Rival English Football Fans Are Coming Together to Help Their Clubs Survive

Thrown into crisis by irresponsible ownership, Wigan Athletic and Charlton Athletic fans are reaching across the divide to protect each other's communities.
September 21, 2020, 11:37am
How Fan Solidarity Is Helping English Football Clubs Survive
Cardboard cut outs of fans during a match between Charlton Athletic and Wigan Athletic on the 18th of July, 2020. Photo: Justin Setterfield / Getty Images

“All the best to Wigan from all at Charlton.” “Charlton and Wigan together.” “A small gesture of support from a CAFC fan. Our clubs must survive.”

These are just some of the comments left on the Save Wigan Athletic Crowdfunder page by Charlton Athletic fans, who have donated over the last few weeks. At the time of writing, it’s raised just over £668,000.

While football fans from all over the country have pulled together to help Wigan Athletic through their current crisis, Charlton Athletic fans understand their plight more than most. Both clubs have had their existence threatened by exploitative ownership in recent months, with both relegated to League One last season as things imploded behind the scenes.

Charlton Athletic – previously owned by Roland Duchatelet, a hugely unpopular Belgian multi-millionaire who spent his time in charge condescending fans and inhibiting the club – were sold to a consortium called East Street Investments (ESI) in January for £1. In the nine months since – during which they have failed to show proof of funds to the English Football League (EFL) – majority shareholder Tahnoon Nimer has accused ex-chairman Matt Southall of misusing club finances, and Southall has accused Nimer of failing to invest “a single penny”. The club has endured a transfer embargo, a thwarted takeover by businessman Paul Elliott – who managed to fail the EFL’s Owners and Directors’ Test – and the implicit threat of being kicked out of the league.

Wigan Athletic, meanwhile, were taken over by a Hong Kong-based company called International Entertainment Corporation in 2018, which handed over control to another entity called Next Leader Fund in June. They were put into administration a few weeks later, incurring a hefty points deduction which effectively relegated them despite a late fightback that would otherwise have seen them finish in the mid-table. It has since emerged that their ex-owner, Au Yeung Wai Kay, asked about administration before he had even completed his takeover, throwing further suspicion onto his original motives for the club.

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These are not conventional crises caused by football clubs borrowing vast sums or going wildly over budget in pursuit of success. Quite the opposite: Charlton Athletic have a highly lucrative academy and have earned far more than they have spent on transfer fees in recent years, and the independent panel looking into the Wigan debacle stated that their previous English directors had “done their best to run the club in an efficient and responsible way.”

Instead, just over a year after Bury FC were expelled from the Football League after being driven into the ground by irresponsible owners, the same issues of toothless regulation and inadequate due diligence are still pushing clubs to the brink of calamity. English football has long adhered to a system of laissez-faire capitalism and many clubs are easy targets for profiteers and opportunists. Despite repeated calls from fans and politicians for a strengthened Owners and Directors’ Test, there is no reason to think that what has happened to Charlton Athletic and Wigan Athletic won’t happen again.

There’s reason for hope, however, in the example their fans have set by making a stand together. Given that games are currently being played behind closed doors, much of that has been expressed through social media, but it has not been limited to echo chambers on the internet. Charlton Athletic fans donated to Wigan Athletic’s emergency crowdfunders by the dozen – the Wigan Athletic Supporters’ Club raised £200,000 to fulfil their immediate obligations after going into administration – and they have helped to amplify their fundraising efforts by whatever means necessary.

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“A lot of our fans have been tweeting and writing to MPs, councillors, famous people and whoever will listen, basically trying to get people to intervene because we were, and are, genuinely fearful of going extinct,” says veteran Charlton fan Mark Shearman. “The fact it’s happening to Wigan at the same time, and after Bolton and Bury last year, helped push the issue even more as it’s not just about us.

“There’s now a unity between the two sets of fans because neither wants to see the other disappear, and obviously the more numbers behind the pressure for reform over football ownership the better,” he adds. “There’s a lot of social media support for each other… [There’s] no reason, certainly compared to other clubs, that we should be going out of business with a vaguely sensible owner in situ.”

Last month, several hundred Charlton fans protested against ESI and the EFL outside their ground, The Valley, with some occupying the boardroom and taking part in a makeshift sit-in. There were fans of other clubs in attendance in a show of support, including Wigan supporter Greg Farrimond. “It’s good to have that mutual support when you’re in trouble, so I just wanted to go down, show my Wigan colours and show them that, as much as they’ve been there for us with messages of support and fundraising as well, I’d be there [for them],” he says.

Greg points out that, last season, the two clubs were direct rivals in the relegation battle. “We were going toe-to-toe in the Championship last season and their last-minute goal [against Wigan in the penultimate game] effectively sent us down in the end,” he chuckles. “Obviously there are no grudges held or anything like that, because we’re in similar situations. We’ve both been treated very badly, but all the support they’ve given us has been so welcome.”

Where Charlton fans have largely pinned their hopes on their latest prospective owner, Danish-American entrepreneur Thomas Sandgaard, Wigan have been forced to start the season in administration. While the future remains uncertain for both clubs, there is a growing determination among fans to pressure the authorities, push for reform and make sure their community institutions are preserved for future generations. “It’s important to be standing in solidarity, so to speak,” says Greg. “It’s about standing up for each other, raising our campaigns and spreading the word.”

More than ever, fans seem to agree that something has to be done about malign ownership. “If you let these people be involved in football, which is what the EFL are doing, football clubs will die… every club is essentially one bad owner away from oblivion at the moment.”

@WFMagee