They appeared to be in remission from the cancer that Roland Duchatelet’s regime had inflicted upon then. The intensity, fight and quality that was rewarded with victory at Rotherham a temporary antidote to this crippling disease. Seemingly at least enough to avoid relegation, if not a cure.
The period of remission, however, lasted just seven days. Those familiar symptoms, of half-heartedness, a flimsy structure and a lack of quality, returned in emphatic fashion. The relapse crushing the optimism and hope that had been created a week ago.
Optimism crushed for both those representing Charlton Athletic, and supporting this beleaguered club. A set of supporters who had applauded their side with great pride and delight come full-time at the New York Stadium were largely ignored at the conclusion of events at The Valley, as those that remained justifiably expressed displeasure and those wearing red bowed their heads in disappointment and shame.
For they had fallen to a gutless defeat to Bristol City. A defeat seemingly more costly than last weekend’s victory was crucial, and not just because the Addicks now sit at the foot of the table. The inability to maintain momentum, seeing it reversed to the feeling that existed during the 11 winless league games, makes it feel as if this strain of the disease is more lethal.
It took just a single goal for the Robins, a side also fighting against relegation, to record victory. A goal, irrespective of the slightly questionable manner in which it came, their fight and resolve deserved, and margin of victory that doesn’t justify how little pressure the visitors were placed under.
As banners were held up in protest with the clock at 19:05, a penalty was awarded, with Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s clumsy challenge sending Lee Tomlin to the floor. The decision upset Jose Riga but appeared a fair one, and Tomlin dusted himself down to convert the spot-kick through the hands of Stephen Henderson.
The Addicks had not played with the intensity seen at the New York Stadium up to that point, and they could not respond with any sort of energy thereafter. The 50-50 balls in midfield won frequently by a determined City, Nathan Baker and Aden Flint preventing Charlton’s desperate long balls from causing genuine threat, and goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell need not have worn his gloves. Riga’s side devoid of all the qualities shown last weekend, and all the qualities needed here.
By the end, as a subdued Valley grew frustrated to the point that their own were mocked, the only hope that existed was that the visitors’ toothlessness and Henderson’s palms would avoid further embarrassment.
For this, as those in red departed the field at full-time so quickly that there was barely enough time to voice disgust their way, seemed embarrassment enough. Not even Scott Wagstaff’s applause, receptive of the Covered End more than most now representing his former club, enough to provide any sort of relief.
Positivity replaced by pain. The disease inflicting misery, anger and apathy. The Addicks in as much a state of crisis as they ever were.
Such sorrow not expected prior to kick-off, given the huge boost in confidence that had been provided by the victory over Rotherham. Another impressive performance and victory demanded in a six pointer, regardless of the absence of the injured again Igor Vetokele.
The Angolan, with his tenacity and relentless running, was as crucial to Charlton’s high pressing and energetic display in Yorkshire as any other. Large boots for the equally pacey, though not yet as intelligent and strong, Ademola Lookman to fill.
But you could not blame the 18-year-old, or even the absence of Vetokele, for the slow and scrappy start Riga’s side made to proceedings. The ball not moved quickly enough, composure lacking, and the Robins not closed down with any sort of energy and power. Not a disaster, but disappointing when compared to the intensity that gave the Addicks an early lead at Rotherham, and unsettled them for much of the afternoon.
Even when possession was won and a break attempted, City’s robust midfield and backline, if sometimes illegally with Korey Smith booked for hauling back a rampaging Jordan Cousins, were in no mood to capitulate as the Millers did. The Addicks sloppy; the opposition defiant.
Unsurprising, therefore, that Charlton were required to show some defiance of their own to avoid falling behind. Flint’s near-post header, nodding on a Luke Freeman corner, parried away at the near post by Henderson and hurriedly cleared to safety. Confidence already overridden by nerves.
Nerves that began to settle as the hosts, without moving into a positive position, began to show a touch more composure. City’s pacey forward moves intelligently and cleverly halted, while possession was becoming quicker and more secure, even if an end threat remained elusive. Jorge Teixeira’s tame header, plucked out the air by O’Donnell, all they could muster.
It meant that, by the time a planned protest against Charlton’s poisonous regime was set to take place as 19:05 appeared on the clock, the game was in desperate need of some sort of injection of action. It was not, however, to come from the holding up of banners and the “stand up if you want them out” show of displeasure.
