As Russell Slade, evidently frustrated by both Charlton Athletic’s start to the season on the pitch and the barriers seemingly in place as he attempts to do business off it, responded with an unnecessary edge to perfectly reasonable questions from respected journalist Louis Mendez following Tuesday’s League Cup defeat to Cheltenham Town, the pressure he and the Addicks find themselves under already was reaffirmed.
A pressure not only to add additional bodies to a hugely underequipped squad, but a pressure on this side to show some degree of quality and cohesion. A pressure to prove that so called “pessimism”, which roughly translates to acknowledging the existence of undeniable concerns, is misplaced.
Or, more realistically, prevent that pessimism from growing to an uncontrollable point, as it already threatens to do. Not as a direct consequence of Charlton’s performances in defeat to both Bury and Cheltenham, but as a result of those efforts in the overall context of the situation the club finds itself in.
For this start to the season, both on and off of it, has merely furthered the thinking that the regime that controls this football club is not fit for purpose. Any opportunity Roland Duchatelet and Katrien Meire had to calm justifiable supporter hatred wasted by a horrendous first week of the new campaign that comes directly from the summer activity they have overseen.
And while a failure to defeat to Northampton Town, who travel to South East London with a 25-game unbeaten record, at The Valley on Saturday would certainly not be season defining and confirmation of failure, the poisonous atmosphere would understandably grow.
A desperate need for Slade and his side to provide some sort of antidote to this “pessimism” that exists.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 2-1 NORTHAMPTON TOWN (11/10/88)
Not since Charlton’s spell of being forced to refer to Selhurst Park as home have these two sides met, with the Addicks coming out on top in the second leg of a second round League Cup tie in October 1988.
After a 1-1 draw in the first leg, played at Northampton’s former County Ground home (now used exclusively by my county cricket team of choice, Northamptonshire), Lennie Lawrence’s men won the second leg 2-1 in South East London. The Addicks ultimately exiting the cup in the next round, with a 2-1 defeat away at QPR.
There was a suggestion that the period of transition from Chris Wilder, leaving his role as Northampton boss to lead boyhood team Sheffield United via the unfortunate pleasure of talks with Meire, to Rob Page would be quite an uncomfortable one.
Wilder’s influence as the Cobblers won League Two last season despite a back-drop of financial uncertainty for a third of the season not to be underestimated, and there doubts as to whether Page, steady but relatively unspectacular in charge of Port Vale, would be able to harness the momentum that existed and get this side to compete in a higher division.
But the early signs, in spite of a slightly frustrating home draw with Fleetwood Town on the opening day of the season, are promising.
At the very least, Page’s side travel to The Valley with a certain amount of confidence having pulled off a relative cup upset in midweek. An extra-time winner from John-Joe O’Toole meaning The Cobblers were able to knock Championship Barnsley out of the League Cup at Oakwell.
And that draw with Fleetwood, a game which saw Page’s side take the lead and create enough chances to regain it after the visitors drew level at Sixfields, extended their unbeaten league run to 25 games. Northampton yet to suffer a league defeat in 2016.
A trip to The Valley to face a dysfunctional Charlton hardly a prospect that will overwhelm a group with reasons for self-belief.
Much like you can’t simply assess Northampton’s form on the basis of their first two games of the season, given the confidence around the club from last season’s events, you can’t simply view Charlton’s dreadful beginning to the campaign in isolation, as it reflects the overall situation in SE7.
And reflects a feeling that that dreadful, non-cohesive performances in dreadful defeats to Bury and League Two Cheltenham are not simply part of a poor beginning to the season. Instead, punishment for a dreadful second half to the summer that has left the Addicks unprepared, and confirmation, if it were needed, that the atmosphere around the club is not changing while Duchatelet and Meire have power.
But, in the short-term, the performances of Slade’s side in the opening two games have revealed many faults that require quick fixing. Defensive mistakes from set-pieces, no creativity or mobility in centre of midfield, and forwards being isolated among the most obvious.
