A player wearing Charlton red collapsing in despair come full-time is not an unfamiliar sight this season. The pain and embarrassment of constant spineless defeats too much for those representing the Addicks, but sympathy has often been in short supply.
Work harder, fight more, and put in enough effort to show this pain is genuine. To show the pain you feel isn’t just personal, and instead a collective one shared by supporters and players. To show that everything has been put in in quest of a result, and not encourage a hostile atmosphere with half-heartedness.
But hearts would have sank among even the sternest of critics as Charlton’s U18s, almost as one, dropped to the Steel Park pitch. The youngsters made to appear all the more devastated as their Coventry City counterparts, needing the injection of adrenalin the moment provided to display such energy, sprinted and leaped in all directions in celebration of their progression beyond the FA Youth Cup’s fourth round.
For this was a contest, if not a battle, that required every last drop of effort from each player on both sides. Not the sort of silky passing encounter between two academy sides that is normally encouraged, but a physical one between two sides desperate for victory. Everything given by the Addicks in order to avoid the 2-1 defeat they ultimately suffered.
Or, at least, everything given from the moment the young Reds conceded a second goal inside the opening 18 minutes. Jordan Shipley, after a corner was only half-cleared, adding to Bandla Sambou’s ninth minute composed finish. Seemingly overwhelmed by the strength and pace of the Sky Blues, panicking in possession and losing almost every fight for the ball, you could not argue that this was a position they didn’t deserve to be in.
The response thereafter, therefore, even more impressive considering it would have been incredibly easy to completely crumble; something the first team have done on various occasions in similar circumstances this season. They fought harder with each passing minute, matching Coventry’s strength and pace as half-time approached, but lacked a touch of composure in the final third.
A similar story throughout the second. The effort and energy growing, but the reward it deserved continued to evade the Addicks. Coventry, providing the occasional threat on the break, worthy of as much praise for their defiant and determined defending, and Charlton constantly cutting frustrated figures as they wasted promising openings.
Such was their misfortune in front of goal, you almost expected Chris Millar to miss his 73rd minute penalty, awarded after Brendon Sarpong-Wiredu was hauled down. Millar’s composed bottom-corner finish, however, gave the Addicks some hope.
But for all their fight, effort and intent, there was to be no extension of the visitors run in the Youth Cup.
In truth, Charlton’s youngsters had reason to blame themselves for such a defeat. The slow start, and conceding two sloppy goals incredibly costly, while their lack of composure and execution in the final third ultimately the reason their fight wasn’t rewarded.
But as the beaten bodies lay on the floor, you could only share their despair. A despair their effort certainly did not deserve.
In what was a slow and scrappy start to the game, not helped by both goalkeepers having trouble landing their kicks inside the white lines of the pitch, it was Steve Avory’s side who had the first opening. Energetic skipper George Lapslie ambitiously striking from distance, sending his swerving effort over the bar.
It was not, however, a sign of things to come. Before either side had had the chance to settle, the Addicks found themselves behind.
Chris Camwell given far too much time and space in the middle, and able to send a perfect through a perfect ball that bisected Charlton’s centre-backs and met the run of Sambou. The forward calmly rounding goalkeeper Jordan Beeney, and tapping into the near-empty net.
With that, unsurprisingly, Coventry were able to final some sort of stride. The vicious wind at Corby Town’s Steel Park contributing towards this game being a physical battle rather than a contest of class and skill, and the Sky Blues were certainly winning the fight. Reece Ford winning almost everything at the back, their midfield pressing high, and forward pair Sambou and Shipley continued to apply pressure on Charlton’s somewhat struggling backline.
And still the Addicks had not properly adapted 18 minutes into the game, when the pressure applied to their attempt to clear a corner meant it fell perfectly to Shipley inside the box. The forward emphatically punishing Charlton’s somewhat weak and indecisive defending, lashing beyond a motionless Beeney.
The dropped heads of those in red suggested this was going to be a rather long night for the Addicks, enduring both the unpleasant conditions and Coventry’s overpowering strength. But to suggest this group of youngsters had accepted defeat would have been misguided.
For immediately there was an effort to respond, as if conceding the second had injected the composure and fight that should have been instilled among Avory’s men from kick-off. Lead by the resilience of Ezri Konsa, the midfield determination of Lapslie, and the unrelenting pressing both with and without the ball from forward Terrique Anderson, the Addicks began to grow back into the contest.
Millar dragging an effort wide, Taylor Maloney picking up a loose ball after excellent work from Anderson and striking past the post from distance, and Corey Addai called upon to keep out Sulaiman Bah’s, albeit rather tame, stab towards goal from the edge of the area. Promising, if lacking a little potency.
But you could not fault Coventry’s commitment to the cause, certainly showing no signs of complacency despite their advantage. A sea of Sky Blue shirts throwing themselves in front of a stinging Bah strike, that seemed to be heading in without a vital intervention.
