With twenty minutes to play, the away end was flat. With events on the Cardiff City Stadium pitch less than inspiring, the visiting supporters were forced to entertain themselves by laughing at Millwall’s demise.
Charlton were lethargic. The high tempo playing style that had been so crucial to their recent success replaced by a tired display, littered with individual mistakes and lacking any spark in attack.
The Bluebirds, through Federico Macheda, had capitalised upon the Addicks’ struggles at the start of the second-half, and were not being suitably tested for them to panic about losing their lead.
But by full-time, the away end was jubilant. Rarely have a group of Addicks on enemy territory been able to enjoy themselves so much this campaign; rarely have their side showed such backbone and fight.
For while a point seemed impossible twenty minutes earlier, the three Charlton claimed was fully deserved by the game’s conclusion. The turnaround outstanding.
It began after a half-cleared corner was worked back into the box, and Tony Watt was there to finish from Roger Johnson’s ball across the face of goal. The carnage in the away end as the Scot climbed on top of the advertising hoardings with his arms outstretched meant that would have been enough for most. The celebrations making the trip to Wales worthwhile, and a draw a commendable result in the circumstances.
Guy Luzon’s side, however, showed no signs of settling for a point. Charlton rewarded for their attacking intent beyond the equaliser with Simon Church pushed in the box and a penalty awarded three minutes from time. Yoni Buyens, having struggled to make his passes accurate, had absolutely no problem in coolly converting the kick.
There was nothing cool about the celebrations that followed, though. Arms flying in all directions, bodies crashing into each other and the noise loud enough to mean the home supporters who were fleeing their ground could not hide from it.
Just a few weeks ago it appeared as if Charlton were to be nothing more than a source of misery for their supporters, for the remainder of this season and beyond. But such joyous days have stitched up those wounds and overridden the mental scaring.
Nonetheless, there was an element of concern before kick-off. While the return of Johnson, Chris Solly and Johann Berg Gudmundsson increased confidence of a Charlton victory, the absence of top scorer Igor Vetokele was troubling.
As was the man chosen to replace the resting Angolan. Midfielder Christophe Lepoint, who had failed to impress in three substitute appearances, was given his first start for the Addicks in an unnatural forward role.
But the change in partner for Watt didn’t provide the explanation as to why Luzon’s side were so flat and timid in the opening stages. Those in red were lacking the energy to press and hassle their opponents, or at least that seemed to be the case when Craig Noone was allowed to burst forward and only prevented from scoring by a reaction save from Stephen Henderson.
And while the lively Watt and Gudmundsson attempted to make something happen for the Addicks, with the latter winning a corner that resulted in Morgan Fox lashing an effort over the bar, they remained unsettled at the back.
In fact, only an element of good fortune stopped Charlton from going behind with 15 minutes played. Henderson beaten to a corner delivery by Morrison, but the centre-back’s header across goal could not be turned in at the far post by Kenwyne Jones, who nodded wide under pressure from Lepoint.
The overall performance, however, of Charlton’s latest full debutant was less than impressive. Charging around with all the calm and composure of an excited puppy, Lepoint’s frequent foul play was substantially hindering his side’s hopes of getting into some sort of stride.
As were the injuries picked up by Henderson, who received treatment after an accidental stamp on his ankle, and Aron Gunnarsson, who was forced off and replaced by Joe Ralls after being clattered into by Lepoint. Cardiff’s tempo now matching Charlton’s; the game a non-event.
Even when the Addicks were given the chance to create something, with the Bluebirds giving away the ball in midfield, a through-on-goal Watt’s failure to control Gudmundsson’s through ball summed up the half.
While it ended with Connor McAleny forcing a good save out of a still hobbling Henderson and Peter Whittingham blasting over from distance, arguably cementing the suggestion that Cardiff were slightly less poor than Charlton, it was 45 minutes of football that neither side would have been overly happily with.
Nor were those in the stands impressed. The attempts from the supporters of the Addicks to make noise constantly curtailed by the groans their side’s performance enforced.
And the grumbling only increased with the appearance of a fully-kitted Marko Dmitrovic during half-time. Henderson, so crucial in the upturn in form, unable to continue after the break.
But the biggest moan came from the fact Lepoint, who had been booked towards the end of the first period and was still throwing himself around without sense, emerged from the tunnel to continue at the start of the second half. Not beneficial to Charlton’s hopes of keeping eleven men on the pitch, nor their chances of playing in a high tempo and attacking manner.
It meant Cardiff started the second period as they ended the first; by being the slightly less horrendous side of an underperforming pair. The Addicks again guilty of standing off a man as McAlney drove into space and flashed an effort just over the bar.
Alas, Luzon’s side wouldn’t get away with such tame attempts to close down the opposition for much longer. Just two minutes later, the ball was in Charlton’s net, with the Addicks only having themselves to blame.
The Bluebirds were given all the time and space to knock the ball around in midfield, before it was eventually worked to Noone. Again, the pressure on him was far too minimal, allowing the former Brighton man to cross to Jones at the back post, who nodded down for Macheda to crash an effort past the stationary Dmitrovic.
It was hardly a game that warranted a goal, but Charlton could not argue they were unjustifiably behind. Improvements desperately needed.
