The last time Charlton Athletic played Huddersfield Town and Hull City in the same week, they ended up reimbursing supporters’ travel costs following a 5-0 shellacking only to get hit for six five days later. That 11-0 aggregate defeat almost four years ago followed a nine-match winless streak, including a meek surrender to Colchester United, then bottom of League One, in the FA Cup third round. Charlton were drowning in the Championship at a time when the arrival of new, and usually obscure, out-of-work managers marked the changing of the seasons. In the midst of the despised Roland Duchâtelet’s reign, those were some of the darkest days in the club’s history.
That reign is almost over. East Street Investments (ESI) will complete a takeover worth more than £50m, ending Duchâtelet’s parsimonious five-year tenure as owner, providing they satisfy the EFL’s owners’ and directors’ test. The league is yet to arrange personal interviews with the relevant individuals but both parties are relaxed that the process is advancing within the accepted timeframe of four weeks. ESI is hopeful the deal will be concluded before Christmas.
It is set to represent the Abu Dhabi Business Development chairman and ESI majority shareholder Tahnoon Nimer’s first major foray into sport. Nimer, who works for the private office of Sheikh Saeed Bin Tahnoon al-Nahyan, one of the six ruling families of the United Arab Emirates, and oversees the running of more than 60 companies, would become a director alongside the Abu Dhabi Business Development CEO Jonathan Heller. The former football agent and fitness entrepreneur Matt Southall, who is fronting the consortium, would become chairman.
Charlton slipped to a 1-0 stoppage-time defeat at home to Huddersfield on Tuesday but it is difficult to envisage a repeat of those scarring results of three years ago. “It was a horrendous week,” recalls the then Charlton captain and now assistant manager, Johnnie Jackson. “We were on the coach on the way home [from Huddersfield] and I think we knew the manager [Karel Fraeye] was being sacked and it was particularly grim. José Riga came in for his second stint in charge for the Hull game but had only been there a day or two. They had a pretty good side and we went there and got even more of a hiding. You thought things couldn’t get any worse, but they did.
“The uncertainty with the manager was a difficult one, we had a lot of different nationalities in the side and a lot of cliquey groups. I don’t think we had the most cohesive group at the time but that was a collective thing; we didn’t have a good team spirit and there was a lot of bickering among ourselves in the changing room that night [against Huddersfield] when Reza Ghoochannejhad got sent off. There was not much team spirit at the time, we were losing most weeks and morale was just on the floor. It was difficult rallying the dressing room. There wasn’t a real united front and it showed on the pitch.”
Compare then with now and it is chalk and cheese. “It’s like a totally different football club these days,” Jackson says. “He [Duchâtelet] has been trying to sell for a long time and I think we all agree that a fresh direction for the club would be a good thing. All we have wanted, as a management team, is a little bit of help and it has been missing over the last couple of years, because of cutbacks among staff, playing staff and some of the resources. We have always been swimming against the tide if you like and if these guys [ESI] do come in and they can help us in any way shape or form then I think that can only be a positive thing.”
That the Coalition Against Roland Duchâtelet (Card) fans’ group raised more than £60,000 in protest funds over the years speaks volumes about the anger generated on the Belgian’s watch. Such money paid for a striking billboard with a picture of a disconsolate young fan alongside the words ‘Here Before You and Long After You’re Gone’ on Anchor and Hope Lane, round the corner from the Valley, as well as those plastic pigs, thrown on to the pitch in anger by disillusioned Coventry and Charlton supporters three years ago. “We have been a laughing stock for five years, it’s been an embarrassment, the things he [Duchâtelet] has done, the things he has said,” says the Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust chairman, Richard Wiseman, “so the overriding emotion at the moment is absolutely relief.”
When news of ESI’s deal broke at the end of last month, such was the excitement among supporters that the club website briefly crashed in glee. Planned demonstrations against Duchâtelet have been ditched and Card will become defunct providing the new owners are ratified by the EFL. There is a hum of optimism among fans, thanks to the remarkable progress Charlton have made under Lee Bowyer, Jackson and the goalkeeping coach Andy Marshall, who have not only repaired a fracture between supporters and club but also restored pride. That has not been seriously damaged by a run of nine games without a win since late October amid a glut of injuries. Top of the pile in the prospective owners’ in-tray has to be extending the contracts of the coaching staff, whose deals expire in May. The striker Lyle Taylor, who has recently returned from injury, is also out of contract next summer.
There have been bumps in the road but buoyancy among supporters stems from belief in Bowyer, who returned to his boyhood club after an invitation from the former manager Karl Robinson to work with the club’s young midfielders a couple of days a week. Jackson, too, took his first coaching steps under Robinson. Since Bowyer took permanent charge in September last year, Charlton have not looked back, with Steve Gallen, the head of recruitment, also integral to their resurgence. Macauley Bonne, who was playing for Leyton Orient in the National League last season, has shone and Tom Lockyer, the former Bristol Rovers defender, has impressed for club and country, helping Wales to Euro 2020, but the arrival of Conor Gallagher on loan from Chelsea has been the pick of the bunch.
Charlton, as they did with Arsenal and West Ham last season regarding Krystian Bielik and Josh Cullen respectively, continue to earn the trust of clubs higher up the food chain. Gallen is in regular dialogue with Chelsea’s loan manager Carlo Cudicini and technical mentor Claude Makelele, who are impressed with Gallagher’s development. “He’s strong, he’s tenacious, he’s game,” says Jackson. “He has become a really important player, especially in this time when we have a bit of a depleted squad. We have had to rely on the lad and it’s a lot for a 19-year-old to take on his shoulders in his first loan but he seems to be loving the responsibility and really enjoying his football.”