Instead, while most had their eyes on the excellent array of banners in the stands, Tomlin took a tumble under pressure from Gudmundsson as he attempted to collect a pass inside the box. Referee Mike Jones awarding a penalty without a second’s hesitation. The Addicks incensed, but the decision justifiable.
Justifiable, too, to suggest Henderson might well have been successful in keeping out Tomlin’s low and hard spot kick. The ball squirming just underneath the goalkeeper, turning a brief murmur of anticipation into disappointed silence, and allowing the Robins to celebrate with the assistance of a flare.
The only sort of flare on show at the Jimmy Seed Stand side of the ground, which the Addicks were attacking. The response to the goal more important than actually conceding, and unsurprising that frustration began to grow as the Robins prevented any Charlton attack from becoming substantial.
Even with half-time yet to arrive, you felt a second City goal would kill the game off, such were the struggles of Riga’s side. Especially if that goal were to be conceded in a comical manner. No one in red bothering to pick up the loose ball after Tomlin’s appeals for a penalty, having been hauled down by Teixeira, were turned down, resulting in Luke Freeman’s deflected shot needing Henderson’s fingertips to flick away from goal twice.
The whistle that signalled the interval was, therefore, most welcome, as Charlton played out the rest of the half in a fashion that suggested they were lacked direction. Far too much time taken on the ball, and it often ultimately lumped in the general direction of Simon Makienok’s blonde locks.
City, meanwhile, in addition to showing defensive resolve, were far more considered and composed on the ball. Smith and Marlon Pack dictating play, and winning the battle against Johnnie Jackson and Cousins, with Freeman, Tomlin and Jonathan Kodjia all providing a forward threat. The visitors comfortable.
Change needed if the Addicks were to get back into this one, and thankfully Riga obliged. Lookman, ineffective in the middle, pushed out wide to allow Gudmundsson something of a free role in between the midfield and Makienok. Players of great skill on the ball given some freedom could only be a good thing.
The Robins, however, were presented with an opportunity to prevent any sort of Charlton momentum developing at the start of the second period. Pack fouled by Jackson on the edge of the box, but Freeman was unable to double the advantage of John Pemberton’s side.
Meaning both interim boss Pemberton and newly appointed manager Lee Johnson, who watched from the stands, were dealt a rare moment of worry as the Addicks quickly got themselves down the other. The uninfluential Zakarya Bergdich picked out inside the box, unmarked and with a clear sight of goal, only to strike a tame effort straight at O’Donnell.
A shot, though. An actual shot on target. This was a progress of sorts. A progress of sorts that progressed a bit more as a Mark Little intervention was needed to block away a Lookman header from a superb Solly cross.
Maybe this was momentum. There was certainly a bit more energy and ambition in the way the Addicks were playing, and O’Donnell was giving something else to do from the resulting corner as he claimed Teixeira’s header. A small increase in enthusiasm in the Covered End, too.
It was, however, more a mood of desperate optimism and support than genuine belief of a Charlton comeback. Substitute Aaron Wilbraham’s blocked shot from a tight angle arguably more threatening than anything the Addicks had created, and still the hosts were overly reliant on a struggling Makeinok to win hopeful punts forward. The intensity and strategy still lacking.
As Charlton sub Reza Ghoochannejhad hesitated slightly in getting a shot away, allowing Baker to make a marvellous challenge, the mood of half-chances creating hope changed to one of wasted openings creating frustration. Time running out for the Addicks; City still relatively comfortable.
But there was a genuine roar of anticipation with 20 minutes to play, as Bergdich’s pass appeared to have sent Ghoochannejhad clear on goal, only for Baker to cynically bring the Iranian to ground. The former Aston Villa loanee arguably fortunate to only receive a yellow card.
Regardless, it gave Gudmundsson a wonderful opportunity to draw Charlton level. The Iceland international nowhere near the standards he set seven days ago, but this the sort of position from which his game-changing abilities could come to the fore. Instead, his strike hit the base of City’s wall, and was cleared.
The anticipated jubilation replaced by dejection, which would have only increased had Pemberton’s side made more of the gaps that were now available to them. Freeman’s effort heading out for a throw, but a lot closer than that eventuality would suggest, and Henderson required to collect Pack’s drive.
