Don’t say it too loudly, mainly because Katrien Meire’s PR servants might hear and decide they’ve won a war they simply can’t win, but supporters of Charlton Athletic will go into a game this weekend with justified confidence for the first time in many months.
We’ll ignore the fact the game that followed ended with a tame defeat to Bristol City that reassured fans relegation to League One was not going to be avoided, but there has been nothing like the renewed optimism that Tuesday’s impressive victory over Shrewsbury Town has provided since January’s 4-1 win over Rotherham United. Renewed optimism without the baggage of Simon Makienok being a part of it.
Russell Slade’s side displaying an attacking vigour and intent at The Valley for at least the opening 45 minutes in midweek that injected a contagious sense of enthusiasm among fans, creating a complete distraction from the off-the-field chaos and supporter disconnection, that was to be treasured in the circumstances.
But while there is reason for belief and enthusiasm, so too must Addicks approach Saturday’s trip to Walsall with a sense of caution. Caution that comes with the knowledge that renewed optimism has so often been replaced by familiar disappointment in recent times.
A need for Slade’s men to take their efforts in the victory over the Shrews, and replicate them away from The Valley against opposition that is perceived to be somewhat more testing irrespective of a summer weakening.
To prove those 45 minutes in SE7 on Tuesday are not going to be something we’ll be looking back on come the end of the season with a sense of underachievement and wasted opportunity.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 1-0 WALSALL (09/04/12)
Dany N’Guessan’s first-half header at The Valley in April 2012 edged Chris Powell’s Charlton a step closer to securing the promotion from League One that had long been effectively theirs.
The French forward, on loan from Millwall, turned in a Johnnie Jackson free-kick with ten minutes remaining of the first period, and that was all that was needed for the Addicks to inflict defeat on Dean Smtih’s Walsall side.
The remainder of the game seen out in relatively comfortable fashion, with Charlton regularly creating chances to double their lead and, aside from Ben Hamer almost gifting Jon Macken an equaliser, rarely looking like sacrificing their advantage.
The victory laying the platform from which Powell’s side were able to secure promotion, with Bradley Wright-Phillips’ goal at Carlisle United five days later returning the Addicks to the Championship. That was all very fun, wasn’t it?
In truth, Walsall’s start to this League One season probably reflects what many expected of them during this campaign. Average, unspectacular, and nowhere near their incredible efforts and near-achievements of last season.
Too much to expect a side that lost key performers throughout the summer to be able to challenge for promotion once again, with Romaine Sawyers and Tom Bradshaw particularly difficult to replace. The ambition of Jon Witney’s men seemingly simply being to consolidate in the third tier’s top half.
But, as a comprehensive opening day victory against AFC Wimbledon proved, there does remain quality among the Saddlers ranks. The likes of Erhun Oztumer, Franck Moussa and Simeon Jackson, in one way or another, possessing match-winning qualities.
It disappointing, therefore, that the fixtures that have followed for Walsall have ended in frustration. A failure to breakdown League Two Yeovil Town resulting in an extra-time League Cup exit, a similar inability to find a way through Oldham Athletic despite creating the better chances, and an injury-ravaged side ultimately punished by two late Ched Evans goals at Chesterfield in midweek.
Consequently, there’s probably more to come from this Walsall side, but maybe not too much more.
Having begun the season in truly horrendous fashion, with a dysfunctional side playing atrocious football and boss Slade already speaking in a manner that suggested he was feeling the pressure, a victory of the sort that was achieved at The Valley on Tuesday was desperately needed.
Shrewsbury powerless to stop a rampaging Ricky Holmes, assisted by a marvellous collective attacking intent that was replaced by a sensible pragmatic approach once the lead had become three, from giving Slade his first win since taking charge, and Charlton’s first victory of the season.
The win so impressive that maybe the ghosts of the defeats to Bury and Cheltenham, in addition to the first half of the draw with Northampton Town, can be laid to rest. Not completely forgotten, given how dire those performances were, simply hopefully moved on from.
But the other snippet of form-related data to consider is that Charlton haven’t won back-to-back games since November 2015. A 3-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday, followed by Jackson’s 50th goal for the club producing victory at St Andrews. A need to address that statistic on Saturday.
Walsall will continue to be without 19-year-old Rico Henry after the highly-rated left-back suffered a dislocated shoulder during the goalless draw with Oldham Athletic last weekend.
Henry, linked with a move away from the Bescott throughout the summer but now facing an extended spell in the treatment room following the injury, was replaced by Joe Edwards at left-back at Chesterfield on Tuesday night, and the 25-year-old, a right-back by trade, looks set to deputise once again.
But there is better news for the Saddlers in midfield, with a number of players likely to return from injury for the visit of the Addicks. Skipper Adam Chambers and Erhun Oztumer, who failed to shake off hamstring and back niggles respectively in time for the midweek defeat, are almost certain to be involved, while Isaiah Osbourne and Florent Cuvelier are competing to be recalled.
Their availability would give Witney’s side strength in the middle, particularly with former Charlton midfielder Franck Moussa also option. The Belgian, whose spell in SE7 was injury-hit, has made an impressive start to life as a Saddler.
Charlton will be hopeful that key men Holmes and Johnnie Jackson can recover from slight knocks suffered on Tuesday night to retain their place in the starting line-up at the Bescott.
The midfield pair, scorers in midweek and central to Charlton’s success, have an ankle and hamstring niggle respectively, and they will prove huge losses to Slade’s side should they not regain fitness in time for the weekend.
Supporters will also be hoping that Ademola Lookman, kept in reserve for much of Tuesday’s victory over Shrewsbury, is finally given an opportunity to start his first league game for the Addicks under the management of Slade.
Lookman, used sparingly by his new boss after a testing summer that included playing for the England U19s, would provide greater balance and attacking threat to a side that is beginning to show forward intent. Many desperate for the highly-rated winger to come into the starting XI for Kevin Foley, who has looked a little slow and cumbersome in his early appearances for the Addicks.
Elsewhere, following the impressive effort in victory over the Shrews, further changes are unlikely should Holmes and Jackson be okay to start. Patrick Bauer will again be wanting to make his first appearance since December having recovered from a groin injury, but the form of 17-year-old Ezri Konsa suggests he may have to remain patient.
KEY BATTLE – TAKING THE GAME TO THE OPPOSITION AWAY FROM HOME
It almost seems silly to suggest that, after such an emphatic victory on Tuesday night, Slade’s side still have plenty to prove, but they very much need to show they’re capable of playing with attacking intent away from home.
For their efforts at Bury and Cheltenham, not assisted by the overall disjointed nature of the side, were sluggish and unthreatening. A need for Slade to take the forward qualities seen at The Valley on Tuesday night to the West Midlands.
It’s a task that will be made more testing should Walsall’s midfield be at full strength, given both the dynamic attack-minded playmakers and the defiant deeper central men they possess. A gamble to commit men forward when Chambers, Cuvelier and Osbourne so can readily break up attacks, while Oztumer and Moussa have the ability to exploit any space offered.
This, therefore, an opportunity for Slade to be a touch brave and bold, and there no reason why he shouldn’t be on the back of the midweek efforts. The same level of attacking intent and quality would at least allow the Addicks to take control of the game, irrespective of the greater strength Walsall possess in midfield.
Head says be a tad cautions, heart says remember what Ricky Holmes did on Tuesday. Walsall 1-2 Charlton Athletic
Chris Powell’s Flat Cap will be at the Bescott, but a report probably won’t be online until Sunday. Interrupting a visit to Edgbaston to support Northants at T20 Finals Day with a quick dash across to Walsall in between.