The heads that belonged to the crushed were firmly facing the turf that they assumingly wished would swallow them.
As Brighton and Hove Albion, sacrificing celebration in hope of urgently restarting the game, raced back to their own half, Charlton trudged away from their goal area.
There was hope among the Seagulls, having come from two goals behind to equalise with seven minutes to play through Bobby Zamora’s strike, that they could steal victory against the ten remaining Addicks. The cries of ‘come on’ from the AMEX’s away end drowned out by the silence of those wearing red – not even an arm movement of encouragement was made.
An adverse situation for which there was never going to be a response. The confidence of this Charlton side too low, its character too weak, and leadership that can prevent such situations from proving overwhelming lacking.
It was not, therefore, when Stephen Henderson could only delay Tomer Hemed’s header from crossing the line with five minutes to play that the game was lost. That Brighton’s comeback was complete. That Charlton had thrown away a two goal lead.
But when, having provided an unrelenting pressure with little serious end product, a half of Seagulls dominance finally produced a second goal, 33 minutes after their first. A crushing moment, which this fragile group of Addicks were never going to cope with.
Particularly crushing, given the manner in which they started the game. Heads held high, destructive pace on the counter cutting through Brighton’s defence, and genuine belief that an unlikely win was going to be recorded against the unbeaten promotion hopefuls.
Ademola Lookman’s first professional goal stunning, and Reza Ghoochannejhad finishing coolly to give the Addicks a two goal advantage after just five minutes. Were it not for Brighton goalkeeper David Stockdale, it could have easily been three before the break.
Those wasted chances ultimately crucial. James Wilson lighting up a sluggish Albion after the interval, dancing through Charlton’s defence and finishing through Henderson. Pace and energy going forward completely absent, half through tiredness and half through fear, and the Addicks forced into a rut of nervy defending. Karel Fraeye unable to make a difference.
The situation made increasingly challenging as Patrick Bauer, hauling down Zamora when through on goal, was dismissed. Naby Sarr’s fresh air kicks not calming nerves, but through Brighton’s over-playing and something that resembled a bit of resolve, Charlton’s advantage remained.
So the response to Zamora’s equaliser, fortunately pouncing on a goal mouth scramble, was not irrational. A point more than expected prior to kick-off, but that took little away from how devastating it was to concede so late on.
Nor does it take anything away from the weak manner in which the Addicks responded to their opponents drawing level. More fight required, not complete capitulation as Hemed scored Brighton’s winner. Gutting. Anger. Positives tainted to an extent that it almost feels insulting to celebrate them.
An expected result, and not one that will relegate Charlton. But an afternoon that shows the character, the weakness in reserve, and the lack of quality in the technical area that leaves the Addicks at risk of finishing in the bottom three.
Those that had accepted a Brighton defeat were even more willing to do so as kick-off approached, with Fraeye naming something of a bizarre starting XI.
The underperforming Morgan Fox keeping his place, with Tareiq Holmes-Dennis rather harshly dropped to accommodate Chris Solly. A third academy graduate in the back four, as Harry Lennon started in place of the hapless Sarr. The strength of the defensive line questionable.
Questions also asked over the number of attacking players picked by the interim head coach. The injured Johnnie Jackson replaced by Reza Ghoochannejhad, and Simon Makienok benched in favour of Ricardo Vaz Te, but with Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Lookman also starting in the wide areas, it appeared an XI that lacked the balance and shape required against an unbeaten side. Brave or naïve?
That question was seemingly answered just two minutes after kick-off, as Brighton were slow to react to Vaz Te’s clever flick into the path of Ghoochannejhad. The Iranian feeding Lookman, with the away end responding with roars of excitement as the youngster ran at Bruno.
The bearded-but-bald full-back beaten with direct pace and clever footwork, allowing Lookman to lash towards goal. The angle tight, but the ball flying beyond an almost stationary Stockdale, unable to react appropriately to the venomous effort. A strike as enjoyable to watch as the celebrations that followed in the away end were to take part in.
And as the fist-pumps died down, and a defiant chant of “Valley Floyd Road” was sung on the 23rd anniversary of Charlton’s return to their home, another counter attack was launched. A Brighton corner coming to nothing, Vaz Te again clever in the middle, and Gudmundsson sent free down the left.
