For supporters of Charlton Athletic, the previous seven days have been littered with dejection, confusion and hurt. A trip to Wembley taken away, the departure of manager Chris Powell and the worry that Roland Duchatelet’s master plan isn’t quite as masterful as many had hoped has left a large number of Addicks lacking the motivation to worry about on the pitch matters.
In fact, some were struggling to feel any sense of anticipation for a monumentally important South East London Derby at The Den. On this very rare occasion, the prize of local bragging rights took a back seat to the fight for Championship survival, and both Millwall’s and, more explicitly, Charlton’s future.
However, a lift came the way of the Addicks as this terrible working week drew towards its conclusion on Friday. The fret and fear that their inspirational skipper would be following their legendary leader and talismanic forward out of The Valley exit door was quelled with the announcement that Johnnie Jackson had signed a new two-year-deal with the club.
No matter what direction the club took, both on and off the pitch, a man who embodies the fans’ passion and love for Charlton Athletic in his determined performances would remain. In a time of uncertainty and heartbreak, a constant that you could put heartfelt support into remained.
Whatever you felt about the club’s owner, coach and all other off the field matters, not a single Addick could shun their club whilst Jackson remained. The simplest of ways to motivate yourself to back the players, as you would do if they were led by Powell, in their battle to keep Charlton in England’s second tier.
The nerves were there; another defeat at the hands of The Lions would be an injustice to Jackson’s record as captain and another blow too hard to take in this gruelling period of time. A relegation, even more so.
And before kick-off, the anticipation was flowing. Visions of a captain’s performance were imagined as the skipper applauded Charlton’s vocal away following. Hope that the side that now must be called Jose Riga’s could impress, find something in the final third and come away from The Den with a victory for the first time since 1995 was very much there.
But, like no other, this week has proven to Addicks that it really is the hope that kills you. Hope for a day out at Wembley, hope for Powell’s future and Duchatelet’s plans and hope of ending the Millwall hoodoo all crushed.
In a game that seemed to be nothing more than a showcase of two sides heading in a direction they didn’t wish to be, neither could dig deep enough, had the quality or a serious attacking threat. Not even Johnnie Jackson could make a difference.
There were occasional moments for both the hosts and their visitors in which you felt they had some momentum, but a neutral would have turned away in disgust with the lack of excitement and class on show.
It’s a good job you don’t get neutrals at these derbies then. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t a performance that will make an FA how to play DVD and it wasn’t exciting, but it’s a point that lifts the Addicks off the foot of the table and to within three points of safety with four games in hand.
After a difficult week, the result is probably just about worth a subtle fist pump; it’s certainly a better point for Riga’s men than it is for Ian Holloway’s.
It’s just a shame that a sloppy display, the continuing lack of a goal (now four scoreless games in a row) and increasingly tough looking fixture list can’t really be ignored.
Also not to be ignored was a name or two on either side’s team sheet as a shock selection was made the silver haired Belgian and the shiny headed Bristolian.
For Charlton, Bradley Pritchard made his first start for the Reds since his nightmare night in the 2-2 draw with Oxford United, replacing Reza Ghoochannejhad in their only change from the 0-0 with Huddersfield Town in midweek. A mixture of cautious optimism and angry, abusive worry was the reaction from the Addicks at The Den; the chairman of the Bradley Pritchard Appreciation Society kept quiet and made sure the ‘Pritchard 14″ on the back of his shirt was covered.
By contrast, pure delight would have been expressed by the Millwall fans as in form forward Steve Morison was included in the starting XI, despite reports suggesting an injury would keep him out of the crucial contest. There was also a league debut for Fred Onyedinma; a baptism of fire for the Lions academy graduate.
The announcement of both XIs looked like being the most exciting event of the afternoon early on, as both sides struggled to get going and maintain possession, let alone make a meaningful impression in and around the opposition’s box.
But when the game’s first chance fell to Onyedinma, the deadlock might have unexpectedly been broken. The youngster’s header, from a Simeon Jackson cross, had the Millwall fans anticipating celebration, but the ball bounced wide of Ben Hamer’s post by the narrowest of margins.