Those, and the fact this weak squad possesses little to no cohesion, which isn’t something that can be addressed quickly and leaves the Addicks behind their opponents in the division. A feeling that pre-season has been wasted somewhat.
To the extent that the perceived quality of new arrivals, arrivals that should have arrived prior to the season beginning, is tainted by the need for them to gel into a squad that isn’t gelled. Quite the uncomfortable situation.
Lewin Nyatanga looks set to be involved in a Northampton matchday squad for the first time having joined on loan from Barnsley at the start of the week.
But the versatile defender, who was ineligible to play against his parent club in midweek, will do well to immediately dislodge those that Page has so far entrusted to form his back four.
Zander Diamond and Gabriel Zakuani a useful central partnership, left-back David Buchanan an ever-present last season, and right-back Aaron Phillips handed the right-back spot since arriving from Coventry City in the summer in the early absence of Brendan Moloney, who returned to the bench on Tuesday.
Summer signing Raheem Hanley could also be available to feature in a Northampton squad for the first time having recovered from injury, but fellow new recruit Jak McCourt (shoulder) remains absent.
Elsewhere, logic suggests that Page will once again deploy five in midfield, as he did during the cup victory at Oakwell. Marc Richards likely to come in for Alfie Potter should the Cobblers boss revert back to two out-and-out front men and make a more obvious attempt to take the game to a dispirited Charlton side.
Ricky Holmes should be fit to face his former club despite being withdrawn with a foot injury during the second half of Charlton’s League Cup defeat to Cheltenham on Tuesday.
The winger, who has shown some individual spark in a midfield lacking creativity and cohesion, vital for Slade’s side as they attempt to score their first goal of the season three games into it.
The attacking threat of the Addicks also boosted by the arrival of forward Josh Magennis and winger Jordan Botaka who, at the very least, will provide useful alternatives from the bench. A need to be patient for their full debuts with Ademola Lookman likely to start his first league game of the season, while Lee Novak, who didn’t travel to Whaddon Road as he continues to nurse a hand injury, should return.
But Patrick Bauer, despite having played 60 minutes for the development squad in midweek, is unlikely to be ready for a return to the first team by Saturday. The German centre-back certainly closer to full fitness than long-term absentees Alou Diarra and Ahmed Kashi, but will probably require a few more weeks of training and match practice given that he’s had no pre-season.
A commendable performance on debut from Ezri Konsa at Cheltenham means Roger Johnson facing competition to keep his place at centre-back alongside Jason Pearce, while Chris Solly should return at full-back in place of Kevin Foley.
Elsewhere, Jorge Teixeira is likely to remain absent as he seeks a move away from the club, though El-Hadji Ba could return from illness.
KEY BATTLE – DISCOVERING ATTACKING QUALITY AGAINST A DEFIANT SIDE
Much of Northampton’s success last season, and certainly the continuation of their unbeaten run, was built upon a defensive defiance. Just 46 goals conceded throughout their League Two title-winning campaign, and 13 of their 29 wins coming to-nil.
And so this probably isn’t a great time for a Charlton side who are yet to show any sort of attacking quality, creativity or cohesion, let alone score, to face the Cobblers. No clean sheet as of yet in their two games under new stewardship, but Page’s side possessing the same determined qualities that Wilder’s group did.
Not only because the Addicks have failed to breakdown slightly less characteristically defiant Bury and Cheltenham defences, but because there appears an even greater loss of confidence once the opposition has stolen a goal. You fear an early Northampton goal, potentially capitalising on the defensive errors that Charlton continue to be guilty of, will define the game.
Of course, the chances of Slade’s side showing some sort of attacking threat is increased by the signings of Magennis and Botaka, providing an alternative should those likely to start fail, but the issue is a collective one, and not necessarily solved by individuals.
The real issue to address is the lack of cohesion and creativity, that has seen the Addicks fail to create no more than a handful of meaningful chances in their opening two games of the 2016/17 season. Cohesion, creativity, and a little bit of determination required to break down the Cobblers.
Can’t see a quick fix to the sluggish performances so far. The mood of justified pessimism to be fuelled further. Charlton Athletic 0-1 Northampton Town