That old cliché really is true; the first game you look for when the fixture list is released is the first derby of the season. Anticipation and excitement has been building for fans of Premier League and Football League clubs since June and, with several rivalries being contested over the course of this weekend, those bottled up emotions are about to be released in a surge of frantic derby action.
However, for Charlton fans, those emotions are replaced by anxiety, fear and dread. The statistics don’t make for pretty reading; three defeats and a draw from four South East London derbies last season and no win since 1996 in any fixture involving today’s opponents Millwall. A week ago, with Charlton coming back to form and Millwall’s performances causing fans to turn against their side, there was genuine hope the Addicks could come away three points richer from a match with the Lions for the first time in 17 years, but a win for Millwall and a Charlton defeat in midweek grounded those hopes and the familiar worry returned. By full time those worries had been realised as a lacklustre Charlton were completely void of ideas in a demoralising and depressing 1-0 defeat to their South London neighbours.
A dire game that must have motivated the Sky Sports viewers watching from their sofas to turn off their televisions and do something a bit more productive with their weekends saw both sides play out a scrappy first half. Neither keeper was tested as the two sides exchanged optimistic long range efforts, but Millwall were dominant in the air, both at the back, where Joe Pigott had a torrid time, and up top, and controlling the play in midfield. It came as no surprise that the visitors were the side to take the lead, and did so through a goal that had more than just an element of good fortune about it. Scott McDonald’s unthreatening effort from the edge of the area took a wicked deflection off Dorian Dervite, wrong footing Ben Hamer and leaving him motionless as the ball trickled into the net. Despite the manner of the goal, there was no excuse for it as McDonald was gifted the chance to shoot after Pritchard inexcusably misplaced a pass in midfield. The goal came with 38 minutes on the clock and Charlton’s players trudged off at half-time to a chorus of boos from a disgruntled set of home fans.
The second half was slightly better, but in the same way having your weaker leg amputated is slightly better than losing your favoured one; it was still ugly, still full of pain and still nowhere near as good enough as it should have been. Dale Stephens had a glorious opportunity to pull Charlton level, but he couldn’t keep his effort below the bar after the ball popped up perfectly for him just outside the box. That was as good as it got for Charlton in the opening passages of play in the second half as they continued to punt unimaginative long balls up field in the direction of no one in particular. In fact it was Millwall who looked more the likely scorer of the next goal as Steve Morison’s introduction gave the visitors significant aerial dominance, with the Welshman carving out a chance for Martyn Woolford that was spurned and Liam Trotter forced Hamer into a fine save.
Charlton managed something of a late surge, but their decision making let them down at the crucial moments. Simon Church opted to shoot from an angle Millwall keeper David Forde had covered with Stephens and Callum Harriott free in the centre, whilst Harriott himself failed to spot Cameron Stewart free and instead misplaced a through ball to Marvin Sordell. There was still a flickering glimmer of hope on Charlton’s candle with four minutes of added time singled, but Forde’s save from Stewart’s effort after he wriggled free inside the box extinguished that flame. A hostile atmosphere of boos and groans serenaded the players off the pitch; Charlton’s fans had once again been let down by their heroes not performing in a derby match.
Those pre-match worries turned to fear and panic with the news of Charlton’s starting XI. Talismanic figure Yann Kermorgant, despite being declared fit in midweek, failed a late fitness, missing out on the squad for a second consecutive game after being absent in the midweek defeat at Huddersfield. Sordell was given the unenviable task of filling the Frenchman’s boots in Yorkshire, but a poor performance from the Bolton loanee saw him dropped and youngster Pigott come in for his first league start. With Chris Solly keeping Kermorgant company in Charlton’s medical department, Pigott’s inclusion was the only change from the Huddersfield fixture, meaning Powell kept with the 3-5-2 formation and goal scorer in the 2-1 defeat Cameron Stewart had to settle for a place on the bench.
The Millwall line up contained several familiar faces to Charlton fans. Nicky Bailey, who was clapped whilst playing at The Valley for Middlesbrough, was booed heavily when his name was read out over the PA system, whilst fellow starter Martyn Waghorn and substitute Lee Martin completed a trio of former Charlton players in the visitors’ line up. After their win over Blackpool in midweek, manager Steve Lomas named an unchanged side, with Alan Dunne, Paul Robinson, Mark Beevers and Scott Malone lining up in a back four in front of ‘keeper Forde. A five man midfield saw Nadjim Abdou, Bailey and Trotter flanked by Woolford and Waghorn, whilst McDonald led the line on his own.
The atmosphere inside The Valley was tense with both sides anxious to get off to a bright start. There’s no brighter start than an early goal and Bailey, who was booed every time he touched the ball in the opening stages, tried his luck from 30 yards out but it trickled well wide, much to the delight of the Charlton fans who now despise their former captain. In Charlton’s first meaningful attack, Lawrie Wilson disposed Malone by the corner flag and swung in a delivery that couldn’t evade the clutches of Forde.
