As the disconnection between supporters and a club they now struggle to identify with grows, the importance of those individuals who represent the notion of a ‘real’ Charlton becomes even greater.
Nothing, therefore, was going to be celebrated by this disenchanted Valley crowd, left angered by another bundle of insulting actions from their club’s senior management and depressed by a disastrous start to the season, as much as a Johnnie Jackson goal.
Nothing to be enjoyed as much as the inspirational captain of this football club, whose attitude and demeanour has always provided cause to support the team while not the regime, rifling an important equaliser beyond Northampton Town’s Adam Smith and react with real passion in front of the Covered End.
Jackson’s 57th minute strike, coming after the Cobblers had taken advantage of a lifeless first-half effort from the Addicks and gained the lead through Alex Revell’s back-post header, rounding off a rare flowing move from a side still without cohesion and creativity.
A frustrated set of fans immediately rising in unison, returning the roars and fist-pumps of the man who continues to keep the damaged heart of this club beating. Jackson consistently a scorer of important and inspirational goals, and his whole-hearted celebrations would suggest this was among them.
His emotion so great it suggested a perfect understanding of the disillusion among Charlton supporters, but a belief that he could help heal those wounds. That irrespective of their disconnection, he was still leading a side that warranted support.
And maybe Jackson, having rounded off the first sign of coherent attacking football under Russell Slade’s management, did inspire. The sight of a man with an unmeasurable connection with the club’s supporters knee sliding in front of them providing greater enthusiasm than 1,000 patronising and half-hearted statements that suggest engagement is on the cards.
For there was belief in the remaining 33 minutes of the game that suggested a Charlton victory was possible, replacing a mood that implied this dysfunctional side would certainly suffer defeat.
Fluidity still lacking, passing moves breaking down, and forward runs ending in dead ends, not to mention the fact Northampton probably had the best chance to win the game through Will Hoskins, but there was more pace and energy among this group of Addicks in the game’s closing stages. The Cobblers, if nothing else, on the back foot.
Far from perfect, but the ability a Jackson goal has to lift and encourage remains as strong as ever in these testing times.
At the very least, a brief moment of escapism from the chaotic state this club finds itself it. Escapism from what remains an underwhelming and concerning opening to a campaign where success was demanded. Escapism from a performance that offered glimpses of quality, but nowhere enough to suggest victory was deserved, and not enough to distract from the notion a draw at home to Northampton Town is a somewhat disappointing result.
But a brief moment of escapism to be treasured by those inside The Valley, after another week where their anger, apathy, and disconnection has been reaffirmed by the actions and behaviour of those within the club whose understanding of it and its supporters is nowhere near as great as that of the Skipper’s.
Prior to his perfectly placed knee slide in front of the Covered End, however, there was great concern about Jackson’s position. A failure among many to understand why he had been deployed out wide by Slade once again, while more natural wingers Ademola Lookman and new loan signing Jordon Botaka were kept in reserve.
Concern that was expressed while supporters found themselves positioned in front of the club shop, instigating the latest protest against Roland Duchatelet’s ownership. Placards held and anti-regime chants sung, with support from a handful of Northampton persuasion, as fellow fans were encouraged not to fund the poisonous dictatorship that controls this club.
There was, though, more to be encouraged about in this Addicks matchday squad than the ones that featured in the defeats to Bury and Cheltenham. The sight of 17-year-old Ezri Konsa at centre-back, meaning the booed Roger Johnson was benched, welcomed, the disliked defender pushed further down the pecking order by the return of Patrick Bauer to the 18, and hope that debutant forward Josh Magennis, signed from Kilmarnock in the week, would provide greater support for Nicky Ajose while allowing Lee Novak to be an option from the bench.
But in the early moments of the first game of the season at a rather sparsely populated Valley, in spite of a plethora of free tickets being handed out, it was immediately apparent that pace, creativity and a collective attacking threat all still remained absent from Slade’s side.
An opening that possibly offered more than seen in the early exchanges of the defeat at Gigg Lane seven days ago, reaffirmed by the fact the Addicks looked calmer in possession particularly after Konsa overcame some early miss-kick worthy nerves, but with no particularly potent end product.
The visiting supporters taking great pleasure in seeing former Cobbler Ricky Holmes run into dead ends, Andrew Crofts and Kevin Foley moving the ball far too slowly, and movement in support minimal.
