Charlton Athletic owner Thomas Sandgaard releases a new track called Believe at the end of this month, and the US-based Dane wants the club’s fans to keep the faith about the remainder of this season.
Tomorrow’s home game against Portsmouth marks the 12-month anniversary of Sandgaard acquiring the stricken South London club and saving it from administration.
But despite that greater financial stability, the Addicks are finding this League One campaign anything but a smooth or serene experience.
Charlton are 21st in the League One table and have banked just five points from eight matches.
Sandgaard had played his part in raising expectations. Back in May, just after Charlton had missed out on the play-offs on goal difference, he expressed his confidence they were going to “blow it out of the division”. Prior to that he had spoken about reaching the Premier League within five years and also qualifying for Europe. With the benefit of hindsight, does he regret some of those statements?
“I have a job, and my job is to make sure we don’t waiver when things go bad, that we still keep a cool head and are laser-focused on that same goal,” Sandgaard told the South London Press last week, before he headed back to the States on Monday.
“There are 23 other clubs in this league that have a say in who ends up at the top of the league. But we can still be determined and focused that we’re still playing our style of football and make sure we develop the academy, which we’ve done successfully for so many years.
“It is about improving the probability of how many points you average over the course of the season. That’s all you can do, and be consistent in the way you play football – so your players know exactly what to do when they walk out on the field. And having a great manager too, that is good at implementing that too.
“All of that is slowly falling into place. The raw material is there now to make it happen.
“It’s a long season and I’m still very confident that we’re going to be looking really good at the end of the season.
“I’m still determined to get this club – the football side and everything else about it – to lift it to a much higher level in English football than where we are currently playing.
“The club has the tradition, the brand and the whole platform for us to be able to do it.”
Sandgaard has certainly packed plenty into his first year at the helm. He has appointed a new manager, acquired the women’s team – going full-time professional for the first time in their history – and released Addicks to Victory, belting out the glam rock tune at The Valley before the League One opener against Sheffield Wednesday in August.
“I won’t sit around and wait for things to happen,” said Sandgaard. “We make sure we make things happen.
“It’s going to be part of the new vision for the club, the new messaging, if you want to call it that too. We’re in this together. We’re on a journey to a much higher level of English football and the fans get to partake in that.”
Sandgaard describes the lead up to buying Charlton as “turbulent”, managing to extricate a deal for the club despite Paul Elliott being granted a High Court injunction to block the sale of holding company East Street Investments. There were only five days remaining in that summer transfer window – with nine incoming deals done in a whirlwind finale.
“That was obviously a scramble,” said Sandgaard. “It was very hectic. And it’s been a whole year of learning about the insides of the 116-year-old English football club. There is great tradition. I’ve learned a lot about the fanbase – what they respond to and what they don’t respond to.
“I had the replacement of a manager and, maybe a little to my disappointment, we didn’t make enough of an improvement on the squad in the January transfer window. But we put a very sophisticated, very detailed, recruiting system in place that obviously involves a lot of data and also a lot of ways of negotiating. We did that in January but it was only really ready in May…that’s how long it took. Hopefully long term that is going to carry us all the way to the Premier League.
“I realised the fans were very impatient – so was I – towards the end of the transfer window. But if you look at the squad we assembled, it will be conducive to the playing style we’re trying to implement. We have real depth in the squad, consisting of quite a few young talents we have invested in for the long term. As well as sprinkling in players with Premier League and Championship experience in some key roles. All things being equal, they should be able to lift us to the top of League One this season.
“The club, and the whole back office, you could say we’re just getting into that now.”
The club recently fleshed out the details on how their ‘Black Box’ works – their terminology for the room at their Sparrows Lane training ground where analysts have compiled data on 6,500 players. Dulwich Hamlet defender Aaron Barnes, on Charlton’s books as a youngster, and Ruben Sammut work with Australian-based Dan Pelchen, who devised the algorithm for assessing potential transfer targets.
Thirteen signings were made in the most recent window and Sandgaard is keen to bring an end to the cycle of heavily overhauling the squad at the start of every campaign.
“What I’m trying to accomplish is that it’s not about a lot of new signings,” said the Charlton supremo. “It’s a lot more about everybody, especially the fans, getting used to the names we have bought and are building on. And then there might be two or three signings every transfer window, just to fill gaps that help lift us to the new level we’re at – rather than waiting for 10, 12 or 14 new signings every transfer window, because that’s not a healthy club. That’s not a club that is easy to relate to. Because you relate to the players, their personalities and watching them play.
“I’m trying to see if I can change that whole momentum so that it is just a few signings each window and more of an investment – long-term contracts – for new talent that we add in, alongside the players we lift up from the academy.”
