The EFL has launched an investigation into potential misconduct with regards to the takeover of Charlton by East Street Investments; Charlton Athletic Supporters' Trust warn the club's "very existence is under threat"
Thursday 23 April 2020 09:22, UK
It has been a dramatic six weeks in the history of Charlton, but with the Charlton Athletic Supporters' Trust warning the club's "very existence is under threat", just what is happening?
It had been a long, tempestuous five and a half years for Charlton under former owner Roland Duchatelet. He faced an almighty rift with the club's fanbase, leading to multiple protests both inside and outside The Valley and beyond.
The Belgian had the club on the market for a number of years and, after first announcing the deal in November, it was confirmed that East Street Investments (ESI) had completed its takeover of the club on January 2 2020.
Tahnoon Nimer and Jonathan Heller joined Charlton as directors, while Matt Southall was named as Charlton's new executive chairman.
Nimer is a Syrian businessman and the chairman of Abu Dhabi Business Development, the private office of Sheikh Saeed Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan. He is also the majority shareholder in East Street Investments (ESI) through his Abu Dhabi-based corporation, Panorama Magic General Contracting LLC. He is also Charlton's majority shareholder, owning 65 per cent of the club.
Southall is a former football agent and entrepreneur, having worked in the UK and Middle East advising on international mergers and acquisitions. He was part of the Blackburn Rovers School of Excellence as a youngster before pursuing a career in sport.
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Heller - chief executive officer of Abu Dhabi Business Development - is another name thrown into the mix, although there has been no communication from him personally.
Southall had been a visible presence around the club, interacting with fans on matchdays and on social media, but there was a civil war brewing and the much-needed stability at Charlton was about to come crashing down.
On Monday, Sky Sports News broke the news that the EFL had launched an investigation into potential misconduct with regards to the takeover of Charlton by East Street Investments, throwing the club's ownership into further doubt.
The consortium paid Duchatelet £1 to buy the club in January, with an agreement to pay a further £50m within the next five years to purchase remaining assets including the stadium and training ground. In the meantime, the agreement is for Charlton to pay their former owner £200k every year to play at The Valley.
But the EFL has confirmed that it has commenced a formal investigation into the deal, with doubts over its validity. Nimer has still yet to satisfy EFL requests for proof and source of funds, despite repeated requests from the EFL's legal department throughout January and February.
Without that information, the EFL has been unable to clear ESI's takeover through its Owners' and Directors' test, and it would further breach EFL rules for Nimer, Southall or Heller to have taken up roles as 'relevant persons' before getting that clearance.
The EFL wrote to Nimer, Southall and Heller on April 16 to reiterate a demand for the relevant information regarding the source of funds, along with any information regarding the timeline of the takeover.
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Specifically, those individuals were given until 4pm on Wednesday April 22 to disclose any documents regarding the transfer of shares of the club to ESI, and also the nature and scope of the roles taken up by them in the running of Charlton Athletic since November 2019.
Each party responded to the deadline in time for it to be discussed at this week's EFL board meeting.
Nimer said in a statement to Sky Sports News: "I can confirm that I have received correspondence from the EFL and I have already provided an initial response and intend to co-operate fully with them in order ensure clarity on this matter. Mr Southall liaised with the previous solicitors throughout this process. I do not believe I should make any further comment on this at this stage."
Southall has today also confirmed to Sky Sports News that he has submitted the relevant information to the EFL, saying: "On Friday April 17, I received a letter from the EFL giving notice of the investigation into the club, and request for information relating to the recent change of control.
"I am co-operating fully with the EFL and have responded to their request for this information. I await the outcome of the investigation which understandably, is extremely concerning for fans during this difficult time, and urge all parties involved to co-operate and work in the best interests, and for the long-term stability of the club."
The EFL has numerous sanctions at its disposal including a points deduction, which would make the club's position in the Championship even more precarious with the team currently in the relegation zone.
It's yet another situation of despair for long-suffering fans of Charlton, who 30 years ago formed a political party in a lengthy fight to return the club to their home ground.
Following on from the EFL's announcement, the Charlton Athletic Supporters' Trust (CAST) released a strongly worded statement regarding the future of the club.
They said: "As our members and the wider Charlton community will be aware, the mission of the Charlton Athletic Supporters' Trust is to protect, preserve and promote Charlton Athletic for present and future generations. CAST was formally launched on 5 December 2012 - the 20th anniversary of the club's return to The Valley after the exile years. Many of us still remember those dark times in exile and hoped they were well and truly in the past.
"Now, once again, the very existence of Charlton Athletic Football Club is under threat. The EFL investigation into the takeover of the club by ESI poses both long and short-term risks to the operation of the club, the most obvious of which are potential EFL sanctions, and a lack of funds being injected into the club, leading to relegation at best, and liquidation at worst.
"It looks like desperate times at Charlton, with the prospect of the club running out of money anytime soon. Fans have saved the club before and are getting ready to do so again."
Yes, for about six weeks now. Their disagreement between the shareholders spilled over into the public domain on March 9 when Nimer made allegations against Southall on Instagram - his platform of choice during the saga.
