BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Stephen King was Charlton Athletic Women’s saviour when funding dried up – but he knew it needed Thomas Sandgaard’s spending power if the club are to become major players again in the domestic game.
The Addicks were controversially disbanded in 2007 following the men’s relegation from the Premier League.
And King stepped in when Charlton Athletic Community Trust were struggling to keep the club afloat.
The Addicks would go on to win two promotions to reach the FA Women’s Championship in May 2018 – a milestone for King, who always felt aggrieved when their application to join the second tier was rejected in 2013, when he became chairman.
Now Sandgaard is set to bring the women and men’s teams under his control.
“The reason it is happening is not because all of a sudden I have fallen out of love with women’s football or Charlton,” King told the South London Press. “I just couldn’t expect Thomas, or anyone else, to supply that financial commitment unless they were in control of the club.
“I still wanted ongoing involvement and Thomas has indicated he is happy to do that. We’ve thrown around a few titles – non-executive director or advisor. Ultimately Thomas will make a decision on what he is comfortable with.
“The financial burden has been lifted from me, but I’ll still get the same enjoyment from attending matches.
“In the 10-plus years I’ve been at the helm I’ve made a lot of friendships. There have been a lot of good experiences. A couple of bad ones, but mainly good. I don’t want to lose that.
“The real heroes are all those who have been on the same journey, giving of their time freely and putting up with adversity. It’s not just me – but also people like Sue Prior, my secretary, and a lot of volunteers. They all still want that involvement because it has become their lives. It’s not like a divorce where you disappear into the sunset and find something new.
“We are all still Charlton Women supporters who have put our shoulders to the wheel and fought for the cause.”
Maidstone-based King has funded any shortfalls since taking charge – a figure he put at nearly £400,000 a couple of years ago.
But he also points out that he spent more than required at certain points, believing the Addicks should conduct themselves as if they were higher up the pyramid.
“We became the first club in the third tier to pay our players and to have FA contracts,” said King.
“We went on pre-season tours to a dedicated facility in Portugal for two pre-seasons and to Belgium a year later. It’s about 20k a time to take 20-odd people to Portugal for four or five nights. In my mind this was to demonstrate that we should be taken seriously as a football club.
“If 20k was needed I would turn that loan into share capital to make it all clean and tidy.
“We are not just talking about the women’s team. In the year that I assumed financial responsibility, the juniors lost their FA Centre of Excellence status and the funding that came with that, so I had the bill for the U10s through to the U16s as well as the first-team and reserves. We won that status back around five years ago and the £30k-a-year funding that comes with that was a great relief. I have always believed in supporting the player pathway and my commitment covered all ages.
“there is an outfit called Butterfly Books that produces books for schoolkids aiming to break down stereotypes. Last year I made a personal donation of £1k in the name of the club to help launch a new title. Every primary school in Greenwich will be getting a copy of ‘My mummy is a footballer’ when it is published. It is due out in early March.”
King started talking to Sandgaard in November about taking control of the women’s team.
East Street Investments made positive noises at the start of 2020, before it transpired they had not put any money into the men’s side or had their takeover approved by the EFL.
“The main difference with Thomas is that he’s actually got the money and resources to follow through – which [Matt] Southall didn’t,” said King. “That makes life easier. Because he is not in a consortium he can just take a view and say he wants to do something or not.
“There is a commercial benefit of bringing the clubs back under one ownership. If people are trying to sell advertising or sponsorship you can give them the whole Charlton brand, not just the men’s team.
“I think also people have quite often bowled him the googly ‘what are you doing about the women?’ I think it made him realise he had to at least engage.”
So many of the top clubs in England have the financial aid of Premier League clubs.
Charlton were in the same division as Manchester United last season – the Red Devils, only formed in May 2018, romped to the title.
The Addicks drew 2-2 with Liverpool on Sunday with their opponents backed by Fenway Sports Group, who also own the men’s set-up at Anfield.
“One of the things that most influenced me is looking at other teams in our division,” said King.
“We are progressively moving towards full time, more than half the teams in the league are now.
“You have to run to walk. We had investment when we started off but that has become a drop in the ocean in tttttttt
terms of what other clubs are doing. People held Lewes up as an example of equality – paying their women the same as their men – but they are going to have a problem because the budget of an eighth-tier men’s team is not going to compete. The women’s football world is moving on so rapidly.
“My resources would not have facilitated what Thomas has said he will commit.
“I wouldn’t have been happy relinquishing control to someone I didn’t have the utmost confidence in.
“Thomas has shown genuine commitment and aspirations. He has got the resources to do it. It is the right move at the right time.”
King has enjoyed success during his tenure. Not bad when you consider he only came in with the intention of being a sponsor in 2010.
“The highlights are probably the milestones along the way,” he said. “I remember asking the players for their aspirations when I first took over and they were that they would like to stay away prior to a long-distance match, which they’d never been able to do, and one day play at The Valley.
“I put both in place in reasonably short order. We were four years into a five-year agreement to play two games at The Valley every year, it was a contractual right. That was once seen as a pipe dream by the players.
“The promotions are obvious standout moments. It has just been a journey. I remember one team we put out had over 1,000 appearances for the club. To have that level of loyalty by players, but also the club to the players, I don’t think you will get that again.
“There have been some good bits and some not so good bits – but that’s football. I don’t want to miss the buzz and adrenaline that comes with it.”
PICTURES: KEITH GILLARD
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