As Marvin Sordell fired in his third goal at Hillsborough five days ago, there was jubilation and relief amongst the celebrating Charlton supporters. Jubilation that a 2-0 deficit had been overturned and Championship survival looked to be a formality; relief that this painful season, in some regards more painful than previous campaigns that ended in relegation, had a silver lining.
And as Sordell stepped up to take a penalty, one he had won himself, with the Addicks a goal down against Blackburn Rovers, hope filled The Valley; hope not only that the confidence-filled forward would convert, but that an equaliser would all but mathematically secure Charlton’s Championship status.
These moments of hope have occurred on numerous occasions this season; openings and glorious opportunities to score at crucial times during games. In fact, huge wins at crucial moments in the season have continuously given Charlton fans hope that their side is turning a corner. All too often, that hope has vanished quickly and been replaced by yet more suffering.
The hope this time was crushed with Sordell’s tame penalty blocked by the body of former England ‘keeper Paul Robinson. The Addicks had matched their play-off chasing opponents for 26 minutes, battled well for the 14 minutes between Rudy Gustede’s headed goal and Sordell’s penalty miss, but looked disjointed, void of ideas and beaten for the remaining 50.
Nonetheless, even after Rovers had doubled their lead through Michael Keane’s header, hope returned. Sordell made up for his penalty miss with a superb finish to get Charlton back into the game and get The Valley crowd back onside.
But, once again, that hope was meaningless. Blackburn’s third, tapped in by Tom Cairney after Johnnie Jackson blocked Jordan Rhodes’ effort on the line, ended the game once and for all with just over 25 minutes to play.
In this hellish season, one that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, safety was never going to be secured in a simple manner. All that can be done is hope, but the mistake laden and lacklustre effort as Blackburn strolled to their victory in the final period of the game suggested our punishment may last a little longer than had been hoped when Sordell was hauled down inside the box. It is, after all, the hope that kills you.
There was hope before kick-off that, despite the calibre of opposition Charlton faced, the incredible comeback victory over Sheffield Wednesday could be built upon, especially with the XI that performed so impressively for the majority of the second half picked to start by Jose Riga.
That meant there was no place for Simon Church, with the hardworking forward dropped to the bench in place of the rather more technically gifted Astrit Ajdarevic. The Swede, although occupying the right side of midfield at Hillsborough, was deployed just behind Sordell with Riga opting for a 4-4-1-1 formation.
For the visitors, their forward duo leaped out of the teamsheet with the same force the pair leap for balls in the air. Gustede, scorer of a hat-trick on Easter Monday, partnered Jordan Rhodes, but Michael Morrison and Dorian Dervite kept them at bay with relative ease in the opening minutes.
In fact, you could argue it was the Addicks who looked more of a threat going forward in the game’s infancy. As ever, there wasn’t a final ball in sight, but Charlton looked composed on the ball and, through Ajdarevic and Harriott, there was at least some spark to the home side’s play.
The home supporters responded to the bright start, encouraging rather than criticising after the occasional misplaced pass, and they had reason be excited with 11 minutes played as they were treated to the wonderful sight of a killer pass. Diego Poyet’s superb ball picked out Harriott but, on Academy Day, the winger couldn’t convert from his fellow academy graduate’s pass with his route to goal blocked.
Harriott, receiving the ball from Cousins after the youngster was hauled down by Grant Hanley, looked to be in on goal once again moments later, but his shot was blocked and looped up into the arms of Robinson.
However, referee Naylor was wise enough to bring play back and award the Addicks a free-kick in a promising position. But Ajdarevic wasn’t wise enough to make use of the situation with the ball fired against the wall.
Despite those final third frustrations, this was still a positive start from Riga’s side, not least at the back, with Charlton’s defence looking much more disciplined than in the opening stages at Hillsborough. Dorian Dervite, who kept the Addicks in the game on Monday, was again on hand to deny the opposition, superbly diverting Craig Conway’s cross away from Rhodes.
But Rhodes got away from Charlton’s back four in Blackburn’s next attack, with a simple ball over the top finding its way through to the prolific forward. Appeals for offside proved fruitless, with Morgan Fox playing the Scot on, and it appeared as if the Addicks would be punished for their first defensive laps. However, Ben Hamer, charging off his line, just about managed to get to the ball before Rhodes did, palming the ball back against his head before it trickled behind for a goal-kick.