In addition to putting Charlton back in with a reasonable chance, a goal prior to half-time for the Reds would have made this an incredibly pulsating cup tie. An anxious hush over the ground, broken by a few Charlton prayers, as Millar was sent through on goal but could only send his shot tricking beyond the far post. Unquestionably the visitors’ best chance to reduce the deficit.
And a failure to take such an opening might have proved doubly costly before the interval. The Sky Blues still possessing a threat, particularly through the pace and quick feet of Kyle Finn down the right, and the diminutive winger was the unlikely man to narrowly head a Coventry delivery wide.
Given the pressure Charlton were applying, it certainly seemed like a third goal was needed for Coventry to feel assured of their progression through to the fifth round of the competition. A third goal, or 45 minutes of unrelenting defiance in defence. Certainly more defiance than was on show as Anderson beat his man to cross for Maloney, with the Sky Blues thankful the midfielder was unbalanced as he shot over the bar.
It was the seemingly tireless Anderson that was their biggest concern, chasing down every lost cause and throwing his rather small frame around to great effect. A lovely jink on the edge of the box allowing the forward to shoot, but Addai equal.
But if his effort was tireless, there was only so much frustration the youngster could take with the chances he was failing to take. His disappointment obvious as he broke into the box, but could only strike agonisingly across the face of Addai’s goal. His unrelenting energy and pressure, but misfortune in front of goal, summing the Addicks as a whole.
You could not fault their desire at all, but you still could their execution. Coventry defending well, most certainly, and applying pressure, but too often the Addicks were wasting promising positions with blind passes and wayward crosses.
Such frustration probably the motivation behind Bah’s rather desperate appeal for a penalty just beyond the half hour. Hitting the deck rather softly right in front of the referee, the official immediately waved for play to continue. A growing sense that this wasn’t to be Charlton’s night.
A sense that was inches from growing as Coventry mounted a rare attack, with Jak Hickman’s ridiculous curling effort seemingly heading comfortable wide before coming back inside and only narrowly missing Beeney’s far post. A touch of quality in Shipley’s strike thereafter, too, as the forward spun and volleyed in one motion, but couldn’t quite direct his effort on-target.
But just as those doubts about whether the Addicks really did have a chance of completing a comeback emerged, they were soon replaced by the genuine hope that their efforts arguably deserved. Substitute Sarpong-Wiredu breaking into the box, and cynically brought down by Camwell as the full-back looked to drive across the face of goal.
Immense pressure on Millar, who had suffered the lively-but-luckless curse that had hindered Charlton’s players in forward positions, to convert. Pressure he dealt with with extreme maturity, slotting beyond Addai’s dive. Game on.
Unfortunately, the Sky Blues had also intercepted the memo that suggested there was now a game on. Their defiance only increasing, as they pressured the Addicks with energy they really should not have had at such a stage in the contest.
It forced the Addicks to panic in attacking positions, not only increasing Coventry’s chances to break forward but limiting their efforts on goal to almost nothing. The composure of Sam Bone in the middle not matched by his teammates, as they overhit passes and flung the ball into the box far too early. Even when they did create an opening, Addai was equal to Anderson’s effort.
And so too was Addai equal, when pressure may have produced nerves, to Charlton’s deliveries in the closing stages. In a game where neither ‘keeper was able to really show the true extent of their qualities, his claim in stoppage-time from a testing Millar delivery was superb.
Fitting, therefore, that it was he and his centre-backs who responded most passionately to the blowing of the full-time whistle. Their defiance throughout the game, in the face of constant Charlton pressure, as important as Coventry’s two early strikes in the Sky Blues winning this tie.
Or at least responded most passionately in celebration, for it was apparent that this defeat was an understandably tough one to take for the Addicks. The Steel Park pitch momentarily replicating a battleground, with the troops in blue marching forward beyond those in red that they had just knocked out.
For their fight and effort, Coventry deserved victory. For their early sloppiness, Charlton’s sense of injustice was partially limited. But for their fight and effort, you could not help but feel that the Addicks did not deserve to be enduring this feeling.
In the immediate aftermath, taking positives from such a defeat will be near impossible for the broken young men in Charlton’s side.
But hopefully it will be a defeat that will barely be remembered, at least not in comparison to some of the individuals who played in it. There is certainly promise among this group, irrespective of their defeat.
Konsa, after starting in relatively uncertain fashion, showed the composure and resolve that has seen him called into the first team. Lapslie probably covered more ground than anyone else, never backed out of a tackle, and passed sensibly, while Bone was very, very composed, especially in such a frantic game. Anderson giving more energy than some of Charlton’s first-team forwards have all season, and desperately not to be rewarded with a goal.
Collectively, you do hope they bounce back from this heartbreak, and look to make amends in the league. Efforts like tonight, and they surely will.
It would also be nice if they could inject their fight and desire into the first team, who seem to be overcome by adversity at times and unable to deal with testing circumstances. A really strong and committed group of lads.