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Sustain the Game: Transparency sorely lacking at The Valley

Every week we’ll be looking in more detail at one of our Sustain The Game! key principles and this week it’s transparency. We believe everyone has a right to know who owns their club, and how clubs and the authorities operate. Owners are custodians of clubs on behalf of all of us.

Today Heather McKinlay from Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust explains why the total lack of transparency has been a critical issue amid the ongoing crisis at The Valley…

Oh, how we celebrated. In late November last year an announcement appeared on the Charlton Athletic website: the club had been sold to East Street Investments (ESI). After almost six years of ownership under Roland Duchâtelet, we were finally free of the self-confessed non-football supporter who saw our club as his test-lab for social experiment.

Years of protests from beachballs, plastic pigs and crisp packets thrown onto the pitch through a mock funeral to marches in Duchâtelet’s Belgium hometown were behind us. We could get back to being a “normal” club again. Or so we thought.

On 2nd January a further announcement appeared on the official website confirming that ESI had completed the takeover. We took this to mean EFL approval for ESI’s shareholders, former football agent Matthew Southall and Abu Dhabi-based businessman Tahnoon Nimer. It did cross my mind at the time that there was no such formal statement forthcoming from the EFL.

In mid-January I had the opportunity to interview Southall. To my retrospective shame, I have the selfie to prove it. At least I didn’t go as far as the fans in the Covered End who loudly proclaimed, “There’s only one Matt Southall.”

He seemed transparent and open on social media but the doubts were beginning to creep in. I got Southall to confirm that ESI had actually only purchased Charlton Athletic Football Company Limited (and with it the right to play in the league).
The assets of The Valley and the training ground remained with Duchâtelet. We were not – are not – out of his clutches.

Doubts grew as the transfer window closed: fans were a little bewildered that our only signings were a handful of journeymen loanees, despite a desperate need to strengthen an injury-riven squad and much clamour from Southall about his “super duper deals”.

Then it erupted. Late one evening in mid-March, Nimer posted on Instagram that he was “out”, amid accusations of lavish spending from club coffers by Southall and others on a fleet of Range Rovers and rental of a luxury Thames-side flat.

The fallout quickly escalated with counter accusations that Nimer had never provided the funds promised for the running of the club.

This public spat was the catalyst to transparency.

We soon learnt that the football club was bought for £1, that ESI were allowed in January by the EFL to “proceed at their own risk”, that Nimer and Southall have never proven source and sufficiency of funds, that the club was in fact under a registration embargo from mid-January and by mid-March under formal investigation. And that the deal with Duchâtelet is for £50M within five years – about twice what others believe the assets are actually worth.

A whole raft of “dubious characters”, as described by local MP Clive Efford in the House of Commons, have come to light.

Chris Farnell, the lawyer at the time of Bury’s demise, appears centre stage. In June, he assisted Nimer in supposedly selling his shares and “dragging along” Southall to what we now call ESI2, a consortium led by a Manchester-based businessman called Paul Elliott.

Fans have reported Farnell to the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority for conflict of interest – being involved with seller and buyer while also a director of and lawyer to CAFC.

A month ago Farnell and Elliott failed the EFL’s Owners and Directors’ Test, for reasons unknown, while apparently others remain under consideration. Farnell and Elliott have appealed the EFL’s rejection, but we have heard nothing regarding the process nor timescale for that.

We are now in the midst of court proceedings between Panorama Magic (Nimer’s company) and Lex Dominus (Elliott’s company) over who actually owns Charlton Athletic, and who has the right to sell it on.

With the season fast-approaching, the registration embargo has become a much stricter transfer embargo, as far as we can tell from the frustrated utterances of manager Lee Bowyer.
Next week Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust has a meeting with the EFL, requested since March.

We have many questions for them around the transparency of the two ESI deals and their procedures. We find ourselves in the catch-22 situation just like Bury a year ago: in limbo, embroiled in legal proceedings, under EFL investigation and subject to punishments from embargo to expulsion – punishments which fall upon the club, rather than the “dubious characters” involved.

We are left to hope that a prospective new buyer gets the green light and saves all of us from this almighty mess.

Having spent about six hours last week logged-on to virtual court hearings as the future of Charlton Athletic continues to be kicked around, it struck me that at least we have principles in the law of the land that justice is a public matter, unlike the EFL’s processes.

It should never be possible for a club to change hands for £1, giving the right to compete in the league, before owners have been approved as individuals and demonstrated that they have the funding and resources to run the club.

Other industries have to comply with transparency and regulatory requirements that go beyond Companies’ House – why not football?

After Bury, everyone said, “never again”. Or so we thought. One year on, nothing has changed.

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