On the afternoon of Thursday, March 12th, Tracey Leaburn, Ben Hayes, Mick Everett and two of Everett’s trusted colleagues, Martin Rowden and John Little — who had stepped up to support Everett when asked — met at a Costa Coffee in Charlton. Another member of the team, Olly Groome, waited at The Valley to keep track of Southall’s movements.
“I had no real loyalty to Tahnoon,” Groome says of his involvement. “I just knew out of the two of them one thing definitely had to happen at that time and that was to get Matt as far away from the club as possible. That’s what it was about for me. Never mind what anyone else was doing, this guy and his cronies at The Valley had to be removed. And whatever happens after that happens. As long as things stayed as they did, that was game over because we knew there was no money in April and this was mid-March.”
In the aftermath of Chris Parkes’ suspension, Leaburn called Hayes and then Groome and Everett in order to discuss the situation. By Thursday, a plan was hatched but the group had to wait for Nimer’s lawyer to come down from Cheshire with the relevant paperwork allowing them to ask Southall to leave. Finally, after hours of waiting, they received word that the lawyer had arrived.
“It was visually impressive when all the cars swept in and parked in those spaces…the ones that weren’t taken by Matt’s Range Rovers,” Groome recollects.
In attempting to ensure the paperwork properly protected himself and his fellow Charlton employees, Everett had a lengthy debate with the lawyer, Chris Farnell. This detail is obviously important with Farnell later becoming heavily involved in the club alongside Paul Elliott in another disastrous episode of Charlton’s 2020.
Everett, in charge of the actual removal of Southall, explains his process and discomfort with Farnell, who insisted on staying in his car all night.
“I had sufficient paperwork to assist Nimer’s lawyer as best I could,” he says. “So my interpretation of that is yes I can go in and ask someone to leave the building — what it doesn’t give me is the right to put hands on them. If you give me that piece of paper to put hands on, then that’s a different ballgame and we’ll put hands on and coerce him out the door.
“But in the end, it worked for us because Southall didn’t get the moral high ground and when at his bequest the police arrived, I knew all of them, and they removed him for me. So there was no comeback on the club, no comeback on any individuals. The only comeback was we made it abundantly clear that we weren’t comfortable with the lack of support from Farnell who refused to leave his car all night. And I went down to him at least three times and each time he said ‘get hold of him…’
“I then found out later the history between Southall and Farnell. But I didn’t know that at the time — I thought he was just some lawyer who had come down from Cheshire. I didn’t know him from Adam. I found out later there was history between the two which was why he kept saying ‘manhandle him down the stairs…’
Ben Hayes, who didn’t go into the actual boardroom but was around with the rest of those involved and spoke with Farnell, explains his thoughts on suggestions that the removal of Southall allowed for Farnell’s arrival.
“Without Southall, Farnell doesn’t get anywhere near the club, he’s not even involved,” Hayes says. “He was the vulture who picked up on the almost dead body. It was Southall who put it in that state. Well, along with Jimenez and Duchatelet, let’s not go too far back. So I’m still very proud that I helped. And, you know, given the same situation, the same knowledge we had, I would have done almost exactly the same but maybe had a different conversation with Chris Farnell in that car that night.
“Tahnoon realised what Southall was and he wanted to get rid of Southall and I assume he was approached by Farnell saying I can solve the problems for you: ‘I know this Southall, I’ve dealt with him before, I’ll solve your problems for you.’ So Farnell’s got himself, his foot in the door that way, and that’s a serious error of judgement from Nimer.
“The important thing is to remember that the good guys here, the people who took the real risk, were Olly, Mick, and Tracey. They didn’t do that for a Range Rover or an expensive flat. They did it because they love the club. They got nothing financial out of that at all other than keeping the jobs they already had. So they’re the real heroes here. I’m just proud that I was involved and supported them.”
While Farnell stayed huddled up in his car encouraging Everett to physically remove Southall, the Safety Officer was cautious not to do something he felt he wasn’t legally obliged to.
Instead, he, Rowden, and Little went into the boardroom and told Southall, along with the present Heller and McHugh, that they needed to leave. Groome accompanied them with his personal phone to film in order to preserve a record of the event – which I have carefully reviewed.