Instead, their somewhat slow, lethargic and uninventive keeping of possession was only to produce rather desperate half-chances. Diligent Northampton defending was required to prevent Jackson making more of a testing delivery from the left, but less concern among Rob Page’s back four as Morgan Fox hit a bouncing ball over the bar and Holmes found a touch of space only to fire wildly off-target.
This while the Cobblers, without able to create any kind of opening, were showing promise when the ball was theirs. David Buchanan offering a threat coming forward from left-back, Harry Beautyman lively, and John-Joe O’Tool’s strength making him difficult to handle against a Charlton unit not fully committed to closing down their opponents.
So though the shot count would suggest otherwise, it was not against the run of play that this determined and driven Northampton side, arriving at The Valley without defeat in 25 league games, managed to take the lead with 16 minutes played.
It was, however, a lead they were rather softly handed. A blocked shot running loose to an unguarded Alfie Potter on the right flank, Revell peeling off his man as the delivery was played into the box, and the forward nodding back across the face of goal and into the opposite bottom corner with ease. Quizzical looks shared among Charlton’s defence, and an aggressive silence only interrupted by the cheers of the visiting supporters heard in the home ends.
Silence that would soon become the familiar uninspired and frustrated groans that had been heard many times in SE7 last season. A horribly sliced Crofts strike after a Foley knock down not what was required to get the Addicks back into the game, and Holmes, at least providing some life, probably would have been better off looking for a man in the middle rather than driving towards Smith and seeing a shot comfortably held.
The only real sign of encouragement for the home supporters, already disillusioned and depressed prior to kick-off, came from the running and effort of Magennis in attack, who fought for every long ball pumped forward while Crofts and Foley continued to offer little creativity in the middle. His battle with Zander Diamond one he was winning, but a frustration that there was no one, not least the somewhat anonymous Ajose, alive to his flick-ons and knock-downs.
So with the hosts constantly conceding possession in Northampton’s defensive third, resulting in breaks from the pacey visitors that were heavily encouraged by their support, it was of no surprise that they were able to come close to doubling their lead with 30 minutes played.
A criminally unmarked Beautyman, irrespective of his diminutive stature, picked out in the centre of Charlton’s box, and the playmaker desperately unlucky to see his header bounce agonisingly wide with Declan Rudd frozen. Home supporters now much more willing to make their anger with this performance from their side known.
And while Magennis, by striking wide from distance as his isolation continued before nodding a Fox cross not far wide, and Holmes, by driving into dangerous crossing positions without being able to find a red shirt in the middle, attempted to rectify Charlton’s position towards the end of the half, it was not enough to prevent rather understandable boos from ringing around The Valley as the players departed the pitch at the interval.
The two most immediate areas for improvement obvious, not least with it becoming apparent that the Cobblers were going to sit deep and force Charlton to create their own openings. More energy and productive passing required in midfield, as Crofts and Foley continued to struggle while Jackson’s placement meant his influence was limited, and more dynamic runs and movement needed in forward positions to make greater use of Magennis’ unrelenting efforts.
It quite ironic, therefore, that amidst the justified calls for Crofts to be taken off to make way for a proper winger, it was the Welsh summer signing who had what was effectively Charlton’s first meaningful effort on goal at the start of the second half. The Cobblers, deep to the extent that they had given Crofts too much room on the edge of the box, inviting a strike, and Smith doing just enough to tip the ball around the post.
If that wasn’t enough, then the next opening from the Addicks certainly instilled encouragement and energy among The Valley crowd. Ajose finally coming alive, meeting Fox’s cross from the right, and firing just wide on the turn. The summer signing agonisingly close to living up to his poacher tag, with Slade’s side finally showing something that resembled coherent attacking play.
But there is, it would seem, a touch more to Ajose’s game than simply being a man to round off forward moves. For it was he, having shown excellent movement during an exchange of passes with Magennis, who provided Charlton’s equaliser.
A perfectly weighted and directed ball fed through to Jackson, striding with intent towards goal, and the skipper firing beyond Smith with typical power and precision. The strains and stresses that supporting this club provides immediately temporarily forgotten, as the skipper slid in front of the Covered End, emotion and passion bleeding from a face as worn by recent events in SE7 as any supporter’s he celebrated in front of.
