Even in this, the hottest London summer for a generation, bottled water has been restricted at Charlton Athletic’s Sparrow’s Lane barely air-conditioned training ground in recent weeks. It is for the first team players only. Academy players, who have already had their free breakfasts taken away from them, must queue up for water at the tap.
This is the harsh austerity of the final phase of the Roland Duchatelet regime. As he continues negotiations with the Australian consortium about selling the club, which have dragged on for months, the Belgian owner is desperately trying to block almost every possible outgoing at the club, which has been losing almost £10million per year. Food, water, electricity and wifi are being strictly rationed in a way is scarcely imaginable for a club that was in the Premier League from 2000 to 2007. The club insist that they must become “more cost conscious”, reducing costs both for Duchatelet and for any potential future owner.
Charlton say that austerity is necessary to “restore the financial health of the club”. But Duchatelet has brought Charlton Athletic to its knees over the last four years, demeaning the club with every misjudged cut, sale, sacking and bad appointment. Staff that leave now are rarely replaced and the whole club is desperate for profound change and renewal. For the long-term survival of Charlton Athletic, all that matters is Duchatelet finally selling this club on to people who can take better care of it.
But no-one knows when that will happen, and before then Charlton have the more immediate concern of a football season to play. Starting on Saturday lunch-time with a long trip up to Sunderland, another Premier League veteran but one with a far stronger squad and far more money to haul themselves back into the Championship. This week Sunderland spent £1million to sign Charlie Wyke from Bradford City. The prospect of Charlton doing the same for any player any time soon is literally unbelievable.
That was a point Lee Bowyer made, speaking to The Independent at Sparrow’s Lane on Thursday afternoon. Charlton’s caretaker manager is a man in an almost impossible position. He does not have enough players to name seven substitutes this weekend, and he barely has any money to improve the squad. He has been the caretaker since 22 March, but there is no prospect of any change in his position until the takeover happens. He admits it is personally “frustrating”, but he could be waiting some time.
Bowyer might well be exasperated, but all the energy he projects is positive. And that energy is the only thing keeping this young team together. Staff and players have been impressed with how Bowyer has worked on the unity and confidence of this group, inspiring them in unenviable circumstances, under the restrictions none of their rivals will have to handle.
“Of course it’s difficult,” Bowyer admitted. But this club has been drowning in negativity for years, seeping from the boardroom down. And Bowyer sees his job as protecting and defending his young team from those forces, making them believe in themselves despite the negativity that surrounds them. “I have to make them believe how good they are, because they are good,” Bowyer enthused. “That was the problem when I took over, they were down and out. They thought ‘that’s it, play-offs, done, can’t reach that.’ There’s too much negativity. But now, that’s changed. Everybody witnessed that.”
When Bowyer replaced Karl Robinson in March the team was drifting towards mid-table. But he sparked improvement, and stand-out wins against stronger teams than them, Blackburn Rovers, Shrewsbury Town, Rotherham United. They made it into the play-offs, where they lost their semi-final to Shrewsbury town. But Bowyer reminded the players on Thursday morning how much they improved under him last season, and why there was no reason – and no excuse – to not do the same again this season. He says that he expects another promotion push this year.
But there has been a transfer window since last season ended and it remains to be seen whether Charlton have got better or worse. Of course Duchatalet’s insistence on being “cost conscious” has affected what the team has done. Ezri Konsa, the Under-20 World Cup winner, was sold to Brentford for £3million, and some at the club were dismayed that Charlton quickly accepted that little up front for a player who was pursued by Liverpool and Everton in January.
Duchatelet has relied in the past on selling academy players to stem Charlton’s losses: they got £3.5m for Joe Gomez in 2015, £8m that could rise to £11m for Ademola Lookman in 2017. Now, the only sellable young player left is 22-year-old midfielder Joe Aribo. The club is not doing a good job of keeping him. Charlton offered Aribo a new contract at the start of the summer, changed their minds, and offered him half as much money instead. Other players have gone through the same process. Aribo has just one year left now and if Charlton were offered close to £1m – Southampton and Derby County are interested – they would sell.
