BY BENJY NURICK
In the midst of a traumatically uncertain 2020 for Charlton Athletic, Andrew Barclay arrived on the scene with ambitious plans to save the club. But as Charlton teetered dangerously towards extinction under East Street Investments, he eventually stepped aside when it became clear that Thomas Sandgaard had a more realistic path to completing the takeover.
Barclay’s bid was one of many dramatic plotlines throughout a saga-filled year in SE7 and now, the South London Press can reveal the inside details of that particular episode – including the obstacle of a former owner’s pettiness, antagonistic 30-second phone calls, and the campaign to destroy Charlton.
But really, this particular tale starts in October 2010 when former Charlton chief executive Peter Varney received a surprising phone call while vacationing in Florida with his family. On the other end was Richard Murray – Charlton chairman at the time – and the message couldn’t have been more urgent. The club was about to run out of money. In fact, they didn’t even have enough to pay wages into 2011.
“What do you want me to do about that?” understandably came the response from Varney, who had left Charlton more than two years earlier.
“I need some help, I need to find a buyer,” was the answer from the UK side of the line.
As became a theme throughout his career, Varney reluctantly allowed himself to be persuaded, rushing back to London to try and find a buyer before there was no longer a club to buy. Murray had been in talks with a conglomerate of “Manchester-based businessmen” alongside (the later ESI-associated) Lee Amis. But even in a desperate situation, Varney decided he wasn’t willing to let that go any further, sensing they weren’t the right characters for the club.
Working right until the deadline with support from then chief executive Steve Kavanagh, Varney eventually helped orchestrate a deal for Tony Jimenez and Michael Slater – keeping Charlton afloat – but leading to problems later down the line, particularly with the further sale of the club to Roland Duchatelet.
“What you have to understand is that the takeover had to be done by December 31 so they could pay the wages,” said Varney.
“We would have gone into administration. It was close. If we hadn’t worked all over Christmas to get this deal done, then we would have been in serious trouble. Whatever anybody says to you now, I was there, I lived it.”
Of course, this particular instance of Charlton’s near-extinction, while interesting, isn’t the one we’re focusing on. We’re looking at another perilous time in the club’s history, nearly a full decade on from that close call. Varney didn’t meet any of the Manchester crew negotiating with Murray – or know any names outside of Amis – but when Amis returned to the fold with Matt Southall in November 2019, familiar warning bells sounded.
Varney can’t help but smile when he recalls the absurdity of the situation.
“I heard an ovation from the lounges, because I sit in the Lower West and I’m like, ‘What’s that? Is there a player in today?’ And one of
the guys came down and said ‘No, you know, Matt Southall, the new chairman. He came into the lounge’. And everybody gave him a standing ovation. And all my mates around there were going to me: ‘Well, you don’t seem very keen on him.’ I went: ‘This isn’t going to end well, trust me.’ ‘Don’t be negative. We’re going to be the new Man City!’
“I knew of the group of Manchester businessmen which he [Southall] was on the periphery of. So I just kept my eye on it. And thought, ‘If these people are around, I’ll keep engaged with it because I know where this is gonna go.’”
As Varney started putting out feelers, searching for parties who could potentially come in and rescue the club before the outside world even knew the extent of the impending doom, Charlton fan and Sky News editor Mark Kleinman reached out to Voice of the Valley fanzine founder Rick Everitt with a proposition. He knew of an interested individual – 28-year-old Andrew Barclay. Grandson of the late billionaire Sir David Barclay, Andrew had generated his own wealth through real estate and technology investments. Despite having no previous links to Charlton, Barclay was ready and eager to venture into football.
Everitt, feeling that Varney was the right person to help drive the bid, put the two in touch and the experienced football executive was immediately impressed.
“Andrew phoned me,” Varney recalls. “And I said: ‘Well, you’ve probably been told I’m trying to be active in the background. I don’t want to see the club go under’. And Andrew said: ‘Let’s meet up.’ We did. I like him a lot. I think he’s a good guy.
“Andrew’s position was that he wanted to invest in the academy, and therefore for him, he didn’t want to own any football club where he didn’t own the two assets – The Valley and the training ground. So Andrew said to me: ‘Negotiate for me, but it’s only a done deal if I get the assets’.
“His grandfather has been very successful in property but he had no interest in property. The only reason he stuck to that thing about The Valley was that he was going to invest in the academy, he saw that as important. But only if he got the stadium. He wasn’t going to improve somebody else’s assets.”
Unfortunately, Barclay’s ambition and desire to own the club’s central assets meant the deal struggled to get off the ground. Duchatelet claimed to believe in the strength of his £50m agreement with ESI and was unwilling to answer Varney’s calls. Part of that was also due to a bizarre sequence of events from years earlier.
At the height of the protests against Duchatelet, when plastic pigs rained down on The Valley pitch and coffins paraded through the streets of South London, Varney once again stepped in attempting to find a solution to the mounting discontent.
“I had a really really big player that would have changed Charlton, like billions, we’re talking…after the protests started,” Varney explains. “I went to Duchatelet and said ‘look, I’ve got no politics here. But I have somebody that would buy it. They’d be really good for the club. What I’d like to do with your blessing is bring him to Belgium, make it easy for you, and you have a coffee with him. But you need to sign an NDA.’ Why? Because he’s a known individual. And what he doesn’t want is that he talks to you, then you leak that it’s him, and then he’s being besieged by every club in the country.