The Iceland international initially appeared to have been ushered too far wide for a direct impact, but an inch of space was found. His low ball across the face of goal avoiding the man in the centre, but falling perfectly to Ghoochannejhad at the back post. The first time finish, the disbelieving silence in the home end, and roar in the away end inspired by shock all emphatic.
Five minutes played. The Championship leaders trailing 2-0 to a crisis club, their unbeaten start to the season in a less healthy state than Katrien Meire’s reputation, and disillusioned Charlton supporters treated to something to celebrate.
If the Addicks required further encouragement, it’s that their opponents looked completely rattled by the blitz they had been victims of. Brighton just about coping with retaining possession in the middle, but lacking confidence and creativity going forward. Their crosses and set-pieces dealt with with minimal fuss.
That isn’t to say, particularly while energy was high among this fragile Charlton side, a third wasn’t desperately pleaded for in the away end. Their prayers almost answered as another dynamic break concluded with Vaz Te picking out Ghoochannejhad at the back post, and Stockdale responding with a fine save to block away the Iranians header.
So a long stoppage in play didn’t appear particularly helpful to the Addicks. As Solly March, Brighton’s main threat, and Lennon, ultimately replaced by Sarr, had their head injuries nursed, Chris Hughton’s side had the chance to regroup. At the very least, Charlton’s momentum had seemingly been halted.
But just two minutes after play had resumed, and the Addicks were on the counter again. Brighton’s defensive line far too high, and getting caught out far too often, as Ghoochannejhad gained possession and bombed forward. The ball eventually worked into the box, where Gudmundsson was waiting, only for Stockdale to pull of the most incredible of point-blank saves. The first time all afternoon that a Brighton played had received proper appreciation from the home supporters, and those in the away end were left frustrated.
A moment that almost immediately proved doubly important. March cutting into the box from the left, and striking an effort not too far over the bar. His continued liveliness the biggest glimmer of hope for Brighton, and the biggest reason for Charlton to remain fearful.
And as half-time drew closer, nerves in the away end increased. Lewis Dunk lacked composure as he blasted a loose ball well over Henderson’s bar, former Addick Dale Stephens slicked a strike wide, and Bruno’s excellent cross was crucially cut out by Patrick Bauer before Wilson could connect.
The eight additional minutes to be played at the end of the half set-up to be a slog, and hearts were once again in mouths as March’s delivery somehow avoided everyone in the centre and bounced wide by the narrowest of margins.
But while Charlton supporters were desperately calling for Keith Stroud to blow for half-time, an unexpected counter was launched. Lookman played through, and the excellent Stockdale denying him at the near post before the youngster drilled wide. The contest so close to being killed off once again.
Frustrating, but little could taint Charlton’s stunning first half performance. Brighton growing into the game, and an uncomfortable second half likely, but there did not appear reason for those in the away end, hugely appreciate of their side’s efforts as they retreated down the tunnel, to fear the worst.
A solid start to the second period, however, was required. The Seagulls needed to be frustrated for as long as possible, and not allowed an immediate route back into the game. An early goal, and the confidence and ability of a side sitting top of the table would surely return.
The net that Henderson was guarding rippling just five minutes into the second half, therefore, meant relative calm became genuine panic. Particularly given how easily Wilson was allowed to waltz through several men in red who stood in his way, before converting via a feeble attempt from Charlton’s goalkeeper to keep the effort out.
And though the defence failed to bring sanity to the away end, Henderson was at least a lot more convincing as Brighton began a half-long raid on Charlton’s defensive third. First holding onto Stephens’ tame effort, before superbly tipping March’s swerving strike onto the bar.
The Irishman’s hands were surely to be tested further. Brighton now unrelenting, and constantly creating openings in wide positions only to be guilty of over-playing or delivering an over-hit cross. Charlton abandoning any sort of attacking intent, but not showing the required composure on the ball needed to slow the game down.
Composure also lacking as a flowing Seagulls move resulted in the ball being sent through to Zamora, and Bauer opted to drag him to the floor in clumsy fashion. The argument that the German was not denying a goalscoring opportunity was a very weak one. Stroud, in a rare moment of competence, correct in his decision.
As if this Charlton side, and the away end, weren’t a collective bundle of panic already, the resulting free-kick made sure they were. Beram Kayal’s effort deflecting off the wall, and looping over Henderson’s bar in somewhat uncomfortable fashion. March’s effort from the resulting corner weak, before the shell-shocked Addicks stood off Stephens and allowed him to drill an effort narrowly wide. Every Brighton cheer of encouragement matched by a Charlton breath of hope.
