Wednesday, 9 November 2016

12 Months On; A Protest Retrospective

Photo by @pedward72
Is it really 12 months ago that just before our 3-1 home victory against Sheffield Wednesday disgruntled Addicks took to the back of the West Stand in what would be the first protest against Duchatelet's failing regime? Those present that day will recall the moment the hapless Katrien Meire appeared at a window looking down on us all (in more ways than one) with her trademark sniggering smile, taking photos of the hundreds of fans, young and old, amassed below. It was hard not to view her actions that day as a sign of contempt for the customer base her and her megalomaniac boss appear to have such little regard for.   
A win that afternoon done little to quell the concerns, and at the time I commented "the bittersweet feeling post match was that this win could hand Fraeye the job full time. Nothing personal, Karel, but I hope this was your last match in charge".
How wrong I was...and how harmful it would turn out to be that it wasn't his last game.
Within a few days Meire was at it again at the Fan's Forum, where, amongst other gems that included the most awkward PowerPoint presentation you will ever see, she suggested "we have improved with every manager we have had. They have been the right decisions". The same night she laughably claimed just 2% of Charlton fans were unhappy at the way the club was being run.
Later that month Meire would provide us disgruntled fans with a rare update full of those empty words we have sadly become so accustomed. It also included the first mention of the hilariously ambitious and mysterious Target 20k fan focus group. Once you'd picked yourself up off the floor laughing at the prospect of group aiming for regular gates of 20k, it became way too easy to be cynical about their creation, especially with Meire desperate to tell the ever-critical media that she was 'talking to fans'. In a recent poll of over 700 Addicks, 91% suggested they wanted T20k to disband on the bases they do not represent the current views of Charlton fans, and yet, oddly enough, they remain one of the few groups willing to speak with Meire and her senior management team.

Make of that what you will...  
Meanwhile, the West Stand protests continued post-match at the next few home game...with numbers steadily growing despite cold, uninviting winter evenings.

Over the Christmas period the now-infamous Irish web seminar video of Katrien Meire appeared, to further pour fuel on the already raging fire. In it, Meire claimed she found it "weird that fans feel a sense of ownership of a club". She also suggested Charlton would become some sort of breading ground for future Premiership stars. Not quite what I wanted to hear.

Around the same time Meire claimed she had little regard for Charlton's history, although, oddly enough, she claims she's been misinterpreted on that.  
On the pitch, and now into January, Charlton continued to edge ever-closer to relegation despite Duchatelet's assurances it wasn't going to happen. Finally, after that horrendous defeat away at Huddersfield in mid-Jan, Karel Fraeye got the boot. Out of his depth from the outset, his appointment incensed Charlton fans who felt we'd been lied to about the true intentions of his appointment. 
The night will also be remembered for Hendo's emotional press conference after the game when he was left to apologise for the mess created by those running the club. It was a night that was probably the beginning of the end for him as well, sadly.   
A few days later CAST announced the inaugural meeting of The Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet (CARD), who had had been formed from various fan groups with a view to organise specific protests against the Regime. In my opinion, it was exactly what Charlton fans needed. We might all have a voice, and the overwhelming feeling was of despair at the mismanagement of our club, but ultimately there was a desperate need to coordinate action against a Regime that was showing no signs of changing course.

Unsurprisingly the next home game saw the biggest post-match protest yet, with thousands outside the West Stand calling for Duchatelet to get out of our club.

For the home game against Blackburn in late January CARD first began encouraging fans to avoid spending a penny more on official programmes, club merchandise and refreshments etc. The same game also saw a fan ejected from the ground for displaying a non-offensive banner (it simply stated that 'We Want Our Club Back'). Charlton's public relations took yet another sizable hit.

In early February a highly emotive billboard poster appeared near the roundabout of Bugsby's Way and Anchor and Hope Lane; a short walk from the Valley. At his point, with Charlton fans relationship with the club in serious decline, it had been two months since we'd last heard anything whatsoever from Meire. It appeared she'd gone to ground, hoping this awful mess would blow over.

In late Feb, for the home game against Reading, CARD produced the first of their unofficial matchday programmes with a retro feel (an idea that the club would later copy for their own publication). Amongst other points, it included the 'Sorry Situation' page seen to the left that suggested Duchatelet's spending was being loaded onto the club in the form of a debt, with some suggesting the 'loan' carries around 3% interest. Not quite the investment some would have us believe then? On the same day, some 20 Charlton fans travelled to Belgium to take the protests to Duchatelet's own back yard, Sint-Truiden.

By now, the appeal of shouting at the rear of the West Stand in the cold, knowing Meire wasn't taking a blind bit of notice, was well and truly wearing thin, and the protest numbers began to dwindle.

A new approach would be required.

Under the full glare of the Sky cameras it was the for the visit of Middlesbrough that CARD took the protests up a notch or two. Before the game there was a superbly executed mock funeral procession from the Lib Club to the Valley that was observed by hundreds if not thousands along the route. Within seconds of the kick off a barrage of black and white beach balls rained down on the pitch and bought the proceedings to a sudden halt. As the ground staff frantically tried to clear the pitch the Charlton fans stood as one to sing anti-Duchatelet songs in front of a live TV audience. Unsurprisingly, Sky images showed Meire sniggering away, presumably finding the customer unrest weird. The chasm between her and the fans could not get wider. Her position long-since became untenable.

