It a reflection of the failure of this regime that the diligent and committed Charlton Athletic supporters who travel to all parts of the country, ignoring past suffering and irrationally hoping they will return home victorious, have been left so starved of the rewards their efforts deserve.
To the extent that even the most optimistic have been reduced to laughing at their particular inability to perform away in order to take some sort of pleasure from their travels. “We’re the Charlton, the mighty Charlton, we never win away,” sung early on by an away end supportive of the team but not the regime.
And as full-time approached, the same song was being belted out with increased gusto. But not in an attempt to embrace the Addicks’ ineptitude, instead to further the embarrassment that those of a Rotherham United persuasion were suffering.
Or at least those of a Rotherham United persuasion who remained inside the New York Stadium. Many departing long before substitute Ademola Lookman finished coolly in stoppage-time to give Jose Riga’s side a 4-1 lead, and seal a vital three points against a relegation rival. Those in the away end savouring every last moment of this rare, and excellent, away win.
The visiting supporters enjoying themselves from the fourth minute, as the heavily criticised Zakarya Bergdich and Simon Makienok combined for the latter to emphatically smash the Addicks in front. The Dane shh-ing the away end, but they were too busy celebrating as wildly as they have all season to oblige.
Their joy, however, was rather rudely interrupted seven minutes later. Various members of Charlton’s backline nervy and out of position, allowing Chris Burke to draw the hosts level. The high intensity of the visitors taking a momentary knock, and the slightly unstable backline allowing the Millers the occasional opening.
But Igor Vetokele’s energy and fight, battling for every cause, never dipped, and he was presented with the opportunity to claim a deserved first league goal of the season just before the break. Johann Berg Gudmundsson getting the better of Joe Mattock, and teeing up the Angolan to tap in from close range.
So often have the Addicks conceded just before the break this campaign, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of their supporters throughout the interval, and laying the foundations for a gutless capitulation in the second period.
And scoring this goal had the opposite effect. The mood positive and supportive, even before Simon Makienok was left unmarked to head in Gudmundsson’s corner, celebrate in front of the home supporters, and give Charlton what appeared an unsaleable lead.
That confirmed with 16 minutes to go as Jonson Clarke-Harris blasted a penalty, one he won himself having been hauled down by a clumsy Jorge Teixeira, dramatically over Stephen Henderson’s bar.
Late saves from Charlton’s goalkeeper doing little to dispute the suggestion that Rotherham had long been beaten, in scoreline and mentally, with Lookman inflicting one final crushing blow on the hosts.
A first league win in 12 games. Only a third league away win in the space of a year. The Addicks still occupying a place in the Championship’s bottom three, and still firmly in a state of crisis, reaffirmed by one final chant of “Roland out” before the away end emptied.
But such stats and facts only make this superb away performance more deserved, for those supporters who travelled and players who fought in adversity, and more enjoyable.
Also enjoyable because of how vital this game was for both sides. With Rotherham four points above Charlton in 21st, defeat would be almost terminal for the Addicks.
That there were nerves among the 700 visiting supporters, many of who had travelled on free coaches provided by the club, was therefore understandable. Increasing as news filtered through that Makienok was the man chosen to replace the departed Tony Watt, and Bergdich had kept his place in an otherwise unchanged side.
And those nerves moved no closer towards settling as Rotherham created the first opening of the game. An unmarked, but thankfully off-balance, Joe Newell, turning the ball wide after Danny Ward had glanced Burke’s cross into his path.
Nonetheless, as the visiting supporters switched back and forth between anti-regime heckles and supportive chants, there was a certain amount of fight and energy in Charlton’s early efforts that suggested they were not simply going to capitulate like they have done in many high-pressure games. Pressing high, and battling for every ball.
So too were they moving the ball quicker, and showing a greater reluctance to cheaply give it away. Makienok holding the ball up well, and picking out the run of Bergdich. Anticipation increasing in the away end with each stride from the Moroccan, doing superbly well to hold off two Rotherham men.
Almost unnoticed, Makienok had continued his run, and found himself unattended on the edge of the box as Bergdich played the ball across. The Dane putting the momentum of his run and all the strength of his right foot into a first-time strike that gave Millers goalkeeper Lee Camp absolutely no chance. Out of nothing, the advantage was Charlton’s.
