Had Nottingham Forest rocked up at The Valley a month ago, they would have surely left with three points.
For a poisonous attitude that consumed almost every individual in Charlton’s side would have prevented them from standing up to Forest’s threat. The fight, drive and determination of this group of Addicks was constantly being questioned, and not irrationally.
Heads would have dropped and confidence lost after Michail Antonio’s stunning solo effort cancelled out Frederic Bulot’s free-kick opener.
They would have crumbled under the pressure Dougie Freedman’s side went onto apply before the break. Resolve at the back and the saves of Stephen Henderson would not have been there to cover for Lawrie Wilson’s struggles against Antonio.
And Wilson himself would not have recovered from the continuous roasting Forest’s winger was giving him. The stand-in right-back in a position to cross for Bulot to put Guy Luzon’s side back in front against the run of play.
But to go in ahead at half-time would still not have been enough if the attitude of a month ago lingered. The Addicks would have lacked the right mentality in the face of a genuine forward threat from the visitors; a ball or two would entered Charlton’s net before the final whistle.
Alas, there was character, heart and resilience. A makeshift back four, frequently placed under pressure as Forest persistently searched for an equaliser, stood astonishingly firm. The opposition’s attacking force almost completely nullified.
In fact, it was the hosts who looked the most likely scorer at periods in the second half. Jordan Cousins’ midfield battling and Tony Watt’s attacking quality crucial as the Addicks continued to venture forward.
There was even the composure from the pair to see the game out in outstanding style, something that had proved a mental and physical stumbling block previously. The ball kept in the corner for two and a half of the three minutes added on.
And as the corner Forest had won after breaking forward was claimed by Henderson with relative ease, you could only feel pride in Charlton’s efforts. The attitude no longer questionable.
Such efforts did not seem possible at the start of February. The turnaround in performance and mindset simply incredible.
In fact, such efforts did not seem possible at 7:00pm. The team news resulting in most supporters writing off the possibility of getting anything from the game before it had even begun.
Chris Solly, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Roger Johnson were the latest names on Charlton’s growing injury list, leaving the starting XI looking a little weak. Especially at the back, where an out of form Wilson replaced Solly, while Alou Diarra was deployed in an unnatural role at centre back.
There was also a start for Callum Harriott, replacing Gudmundsson on the right, while the appearance of Harry Lennon and Karlan Ahearne-Grant on the bench reaffirmed how depleted the Addicks were.
And while Wilson suggested Charlton were in no mood to simply roll over and accept defeat, lashing a drive goalwards that forced Karl Darlow into an early save, there remained fear this side would be no match for the in-form Forest.
It was Gudmundsson that appeared the biggest miss. So often capable of match changing moments, not having the Iceland international standing over a free-kick Watt’s run had earned seemingly rendered it useless.
In fact, the discussion over who would take the set-piece suggested the players themselves weren’t sure how to cope without Gudmundsson standing over it. But he might well have a fight on his hands to reclaim free-kick duty.
Lifted over the wall and into the net with class, Bulot’s effort was as stunning as anything his absent teammate could produce. An eighth minute lead for the Addicks in a game many expected to lose.
Forest, however, were quick to remind the jubilant home crowd not to get too carried. Antonio getting the better of Wilson, only to knock the ball with his standing leg as he attempted to cross and ending up on his backside.
But the Addicks would not be so lucky the next time they allowed Antonio to run forward with 14 minutes played. Three players in red seemingly hoping one of the others would close him down, as the winger drove into space and flashed an effort beyond Henderson and into the far corner.
A goal of genuine quality, for which Antonio deserved plenty of praise, but Charlton’s defensive efforts left a lot to be desired.
As did the hosts’ response to conceding. The energy boost a goal provides had Luzon’s men press high and with purpose, but now they appeared a little timid. Henri Lansbury allowed to push forward with little attention and unleash a powerful, swerving effort that Henderson did well to get behind.
Even with the Addicks showing threat going forward, led by tormentor-in-chief Watt, there was uncertainty at the back. With Wilson getting dragged centrally to mark Forest’s third midfielder, Antonio was being left in acres of space, and only a crucial intervention from Diarra’s forehead prevented the winger’s cross from being turned in at the far post.
But the danger was not yet cleared. Chris Burke’s near post corner’s causing all sorts of problems for Henderson and his defenders, with the goalkeeper crashing into the post in order to deal with the delivery.
And while laughing at Millwall’s demise and viciously laying into Lansbury, who has viciously laid Diarra into the advertising hoardings, provided some respite for the Covered End, there was to be little for Charlton’s back line.
Antonio, again cutting in from the left, drilled a shot destined for the bottom corner, but the desperate fingertips of Henderson just about tipped the effort around the post.
But the goalkeeper, normally unflappable, didn’t quite cover himself in glory from the resulting set-piece. Racing off his line to meet the delivery, he wasn’t quick enough to beat Jamaal Lascelles to the ball, and the towering centre-back was unlucky to see his header trickle just wide of the vacated goal.
Especially with Eric Lichaj’s ambitious effort only narrowly sailing over Henderson’s bar, it’s fair to say pressure was mounting against the Addicks, and they were struggling somewhat to deal with it. The home crowd as nervous as their players.
A rare move forward, however, provided the perfect antidote five minutes before the interval.
Fantastic footwork from Watt and an equally clever run from Wilson allowed the latter to be set free down the right. Meeting the ball right on the goal line, Wilson’s ball into the centre picked out Bulot perfectly, who had the presence of mind to take a touch before lashing the ball into the net.