Wasted City chances, however, were not providing any sort of encouragement to a Charlton crowd who had flicked between apathy and anger for much of the second half. The substitution of the unimpressive Morgan Fox, replaced by Callum Harriott, an opportunity for some to display their frustration. The struggling left-back, unfairly in the sense a young player should not be where supporter anger is directed, departing to sarcastic cheers.
Frustration also sent the way of Makienok, who had not won a header for quite some time. Equally frustrating that those that were meant to be supplying him lacked endeavour, creativity and threat, while City’s tiring forwards were still producing. Henderson’s fingertips preventing Freeman’s audacious lob from creeping in.
And the lively Freeman continued to be the man most likely to settle this game, cutting inside and forcing another excellent save out of Henderson. Telling that Charlton’s stopper was the only player whose application and effort could not be questioned.
Nonetheless, with five minutes to play, the Addicks remained in the game. Despite their ineptitude, City’s gritty fight and occasional threat, and referee Jones’ insistence on breaking up play as much as possible, there was still a chance Charlton could snatch something. Minds wandered to the game at Ashton Gate on Boxing Day, when an underserved point was snatched late on.
A roar of hope as Gudmundsson collected Makienok’s knock down and appeared to have a sight of goal. An even louder one as it was blocked behind for a corner. The sigh of disappointment as the delivery failed to beat the first man louder still.
If it wasn’t from the moment City took their lead, there was now an acceptance that the game was gone. The Valley, filled with groans and leaking supporters through its exits, barely moved by the announcement of four minutes off additional time.
And why should they have been? As they had been for the entirety of the game, City were confident and composed in their dogged defensive efforts. Charlton without quality and panicky, growing further deflated with each mistake and losing effort and energy accordingly.
The boos that followed the full-time whistle understandable. A gutless display, worthy of defeat, and insulting to those supporters who have every right to demand so much more following the efforts at Rotherham last weekend.
The mood in the away end at The Valley would have been similar to the one at the New York Stadium last weekend. Relief, jubilation and pride among the visiting Bristolians, as they applauded their side’s efforts.
Such resolve, determination and fight – in addition to genuine defensive quality – will be enough to win the Robins points against opposition that will pose a greater threat. A cutting edge in the final third, an issue all season, remains somewhat absent, but there is a fantastic base from which new boss Johnson can work from.
A worry for the Addicks, as a relegation rival appear to be strengthening, but not as worrying as their dramatic seven day decline. Collectively and individually, this side was unrecognisable from the one that comprehensively beat Rotherham. In fact, it was more similar to the sides that Karel Fraeye led.
Collectively. there was nothing like the organisation, resolve and intensity that were seen at Rotherham. The fight of last week replaced by a half-hearted effort, worsened by what was seemingly a general lack of game plan, and minimal cohesion which Riga must take some blame for. No wonder that City were so easily able to hold off Charlton’s tame efforts, and find the space to create opportunities of their own on a consistent basis.
Individually, many that were impressive last week were disappointing this. Harry Lennon and Teixeira nervy, Jackson and Cousins nowhere near as combative and all-action, and the efforts of Gudmundsson and Makienok, offering little threat, probably best summed up the difference in quality between the two performances.
And with a repeat performance both expected and demanded, which isn’t unreasonable given the situation we’re in, you can understand the expression of frustration. You can understand why Makienok and Fox were given such harsh treatment, not that it justifies it.
Fox, in particular, is a victim of this regime. Playing despite having little confidence, no form, and struggling for a number of weeks. An insistence that he continues to play, and the only option available to replace him another youngster in Tareiq Holmes-Dennis. Duchatelet’s practices more harmful than helpful to the development of young players.
Regardless, there is a desperate need to respond to this very major set back immediately. Something that, with its lack of backbone and so often reflecting the soulless character that Duchatetlet has instilled, has proved hard in the past.
For the performance, especially once City took the lead, was soulless. Characterless. Effortless. A complete contrast not only to last week’s efforts, but the resilience and fight of Charlton supporters, both in their support and protesting.
A permanent advertising board protesting against the regime means Charlton’s supporters will be unmoved in their efforts. This Charlton side showing greater determination and stubbornness, not simply capitulating in adverse circumstances, is desperately needed.
And there is no situation more adverse than being bottom of the Championship.