Supporting Charlton Athletic throughout this campaign has rarely provided the escapism that following a football club should do. The suffering that Roland Duchatelet’s regime has inflicted upon fans has meant there has been few genuine reprieves from everyday stresses and strains, with unwanted feelings of disconnection, despair and worry overwhelming.
But as Ademola Lookman’s stoppage-time corner picked out Jorge Teixeira at the back post, his nod towards goal resulted in the net rippling, and the Portuguese defender peeled away to celebrate, nothing else mattered.
If only for just a moment, the damage Duchatelet has done, and will continue to do, was irrelevant. The anxiety that being forced into protesting against your club in order to protect its future was placed to one side. That results elsewhere meant Charlton’s chances of avoiding relegation had become no less impossible could be ignored.
All the anger, uncertainty and fear replaced by sheer and uncontrolled joy. A special Valley moment, largely restricted in their appearances to heart-warming protests in recent times, to lose yourself in as the Addicks scored a dramatic late winner against play-off chasing Birmingham City.
A win that, irrespective of the timing of the decisive goal, Jose Riga’s side had done enough to warrant. That despite the Blues, with Jon Toral turning in Paul Caddis’ excellent low cross, taking the lead midway through the first half.
For Charlton, in a position where they have so often capitulated throughout this campaign, responded with a showing of determination, persistence and fight that emulated the effort of protesting supporters. Like the stress balls that interrupted the game getting underway, the Addicks kept on coming.
Level before half-time, with Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s driven strike giving Tomasz Kuszczak no chance in the Birmingham goal, it was following the introduction of Lookman after the break that the hosts began to pose a consistent and genuine threat.
While Birmingham were ending promising breaks by running into dead ends, Charlton were being thwarted by Kuszczak, who saved superbly from the tenacious Igor Vetokele and the lively Lookman, and their own wastefulness, as Callum Harriott blasted over with the goal at his mercy. Greater confidence that the Addicks would remain defiant in defence, and an excitement each time a member of a tireless forward line found space to run with the ball.
But as the game moved into stoppage-time, it seemed supporters would have to settle for taking pride in the excellent stress ball protest and the efforts of their side that followed, and be left frustrated by a result that certainly couldn’t be afforded with the gap between Charlton and safety set to grow.
It was, therefore, the vanishing of that frustration that made Teixeira’s winning goal a moment to celebrate and savour. A reward for the fight of those on the pitch, and for those who continue to show defiance in the stands. No one in sight, regardless of what Duchatelet might think, unhappy to be celebrating, and wanting the club to fail.
In fact, with another protest that increases the pressure on this regime and an excellent performance in victory, this was about as perfect a day at The Valley as can be hoped for while Duchatelet remains. The perfect day except for results away from SE7.
Wins for Rotherham and Fulham mean the picture at the bottom of the division is still a bleak one for the Addicks, but more days where those in the stands and on the pitch fight for Charlton’s cause in such a way would be most welcome. An escape from the reality of this situation, if not from it.
Reality, however, could not be ignored prior to kick-off as supporters prepared for another visual protest against the regime that is seemingly intent on damaging and destroying their club. A reminder of Duchatelet’s dreadful decision making before a single stress ball was thrown, with former Addick Michael Morrison, applauded as loudly as anyone wearing red, leading Birmingham.
The decision making of Riga was also seemingly a little questionable. The return of Jordan Cousins and Vetokele to the starting line-up most welcome, but the entire backline and the yet to impress Yung Suk-Young maintaining their places following the gutless defeat to Sheffield Wednesday appeared odd. Improvement most certainly needed from a fortnight ago.
But it would be the best part of five minutes before Charlton had any sort of opportunity to show they were operating with greater organisation, cohesion and collective determination than at Hillsborough. The game immediately stopped by wave after wave of stress balls entering the pitch, accompanied by a defiant chant of “we want Roland out”. Excellent from the protesters; another embarrassment for Duchatelet and the well-hidden Katrien Meire.
And as was the case during the beach ball demonstration against Middlesbrough, the protest was followed by spirited support from those in the stands. A spirited start for the Addicks, too, with Vetokele getting behind Birmingham’s backline only to fire tamely into the hands of Kuszczak.
In fact, that Vetokele chance arguably summed up the opening half hour of the game quite well. Neither side lacking tenacity or intent, with Harriott lively for the Addicks and both David Cotterill and Diego Fabbrini getting the Blues into decent positions, but a genuine threat lacking. Certainly nothing threatening enough to worry a defiant Morrison, and Birmingham unable to exploit the occasional clumsiness that was shown in Charlton’s backline.
