What The F*** Happened At Charlton Athletic?
In light of his recent departure, COPA90 reflect on Roland Duchatelet’s torrid tenure as Charlton Athletic owner, and the role fans played in eventually forcing him to sell the club.

6 years ago, an unknown Belgian businessman named Roland Duchatelet paid £14m to acquire and assume ownership of Charlton Athletic. With the club sitting 19th in the Championship, there was excitement among Charlton fans that, in the modern age of billionaire foreign owners, they might just be on the cusp of something great. 

But it wasn’t to be. It only took two years before there were hundreds of Charlton fans marching towards the Valley in a faux funeral procession, trailing behind a coffin that symbolised the death of the football club at the hands of its reckless owner. 

To many Charlton supporters, Duchatelet’s ‘regime’ is paradigmatic of how not to run a football club: belligerently pursuing an unrealistic vision without any consideration for the fans until the club has been driven to ruin, both on and off the pitch. 

At its heart, his ambition was to incorporate the South East Londoners into a wider network of European clubs – a model not far off that of the Pozzo family at Watford, or even the City Football Group’s growing global empire. Moving players throughout this network would be a mutually beneficial agreement that helped find and develop young talent while ultimately saving money. 

However, this theoretically successful strategy underestimated the talent required to compete in the English Championship. Charlton found themselves forcefully ill-equipped with poor players from the relatively average teams in Duchatelet’s network, and were soon languishing in League One.

Off the pitch, things also took a turn for the worse. There’s a long list of bizarre decisions and clear publicity blunders made by Duchatelet and the CEO he appointed, Katrien Meire, that over time corroded Charlton Athletic’s identity as a club. It’s a sign of how bad one’s reign is when the best format to encapsulate their legacy is a baffling, hilariously parodical Twitter thread

But while ridiculous in retrospect, at the time, Duchatelet’s destruction of the club was the painful catalyst for an incredible wave of fan mobilisation. This was a fan base with a track record for vehemently defending their club – best seen in the early ‘90s, when they were exiled from the Valley, inspiring them to set up a political party to run in the local election and fight for their return.

This time, they organised themselves again. Various pockets of supporters were united under the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet (CARD), resulting in a tactical series of protests, marches and demonstrations. 

CARD would often coordinate and collaborate with their gameday opposition – be it Brighton, Burnley or Coventry – to amplify their message of unhappiness, and further project their discontent into the mainstream media.

Charlton fans have shown the footballing world the power of fan movements

In addition to their impressive large-scale organisation, what stands out from these protests is the determination and creativity behind them. Whether it be the aforementioned coffin with “RIP Charlton Athletic” inscribed on it, the thousands of plastic pigs that were thrown onto the pitch, or a ‘Taxi For Roland’ that was driven all the way to Belgium. 

Their last stunt later inspired the most ambitious protest of them all: hundreds of Charlton fans marching through Duchatelet’s hometown of Sint-Truiden, delivering a message in person to a man who, for several years, hadn’t even visited the SE7 club he owned.

The sustained attritional pressure worked. The message eventually got through and the club was put up for sale.

“It has been a long and frustrating wait, but with the sale of the club, CARD’s job is done. We should be proud to say that Charlton fans did not stand idly by when the future of their club was under threat.” Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet

It’s now 2020 and Charlton Athletic has been sold to East Street Investments: a consortium comprised of two English businessmen backed by Abu Dhabi money. The club is once again lying 19th in the Championship, very much back at square one. 

There is relief among fans as they wave goodbye to Duchatelet, although it is mixed with both apprehension and excitement; having been hurt before, it’s hard for them not to be nervous. 

Regardless, it certainly looks as though things are heading in the right direction. In his early communication with fans, Matt Southall – Charlton’s new Chairman and the face of the consortium – has already shown more promise in a few days than Duchatelet ever did across his entire reign. 

Despite the negative circumstances, the actions of Charlton fans throughout recent years have at least showcased the great, passionate potential of this fanbase. The hope will now be that the club’s new owners realise this, harness it in the correct way, and lead the club into a new era of much-needed stability and success.

Follow Tom Brandhorst on Twitter @tombrandy