While one sort of spark returned to The Valley midway through the first half, another somehow managed to decrease further. The floodlights, failing while Charlton trailed Blackburn by a goal, may have come back to life, but the hosts ended in the game in a state of lifelessness.
In fact, it would have been a much more enjoyable afternoon for supporters of the Addicks if the power cut that knocked out the floodlights had been permanent. Having to witness what followed was both a chore and a worrying sign that an FA Cup exit won’t be the last thing that leaves Charlton supporters in a state of misery before May.
For even the one encouraging moment, Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s stunning 55th minute free-kick cancelling out Chris Taylor’s early header, quickly proved meaningless. Woeful and ill-disciplined defending allowed Taylor to score his and Blackburn’s second just four minutes later.
But if the defeat and subsequent cup exit was disappointing, confirmed when Rovers began a passing exercise following Yoni Buyens dismissal for a second yellow 18 minutes from time, the performance was disheartening.
It wasn’t just a case of players underperforming, but players playing without confidence, self-belief and effort. It wasn’t just poor defending, but the entire backline was headless, ill-disciplined and unstructured. It wasn’t just a lack of cutting edge in the final third, but a completely toothless performance lacking any sort of creativity, composure and threat.
With the lights now out on Charlton’s FA Cup campaign, drastic improvement in managerial decisions, performances of players and the size and quality of the playing staff is needed in the next month to stop this season descending into nothingness, if not darkness.
The most pressing issue for the Addicks remains their lack of confidence, but this seemed like a perfect opportunity to begin to restore it. Without Rudy Gestede and Jordan Rhodes, Blackburn seemingly lacked the firepower that had decimated Charlton at Ewood Park.
And while Charlton themselves were without key men Chris Solly and Igor Vetokele, it offered a chance for players desperate to impress Bob Peeters to inject some energy into a low on confidence side.
Lawrie Wilson and Simon Church, making his first start under Peeters, both came into the starting XI, while Morgan Fox replaced Joe Gomez from the side that lost to Ipswich as the Addicks reverted back to a 4-4-2.
It looked to have worked a charm early on as Johnnie Jackson’s superb defence-splitting ball sent Church through on goal, but the forward’s touch was as disappointing as how Charlton performed thereafter.
In fact, it took just four minutes for Blackburn to take advantage of the woeful defence in front of them and take the lead. Craig Conway was given to space to cross by Wilson, and an unmarked Taylor was allowed to leap in front of a static Tal Ben Haim and head beyond Neil Etheridge.
The moans, groans and shouts of anguish emerging from a subdued Valley crowd had a ‘here we go again’ feel about them. A side that had won just once in their last eleven could have done without a start like this.
Nonetheless, there was a response of sorts from the Addicks. At the very least, they did not simply cave in as they had done when these two sides met a fortnight ago.
But this was an all too familiar sight for regular watchers of Charlton. They looked comfortable enough going forward, but were completely devoid of an end product. Gudmundsson’s run inside and shot just wide the only real opening Peeters’ side could muster in the opening 20 minutes.
And with Blackburn still causing problems when they had the ball, especially thought the impressive Conway, there few anticipating the Addicks would overturn their deficit. Although hit straight at him, Etheridge’s save from Matthew Kilgallon was needed to keep Charlton in the tie.
It forced Jackson, one of few players playing with the intensity that should be expected, to issue a rallying cry audible from the stands. Gesticulating and looking as if he arteries in his neck were about to burst, players in red in all directions were told to ‘fucking play’ in no uncertain terms.
While no player appeared to respond their skipper, a chance followed for Charlton moments later, with Jackson on the end of it.
A fantastic run from George Tucudean resulted in the Romanian cutting back to the skipper but, under pressure from a Blackburn defender, could only blast over. It looked as if the ball had taken quite a sizable deflection on its way out, but not for referee Stroud, angering an already unsettled home crowd.
The rallying cry did little to solve Charlton’s defensive woes, however, with Blackburn still able to exploit the back four at will. Etheridge called upon to deny Conway from the edge of the box and Chris Brown after the former Cardiff winger was again allowed to get a ball into the box either side of the floodlight failure forced break.
The half’s final meaningful chance saw Charlton threaten again, with Church’s endeavour allowing him to burst down the wing and cross for Buyens, whose effort deflected off a red shirt and harmlessly behind. The tame endings to Charlton’s attempts to get forward were becoming tiresome.
Something else was needed in the second period, but the Addicks didn’t start brightly. They were flat, and evidently as frustrated as the supporters. The home fans tried to inspire, reacting positively as their side won an early corner, but returned to a state of despair as Gudmundsson’s set-piece failed to beat the first man.
And that despair may have worsened had Conway’s finishing been as accurate as his crossing. The Scot played through on goal after an excellent passing move from the visitors, only to slice his glorious opening wide.
It meant the Addicks, somewhat undeservedly, remained in the game. But there didn’t seem to be any immediate chance of Charlton drawing level with Gudmundsson standing over another set-piece ten minutes into the half. His delivery well below-par all day.
Alas, the Iceland international, as he is so often capable of, produced a moment of brilliance to reignite the cup hopes of Peeters’ men. It seemed so simple, Gudmundsson effortlessly lifting the ball over the wall and into the net, but this was the sort of magic needed to lift the dour Addicks.