Even when said clumsiness was exploited, the visitors weren’t able to make the most of it. Rod Fanni hauling down Toral in a dangerous position, but Cotterill succeeding only in firing against the wall.
Nonetheless, with both sides continuing to get themselves into promising positions, particularly in wide areas, there was a feeling that persistence would eventually produce a moment of quality. And so that proved to be the case with 32 minutes played.
Birmingham, both off the ball and on it, awarded far too much time and space as Caddis was threaded through down the right beyond Charlton’s backline. The Scottish full-back’s driven cross superb, finding its way through to an unmarked Toral at the back post, who converted the simplest of chances. His appreciation immediately shown to Caddis for his delivery.
A chant, and not the first one to follow the initial protest, demanding for Duchatelet to depart sung as the game got back underway. With the Blues usually defiant, and the Addicks yet to win a game after going behind this season, it was hard not to feel as if the game was already lost.
But, unlike at Hillsborough prior to the international break, there was a positive response from Riga’s side to going behind. Their passing remained composed and calm, panic did not suddenly spread throughout the backline, and frustration did appear to dent the confidence of those in attack.
In fact, Harriott was confident enough to drive into the box and attempt to round Morrison. Possibly too confident, as the academy graduate lost control and ended up needing to protect the ball while grounded.
He did enough, however, to work the ball back to Gudmundsson, who fired first-time beyond Kuszczak as a static Blues defence merely watched on. Somewhat out of nothing, but the Iceland international’s cool finish meant his side were behind for just six minutes. The fears of yet another horrendous capitulation eased.
Although fears of a defeat remained. Cotterill’s deep cross picking out an unmarked Fabbrini, though the Italian fired harmlessly high and wide, and James Vaughan almost capitalising on a Fanni mistake to move through on goal, only for the defender to recover well, making the end to a half rather low on chances something of a stressful one for the Addicks.
But that isn’t to say there was not praise to be had for Charlton’s first half efforts. Cutting edge in the final third missing, and greater defensive composure required to prevent Birmingham’s wide threat becoming more of a problem, but their performance was a spirited one, and well received by the Covered End as those in red departed down the tunnel.
At the very least, there was a platform from which to build. One that the Blues, appearing more confident at the back but sometimes more sluggish in midfield, could also work from in the second period.
It was, therefore, not the equalising goal but the decision to introduce Lookman at the break, replacing the underperforming Suk-Young, which swung the pendulum in the favour of the Addicks.
Just his presence, with a natural forward player instead of a left-back operating on the wing, seemed to provide an increase in attacking confidence and intent. The ever-lively Vetokele taken down on the edge of Birmingham’s box by Paul Robinson, and Gudmundsson’s driven free-kick flashing narrowly beyond the post with Kuszczak beaten. Close.
It was to be just the start of a sustained second-half bombardment on Birmingham’s goal area as the Covered End roared at their side winning a corner. Vetokele’s header from the resulting delivery deflected just wide, with the following corner seeing an unmarked Morgan Fox nodding off-target. Confidence crowing among players and supporters.
Not that the visitors were simply sitting ducks, hoping the Addicks would be unable to make their pressure tell. Having won the free-kick for himself after being pulled back by Alou Diarra, Cotterill’s strike of a dead ball was seen late by Nick Pope, with the largely untroubled goalkeeper doing well to block the effort away from goal.
The game open and, despite Charlton being on top, both sides could feel they had a chance of claiming three points.
Though if Harriott had shown even a touch of composure in front of goal with an hour played, Birmingham’s hopes of coming away from SE7 with victory would have decreased dramatically.
Gudmundsson sending Vetokele through, only for Kuszczak to win the race and deny the Angolan superbly, but the loose ball fell to an open Harriott. With the collision injuring Birmingham’s Polish goalkeeper, Charlton’s homegrown talent needed only to pick his spot in a goal empty but for two desperate blue shirts on the line. Instead, he was left with his head in his hands as his strike flew horribly off-target.
There always a worry that such wastefulness would eventually be punished, which grew as Gary Rowett introduced Clayton Donaldson. Maybe the Blues would have preferred the forward to be on the end of fellow substitute Jacques Maghoma’s excellent delivery with 20 left to play, as actual recipient Cotterill could only awkwardly slice a wonderful opening into Pope’s hands.
Or maybe the visitors would have made more of that opening had Cotterill shown the composure, confidence and quality that Lookman continued to display. The 18-year-old’s ability well beyond his years as he cut inside and unleashed a superb effort on goal, only for Kuszczak to pull off an outstanding save that halted the premature celebrations in the Covered End. Cousins firing off-target from the resulting corner, but still there was no let-up in Charlton’s pressure.
