There is a poisonous illness that runs through this Charlton side. For some, it leaves them looking as if there is little interest in representing the badge on their chest with any sort of pride. For others, it affects their confidence to such an extent that those whose effort you can never question simply don’t have it within themselves to fight.
The result of the two strands of the disease is a side lacking any sort of drive or intensity. They can battle against it, even look as if they’re going to come overcome it at times, but so often they choose not to.
For there was a period in their 3-1 defeat to Middlesbrough during which the Addicks gave their all. Having performed tamely for much of the opening period, handing Patrick Bamford the opportunity to head the hosts into the lead from an early corner, an equaliser of quality not fitting of a confidence depleted side from Johann Berg Gudmundsson brought about a response.
A Charlton shirt was first to almost every loose ball, strong tackles were halting Boro’s efforts to regain their lead before the break and there was even more energy in the way Guy Luzon’s side moved forward. If it wasn’t heart-warming, then it offered genuine promise that the old Charlton spirit lived on.
But the Addicks are experts in inflicting misery upon themselves. If they shot at goal with the accuracy they shoot at their own foot, then such a bug would not be consuming the squad.
Bookended by the softest of goals, Jelle Vossen and Lee Tomlin converting for Boro, Charlton’s second half performance lacked every desired quality.
There was neither the tactical organisation at the back or going forward to cause a half-hearted Boro any genuine concerns and individual performances were lacking any sort of quality, but the real issue came in the heads of the beleaguered Addicks.
There was no fight, no determination, and no desire. The ones that wanted to battle left frustrated by the complete lack of structure in the side and those who didn’t share the attitude they did. Simply gutless.
I can take losing, and I can certainly take losing to a side of Middlesbrough’s quality. To that extent, the result itself isn’t the concern.
But I cannot take losing knowing that the collective and individual efforts should have been so much more. The heart of this side is hardly beating.
There was a fear Charlton’s afternoon was going to be a gruelling one long before the teams took to The Riverside pitch, and that fear was only enhanced once Luzon’s team selection had been revealed.
Especially against a side so impressive in possession, it seemed suicidal to play a 4-4-2 formation on their own patch.
Alas, supporting his claim that he would be positive, the Israeli boss continued with what is seemingly his favoured set-up, instead hoping a series of changes in personnel would give the Addicks the increase in fight required to withstand Boro’s threat.
Out went Andre Bikey and Rhoys Wiggins, in came Oguchi Onyewu and Morgan Fox, while Simon Church replaced the out of sorts Igor Vetokele in attack.
Amidst the wreckage, there was at least finally a start for Tony Watt, whose cameo appearances in recent weeks had left Charlton supporters craving more. The forward replaced Callum Harriott.
And while there was a clear sense of apprehension in the away end, an early moment of promise, carved out by Watt, helped to settle those understandable nerves. His quick-feet allowing the Scot to drive into the box, before Yoni Buyens took over and sliced an effort close enough to the far post to cause panic among Boro’s normally resolute back four.
It got the small pattering of visiting supporters into song, but any hopes that a relatively bright start would provide real reasons to cheer were quickly quashed, with Boro’s composure and dynamism on the ball showing from their first attack.
It was evident that the Addicks would have to be at their very best defensively to frustrate Aitor Karanka’s side, and couldn’t afford to gift them even the slightest half chance.
So there was an impending sense of doom, not least owing to Charlton’s frequent frailties when defending set-pieces, as a lack of communication forced Chris Solly to hook a cross behind under no pressure with five minutes played.
But even those preparing to see the Charlton net ripple couldn’t have anticipated just how soft a goal the Addicks would concede. Grant Leadbitter’s low delivery met unchallenged by Bamford and headed beyond a stranded Marko Dmitrovic.
And there was again a lack of genuine Charlton challenge from Boro’s next corner moments later, with George Friend only marginally misjudging his jump and heading the ball over the bar. The premature optimism proving to be just that.
There was, however, no thought for the weary souls in the away end as Middlesbrough continued to attack with intensity. The influential Leadbitter sent Dmitrovic scrambling after his strike took a wicked deflection, before simply stunning build-up play, that included an audacious back-heel from Championship Player of the Month Tomlin, resulted in Charlton’s Serbian stopper racing off his line to deny Bamford from close range.
A reprieve, however momentary, was desperately needed for the shell-shocked Addicks, but that was something not even in the skills and change of pace of Watt could provide. The ball across the face of goal following his mazy run far enough away from Gudmundsson to allow Friend to block behind.
Instead, Charlton were doing their best to increase the feeling of panic in the away end. The ball so frequently given away, efforts to win it back tame and Dmitrovic’s bizarre punch from Vossen’s seemingly comfortable shot hardly bringing about calm.
So it came against the run of play that the Addicks were presented with their first genuine chance to draw level. Having seen an effort hit the post following referee Kettle bring the play back for a free-kick, Gudmundsson was given a second bite of the cherry, but could only send his effort soaring over the bar.
But there was a general sense the gap between the two sides was shrinking as the final 15 minutes of the half were entered. Luzon’s two banks of four were still completely falling apart the moment Boro entered Charlton’s half, with their particular struggles for Charlton on their left-hand side, but some of the zip had vanished from the hosts’ play, while there was a very strenuous amount of fizz when the Addicks attacked.
And while it was unfortunate that former Boro loanee Milos Veljkovic was forced off with a suspected dislocated shoulder, his replacement, Johnnie Jackson, proved the catalyst for an improvement in Charlton’s shape. At the very least, the skipper’s drive was allowing the Addicks to win the midfield battle more frequently.