Bowyer is desperate for Aribo to stay. “You’re crazy, I can’t sell Joe Aribo,” he said. “He needs to get stay here for his own career, he’s improved so much in the short space of time I’ve been here. Just ask everyone that’s been watching how much he’s improved as a player, it’s frightening. We need to keep him.” But what if Duchatelet is offered close to £1m in the final week of the window? “That’s a question you would have to ask the owner.”
Of course Duchatelet has not exactly been desperate to invest in replacements, not when he has been trying to get roughly £40m for a club he paid £18m for in 2014. “I know the situation here,” Bowyer said, “and I have a budget.” But he has brought in Lyle Taylor, a striker to replace Josh Magennis, and Darren Pratley, who he hopes will add experience to midfield. Charlton have wanted a goalkeeper all summer, ever since Ben Amos left to go to Millwall. They have not signed one, leaving Dillon Phillips as first choice, but Bowyer is confident of finally signing an experienced new keeper before the window shuts, as well as another right-footed centre-back.
Bowyer is proud of how “everyone came together” at the end of last season, but there will never be any widespread enthusiasm for this Charlton team for as long as Duchatelet owns them. Many fans refuse to attend any more until there is a takeover and season ticket sales for this year are estimated at 5,000. When the team were in League One from 2009 to 2012, before Duchatelet took over, they would sell 10,000 season tickets each year. And the fans who want to attend one-off games are disincentivised from doing so: even printing off your own ticket at home still incurs a £1.50 booking fee.
Because no matter how good Bowyer is, or how hard the players work, or how good the academy products are, the only thing that matters to fans is Duchatelet himself. And until he sells, many of them will not pay to support the club. “Charlton fans are desperately frustrated that the potential change of ownership has still not been completed,” says Steve Clarke, vice chair of the Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust. “Since Duchatelet purchased Charlton the club has been in serious decline, due to limited and ill-advised investment, and poor decision-making on all fronts. Fans have reached the end of their tether, with many threatening boycott of home games until new owners are in place. It's a complete mess which needs resolving now.”
But the Australian consortium led by Andrew Muir and Gerard Murphy have been negotiating over the purchase of Charlton for more than a year now, as revealed in the Voice of the Valley fanzine. The Australians were confident enough at the end of last season to come over for the two legs of the play-off defeat to Shrewsbury Town, when they met Bowyer. But that was three months ago and Bowyer has not heard from Muir and Murphy since.
Charlton fans are growing frustrated with the slow crawl of the takeover’s final stages. The Australian consortium continue to offer no comment to media requests. Lieven de Turck, who is representing Duchatelet in negotiations, confirmed to Charlton fans last month that two parties – the Australians and another – had agreed a price with Duchatelet. And that “the only issue holding up the process is EFL approval”. The EFL say they do not comment on individual changes of control.
Until the Australians, Duchatelet and the EFL can complete the deal then the club and everyone connected with it are left in limbo, with cuts making it harder and harder to keep the team competitive.
“The club has become more cost conscious in order to reduce running costs and make costs more bearable for the current owner and any potential new owner,” a club spokesperson said. “The club makes a very significant operating loss every month which is out of proportion with the occasional revenue generated by player sales intended to offset those operating losses. Various parties interested in taking over the club have been put off by the high running costs. Therefore such cost reductions make the club more attractive to potential purchasers. In addition if a takeover does get finalised in the coming days or weeks, the cost reduction will help the new owners limit the operational losses. It is a matter of restoring the financial health of the club, which had got out of control. As part of the club being more cost conscious we are reviewing contracts, monitoring our energy use and negotiating with suppliers to bring our costs in line with other clubs in League One.”
Bowyer said on Thursday that he had been told a takeover was “close”, but that he had “heard that for a while now”. All Bowyer can think about right now is tomorrow. “I don’t ever think about it at all,” he said. “It will happen when it happens."
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