They may have been horrendously below par, the opposition may have carried an unrelenting threat and the officials may have made a number of questionable calls against them, but there was a feeling that Charlton’s fortunes in derby clashes were about to change.
It emerged midway through the first half after Stephen Henderson denied Lee Gregory from the penalty spot. Although Chris Solly, making an impressive save of his own, was dismissed for conceding the penalty, preventing dominant Millwall from going in front in such a fashion seemed like a turning point.
While the ten men continued to struggle, with the Lions composed in possession and compact without, Henderson’s heroics were made doubly crucial midway through the second period.
There was no doubt that Guy Luzon’s side did not deserve their lead, but that only increased the significance of Alou Diarra delightfully flicking home Morgan Fox’s cross. For once, with Millwall wasteful and Charlton converting their first real opening, things were going their way.
But instead of clinging on to their slender advantage to record their first win over the Lions since 1996, as was demanded, the Addicks shot themselves in the foot in a manner almost too depressing to comprehend.
It began with the substitution of Tony Watt. Millwall’s back four had done a commendable job in dealing with the Scot, but he was continuously winning Charlton’s punts forwards and giving his own back four time to regroup.
Without his presence, the test offered to the Lions decreased significantly, giving them much more time on the ball. Time that they used wisely, with a well-constructed move eventually resulting in substitute Magaye Gueye lashing in a superb equaliser via some questionable efforts from Charlton defensively.
And while Millwall, with Stefan Maierhofer and Nicky Bailey also introduced by Neil Harris, had a fresh impetus, Charlton looked increasingly lacklustre. The back four uncomfortable, the midfield disjointed, and Simon Church, Watt’s replacement, wasting a glorious opportunity.
It resulted in a barely believable implosion. The Addicks failing to deal with a corner, and Jos Hooiveld scrambling home a winner. If not the goal itself, then the noise from the home fans inside The Den brought despair, only to be reaffirmed at full-time.
The changes from the men in opposing dugouts changed the course of the game, and prevented a change to the pattern of results in this rivalry.
Quite the opposite was expected before kick-off, with visiting supporters arriving at The Den with the belief that their in-form side would simply be too much for Millwall, regardless of any hoodoo.
Such optimism only increased with the news that Igor Vetokele and Solly had returned to the starting line-up. In fact, the only disappointment was that Johnnie Jackson was not yet fit for a return, with Diarra replacing the suspended Yoni Buyens in midfield.
However, if this was Charlton’s strongest available side, then they were not showing it in the game’s opening stages.
Panicking in possession, constantly misplacing passes and struggling to win the ball back in midfield, it appeared as if the Addicks hadn’t quite anticipated such a level of intensity from the Lions. Outstanding challenges from Solly and Joe Gomez required to halt Millwall’s early charge.
But there was seemingly no answer to Millwall’s pressing and passing play as Luzon’s side continued to lack cohesion when with the ball and look disjointed without it. Gregory, who might well have scored had he got the ball under control, almost latching onto a punt forward a warning for the Addicks.
In fact, the Lions really should have been ahead with 18 minutes played. Charlton gifting their opposition far too much time and space, allowing Dan Harding to cross to an unmarked Ed Upson, who criminally ballooned his header well over Henderson’s crossbar.
Given the nature of the first twenty minutes, the on-the-pitch efforts from those in red did not match those in the stands, with the visiting fans unrelenting in their vocal and passionate support.
It required some rewarding, and should have provided motivation, and, through Watt especially, the Addicks were at least attempting to threaten on the break. But an effort dragged wide from Chris Eagles was all they could muster as Millwall continued their dominance.
The midfield belonged to Jim Adbou and Ed Upson, while Charlton’s reluctance to shut down their opponents was becoming a huge frustration. A frustration that eventually resulted in a serious problem for Luzon’s side.
With the Lions allowed to knock the ball around at ease, it was eventually fed through to Martyn Woolford, whose stab at goal was well saved by Henderson.
The danger, however, was not yet clear, and the ball eventually popped up to Aiden O’Brien, whose volley looked destined to give Millwall the lead. And it would have done, had Solly not flung himself in front of the ball with his arms outstretched. The stand-in skipper pleaded his innocence, but it seemed fairly clear live that the ball had struck a hand, leaving referee Russell with no choice but to point to the spot and send off a disbelieving Solly.
After fury had been sent in all directions from the away end, it was relatively quiet for the first time since kick-off. A murmur of boos and a nervy silence as Gregory stepped up to take the kick.
But he too was seemingly nervous, or at least that’s the only justification for such a tame penalty. His kick lacking power and placed far too close to Henderson, who responded with a vital save. A potentially game changing let off, celebrated as such in the once again noisy away end, for a Charlton side who had not yet settled.
And, somewhat surprisingly, the ten men looked immediately more composed than the eleven. Possibly spurned on by the penalty save, the Addicks, reshaped with Andre Bikey on to replace Eagles, began to grow into the midfield battle and limit Millwall’s dominance.
There was even some improvement going forward, with Watt starting to cause more problems. Hooivled booked for cynically stopping him from breaking, before seemingly committing a similar act moments later and getting away with it.
Alas, Charlton could not prevent a siege on their goal just before the break. Upson forcing Henderson into another fine stop, before O’Brien, Gregory and, rather ambitiously, Hooivled fired off-target.
Diarra may have headed wide on the stroke of half-time, but the interval came at exactly the right time for the Addicks, and proved a massive relief for those suffering in the away end.
