There is a cancer that runs through this football club. A cancer that, for a period, seemed to be in remission.
The symptoms, at their worst in February, appeared to have lessened. Despair prevented with promising performances. Anger calmed by encouraging additions. Apathy addressed by a controversially appointed head coach working hard to build a connection with supporters.
In fact, there were some giving Charlton the all clear. The treatment unconventional, but results suggesting attachment, expectation and enjoyment could return.
Alas, those results were read naively. The cancer that runs through Charlton Athletic Football Club always remained, and the stage of remission was only brief.
For despair was felt just two minutes into proceedings with Preston North End at The Valley. The Addicks at a disadvantage early on in a game that many had deemed a must win, as a Paul Gallagher free-kick, conceded in sloppy fashion, was placed into Charlton’s net, guarded terribly by wall and goalkeeper.
Anger soon grew. Intensity, character and potency implicitly promised with a strong Valley atmosphere pleaded for, but instead supporters were left insulted by a performance lacking all of those qualities. Defensive organisation that a Sunday League team would have been embarrassed by capitalised on again before the break, as Gallagher finished superbly from a half-cleared corner.
There were boos, strong and poisonous, at half-time, but the mood turned to apathy as it became apparent those representing the Addicks possessed little fight. The already sparse crowd decreasing in size at regular intervals after Daniel Johnson had capitalised on yet more calamitous Charlton defending to curl well beyond a stationary Nick Pope from distance.
And as the final whistle was blown, a combination of all the symptoms of this cancer were felt. Most supporters already well away, hiding, from both it and their club.
But those that remained aggressively told Guy Luzon, who headed down the tunnel without emotion, it was his time to be sacked. The half-hearted claps of a group of players long beaten, mentally and in score line, were turned away with a piercing cry of “you’re not fit to wear the shirt”. The realisation that the Addicks, without a win in nine and having been dragged into the bottom three, were facing a relegation battle devastating.
Those representing the club taking the blame, but they are merely products of the main problem. A club, and ownership, structure infected in so many areas that success on the pitch is impossible. The flaws, briefly hidden in a sea of positivity, again exposed.
And even if there is to be another physical recovery, there is no getting away from the soul-destroying nature of a disastrous night in SE7.
The extent of the misery could not be predicted, but there was hardly a feeling of confidence prior to kick-off under The Valley’s floodlights.
For while Preston, without a win in nine league games and depleted in defence and attack, did not appear an irresistible force, the weakness of Charlton’s starting XI was incredibly concerning.
It was Johnnie Jackson who had been deployed by the club in order to beg for an inspiring atmosphere in the build-up to the game, but Luzon opted to play the so far unimpressive El-Hadji Ba in his place.
A move particularly difficult to understand given the need for leadership in such an important game. That especially true given Patrick Bauer’s suspension, replaced by Naby Sarr, and the Championship debut handed to Tareiq Holmes-Dennis, in place of the injured Johann Berg Gudmundsson. The side without cohesion and quality.
The options on the bench, with the skipper in reserve and Simon Makienok returning, at least provided some solace. A chance of victory if things could be kept tight going into the game’s closing stages.
But the early signs offered no suggestion that such a scenario could be played out. Charlton static and sloppy, as Ba allowed Holmes-Dennis’ pass to run away from him, and Preston with pace and energy, as Adam Reach collected the loose ball and drove forward with real intent. Ba forced to haul back the Middlesbrough loanee, conceding a free-kick on the edge of his own penalty area.
A decent opportunity for the visitors, but not one that should have been taken with relative ease. A real quality kick required to beat a well-structured wall and a perfectly positioned goalkeeper.
Alas, the wall resembled one built by the sort of builders featured on Watchdog, and Pope was so far to the left of his goal even Jeremy Corbyn would have been startled. The calmness with which Gallagher strode up and simply lifted the ball into the unguarded area of Charlton’s net almost insulting to those representing the Addicks. Despair for those in the stands.
