The disillusioned, the apathetic and the angered were reminded why pouring their love into Charlton Athletic isn’t as unfulfilling as expressing admiration for someone via flowers and a card.
For the Addicks, so frequently leaving supporters heartbroken with performances that suggested their side was no longer fully-committed to this relationship, provided the perfect Valentine’s Day surprise.
Without suggestion such a display was possible on the back of fourteen winless games, a first half full of genuine quality against a rattled Brentford and a second packed with the sort of gritty endeavour required to win a game in a testing backdrop saw Charlton reward their beleaguered supporters for the first time in over three months.
But this wasn’t just a simple candle-lit dinner. It was a romantic trip to Paris that offered hope of yet more rewarding days to come. Guy Luzon’s side, in the circumstances, simply sublime in recording a three goal victory.
There was beauty in the first, as a fantastic move resulted in an outstanding finish from Johann Berg Gudmundsson. Intelligence in the second, as the excellent Tony Watt unselfishly teed up Igor Vetokele to give Charlton the two goal buffer they desperately needed. And finally, the additional bonus of a pleasureful climax, with Frederic Bulot, his change in attitude as stark as any, scoring a fine solo goal.
And The Valley crowd, understandably, responded with appreciation. While players and management had called for the fans to get behind them, the fans demanded a performance that meant their support wouldn’t be worthless. Regardless of the poor nature of Brentford’s display, that’s exactly what they got.
There does, of course, remain the same anxieties and uncertainties as there were before kick-off, with injuries to Rhoys Wiggins and Johnnie Jackson now additional burdens. But when you have been treated so poorly by the one you love for so long, such an afternoon of promise can only be celebrated with pride and passion.
In fact, there was promise from the moment the team news was announced, with the side representing the Addicks resembling something like a full-strength XI for the first time in a number of weeks.
While disappointment was voiced over the selection of Bulot, removed at half-time following a horrendous performance in the defeat to Norwich on Tuesday, the joy expressed in the rest of the selection meant that was quickly glossed over.
The seemingly undroppable Yoni Buyens became droppable, replaced by Watt as Luzon opted for the two in attack Addicks were craving, while Roger Johnson, making his debut having recently joined from Wolves, would surely prove to be an improvement on the out of sorts Andre Bikey.
There was also a welcome return for Stephen Henderson, playing his first game since the win over Reading on November 8 – the last time Charlton celebrated victory.
So maybe it was the sight of players like Henderson taking to the field for the Addicks that meant there was a genuinely supportive and positive atmosphere as the game got underway. In fact, the early and lengthy chant of ‘we are Charlton’s red army’ was a commendable effort from the previously apathetic Covered End.
And the players responded. Right from the off, the Addicks were more composed, more organised, and, most importantly, looked a lot more up for it, to the extent that their early efforts were almost rewarded six minutes in.
The lively Watt had battled and jinked past Bees defenders, but looked to have lost control of the ball just on the edge on the box. Alas, it found its way through to Gudmundsson, whose whipped effort forced former Charlton stopper David Button into a fine save.
Such an opening only increased the vocal nature of the support, a huge contrast to the poisonous, although justified, atmosphere that had filled The Valley in recent weeks.
And the players took it in their stride, with Jordan Cousins and Jackson pressing possession-hungry Brentford into mistakes, while a combination of decision making and the lack of a killer final was preventing Charlton’s promising forward play from being turned into something more tangible.
So too was Button, who was on hand to deny the Addicks when a shooting opportunity finally came their way. Good work from Bulot, growing in confidence after a few nervy touches early on, teed up Watt, but a stunning reaction stop from Brentford’s keeper turned the Scot’s effort around the post.
Throughout the winless run, however, Charlton have often enjoyed promising passages of play, but been punished for not making the most of them. There was a fear that would be the case as Wiggins, often crucial when the Addicks are at their best, went down and immediately signalled to be replaced. Morgan Fox on to replace his luckless fellow countryman.
But the change took nothing away from the determination, drive and positivity in Charlton’s performance. And it was those three attributes that played a pivotal role in the Addicks going ahead.
For a man lacking in a physical presence, Bulot did especially well to knock the ball into Vetokele’s path from a punt up field, and the hard-working forward drove ahead as Brentford’s back line stood off.
The Angolan, having surely gained confidence from his goal in midweek, might well have shot from the position he was in, but instead picked out Gudmundsson’s run into the box. The winger’s touch teeing himself up perfectly for a sublime curling finish that, despite seeming impossible from the angle he was at, gave Button absolutely no chance in the Brentford goal.
Relief, hope or pure joy; whatever it was, the goal was celebrated with more vigour than the two strikes against Norwich combined. It’s an immeasurable concept, but this just felt more like the proper Charlton.
And with luck seemingly on the side of the Addicks, there was a feeling that this lead was more than just a brief moment of false hope. Andre Gray and Jota failing to capitalise on pinball in Charlton’s box, before Henderson reacted well to a final deflection off the legs of Johnson.
Nor did Luzon’s side create a situation where they needed to be reliant upon good fortune before the break. The hosts continued to think positively, and a snapshot from Vetokele forced Button into another excellent stop.
Nonetheless, the Bees, despite lacking any real creativity, were still dominating possession. So the sight of Jackson, who was somehow managing to play in a more determined manner than usual, collapsing in a heap just before the break wasn’t promising.
And with energy and fight required to prevent Brentford’s ball domination from becoming anything more serious, the first few touches of Jackson’s replacement, Yoni Buyens, were extremely concerning. The composure and control in Charlton’s game suddenly gone.
However, those were worries that were ignored as the players left the field at half-time. The applause and cheers they received more than worthy of a vastly improved performance.
