While Charlton and Coventry might find themselves in the same division this season, the two clubs have relatively little shared history. Roughly 130 miles separate their home grounds, they have spent much of their time in different leagues, and there is no real relationship between their two sets of supporters – or at least none that strikes the outside observer. That changed last Saturday (15 October) when, ahead of their League One clash at the Valley, fans of Charlton and Coventry came together to demonstrate against their clubs' disastrous owners. It's not often that fanbases unite in a display of mutual co-operation; this wasn't a sporadic protest so much as a well-organised show of anger, and one that crossed the usual footballing divides.
Though there are manifold challenges that face both Charlton and Coventry at the moment, the root of their problems can be traced back to their respective hierarchies. While the former are owned by businessman, multimillionaire and niche political theorist Roland Duchâtelet, the latter are controlled by a sphinx-like hedge fund called Sisu Capital. Their regimes are among the least popular in English football, and both have become bywords for footballing misery. Under their tenures, both clubs have suffered relegation from the Championship to League One. The quality of their playing squads has steadily dwindled, as attendances have ebbed and notably declined. On the pitch, performances have been consistently substandard, and little has been done to address that from above. It's little wonder there is a profound sense of disillusionment in the stands, even if the reasons for it go well beyond the quality of the football.
Their sporting fortunes might have waned in recent times, but there are far more fundamental reasons that Charlton and Coventry fans were protesting this weekend. While fans of Football League clubs are braced for the possibility of the occasional poor season and perhaps even relegation, the actions of their two regimes have threatened to undermine the communities at the heart of each club. Charlton fans feel insulted, belittled and patronised by Duchâtelet and his chief executive, Katrien Meire, both of whom are prone to causing public relations disasters on top of their idiosyncratic (and ineffectual) record on managerial appointments and squad recruitment. Meanwhile, Coventry fans have seen their basic infrastructure threatened, and many seem worried that the future holds something akin to oblivion for the club.
As such, both Coventry and Charlton fans can see their clubs' identities being threatened. Neither set of supporters is willing to stand by any longer, and so they came together this weekend to make themselves heard.
For clubs like Coventry and Charlton, both of whom have been top-flight stalwarts but now find themselves mired deep in the Football League, it takes something more than a spontaneous outpouring of anger to get national coverage. While Arsenal and Chelsea fans can get countless column inches for the sake of a few A4 sheets of paper and a smattering of protest banners, clubs lower down the domestic pecking order have to be creative, resourceful and unified to make the necessary impression. With the Premier League using up most of the oxygen of publicity, something special is required to draw attention to the Championship, let alone League One. In the case of Charlton and Coventry, that something was a protest that put aside the relative triviality of matchday rivalries, and reminded people that two fanbases working together can make twice the noise of one alone.
When it comes to organising an effective protest, Charlton fans have vital experience. In the late eighties and early nineties, supporters fought a successful campaign to return the club to the Valley after a period in exile at Selhurst Park. Fans even formed their own political wing, the Valley Party, which went on to win almost 15,000 votes in local elections in 1990, pressuring the local council into approving plans for the renovation of the ground. Some of those who worked on that campaign are now involved in the Coalition Against Roland Duchâtelet (or C.A.R.D.), Charlton's main fan protest group and the most vocal opponents of Duchâtelet's reign.
While Coventry fans have struggled, at times, to gather several different protest groups into one collective movement, the fact that the team are currently rock bottom of League One seems to have forced people to work together. Their biggest fan group is the Sky Blue Trust, who worked alongside C.A.R.D. to organise Saturday's protest. In the days before the match at the Valley, I talked with spokespeople from both organisations: Charlton fan Heather Alderson, and Sky Blue Trust member Jan Mokrzycki. They provided further insight into the motivations behind the joint protest, and the determination of their two organisations to bring about change at their respective clubs.
"It's the old adage of strength in numbers," Jan told me. "We've been trying to unify Coventry fans under one banner, so we can do things collectively, sensibly and in an organised fashion… then we thought that, along with C.A.R.D., we could work effectively together." Once a club has been given full 'crisis club' status by the press, it makes sense for fan groups to work alongside others in comparable situations. The legacies of bad ownership in football are often devastating, and there's no better way to emphasise that than by bringing together two aggrieved communities in a demonstration of solidarity and mutual support.
