There’s a new owner at Charlton Athletic – but the scale of the rebuilding job facing Belgian businessman Roland Duchâtelet became apparent yesterday when the team’s match against Barnsley was postponed less than two hours before kick-off due to ongoing problems with The Valley pitch.
But Charlton fans should be vigilant that the current problems with the pitch aren’t used as a pretext to move the club out of its historic home.
Last year, it was reported that the club was in talks with Greenwich Council about moving out of The Valley for a new stadium, to be built at Morden Wharf on the west side of Greenwich Peninsula, on land currently owned by developer Cathedral Homes. The club’s old site would become social housing, under this scheme.
What’s been unclear, though is where the impetus for the scheme has come from – whether it came from within the club, or from outside.
But what is known is that Greenwich Council leader Chris Roberts was a frequent visitor at matches under the ownership of Michael Slater and Tony Jimenez, where he could be seen enjoying hospitality in the directors’ box.
Slater and Jimenez took over at Charlton at the end of 2010. They installed Chris Powell as manager, and secured the funds to secure promotion back to the Championship in 2012. But after that the funds dried up.
The pitch problems at The Valley are a symptom of that trouble. The club admits part of the drainage system has collapsed, and this can’t be rectified until the end of the season. No significant work has taken place on the pitch for years – and the end result of that neglect was Saturday’s fiasco.
Now Slater and Jimenez are on their way out, to be replaced by Roland Duchâtelet, owner of Belgian sides Standard Liege and Sint-Truidense, one-time East German giants FC Carl-Zeiss Jena and Spanish second division team AD Alcorcón. Quite a collection of clubs. He also fronts a small liberal political party in Belgium.
Duchâtelet has installed aide Katrien Meire onto Charlton’s board, but before they could get their feet under the table, a little charm offensive was launched from Greenwich Council.
“Royal Borough welcomes new Charlton Athletic owners,” trilled a press release on 3 January, adding ominously: “The borough will work with the new owners to further strengthen the Club.”
Oddly, Chris Roberts seems to be in a very small band of people who believes that Michael Slater and Tony Jimenez helped Charlton “progress”.
Councillor Chris Roberts, Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, said: “The Council would like to welcome the new owners of Charlton Athletic Football Club to the Borough. At the same time, we would also like to place on record our thanks to the previous owners for the progress made by the Club during their tenure in which they secured promotion to the Championship.”
It’s a very, very odd statement – yes, Slater and Jimenez helped Charlton return to its natural level in the Championship. But the club haemorrhaged senior staff under their regime, and by all accounts was facing serious financial problems before its sale. Hopefully yesterday’s events will encourage football journalists to investigate their record a little more thoroughly.
So what exactly was Roberts thanking Slater and Jimenez for? For being receptive to a proposal to move ground, perhaps? We don’t know, but previous chairman Richard Murray (who returns to his role under Duchâtelet) didn’t get that kind of herogram when he sold up, despite all his achievements.
Neither did the council make any noise when it declared The Valley an asset of community value last November, which would put a six-month block on any sale. Why was that?
If Roberts is putting pressure on Charlton to move, then he’s now got to start again with Roland Duchâtelet and Katrien Meire. Will they be receptive? Nobody knows, but Duchâtelet did refer to The Valley as “a cherished stadium” in a statement to fans last week.
Greenwich Council has denied any formal discussions have taken place over a move. An answer to a Freedom of Information Act request made last year would only say:
“Occasional discussions have taken place between representatives of the Council and CAFC going back over many years. These discussions have included reference to the Club’s aspiration to stay in, or return to the Premiership, and as a result have included reference to the size and capacity of the existing stands and constraints on expansion posed by the physical limitations of the existing site. The discussions have been informal and conversational in nature, and have not been of a substantive nature.”
It’s very easy to make an educated guess that Greenwich Council is encouraging Charlton to move under the pretext that the ground is knackered. It then gets a high-profile occupant for a stadium on the peninsula, while social housing which would otherwise have been built up there gets shunted into Charlton. It’s a conspiracy theory, but with the lack of anything on the record, it’s one which makes sense.
Typically, not even those connected with Greenwich Labour know quite what Roberts’ intentions are towards Charlton. Even those who support the club seem hazy on the plans.
But a conversation I had with one yesterday worried me. “If there’s a continuing sense The Valley is awful, it makes the argument to move easier,” I was told.
Yet there is nothing wrong with The Valley. The pitch hasn’t been maintained properly, but that’s a management failure, not a failure of location. Indeed, The Valley was known as one of the best pitches in the country a decade ago. And it can be that way again.
If there’s an argument for moving, it surrounds the The Valley’s limited room for expansion. But with The Valley not even two-thirds full at present – and Greenwich Council having previously backed past expansion plans – that isn’t an issue.
Fixing the pitch should be relatively cheap. But perhaps the embarrassment of the postponement, and the way it was mishandled by the club might prompt Duchâtelet to show his hand on the long-term future of Charlton Athletic.
It’s 24 years since Charlton fans formed the Valley Party to fight Greenwich Council on the issue of the club playing at its traditional home. Nearly a quarter of a century on, it may well be time for a new generation to become just as vigilant and proactive towards the council’s intentions for Floyd Road.