When Southall refused to leave, Leaburn burst into the room.
“I could just feel the anger building in me,” she recalls. “It was anger, worry, lack of sleep…the whole situation got to me. It took a lot for me to go into the boardroom and say ‘get out of our club!’
As Southall stayed put, he subsequently called the police. The conversation took a strange turn when Everett, Rowden, and Little were described repeatedly in insulting terms.
“We had a little bit of a standoff,” Everett explains. “And Southall said to me, ‘so, you think you can take me? Do ya?’ And John, Martin, and I just caught each other’s eyes and smiled. Then he picked up his phone and rung the police — saying that these three guys in front of him are trying to throw him out, etc, etc. And then he started to insult the three of us to the police. He said, for example, ‘oh, there’s a big obese bloke here, standing here thinks he’s it, a little bald-headed bloke.’ And then he described me as the Safety Officer who walks around in a fake Rolex. All on the phone. And I just laughed and said; ‘I don’t have a Rolex, fake or otherwise.’
“So it started to get a bit personal. And then he said to me, ‘actually, you’re fired.’ And I went, ‘fair enough. And he said, ‘Can I see that letter again?’ I went, ‘Now you’ve sacked me, I don’t have to show you f*** all.’”
Everett, of course, wasn’t the only one told they were fired with Groome also dismissed by Southall. Leaburn meanwhile, wasn’t in the room at the time but anticipated that the decision likely applied to her as well.
“My battery started running out on my phone, it had been going on for 35–40 mins,” Groome says. “So I went to go get my charger — nothing had been going on for a while. I came back in and that’s when he started firing us all. He started full-naming everyone, so it was Michael Everett and Oliver Groome.
“And you could tell he was quite intimidated because when he was on the phone with the police, he was just being well…an arsehole. Being really rude about everyone’s appearance.”
With the standoff going in circles and the employees’ jobs “terminated”, the police arrived at The Valley. Truthfully, it was likely the best-case scenario for all involved as the officers aimed to calm down the situation.
“The police were great — they knew Mick straight away,” Groome recalls. “And in fact, that was one of the funny things…he sacked us all, he was really rude to Martin (Rowden) and them. He said ‘do you work for me?’ and Martin said ‘no, I work for Charlton Athletic’. I liked that line. There were a couple moments of light relief from our perspective but it was very stressful, very stressful. I thought it would be over in 20 minutes but it took more than two hours.”
The police officers, who had all worked with Everett previously, decided that the best solution would be for everyone to leave the stadium.
Southall departed and got into a Range Rover to drive away while ignoring the questions of Louis Mendez walking alongside him. It’s an image that’s plastered into the brains of all Charlton supporters: the last time Matt Southall visited The Valley.
The following day Everett did actually receive the letter allowing him to physically remove Southall if necessary. However, the sheer fact that it was a day late says much about the discomfort and mistrust of Farnell that would only grow in the coming weeks. But for now, this particular episode of Charlton history was seemingly over.
About 51 weeks later, Tracey Leaburn and Olly Groome are on either side of a split-screen Zoom call telling me their recollections of that dramatic night in their Charlton lives — now with the authorization from Thomas Sandgaard to tell their story.
The morning after the standoff in the boardroom, the ‘sacked’ Charlton staff members were told their jobs were safe and today they continue to work for the club. If all goes well, there won’t be another night as dramatic — off the pitch at least — for these employees. But they absolutely would rise to the occasion again if presented with the same situation.
Truthfully, it wouldn’t even be a decision.
“I was happy to risk my job,” Leaburn explains. “Well not happy, but for all the reasons I love this club, I’ve seen the stress everyone working for the club was under, they could have lost their livelihoods…there’s just so many factors to this. Most importantly fans could have lost their club. And if the next day I found out Tahnoon didn’t have the right to do any of this? I knew I was going to get fired. I would have taken that.”
“You weigh it up,” Groome continues. “We knew jobs were at risk and it was scary when he said ‘you’re sacked’ because there’s still that 2% in your brain that just in case…but if he is going to be chairman of this football club and run it the way it was running, I don’t want to be here anyway. But then you worry about paying your bills and stuff.”
