Dreadful, dejected and down to ten. A Charlton side who had offered no uplifting moments to a flat Valley crowd trudged down the tunnel at half-time, seemingly facing the embarrassment of becoming the victims of Cardiff’s second away win of the season.
For this was not only another desperately poor first half performance from the Addicks, one where the ability of players and manager were questioned, but one that lacked any sort of fight or effort.
Heads dropped the moment Aaron Gunnarsson’s long throw was eventually turned in by Tom Adeyemi to give the Bluebirds a 12th minute lead; heads lost when Callum Harriott went in studs up on Craig Noone towards the end of the half and sent off accordingly. Johnnie Jackson’s rallying calls failing to inspire and compose.
But, hindered more by incompetent refereeing than they were Cardiff’s defensive efforts, the second half wasn’t as disastrous as many feared it would be. In fact, after a slow start, Charlton began to realise that the visitors were there for the taking. The confidence that had been lacking suddenly returned, some punch was added to the attacking play and Bob Peeters’ rejuvenated and reshaped ten-man side showed some fight on Boxing Day.
The Valley crowd responded, acting as the eleventh man, but the equaliser still wouldn’t come. Hesitation, poor finishing and an inspired David Marshall meant the attacking moves Referee Russell didn’t bizarrely halt with his often illogical decisions weren’t finished off.
So, given what had gone before, the goal that did draw Charlton level was fitting.
Johann Berg Gudmundsson looked downbeat as he struggled to pick out a pass for the first hour of the afternoon, lacking the confidence to provide the magic he so often does.
But there was a response after the break. He fought hard and his confidence grew; the Iceland international’s ability started to reappear.
It meant Gudmundsson had the self-belief not to hesitate when he was given space to shoot from 30 yards with two minutes to play. The effort deadly accurate and viciously struck. Marshall not in sight as the ball crashed into the back of the net. Carnage followed. In afternoon in which everything went against the Addicks, their fight was finally rewarded.
Not quite the sort of fight shown the last time Cardiff came to The Valley, and there was a feeling of frustration that the game wasn’t won with Igor Vetokele wasting a glorious chance to prevent a 13th draw of the season. But, unlike some of those other drawn games, there was enough determination to feel pride in Charlton’s efforts.
And while a point, just Cardiff’s fifth away from home all season, isn’t ideal, most Addicks would have taken it when the teamsheet was first seen.
Vetokele, evidently struggling for form and fitness in recent weeks, was dropped to the bench, with George Tucudean and Harriott starting up top. If not a toothless attack, then a gumless one, too.
There was also a debut for Neil Etheridge, replacing Nick Pope in goal, while another victim of the shambolic display at Ewood Park last weekend, Morgan Fox, was replaced by the fit again Jackson.
At the very least, the return of Jackson offered hope. With the spirit and fight of the side questioned after recent performances, the skipper’s influence would surely result in constant effort from his men.
But even if there was a desire to improve a run of just one win in nine, individual mistakes meant the Addicks were making things very hard for themselves. A physical and direct Cardiff almost finding their way through on two occasions early on as Yoni Buyens and Gudmundsson cheaply gave possession away.
And, in a scrappy opening played out in front of an unusually quiet Covered End, cheap is also the best way to describe the goal that gave Cardiff a 12th minute lead.
Charlton’s defence had already been exposed to a Gunnarsson long throw before, so there was really no excuse for how they attempted to deal with it. Chris Solly was never going to win an aerial duel with Kenywne Jones, and the giant forward knocked the ball on perfectly for an unmarked Adeyemi. His header superbly looped over a motionless Etheridge.
A silent Valley had now turned to one full of moans and groans, which only increased as the Addicks failed to deal with yet another long throw. Adeyemi firing over on this occasion, but it didn’t stop home supporters thinking they might have been better off staying at home with their families.
Such thoughts only increased each time Charlton attempted to mount an attack. Tucudean throwing himself around but having absolutely no luck, Harriott running into dead-ends while only Jackson in midfield was making the accurate and simple passes the situation needed.
Even when a player in red had a clear sight of goal, Tal Ben Haim instead opted for an overhit pass beyond the run of Tucudean. A centre-back, of course, but the lack of self-belief evident.
And when it wasn’t their side’s lack of organisation and inability to find a way forward frustrating Charlton fans, it was referee Russell’s decision making. A handball given against Tucudean after the ball had smashed him square in the face drew disbelieving laughs from the Covered End.
But the only complaints about Russell’s next decision came from those without a decent view of the incident, or those unwilling to take the dismissal calmly.
A mix of his eagerness to impress and a questionable footballing brain often frustrates Addicks, and that frustration may have reached its peak here. Somewhat stupidly, Harriott went to in a challenge with Noone for a loose ball with his studs showing, catching the Cardiff winger as he did.
There was no real malice and no intent, but such a challenge is always going to result in a sending off. Russell wasting no time in producing his red card and making a disjointed Charlton’s task even harder. With just less than an hour still to play, it felt like game over.
A Tucudean volley, Charlton’s first effort on goal and comfortably parried away by Marshall, offered little hope of a revival, while Jones’ header not long before the break forced Etheridge into action and reminded the Addicks Cardiff remained a serious threat in the air. Throw in some not very well disguised time wasting from the Bluebirds, ignored by Russell, and this was incredibly gruesome viewing.
And the boos that met the half-time whistle may well have been for Russell, but Charlton’s performance deserved at least some of them. Effort, energy and excellence all lacking. Peeters not only needing to change the way his side was playing, but also inject life into a group of players seemingly downbeat and heading for defeat.
With the cries for changes ignored, the same XI returned to the field after the break, offering a very similar level of performance. Just about stopping Cardiff’s barrage of long balls, and failing to keep possession long enough to mount a serious attack.
