“Our fight is not with the team. We are supporters after all. And, despite the unnecessary relegation, nor is it about results. Our fight is for the very soul of Charlton Athletic.”
Heather Alderson, spokesperson for the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet (C.A.R.D.), has seen it all at Charlton. Almost twenty-five years ago, with The Valley in dire need of renovation, the club’s supporters were forced to form a political party to put pressure on the local council. They worked their fingers to the bone to eventually bring the stadium back to life.
“We will still be here when they are long gone – every woman, man and child,” Alderson tells The Set Pieces.
“Charlton fans fought to get back to The Valley in 1992 and won. So we’ve got a track record and we will win again.”
In 2016, there is a new threat to the club, but this time it goes much deeper than bricks and mortar. Given the events of the past two years, the entire essence of Charlton Athletic is at stake.
No football fan enjoys watching their team endure hardships, and self-inflicted problems are that little bit tougher to swallow. But as depressing as it is to witness your club drop down the leagues, encounter financial difficulty, or get regularly stuffed by rivals, there is no more harrowing experience than to watch its identity being picked apart, piece by piece.
That is how life has felt for Charlton fans since Duchatelet bought the club in January 2014, immediately replacing the respected Chris Powell with Jose Riga. There have been five more appointments in the following two years along with accusations that protesting fans “seem to want the club to fail”.
As Charlton lurched into crisis, the supporters decided enough is enough.
“In two and a half short years, the owner and CEO have dismantled the club and created a company. Not only that, but a company that behaves as if it hates its ‘customers’,” says Alderson.
“This season, despite the appointment of a more qualified manager, we have no confidence in their ability.
“Requiring supporters to sign agreements not to criticise the club, trying to charge an admin fee for tickets bought in person from the ticket office, and holding fan meetings, but only with selected groups, are just three pieces of evidence that their contempt continues.
“Therefore, our fight continues. We are not just protesting, we are actively coming together to provide the things that supporters need like cheaper more reliable away travel.”
There’s an old adage that adversity introduces you to yourself, and Charlton fans have found a formidable inner strength. There have been disagreements along the way, even an initial air of resignation, but C.A.R.D. have been a beacon of hope, doing everything in their power to unite the fanbase.
If any more inspiration is needed, it should come in the form of Saturday’s opposition, AFC Wimbledon. The Dons’ remarkable resurrection on the other side of South London is football’s leading example of supporters taking a stand. When Wimbledon’s original incarnation couldn’t be saved, the fans formed the club again. In 14 years they have climbed six tiers to reach League One.
“Charlton supporters feel a strong kinship with AFC Wimbledon supporters, and not just our shared admiration for Jason Euell,” explains Alderson.
“The real Dons supporters know, more than most, the difference between a community-based football club and a business franchise.
“Their effort gives us hope for what can be achieved.”
So far the Charlton supporters’ own efforts are raising the profile of their cause. Through a variety of novel but effective campaigns – including sit-down protests blocking the main entrance to the stadium, a bombardment of soft mini footballs and whistles, and now even a black-and-white ‘protest’ shirt as an alternative to club replicas – what was once a sea of despondence is now a tidal wave of action.
It all makes for a strange and difficult environment for Russell Slade, the former Cardiff and Leyton Orient manager who was appointed in June. He has battled hard to bring in his own players and picked up nine points from six matches so far. If a host of new attacking talent shines, a promotion challenge may not be completely out of the question.
But Saturday’s match against Wimbledon is much more symbolic than a mere quest for three points. A return to the Championship wouldn’t automatically signal that Charlton fans have their club back.
Sometimes, you don’t realise what you have until someone threatens to take it away from you. Much like the Burnley supporters who interrupted their own promotion celebration on the final day of last season to join in chants of “we want Roland out”, the Wimbledon fans at The Valley on Saturday will look across the pitch and see more allies than enemies.
The cause is bigger than the game, and Charlton’s plight should speak to fans everywhere.