In familiar surroundings, this group of players wearing red appeared lost. At a ground where the Addicks have previously shown resilience, character and fight in memorable victories, it was impossible to identify any of those attributes. On what will almost certainly be their final visit to Hillsborough before returning to League One, Charlton put in a performance that shamed their past efforts in the blue half of Sheffield.
It was, in truth, only the badge on their chest that the Addicks emulated from previous visits to this grand old arena as they succumbed to Sheffield Wednesday’s second-half display.
The defensive cohesion and determination of the 1-0 win in 2012 replaced by an unstructured shambles. The Owls, first through Tom Lees’ nodding in at the back post and then Fernando Forestieri pouncing after Atdhe Nuhiu had headed against the post, punishing this weak Charlton effort after the interval.
Nor was there the willingness to battle in testing circumstances that was so crucial in the 2014 FA Cup win. These lost figures, displaying looks of bemusement and frustration, never likely to work their way back into the game, and ultimately conceding a third. Alex Lopez’s strike following a half-cleared corner deflected behind Nick Pope by El-Hadji Ba’s lazily outstretched leg.
And there was certainly no unexpected quality, no one in the Marvin Sordell mould, to be found in the final third. A forward line, led ineffectively by Reza Ghoochannejhad, too often running into dead ends, frequently making horrendous decisions, and never possessing the quality to test Kieren Westwood in the Wednesday goal.
As full-time approached, in fact, Westwood was keeping himself busy by twirling his underused arms to keep warm. Charlton supporters, whose support had long worn thin, turning their attentions to demanding the departure of Roland Duchatelet.
An owner who has suggested protesting supporters want their club to fail. But as the Addicks, despite claiming seven points from their previous three games, sit an effective seven points from safety with eight games to go, it is apparent that it is Duchatelet’s system that has failed.
And this is a failure, having enjoyed several enjoyable days at Hillsborough, that Charlton supporters could not possibly celebrate. They’ve seen the best of their club here, and now they’ve seen the final nail hammed into what remain of it.
In truth, any optimism that existed following last Saturday’s win over Middlesbrough was tainted by Jose Riga’s frustrating team selection.
Injury to Jordan Cousins, man of the match against Boro, meant the unimpressive Ba would do battle with Sam Hutchinson in Wednesday’s midfield, while the reluctance to play Ademola Lookman returned as he was replaced by Ghoochannejhad in attack.
Not only did the Iranian appear unlikely to outmuscle Glenn Loovens and Lees, but a partnership with the out of position Callum Harriott meant Charlton’s attack, particularly with Forestieri and Gary Hooper leading the line for the opposition, didn’t strike you as threatening.
No surprise, therefore, that it was Wednesday, and Forestieri, who had the game’s first chance. Pope saving well after the diminutive Italian headed Ross Wallace’s cross goalwards.
But that isn’t to say the Addicks camped in and merely accepted their fate from the off. Ba beating Hutchinson to the ball, winning his side a free-kick as he did, only for Johann Berg Gudmundsson to fire straight against the wall.
In fact, relatively speaking, this was quite a promising start from Riga’s unfancied men. Either side of Hutchinson blasting over, both the pressure and presence of Ghoochannejhad and Harriott forced Westwood into moments of panic. Both ultimately fruitless, as Westwood regained a loose ball and Ghoochannejhad was too indecisive after Harriott charged down a clearance, but an early suggestion that the Addicks were at least prepared to fight.
But reading anything into those half-chances would have been misguided, for Charlton soon began to frustrate. Far too much time was taken on the ball, decision making was universally poor and sideways possession was often given away in cheap fashion. Mounting worthwhile attacks becoming increasingly difficult.
Particularly with Charlton’s backline appearing uncomfortable, it should have presented a situation to Wednesday from which they were able to dominate. Wallace’s skied free-kick, Daniel Pudil’s wayward first-time strike and Forestieri’s tame effort wide building towards something.
So too, however, were Wednesday seemingly intent on frustrating their own supporters. Their neat passing triangles most certainly neat, but too slow and predictable to break the Addicks down. Another sideways pass taken while static men waited in the box.
It meant the game, but for an outrageously cynical Hutchinson tackle on a breaking Marco Motta that would have sparked a fighting scene in previous reenactment of this fixture, struggled to develop any sort of excitement or tempo. Useful for Charlton, who probably would have settled for a point and had the pace of Harriott to call upon during this extended lull, but not particularly for the game as a whole.
And though the visiting supporters were offered the opportunity to sarcastically celebrate seeing their side shoot at goal before the break, with Westwood gleefully collecting Harriott’s tame prod, the half-time whistle was a welcome reprieve from having to endure this tepid affair.
Wednesday undoubtedly the better side, but not doing enough in the final third to confidently be able to suggest they deserved the lead, while the Addicks carried enough threat on the break to mean making an early exit from Hillsborough didn’t yet seem like a totally wise move.
But it was during the interval where the difference between these two sides was exposed. While Riga, evidently content enough with Charlton’s efforts, made no changes in strategy or personnel, Carlos Carvalhal looked to make his somewhat cautious and lacklustre side more dominant and direct. Nuhiu, in place of the ineffective Aiden McGeady, introduced, allowing Forestieri to play out wide, with Hutchinson withdrawn in favour of Lopez.
Immediately there was more pace, power and desire to control the game in Wednesday’s play. The Hillsborough crowd responding positively as Pope got behind Wallace’s effort, before the goalkeeper was needed to pluck the ball off the feet of Nuhiu yards from goal.