Viv Solomon-Otabor, who had replaced Cotterill, and Donaldson lively for Birmingham, they seemed to run into a defiant army of red shirts each time they broke forward. Donaldson cutting in from the left and driving into space, but the ball just getting away from him as he shaped to shoot and Teixeira able to block. Charlton, with Harriott working some room for an effort that flew just over, getting into the spaces the Blues couldn’t, but still unable to find a finish.
At least the previously defiant Kuszczak was seemingly becoming a little rattled with ten minutes to play. Unhappy with Charlton supporters protesting by not throwing the ball back, given the warning that the Met Police had provided during the week, the goalkeeper ironically applauded those behind his goal. His defence also growing increasingly suspect, as an unmarked Diarra was allowed to head just over at the back post from a Gudmundsson delivery.
Nonetheless, there was a sense this wasn’t to be for the Addicks. Intent still not lacking as stoppage-time approached, but anxiety increasing with each wasted opening and Birmingham break. Donaldson still a threat, and Maghoma threatening as he curled an effort just over Pope’s crossbar. The need for some caution possibly curtailing their victory hopes.
But as five minutes of additional time were announced, it was Charlton that had found themselves back on the front foot. Everything being gambled for victory, as Lookman broke into the box, and his ball across the face of goal was put behind by Jonathan Grounds. The Covered End roaring, believing.
And though that was to come to nothing, another corner was soon to be won by the Addicks. Simon Makienok thrown on in order to cause some unrest among Birmingham’s defence, Morrison vocally making sure another Charlton substitute, skipper Johnnie Jackson, was tightly marked, and a delay caused by Fox and Grounds squaring up to each other only increasing the anticipation.
Lookman’s delivery excellent and inviting to the point that there were celebrations in the Covered End before Teixeira had made proper contact with the ball. The defender nodding downwards, past an almost frozen Kuszczak, and immediately inciting wild scenes of joy. A sense Charlton’s day was to end in relative disappointment, in a season of despair, replaced by relief and a reprieve.
Although not confirmed, with several minutes of an extended period of stoppage-time still to play. The ball moved around the edge of Charlton’s box with watches constantly being looked at, but Birmingham too slow and indecisive to prevent defeat.
And therefore unable prevent another set of celebrations as the full-time whistle blew. A result tainted in its overall impact by those around the Addicks claiming wins, but pride at a superb performance and a feeling of joy that, at least while those in red applauded and Lookman leaped from the tunnel, could not be contained.
So wonderful, in fact, that there have been few better team performances this season. Not a huge statement, given how few decent collective efforts there have been, but one that needs to be made regardless.
The defence grew stronger and stronger as the game went on, originally looking a little uncomfortable, particularly with Cotterill, but soon gave an air of confidence. Fanni and Teixeira defiant and resolute when not composed, with Motta and Fox providing assistance both at the back and in Charlton’s many moves forward.
Crucial, too, was Diarra. The experienced midfielder breaking up Birmingham moves and, in partnership with Cousins, not allowing them to get away with moving the ball at a relatively slow pace as they did for much of the game. A solid base built from which the forward four in the second half could thrive.
Gudmundsson and Harriott, if we ignore the horrendous miss on the hour, were both consistent and lively threats, but it was Vetokele and Lookman who made the difference. In Vetokele, it is so, so welcome to have a forward who presses relentlessly and has the ability to hold up a ball, while Lookman’s talent is frightening for someone of his age. At times in the second half, even Morrison looked a little flustered by the pair.
And while Riga deserves plenty of credit for the bravery shown in throwing caution to the wind late on and maintaining a high amount of pressure, it would be nice if he stopped leaving Lookman on the bench.
Another obvious frustration, of course, is this dramatic win merely maintaining Charlton’s position of being effectively seven points from safety. With other results going against the Addicks, Teixeira’s doesn’t really increase hope, but prevents it from disappearing altogether.
It does, though, still look an impossible task to avoid relegation. Fulham’s quality better than any in and around the bottom three, while Rotherham have genuine momentum, not just the boost that one victory provides. Charlton yet to follow up one impressive result with another, and something that is unlikely to change with tough fixtures to come.
The damage, therefore, already done, and part of the reason why the protests remain as important as ever. For the Addicks, even with all the effort shown today, might not win their fight to avoid relegation, but we’ll certainly win our fight to get our club back, and make days like today occur more often.
At the very least, from start to finish, today was one you could feel some pride in.