Fall from grace

Charlton have gone from being a well-run Premier League club to an institution defined by calamitous mismanagement on and off the pitch. Mick Collins examines a cautionary tale

After two relegations in three years, Charlton fans have become used to looking for silver linings, however hard they’ve been to locate. Of very limited consolation, though, has been the ease with which we can now start a footballing conversation. No matter how remote the setting, a mention of your allegiance to anyone with even the vaguest of interest in the game, brings a guaranteed response: “What’s gone wrong at The Valley, then?”

We are football’s newest dysfunctional family and, as Jerry Springer discovered, people always want to discuss a bit of unexpected drama, especially if it comes from an unlikely source. No wonder people are curious to understand what happened. The latest relegation (and as a fan there are few more soul-destroying sentences to type than that) sent us to League One and allowed the club to patronise us. The players are “looking forward to the challenges of the new season” we’re told. We are very relieved. Given that they spent the previous season earning just eight victories in 46 attempts, including a “club record” run of 18 games without a win, if they were feeling a bit flat, who knows how bad things could get? We even fell into the trap of believing some of the cliches: “He’ll be on his way, he’s too good for League One.” Believe me, with possibly one Jonjo Shelvey-shaped exception, none of them are. League One is a level they thoroughly deserved to reach.

It’s off the pitch that things have been truly depressing. For a long time, Charlton were a blueprint for how best to run a football club, and then, three seasons ago, our financial common sense suddenly disappeared. After 15 years of punching above our weight, we simply lost the plot when Alan Curbishley stepped aside, amid an absurd flurry of whispers that he “wasn’t the man to take us to a new level”. In the last four years of his Charlton career, Curbishley’s approach, based on hard work and organisation, saw the club finish 12th,  seventh, 11th and 13th in the Premier League. In the three years since his departure, Premier League relegation was followed by a mid-table Championship campaign and then by last season’s dismal showing. The “new level” wasn’t quite the one intended.

If some of Curbishley’s latter signings had failed to impress, his overall record was testament to the fact that the vast majority had been inspired examples of shrewd management. His replacement Iain Dowie’s could never be described in the same way. Dowie arrived from Crystal Palace in acrimonious circumstances, which eventually saw him lose a High Court battle with his former chairman, Simon Jordan. Things went wrong from the moment a bailiff turned up to serve a writ from Jordan at the press conference to announce Dowie’s appointment. In the space of two extraordinary months, he squandered £12 million of carefully accrued funds on the sort of players who always got picked last for the training games at their old clubs.

 We spent a total of £7.7m on Amdy Faye, Souleymane Diawara and Djimi Traore, witnessed 55 unimpressive starting appearances from the three of them combined, and recouped £1m when they left. It was a desperately damaging interlude. In addition to this, Dowie brought in Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink who, with his languid approach and inability to score, appeared to many to be a prime symbol of the club’s malaise. It was a tale of woe in all directions.

So, after giving Curbs 15 years, we gave Dowie 15 games, and then got involved in a temporary arrangement with Les Reed, a good man who did the job out of a sense of obligation. He was rewarded with the sack on Christmas Eve. The club everyone used to admire was changing fast. In came Alan Pardew, who communicated in David Brentisms and never knowingly passed a mirror without a pause. If the crowd could love him as much as he loved himself, we would all be happy again. It was an extended disaster. Pardew often said he wanted to create a culture at the club, although such is the way with modern football-speak, he never specified of what – excellence or chaos? He did it a lot – “it was a quality cross” without identifying good or bad. He fancied himself as a thinker and aspired to punditry, but when given a chance, disgraced himself. Of his successor, Phil Parkinson, who earned the role after a trial lasting eight games without a win, the less said, the better.

And so we find ourselves in the position we once mocked others for occupying. The finances are chaotic and dozens of staff have been made redundant in order to pay for the failures of a handful of highly paid footballers. In the last financial year, the club lost £30,000 a day, and with the end of parachute payments and reduced League One incomes, things can only get worse.

Watching Burnley’s Wembley triumph inevitably brought back memories of our own, extraordinary play-off victory, a decade earlier, as Clive Mendonca scored a hat-trick and Sasa Ilic’s tumble on to Michael Gray’s scuffed spot-kick ended a run of 13 successful penalties and saw the club promoted at Sunderland’s expense. It seems far longer ago than it was, and the memories of the intervening period are already fading.

Having conquered homelessness, returning to The Valley after exile at Selhurst Park and a brief spell at West Ham, Charlton remain a club well acquainted with struggles, but the combination of spiralling fortunes and global financial chaos makes the next few years daunting, to say the least.

Even though it’s always been reluctant to learn from history, football would do well to look at Charlton’s plight, and study their mistakes. When we regained The Valley in 1992, we celebrated with victory over Portsmouth in front of 8,337 spectators. In the coming season, similar attendances will hint at a depressingly circular journey.

From WSC 270 August 2009