Be it mock funeral processions, plastic pigs or packets of crisps pausing play, it has been impossible to escape the negativity that has clouded Charlton Athletic in recent seasons.
The deeply unpopular owner, Roland Duchâtelet, remains the elephant in the room as uncertainty continues to reign, but things have been going so swimmingly on the pitch that, for now at least, the protests are on hold and the off-field noise has been somewhat muffled; a run of eight wins from nine matches has propelled Lee Bowyer’s side to within touching distance of a return to the Championship. For fed-up and fatigued fans, this is a rare opportunity to milk the moment.
That Charlton expect 24,000 home fans at the Valley in their play-off semi-final second leg against Doncaster on Friday, which they lead 2-1, speaks volumes about the popularity of Bowyer, who joined the club as a schoolboy, and his assistant, Johnnie Jackson, a former captain.
“I think the fans feel a real connection because they know we have the club at heart,” Jackson says. “There has been a noticeable change in mood this season. I’ve noticed a bit of a feelgood factor. People still have their grievances at the way the football club is being run but I think they recognise that the team is one they can be proud of and wears the shirt with pride.
“To see that disconnect with fans saddened me and seeing that come back is something I am proud of. When there have been highs, they have been unbelievable and when there have been lows, I have taken it really personally and got really down about it. I just want the best for the football club. The fact that the home leg is likely to be a sell-out shows how far we have come.”
Supporters’ hatred towards Duchâtelet may have been momentarily masked but not everything has been swept under the carpet. Katrien Meire left two years ago and for the past 14 months they have operated without a chief executive or chief financial officer. Bowyer, Jackson and the goalkeeping coach, Andy Marshall, are out of contract in a few weeks. “It will get resolved, I’m sure it will,” Jackson says. “Regardless of the outcome [this season], we are taking the football club in the right direction and I’d like to think that would be recognised and rewarded. At the moment, our sole focus is on getting promoted.”
Several players could also soon become free agents, including Patrick Bauer and Joe Aribo, a graduate of the club’s revered academy; Ademola Lookman and Joe Gomez are two of its biggest recent success stories. In January they sold Karlan Grant to Huddersfield for £1.5m and there is a fear that 22-year-old Aribo could follow the striker out of the door. “If certain lads are going to move on, it needs to be the right thing for them,” Jackson says. “I hate to see lads leave, go to a so-called bigger club and not play any football. I don’t think that’s good for their progression. If we were to get promoted, it puts us in a much stronger position to keep hold of and attract players.”
Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust said its view is that “Bowyer’s management is one of the few things that fans have had to celebrate during a five-year period in which so much has gone horribly wrong”. If Charlton, who have not lost at home in the league since October, get to Wembley it will be a first visit since 1998, when they overcame Sunderland on penalties to reach the top tier. Montserrat international Lyle Taylor, who has scored 25 goals since joining on a free transfer, has been a revelation.
“At the start of the season and on the opening day we could barely fill our bench – we had a lot of kids,” Jackson says. “We were always confident that by the end of the window we would have a squad together that would compete and we kept telling the lads that. I think they doubted it because they were not seeing players through the door but eventually we got the guys we were after. We bolstered our squad with experience, the likes of [midfielder] Darren Pratley, which we felt we were missing last year; that bit of knowhow in big games.”
Apathetic supporters – some of whom continue to boycott matches – have given up trying to second-guess their unpredictable owner, who formally put the club up for sale 18 months ago. When a congregation of Card (Coalition Against Roland Duchâtelet) campaigners visited the Belgian embassy in Belgravia to discuss their concerns last month, Duchâtelet reportedly described their actions as “soft terrorism”.
In February Duchâtelet bizarrely demanded that the EFL buy Charlton and, a few months earlier, he blamed posts on a Charlton fans’ forum that described him as “interfering” for sabotaging the appointment of Chris Wilder, who went on to take charge at his boyhood club. A fortnight ago Duchâtelet revisited the subject, and a statement on the club website read: “He came close to joining us in the summer of 2016 when we selected him to be our manager but he decided to go to Sheffield United where he knew he would be welcomed by everybody.”
Jackson says: “Day-to-day, we are left alone to get on with our job, which, for me, is the best way. You hear stories of owners interfering in team selection and training and things like that. In my experience, that has never been the case. Lee and myself don’t get any sort of interruption. Lee may speak to him [Duchâtelet] after games and things like that and, I’m told, he watches most games but he doesn’t interfere at all in the football side of things.” Never dull, at least this season most supporters have been able to enjoy the ride.
• Preston North End should be commended for helping out Bolton in their hour of need. Bolton, who entered administration on Monday, have set up an emergency food bank to help staff strapped for funds after weeks without pay. Local businesses offered fresh food and essentials, while Preston are understood to have donated £2,000 of supermarket vouchers. “It is more important at times like these that both their local community and the wider football community try to assist in any way possible,” said a Preston spokesperson.
• Newport County will prepare for Wembley by training at the Cardiff City Stadium. After reaching the League Two play-off final, the Exiles were left with nowhere to train because of maintenance work at their Spytty Park training base, which they do not own, leaving manager Mike Flynn “ringing around” to find a solution. “Evidently, our providers didn’t have the faith we had that we were going to get to Wembley,” said their chairman Gavin Foxall.
• Mansfield Town have promoted academy coach John Dempster to first-team manager after sacking David Flitcroft. Mansfield tumbled out of the automatic promotion places with three games to play, before losing to Newport on penalties in the play-offs.