Seemingly this was a position from which momentum would guide Charlton to victory. Instead, the extension of win-shy run was effectively confirmed just four minutes later.
A pass out form the back was under hit by Bikey, who was intent on making up for his error. But in doing so, he threw himself out of position, and his teammates were slow to cover. Blackburn able to play in Brown, who delivered a cross before Jackson could close him down to an unmarked Taylor. The finish emphatic; Charlton’s defending calamitous.
Karlan Ahearne-Grant was immediately plucked from a crèche-like bench, replacing the hardworking if ineffective Church, and made a positive impact straight away. His quick feet created a crossing opportunity, and his delivery was headed narrowly wide by Tucudean. Not quite game over, after all.
The 17-year-old was involved again moments later as superb work from a evidently drained Jackson allowed him to tee up Ahearne-Grant, but he hesitated to shoot and saw his effort blocked away.
However, that show of intent lasted little more than a few minutes. It became quickly apparent that Charlton were side full of tired bodies and tired minds. Their efforts hindered by a lack of energy and confidence; Blackburn, through David Dunn and Tom Cairney, given the space to shoot with the Addicks too slow to close down.
So too are they a side lacking composure and discipline. Buyens, who had received a yellow card in the first half, needlessly getting himself a second booking with just less than twenty minutes to play sent something that wasn’t really a contest into a training exercise for Rovers.
The visitors, with just an exhausted Jackson for company, allowed to pass at will through an unpopulated midfield. If heads hadn’t already dropped, they were now firmly facing the floor.
With Peeters withdrawing Gumundsson in favour of Gomez and sending Bikey up top, it seemed the boss had lost his head, too. The midfield still almost vacant, Blackburn still able to keep the ball as they pleased.
If it were not for Etheridge, then Blackburn’s half-hearted attempts on goal would have made the afternoon more miserable for Addicks. The crossbar coming to their rescue, too, as Cairney’s well-struck effort bounced back off the goal frame.
That no reaction, no final cry of hope, emerged from the home ends as five minutes of stoppage time were signalled said it all. Fifty could have been given and Blackburn could have left the field, showered and gone home and Charlton still would not have equalised.
No unforgettable cup run this year, but that was the least of the worries as Charlton supporters booed their side off. A performance belonging to a side lacking organisation, discipline and confidence; a performance that inspires only thoughts of further troubles in the league.
In fact, arguably the biggest concern is that few have mentioned that there will be no cup run this season. Instead, most have voiced more wide concerns, and as disappointed as I am that our name isn’t in the hat for the Fourth Round, I’ll be doing the same.
In the past, I have expressed some concerns, always then put to one side by the belief that the issues in hand would be addressed. The squad is far too small and we’re too reliant on kids who are not yet good enough, but the January window will solve that. We’ve missed a few chances, but we’ll get a striker in. Peeters has made a few mistakes, but he’s a young manager who, as well as getting a lot right, will learn in time to correct them.
And there were those sorts of things today. Bikey and Ben Haim were dreadful, but will surely recover having been solid for much of the season. Wilson was a shadow of his former self, but not playing games does that, and Jordan Cousins was extremely poor, although he’ll now have a chance in the centre with Buyens suspended.
Alas, today enhanced a concern that has been growing for a number of weeks, and enhanced it to the point of very big worry.
For a side to play without confidence for a few weeks is something that can be explained or even ignored. It happens. Even during the League One title winning season, the defeats to Colchester and Notts County were played, in periods at least, without confidence.
The issue when playing without confidence isn’t necessarily that in itself, more how you respond. As long as there’s a response, you can excuse it and get back on track.
Alas, Charlton have played without confidence for several weeks, and it only seems to be getting worse. The second-half against Cardiff an anomaly, rather than something to inspire a transformation.
Peeters has indeed made some tactical mistakes, how we respond to going ahead the biggest, but I have plenty of sympathy with him. The squad is too small, players are out of form and injuries have made the situation even worse. Despite this being a technically better Charlton squad than anything seen recently, Peeters’ hands remain tied.
So tied, in fact, that the XI he picked today was the only senior XI available. It’s a tough gig to get the best out of those players.
But the major concern I have is that there is such a lack of confidence, to the point where some players have looked like they don’t want to be out there in both defeats to Blackburn and to Ipswich, and Peeters seems powerless to stop it.
That some players in Red looked so disinterested is of course partially the individual player’s responsibility, but that Peeters cannot inspire them to perform is extremely worrying. No amount of injuries can cover for such seemingly poor man-management.
The issue extends when it’s considered how hard it is to address. The easy option would be to steal a win from somewhere, but to win, you need confidence and self-belief. One of those endless cycles of misery.
So to might transfers in make a difference. Better players coming in might well spread confidence throughout a downbeat side. I’m not quite sure a forward with a poor attitude, and not wanted by Standard Liege, quite does that.
Performances, with the same defensive mistakes and attacking tameness, are repeating. Nothing is being done to change that lack of self-belief.
An insertion of confidence is desperately needed if this run of one win in twelve is to be ended, and Charlton aren’t to endure a worried second half of the season. Worries, concerns and criticisms all now legitimate; the start of the season, although providing inspiration for brighter days, no longer a justification.
I’d much rather the light was currently out on Charlton’s season, than they get sucked into potential darkness.