The following evening, Charlton's much-maligned owner, Mr. Duchatelet, himself issued this incredible statement condemning those fighting for the future of their club. Widely criticised, it served only to galvanise the protesting fans and gain a wider sympathetic audience.

Later that same month, and around the time that the season ticket renewal forms were dropping on our door mats, CARD brilliantly took the protests to a new level by targeting a meeting between club and potential sponsors based at both Sparrows Lane and The Valley with a mobile ad campaign (left).

In early April, Charlton fortunes on the pitch looked doomed even after a home win against Birmingham, courtesy of a late, late stoppage time winner by Teixeira. The goal remains the last one I have genuinely celebrated as an Addick. Once again, the start of the game was disrupted for a number of minutes whilst the ground staff cleared thousands of black and white stress balls from the pitch.

By the middle of the same month, Charlton were relegated. The most avoidable of relegations. In an all-too-rare statement, Meire said "This is not the time for excuses. We apologise for our mistakes and now need to learn from them". Learning from their mistakes is something this Regime shows no signs of doing, even now.

Towards the end of April our good friends from Brighton joined Addicks on a pre-match walk from the Lib Club to the Valley. Some estimated up to 5,000 people joined the procession. In what was becoming a permanent fixture, the start of the game was stopped by more black and white beach balls and balloons.

By the time the final home game came around, Charlton had taken the most extreme protest counter-measure and installed netting in front of the Covered End, presumably expecting more objects on the pitch. It has become a lamentable reality of this current Charlton regime that instead of trying to heal wounds, they continue to battle against the will of the fans. Ironically, disrupting the game was not on CARD's agenda this time, and instead the main focus was a very effective West Stand car park sit-in protest pre-match.

Towards the end of the first half two Charlton fans created what will arguably become one of the most iconic images of this struggle in years to come (pic left) as the chants of Liar, Liar, Liar ran out across the Valley.

A pitch invasion followed the final whistle, where, symbolically, the much-maligned 'fans sofa' was quite literally ripped apart, never to be seen again.

In early June it may have appeared that the Regime had finally learned from their lessons with the appointment of Russell Slade and a few English based signings. It wasn't enough to get me to renew my season ticket, and like many others, I remained unconvinced that the leopard had changed its spots.

In mid July the hugely recognisable face of 'Big' Dave Lockwood boosted the anti-Regime movement by resigning from his long-standing role as matchday announcer to very publically join the protests.

For the start of the new season CARD had announced it would temporarily cease with the protests to give Russell Slade as much chance as possible to get off to a good start, but following a string of woeful, uninspiring performances and ever-falling gates they announced a resumption of protest action, starting with the home game against Coventry, who themselves were a club under a very dark cloud.

No sooner had they made the call to arms, Meire invited them in for a cosy chat. Unsurprisingly, CARD refused, stating, correctly, that the 'situation was irretrievable under her management'.

And so, gaining wide-world coverage, Charlton and Coventry fans proved  pigs can fly, following another well attended march to The Valley pre-match.

Off the pitch Charlton's charm offensive continued with a young fan needlessly and heavily man-handled outside of the Valley by the club's own private security. They really don't help themselves, do they?

By mid-October more evidence of club attempting to censor its fan base reared its ugly head after a committee member of a Charlton supporter group felt compelled to resign after being pulled up for negative anti-regime comments he had made via a private social media account. The incident lead to Charlton fans making similarities between Duchatelet's Regime and a certain oppressive regime in East Asia!

Photo by @pedward72
A few days later we saw that superb plane stunt at Gillingham, paid for by one single supporter, proving the depth of feeling and the extent to which fans were willing to invest their own money to remove Duchatelet from Charlton.

So that pretty much brings us bang up to date, with the last notable protest action on 'Free Speech Day' when Addicks were encouraged to bring along home-made anti-Regime banners for the home game against Chesterfield. Sadly, the declining gates at The Valley diluted the impact on the day, but once again, plenty of press coverage got the message out there.

So what next? Perhaps that's a question for another piece (this one is plenty long enough as it is). In my humble opinion, CARD and the vast majority of protestors have kept the moral high-ground by not resorting to any action that could be interpreted as illegal, violent, xenophobic or misogynistic. In mixing some clever initiatives with no small measure of humour, CARD and the protesting Charlton fans have ensured plenty of public exposure, interest, sympathy and ever-growing support. There will always be those who want protest action to be more extreme, just as there are those who want it all to stop, but the battle (or 'war' as Meire likes to call it) will not be won overnight, and a carefully considered approach gets my support.

The sustained, unrelenting, high-profile protest campaign must continue until they go. We will get our Charlton back...  

As a footnote; in true Hungry Ted fashion I've done no credible research on the above whatsoever, so if I'm widely out with the chronological order of events, or missed something important, please feel free to pull me up!

1 comment:

  1. Great summary of events Ted. Reading this makes me so proud to be a fan of this club! No surrender.