Those that occupied the away end should have been inflicted with a crippling pain as they witnessed the moment that effectively condemned their club to League One. A fitting near-final insult in a campaign where Charlton Athletic have continuously dealt suffering on their supporters.
A moment the efforts of the Addicks on this afternoon at Loftus Road did not deserve. Their performance good enough to warrant post-game celebrations, not a collective collapse in despair as Abdenasser El Khayati cut inside and curled in a stoppage-time winner for Queens Park Rangers. Visions of numerous wasted opportunities, many of which occurred in the 15 minutes preceding QPR’s breakaway goal, making this decisive strike feel all the crueller.
And yet, it was not with grief that the visiting supporters were overwhelmed by. No crying faces, despite safety extending to effectively 11 points away with five games to play. Few displays of frustration as a consequence of this arguably unjust defeat.
For the nature of this defeat, tough to take though it was, merely increased a sense that this unnecessary relegation is to be a punishment for the actions of those that control this club. Relegation long accepted not because of some wasted openings in a tight game, but because of the arrogance, ignorance and ineptitude of Roland Duchatelet’s regime. The loss not fair on those in red, nor the resilient supporters, but a just consequence for what Duchatelet has done to this club.
Not to downplay the questionable season-long efforts of the players, and some poor decisions from those in the technical area, but the source for every reason the Addicks find themselves in the position they’re in is this regime. Not even the dubious nature of QPR’s opening goal, with an offside Junior Hoilett seeming to turn in Matt Phillips’ delivery, providing any sort of excuse for their actions.
And the second-half determination of those in red meant they very much deserved the applause they received come full-time, regardless of the final result. A superbly worked move, finished off coolly by Jordan Cousins, giving Jose Riga’s side hope of the victory they desperately needed to keep their chances of avoiding the drop even slightly alive.
But several more superbly worked moves that followed, with Callum Harriott, Igor Vetokele and Ademola Lookman all providing a persistent threat to QPR’s uncomfortable backline, couldn’t be complemented with a finishing touch. Decision making dreadful, Lookman and Harriott wasteful, and Alex Smithies denying Vetokele from close range.
It meant the visitors were ultimately punished in stoppage-time for an ineptitude in front of goal, with gaps in their defence to be exploited given the amount of bodies pushed forward in search of the victory required, and El Khayati allowed to cut inside with relative ease and curl beyond an otherwise defiant Pope in stunning fashion.
But it was not these cruel and somewhat harsh events that have almost condemned the Addicks to League One. Not these that have caused the most misery, pain and suffering.
It is a two-year period of unjust misuse of a once fantastic football club by a poisonous regime that has done the decisive, and most insulting, damage.
Nonetheless, there was a certain amount of expectation prior to kick-off in West London, with Charlton able to field the man who has been at the heart of their relative improvement in recent weeks.
Despite picking up an injury at Ipswich on Tuesday, Alou Diarra was declared fit to start, and took his place alongside Cousins in the centre of midfield.
But Riga’s side were without Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who had failed to recover from the nasty clash of heads suffered at Portman Road in midweek. Vetokele brought in to replace the Iceland international, with Harriott moving to the right of midfield. A bold and attacking selection from the head coach.
There was, however, a certain sluggishness and indecisiveness in Charlton’s early efforts that prevented them from playing in the attacking manner that Riga’s selection suggested they would. Dead ends run into out wide, the ball not bouncing for Yaya Sanogo and Vetokele despite their best efforts, and the pace of Phillips and Holiett leaving the Addicks unwilling to overcommit.
The visitors still attempting to find their feet when Massimo Luongo was teed up on the edge of the box to fire the first meaningful shot towards goal of the afternoon. His connection with the ball sweet, but his strike always rising comfortably over Pope’s crossbar.
Nonetheless, there were some positive signs for the noisy visiting supporters in the early stages. Their forward-littered side always likely to possess a genuine threat, and Harriott came close to putting his side ahead at the conclusion of their first flowing move, with his side-footed effort from range well saved by Smithies in the QPR goal. An unmarked Fox probably guilty of being wasteful from the resulting corner, as he headed aimlessly across goal.