Whilst Onyedinma was cursing his luck, Ed Upson wanted the ground to swallow him up after blasting an effort into the second tier of The Den’s away end. A sign of the quality of finishing that would be on show throughout the afternoon.
Another sign of the poor quality on show was some dreadful decision making from the attacking players on both sides.
A Millwall free-kick was cleared into the path of Callum Harriott, who had a run on goal despite being inside his own half. The young winger travelled at pace down the right before cutting inside and unleashing a tame shot that was comfortably saved by David Forde. If only Harriott had looked up, he would have seen both Marvin Sordell and Pritchard unmarked in a central position; a simple pass might well have put the Addicks ahead.
Harriott’s next involvement in the game was to attempt to send a volley goalwards following a half cleared corner. Those sat in the seats nearest the far right of the Cold Blow Lane end were the only ones troubled by the wild effort.
Simeon Jackson, a man who might well have been lining up for the Addicks in this fixture, forced the first save out of Hamer when Charlton’s back line allowed the Canadian to travel unopposed, whilst Sordell, wasting a free-kick in a promising position, and Shaun Williams exchanged wild attempts from range, but the game still lacked any sort of flow 25 minutes into it.
The Addicks were somewhat struggling, making unforced errors at the back, misplacing passes when going forward and rarely winning aerial duels in attacking positions. Even on the odd occasion Astrit Ajdaveric flicked on a ball pumped forward, Sordell wasn’t able to respond.
Millwall were marginally the better side, helped by the fact their forwards were a threat in the air, but, like their opponents, there was no sense they might be about to take the lead.
Even when one of the sides got themselves into a good position, execution was lacking. Harriott again broke forward, now permanently down the right after switching wings with the less than impressive Pritchard, but saw his shot blocked by Shane Lowry. He probably should have done better, and the same could be said for Johnnie Jackson, who could only direct his header straight at Forde after Pritchard flicked on from the resulting corner.
The same went for Millwall as the lively Onyedinma, impressing on debut, and Morison, making a handful of himself, both fired wide by the narrowest of margins. There was certainly plenty of huff and puff from the rivals, but it wasn’t making up for a lack of composure in front of goal.
With the half coming to a close, a vicious shot from Upson forced Hamer into action, and Charlton’s number one had his fans hearts in their mouths as the ball spun backwards off his palms and landed fractionally the other side of his post. The resulting corner caused something of a scramble, but Poyet’s superb block prevented Morison from testing Hamer.
Neither side could be particularly happy with their first half display, but Charlton in particular needed to vastly improve if they were to come away with three points.
That hope was dealt a blow as Ajdaveric was forced off at half-time, replaced by Jordan Cousins; the threat from the away side in the air becoming even weaker.
But the visitors started well enough, and a superb delivery from Rhoys Wiggins had Harriott stretching at the far post. The winger could only divert the ball wide, but a testing final ball from a Charlton player was promising to see.
The introduction of Stefan Maierhofer only increased Millwall’s threat in the air, and the debutant’s ability to turn hopeful long balls into something more promising was reminiscent of a Frenchman who used to don the Charlton red.
His immediate impact on the game was huge, if only for a short period. It took Charlton’s back-four a sometime to get to grips with the big Austrian, and there was genuine fear amongst the Addicks in the away end as he bossed Michael Morrison and Dorian Dervite. His hold up play teed up Owen Garvan, who fired wide, and Maierhofer carved out an effort for himself, but Hamer was equal to his strike from distance.
But Millwall’s best chance of the opening minutes of the half came through more excellent work from Onyedinma. The 17-year-old broke free down the left, before waltzing past Lawrie Wilson and gliding into the box. He had the time to pick out a number of dark blue shirts inside the box, but, with Charlton fans preparing themselves to hear The Den’s roar, Dervite came across to intercept and clear.
