It was by no means a fluent and faultless performance that allowed Russell Slade’s Charlton Athletic side to celebrate victory with real joy in front of their vocal travelling supporters at the Bescot Stadium, but neither was it fortuitous.
For to call Charlton’s victory, the first immediately following another since November, fortuitous would, though accounting for the chances Walsall created and the occasional moments of luck the Addicks enjoyed, totally discredits the collective application and effort of this side.
A 2-1 win achieved largely through determination and drive. Determination and drive befitting of a Charlton side, and a Charlton side vastly improved in terms of attitude upon recent cohorts.
Through fine margins can such a statement be made, and not a sloppy and sometimes sluggish performance be criticised. The Addicks, nowhere near as composed as they were during Tuesday’s victory over Shrewsbury and occasionally finding themselves caught out, could not have claimed an injustice had Declan Rudd not pulled off a sensational double save midway through the first half and Walsall taken the lead.
But Slade’s side – through collective persistence, the pace of Ricky Holmes, and the battle of Josh Magennis- were competing in such a manner that covered the flaws in their performance and meant the lead taken prior to half-time did not come against the run of play. Nicky Ajose on hand to head home his first Charlton goal from close range.
And maybe, as the Saddlers grew frustrated with their attacking failings, the Addicks became increasingly defiant in defence, and the visiting support cried in praise of their side and hatred of the regime that runs their club, there was a feeling that that Ajose goal would be enough. A feeling that existed in spite of Charlton being pushed deeper into their own half, and their hearty defiance being increasingly tested with forward fluency lacking.
A feeling that was, ultimately, to be proven wrong. The Addicks guilty of dropping too deep, inviting Kieron Morris to shoot, and Rudd’s attempt to keep out the drive questionable. The away end silenced out of nothing.
Silenced partly with the fear that collapse would follow, but the drive and determination of this Charlton side was proven as they picked themselves up and responded immediately. Magennis breaking down the right, and his ball across the face just about turned in by Ajose. Prolific, having previously faltered in front of goal.
And the drive and determination of this Charlton side allowed to stand in the moments that followed largely by gritty defending, but also an occasional moment of desperation. Simeon Jackson would have converted into an empty goal had he got on the end of a ball blocked across goal by Rudd, and the goalkeeper needed to deny the Canadian from a tight angle in stoppage-time.
Relief, as much as joy, in those full-time celebrations therefore, but the overwhelming feeling not one that Charlton had ridden their luck.
Instead, it was pride, among a group of supporters who had encouraged and expressed outrage marvellously throughout the afternoon, in the commendable diligence of their side that was felt as fist-pumps between players and fans were shared. Determination, just about, succeeding.
Determination also probably playing a part as Johnnie Jackson and Holmes, despite both nursing knocks, were able to start in an unchanged Charlton side. Unchanged, but for the fact Jackson had again been shifted out wide, as appose to Kevin Foley, who took the graveyard shift in midweek.
And maybe it was that subtle change that meant Charlton’s start in the West Midlands wasn’t quite as impressive as it was in SE7 four days previously. Jackson’s presence in the centre missed as Isaiah Osbourne took control, and the lively Franck Moussa, against his former club, warmed the hands of Rudd.
The Addicks, maybe a little frustratingly so after the attacking intent that saw Shrewsbury dispatched, set up and playing like the away side they were. Walsall the more controlling, and Slade’s men looking to venture forward on the break with limited success. A need for greater patience among the visiting support who might have expected more, as Andrew Crofts blasted over and former Charlton stopper Neil Etheridge gathered Magennis’ tame effort.
And a need for their side to sharpen up at the back. Simeon Jackson allowed the time and space to shoot, Rudd spilling his drive, and a more composed Andreas Makris might well have capitalised on the opening from the rebound.
A warning regardless, and one taken in the right way. Fluency still lacking in the attacking moves, but Holmes’ directness was leading more encouraging charges forward.
Chris Solly in behind down the right, Ajose unmarked at the back post, but a combination of the forward being unable to quite control his feet and desperate Walsall defending denying the Addicks. Frustration on the summer signing’s face once again, but the visiting fans supportive.
