By Calum Fraser
Charlton Athletic’s links with their supporters would be strengthened by having a fan on the club’s board, says the Mercury.
That’s why today we are calling on the next owners of the Addicks to bring back a Supporters’ Director position at the club.
The position was a part of the club’s set-up between 1992 and 2008, as fans were rewarded for their efforts in the Back to the Valley campaign, initiated by the Mercury in October 1986.
But in recent years, the strong links between fans and the higher echelons of the club have weakened.
There have been protests against current owner Roland Duchatelet and crowds have dwindled.
But now, with new owners set to take over the club, we believe Charlton can begin to bridge that chasm by creating a fans’ position on the board. The Mercury is once again standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the red and white army – as it did in the Back to the Valley campaign.
It’s time to get Back to the Board.
Addicks fans have been shutout in the cold for too long. Under Roland Duchatelet’s rule, executive decisions have been delivered like a judge’s hammer.
Players, coaches, managers, board members and executives have been knocked in and out of the club, bludgeoning the fans into a bewildered daze.
But they were never going to take these blows without retaliation.
They have been standing firm, with coffin parades down Floyd Road, to political parties standing in Belgian elections and plastic pigs thrown on the pitch.
The red and white army do not have a history of meekly accepting decisions imposed on them by bigwigs in suits.
The Back to the Valley campaign in the late 80s and early 90s, partially led by the Mercury, sums up this attitude.
Charlton and the fans were banished from The Valley in 1985, to play their football at Selhurst Park, the home of rivals Crystal Palace.
The fans were told that staying at The Valley was not a financially viable option.
They were meant to keep quiet, accept that the management suits knew best and get themselves down to SE25.
This would not be the last time fans were underestimated by the upper tiers of the club.
Peter Cordwell, Mercury sports editor at the time, made the journey down to Selhurst Park. After witnessing a game against Lincoln City where a 2,319 supporters filled the 36,000 capacity stadium, he launched the Back to the Valley petition.
For years the campaign ebbed and flowed. There were elections, stalemates, marches, protests and more.
The will of the supporters was knocked back by town hall chiefs and management bean-counters time and again.
There were of course many influential and hard-working councillors, directors such as Roger Alwen, Mike Norris, and latterly Martin Simons and Richard Murray, who worked to get back to The Valley.
But this was a grassroots movement.
Rick Everitt’s book Battle for The Valley gives a full account of this era.
In the book, Everritt, who later became sports editor of the Mercury, says: “I have little doubt that it was the transformation of the club, as a consequence of the fight to return [to The Valley], that carried it forward subsequently.”
This wave of positive energy from the stands swept the club into the Premier League in 1998 and 2000.
The similarities between that period and now are striking.
Then as now, community spaces are threatened by financial forces. High Street stores, community centres and sports clubs are disappearing before our eyes like condensation on a window.
Then as now, the club is languishing in the lower tiers of English football, crowds are dwindling and supporters are exasperated by the direction in which the club has been steered.
Then as now, it is time to fight back.
Too often owners have failed to grasp what Charlton Athletic is.
Roland Duchatelet added the club to his vast business portfolio in 2014. The Belgian millionaire thought he could apply the same business model he had used in the micro-electronic industry to a football club. Economies of scale, import foreign labour and rule with an iron fist.
What Duchatelet did not realise is that Charlton Athletic is not a micro-electronics company.
It is a football club. It is the cultural nexus of a community’s hopes. It is a cathedral of dreams. For a few magic moments, on Saturday, your local heroes can achieve perfection right in front of your eyes and you can roar your appreciation.
Who owns the club? The millionaire or the crowd? The answer must be both.
The fans are not just cheers and clicks on the turnstile. They bring an instinctive understanding of the club. They have grown up with it in their blood. More than that though, Charlton fans are also just bloody good at organising and understanding finance.
Again and again, the red and white army have shown their ability to operate at the highest level of organisation.
It was the fans who started the Valley Party, challenging the council in 1990 when dreams of a Valley return had been all but squashed by town hall chiefs.
It was the fans who stumped up a huge chunk of the cash, raising more than £1million through the Valley Investment Fund, helping to finance the return to the Valley in December 1992.
It was the fans who scrambled over weed-strewn terraces to clear the stadium that had been left to rot by those who were supposed to be managing it.
Fans were integrated into the club from top to bottom after the Back to the Valley campaign.
Paul Ellis became a long-serving member of the club’s admin team, Steve Dixon and Roy King, key Valley Party activists, were given positions within the club in 1991 and finally, there were the elected Supporters’ Directors Steve Clarke, Craig Norris, Mick Gebbett, Wendy Perfect, Sue Townsend and Ben Hayes.
Lifelong fan Peter Varney served as the club’s influential chief executive from 1997-2008.
Everitt, who was also employed by Charlton to head up their communications team in 1998, said: “Many more supporters were recruited to the staff as the years went on and for all of these people, their involvement was much more than a job or pastime. It was a passion.
“Was Charlton, then, in the hands of enthusiasts who lacked the necessary competence? Hardly.”
The club’s stellar performance in those years under Alan Curbishley’s team management made the point.
So, the owners should be in no doubt that a Supporter Director will be able to hold their own, sat next to globe-trotting financiers at the top table in SE7.
There must also be a close working relationship with the Charlton Athletic Supporters’ trust. But a fan on the board will tether management to the masses.
What’s more, the SD role cannot be a gimmick or a throwaway gesture by the owners.
The SD will be democratically elected and must be given proper responsibilities within the club.
Of course, they will be bound by collective responsibility and must respect the confidentiallity of financially sensitive information.
But they will be accountable to the fans at regular meetings.
So, The Mercury is putting down a marker – we believe the SD position should be secured for fans, preferably by the start of Charlton’s season on August 5.
We would love to hear from you. If you have any thoughts on the Back to the Board campaign, email firstname.lastname@example.org, Tweet #CharltonBacktotheBoard, call the office on 03300 580 680 or come in in person to our Charlton offices.