Equally as guilty, if not more so, of wastefulness was Sebastian Polter, very quickly dubbed a shit Simon Makienok by Charlton’s supporters. The German stretching to make contact with James Perch’s low delivery, but only able to divert what appeared a glorious chance wide. His failure humorous, but a worry that the Addicks had been cut open so easily.
A worry, too, that Sanogo, tenacious and testing with little obvious reward for his unquestionable efforts, found himself on the ground while Pope was picking up the pieces from a dangerous Chery free-kick that bounced off Polter down the other end.
The Arsenal loanee unable to continue, and replaced, to groans, by Makienok. The Dane not patching up any broken relationships has his first meaningful involvement was to move for a ball from an offside position that was perfectly weighted for the through-on-goal run of Vetokele. Probably summing up the nearly but not quite nature of Charlton’s performance.
His next contribution, however, considerably more productive. Nedum Onuoha’s loose leg sending Makienok to the ground, and Lookman’s resulting set-piece delivery headed not too far wide at the near post by Rod Fanni.
But as half-time approached, and Jack Robinson horribly lashed an effort into the upper tier which the Charlton supporters occupied, it was hard to argue that either side had done enough to feel like they deserved to be ahead. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s side a threat down each flank, but failing to deliver a telling ball, while Riga’s men lacked the required quality to match their unrelenting effort.
It was, therefore, particularly harsh on the Addicks that they found themselves behind at the break to something of a questionably allowed stoppage-time goal.
Undoubtedly, their defensive efforts could have been better. Phillips allowed to break down the right far too easily and deliver a ball almost unchallenged, Pope unsure whether to stay or go, and the presence of Hoilett, plus a very small touch, helping to guide the cross in.
But Hoilett, interfering with Pope regardless of whether or not his contact was meaningful, was in an offside position. A sheepish look to the assistant, flag down and scurrying away, suggesting the Canadian himself wasn’t expecting the goal to be given.
Alas, there was to be no reprieve for the Addicks, who started the second half chasing the game. The greatest concern being that fragile confidence of this Charlton side would be too weak to cope with the situation, and a capitulation would follow. Tjaronn Chery being invited to shoot and drilling wide not the most promising of starts.
It was, however, evident from the off that Riga had instructed his side to play with much more attacking freedom and ambition. More bodies thrown forward, greater risks taken, and more intent shown. The Addicks certainly not giving this one up.
To the extent that Harriott, the man leading many of the surges forward, might well have drawn Charlton level five minutes into the half. His feet too quick For QPR’s defence, allowing him to cut inside and unleash a curling effort that bounced back off the frame of the goal. Agonisingly close.
You would have liked such an opening to swing momentum the way of the Addicks, but immediately they reminded that an element of caution was needed. For the R’s remained a serious threat, and only the most outstanding reaction stop from Pope denied Chery after he’d been played through by the troublesome Polter. The resulting corner headed over by the Makienok tribute act.
In fact, it was not long before Polter was causing problems again, as the German slid Phillips through on goal past a static Charlton defence. Pope, however, was again defiant, saving superbly from the winger. His name sung with real admiration by the visiting supporters.
And those two saves proved to be particularly crucial almost immediately, as the Addicks drew level just beyond the hour.
A move of real class and quality seeing Harriott and Chris Solly combine down the right, before the latter teed up Cousins on the edge of the box. A touch taken by the academy graduate to compose himself, and the bottom corner of Smithies’ goal picked out superbly. Lovely stuff.
The celebrations, however, were relatively minimal. Cousins demanding the ball reclaimed and quickly put on the centre spot as he jogged back to his own half, while brief cheers in the away end turned to cries of encouragement. Particularly with results elsewhere not ideal for the Addicks, no one in red was naïve enough to believe drawing level was enough.