Pandemonium among the away supporters following, reaffirming their desire to support the team regardless of their hatred of the regime, and the gesturing Makienok enjoying it equally as much. The sarcastic cheers normally sent his way replaced by genuine ones.
And though Grant Ward immediately attempted to respond for the hosts, tamely firing wide from distance, this goal seemed vital for Charlton’s hopes of executing their game plan. The early boost increasing the intensity of their pressing, as Vetokele saw a strike well saved by Camp and Makienok came inches from embarrassing the goalkeeper by charging down his clearance. This energetic display stunning.
It was, therefore, incredibly frustrating that such forward energy was not matched by defensive resolve. With Rotherham spending most of their time penned into their own half, Harry Lennon’s inability to deal with a bouncing long ball under pressure from Grant Ward allowed Neil Redfearn’s side in. Danny Ward ultimately sending an unmarked Burke free, and the Nottingham Forest loanee finishing through Henderson.
But there could be no time for self-pity and a feeling that a Rotherham equaliser was cruel on the Addicks. They simply had to respond immediately to conceding, and resume their high-intensity efforts. A memo that Bergdich seemingly didn’t receive, as he carelessly misplaced a pass straight to Newell, and his resulting strike flashed just wide of Henderson’s post.
In fact, in addition to levelling the scores, Rotherham’s equaliser had drawn the overall pattern of play closer to some sort of equality. The Addicks, with Jackson, Jordan Cousins and Vetokele particularly combative, still fighting incredibly hard, but the Millers now appeared more confident in their attempts to capitalise on what remained a somewhat uncomfortable Charlton back four.
The tight nature of this contest probably best summed up as the two sides exchanged dead-ball efforts midway through the half. Gudmundsson’s strike claimed by Camp, and Burke’s attempt always just veering wide. Hard to predict where this game was going, after such a dominant start from the Addicks.
While Riga’s men continued to include the game’s standout player, however, it was arguably they who possessed the greatest threat. Camp racing off his line to prevent Vetokele from scoring, narrowly beating him to Bergdich’s ball over the top. The Angolan relentless.
But before Charlton supporters had stopped ruing Vetokele’s inability to connect, the Millers found themselves cursing the wastefulness of Grant Ward. The ball falling to him inside the box, in a position from which it appeared easier to score, only to skew it horribly wide. A chance out of nothing for Rotherham, but a huge let off for the Addicks.
One that Vetokele was intent on making costly for the hosts. The Angolan in again as Cousins played him through, but Farrend Rawson, just about staying within the laws of the game, did enough to hold off the tenacious forward.
Some bemoaned referee Keith Stroud’s failure to award a penalty, and some bemoaned the existence of referee Keith Stroud. But the incident, decent defending from Rawson rather than anything else, was soon forgotten.
Attentions turned as Gudmundsson, showing huge improvement upon recent lacklustre efforts, left Mattock for dead and broke into the box. He might have shot, but unselfishly teed up Vetokele, with the Angolan bundling his pass over the line. The lead regained with a minute to go until half-time.
The celebrations in the away end just as emphatic as the first. The nervousness, the anger towards the running of the club and the pain felt in recent months all contributing towards a release of joyful energy. This felt huge.
Alas, it would have been misguided to have remained carried away once the celebrations died down. Reaffirmed as Danny Ward cut in from the right at the start of the second half, and produced a curling effort that required a stunning save from Henderson to keep it out. Ward’s reaction suggesting he, as much as anyone else inside the New York Stadium, was not quite sure how the Millers hadn’t drawn level.
And he might have been left wondering how his side had found themselves two goals behind following the conclusion of Charlton’s next attack, with the characteristically committed Jackson driving an effort narrowly wide. Not a fluent and flowing start to the half from the Addicks, but there certainly remained enough about them to extend their lead.
That particularly the case given that Rotherham quickly began to grow more desperate, and their supporters more frustrated. Danny Ward’s tame shot, straight at Henderson, only fractionally better than Burke running the ball out of play, Grant Ward slipping over, and countless misplaced passes.
Angst around the New York Stadium only increasing as Makienok, who hadn’t exactly warmed himself to the hearts of Rotherham supporters, clashed with Kirk Broadfoot. The pair unable to leave each other alone, and both ultimately booked.