Whilst Rhodes received treatment having taken a blow in the face from Hamer’s hand, the Addicks were given the chance to regroup following Blackburn’s first few meaningful forward moves. The break in play probably came at just the right time for Charlton, but it mattered little, as the visitors had the lead barely a minute after the restart.
As has been the case so often this season, the first goal conceded against strong opposition was easily avoidable. Harriott, in plenty of space whilst breaking away, attempted to pick out Sordell, but the winger’s pass was slightly away from the Bolton loanee and Hanley was able to intercept, allowing Blackburn to break back.
The manner in which an opportunity to cross fell to Joshua King should take nothing away from his delivery, nor should it take anything away from Gestede’s towering header, which couldn’t be clawed away from goal by the desperate dive of Hamer. Blackburn had men on the wings who could cross and players in the middle who could win a header; Charlton did not. The difference in quality between the two sides was obvious.
Whilst the goal left The Valley flat, bar the 900 or so noisy and scarf waving Lancastrians, the players didn’t appear totally shot of confidence as they have done when falling behind against top half opposition in recent weeks. Ajdarevic’s audacious bicycle-kick was not the attempt of a player lacking in self-belief, but the effort was, in truth, comfortably wide.
Whilst Charlton certainly weren’t out of it, they were far from helping themselves. Again, Harriott, in attempting to break, gave away possession, giving King a clear run on goal. With home supporters around the ground fearing the worst, the former Manchester United trainee fired wide; a huge let off for the Addicks.
And that miss should have proved costly for the away side as the hosts earned themselves a penalty five minutes later.
Ajdarevic’s superb lofted pass picked out Sordell, who knocked the ball to his right just inside the box and shaped shoot. But the shot didn’t materialise, as the forward was brought crashing to the ground by the outstretched leg of Hanley; not awarding the Addicks their second penalty of the season would have been a travesty.
But, with the man who took, and scored, Charlton’s only other penalty this season otherwise occupied, a new taker was needed. It seemed obvious for Jackson to reclaim spot-kick duties, but hat-trick hero Sordell stepped up to take.
Nonetheless, Sordell was full of confidence and he seemed like a safe bet to convert. However, his effort lacked conviction, and Robinson, despite diving to his right, was able to block the straight down the middle effort with his body.
Sordell picked himself up to create an opening for himself that was blocked wide just before the break, but this was yet another half of football that summed up Charlton’s season. The opposition were handed the chance to score and finished; Charlton were handed the chance to score and couldn’t. The clinical finishing at Hillsborough was surely a dream.
With Blackburn ending the first half on top after Sordell’s penalty miss, a confidence zapped Charlton needed to get themselves back into the game as quickly as possibly at the start of the second.
But there was a disjoined nature to the Addicks; they struggled to pass anywhere but backwards and were seemingly void of ideas, summed up by Harriott’s gesticulation that he had no options available to him when on the ball.
Blackburn quickly took advantage, with Conway firing a warning shot, comfortable saved by Hamer, but it took just six first half minutes for the away side to double their lead.
It was oh so simple; another teasing delivery, this time from Conway’s free-kick, and another excellent header, with Keane there to meet it, had surely won the game for Gary Bowyer’s side.
With the Addicks shambolic, and as Tom Cairney fired wide, there was a real danger this could turn into a self-belief destroying, goal-difference harming hammering. But, with home fans despondent, a lift came their way unexpectedly.
Fox’s quickly taken throw found its way to Sordell, and the forward twisted and turned before firing a stunning strike beyond Robinson from the edge of the area. It didn’t quite make amends for the penalty miss, but Sordell was no longer the villain and The Valley was lifted.
With 35 minutes still to play, there was certainly time for the Addicks to get an equaliser, and Harriott came close in Charlton’s next attack, firing just wide. But that was the young winger’s last impact on the game, replaced immediately by Reza Ghoochannejhad.
He went up top alongside Sordell, who, lifted by his goal, was putting a real shift in. The Bolton loanee has often been accused of looking uninterested, but that was far from the case as he chased down a lost cause and almost created a chance for himself.
If only that sort of selfless work could have been emulated by Ghoochannejhad, who enraged The Valley crowd by failing to offload whist options were available to him before attempting a pathetic dive as his gave away possession.
With Blackburn still a real threat, that rage turned to despair as the visitors regained their two goal lead with 64 minutes played.
