Millwall v Charlton: The South London derby overshadowed by fans' fighting for their future off the pitch

Joe Hall
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Charlton fans have been protesting against owner Roland Duchatelet for over a year (Source: Getty)

In different circumstances, Charlton’s meeting with Millwall at The Den tonight could be a Sky Sports blockbuster capable of capturing the capital’s attention.

The “South London showdown” could sit alongside the “Mersey Monday” with the broadcaster’s branding makeover. It sees two clubs who are producers of England internationals, can boast of a combined 28 seasons spent in the top flight and who live in stadiums less than four miles apart go up against each other.

Less than 20 years ago, when both clubs were fighting for survival in the top flight, the fixture would have fit the billing.

In 2016, however, with the pair locked together in mid-table League One, the focus of fans has been drawn away from the immediate action on the pitch to the less visible forces off it whose effects threaten to be far more damaging than any derby defeat.

Admittedly, if the recent history of the game is anything to go by — the last six meetings between the two have yielded just six goals — train spotting the local Southeastern services at South Bermondsey station could prove a welcome distraction.

Read more: Here's why Roland Duchatelet's project at Charlton is failing

Yet even a famous victory will do little to relieve the cloud that hangs over the Lions’ future this Christmas, with fans nervously awaiting the the final hearing on whether or not their local council will succeed in a land grab of the area surrounding their stadium.

Meanwhile at Charlton, protests against absentee owner Roland Duchatelet will continue even if the Addicks secure a first win in the fixture in 20 years.

Duchatelet’s near three-year ownership at Charlton has seen the club lose long-serving members of staff, appoint hopeless unknowns close to the Belgian owner in their place and haemorrhage match-going fans.

Roland Duchatelet owns a number of other clubs in Europe and used to own Standard Liege (Source: Getty)

In response to criticism, Duchatelet last week doubled-down on alienating a community whose beloved team he has not bothered to watch play since 2014 by describing them — along with legendary ex-player and manager Chris Powell — as “stupid” for questioning players he brought to the Valley following his takeover, none of whom eventually succeeded in the Championship.

“They are activists acting out of other considerations than pure interests of the club,” he is quoted as saying on Belgian TV.

“In principle we were giving them the advice so they had responsibility and could take responsibility and that is how we work. I find it very stupid that a person who is getting help, an important person for the club, does not accept it. I also find that the activists, some activists at the club, who from their reactions think the coach was right, well they are just stupid people too.”

Duchatelet’s rant, which reads like the missives from Versailles aristocracy to starving Parisiens’ request for more bread, betrays an ugly disdain towards Charlton’s supporters but is particularly perplexing when you consider he has founded Vivant, a failed left-wing political party in Belgium that has binding referendums on all key political questions as one of its core policies.

The will of the people must always be heard and respected. Unless those people are football fans, in which case they are just stupid people.

Perhaps in the spirit of tonight’s fixture — in the 1970s Charlton and Millwall fans were known for attending each others’ games on alternate weeks depending on who was playing at home — Duchatelet could find common cause with Millwall’s tormentors, the Labour-run Lewisham council.

Millwall, a fixture in South London community since 1910, provide local kids with pathway to professionalism through their category 2 academy.

Natural allies for left-wing council? Not quite. Although local councillors are not all on board with the idea, Lewisham’s cabinet voted 6-1 in September to approve a compulsory purchase order (CPO) for offshore-registered developer Renewal who plan to build 2,400 new homes in the area — despite widespread opposition from fans and a petition against the move receiving over 25,000 signatures.

The future of the area surronding The Den is in doubt (Source: Getty)

Millwall, who have placed their own bid for the land which they say exceeds Renewal’s, believe the CPO threatens not only their academy’s category 2 status but their community trust which is based in the area in the question. American chairman and owner John Berylson described it as “akin to dropping two divisions”.

Both sets of fans, when taking a break from accusing each other which of them belongs in Jeremy Kyle or in a caravan, can at least take some mutual, if slightly morbid, satisfaction in how they’ve raised media awareness and local sympathy through creative, organised opposition.

They’ve been left with little choice. Whether its a local council or the Football Assocation, fans of both Charlton and Millwall have been left with little help from those with the power to offer it.

In fact, the latter have even appointed Charlton’s chief executive Katrien Meire to their FA Council while chairman Greg Clarke’s admission the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s governance of football inquiry that “we can’t stop people buying a business or a club who don’t actually have the aptitude to run that business or club” hardly installed confidence that the organisation was ready to man the breaches for beleaguered fans.

Few beyond the vested parties will therefore pay much attention to tonight’s match, while those there will be pre-occupied with longer-term concerns.

Both Lewisham and Greenwich have experienced rapid generation in recent years, yet the future possibilities presented by regeneration have not yet been extended to the area’s biggest football clubs.

Forget Mersey Monday, there’s an ongoing local South London showdown at both Millwall and Charlton that will continue long past the final whistle.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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