As the half went on, there was certainly a marked improvement in the quality of the game and Charlton’s performance, with the defensive errors few and far between, Poyet and Cousins knocking the ball around nicely in midfield and Pritchard recovering from a dire first half showing to have more of a meaningful impact as the Addicks went forward.
But, when the forward moves looked as if they would result in a chance for Charlton, poor execution and decision making remained.
Johnnie Jackson’s over hit through ball to Sordell was followed by a reluctance from Pritchard to commit himself to a long ball and get a shot way, whilst a Dervite free-kick was blocked as soon as it left his foot, and Pritchard again frustrated his supporters as he chipped a ball from the edge of the box beyond a red shirt with better, and simpler, options on.
Riga turned to Ghoochannejhad in the hope of breaking the deadlock, with the Iranian replacing the hardworking if ineffective Sordell, and a chance fell to him almost immediately.
Good work from Pritchard after he won the ball back as Millwall attempted to break away from their own half saw the Zimbabwean tee up Ghoochannejhad, but, in an excellent position, the substitute was denied his first Charlton goal by an excellent block. With 20 minutes to go, the bookies must have already paid out on a 0-0.
It was then the turn of another substitute to come close, and only Maierhofer will know how he failed to convert his free header from close range following a corner. A huge left off for the Addicks, but such was the standard of finishing in this contest, it was of no surprise.
It would not be the last time Charlton fans would be thanking a higher power before the 90 minutes were up as a cross from Ryan Fredricks caused chaos in the box. Thankfully, Lawrie Wilson managed to clear; a clearance celebrated almost as if it were a goal by those in the away end.
With the game entering stoppage time, the Addicks had Hamer to thank after the stopper tipped Garvan’s free-kick wide and then dealt with a number of corners in the closing stage with a cool head.
Three minutes of additional time produced no goal, but neither would have 30. Both sides showed bits and pieces throughout the game to make you think the might be able to win, but neither showed enough in front of goal.
The less than polished performance was first of all met by boos from the Charlton fans, but the players received a warm reception when they came over as a group to applaud the away supporters. It was deserved; a lack of quality and not a lack of effort had prevented the Addicks from taking three points.
And amongst the moans and groans at full-time were the occasional Addicks who thought the point was a good one for Charlton. A better point for the away side than it was for the hosts, most definitely, but that doesn’t mask the poor performance.
After a shaky start, Riga’s men were defensively sound for much of the game; the goals against column next to Charlton’s name in the Championship table looks reasonably okay for a reason. But the goals for column is less so; owing to a lack of creativity and inability to finish that was on show today. There was no spark going forward, and no belief a goal would be scored.
In Pritchard, Harriott and Sordell, the Addicks lined up with a striker and two wingers who do have ability, but seem to fall to pieces in and around the box. You really were left tearing your hair out as openings went to waste after a ridiculous pass or unnecessary shot was made.
It’s no surprise though. We have competed all season; we are where we are because we can’t find a way to put the ball into the back of the net.
Confidence is definitely lacking, and Riga’s task to get his players firing is a tough one. With no noticeable difference to the way the side play, the decision to remove Powell is becoming increasingly bizarre. I’d trust him to get us firing again, but can Riga really instill the belief needed in his players? We can only hope so.
Thankfully for the Addicks, Millwall weren’t much better. Morison, Jackson and Mairhofer certainly provided something of a presence in attacking positions, but they too lacked an ability to finish and, for such experienced players, were a little off in their decision making.
In fact, the best two players on the pitch were the youngest. Poyet added another mature display to his collection, dominating the centre of midfield with Jackson having an out of character quiet game, whilst much of what Millwall did well came through Onyedinma. If either side is to stay up, you can bet a teenager will have played a vital part in it.
But it’s unlikely that either of the pair will solve their struggles in front of goal. When will the Addicks next score? After the misses and wasted chances of the previous three outings, it’s hard to predict.
With a tough run of fixtures about to get underway, beginning with Bournemouth at home on Tuesday, an answer to Charlton’s attacking issues needs to be found quickly.
Tuesday will also see the return of a man to The Valley who might well have made a difference today.