Nimer accused Southall of mis-using club funds during his time as executive chairman, releasing accounts to show a £12k per month flat rental in central London, the purchase of four Range Rovers for himself and his advisers, as well as the payment of thousands of pounds in consultancy fees.
Southall denies the allegations and in turn accuses Nimer of failing to put any money into the club, despite promises as part of the takeover. He has told Sky Sports News that Nimer has not been able to satisfy the EFL requests as he does not have the money he claims to.
"I will never let them down," he said. "We are ready to inject the money [since] day one [that] we arrived. If there is anything short-cut in the club we are going to support it. We will start on the pitch, we are going to start to maintain the club immediately, change the lighting, refurbish it. This is one of our plans we are going to do."
Sky Sports News understands funds had not been put into the club when the EFL wrote to Nimer last week.
But the biggest battle to date in what has become a bitter civil war for control of the club took place last month.
On March 19, Nimer chaired a board meeting via conference call when he removed Southall and Heller from their positions. Two new board members were appointed in their place, Romanians Claudiu Florica and Marian Mihail.
Southall maintains that process was unlawful and he remains executive chairman of Charlton Athletic. He remains 35 per cent shareholder.
Speaking to Sky Sports News following the meeting, Nimer reiterated his confidence that he has definitively won the boardroom battle for control of the club, saying: "Matt Southall is no longer the chairman of Charlton Athletic, he has been removed and my authority as a major shareholder allows me to do this.
"He lied to people actually when he said the club is safe until December. Now we are going to inject the money because we found that there is no money in the club."
He said: "The board's immediate focus is getting the club through these unprecedented times. At this stage, we don't know when and in what form football will return and our priority is making sure Charlton is in a stable position, whenever that is. As we mentioned in our previous statement, this will require investment from the ownership and the first installment of that investment will come into the club towards the end of this month.
"Our longer-term strategy will ultimately depend on whether we are in the Championship or League One next season with planning for both eventualities in place.
"Either way, the stability and growth of the club will need to come from stable funding. That stable funding in any club comes from the owner but it is also important the club can generate revenue too. If the club's financial wealth is linked only to its owner, then that isn't healthy for the football club. So our focus will be using the funds injected by the ownership and the funds that come into the club (e.g. sponsors, player sales, ticketing) to stablise and grow the club."
He also gave an update on Southall and Heller's involvement at Charlton, saying: "Matt Southall continues to be on the ESI board as a B director as is his right as a B shareholder. Jonathan Heller was appointed to the ESI board independently and has not expressed an intention on leaving. I must reiterate neither are involved at the club or in the decision making."
Not quite, it is technically a 'registration embargo' which prevents the club from increasing its spending beyond current limits, such as adding any new players to the wage bill without first selling someone to make space.
This only came to light in March when the EFL released a statement confirming that ESI was yet to provide it with proof of funds.
The revelation caused a lot of anger amongst Charlton fans who feel they were tricked during the January transfer window, with promises of significant investment from the new owners that never materialised.
In his recent Q&A, Mihail gave an update on the embargo, saying: "The current board of directors has only been working on getting the embargo lifted since just before Claudiu and myself were appointed to the Board of Directors last month, so the process on the lifting of the transfer embargo is not as far along as we would like.
"The club has submitted documents for EFL approval to demonstrate the source and sufficiency of funds. Conversations with the EFL are ongoing and the EFL remain supportive and have informed us what remains outstanding.
"The club has also submitted documentation for Claudiu and I as the new directors, for the Owners' and Directors' Test. No final decision has been received, but we are confident we will both pass the test."
Just a couple of things. Away from the EFL investigation, the takeover is also under threat by an ongoing legal action by a group of former directors. They left around £7m in the club following relegation from the Premier League to make sure it did not go bust, on the charge that should Charlton win promotion back to the top flight, they would get their money.
But the secured creditors also hold a unique position over the club where they have any final say on major changes, such as a sale or splitting of the assets, like the stadium or training ground.
Some of those directors are now calling that debt in, and unless Nimer is prepared to settle the case, then a court could rule that the takeover was void in any case. A first deadline for repayment has already passed, and the group must now decide on how to proceed.
Speaking about the issue, Mihail said: "The club received an initial letter from former directors of Charlton Athletic last month saying they were looking to take legal action to unpick the sale of the club to ESI in January.
"This dispute does not just involve the club but also the other companies that previously owned the club, as well as ESI, which is a separate company from the club with more than one owner. For this reason, we can't talk publicly on this other than to say that no other legal proceedings have taken place at the time of writing [on April 17] - no case has been filed and no additional letter has been received by the club."
Elsewhere, Duchatelet also remains the freeholder of The Valley and the training ground at Sparrows Lane, which ESI has a "legal obligation" to purchase within the next five years. At the moment, they only own the football club.
And let's also not forget that, despite the current suspension of the season, Charlton have slipped into the Sky Bet Championship relegation places. A drop back into League One would see a reduction in revenue and unlike the previous relegation from the Championship, there are fewer player assets to sell off. Add to that the high number of loanees in the current squad and the January transfer restrictions, which could yet be extended.