In fact, with Charlton supporters growing increasingly restless, it was Cardiff who had the half’s first chance. Gunnarsson, trying his luck from distance after a corner was only half-cleared, forcing Etheridge into a decent save
But from the clearance that followed, the pace of the game changed. That Buyens was able to collect a wayward Tucudean header, before feeding Gudmundsson to shoot straight at Marshall, may not have directly drawn Charlton level, but it showed the weakness in Cardiff’s back four. If the Addicks were brave enough to attack, they would be rewarded.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Almost immediately, this tired, desperate and flat side turned into something resembling the one that played some outstanding attack football at the start of the season. It was by no means perfect, but there was a greater composure, a greater desire to pass the ball forward at pace and an overall greater threat about the Addicks.
With Tucudean turning a corner against the near post and Gudmundsson finding space before blasting over, Peeters sensed blood. Oguchi Oneywu and Vetokele on; Joe Gomez and Jackson off. A 3-4-2 formation that allowed for constant attacking in numbers.
And those changes were made even more brave by the fact Jackson had just about been holding the side together throughout the game. Had Jones got a proper connection with Gunnarsson’s cross just a minute after the skipper had left the pitch, Peeters’ gamble wouldn’t have come off.
Alas, with Jones wasting the opportunity to double Cardiff’s lead, the Addicks took control. And they might well have been completely in control had Russell been as brave as Peeters.
Tucudean, at the heart of everything Charlton were doing right in the second period, was played through on goal and a touch away from being in a glorious shooting position. However, Sean Morrison, denying what was arguably an obvious goalscoring opportunity as he did so, opted to haul the Romanian back.
Much to the displeasure of three sides of The Valley, Morrison escaped with a yellow card, before Marshall escaped with his cleansheet intact. Gudmundsson’s strike bent around the wall but only came back far enough to hit the post.
But for all the dominance, and the Covered End finally creating an atmosphere that inspired, there was a growing feeling this wasn’t going to be Charlton’s day. Everything going for them as they approached Cardiff’s box, but the gods against them once inside.
Supporters still positive following Marshall’s superb save to keep out Gudmundsson’s drive across the face of goal and Brayford’s off-the-line clearance to prevent Tucudean from scoring a rather cheeky back heel, but less so once rather desperate blocks kept out Gudmundsson and Vetokele in quick succession and a hand from a Cardiff defender seemed to beat away another effort from Tucudean.
The Romanian falling to the floor agony as his appeals were waved away summed it up. This was excellent from Charlton, so much so that you had to keep reminding yourself there were only ten Addicks on the pitch and not twenty, but that there was no reward made it unbearably frustrating. Time running out for Peeters’ side to get the reward their turnaround in performance deserved.
So with Charlton struggling to get the run of things in the box, Gudmundsson opted to bypass it altogether. A simply audacious strike, goalbound from the moment his left foot made contact with the ball, sent The Valley into frenzied celebrations. There were probably a few ‘up yours’ for the time wasting Cardiff side and Russell, but this was a pure magic moment created by a piece of genius.
And once the dust had settled, there was a rallying cry from the Covered End for more. Such was the fragile nature of Cardiff’s back line and Charlton’s momentum, the Addicks could have realistically set out to snatch a late winner in four minutes of stoppage time.
Instead, much of that time was spent defending long throws. Cardiff still a danger from their only real attacking threat; the point net yet safe while the Covered End dreamt for three.
But with seconds remaining, Charlton were able to break. Buyens winning the ball in midfield, finding Gudmundsson before dummying superbly to allow Vetokele to collect the ball and race through on goal.
With no Cardiff defender in sight, Vetokele had all the time in the word to finish coolly. Vetokele, Charlton’s top goalscorer and the only man you’d want to have such a chance. Vetokele, the man who blasted over and blew Charlton’s chance to win. Heart-breaking.
And no one was more heartbroken than the Angolan. Sinking to the floor as his supporters buried their heads and in their hands, every Addick knew a win should have just been snatched.
But the reception that followed at full-time belonged to a side that had indeed taken all three points. The fight, effort and forward intent shown in the second-half appreciated and then some.
And for a side low on confidence to fight so hard and give everything they had was fantastic to see. A blood and guts performance in terms of the attitude, but a lot more classier than that when the Addicks got the ball done and started to play.
Just as important was the way in which Peeters changed his side up and demanded that it pushed forward. As we have seen on a handful of occasions this season, this Charlton side is more than capable of dominating games and making the opposition sweat. It’s incredibly frustrating that it’s not done on a consistent basis, so hopefully this acts as a reminder to Peeters and his players that they have it within them to play attractive attacking football.
So too is it frustrating that certain players can’t perform on a regular basis, but such frustration is probably worth it for when they do. Buyens at his best in the game’s closing stages, Gudmundsson able to provide a moment of magic and Tucudean’s hold-up and link-up play a part of his best performance in a Charlton shit.
Of course, it’s disappointing that such attacking intent did result in the victory it might well have done, and the Addicks have really only got themselves to blame for that. The first half performance was utterly dreadful, and a failure to perform for ninety minutes has cost us several times this season. A 13th frustrating draw; the second half performance does not completely mask that this was a game Charlton really could have done with a win from.
But, having not been able to predict where that next win was coming from following the Blackburn defeat, there is now hope. Hope that his side will continue to fight, put in determined performances and take the game to the opposition with the attacking potential it so clearly has.
Just the first two will be enough at Portman Road on Tuesday, but beyond on that, the second half performance needs to become a constant and that horrible stat of one win in ten, which is likely to become one win in eleven, needs to be put to bed.