And though the experienced Matthew Taylor, with a nod towards goal comfortably held by an untroubled Rudd, tempted to restore Northampton’s dominance, there was no denying the mood inside The Valley had become an overwhelming one of Charlton belief.
This, if not from the start, the perfect time to introduce Lookman. The appearance of the 19-year-old, immediately attempting a run through the heart of a rather shell-shocked Northampton side, only increasing the noise coming from the Covered End.
But it was Magennis, despite evidently beginning to tire and finding the battle with both Diamond and Gabriel Zakuani an increasingly difficult one to win, who found himself the most likely to turn this moment of Jackson-inspired encouragement into victory. A strike wide from a deep Fox cross, a long throw flicked across the face of goal without anyone able to gamble and turn the ball in, and a header sent towards the opposite post and bouncing just wide. Promise.
So too, however, was there a touch of frustration to be had in Charlton’s attempts to turn this encouragement into something more meaningful. Continued moments of weak and misdirected passing play, the introduction of Botaka – struggling to make any sort of impression on his debut – for Holmes unfortunately taking a great deal of attacking threat and energy out of the Addicks, and the continued diligence of a Northampton defence, growing stronger and calmer after a nervy initial response to conceding an equaliser, restricting Slade’s still somewhat non-cohesive side to little more than half chances.
In fact, 83 minutes were on the clock before Charlton, looking increasingly less coherent and failing to replicate the passages of play that were seen just before and after equalising, were able to test Smith again. Ajose cutting inside, and the goalkeeper holding his effort at the second attempt. Taylor, in similar fashion with a similar save from Rudd, responding at the other end to keep the Addicks on their toes
That, after Lookman had driven forward and again stung the palms of Smith, certainly the sort of alertness that Charlton still required. This, particularly with O’Toole battling away in midfield and Revell refusing to give up on any punt forward, had long stopped being a persistent attacking barrage from Slade’s side.
And with stoppage-time approaching, it was the Cobblers who were able to create the best opening to win the game. Revell breaking into the box, his cut back perfect for substitute Hoskins, but an incredible block from Chris Solly somehow diverting the ball wide and preventing what appeared a certain goal. Charlton somewhat fortunate that no Northampton players was alive to pounce on a loose ball from the resulting corner, and Rudd could gather.
But there was still time to make the most of that relative good fortune. Lookman’s pace and trickery winning him a free-kick on the edge of Northampton’s box, and goalkeeper Smith’s palms required to beat away the resulting strike from the teenage winger.
Maybe just a few inside The Valley who thought the effort was goalbound, before having to settle for a draw, and determine whether this was a point gained through an increase in energy or effort or two dropped from a disappointing failure to build on the encouragement seen before and after Jackson’s goal.
It probably one of those that can’t be properly assessed until the performance and result in the following fixture, Tuesday night’s clash with Shrewsbury, are known.
For the second half improvement was certainly the greatest shown of promise from Slade’s side in their early encounters. The only show of promise so far.
There was, in spite of Revell’s dogged efforts, a more determined and composed effort at the back, with Pearce leading and Konsa showing great maturity. Energy in midfield, as the wings were exploited, helped by the support of Solly and Fox getting forward with intent, and Jackson was able to keep things ticking over centrally. More movement in attack, as Magennis continued to fight and Ajose finally came alive. It certainly an improvement on the previous two games and a half, and the point that followed the very least the Addicks deserved.
But should it not be followed up on Tuesday, and further improvement in attacking play and cohesion seen, that it almost becomes meaningless. An isolated period of positive play, that will be eclipsed by the fears from a worrying evening should Slade’s side struggle as they did in the opening 45 minutes today.
Additionally, there is the argument that a draw at home to Northampton, in spite of their now 26-game unbeaten run, is not a result that a club of Charlton’s stature should ever be pleased about. An argument that gains further strength when you consider the period of genuine threat from the Addicks was no greater than a 20 minute one. The latter part of the second half, in that environment of encouragement and the Cobblers sitting deep, a frustrating one.
Irrespective, it was most welcome to have an afternoon of distraction from the disconnection and apathy instilled by the club. An afternoon that where, at the very least, the treasured skipper was able to provide a single moment where supporters and side felt together.