The introduction of Chris Eagles promised to provide that, if only because he replaced the hapless Lepoint, and the substitute made an immediate impression. Eagles’ effort finally forcing Simon Moore to brush the dust off of his gloves and make a save.
But this was still nothing like the sort of performance Luzon’s side had previously proved they were capable of. Charlton thankful that Macheda failed to get any real power behind his diving header after meeting Connolly’s cross. A second Cardiff goal seemed more likely than an equaliser.
So it came as some surprise to see the Addicks work a genuine opening with 70 minutes gone. The first move of the afternoon from those in red that matched the spark they had shown in recent weeks resulted with a ball into the box falling at the feet of Jordan Cousins, who would have surely scored had it not been for an impressive block behind from Bruno Ecuele Manga.
The agonising nature of the miss meant heads were in hands, but it also provided the motivation to lift the volume in the away end. Charlton’s supporters in fine voice as Church replaced the ineffective Bulot and the Addicks set-up for the corner.
The initial delivery was dealt with by Cardiff’s defence, and Buyens’ failure to get the ball under control on the edge of the box looked to have killed the move. But Eagles was able to pick up the pieces and feed Johnson down the left.
Encouraged by the supporters behind him, the accuracy of the centre-back’s ball would have pleased any wide man, picking out Watt perfectly. It allowing him to place the ball perfectly into the bottom corner of Cardiff’s net and spark wild scenes of celebration.
It might well have come out of nothing, and at a time when it looked unlikely that the Addicks would be able to pull level, but the equaliser had provided them with some momentum and a much needed injection of confidence. Not just a leveller, but a platform from which a winner could be found.
There was now a genuine roar from the away end whenever a Charlton player received the ball in the opposition’s half. Belief in Watt and Gudmundsson as they attempted to run at Cardiff men, and belief in the stands.
But while the attitude was certainly correct, the execution lacked somewhat. Church mis-controlling on the edge of the box after collecting the ball in a promising position.
And the Bluebirds were not simply sitting ducks. Jones ballooned a header over and Ralls cleared the crossbar from range as Cardiff too looked for a winner themselves. A dire affair for much of the afternoon, but this was a generally intriguing finish.
Where passes were misplaced or sent sideways previously, there was now a real desire from both sides to get the ball forward. And one forward pass from Eagles picked out Church inside the box perfectly.
The Welshman held the ball up well, but didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It meant that Morrison opting to clatter into the back of him was not only careless, but completely unnecessary. Church sent tumbling and a penalty awarded to the Addicks.
Those celebrations that followed, however, were calmed somewhat when Buyens went to collect the ball. A fantastic penalty taker, but a man who had recently struggled to play the simplest of passes, and looked devoid of confidence in a side full of it.
But, while picking out a teammate ten yards under no pressure has been a challenge, dealing with the pressure of a potentially match-winning spot kick is of no problem to Buyens. The Standard Liege loanee composed as he walked up to the ball, and calmly placed beyond Moore.
Cue vocal and vigorous celebrations that have rarely been matched. In the grand scheme of things, the difference between one point and three means little to a Charlton side now marooned in mid-table, but it was enjoyed like a goal that was season defining.
Composure was needed, however. While Valley Floyd Road was blasted out by those in the away end with all the passion of a winning side, the Addicks still had work to do. Something that was reaffirmed when substitute Alex Revell headed over, and four minutes of stoppage time was announced.
But Charlton’s own sub was making sure the game would be won by his side. A lovely jink past Connolly gave Church the space to bomb forward with the ball at his feet, and while his efforts weren’t quite as skilful as Watt’s in midweek, the Welshman’s hold up play took valuable seconds out of the game.
In fact, by the next time the Addicks had the ball in the corner, they had done enough to secure their victory. The referee’s final whistle sparking another set of fantastic celebrations, enjoyed by supporters and players.
Even Luzon, heading down the tunnel without doing so in previous victories, came over to enjoy the moment with his players and the fans. The first cries of “Luzon, Luzon, Luzon” heard as he did.
And they were deserved. Charlton’s third win a row – the first time the Addicks have recorded three consecutive victories in the league since January 2013.
While this wasn’t the most eye-catching performance of his reign, the performance disappointing for much of the game, it was the one that required the biggest show of character.
In fact, this was the first time the Addicks had come from behind to win a game since the 3-2 victory over Sheffield Wednesday in April 2014. Just like on that day, the comeback at the Cardiff City Stadium was made more impressive by the fact it didn’t seem possible.
But the attitude of this group of players, questionable for legitimate reasons at times this season, can now firmly be called fantastic. Their heads and hearts are certainly in the right place, and that showed with the rally in the game’s final twenty minutes or so.
And maybe that was shown most of all by Church. Shunned and mistreated, you would understand if his performances were half-hearted, but he continues to give his absolute all whenever called upon. His role, both in winning the penalty and his hold up play either side of that, vital.
A player who joked about needed to be saved this week Charlton’s crossbar challenge, but he saved himself with that performance.
Nonetheless, praise must once again be heaped upon Watt.
Even while the Addicks were sluggish, he continuously tried to create something with his brave and direct running. His goal a reward for that.
He’s quite simply the player we’ve been missing; talisman whose presence, power and skill can win games. We’ve got ourselves a player and a half there, and it’s absolutely vital we keep him.
If we do, more todays like today will be enjoyed. And today was bloody marvellous.