This might well be a new era, and a new season, for Charlton Athletic, but there was a feeling of familiarity as Bob Peeters’ recently assembled squad left the Griffin Park turf.
At times last season, the Addicks dominated games only to find themselves crippled by misfortune and a general lack of quality in front goal. You could have let them build up play again and again for days and Charlton’s forwards would still a find a new, unbelievable way to miss the target each time.
At times during Charlton’s season opener with Brentford, the Addicks dominated. It was only at times, especially with Peeters’ new look side pressed into errors and second best to the composed hosts in the first half. But Mark Warburton’s young chargers tired quickly in the second, and the visitors were able to take advantage.
They took advantage in a way Brentford couldn’t of Charlton’s sloppiness – by scoring. There had been missed chances before the 64th minute opener, but such was the accuracy of Johnnie Jackson’s penetrating corner that the impressive Igor Vetokele could do little but nod home from close range.
And when more good work from Vetokele, latching onto a misplaced back pass from Tommy Smith, produced a chance for Callum Harriott to shoot into an empty net with ten minutes to play, it was surely game over. An excellent start for a side who, in theory, needed some time to gel.
Instead, the substitute’s effort bounced back off the bar. The Addicks had been here before; such a miss was an assist for the opposition in everything but name.
And, rather ironically, the man who could have become a villain became a hero. There was an element of good fortune in Smith’s 85th minute equaliser, but few of a Brentford persuasion will care about the deflection that helped his drive beyond Stephen Henderson.
The draw was arguably a fair result; both teams had impressed in their own right at different times throughout the game. But that the Addicks were just the height of the crossbar away from guaranteeing three points left a sour taste in the mouth. Those supporters who so vigorously applauded off their players had to try to ignore that familiar feeling of a positive performance crushed by a failure in front of goal.
When put into a deeper context, that point looks like a positive one for Charlton. This was a Brentford side who had lost just six times at home over the past two season, were already a cohesive unit and could replace want-away Adam Forshaw with the equally impressive Alex Pritchard.
By contrast, this was the first competitive game for a newly constructed Charlton side, there was no place for vice-captain Michael Morrison as the questionable centre back pairing of Tal Ben Haim and Andre Bikey made their debuts and knocks to Harriott and Moussa meant Jordan Cousins took up an unfamiliar wide left position.
And in the opening stages of the game, there seemed to be only one winner. Brentford had raced out of the blocks and looked much the better side.
They were comfortable in possession, knocking the ball around nicely and building attack after attack, while they were also quick to press the visitors into an error the moment a player in black so much as breathed in the direction of the ball.
Although Brentford were making life tough for Charlton, the away side weren’t doing themselves any favours. Simple long balls over the top of the defence had Andre Gray racing past Bikey with relative ease, balls forward from the defence and goalkeeper Stephen Henderson were continuously misdirected and possession was constantly given away even when the pressure on a Charlton man was minimal.
But for all their ball retention, and Charlton’s woes, the Bees couldn’t find a cutting edge to complete their dominance. On the occasions that Stuart Dallas and Moses Odubajo did come out on top against Chris Solly and Rhoys Wiggins, Charlton’s best performers in the opening 20 minutes, their crosses were all too often directed straight at a black shirt, while efforts from Pritchard, flashing just wide, and Odubajo, tamely directed straight at Henderson, were as good as it got it terms of genuine openings.
While the possession stats suggested otherwise, the Addicks remained somewhat undeservedly on level terms.
In fact, as is often the case when one side dominates but fails to convert their pressure into a goal, it was the side under the cosh and under performing who had the best opening of the half.
With a corner cleared by the Addicks straight to the feet of Johann Berg Gudmundsson, the Icelandic international picked out the run of George Tucudean with a sensational cross field pass that fell perfectly into the striker’s path. But the Romanian, by no means a prolific scorer, took one touch too many when through on goal and could only fire his effort into the body of former Charlton stopper David Button.
There was an immediate sense of frustration, especially when it felt as if that would be one of few chances for Charlton in the game at the time, but it quickly enthused the Addicks supporters, who raised the volume and began to vocally encourage more from their side.
And that chance was the catalyst for the visitors to grow into the game. It was a slow growth, and they still looked horribly uncomfortable at the back, but there was now something of an attacking threat. Vetokele and Gudmundsson were, at the very least, driving forward and giving Brentford’s previously untroubled defence something to think about.
There was also a steady improvement in the centre of midfield, where Jackson, well below his normal standards, and Yoni Buyens, attempting to overcomplicate matters, settled down and began to do the simple stuff well. The tougher stuff, likes finishing from 20 yards, was still elusive, as Jackson shot wide with half an hour gone.
But the half ended how it had begun, with Brentford on top. Only an excellent reaction save from Henderson prevented Alan Judge’s deflected effort from giving the Bees what was arguably the lead they deserved.
But, at the very least, those brief moments of promise going forward had given Charlton fans some hope of something better in the second period.
They got it immediately. There was first the news that Odubajo had been withdrawn at half-time; a constant threat. But, more importantly, there also was now some cohesion and purpose as the Addicks attacked. Only a fine save from Button denied Vetokele after his fierce shot concluded a decent forward move.
The players now appeared to be carrying out Peeters’ instructions far more fluently, passing the ball at a greater pace and with better accuracy than they did in the first period, as well as exploiting the significant threat down the right where Solly and Gudmundsson were beginning to tick.
