Charlton Athletic sweats on Aussie offer

But just as the prize seems almost within the Aussies’ grasp, the bid seems to be stalling – and other potential buyers are now rapidly making up ground. After a whole year of the Australian Football Consortium being almost there, almost there, the next few weeks could be critical in determining whether a slice of south London footballing tradition can become an exclave of Australian sporting passion.

Created a huge local following

Let’s wind back a little. Charlton sits near the Thames in south-east London, across the river from London City Airport and the Canary Wharf banking ghetto. It was, and to some extent still is, a white working-class area, leavened with London’s usual diversity of immigrants and early gentrifiers.

The football club fired up in the period after World War I, as did many other south London clubs when suburbia began to march across the southern hills and marshlands. By the end of World War II, an ex-miner turned visionary manager had coached the team into the top league and created a huge local following. A long decline took hold in the 1960s after his departure, and the team even lost its stadium, The Valley.

Then the club was revived in the 1980s, found its way back to The Valley, and eventually spent the early part of this century as a decent Premier League team – one with a reputation for great community outreach and nurturing young local talent. But a single poor choice of team manager set off a descent back down the footballing ladder.

Charlton supporters have been enthusiastic about the Australian interest in buying the club. DANIEL HAMBURY

The team was just re-establishing itself in 2014 when Belgian businessman turned footballing entrepreneur Roland Duchatelet bought the club for £14 million. A string of managers were hired and then sacked in quick order. Duchatelet was seen as a meddler and a penny pincher. The fans realised something was amiss, and for two years seemed to spend as much time marching and protesting against Duchatelet as barracking for their team. At the end of 2017, with Charlton now languishing in English football’s third tier (confusingly known as League One), the Belgian said it was time to sell.

Enter the Australian Football Consortium. The prime mover is Gerard Murphy, a sports consultant who specialises in reversals of fortune for struggling clubs and athletes. According to his website, he’s been involved with Geelong, the England rugby union and rugby league teams, the Premier League team West Ham and the British Olympic squad.

In 2017, he began scouting out a potential English football club acquisition. He was linked to the sale of Coventry City, and was said to be taking advice from former Socceroos goalie Mark Schwarzer and coach Ange Postecoglou. A collection of other Australian business types in London were also involved, as was British financier and footballing mover-shaker Keith Harris.

Charlton supporters enthusiastic

Then Charlton came onto the market. A club with a big stadium, a large training ground, a highly rated training academy, and a Premier League pedigree. The Aussies switched focus, and were immediately talked about as the likely buyer.

“Most Charlton supporters were enthusiastic about the Australian interest,” says Richard Wiseman, chairman of the Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust. “To some extent it was any port in a storm.”

At around this time, Andrew Muir, of The Good Guys fame, became involved. He’d sold his retail chain to JB Hi-Fi in 2016 for $870 million, and was thought to be the financial linchpin. He and Murphy were seen at a Charlton game back in May wearing the club’s trademark red scarves.

But wait. In a story on Muir’s charity work in The Australian in September, there was a throwaway line saying he was “erroneously linked” to Charlton. And from this point on, things began to grind to a halt.

The emerging consensus around the Australian business community in London was that the deal had died. Over at Charlton itself, the owners were waiting for the Aussies to submit all their bid paperwork to the English Football League, and it seemed to be taking an awfully long time.

Duchatelet’s agent, Lieven De Turck, told a Charlton supporters’ meeting in October that the Australians had “spent money on the takeover process, and you don’t spend so much money unless you are serious”. The problem was the group’s “complexity” – its evolving size and scope.

American financial involvement

The speculation is that the publicity shy Muir has indeed dropped out, and Murphy and his crew have since been trying to scrabble alternative sources of funding – and are still trying.

The fans are starting to wonder. “People are a bit worried now as to whether they have the financial clout,” says Wiseman. “They’re assuming that’s why this is taking so long.”

In early January, De Turck had another meeting with the Charlton fans. He said the Aussie group now had American involvement, but “the complexity of the group had reduced”. He felt they had the money, but just hadn’t filed the paperwork. They now needed to explain why the takeover was taking so long.

But he also revealed that a British bidding group had “moved into sixth gear”, and another potential buyer was “close to agreeing price and conditions”.

The Australians no longer have the field to themselves. It looks like the clock might be running down for Murphy’s vision of an iconic Aussie sporting showcase in unlikely south London surrounds. Could he yet dink past the opposition and curl the ball into the back of the net? As every football fan knows, it’s never over until the final whistle blows.

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