Fraeye doing little to help the anxiety. This not a moment for the lacklustre El-Hadji Ba to half-heartedly float around the pitch, but on he came for the shattered, but excellent, Vaz Te. The lack of quality on the bench crippling the Addicks.
Lookman, Gudmundsson and Ghoochannejhad made attempts to work forward moves for the visitors, but the trio were visibly shattered, not to mention a bit lost with Charlton possession little shape away from their own box. Gudmundsson soon withdrawn, another to add to the injury list, and replaced by Holmes-Dennis. Square pegs in round holes needed to see out the game.
Meanwhile, Brighton had introduced prolific forward Hemed as they continued to search for the equaliser their pressure was beginning to deserve. Or at least it would if there end product matched their often excellent build-up play, with crosses still regularly not reaching targets and Solly seemingly throwing his body in every direction to keep Brighton at bay.
Kayal sliced an effort wide, and Wilson volleyed well off-target, but these were little more than quarter-chances. With ten minutes to play, some in the away end were beginning to believe.
So, of course, as nervy panic became nervy hope, the punishment that had long been on the cards was inflicted. The excellent March cutting into the box from out wide, with his resulting cut-back causing carnage in the middle. An initial effort saved, before the ball spun kindly for Zamora.
An element of fortune, and a rather scrappy goal, as the former QPR man drove the ball with some power into the bottom corner from six yards out, but there could be little argument that it wasn’t just reward.
But so too was the goal cruel on the Addicks. Beneficiaries of good luck themselves on more than a handful of occasions, they had worked relatively hard as individuals to maintain their advantage in testing circumstances. The look of despair on their faces, not to mention the utter heartbreak in the away end, said it all.
This, however, was not a time for anyone to feel sorry for themselves. A determined response required in order to cling onto what, in the circumstances, would still be a creditable enough point.
The Addicks could not respond in a fashion that showed their broken confidence. Intensity, determination and some sort of structure needed in the final few minutes to halt Brighton’s rampage.
They could not stand off Van La Parra as he shaped to cross from the right, nor leave Hemed in space in the middle.
But, alas, they did. Initial hope that Henderson had pulled off a spectacular reaction save crushed, as the ball eventually looped over the line regardless. A painful capitulation, both from minute five and from minute 83, that showed even Charlton’s most promising play could be rendered meaningless by the lack of organisation, character, and quality in reserve.
The remaining minutes merely existing to allow Brighton to celebrate their comeback, and the fact they sat top of the division. The Addicks with no desire to respond.
Charlton broken as the full-time whistle blew. Bodies in red slumping to their knees, and showing a reluctance to approach a set of away supporters overwhelmed with emotion and heartbreak. Jackson dragging them over, at least showing a degree of unity behind their skipper.
But it did little to prevent the fact that this was yet another day where supporters of the club had been left in piece.
In truth, there were those supporters who could put to one side their misery, and applaud the players for their efforts. Positives to take from the outstanding first half display, particularly given the chances created for a third goal, and criticism harsh given the standard of opponent played. Brighton, with Kayal and Stephens metronomic and March lively, showing their qualities in the second half.
But those that did were merely hiding their suffering. This, particularly in the context of the crisis the Addicks are in, a crippling capitulation. The enjoyment and excitement that the opening 45 brought replaced by utter despair that only increased from the moment the Seagulls equalised.
And even some of those that applauded would have been sealing genuine anger. Anger that can be directed a variety of sources.
The first is those wearing Charlton red. Individual mistakes rife after the break, but the more pressing concern the manner in which the second goal was responded to. That a response of a side that lack the required fight in a relegation battle.
Then there is frustration with Fraeye’s tactics in the second period. The forward players largely floating around unable to contribute very little, and yet none of them were withdrawn prior to Bauer’s sending off in order to provide shape and structure. His substitutions, too, infuriating.
But so too do his substitutions mean anger can be directed to those above him. This squad simply not good enough, with the horrendous Sarr having to replace a youngster in Lennon, and the awful Ba introduced before going onto contribute nothing.
With more injuries and suspensions coming out of this game, it feels doubly devastating. A heart-breaking, infuriating, and concerning manner of defeat, with the chances of achieving victory in the coming games now decreased.
The squad mentally weak, and lacking quality. The interim head coach not good enough. The CEO and ownership laughable.
It’s bleak. Very bleak.