More than 9,000 fans will travel with League One Charlton for Tuesday’s Carabao Cup quarter-final against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
It is the most followed club away from home in memory and, according to those familiar with the club, probably its largest contingent of travelers outside of major finals and semi-finals.
The prize is huge – Charlton’s first major tournament semi-final since winning the FA Cup in 1946.
Victory would be a huge shock. Charlton’s last away win at Manchester United was in 1987, when Mark Stuart scored the only goal. Before that, their only successes at Old Trafford date back to the 1930s.
Nevertheless, it should be an unforgettable evening.
Unfortunately for Charlton fans, the match comes at a time of greatest uncertainty around the club.
Broken trust with the owner
Just over two years ago, supporters successfully repelled an attempt by Manchester-based businessman Paul Elliott to buy the club, which they said would have put Charlton at risk.
In September 2020, the charismatic Danish American Thomas Sandgaard took over the property promising to bring Charlton back to the Premier League within five years and promising to rebuild trust with the club’s fan base.
It didn’t quite go as planned.
On the pitch, Charlton slipped to 18th in League One after a 3-1 defeat at Oxford on December 29. Three weeks earlier they lost 3-1 at Stockport in an FA Cup second round replay, prompting the Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust (Cast) to say the club were at their peak. “lowest reflux in living memory”.
Off the pitch, Sandgaard failed to provide the planned investment. In October, the club’s parent company, Clear Ocean Capital, published a Loss of £6.8m for the 10 months to June 2021.
Rumors are circulating that Sandgaard is trying to sell the club.
Former Charlton chief executive Peter Varney said on social media that Sandgaard had entered a period of exclusivity with a third party.
Former Sunderland director Charlie Methven, meanwhile, was pictured in the directors’ box at two recent Charlton games. At Portsmouth, he sat down with Simon Lenagan, son of Wigan Warriors owner Ian, who once owned Oxford United.
Methven is also appointed as a director of a company called SE7 Partners Ltd, which listed on Companies House last month. Ed Warrick, Charlton’s new chief financial officer, is also appointed as a director. SE7 is the postcode for Charlton, The Valley.
Asked specifically about the speculation in an interview with BBC Sport ahead of the Manchester United game, Sandgaard said: “There are so many rumours, many of which are contradictory, so I would prefer to focus on football at this stage.”
However, he added: “I’m with Charlton for the long haul. Don’t worry about that.”
Sandgaard’s plans delayed
The initial problems around Charlton stemmed from the fact that former owner Roland Duchatelet still owned the valley and the club’s Sparrows Lane training ground and demanded £50million to sell them both.
Sandgaard’s initial hope was to bring all sections of the club back under his ownership.
But the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic has created more problems than he initially thought.
“It’s not harder than expected, it just takes longer,” he said.
“Going into it, right in the middle of Covid, set things back a year to 18 months in terms of getting into the thick of it.
“It’s a long process. I’ve spent two and a half years changing things at the club. Most of that has been internal. We’ve changed a lot of things, not just on the football side, but also on the team side. business. There are still one, maybe two more seasons before we can say that things have changed.”
One of Sandgaard’s most recent decisions was to fire manager Ben Garner after less than six months in charge. Garner’s replacement Dean Holden presided over a mini revival, recording back-to-back wins for the first time since October that lifted Charlton to 12th, nine points from a play-off spot and the relegation zone . Charlton has not finished below 13th in the third tier since 1928.
Charlton fans on ‘high alert’
Sandgaard’s words will do little to ease the tension among Charlton fans.
They believe the costs have already been reduced and believe that any attempt to reduce them further, whether by Sandgaard or a new owner, would mean cuts to the academy budget or to the women’s team.
Charlton academy have brought in players such as Ezri Konsa from Aston Villa, Karlan Grant from West Brom and Ademola Lookman, who currently plays in Italy with Atalanta. His women’s team is third in the Championship.
There are also concerns about the perceived lack of transparency around a potential sale, in particular the source and depth of funding, as well as the possibility that there is an attempt to realize value in the club by a kind of “property game”.
After fighting so hard to resist an unwanted owner so recently, Charlton fans are preparing for another battle.
Cast describes himself as being “on high alert”, adding that “skepticism and pessimism” are back on the agenda.
“The memory of the shenanigans of 2020 is too raw for us,” said Heather McKinlay, president of Cast.
“At this time we want to enjoy our big night at Old Trafford but the lack of transparency regarding the situation and, above all, the future financial security of the club is truly worrying for the fans.”
Charlton fans will be traveling north in droves hoping to see history made at Old Trafford. But there will also be a few looks towards the directors’ box.
Win or lose this week, many of these supporters believe there is much more at stake: the future of Charlton Athletic.
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