It spread, with Oneywu and Ben Haim now looking more composed at the back, and there was even confidence going forward. The sort of confidence to an attempt an ambitious effort from 30 yards; Cousins’ strike well off-target but at least the intent was there.
And such intent remained when Charlton next moved forward. Buyens seemingly having the ball trapped in his feet, but just about able to poke into the path of Gudmundsson, who stroked the ball with relative ease into the top corner. It may not have been deserved, but it was the sort of moment from which matches, moods and seasons are turned.
If nothing else, it was apparent the mood had quickly been transformed. A full-blooded tackle from Solly on Adomah inspiring those in the away end further.
While off-target efforts from Gudmundsson and Vossen, the Belgian’s strike deflecting off Onyewu and briefly troubling Dmitrovic, were the only efforts on goal before the break, there was now a real sense the Addicks could cause something of an upset. At the very least, the increased fight in the half’s closing stages suggested they would not simply roll over and allow Boro victory as they seemed to be doing in the opening passages of play.
So it was simply devastating to see Charlton pathetically hand the lead back to their opponents three minutes into the second half.
Having needlessly given away the free-kick that led to the Middlesbrough creating a clear opening, Onyewu’s horrendous clearance fell straight to the feet of Tomlin, who drove past the players in black ahead of him and cut across for Vossen to finish from close range. Like revising for months and forgetting your pen on the day of the exam, it felt like Charlton’s considerable efforts towards the end of the first period how now been a complete waste.
It meant a response was again needed, but it was evident such a crushing blow had lowered heads and prevented a chance of that happening. Such an atmosphere not helped when a cross eventually popped up to Church, but a cruel bounce took the ball away from the Welshman.
There was also an ambitious effort from Jackson, but his long-range drive soared over the bar by a considerable margin. In fact, it was a Boro side, seemingly playing at something considerably less than 100%, who continued to control the game and looked most likely to score the next goal.
Adam Clayton saw a strike deflected into Dmitrovic’s palms, but there was greater panic when Ben Haim carelessly presented a free-kick straight to Tomlin. The resulting through ball picking out Bamford, but Dmitrovic, to his credit, was one of few still plugging away to the extent that you would like and snuffed out the opening.
And that Boro wastefulness meant there remained something of a sniff for the Addicks. But the drive and execution on show meant there was never a realistic chance of the hosts’ growing sloppiness being capitalised upon. Boro in complete control, without needing to be composed in control.
Even as the final ten minutes were entered, there was not the all-or-nothing to drive from Luzon’s side to attempt to get something out of the game. Gudmundsson and Solly shot wide, while a crucial intervention prevented Jackson from getting a head on Onyewu’s cross, but there was no genuine threat.
In fact, Charlton were only a threat to themselves. No one had spotted Tomlin on the edge of the box following an 88th minute corner, and the award winner showed his worth by volleying superbly home for Boro’s third. A stunning finish, but one brought about again by poor Addicks organisation.
Gudmundsson’s stoppage time effort, sent straight into the palms of Dimi Konstantopoulos, achieved little but draw sarcastic cheers from the visiting supporters. Their tongue-in-cheek cries of “we’re going to win 4-3” as half-hearted as Charlton’s second-half efforts.
Alas, support for the majority of the game had been decent. Just attending in the circumstances worthy of appreciation. So it was a shame that only a very persistent effort from Jackson to call his players over convinced more than half of his side to acknowledge the visiting support. Luzon, Ben Haim and Onyewu among those who saw it fit to head straight down the tunnel lies.
And that, for me, is a symptom of Charlton’s most serious problem. It seems easy to say after a thirteenth game without victory, but the attitude that has engulfed this side over that run means that there can be no realistic hope of it coming to an end.
It really is an unfair accusation on those who evidently attempt to give their all each week, but a combination of a lack of unity within the squad, a lack of effort from a handful of individuals and a lack of confidence from all means that there is no collective spirit.
It was that sprit that kept a side not good enough for the Championship in the division last season, and it’s a lack of that spirit that is seeing a competitive side flirt with the threat of relegation.
There were, in truth, a few fleeting positives to take. Watt was very bright until he tired in the final half hour, Jackson did the job of two men while Buyens and then Christophe Lepoint went missing, and Gudmundsson’s was unrelenting, if rarely successful, in his attempts to make something happening.
But such promising signs seem hard to take after an overall performance that lacked organisation, skill and character. Some of that, of course, comes from the players, but there remains question marks over Luzon’s tactical stubbornness. The environment not there for the players to perform, but neither is the organisation and framework.
In addition, there are players who simply shouldn’t be anywhere near the side. I have complete sympathy for Morgan Fox, and will not lambast him as others might, but he isn’t good enough. That was the performance of part-time player in a professional game, but it is hardly his fault when he is the only option. It’s no wonder confidence is so low.
There will, of course, be those who allow themselves to get over this result quickly because of the opposition. To an extent, that’s fair enough. Boro were excellent at times, and definitely a class above even our best, whatever that is.
But with such a timid and largely gutless performance coming against the sort of standard of opposition we must play three more times in the next four games, do we throw in the towel on those occasions too?
From the Charlton of old, you would expect an increase in the fight and determination on show. A desire to overcome the impossible. It’s simply non-existent in this group.
It’s not just the feeling of disappointment from this performance, but a feeling of hopelessness. The evidence that this side will start winning again slimmer each week; the demoralising affect that such tame performances have becoming increasingly tough to take.
Please, Charlton, start to fight. Remind me why the level of care I have isn’t misplaced.