And the pair combined for the former AZ Alkmaar man to cross to Vetokele, who had pealed away from his marker superbly. But the Angolan’s header was kept out by a fantastic reaction save from Button and Tucudean woefully fired over on the follow up. Painfully frustrating, but promising nonetheless.
In fact, the early stages of the second half had been a complete role reversal. Brentford, possibly drained from the intensity of their earlier pressing, now looked a little off the pace and were struggling to cope with Charlton’s threat.
That’s not to say, however, that they were by any means sitting ducks waiting to be beaten. Pritchard and co. still looked lively enough when they managed to get forward, and the Tottenham loanee’s cross on the hour was perfect for Gray. Only another smart save from Henderson kept Charlton on level terms.
With both goalkeepers seemingly in no mood to give up their clean sheets, something special was going to be needed for a goal to be scored in this contest. The finish for Charlton’s goal may not have been, but the ball that produced it certainly was.
It was the moment of magic that Jackson is capable of, those moments alone more than enough to justify his place in the side. His inswinging corner deceived Button and his defenders completely, allowing Vetokele to rise and head home from as close to the goal line as you could possible imagine.
The celebrations were fierce, but there was really nothing to celebrate just yet. Given the frailties that still existed in the Charlton side, Brentford were far from out of it.
But the Bees looked a little flat. Their passing had lost its panache and there was a sense of desperation creeping in. Charlton, by comparison, continued to cause problems for Brentford’s back four, and clever link up play between Wiggins and Cousins saw the former lash an effort just over the bar.
A ball also cleared the bar at the other end as a corner was met by Tony Caig. His first time effort hit the top of the terrace behind the goal, but had the ball fallen to a more seasoned finisher, then Warburton’s side might well have drawn level.
As the game entered its final 15 minutes, the Addicks started to sit deeper and Brentford began to up their game once more. There was, however, still a lack of cutting edge; Pritchard’s cross was horribly headed over by James Tarkowski.
But then came the game changing moment; the miss that saw victory slip away from the Addicks. Vetokele and Button had collided with the ball at the same time as the pair raced towards Smith’s dire pass back, but it popped free and straight to the feet of Harriott. All he had to do was slide it into an empty goal, but instead he lifted the ball onto the bar; his desperate efforts to make amends by latching onto the rebound were stopped with ease by Marcus Tebar.
While Harriott was still pondering how he quite managed to miss his golden opportunity, Brentford wasted no time in capitalising. Judge, first of all, headed wide, but the feeling of relief in the away end soon turned to despair.
Alan McCormack’s long ball from right back picked out Smith on the left side of the box perfectly. There were some optimistic shouts for handball as the former QPR man brought the ball down, but with referee Adcock not interested, the forward blasted a shot that nicked off Ben Haim and past Henderson. Heartbreak for a hardworking Charlton, but it was no less than an equally diligent Brentford deserved.
In fact, the Bees might well have snatched all three points. Inspired by their goal, the Charlton goal was bombarded in the final few moments of the game, with Judge’s free-kick hitting the bar and Smith blasting an effort well off-target from a promising position.
The full-time whistle was met with first relief from the travelling Addicks, then the disappointment that a win couldn’t be secured before finally a positive reception for the players as they showed their appreciation to the away fans. There was even a fist pump from Peeters, clearly as happy as anyone that Charlton’s first point was on the board.
And if the positives from the performance were anything to by, Peeters will be pumping that fist many a time this season. When the Addicks finally clicked, there was a real penetrating threat to their play. They passed quickly, they caused problems out wide and delivered testing crossed and certainly didn’t look like a side that was playing their first game together.
As for individuals, Henderson’s shot stopping was superb, Solly and Wiggins were at their best while Bikey, after an awful start, grew more resolute and rarely lost a header. Jackson and Buyens also improved as the game went on, with the pair making some tasty passes, while Cousins did well enough in an unfavourable position.
But the clear stand outs were Gudmundsson and Vetokele. Gudmundsson looks a real handful out wide, the sort of winger we’ve not had since, well, ever really. He looks most dangerous when cutting inside, but he’s not afraid to take on defenders and linked up superbly with Solly. Vetokele, meanwhile, is the complete forward. Good in the air, excellent when running at a defender, capable of holding up the ball and possess a strong shot. His goal will no doubt be the first of many.
This was, however, far from a perfect performance. The defence was a shambles at times, and the sooner Morrison is back in for Ben Haim, the better. The opening 25 minutes or so was as bad as I’ve seen a Charlton side on the ball, with almost every player panicking, passes constantly wayward and first touches consistently poor. I can only hope that’s only opening game nerves, and not something that will be seen regularly.
At the other end, Tucudean was weak, failed to hold up the ball and dire in front of goal; another forward is needed desperately. The finishing in general was a little frustrating, that’s clearly something that will have to be addressed.
There are also questions to be asked about Henderson’s distribution, which all to often went nowhere near a red shirt.
The Addicks will come up against better sides, too. Although Brentford are an impressive side, their performance and fight was commendable today, Wigan’s visit to The Valley on Saturday will be a huge test for the Addicks. The Latics will surely take advantage should Charlton start poorly again, and a stronger defence will ask more of those forward players who shone at Griffin Park.
Regardless, there’s enough about this side to leave you a little excited. Let’s just hope that isn’t false hope, again destroyed by a failure in front of goal.