There was far too much space for Rovers at they broke forward, and no one was catching King as he drove down the left hand side. His cut back was met by Rhodes, and there appeared to be a reprieve for the Addicks as Jackson denied the Scot on the line, but Cariney was there to convert the rebound.
There was now a feeling of resignation amongst the home supporters, which was only extended as Sordell fired over the bar and their side continued to be carved apart down the other end. In fact, a repeat of the ‘Operation Ewood’ scoreline was on the cards as Gestede’s header cannoned back off the post following a corner.
Fox’s speculative effort brought a moment of relief for the frustrated Addicks, with the academy graduates strike leaving Robinson at sixes and sevens, but the frustration returned with no Charlton player alive to what would have been the opportunity to tap in the rebound.
Ajdarevic was withdrawn with 20 minutes to play, arguably the player most likely to create a chance for the Addicks, and replaced by Church, leading to more frustration, but at least he wasn’t on the pitch to volunteer to take a free-kick in a promising position four minutes later. Jackson’s effort was certainly executed better, but there was no finish at the end of it, with the ball sailing over the bar.
Charlton’s shot count was increasing in the final passage of the game, but those season-long problems in front of goal remained. Church somehow failed to divert Sordell’s effort from a tight angle past Robinson and the ever lively Bolton loanne couldn’t quite turn his shot goalwards after breaking through down the left, but the goal to make the final few moments interesting wouldn’t materialise.
In fact, only poor finishing from substitute Liam Feeney, firing wide when through on goal, and an outstanding stop from Hamer in the second minute of four added on to deny another Gestede header prevented Blackburn from adding to their margin of victory.
There was a muted response as the final whistle, and some appreciation for the players who had put up at least some sort of fight against an opposition of a much higher quality.
And Blackburn deserve plenty of praise for their performance. There was a sense something would happen each time they attacked, with wingers Conway and King a constant threat and Gestede dominating in the air more and more as the game went on. Rovers were also solid at the back for the best part of the game, and with the players they have at their disposal, you could almost accuse them of underachieving.
Nonetheless, as has been the case in the defeats against those sides in and around the top six under Riga, Blackburn’s job was made easier by a lacklustre performance from the Addicks.
Of course, there could have been a different outcome had Sordell converted his penalty, but the response from the moment onwards was disappointing to say the least.
The midfield was non-existent as Blackburn mounted attack after attack. I can’t work out why the three man central midfield pairing of Jackson, Poyet and Cousins has been broken up; the trio have been superb together and I’d certainly want them back together for the remaining two game, if not to keep Cousins off the right wing. It’s frustrating to see Cousins struggle there, especially when Lawrie Wilson is sat on the bench.
Riga’s decision not to start Wilson is as frustrating as his subs and tactical tweaks, which killed the game for the Addicks. Taking off the lively Harriott, although error prone in the first half, and Ajdarevic whilst completely destroying the shape was, as ever, frustrating.
However, Wilson might be starting at full-back after Chris Solly and Fox also struggled desperately, with their wingers giving them a troublesome afternoon. With Solly so error prone, it would appear he’s been rushed back too quickly, whilst Fox, although looking a little drained having played three 90 minutes in eight days, looked somewhat out of his depth against the experienced Conway.
And, on Academy day, as wonderful as it is to see so many academy graduates in the first team, it’s half the problem. The side lacks experience in these crucial moments, and we shouldn’t be totally reliant upon them. The non-academy graduates who game off the bench, Ghoochannejhad and Petrucci in particular, don’t fill me with munch confidence either. That there’s been a failure to invest, star players have been sold (especially that one who can take penalties) and they’ve been replaced with dross really shows on days like today.
Ironically, despite his costly penalty miss, it was Sordell, one of the more experienced players with well over 100 career appearances, who stood out above the rest in red. Hopefully his goal and his hard working performance will heal the damage in confidence caused by his penalty miss. It seems almost mad to say this, but if the Addicks are to survive without praying for other results, an in-form Sordell will be central to that.
Results elsewhere today certainly could have been better, but they could have been a lot worse. Defeats for Birmingham and Doncaster leaves them in pole position to take the final relegation spot with Barnsley and Yeovil’s relegation confirmed.
It’s going to be nervy, and today’s performance hardly instils the belief that we’ll make ourselves safe with minimal fuss, but we’re still in a position where safety looks more likely than relegation. There’s every chance we could survive without picking up another point.
Who knows, we might even sneak a win against Watford on Tuesday and make ourselves safe, avoiding a stressful final day. I shall live in hope.