They were, however, diligent. Those in the stands, that is, as they quickly replaced stunned silence with supportive chanting. Famous Valley nights briefly crossed your mind – hope of a comeback existing.
But a response from those on the pitch was not forthcoming. Intensity lacking, passing sideways or hopeless punts, and the structure of the side a complete mess. Jordan Hugill played through, and bundled over by Alou Diarra in a position not too dissimilar to the one Gallagher opened the scoring from, with the Addicks fortunate to get the better of a desperate scramble after the Preston skipper’s strike bounced off the wall. Grim.
Tony Watt, back in the side ahead of Franck Moussa, single-handedly provided the spark to keep the crowd from turning, with bustling runs drawing roars of expectation, but the Scot on more than one occasion simply ran himself into a dead end.
The alternative to an aimless Watt run, slow and sideways passing before Sarr punted it upfield or Ba lost it, was hardly any more encouraging. The atmosphere flat, with frustration growing. Sarcasm, the unfair dramatic cheers as Pope comfortably saved a driven strike from the impressive Johnson and the reasonable wahays that followed a Ba pass, required to keep the crowd sane.
Insanity was only a whisker away, though, as Reach, giving the uncharacteristically poor Solly a torrid time, crossed superbly for Alan Browne to glance a header agonisingly wide of Pope’s far post. Confusion among those in red as to how the Preston man had been allowed so much space, and anger building in the Covered End.
At least they were able to celebrate a shot or two, the chants heard at the Madjeski on Saturday repeated, just before the half hour. Watt cutting inside, and drilling an effort straight at Jordan Pickford, before a penetrative run from the Scot resulted in a horribly wayward effort flashing across the face of goal.
And if Ba had any control of his feet, they might well have had another. The midfielder linking up with the equally abysmal Zakarya Bergdich, only to lose the ball behind him when inside the box. The ball then lost as Morgan Fox shot from distance, and fired well wide.
But to have been encouraged by any of the time spent in Preston’s half would have been incredibly naïve. The same problems, particularly in intensity and cohesion, remained as North End were constantly afforded space to attack. Marnick Vermijl’s strike taking a wicked deflection off Jordan Cousins’ head, and only narrowly ending up the other side of Pope’s post.
It was, however, merely delaying further suffering. Gallagher’s corner delicately chipped to the front post, where a sea of bodies challenged under what appeared to be a commanding punch from Pope, but there was nothing delicate about his follow up.
The former Leicester man sweetly striking a volley into the far corner from the tightest of angles. His celebration in front of the Covered End at least meant supporters had the chance to deflect their anger to someone other than their own for five seconds or so.
Then they booed. They booed with more intensity that Charlton had shown for 36 minutes. Their heads dropped, this side beaten
And after one of those bizarre moments when the Addicks had something that resembled a shot, Watt scuffing wide when well placed to test Pickford, the damage might well have been doubled.
Pope earning some applause after denying Gallagher, the freedom of the pitch once again, a hat-trick with a finger-tip save, before horrendous marking from the resulting corner allowed Browne to crash a header against the bar.
A two goal lead did not do justice to how much Preston, with simple composure and occasional class Charlton had no intention of matching or dealing with, were exploiting the almighty cracks. A performance so poor, lacking in effort to such an extent, and with such an abysmal structure that it was insulting to those supporters who had been promised more. A worse 45 minutes not seen in SE7 for some time, and the boos reflective of that.
Thoughts of a comeback delusional, and made even more unlikely with a start to the second half from the Addicks that merely carried on from where the first left off. Pushing and shoving in a melee the only intensity shown, as Preston sat back and comfortable contained the half-hearted attempts of the hosts to get forward.
The final throw of the dice needed to be taken. He had long been called for, which only increased after a particularly embarrassing touch from the incredibly dire Ba, and finally Jackson was introduced just after the hour. His presence would surely eek any fight out of this battered side, and Makienok being brought on would give Luzon’s side some sort of threat up top. Hope.
