Charlton Athletic began a new era on Wednesday night under the leadership of head coach José Riga, who was installed by owner Roland Duchâtelet this week.
In a 0-0 draw with Huddersfield Town, in a somewhat uninspiring performance, the Addicks closed the gap on Barnsley at the foot of the Championship to just one point.
They remain only three points from safety but do have three, or in some cases four, games in hand on teams above them.
But for most inside The Valley on a crisp March evening, the performance, the result, and the fear of relegation were just minor events; the focus on exploits in SE7 over the past week stole the show.
The incredible show of support that former manager Chris Powell received in the third minute proved as much. Yet this was more than just a ‘goodbye and good luck’ message, more than just end of a hugely successful period in the club’s very recent history.
This was the start of a protest, an anger-fuelled appeal toward the club’s new Belgian owner.
I’m sure football supporters all around the nation were surprised when the news of Chris Powell’s sacking filtered through. Sky Sports News revealed the decision before displaying an image which showed Powell had a win ratio of 41% at Charlton: the club he loves. An impressive figure, which is supported by his League 1 winners medal, something he gained in his first full season in management.
Tweets I saw that day recognised that the club were bottom of the league, adrift of rivals Millwall, and in serious danger of relegation; all of which, of course, were plain facts.
But this sacking was not based on the Addicks’ results or Powell’s managerial skills, nor Charlton’s league positioning or their FA Cup defeat to League 1 Sheffield United on Sunday. The reason behind this sacking lies far deeper beneath the surface.
For those of you unfamiliar with the name Roland Duchâtelet, let me fill you in. The 67-year-old Belgian businessman made his millions in the electronics industry, dabbing in politics along the way before finally landing in the world of football. Duchâtelet bought current Belgian-league-leaders Standard Liege back in 2011, but now owns five more clubs, including Charlton and his most recent purchase, AD Alcoron in Spain. His son is the chairman of Hungarian side Ujpest.
The Belgian is at the centre of a family of football clubs, of which he is the father. A network of teams: something that is becoming more and more familiar around Europe. Watford are a prime example in England, with the Pozzo family owning Udinese and Granada, as well as Charlton’s Championship opponents.
And this brings us all the way back to Chris Powell and Charlton.
Charlton fans were by no means in support of the previous regime; chairman Michael Slater, along with sidekick Tony Jimenez were never known as big investors at the Valley, and Powell has made do with a League 1 squad throughout his time in the Championship.
He guided Charlton to an incredible ninth placed finish last term, two points outside the play-offs, which was a huge over-achievement by his squad’s standards. Yet this season has been a different story, with the Addicks rarely creating a gap between them and the bottom three.
But Powell had the backing of the large majority of the fans and seemingly the new board as they were installed. In a press conference with the new owner only three weeks ago, talks of a new contract (Powell’s current deal was set to expire this summer) were dicussed.
Duchâtelet said: “We are discussing right now to renew his contract for the coming years. There is certainly a desire to continue to work with Chris.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he is an extremely good coach. It’s important for the fans that Powell is a club legend, but for me it’s not the most important matter.
“The most important matter is just that he’s a very good coach.”
Duchâtelet hit the nail on the head; a club legend and a very good coach. For those (and there were many) that had previously doubted the Belgian, concerns were, for the time being, washed away. He went on to recognise the difficulties Powell had faced in the previous regime, with little investment for transfers, and praised the former England left-back’s work at the club.
So why, three weeks on from these ‘talks’, is Powell now a distant memory for the new owner?
On Wednesday, I spoke to a Charlton fan, outraged (like many) at the decision to sack Powell. He talked to me about Powell’s legendary status, his excellent work at the club, his desire and passion to succeed, not just in management, but at Charlton.
But, interestingly, the supporter also talked about Cardiff City.
“Cardiff fans used to frustrate me. Why moan about your club’s owner losing their ‘identity’ when he has brought you Premier League football and some great players [in reference to Vincent Tan and his well documented exploits at Cardiff]? But now, I totally understand. We are losing our identity, and I don’t like it one bit.”
Since Duchâtelet’s arrival at Charlton, no fewer than seven players have been brought in (either on loan or permanently). Six are from his network of clubs. Not one of these six, I suspect, were targets for Powell.
Charlton are a club with a proud family background, with a history of bringing young, homegrown academy players through to play in the first team. This season, Jordan Cousins, Diego Poyet (son of Gus) and Morgan Fox have all made their first team bows, with Cousins playing a major role in midfield since September. Callum Harriott, another academy graduate, has been influential too. Two-time Player of the Season Chris Solly has been at the club since he was 12, but has been injured for the majority of this campaign.
This is a history, an identity others admire, one that fans cherish and do not want to lose. Some football supporters go by the attitude that ‘we don’t care where our players come from, as long as we are successful’. This is certainly not the way of the Addicks faithful.
Reports of disputes between Duchâtelet and Powell before the sacking have also been talked about. Former goalkeeper Ben Alnwick was chosen by Powell ahead of Liege loanee Yohann Thuram-Ulien (who conceded a questionable goal on his debut against Middlesbrough the previous week) in a trip to Doncaster. The English keeper mysteriously departed in the January transfer window weeks later. This was just one of the many suspected cases of Duchâtelet attempting to influence Powell’s decisions.
Fans’ idol Yann Kermorgant, top-scorer and one of the few Charlton players who have looked likely to score this season, also left in January, and was sold to Bournemouth, while influential midfielder Dale Stephens departed for Brighton.
And Powell, once a talented full-back who represented his country on five occasions, clearly disputed these decisions. He is not only a good manager, but a man of principles.
Often in interviews, he talked about “my captain”, “my team”, “our fans”. Powell is Charlton through-and-through, and his players play for not just the club and the fans, but for him.
But he was not prepared to be a ‘yes man’, a puppet for Duchâtelet. Clearly José Riga is. Loanees and signings from Liege, many of whom are sub-standard, were nothing to do with Powell; that much is clear.
In regards to his new contract, according to Duchâtelet, personal terms were agreed, and Powell’s signature was waiting on arrangements of ‘football terms’. By this, transfer policy was clearly on the agenda.
In the Belgian’s statement following Tuesday’s sacking, he said: “We could not reach an agreement over the club’s football strategy going forward.”
And so, Powell was swiftly replaced (just hours later) by former Standard Liege head coach José Riga (who, incidentally, was sacked by Duchâtelet in 2012). The sense behind re-employing a previously sacked manager is, at the very least, baffling.
On Tuesday, Sky’s Simon Thomas tweeted: “Powell was offered a new contract last week. Signed it. Was returned by Roland Duchâtelet unsigned with the message you’re sacked. #CAFC.” If this is true, most supporters of football will agree it is quite frankly disgusting, not to mention disrespectful.
Powell deserved better from a club he has given everything for, ever since first signing as a player in 1998.
There are many people to feel sorry for in this sad tale of modern football. The players, the staff and supporters of Charlton who adored their “club legend”, to name a few.
But most of all, you feel sorry for Chris Powell.
Perhaps his, and our saving grace is, with his talents, he will no doubt go on to be a hugely successful British manager.
But for the future of Charlton Athletic?
For that, I’m fearful.