Arriving at the Valley on a warm, sun-soaked Saturday afternoon, it's impossible to tell that this is the hotbed for some of the most vociferous fan protests witnessed this season. A few minutes from the railway line, tucked away in a suburban corner of south-east London, the ground is calm and quiet when I first arrive just after midday. If it wasn't for the heavy steward and police presence so early in the day, the scene at Charlton Athletic would be entirely serene.
Vendors lounge in deck chairs by their burger vans, basking in the unseasonal heat. A couple of stewards lean on a nearby fence, smoking cigarettes. A handful of supporters queue up to get tickets, chatting affably, while club officials exchange greetings with familiar fans. This is the friendly atmosphere the club is renowned for.
Yet when I meet Alan Davis – a prominent member of C.A.R.D. – his anger and frustration is palpable.
C.A.R.D. is the Coalition Against Roland Duchâtelet, an umbrella group consisting of several fan organisations who share a common aim – to rid the club of its current owner. The man in question, Duchâtelet, is a Belgian businessman, multimillionaire and founder of a social liberal political party called Vivant. He's certainly an interesting character, a man with a niche political ideology who just so happens to be the main shareholder in five European football clubs – Sint-Truidense, FC Carl Zeiss Jena, Újpest FC, AD Alcorcón and, since January 2014, Charlton Athletic.
He's certainly not been a stranger to controversy during his time in football. Previously owner of Belgian heavyweights Standard Liege, he sold the club after player sales and perceived poor management were followed by furious fan protests. The parallels with the current situation at Charlton are uncanny.
Alan has been an active part of C.A.R.D. since he started an online fund to help fans continue their efforts in demonstrating against Duchâtelet's ownership. Since he first established the fund a few months ago, it's raised around £20,000. Charlton supporters clearly aren't afraid to reach into their pockets.
I meet him outside the ground before the Addicks' crunch clash with Birmingham City, and we chat about the club's current hierarchy. Alan tells me: "Charlton fans are amongst the most good-natured and loyal in the Football League. We're famed for being mild-mannered train spotters, with the rail line right next to us. It takes a huge amount to get us angry, and to keep us angry takes a lot more.
"They've managed it. The incompetence of the player-management – and the incompetence of the management of the club – has really got under people's skin".
Why do C.A.R.D consider Duchâtelet to be incompetent? The fact that Charlton have changed managers six times in just over two years might have something to do with it. After the sacking of club legend Chris Powell in March 2014 – apparently over his refusal to start players picked by the owner – Charlton fans have witnessed the increasingly underwhelming appointments of Jose Riga, Bob Peeters, Guy Luzon, Karel Fraeye and, finally, Jose Riga again.
Those coaches are united by several standout traits: like Duchâtelet, they have a background in Belgian football; like Duchâtelet, they have limited experience of the Championship; and, like Duchâtelet, none of them have found a long-term solution to Charlton's problems on the pitch. Riga and Luzon had already worked for the owner at Standard Liege before getting the Charlton job. It's hard not to feel Duchâtelet is appointing managers in his own image – regardless of whether or not those appointments are appropriate.
Accordingly, at the time of my chat with Alan, the Addicks were second bottom of the league with 32 points from 38 games. Karel Fraeye's reign as "interim manager" at the club was particularly disastrous, with the team winning two of his 14 matches in charge – unsurprising, really, when you consider that he was previously managing Belgian third-division side VW Hamme.
The constant chopping and changing of managers, coupled with the sale of some of the club's best players, has left Charlton facing relegation to League One. As miserable as that prospect might be, it's not the spectre of relegation alone that has irreversibly damaged the relationship between the owner and the support. They were relegated to the third tier as recently as the 2008/09 season, after all.
The difference this time around is that the communication between club hierarchy and fans seems unbelievably poor. In Alan's words: "Their approach has veered from ignoring the fans to patronising us". That patronising tone is epitomised by one comment from chief executive Katrien Meire in a recent fan forum, when she suggested that "two percent" of fans were interested in protesting – and inspired a massive backlash as a result.
Indeed, Duchâtelet and co. have bumbled their way through a series of PR disasters in recent weeks – not least a statement on the club's official website which accused protesting fans of "wanting the club to fail". Likewise, before the Birmingham game, the club released a joint statement with the Metropolitan Police that seemed to associate recent protests with an isolated incident of hooliganism dating back to a game against Crystal Palace in September 2015. If that was meant to cajole supporters into submission, it had quite the opposite effect.
At about 1.30pm, an hour and a half before their side are due to kick off against Birmingham, a large group of protesters arrive at the Valley. Many are wearing C.A.R.D hoodies, some turn up in fancy dress, while one fan wheels a sound system behind him with "Under Pressure" blaring from the speakers – a comment on Duchâtelet's position, via the collaborative work of Queen and David Bowie.