The frantic opening period of play continued as Hamer collected a loose ball under pressure from Waghorn, only to slide outside the area, forcing him to release possession at the Leicester loanee’s feet, but the ‘keeper recovered well to reclaim the ball back inside his penalty area with a collective sigh of relief from the home ends as he did so. Down the other end, a characteristically scrappy exchange in midfield culminated in Pritchard poking through to Jackson, but the skipper’s effort from distance cleared the bar by a considerable margin. Charlton created another opening moments later as a threatening cross from Rhoys Wiggins had to be headed behind by Beevers with Pigott ready to pounce. Jackson’s following corner evaded everyone, but Charlton had made a bright start to the contest.
However, that bright start was as good as it got for Charlton as they began to fade, with Pigott’s horribly over hit pass to Wiggins the catalyst, whilst Millwall took control of the game. Malone burst forward from left back and fired in yet another shot from range that ballooned over the bar, whilst Waghorn stung Hamer’s palms with the game’s first effort on goal, which was well saved. Charlton were struggling to clear their lines, losing possession when they did, and seriously missing the outlet that Kermorgant provided. The long balls pumped up to Church and Pigott were not being won and Millwall were able to regain possession quickly after losing it. Worrying signs for the home side.
Bailey fired in another shot from range that was comfortably saved by Hamer whilst Woolford produced yet another shot that soared over the bar and McDonald dragged an effort wide of the post from outside the area; Millwall were certainly dominating the poor Addicks but couldn’t muster any serious chances from their control of the game. It was going to take a piece of magic of a slice of good fortune to open the scoring in this one; the Lions got the latter with seven first half minutes to play.
Pritchard, wayward and struggling to contend with the physical nature of Bailey and Trotter in the centre of midfield, misplaced a pass straight into the path of McDonald. He exchanged passes with Woolford before getting his shot away when 20 yards from goal. It looked a tame one, Hamer certainly had it covered, but a deflection off the body of Dervite changed the destination of the ball from one corner of the goal to the other and the ball bounced in with Hamer already committed. It was no less than Charlton deserved for their abysmal first half showing and exactly what was needed to kick both them and the game into life.
Unfortunately for the home fans the goal didn’t have the desired effect. Jackson had the chance to pick out an unmarked Church in Millwall’s box but took too long to pull back the back and a soft shout for a penalty after the skipper fell under pressure from Abdou fell on death ears as the game petered out into half time. Without a shot on target, riddled with individual errors and deploying a brand of long ball football that caused no concern to the Millwall back line, Charlton’s performance warranted the boos that met the half time whistle.
A quick response from Charlton in the second half would have changed the atmosphere in The Valley and the course of the game, and they came so close to levelling after just a minute of the second 45. Wilson’s low cross to the edge of the area found Stephens, whose touch set the ball up nicely for him to fire a shot away, but he couldn’t keep the ball down and the fans in the Lower North had another wayward shot sent their way. Stephens really should have done better with his effort and at least tested the ‘keeper with a clear sight of goal but his execution was poor.
The home fans were getting more and more disgruntled by the minute and Pigott running the ball out of play under little pressure did little to help that, whilst Hamer’s rushed clearance fell to feet of McDonald, allowing him to play in Woolford and only an excellent block from Dervite prevented a second Millwall goal. The calls for Harriott to come off the bench produced the loudest noise from the home ends for quite some time. Powell, although not Harriott, did make a change shortly after as Stewart came off the bench for his first Valley appearance in place of Wood with the Addicks reverting to a 4-4-2 formation.
Millwall made a change of their own at the hour mark, taking off goal scorer McDonald and bringing on Morison, and the Leeds loanee immediately sent through Woolford, but his first time shot was off-target from a promising position. Trotter, after being allowed to travel through midfield, then came closer still to doubling Millwall’s lead with a superb effort from distance that forced Hamer into a superb stop with Wiggins picking up the pieces and clearing the ball to safety. This, like so many other moments, led to a roar of encouragement from the home fans, but it was having little to no effect.
However, Stewart had looked lively since coming on and wasn’t afraid to take on his markers with the ball at his feet and had delivered a couple of crosses that had at least made Robinson and Beevers work to defend their lead. One such delivery forced Beevers to turn the ball behind for a corner, and there were shouts for a penalty as both Dervite and Morrison had their shirts pulled as the ball came in, but you rarely see them given. The assertiveness with which Charlton appealed was a sign of their desperation for a way back into this game.