The noise, and the need, was certainly higher in the away end, but it remained the sort of affair that could go either way. Phillips given too much space on the edge of Charlton’s box, but thankfully his strike was too close to Pope to cause any real concerns, while Smithies did well to push away an effort from Harriott after the winger had broken into the box and cut inside once again.
But momentum was slowly shifting more obviously towards the Addicks. Substitute centre-back Cole Kpekawa and partner Grant Hall not having the easiest of times dealing with the relentless Vetokele, and there were calls for a penalty as he was clumsily halted by the latter when powering towards goal. The officials unmoved.
Roars of encouragement each time Vetokele battled for a ball or the lively Lookman bombed down the left, but still the R’s, with little to play for, wouldn’t do the honourable thing and cave in. Polter dragging an excellent opening wide, before the unlikely sight of Onuoha driving forward resulted in a strike that cleared the bar by a fraction. Time running out for a decisive moment.
That lack of time, and the pressure on the Addicks to steal victory, meant Lookman’s misdemeanours in the final third were made to appear all the more costly. Having curled a free-kick comfortably over the bar, the 18-year-old then appeared indecisive having broken into the box, and ended up striking well off-target when he simply had to test Smithies at the very least. The nature of the situation possibly getting to the youngster.
He wasn’t the only one guilty of crumbling in front of goal, however, as the more experienced Vetokele was sent through one-on-one with Smithies. The goalkeeper somehow denying the Angolan, with the loose ball ultimately curled over by Harriott. The hush in the away end as both chances were wasted telling all. There was no excuse for such wastefulness.
Similar frustration as, at the start of five additional minutes, Makienok was able to break into the box, but opted to cut back to the edge when a strike at goal looked the better option. The R’s able to clear, before a looping Vetokele header was claimed with relative comfort by Smithies. Those wasted chances knocking the steam out of the Addicks, before a decisive burn was added to their misery.
For with most men in red pushed forward, the R’s were able to exploit the space on offer to them. Luongo feeding substitute El Khayati, and the former Burton man able to cut inside and curl beyond Pope’s desperate dive with a touch of class.
Out of nothing, out of nowhere, and all too easy. A game Charlton looked like winning suddenly lost, and League One looking straight at their distraught faces.
Utter, utter gut-wrenching devastation, particularly for those in red who had battled so valiantly for the duration of the game.
It was, however, much like this brief show of character towards the end of the season, not enough to avoid having to face up to the reality of relegation. All but inflicted in the cruellest of fashions, and fitting for a season that has provided nothing but misery.
The Addicks were certainly worthy of some degree of applause from the visiting supporters, who weren’t naive enough to dish out unjust criticism exclusive to the performance and day.
For beyond the wasting of chances, criminal from attacking players who should be able to offer more quality and composure in the final third, there was little wrong with Charlton’s performance. Even those that were guilty of failing to finish, such as Harriott and Vetokele, were largely excellent otherwise.
Defensively, too, it was solid but for two moments where red shirts went missing in first and second half stoppage-time. Solly and Fox defiant against pacey wing threats, Diarra and Cousins battling in the middle to protect the backline, and Pope excellent when all else failed.
The collective attitude, aside from Fanni, Jorge Teixeira and Makienok deciding to head straight down the tunnel at full-time, spot on, the fight unrelenting, and the attacking moves worth of ending with better finishing.
Particularly gutting that the gap between Charlton and safety was extended to a margin that simply won’t be made up in a manner like this. So, so tough to take.
But, realistically, not even victory was going to be enough to do anything but delay the inevitable. Vetokele taking his chance would have been enjoyable, but not enough to excuse the damage Duchatelet has done.
There is, therefore, no point directing outrage and anger at a failure to win this one game. The anger and outrage should be directed a much more complex combination of failures that stem from the actions of Duchatelet. That he has been allowed to damage the club in this manner more sickening than any stoppage-time goal.
El Khayati’s goal has all but sealed Charlton’s return to League One, but the blame lies almost entirely with Duchatelet.