“So I got this email back and it went something like ‘you are a middleman.’ That’s all it said. So I went back and said: ‘No, I think you don’t really know my background, Roland’. I’ve been a fan since the 1960s. I’m watching all these protests. I’m thinking ‘you don’t come to the games.’ And my only interest is this guy could give you an exit.”
After explaining his position, Duchatelet eventually gave in slightly and allowed Varney to send a non-disclosure agreement to the Belgian’s right-hand woman Katrien Meire. Less than five minutes later the document was sent back and Varney was told they couldn’t sign it. They hadn’t even read it.
With the battle against Duchatelet raging on, a collection of supporters went and confronted the owner in Belgium and naturally asked the obvious question: ‘Why won’t you engage with Peter Varney?’
“‘He’s a crook.’ That’s what Duchatelet said,” Varney laughs. “That over a long period of time, I’d stolen money from the club. So I then wrote to him, Katrien, and Richard Murray and said: ‘Look, fair enough, you don’t want to do a deal. I accept that. But if you repeat this again, it will go legal.’ To be clear, I never asked Duchatelet for a penny to set the deal up.”
With the route to the Belgian blocked by the past feud, Barclay and Varney attempted to go through the other parties present, namely “owner” Paul Elliott and fellow ESI director Chris Farnell. They found it almost equally impossible to make any progress.
“We had conversations with Farnell,” Varney recalls with a frustrated shake of his head. “I set the call up, spoke to Farnell, I spoke to Elliott. I said: ‘I need to get you on a call with Andrew.’ Andrew put the phone down after about 30 seconds. Because they accused him of being a property developer…to develop The Valley. Andrew had not a single interest in that at all. But now I look back, they wanted to upset Andrew, because they wanted to get the club for pennies.
“The last thing they wanted was some wealthy individual at the table, that was the last thing they wanted. And that’s why they baulked against Thomas as well. They wanted to pick it up for next to nothing.”
As the Barclay bid continued to hit a steady stream of brick walls, Varney was approached by Wayne Mumford, who had worked for Joma when the clothing company sponsored Charlton in the early noughties.
Now Charlton’s commercial director, Mumford was hoping to introduce Varney to a wealthy Danish-American eager to buy a football club.
The three clubs of interest were Sunderland, Reading, and QPR. When Varney finally met Thomas Sandgaard in person, the conversation naturally turned to Charlton rather quickly.
Varney said: “I explained about my history with Charlton. Thomas then said: ‘So what’s the situation with Charlton?’ I said: ‘Andrew Barclay has got the money to buy it and he will invest in it. But only if he gets the assets. Will he get the assets? No, he won’t. So if you were saying to me, you want to do a deal and you’re not bothered about buying the assets, then I could put you in touch with all the right people.’ He said: ‘Well, I am.’
“So I said: ‘But, there’s a big but for me. Out of loyalty to Andrew, I need to go back and say: ‘This guy’s approached me, are you happy to stand aside and let him have a go?’
“Andrew and Thomas then spoke. That was important for me. I didn’t want to be accused of trying to represent two people. Thomas then asked me to get involved with Freshfields and connect him up with the Romanian crowd, which I did, to get Thomas on the calls.”
With the path cleared by Barclay’s withdrawal, the next step was to make Sandgaard’s interest public knowledge as the Danish-American struggled to get through to anyone in order to even begin negotiations. Varney directed him to the South London Press where Sandgaard insisted he would buy the club despite the many challenges involved with finalising any deal.
After a series of court cases, fan protests against the EFL, and threats from countless opposition parties, Sandgaard made good on his pledge, announcing himself as Charlton’s new owner on September 25.
Varney now works as chairman and chief executive of Integral Sports Management and is executive vice chairman of Millwall’s Community Trust. He watches every Charlton game on Charlton TV – until he’s allowed back to his regular seat in the Lower West stand. While he hopes it won’t be necessary again, there’s little reason to doubt Varney would do whatever it takes to rescue his club should the call be made.
“This is the truth and it’s probably hard to admit in some ways,” Varney says after a long pause. “Because I care about the club, I couldn’t see it go under. I felt – rightly or wrongly – that I was in the position to do something about it each time. And I couldn’t not do something. And every time it’s happened, the family are the same; ‘Don’t get involved. You’ll get a load of abuse. Nobody will really appreciate it…’ But is it a calling? I don’t know. I just felt I was in a position to help.
“You look back on your career sometimes and I’ve had other people say to me: ‘You should have just gone’. But it’s because it was my club. It is my club.
“I always just felt I could help out. When someone says to you, ‘it’s going into administration unless we can do something’… It’s not easy. I’m not the type of person that would say: ‘Well, it can go.’ Even with Andrew and Thomas. It looked like it was going last time.
“Again, I know deep down I’ve helped. If I hadn’t done what I did for Thomas, if I didn’t have Andrew on the scene, I don’t know where it would have ended up. Maybe with Elliott and his crowd, and god knows what would have happened to it.”
It feels unlikely Charlton could have ever ended up permanently in the hands of Elliott and Farnell. Charlton fans, including the former chief executive, simply wouldn’t have stood for it.
“They won’t accept things as they are,” Varney says of his fellow fans. “I went out delivering leaflets when they had The Valley Party. I hate it when somebody says to me: ‘You can’t do that.’ There’s enough people in this world who tell you that you can’t do things. It’s a cop-out.
“There’s not many people who have been through this type of journey. You know, when you have your ground taken away…and even going back before that, where The Valley was dilapidated. It’s brought everybody together.”
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