Martin replaced Waghorn but the Charlton fans were too busy cursing their own side to bother booing the former Addick whilst Pigott and Pritchard made way for Sordell and Harriott. Harriott immediately deployed some trademark trickery but struggled to progress forward, but it was a sign the winger could potentially make a difference in the game. Sordell was then involved in Charlton’s best chance of the game so far as his excellent through ball played in Church, but the striker opted to shoot with men free in the box. Stephens and Harriott gave an impressive display of synchronised moaning as Forde gathered Church’s weak effort; Charlton’s first shot on target after 77 minutes. Harriott was involved again moments later as he broke quickly from a Millwall corner but lost possession after misplacing a through ball to Sordell when Stewart looked the better option to his left. Both quality and decision making was nowhere to be seen in a red shirt.
Malone should have put the game to bed after Chaplow went unchallenged and was able to pull the ball back to him inside the box, but the defender could only find the side netting and bit his shirt in disappointment. With the miss giving Charlton some sort of hope, Sordell came close to connecting with a deflected Church cross, but it was the sort of chance I wouldn’t bother to write about in normal circumstances in a performance that was above pathetic. With four minutes added on, the home fans gave one last rallying cry, and Stewart almost responded, but Frode save well from the winger’s shot and received a pat on the back from Bailey; he was enjoying this.
The atmosphere at full time is something I’ve never experienced inside The Valley before. It was more hostile than any words can describe. As the players came over to clap the North Stand they were rejected by a lord and continuous chorus of boos. Chris Powell’s side had not only let down the fans in an important derby fixture, they’d been embarrassing.
I think before I run the riot act on Charlton, Millwall deserve some credit. They may not have been particularly inventive or creative, but they didn’t need to be, they stuck to the task incredibly well and deserved their three points. Lomas had his side very well organised, they won absolutely every battle in midfield and were solid at the back. Trotter and Bailey were especially impressive in the centre, not giving any Charlton a player a moment to think before they pounced and launched a counter attack.
By contrast, today’s performance was up there with the worst I’ve witnessed in my ten seasons as a Charlton fan and almost certainly the worst display at The Valley. Only the defeat to Wycombe Wanderers in the 2006/07 League Cup Quarter Final comes close, but this feels incomparably worse. The humiliation of putting such a disgusting performance in a game that matters so much to me and every other Charlton fan is indescribable.
Powell got it horribly wrong. His first big mistake was playing Pigott; a youngster who clearly isn’t ready yet. I felt sorry for Pigott, playing completely out of his depth, but it’s a worrying portrayal of the lack of depth and quality within this squad that Powell felt he had to turn to the youngster in such an important fixture. His second mistake was not having a sufficient plan B to deal with Kermorgant’s absence. 3-5-2 has been working as we’ve had an outlet up front; Kermorgant has been able to collect long balls and attacks have started from higher up the pitch. Without Kermorgant, our long balls weren’t being won whilst the midfield was unable to collect the ball from defence and create an attack. A 4-4-2 formation with out and out wingers would have provided a better source of moving the ball forward with a full back and winger linking up down either flank to develop attacks as appose to long balls or Wilson and Wiggins struggling out wide on their own. I hate to criticise Powell, but a tactical change was needed today.
Missing Kermorgant, Solly and even Cort is of course disastrous for a club like Charlton in this division, but it’s not an excuse. We have to get on with what we’ve got and it’s the players’ and manager’s responsibility to put in a performance in any circumstance. That didn’t happen today.
Powell’s set up wasn’t helped by players underperforming dramatically both individually and as a team. The defence and midfield took too long on the ball, there was no urgency to get the ball forward or win it back and the hit long and hope method deployed by the defenders to front men who couldn’t win a header was reminiscent of Miguel Llera pumping long to Paul Benson to lose in the Phil Parkinson days. It was horrible viewing.
Pritchard had his worst game for Charlton by far and looked a little boy competing in midfield with Bailey and Trotter; the blue shirt one the battle every single time. Stephens played one fantastic ball to Wiggins early but was far too slow on the ball after that and struggled to create anything whilst Jackson huffed and puffed, showing the effort you’d want from every single player, but lacked quality in his passing. Church, like Church does, tried hard, but it wasn’t enough in these circumstances. There needed to be more from the senior striker with Pigott struggling alongside him but he shied away; it was easy to forget he was playing in the first half.
The defence, despite Millwall’s dominance, didn’t have much to deal with, and they dealt with it reasonably well, but Millwall’s chances game from a failure to close them down, both in the sense of long range efforts and shots from inside the box that resulted from the Lions’ midfield having the time to play the ball in. Hamer, although making a couple of good saves, struggled to distribute the ball and caused several problems with poor goal kicks. Harriott, Sordell and Stewart all did well in very short bursts but it was never going to be enough.
What do we put this down to? A bad day at the office or something that will be a regular occurrence? I hope with everything I have it’s the former, because the performances can’t get any worse than what was on display today. Hopefully the players are aware of that, and Powell too, and they can bounce back in a run of very, very tough fixtures.
If I was wearing a Charlton shirt on the pitch at full time today, the atmosphere itself would stick with me for the rest of my career. The players have something to prove to us in the coming weeks.