But the concerns couldn’t be as the second period got underway. The tempo of Charlton’s game had considerably dropped, the Bees were given plenty of time and space on the ball, and their wide men were beginning to cause a threat down the flanks.
You felt a second goal was needed, and needed quickly. There was surely only a matter of time before Brentford stopped wasting their openings and picked out a Bee from a crossing position
Brentford, however, were not only kind enough to continue being wasteful in possession, but also capitulate at the back to allow the Addicks to score a crucial, crucial second.
The defending from the visitors left a lot to be desired as rash clearances and poor tracking of men eventually saw the ball fall kindly to Watt. He might have shot, with a clear sight of goal but, showing the composure Brentford were lacking in attacking position, teed up Vetokele, who finished in the style of a man who has regained self-belief.
With confidence spreading through the side, the Covered End again in chorus and Mark Warburton’s desperation for a fight back seeing him make three subs at once before the hour, it felt like this was a position from which the Addicks could not lose. Only the palms of Button, getting down well to stop the unplayable Watt’s well-struck effort, were keeping the Bees in the contest.
Alas, this is Charlton, and despite the nature of their lead, there was a sometimes tense feel for the remainder of the game. The recent winless run also a factor, visibly tired legs in midfield and a fractionally increased drive from Brentford, culminating in Henderson saving well from Alex Pritchard and Jonathan Douglas’ testing strikes, meant no home supporter was yet ready to claim the points.
The Addicks, however, continued to stand firm. Luzon’s side more than happy for their opponents to have all the possession they wanted outside of Charlton’s third, but applying strong pressure the moment a forward pass was made. Even when presented with an opening, Pritchard’s free-kick was so far wide that his namesake would have been impressed.
Henderson was called upon to deal with Pritchard’s next set-piece effort, with greater accuracy in the strike requiring Charlton’s stopper to tip over. But, with just ten minutes to play, the earlier nerves were beginning to fade. Brentford’s poor performance becoming a dispirited one, and the Addicks’ defending resolutely.
They also had an out ball, with Watt, despite apparently still not being fit enough for 90 minutes, chasing, and largely winning, everything pumped up to him. His effort and desire unrelenting.
And those nerves all but disappeared as the unbeatable Henderson again saved from Pritchard and Jon-Miquel Toral lashed a glorious, close-range opening from the following corner fifty rows deep into the Jimmy Seed Stand.
So while that away end emptied, it was left for Bulot, his performance as surprising as Charlton’s in general, to provide one last moment of brilliance to seal his side’s first win since November.
Henderson’s kick up field found Brentford’s back four out of position, and fell perfectly to the Gabon international. But Bulot still had plenty of work to do, driving forward before drilling past Button from the tightest of angles. Cue celebrations that couldn’t have been anticipated before kick-off.
The Addicks well-worthy of their victory, and more than deserving of their post-match celebrations. The joy with which Vetokele and Watt embraced the tunnel jump made you feel that the little part of Charlton that you loved the most, previously thought to be on life-support, was showing some signs of recovery.
For there’s one word that describes perfectly the emotions that went with such a victory – pride.
In the first instance, there was pride to be had as supporters. The recent aggressive mood at The Valley fully justified and, as such, making the effort from the Covered End and co today even more impressive.
There was vocal and passionate support, from supporters battling against a disconnected feeling, which lasted from first minute until last. In truth, there had been other times during this winless run where the fans had been unquestionable, but the players had not responded.
For the first time in many weeks, Charlton played with some pride. So much so that Brentford supporters were overheard after the game suggesting that the reason the Addicks were victorious, aside from their own team’s dire display, was that Charlton wanted it more.
Having played without endeavour, spirit or determination for a number of weeks, the return of the old-fashioned fighting quality the Addicks have previously had in abundance couldn’t have been more welcome.
The rather questionable performance of Buyens aside, who opted to head straight down the tunnel with his head bowed at full-time, each and every player in red gave their absolute all. From Johnson on debut, taking a pain-killing injection at half-time to continue having taken a blow to the ribs, to the relentless running of Chris Solly and the midfield battling of Cousins, there was the sort of uplifting drive to be genuinely heart-warmed by.
So too was there pride to be had in a number of players mixing that fighting spirit with exceptional ability. Bulot, especially considering his woeful Charlton career to date, was tireless in his efforts down the flank, Gudmundsson provided the moment of quality he so often does, and Vetokele’s threat on the ball and pressing off it made his performance simply outstanding.
But Charlton’s most impressive performer, in a team effort where most were faultless, was certainly Watt.
His directness left Brentford’s back four constantly uncomfortable, his aerial ability not perfect but persistent effort meant he was always a threat when balls were pumped forward, and his composure in and around Brentford’s box meant chances frequently came through him.
His hold up play, especially in the closing stages also vital, while the manner in which he played the game suggested he’s one of the few network signings that has immediately grasped what this club is about and what it demands of its players.
Alas, for both the team and its supporters, this is just a start.
While the six point gap between Charlton and the bottom three relieves some pressure, returning to a performance more fitting of the winless run at Wigan on Friday would be disastrous.
The victory and manner of the performance will mean little if the Addicks fail to replicate it in recent weeks. It simply has to be followed up.
So too is it a victory that doesn’t solve nor cover up the club’s problems. Those with genuine concerns will no doubt be reminded about this result in the coming days, and told to stop moaning. Stamp your foot down, and don’t allow one result to let the contempt the club have treated us with in recent weeks pass by.
Nonetheless, this is an important and vital victory worth celebrating with all the vigour of Charlton’s finest hours. You Reds.