On Monday morning, members of the CAST board met with members of the panel of the DCMS fan-led review of football governance. CAST were represented by Heather McKinlay (chair), Nigel Kleinfeld (treasurer), Lauren Kreamer and Heather Alderson. In attendance from the fan-led review panel were Tracey Crouch MP (panel chair), Kevin Miles (chief executive, The Football Supporters’ Association), Clarke Carlisle (former professional footballer and former chair of the Professional Footballers Association), Dawn Airey (chair, FA Women’s Super League), David Mahoney (chief operating officer, England and Wales Cricket Board), and Godric Smith (director, Cambridge United).
We had been invited by the panel to attend a one-to-one session with them, alongside several similar sessions with Supporters’ Trusts of other clubs across the football pyramid with experiences of bad owners, with a view to us sharing our story as a case study. Other, wider sessions have taken place with representatives from each of the leagues organised by the Football Supporters’ Association.
Before the serious business, the meeting got off to a lighter start when we learned that Tracey Crouch's builder is an Addick. Not only had he briefed her in advance, but he has also encased "Charlton Forever' inside her stud wall ready for an episode of Time Team in 3021. Nice one!
We focused our submission to the panel around our experiences of toxic ownership under Roland Duchâtelet, ESI I and ESI II. In particular, we told the panel about the staggering ease with which Charlton Athletic Football Company Limited was able to be bought for £1 twice in the space of five months by people who were entirely unfit to own our football club and without them having passed any aspect the EFL Owners’ and Directors’ Test when they acquired the company.
We explained how, under Duchâtelet’s ownership, fans were disregarded and disrespected, and how his errors resulted in losses which were funded by an ever-increasing debt to him.
We told the panel that we were the club of exile, of the Valley Party, of protest, of fighting again and again for our club. We spelled out the fact that The Valley and Sparrows Lane were owned by separate legal entities both under the control of Duchâtelet and our fears at that time if common control were to end.
We informed the panel that when Duchâtelet decided to sell he asked for a ludicrous price. This attracted sharks looking to pick our club’s bones. We also said that our fears of separate ownership came to pass when the sale to ESI I meant that The Valley and Sparrows Lane fell under separate ownership from that of our club.
Our submission to the panel also explained the ESI I saga, the cast of characters, and the shenanigans. We told them about the sale to Nimer and Southall, the Range Rovers, the Thames-side flat, the invoices, the asset-stripping, the Instagram fall-out, the eviction of Southall: in short, the whole, sorry tale. We told them that the EFL only appeared to care about their competition and not about the survival of our club.
We outlined the ESI II saga, and the subsequent, infamous court case. We explained to the panel the conflicts and the incompatibility of football governance and English company and insolvency law, and the sleepless nights Lauren had, wondering how she could convey to a High Court Judge in Manchester, and subsequently to the Court of Appeal, what Charlton Athletic Football Club means to its community. We also emphasised that once you are before the courts, you are effectively starting the game 10-0 down, and that football governance must stop these rogues before they can get anywhere near our football clubs, rather than trying to unpick the mess later, once the damage is done.
We also told the panel how staggeringly unfit for purpose the EFL, and the Owners’ and Directors’ Test, are. We explained that CAST had sought – time and again – to meet with the EFL, to speak with them, to find out what their intentions were for our club, to ascertain whether they were going to impose severe sanctions, to get their advice and guidance on fan ownership when things were at their worst, but that we were met with silence or a refusal to comment. We explained that, when the Court of Appeal hearing was listed, the EFL was asked to provide evidence of the sanctions it could impose, and, once again, gave us nothing. We talked about how toothless and ineffective the Owners’ and Directors’ Test proved to be in our case.
We told the panel about everything Charlton fans have done to protect and save our club. We told them about the £60,000 raised to fund the Duchâtelet protests, about CAST’s Our Club campaign, to which 4,300 signed up in a matter of days, confirming what we already knew: if the worst were to happen, our fans would not hesitate to step in financially to save our club. We stressed that fear for the club’s future led to the removal by the Charlton Museum trustees of valuable club artefacts to a place of safety.
We also told the panel that our fans are passionate, skilled, motivated and extremely well-organised, and that CAST had done extensive preparatory work to ensure we were ready to move should the need arise. We emphasised to the panel that we could have given absolutely everything and it still might not have been enough: it is out of the reach of ordinary football fans to take on tens of millions of pounds of debt, particularly where the major assets of the club have been put into separate ownership. We told the panel that, for clubs in situations like ours, Plan B equals Plan Bury.
In our case, the story has a happy ending. We told the panel that in Thomas Sandgaard we have an owner who is a genuine fan of football and of Charlton Athletic. But it is a happy ending with the dark shadow of separated ownership of our assets and massive debt to Duchâtelet looming large.
In summing up we told the panel that it must be impossible for any club to end up in Charlton’s situation again. We told them that we need legislation to empower an independent regulator – answerable and accountable to fans – to oversee football governance. That oversight must ensure that the rogues are identified and excluded from owning clubs in the first place, and that any later breaches result in the sanctioning of individuals rather than clubs.
We also told the panel that we need transparency concerning ownership and finances, and that it is imperative that fan engagement is at the centre of football ownership, extending to fan representation on the boards of competition organisers.
We asked the panel to protect tangible assets, but also intangible assets, so that the soul of a football club is put into the hands of its fans and community. We reminded the panel that protecting clubs’ futures must not limit their ambitions - we wish to keep the dream alive of Charlton Athletic competing in the Championship, in the Premier League – even one day in European competition. We closed by stating that football without fans is nothing, and that football without hope is nothing.
From our perspective, the panel was extremely receptive to, and engaged in, our submission. They expressly thanked our fans for all they had done to save Charlton Athletic. One panel member remarked that while everyone else comes and goes, fans are the one constant you can rely on. We could not agree more.
We were asked questions by the panel about the interplay between company law and football governance, about the Owners’ and Directors’ Test, about reform of the EFL, about clubs providing regular fan-facing financial information, and about fan involvement in the running of clubs. We discussed those matters with the panel, and they told us they would be in touch with a view to Lauren sharing her expertise on the existing disconnect between company law and football.
We will also provide a written submission to the panel, summarising our presentation and sharing further thoughts on the specific questions they asked us. As ever, we welcome our members’ views on these issues, and on any further matters which they would like to see included in our written submission.
We wanted to share the above summary to keep our members and the Charlton Athletic community abreast of our efforts as regards this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform football governance. CAST feels that this was a positive meeting, and that the panel took on board the horror of what happened at Charlton. They advised us that they are hearing these kinds of stories from supporters up and down the land and assured us that we can expect the panel to recommend big changes in the way football is governed. CAST welcomes that assurance, and will continue to press for wholesale reform, to ensure that what happened to Charlton can never happen again - not to our club, not to any club.
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