It was apparent huge improvement was needed in the second period if it was to be slightly less taxing viewing for the visiting supporters, and Luzon was to be the first Charlton manager to record a win since 1996.
And with Gudmundsson running into space and curling an effort just wide right at the start of it, there was an indication that the Addicks were going to offer something more in the second half.
But Millwall’s intensity, as many had expected it to, had not died. Full of endeavour and fight, they continued to win back possession, often in impressive fashion, and start attacks of their own. Bikey and Roger Johnson were, for the most part, stifling their threat, but only the fingertips of Henderson prevented Upson from giving the Lions a lead they probably deserved.
So when Fox bombed down the left flank with 67 minutes played, it was simply a relief that the ball wasn’t in Charlton’s final third. A momentary respite for the under pressure Addicks.
Nonetheless, Fox continued his run and managed to squeeze in a driven cross that caught the Millwall defence off-guard. It picked out an unmarked Diarra, who classily flicked beyond a motionless Forde.
Out of nothing, against the run of play and arguably undeserved, the Addicks had the lead. Not that the nature of the goal mattered to those in the away end, who were making the most of their rare chance to celebrate at The Den.
And amidst the chaos, there was a real belief this was now Charlton’s. Not only because Millwall continued to be wasteful and things were, to an extent, going the way of the Addicks, but because the organisation Luzon had embedded into this side meant there was confidence in their ability to grind out this win.
But Harris had other ideas, responding to going behind by bringing on robust forward Maierhofer, who immediately made an impression. The aerial duels won by him, and his hold up play adding an extra dimension.
Nothing came of his early involvement, but his presence seemed to set the Addicks deeper than they needed to be. Once again, Charlton’s backline were standing off their opponents in frustrating fashion.
So Luzon’s decision to take off Watt appeared doubly bizarre. Not only was a player who could provide a goal out of nothing withdrawn, but the Scot’s pressing in attack and hold up play was seemingly crucial to this survival effort.
And the Israeli might well have regretted his decision as the Lions pulled level just a minute later, with the goal stemming from Millwall having time and space on the ball early on in the move.
As it was moved further up the pitch, Williams and Woolford were given similar amounts of time and space, before the former struck goalwards. And while his effort was struck straight at Johnson, the defender could only deflect the strike into the path of an unmarked Gueye, whose crisp volley just about deserved more praise than Charlton’s defensive efforts deserved criticism.
At the very least, there could be no time for an inquest with ten minutes to play. The Addicks needed to respond quickly, and that they did. A fantastic cross from substitute Frederic Bulot picked out Church, on for Watt, but the unmarked forward somehow conspired to nod wide. “Watt would have scored that,” heard 2,000 times over in the away end.
In a game of many turning points, it might well have been that miss that was the most crucial of all. For Millwall went straight down the other end, and won themselves a corner, much to the delight of the home fans, who were now making a very real roar.
It found its way to Gueye on the edge of the box, who attempted to strike through a sea of red and blue in front of him. But his effort avoided all red inside the area, and instead found Hooiveld, who got in front of Johnson and managed to deflect the ball in.
Cue bedlam around The Den. Depressing and soul-destroying bedlam that those in the away end were forced to watch and listen to. The longer it went on, the sicker you felt. Somehow, almost incredibly so, Charlton had found a way to capitulate against the Lions once again.
The away end was now solemn. The belief, a characteristic which had certainly stood Millwall in good stead, drained out of the Addicks. So much so that had Williams put the ball into a net left empty after Henderson had gone forward and headed a Charlton corner wide, the mood would not have got any worse.
Alas, the mood did get worse. As Church failed to connect with Johnson’s cross as Russell blew for full-time, the celebrations from home supporters rubbed in what a depressing situation this was. It would be wrong to say it should have been Charlton supporters enjoying those celebrations, but it really could have been.
And how those supporters wished it was as they were penned in following the conclusion of the game, forced to wait in the rain and crushed by sorrow. Their side had, once again, thrown it all away in a game that mattered.
The home supporters chanted “you’ll never beat Millwall” and I’m starting to believe this hoodoo might actually be a thing, but, once again, Charlton only have themselves to blame.
It’s easy to blame the referee, if not for the penalty, which I felt was correctly given, but the failure to send Hooiveld off, but it takes nothing away from how poor the Addicks were for the majority of the game.
Even in those times where Luzon’s side competed with the Lions, they were nowhere near the standard they have been at in recent weeks. And that is one of the most disappointing factors of the defeat – that we hugely underperformed.
It’s so frustrating sitting here several hours after the defeat knowing that, regardless of the sending off, we are capable of playing so much better, but weren’t able to do so in a game that matters so much to supporters. In fact, the penalty and Solly’s dismissal would not have occurred had we performed in the opening period.
And then, of course, there’s the abysmal effort to attempt to maintain a lead. Diarra went into hiding, Cousins was well below his usual standards and the defence appeared afraid. Afraid of a toothless and miss-firing attack. For much of the final 15 minutes, like it was in the opening 25 or so, it was shambolic.
But the most frustrating factor of all was Luzon’s removal of Watt. He wasn’t tired, he was doing a fantastic and vital job, and removing him was suicidal. Luzon has got so much right in recent weeks, but today he got it very wrong.
Harris, on the other hand, gets plenty of credit not only for getting a side that was previously dead and buried to play with such intensity, but also for his subs. Millwall’s efforts were, unfortunately, commendable.
I feel no injustice about the result, just disappointment that we’ve let ourselves down again. I really need to stop thinking about those Millwall celebrations at full-time.
If anyone needs me, I’ll be sulking until Tuesday.