What ensues is the equivalent of a fan picket. The protesters take up positions on the streets adjacent to the ground, handing out free programmes for the game, badges, and foam footballs – the latter to throw on to the pitch come kick off. These are, in part, the products of the protest fund. The alternative C.A.R.D. programme contains the matchday squads, a comment on the "incompetent leadership" of the club and, drastically, a plea for fans to delay renewing their season tickets – to "withhold crucial support from this inadequate, unprofessional and deceitful administration". It also contains a "Roland Says" section with his controversial statement printed in full.
Predictably, that PR nightmare has come back to haunt him.
Though the vast majority of fans take a badge, at the very least, not everyone seems keen on open dissent. There are a few grumbles about the coming disruption to the game – it seems that the throwing of beach balls onto the pitch a few weeks previously wasn't to everyone's taste.
Likewise, there are some supporters who simply aren't interested in the politics of the situation, who want to watch the football and not worry about what's happening off the pitch. The problem is – if the most vocal protesters are right, anyway – Duchâtelet's administration may well be leading the club down the path of no return.
A few days before the game, I spoke to Rick Everitt – editor of the longstanding Voice of the Valley fanzine – about the process of getting C.A.R.D.'s message across to the average fan. A Charlton supporter of over 45 years' standing, he seemed seriously worried about the club. Likewise, he thinks there are viable alternatives to Duchâtelet's ownership.
Rick told me: "With Karel Fraeye as the so-called interim manager from the end of October onwards, it became clear to people that the owner isn't ever going to create a sensible football management structure – and that the chief executive isn't capable of behaving in an appropriate, professional way.
"You always get people who don't come to as many matches, who don't buy into the politics, but turn up and are interested in seeing what's in front of them. You have to convey to them that there are people waiting in the wings to take the club over".
Whether they support the beach ball method of protesting or not, the majority of fans certainly seem to be getting that message. Combined with their strong social media presence, C.A.R.D.'s matchday programmes and leaflets – not to mention the Voice of the Valley itself – are hard to ignore. Rick estimates that "75 to 80% of people coming to matches are now onside", and that seems about right.
As Charlton kick off against Birmingham, those fans make themselves known.
While chants of "We Want Roland Out" are practically deafening, foam footballs rain down on the pitch from all sides. It's only a minority of fans throwing them, but the overall atmosphere seems to be somewhere between approval and acquiescence. The match is postponed by five minutes, as players from both sides help stewards to clear the pitch.
Charlton defy the odds to take all three points, a last-minute winner from Jorge Teixeira enough to snatch victory. This seems to be the way when the fans protest – they also won their match against Middlesbrough after the beach ball demonstration. It's a vital win, but victories for fellow strugglers Fulham and Rotherham left the Addicks still mired deep in the relegation zone.
Win or lose, the fundamental problems at the heart of the club still remain. Though poor results might be the driving force behind the fans' anger, there's a sense that they simply will not tolerate being marginalised any more.
If there's anyone who knows what it's like to be alienated by the current regime, it's Richard Wiseman. As secretary of the Charlton Athletic Supporters' Trust, he might expect a reasonable level of dialogue with the Duchâtelet administration. Instead, he tells me, they've "not been inclined to take us seriously".
"The first purpose of the trust is to be the vehicle through which a healthy and balanced communication between the club and its supporters exists," Richard says. "We have sought to develop that relationship with the Duchâtelet ownership for two-and-a-bit years now – and to be honest, we've not been successful."
Despite the fact that the Supporters' Trust has 1,100 paid-up members, an elected board and – as such – a legitimate mandate to represent the fans, I'm told that Katrien Miere has consistently failed to engage with the organisation. As for Duchâtelet, his communication with the Trust has been practically nil.
"He considers himself a visionary," Richard says. "If everyone else is walking to the right and he's walking to the left, he's more and more convinced that he's fulfilling his role as only he can".
When I ask Richard whether or not he thinks fan protests can realistically remove the Duchâtelet administration, he replies with a pithy reference to one of the businessman's early forays into Belgian politics – the predecessor to Vivant, a liberal party called BANAAN. That acronym, in translation, stands for: "Better to seek for alternatives than to do nothing in apathy".
Richard's words resonate with me, and seem to sum up the situation Charlton fans find themselves in almost perfectly. "I have no idea whether what's happening is going to drive him out or not," he says.
"But – if the club does go to the wall, if it gets relegated or even worse – then at least we won't look back and say we did nothing in apathy".
Following publication of this article, Charlton Athletic responded to a request for comment on recent fan protests. Their statement read:
"The club is extremely saddened by the situation which has led to supporters demonstrating.
"Every supporter has the right to voice their opinion and we are determined to do everything we can to work together with supporters to build our relationship with them and make sure they remain at the heart of this club."