicians are calling for reform and the long awaited fan-led review is getting off the ground. Our governing body - the Football Supporters Association - will be central to this review which will be chaired by Tracey Crouch MP. We’ve heard it all before, but we live in hope that, this time, finally, we will see real change.
For now, though, we remember that a year ago today, Matthew Southall threatened to sue CAST for daring to tell fans what was going on at our club. Many will have seen, with shock and no small measure of despair, recent reports that Southall is brokering a deal for the sale of Derby County. We survived the events of the past year because our fans refused to back down in the face of threats, and because Thomas Sandgaard fell in love with our wonderful club. Another club might not be so lucky.
If you are one of the many CAST members who joined in May last year you will shortly be receiving a renewal reminder (unless you signed up for auto-renew). Although our club is no longer under threat it is still vital that Supporters' Trust membership nationally remains high and vibrant. Your renewal will strengthen the arm of all Trusts and the FSA as we join the review to secure the future of football.
You can join or renew your membership here (but don't renew unless we have already contacted you to remind you)