Assessing the Future of Charlton Athletic's Belgian Connection
Amid the gasping at the prospect of an all-Sheffield FA Cup quarter-final when Sunday’s draw took place, Charlton Athletic fans will have quietly considered the chance the club now has of contesting a semi-final at Wembley Stadium.
That would constitute a real turnaround for the Addicks after a difficult season on and off the pitch, one that has seen them take up occupancy in the Championship relegation zone, a campaign of mediocrity rather than plain awfulness, ungarnished with truly horrendous results but all the same very flat at times.
The most significant events of these past few months at the Valley have been the assumption of financial control by Belgian tycoon Roland Duchâtelet or ‘the owner’ as he is more simply known given the unfamiliar timbre of his name.
Duchâtelet is also the man in charge at one of Belgium’s most storied clubs, Standard Liège and the amount he paid for Charlton has been reported variously as being either £14 million or £20 million – as the source of the latter quote is Wyn Grant’s excellent Football Economy site, we’ll go with that.
Reaction to the Walloon’s takeover has been understated to date, even verging on the negative. As well as Standard, Duchâtelet is the man at the helm of Spain’s AD Alarcón and Germany’s Carl Zeiss Jena (breaker of Newport County hearts once upon a time) as well as another Belgian club Sint Truidense and Újpest FC of Hungary, albeit in the shape of his wife and son in the latter two cases.
Such asset spreading recalls the Pozzo family at Watford of course and the resemblance became keener in January as a host of Standard’s fringe players switched to South London in a series of loan deals. That sense of disruption was then heightened by the sale of two of Charlton’s stronger performers this season, striker Yann Kermorgant and midfielder Dale Stephens.
The initial impact has been unimpressive with defeats suffered against Wigan and Birmingham City while fans are already expressing doubts as to the club’s future under the new owner – manager Chris Powell has been radiating the effects of pressure, there is continued lingering worry about the future of the ground and Duchâtelet’s reputation as a man with a no nonsense business head adding to the nerves of all parties.
But to take a step back for a moment, how much reason is there to be concerned?
Intriguingly, Duchâtelet’s record in Belgium does provide a few pointers. A year ago, he was the butt of the fans’ criticism for replacing coach Mircea Rednic with little known Israeli Guy Luzon; a year later and Standard lie 10 points clear at the top of the Jupiler pro League, its youth policy paying major dividends and striker Michy Batshuayi the scorer of 17 goals in 26 matches. Standard are Champions League certs and a young team that has drawn heavily on the country’s population of African descent are proving to be one of the most exciting squads in Europe.
The spill over of these riches now has the potential to be blended with the Addicks’ already impressive accent on youth and a couple of the signing in particular could have the potential to improve dramatically the fortunes of a team which, lest we forget, ended January with a frankly horrible 3-0 defeat at Doncaster.
For the loss of Kermorgant and Stephens isn’t perhaps the disaster it might be despite the sterling work the duo have done for the club over the last couple of years. ‘Kermo’ has been described by one commenter on this Guardian article as ‘possibly the best striker in the league’ an opinion you would struggle to hear voiced anywhere a mile’s radius from the stadium but he’s 32, would have been out of contract in the summer and does encourage a less than lovely style of play given his aerial prowess.
Meanwhile Stephens, a bargain buy from Oldham in 2011 and an occasional ringer in playing style for a former Valley favourite in Scott Parker, could have walked in the Summer too. Taking decent money for the duo now is less asset stripping than a sensible piece of business of Duchâtelet’s part.
In have come an overseas contingent with a varied record indeed. The gloriously named Reza Ghoochannejihad follows in the footsteps of fellow Iranians Andranik Teymourian and Ash Dejagah in coming to London and the forward nicknamed ‘Gucci’ comes with a strong reputation built on 8 goals in 10 internationals and a prolific record in Holland with Cambuur and Go Ahead Eagles and in Belgium with the missus’s outfit Sint Truidense.
Nor should the record of Swedish defender Astrit Ajdarević be sneered at. A youngster with Liverpool, he has also played once for Hereford United but is known as an organiser and is a likely improvement on the likes of Michael Morrison and Dorian Dervite. Meanwhile, keeper Yohann Thuram-Ulien may have not played for Standard but has played almost sixty games for French club Troyes.
The others – Anıl Koç, Loïc Nego and Piotr Parzyszek are less proven, although the latter has netted 29 goals in 52 matches for De Graafschap and who in 2012 had heard of Almen Abdi, Matěj Vydra and Fernando Forestieri? Those guys plus others utterly transformed Watford and who is to say that the new legion at the Valley cannot do the same? It should be remembered that the Pozzos’ experiment took a while to bed in at Vicarage Road.
Aside from sporting endeavours, however, there are other clues as to the course Charlton may take under the microelectronics magnate.
Fascinatingly, Duchâtelet is the founder of a political party in his home country entitled Vivant – a mouthpiece for his belief in sustainable development and the economics buzzword de nos jours, happiness, proposers of a tax on consumption rather than labour and, most radically of all, for a minimum wage whether an individual is in employment or not.
Such social liberalism has produced only a minor impact to date, save for a flirtation with one of Belgium’s bigger political parties, the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats, but leaving aside cynicism at such echoes of champagne socialism from an exceedingly wealthy businessman, these principles might provide some hope for the way Charlton can expect to be run.
For signing the likes of Ravel Morrison, Royston Drenthe or Grant Holt isn’t the way to go for a club still experiencing worrying levels of debt, playing in front of stands that are only two-thirds full, and which seems to be under pressure from the local council to up sticks to Morden Wharf on the Greenwich Peninsula.
In short, Charlton need to batten down the hatches and the injection of money from Duchâtelet should be used wisely and sensibly, with a complete revamp of a pitch that has become an embarrassment, the moving on of assets such as Stephens and Kermorgant while money can be made, a greater concentration on youth and judicious usage of the loan system all on the executive summary of the club’s strategy.
For what use would a sugar daddy be to Charlton when almost half the other teams in the division enjoy parachute payments far in excess of what they can compete with? No, Duchâtelet has the nous to ship the club into shape with his 500 million euro fortune more than enough to deal with the current problems whilst laying down a blueprint for a more sustainable enterprise – one that can move forward and begin to bed in more seriously at the second level.
That lastingness may be jeopardised should he jump ship of course – and rumours have emerged in the past few days that he might be willing to accept a 60 million euro offer for Standard having already rejected a rumoured amount of 10 million euro less than that. If selling Standard is an option, then so might be Charlton of course, but should be depart, this won’t be some villainous carpetbagger riding into the sunset and debts will likely have been reduced.
The goodwill that this would engender would be enhanced by Duchâtelet placing his trust in boss Chris Powell – a man who has already come through the challenge of entirely rebuilding a side on the cheap with flying colours. There can be cautious optimism that this owner-manager duo can help supply Charlton Athletic with a firmer footing.