Against the run of play, and Charlton’s first meaningful effort on goal since going ahead, but that mattered little to the celebratory Addicks. The confidence-induced clinical nature of the side again crucial.
But, although worthy of their applause as they left the field at the half-time, there was still plenty of work to do for Luzon’s side. The boss wise to remove the struggling Harriott and Wilson at the interval, and replace them with Chris Eagles and Andre Bikey.
Charlton, however, did not simply sit back and accept they would face a bombardment for 45 minutes. The hosts looked to get forward, and only a strong palm away from Darlow prevented Joe Gomez from scoring his first senior goal.
The visitors, still a constant threat despite the change to Charlton’s right-hand side and their efforts to attack, responded with an effort of their own, but Antonio’s attempt to emulate Phillip Coutinho was more of a Nicky Bailey play-off penalty replica.
But Forest came much closer to scoring in their next attack, or at least should have come much closer. Ben Osborn picking out an unmarked Matty Frayy in the centre, but the experienced striker could only loop his header over the bar when he really should have scored.
And while Antonio, two men Charlton men hassling at any one time, was becoming less effective, other players in Forest shirts were becoming more focal. Osborn driving into some space and curling an effort so close to goal that some supporters in the away end had started to celebrate before it bounced narrowly wide.
Nonetheless, there was certainly a feeling the Addicks were in control of their own destiny. The impressive way in which they thwarted their opponents’ attacks meant Forest could not make their pressure tell.
And as Freedman threw caution to the wind and chucked any player who once played one game as a 12-year-old in attack forward, more space opened up for Charlton to get forward. Forest, though, were showing similar resolve across their backline.
It meant that, although an end-to-end game, there was little goalmouth action. Excellent news for the home supporters, who remained nervy regardless while bodies were thrown in all directions to block the long-distance efforts Forest were restricted to.
But with ten minutes to play, and a very definite gap between Forest attack and defence, Charlton were brave enough to attempt to kill the game off by finding a third.
And while the goal could not be found, with Eagles blasting over, Bulot stinging the hands of Darlow and Watt seeing a header saved after meeting a cross from substitute Christophe Lepoint (in a rare moment where he threatened to be a competent footballer), the persistent attacks meant that ball was a safe distance from Charlton’s goal.
So too was it far enough away for heartbeats to return to resting pace as Cousins, having put in a performance that showed his desire and class all night, drove forward and forced the ball into the corner with stoppage-time announced in the background.
Normally, in such a situation, it would be time to panic. But Watt had other ideas. He jinked round Lichaj and Antonio as if they were the obstacles in a slalom, before working his way around them again. Only two yellow card-worthy fouls from the pair halted the Scot.
His efforts, which drew a standing ovation on more than one occasion, should have been enough for the victory to be confirmed. But Forest were able to win a free-kick of their own, quickly sending the ball forward and earning themselves a corner.
Alas, the delivery was plucked out of the air with comfort by Henderson, and several pairs of arms were immediately sent skyward in celebration. The referee’s whistle blown as soon as glove touched ball.
The immediate feeling was, of course, relief. Relief for the fans who had grown increasingly nervy while the lead was just one, and relief for the players whose reserved celebrations were born out of the tiredness their efforts had resulted in.
Probably some relief for Luzon, too, who finally held his head high and acknowledged the Charlton supporters, even if he did head straight down the tunnel. (Wish he’d actually come over to the centre of the Covered End and join in the celebrations with the players, but that’s a moan not fitting to the tone of the night and this report)
But that relief, once a deep breath had been taken, quickly turned to pride.
Not only was this a win against one of the division’s in-form teams. But this was a win with a tired and depleted squad against one of the division’s in-form teams who performed well enough on the day to come away from SE7 with something added to their point tally.
But Charlton’s fight was utterly superb. Heart-warming, if it’s not too cheesy a comment. Standing firm and denying Forest a real opening for over half hour in the second half cannot be praised enough; the Addicks would have definitely wilted a few weeks ago. No doubt about it.
The turnaround has been incredible. Luzon providing the base from which organisation can be shown and natural ability can be expressed, and players making the most of it. Confidence running through the veins of this side, when it was previously on the floor.
Because, without confidence, the backline would not have stood firm. Of course, there were a few issues in the first half, and if Forest had taken one of those chances I’d probably be feeling a little less lively right now, but the overall resilience was born of an attitude and mindset that is produced from confidence.
They just kept going. Antonio got past Gomez, but Gomez stopped him the next time. Diarra really didn’t look comfortable, but he was dominant in the air and persisted where other weaker characters might have failed. Even Bikey, a lost cause three weeks ago, did a solid job, and Buyens, a lost cause about a week ago, was tidy.
But the most resilient characters of all were Morgan Fox and Cousins. The former making those who thought he wasn’t good enough (me) look extremely stupid (as ever) with a mature and defensively sound display. The latter absolutely bloody brilliant in his on and off the ball work.
It allowed class to be shown in attack. The constant chanting of Watt’s name more than deserved, as the Scot once again made an opposition backline pray for mercy on several occasions, while Bulot’s resurgence, having looked the winger equivalent of Yohann Thuram a few weeks ago, epitomises the turnaround in general.
And that mix of resolve at the back and class going forward means I probably enjoyed this victory more than the three goal wins. A mix of the proper Charlton attributes, and quality of Watt and co adding a finishing touch. Marvellous.
It’s just a shame that such wins will ultimately prove meaningless. Championship status secured and the season now effectively over.
But, although there remains a long list of questions that need answering about the state of the club, I’m looking forward to enjoyable and maybe even stress free end to the season.
Looking forward. Charlton. Blimey.