Hope that lasted less than a minute. Fox, as poor as he has been all season, handing possession straight to Johnson, and Holmes-Dennis slipping as he attempted to close down the midfielder. The horrendous defending, however, took nothing away from the quality of his finish, curling superbly beyond Pope from distance. A dramatic demonstration of the ease at which he floated around the pitch all night.
Admiring an opposition player could be reserved for another day, though, as Charlton supporters had anger and frustration to vent. “You’re getting sacked in the morning” aimed at Luzon, who cut a helpless figure, but really it was a chant born out of anger at the state of the club.
Luzon, though, had evidently buckled under the pressure. There was to be no response, no fight or even the slightest sign of effort from his players for the remainder of the game. He had no control and no impact. The fourth that Preston almost scored, as Johnson got in behind and unsettled the side netting, hardly relevant. It could not get any worse than this.
Makienok jumped to win headers, and berated his teammates for not being in a position to support him. Jackson chased, and chased, and chased some more, but could not have any impact in a side unwilling to fight. The support, getting smaller and smaller by the second, had given up.
Preston played out the final minutes of the game in a manner that suggested they were just one goal up, or fearful of a fightback. But they needn’t have been. Always in control, always confident on the ball and always composed. Always better than the shambles they were up against.
Even with defensive intentions, they were still able to carve open the slow, unstructured and uninterested Charlton defence as the full-time whistle approached. Browne firing across the face of goal, and substitute Will Keane played through only to blast over when he probably could have done better.
And with that, viva a quick warm-up undertaken when four minutes of additional torture were announced, the release of anger following the game’s conclusion could get underway. The ground half empty, but the boos as loud as they have ever been in SE7.
Luzon headed down the tunnel to a chorus of “you’re getting sacked in the morning”. The players were told they were “not fit to wear the shirt” as Jackson attempted to lead them over. The mood an unbearable mix of venomous anger, and utter despair.
This a night that will not be forgotten. Another night instigated by the Roland Duchatelet regime that will not be forgotten. That will not be forgotten for the extent of the misery, the pain, and the disillusion.
That, of course, is not used to deflect any anger and criticism away from those who featured more prominently specifically in this Valley debacle.
For they are deserving of all they have and will receive.
The effort of the players simply not acceptable. Sarr, Ba and Bergdich among those who were particularly woeful, but all showed a complete lack of desire and fight.
The decisions of Luzon inexcusable. A bizarre team selection, substitutions made too late, and a complete inability to impact the game and lift his side.
The use of injuries as an excuse insulting and infuriating. That some players are absent does not justify such a lack of intensity, cohesion and character, as Preston showed with a performance to be proud of despite missing a number of key players.
I had not wanted Luzon to go before tonight, but I’m beginning to fear the dressing room is lost. Such a desperately poor performance suggests that might be the case.
Alas, there is no quick fix. Sacking Luzon, you would think, would simply result in him being replaced by another body from within the network, working within the same limitations, with the same squad.
The problem is not exclusively that the players are not working hard enough, that the side lacks cohesion, and that the head coach has made a shocking number of mistakes in previous weeks. They are problems that come as a result of the way the club is operated.
A squad that is apparently over budget, despite lacking any sort of strength in depth. A squad lacking experience and leadership, and too reliant on just a handful of players. A squad that contains far too many players not good enough, scouted by the club’s flawed recruitment strategy. The focus seemingly elsewhere.
A head coach who has shown in the past he is both passionate and talented, has been left looking clueless and disconnected. For he has been given not enough financial backing, not enough resources to compete, and wilted under the pressure. No head coach would thrive.
The structure is completely flawed, and driving people away from the football club. The naivety and arrogance of Katrien Meire infuriating, and epitomising the problems that are reflected on the pitch.
Supporters are disconnected, disillusioned, and depressed. Only so many more repeats of these scenarios that I, and you, can take.