When Sandgaard bought the Addicks – Roland Duchatelet still owns the freehold to The Valley and training ground – it was after the Covid-19 outbreak.
Supporters have been back in stadiums since the new season got under way. But another change has been the scrapping of a short-lived player salary cap.
“I understand what the EFL was trying to do,” said Sandgaard. “I just think the levels that were randomly picked were too favourable for the smaller clubs and too unfavourable for the bigger clubs that have an ambition to get into the Championship, to have that foundation to potentially be in the Premier League.
“We’re all trying to find ways to make the game a fair one. Maybe some of the things that should rather be looked at is how English football can all share in the TV money that predominantly just goes to the Premier League right now.
“The health of English football is really determined on how the pyramid survives – because that’s where you find the future talent that shows up on TV in the Premier League. It’s more relevant to look at how money is distributed than hold football clubs with potential back in the lower leagues.”
Sandgaard has been involved in the process of signing players, so what does he think of agents?
“I don’t appreciate them,” he responds. “I understand why they are there. Players are supposed to be good at football and not necessarily good at negotiating their own compensation. But there has got to be a balance. I hope European football, not just England, will find a more reasonable level of how agents fit into the ecosystem of football.”
Charlton spent more than £1million in the last window – paying fees for Jayden Stockley, Charlie Kirk, Samuel Lavelle and Sean Clare. Diallang Jaiyesimi is understood to have cost more than £300,000 when he arrived from Swindon in January.
Asked about that seven-figure outlay, Sandgaard adds: “We have not gone overboard like an Ipswich or Wigan, and some of those other clubs, but just made sensible, incremental increases and improvements to what we did last season. I wanted to either maintain or improve every single position in the squad throughout the pitch. I believe that is exactly what we have done. It comes back to that should improve our probability that we end up in a better spot than at the end of last season.
“The rules in terms of the salary cap went at the end of the season and it allowed clubs to spend more money. But I decided only incrementally – and where needed. We started out believing we could spend about a million more than last year’s player budget. We ended up spending a little more than that, including those transfer fees. But it was very much on a case-by-case basis. It had to be the right player with the right ingredients and traits to fit into our future playing style.
“When we had that in front of us it was a no-brainer – of course we’re going to spend that money and not try to go cheap or get jerked around by agents, there was too much of a tendency for us to do that before we got into it.”
Sandgaard picks out the Sheffield Wednesday match on August 7 as one of the highlights of the past year – the 17,639 in attendance the biggest home turnout since the 1-0 loss to Middlesbrough in March 2020, just before Covid-19 shut the sport down.
“That we didn’t win our game against Sheffield Wednesday was disappointing but it didn’t take away how great that day was,” said Sandgaard.
“It was a lot of fun [playing his song at the match]. Technically it was a bit of a problem because there is a huge delay between when you either speak into a microphone or are playing a guitar and when it comes out of the speakers. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without earplugs in and not being able to hear anything in the stadium, other than my own guitar and playing along with the music. It was a bit of a puzzle, even the same day – trying to make all that technology work.
“But it worked. Even walking around on the pitch while we were singing Valley Floyd Road was quite some experience. I just stroked a few chords and played along with that as I was saying hello to the fans.
“Kicking the ball was fun too. It could have been a terrible day of technology not working, I could’ve slipped when I tried to hit the ball. Everything worked out. It was a wonderful day – the atmosphere of the fans in the stadium.”
The challenge for Sandgaard is that he is out of his honeymoon period. He will be judged by results on the pitch.
It throws up the question whether he might need extra financial backers for Charlton to once again be mixing it with England’s elite on a weekly basis.
“On the football side we should be able to get the football club to where we want to go with my money as well as the club being financially responsible,” said Sandgaard.
“Just look at what a Brentford has done. I’m not saying we are necessarily going to do the same thing. There are a few things that I think will suit Charlton better. For instance, I’m a strong believer in the academy – Brentford were not.
“There could be other big investments around The Valley and the training grounds that could make me consider outside capital…I don’t know yet. My gut feeling is that I’ll take care of it myself. Life is so much easier that way. That’s probably where my head is going to go.
“It’s been an exciting journey and this first year has got us to the point where we now have a platform where we can say ‘okay, let’s start moving forward’.
“One of my goals is to, even on a League One level, fill the stadium. We only had 17-18,000 fans in the stadium on the opening game.
“I hope we can attract more from our actual fanbase to show up for live games. That’s something I’ll be working on. That will be helpful financially for the club, as well as making the entire club healthier.
“Football is a moneypit. I think I can change that narrative, at the same time we keep playing better football.”
PICTURES: PAUL EDWARDS AND PA
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