It was Nuhiu who was seemingly the catalyst for this increase in tempo. Not necessarily directly, though the big Austrian was giving an uncomfortable-looking Jorge Teixeira and Rod Fanni a persistent challenge in the air, but by allowing Forestieri the space to roam free. The Italian increasingly dangerous, and only a smart reflex save from the defiant Pope prevented his run forward concluding with a deflected effort putting the Owls ahead.
With the home supporters vocal, Wednesday continuing to threaten, and an uneasy fear spreading throughout the away end, it was easy to forget that Charlton had showed signs in the first half of possessing some sort of threat on the counter. Easy, too, to feel somewhat shocked as Harriott fed Yung Suk-Young into a fantastic position just beyond the hour. The finish, however, more predictable, as the QPR loanee sliced horribly wide with unmarked red shirts screaming for the ball in the middle.
An important moment in the game? Possibly. An undeserved lead for the Addicks would have crushed Wednesday’s momentum, maintained as Kieron Lee tested Pope from distance. But such was the unconvincing manner in which the visitors were defending it’s hard to imagine a Charlton advantage would have made much difference to the final outcome.
The timing of Suk-Young’s dreadful strike, however, means it has to be considered as the game’sdecisive point. For two minutes after wasting a glorious opening, Charlton found themselves behind.
And there could be no complaints. Not only because this was a goal that the overall pattern of the game had been suggesting was coming, but yet another goal conceded from a poorly defended corner. Lees picked out at the back post, the centre-back rising highest, and the ball thumped into the roof of the net. Twenty-four minutes remained, and Igor Vetokele was being prepared on the sidelines, but this was game over.
Confirmed, if it were not already, just four minutes later as the Addicks once again failed to contend with a delivery into the box. No meaningful challenge from anyone in red as Jack Hunt crossed, and the second-half’s key men pounced. Nuhiu nodding against the post, before Forestieri threw himself into the rebound and headed in from close range. Wednesday’s advantage, or at least Charlton’s punishment, now fitting of their efforts.
The only defiance from anyone connected with the Addicks came from the away end, as the visiting supporters stood as one to demand Duchatelet departs their club. They had been supportive once again, and not rewarded.
In fact, it would be just a further seven minutes before this evidently disgruntled and beaten group of Addicks conspired to inflict further punishment upon those that had travelled to Hillsborough. The response to a half-cleared corner, conceded after yet another excellent Pope save from a Forestieri effort, pathetic as those in red watched the ball fall to Lopez, and look on as the substitute’s strike found the back of the net via Ba’s half-hearted attempt to block.
Lazy, lacklustre, lifeless. At least Ba was quickly replaced by Johnnie Jackson – unlikely to make any sort of difference, but even more unlikely to put in a questionable amount of effort.
Also unlikely to make any sort of difference was the sight of Motta popping up unmarked deep inside Wednesday’s box, but it would have been nice if he’d made more of the opening. The Italian slicing an effort wide as Westwood continued to yawn.
In fact, as the away end began to empty, there was a desperate plea from those that were staying until the very end for the final whistle. The sound of which was delayed as Harriott, inspired by frustration, clattered into Hunt and leaving the full-back needing to be carried off on a stretcher. Petulant, and only increasing the sorrow among the visiting supporters.
So much so that as referee Atwell, not always keeping himself on the side of Charlton supporters, blew the game’s final whistle, there was not an obvious cry of outrage of overwhelming boo.
The players not dramatically abused as they attempted to applaud the travelling supporters, but barely acknowledged. A sort of uncomfortable silence as those in the away end headed home, and Wednesday supporters celebrated.
A silence that reflected a group of supporters who had seen a side they struggle to identify with head closer towards a return to League One. Hope, understandably, is lost.
Hope, however, is certainly not lacking in the blue half of Sheffield. Their side may not necessarily possess the individual quality that others in the top six do, but their collective strength and balance makes them an incredibly likeable unit. I would be surprised if they don’t finish in the top six.
Not least given their ability to summon an incredible amount of intensity after a period of appearing a little flat. The introduction of Nuhiu, and the moving of Forestieri to a wide position, upping Wednesday from in control but ineffective to completely dominant.
Charlton’s intensity, meanwhile, decreased from minimal to minus. Especially after the hope that was provided by the nature of the performance and victory over Middlesbrough last Sunday, this was a particularly pathetic effort.
Of course, Cousins was a huge miss, and meant the Addicks looked very flat in midfield. But his absence is no excuse for the way others played. Ba and Ghoochannejhad are simply not good enough, neither in terms of ability or commitment, and matters are hardly helped when Gudmundsson, one of few players in this side with match-winning ability, is almost completely anonymous.
Another with that match-winning ability, despite his tender years, is Lookman. Riga’s reluctance to play him is bizarre, especially with Ghoochannejhad shoe-horned in. In fact, both today and in previous weeks, Riga’s decisions have been underwhelming at best.
He’s been unable to react to testing situations, and I find it difficult to think of a tactical change that has deserved plaudits since his return. He’s certainly had no impact on this side’s weak mental attitude.
As Duchatelet might say, it’s like he wants us to fail.
At least Pope didn’t. Standing behind a defence that was desperate rather than defiant, the goalkeeper pulled off some excellent saves, and at least provided hope that we’ll have a decent shot-stopper upon our return to the third tier.
For that is where we are undoubtedly heading. To League One.