LONDON: Katrien Meire endured a baptism of fire in English football, with disgruntled fans even travelling to Belgium to present her parents with a dossier on how terrible she was as chief executive of Charlton.
But the Belgian lawyer, one of a handful of women in the boardrooms of English clubs, refused to be cowed and is now plotting how to lift sleeping giants Sheffield Wednesday back into the Premier League.
The 34-year-old was chief executive at Charlton from the start of 2014 until the end of 2017, during which time the south London side were relegated to the third tier of English football.
She was blamed by supporters, who were angered by the manner in which she and owner Roland Duchatelet ran the club.
They took exception to being labelled “customers” and to the succession of foreign managers — one fan harangued Meire on a train over the appointment of Israeli manager Guy Luzon.
A statement on the Charlton website accused some fans of wanting the club to fail as the atmosphere turned toxic.
Meire, who had initially approached Duchatelet out of the blue, offering him advice on broadcasting rights, understands that fans are emotionally involved but says the Charlton supporters went too far.
“It is not nice to read in the papers you are a horrible person, that you are horrible at your job, attacking my personality, attacking me as a whole,” she told AFP.
“However, they did not succeed in intimidating me, so they then tried the same tactics on people close to me.”
This meant not only going to the houses of other Charlton staff but even closer to home.
“They went to the front door of my parents’ house in Belgium, rang the doorbell and gave them a folder detailing how bad I am at the job and then hung posters in the village saying the same thing.
“At first they did not tell me about incident. I was Skyping and I saw my mum crying. She would not tell me why but after a while they told me what happened.”
Meire says despite such sinister intrusions, her parents are broadly supportive of her as they know she loves what she does and she refused to be bullied out of the job.
When Sheffield Wednesday’s Thai owner Dejphon Chansiri came calling, Meire accepted and took up her new role as CEO at the beginning of last year.
“I guess I wanted to prove to myself I could do the job on my own,” she said.
Research reported by Women in Football in December 2017 said just 35 out of the 523 directors across men’s league football were women — a meagre 7%.
Since the appointment of Karren Brady, as managing director of Birmingham City in 1993, just a handful of women have followed in her footsteps, with seven female CEOs across the Premier League and the English Football League, it said.
Meire points out that there are other women at the sharp end of football and mentioned Chelsea director Marina Granovskaia and Tottenham director Rebecca Caplehorn but says some choose to stay out of the limelight.
“I can completely understand that,” she said. “Because it can go against you. It’s not always easy and I obviously had my problems as well but it is OK — you can overcome that and still have a career.”
If Meire thought her move to Sheffield, in northern England, meant she was out of the woods, she was sorely mistaken.
Three months after she arrived, Championship side Wednesday, who have not played in the Premier League since 2000, were hit with a transfer embargo for breaching the Football League’s financial fair play rules.
Meire laughs when it is suggested she relishes the challenge of taking on clubs with problems, saying the odds are stacked against second-tier clubs who have to compete against those relegated from the Premier League with their huge “parachute payments”.
She says that those, like Sheffield Wednesday, who fail to go up despite investing heavily in players normally would cut their losses to avoid breaching FFP — but not Dejphon.
“If you do not go up, you normally offset it by player sales but he does not want to sell his best players as he wants to go up,” she said. “It is a vicious circle.”