Charlton’s ‘Superman’ Thomas Sandgaard aiming high at the Valley
For a split second, as the video call loads and a face pops up on screen, the scene is reminiscent of a fan YouTube channel. But, in reality, it is the Charlton Athletic owner, Thomas Sandgaard, who is wearing the bright red home shirt on a sofa covered by a blanket emblazoned with the club crest, talking impassionedly from Colorado about grand plans, Guns N’ Roses and giving the League One side, for so long stuck in the mud, a much-needed facelift. “Gotta wear the team colours,” he says, smiling.
There is a reason the manager, Lee Bowyer, has likened Sandgaard to Superman. Before the Danish-American businessman assumed control in September, a club beset by broken promises and boardroom chaos were days from administration. That they could not afford to buy balls or cones for training is a snapshot of how bleak things had become. After so many false dawns Sandgaard, the founder of Zynex, a medical manufacturer specialising in electrotherapy, is breathing life into a new era. Charlton have won seven of their past nine league matches and could go second if they beat MK Dons on Wednesday, when they welcome 2,000 fans back to the Valley.
“I would say things are in much better order than I thought before I got into it,” he says. “The first team is well structured under Lee and we have a fantastic academy. Everything is working pretty smoothly so what I’m learning is my focus needs to be on: ‘How do we make sure we get promotion this season?’ And: ‘How can we slowly build an infrastructure [where] all parts are ready for the Premier League so we don’t end up like an elevator club and then one or two seasons later we are back down again?’”
The plan is to achieve promotion to the top flight within five years and the long-term goal, he says, is to establish Charlton as a European player. He has backed Bowyer and Steve Gallen, the impressive director of football, with the arrival of 10 signings, including Chris Gunter, the most-capped Wales player of all time, and Ian Maatsen, the teenage defender on loan from Chelsea. Sandgaard is confident bold predictions will not come back to bite.
“I’m very comfortable,” he says. “That’s the way I run businesses. One of the ingredients to make things like that [goals] happen is to keep things simple. This is not a complicated industry. I’ve found that you can be very successful and grow very fast if you just keep things simple, so I’m not too worried.”
Such naked ambition is music to the ears of many but most supporters will settle for stability. After the tumultuous reign of Roland Duchâtelet, the past 12 months have been pockmarked by failed takeovers. East Street Investments bought the club for £1 in January and Charlton were left in limbo after the English Football League rejected a takeover led by Paul Elliott in August. Elliott continues to dispute Sandgaard’s ownership and claims the takeover contravened a court injunction preventing the sale of shares in ESI. The episode is a minefield but Sandgaard insists his deal is watertight. “It’s expensive on the legal side but hopefully I get to prove a point for the entire football industry,” he says, referring to “characters from before” as if they are film baddies. “It might take a whole year before they are left in the dust.”
Buying a football club is widely seen as an exercise in losing money, a hiding to nothing financially, which begs the question: why buy a club on its knees in the middle of a global pandemic? “The losses incurred this season, that’s just part of the expense, the cost of getting into football, so I’m not too worried about that … I see a huge potential in Charlton and I think it’s going to be worth the investment. I’m also – you may call me naive or very optimistic – but I think it’s possible to make money off an investment like this.”
For now, Sandgaard is focused on fine-tuning. Last week an isokinetic dynamometer, which detects muscle strength and will, hopefully, remedy a recurring spate of hamstring injuries, was installed in the medical department. The purchase of a new lawnmower has, Bowyer says, left Paul Geary, the head groundsman, “like a kid at Christmas”. What did Sandgaard, who also looked into buying Sunderland, Swansea, QPR and Wigan, see when he walked through the door a couple of months ago? “The word that comes to mind first is probably scepticism. ‘What is this really all about?’”
Sandgaard has his hands full but in between enjoying Charlton games – “I’m watching every minute” – and planning for the January transfer window, he hopes to put the finishing touches to a debut rock album. He is the lead guitarist of the band the Guardian Angel. “We are almost done,” he says.
He has also been learning “Valley Floyd Road”, the unofficial Charlton anthem that trills to the tune of Mull of Kintyre – “there a few notes left that I need to listen to again and then we have got that done” – but it sounds as though Jürgen Klopp’s heavy-metal football may be more up his street. “High-pressure football where we make sure we push the other team back and make sure we dominate the game? That’s the kind of football I like.”