According to Jan, it was the Sky Blue Trust who first got the ball rolling, contacting Charlton's own Supporters' Trust before being put in touch with C.A.R.D. in turn. With the game taking place in South London, however, C.A.R.D. naturally took a leading role. This isn't the first time that opposition fans have shown their support for Charlton, but it is the first time that a protest has been organised as a co-operative endeavour from the start. "We've had support from friendly fans, Brighton & Hove Albion and the like," Heather told me. "We had already contacted other fan groups in similar positions, such as the Tangerine Knights at Blackpool and so on, but Coventry are now much more organised [than before]. Obviously we've been following what's happened to them, and vice versa."
When I asked Heather whether she sees direct parallels between Charlton's situation and that at Coventry, she replied strongly in the affirmative. "Absolutely, absolutely," she said. "There's a whole host of stuff that is similar, mainly that we both have owners that don't seem to understand the difference between a football club and a business." Jan had an even stronger assessment of the situation. "This is what happens when you have owners who don't care."
Both agree that Coventry are in a worse situation than Charlton as it stands, with the state of the former acting almost like a nightmarish, worst-case-scenario vision of what's to come for similarly beleaguered supporters. There are huge question marks over the future of Coventry's training ground and academy at the moment, which gives a decent insight into just how bleak the club's circumstances are. "In a way, we're like Charlton, but a lot further down the line," Jan told me. "We don't want what's happened to us to happen to them, and that's part of the reason we've joined together to protest."
On the day of the demonstration itself, I arrive in Charlton just as things are about to begin. Charlton fans are massing outside the old Liberal Club near the Valley, with the plan being to march down the terraced streets to the ground. Coventry fans have gathered at The Antigallican, a massive Victorian pub which often caters for travelling fans. From there, the two sets of supporters are set to meet in the middle, and walk to the stadium side by side.
As well as the usual panoply of inventive props brought along by Charlton fans – there are assorted banners, a giant Duchâtelet balloon and thousands of rubber pigs to be thrown onto the pitch at the start of the match – there are matching placards in crimson red and sky blue. The blue ones read "Coventry fans hate Roland", while the red ones read "Charlton fans hate Sisu". The message might be simple enough but, when dozens of the placards are brandished above a sea of supporters, the effect of the contrasting colours is striking, and more than gets the message across.
There's an impressive turn out for the protest, with the roads nearest to the ground chock full of supporters. There are partners arm in arm, parents and kids; both clubs' communities are well represented. Eventually, cars and vans can no longer manoeuvre their way through the crush, and things come to a standstill in the face of a massive swell of fans. The march begins, the two fanbases join together, and chants against Sisu and Duchâtelet rise up. Having reached the ground, things briefly threaten to spill over at the front of the club's executive suite, but order is restored by a fan with a megaphone and the protest concludes with 20 minutes of singing, sloganeering, and prematurely thrown pigs.
Once inside the ground, the referee's whistle is greeted by the inevitable hail of rubbery livestock. It takes the ground staff some time to clear the debris, and seven minutes are eventually added on to the first half. Some Charlton fans brandish North Korean flags, presumably as a statement on their perception of the club's hierarchy. It has since been reported that a young fan was thrown against a wall for displaying one, which shows something of an irony bypass from those providing security for the club's regime.
Despite the potential seriousness of that incident, the demonstrations were generally heartening. It's unusual for two sets of fans to co-ordinate their efforts and, judging by the considerable coverage given to the protests on the day, the joint protest worked. Meanwhile, in the ground, the feeling of affinity between home and away ends was impossible to ignore. In the Coventry end, nine fans could be seen wearing T-shirts which spelt: 'ROLAND OUT'. In the home end, seven Charlton supporters returned the favour, this time with Sisu the target of their disdain.
While the protests were born out of anger, then, they also affirmed a new kind of kinship between two sets of fans. Saturday's events drew attention to the plight of the mismanaged football club, and saw Coventry and Charlton make headline news. In that sense, the demonstrations were effective, and can only heap more pressure on Duchâtelet and Sisu. When I asked Jan and Heather whether or not there will be protests at the return leg in Coventry, both of them gave me a similar answer. Hopefully it won't come to that, and their owners will decide to bow to fan power soon.