There was not, however, a contrasting mood of calm in the away end. Grant Ward’s horribly wayward strike providing some welcome relief, but not before Luciano Becchio had somehow been unable to flick fellow substitute Clarke-Harris’ header beyond Henderson. The two sides still separated by the finest of margins.
Fine margins also involved as Camp spectacularly kept out Jackson’s marvellous free-kick. Premature celebrations beginning in the away end before the goalkeeper’s fingertips incredibly tipped the effort over the bar.
But Camp, and his defence, weren’t in quite such sensational form from the resulting corner. The goalkeeper going wandering, his defence leaving a 6’7 forward unmarked, and Makienok able to head home Gudmundsson’s free-kick delivery. The Dane informing the home supporters on this occasion that it might be wise to keep quiet, much to their displeasure.
If the previous two goals had been real expressions of joy, this was simply one of relief. The nerves that had always been their regardless of the situation in this must win game suddenly vanishing.
So, of course, it was only right that the Addicks unnecessarily made things difficult for themselves. The uncertainty returning almost immediately as Clarke-Harris broke into the box, and was brought to the ground by Teixeira. There could be few complaints.
And nor could there be, at least in the away end, any complaints with Clarke-Harris’ resulting effort. Attempting to lash his spot-kick with all his might, he forgot to keep the ball down, sending it hurtling into the far reaches of the stand behind the goal that occupied the Charlton supporters. The forward crippled with embarrassment; the visiting supporters crippled with laughter.
Those nerves disappearing again, even if Clarke-Harris appeared desperate to make amends. An effort drilled wide and a header turned away from goal not troubling Henderson, nor the rather happy Addicks behind the goal.
More troubling for Henderson, however, was Becchio’s close-range header. Andrew Shinnie’s cross perfect for the former Norwich forward, and his execution decent enough to score, but Henderson pulled off an incredible reaction. This the sort of day where almost everything goes your way.
That this was one of those confirmed as Rotherham, in desperation rather than in hope, continued to commit bodies forward in stoppage time. A gap appearing for Gudmundsson to exploit, and substitute Lookman sent through. The youngster finishing with the calmness and maturity of a forward of far greater years.
A strike that merely rounded off an away performance of unexpected quality, and allowed for even more of the equally unexpected jubilant and vocal celebrations in the away end. Players have sometimes hid from supporters in recent weeks, but the group collectively acknowledged the efforts of their supporters at full-time.
The efforts of the players, and a delighted Riga, acknowledged in turn. Joyful scenes, a winning feeling, and something resembling pride felt for the first time in months. Glorious.
Though they did respond, it was that opening burst of pressure, energy and intensity that really rattled Rotherham. They panicked on the ball far too often, and had little response to the relentless efforts of the Addicks.
Relentless efforts, as much as quality and cohesion, have been completely absent in recent weeks, and the fully committed performance was probably what makes this so pleasing.
To see Jackson and Cousins at their best, fighting for every ball in the middle, Gudmundsson emulating the Gudmundsson of last season, with constant testing runs, and Makienok, in addition to his two well taken goals, battle more than he has done for much of the rest of the season combined, was uplifting.
Also uplifting were Vetokele’s efforts. The forward simply exceptional, chasing every loose battle, constantly pressurising defenders with energy that a man who has only recently returned from injury should not have, and able to provide a threat on goal. Sublime.
Uplifting, too, was the cohesion and collective spirit that Riga seems to have immediately provided. Roland Duchatelet and Katrien Meire, irrespective of how the Addicks were performing, lambasted throughout the 90 minutes and beyond, but the head coach respected and celebrated. For some, it’s difficult to split him from the regime, but maybe it’s better off viewing him as part of the team.
It is, however, vital to remain cautious. A defeat to Bristol City next week, and the efforts of today are effectively undone. This has to be backed up.
But not only have we avoided being cut completely off from safety, and been given an away day to enjoy and savour, the quality of the performance and margin of victory will provide momentum. There’s hope.
Much like the fight of supporters in recent weeks has given us a chance of getting our Charlton back, the fight of those representing the Addicks has given us a chance of avoiding relegation.