“Absolutely,” Everett responds without hesitation when asked if he would do it again. “I had to do it. Because in my bizarre sense of loyalty, my loyalty has always been to my football club. My grandad and dad took me since I was five years old. I’m a lifelong fan — Charlton is my family. And if I think someone is taking the ‘p’ out of it, which they were…then I felt duty-bound that I had to do something about it. Had it ultimately cost me my job, that would have been fine.
“I don’t see it as a job, I see it as my football club. And sometimes that can be a weakness as well as a strength. The bottom line is I wasn’t worried about repercussions. Honestly, I couldn’t care less. I just wanted the guy out. And I was happy to do it. And if it cost me my job, then it cost me my job. It would have been a tough way to go, don’t get me wrong, but I could have sat back knowing I’d done the right thing.”
Standing up for their club is nothing new for Charlton supporters. Going back as far as The Valley Party, fans have done what they felt necessary in times of desperation. It was a theme throughout the Duchatelet years and the actions of the employees in the boardroom last March was one of the first public measures that would lead into a summer of activism from a variety of Charlton groups.
“I think that’s a proud part of our history,” Hayes says. “It’s that whole ethos that’s grown up among the fanbase. We may disagree about everything else, but the fact is, it’s our club and we will protest and fight for it. Whatever happens, we will not go quietly into that dark night. We’ll make a fuss about it. It’s easy to protest on Twitter, it’s easy to protest on Facebook, or whatever. What Charlton fans have done and what other fans have seen is Charlton fans actually turning up and doing stuff.
“I really hope it is an inspiration to other fans, to say that you can do this, you can be active, but you can stay within the law. You can collaborate with, as you saw on that night, the police were happy to work with us. They knew what was happening. They knew what wasn’t happening.
“What we have is lots of people who actually do something. So even though I don’t always agree with what other people do, and they probably don’t agree with everything I do, I’ve always got respect for those groups who actually get off their backsides and do stuff and go and are active. Anyone on the internet will have the perfect solution to make everything work. Yeah, we just need to do this, we need to do that. Yeah? Then do it. And that’s what we did that night, we actually did something. It would have been easy for Tracey and Mick and Olly to say ‘you know what? I’m staying out of this, I’m not gonna risk my job.’ But they didn’t, they actually took that risk. And I think it’s paid off.”
It’s a great travesty of this story, and it says quite a lot about the governing bodies in charge, that this incident with Southall was far from the end of the desperate battle to save Charlton over the last year.
There’s hope now, that the DNA of protest bred in each Charlton supporter won’t be needed again with Sandgaad at the helm and even more evidence that Charlton are not a club to be messed with. But without this intrinsic fight, it’s fair to wonder if the club would still exist today as we reach the one-year anniversary of the standoff in the boardroom.
“The fans came out fighting and it was amazing,” Leaburn says of the months that followed Southall’s departure. “The fans have been brilliant. I think that was the thing that stood out to me personally — we’re all one; the fans, the staff, the players. We’re all fighting for our club and to me that was priceless.”
“And I like to think that everything that’s happened,” Groome continues. “Roland, that situation with Southall, the Farnell situation…all within the space of a few months, the way the fans protested and reacted — I like to think at this stage now, however long in the future if we are in a position to be bought again, anyone sniffing around for negative attention will take one look at Charlton and go ‘right we’re gonna leave that, they’re not to be f***ed with.’”
Southall, Nimer, Amis, Farnell, Elliott, Duchatelet and all the others linked to the deeply dispiriting last few years in Charlton’s history are now exactly that: history. And the mere fact that Charlton have a future at all to look forward to just shows the impact of each supporter who refused to accept their club’s at times inevitable-seeming demise.
Thomas Sandgaard has made it clear that the intense commitment shown by supporters throughout Charlton’s history was an important factor in his decision to buy the club. It’s an ethos that runs through the entire fanbase — and it was never more clear than in the moments when the Charlton employees risked their careers in The Valley boardroom one year ago.
Photos: Kyle Andrews, Louis Mendez
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