Although, that supportive attitude would have certainly turned to very real frustration of their own had it not been for the brilliance of Rudd moments later. Most expecting the net to ripple as an unmarked Simeon Jackson was picked out in the middle, but the goalkeeper somehow managed to beat the goalbound strike away, before picking himself up to deny Morris, who seemed certain to convert the rebound. The Charlton defence, featuring far too many holes, saved by their goalkeeper.
And maybe it was the confidence gained from seeing a teammate pull of something spectacular that meant Ajose felt he could attempt something a bit special himself. A dink from distance having a disorientated Etheridge back peddling, and Walsall’s stopper thankful that Ajose’s audacious effort could only clip the bar on its way behind.
A more open feeling to the game, or at least each side seemed as likely to score as the other. Still Charlton’s defence were a little slow in closing down the opposition on the edge of the box, and Rudd was needed to deny Jason McCarthy, while Walsall’s backline found themselves unsure how to deal with a rampaging Holmes as the winger broke forward and saw a swerving strike parried away, with Magennis thankful that an offside flag sparred his blushes after somehow prodding the loose ball wide.
So the goal the Addicks were able to score with three first half minutes remaining prior to half-time was doubly important. Not only because it gave them the lead in a contest where they had flirted with the idea of falling behind on several occasions, but it meant the momentum built towards the end of the half was not wasted.
Holmes’ corner finding its way back out to the winger, his cross nodded on by Magennis, and an unmarked Ajose alive at the back post to head home his first goal for Charlton after several disappointing misses.
Delight for the man himself among the wild celebrations in the away end, as Etheridge appealed desperately for offside. The moment of good fortune, with Ajose simply being in the right place at the right time, that many felt the forward needed to get off the mark finally found.
A worry, though, that Slade’s men might well play with caution in the second period given that they had now taken the lead. A tactic that could ultimately result in the Saddlers capitalising upon a potentially nervy Addicks backline.
But if the opening moments of the restart were anything to go by, there remained forward energy and intent in this Charlton side. Chris Solly, of all people, pressing high and in a position to intercept a horrendous Etheridge period, but only able to fire his resulting strike straight at the goalkeeper.
A Magennis header, looped back across goal and behind, providing further encouragement that this half was not to be a nervy one for the Addicks, but the expected pattern of the period soon took over. The most desperate of blocks from Johnnie Jackson, resulting in a chorus of “runs down the wing for me”, denying Morris, before Makris headed the resulting corner wide.
Slade’s attempt to avoid Charlton being camped deep into their half was to bring on Ademola Lookman, but runs from the teenager winger and Holmes with no end product were not helping the cause.
Walsall’s frustration, however, most certainly was. A structured and defiant backline, not yet showing nerves, incredibly difficult to breakdown and simple mistakes and misplaced passes were beginning to be made by the Saddlers. Substitute Amadou Bakayoko heading comfortably over from a corner and Matt Preston firing off-target from the edge of the box not reflective of the dominance of the ball Walsall were having, but about as good as it got in terms of chances created for Jon Whitney’s side.
All the while, the visiting supporters were showing defiance of their own. “Please just sell the club, our famous football club, we just don’t really want you here,” rattling around the away end for a ten minute period, as if a reminder was required that any sort of run of performances and results will not be enough for forgiveness. The name of that famous football club then sung, as a moment of relief was found on the field with Magennis, ever a threat, nodding tamely wide.
Relief, however, that was not to last. For all of Charlton’s structured defiance, simply not allowing Walsall to create moves that meant they could claim the ball inside the box, they had sometimes continued to be a little slow in closing down the opposition.
Osbourne, Moussa and Morris all given a yard of space on the edge of the box as the ball was ultimately worked to the latter, and the midfielder taking the opportunity to fire towards goal. An effort that lacked genuine pace and power, but one Rudd could not keep out. His fingertips deflecting the ball into the bottom corner, and he taking as much of the blame for Walsall’s equaliser as Charlton’s static defending.
Frustration that a totally unnecessary goal had been conceded, but the away end were quick to find their voices, if only to shout down the fears of total capitulation. Undoubtedly some genuine belief, however, that this group of Addicks, on the back foot and forced to be determined for much of the half, could somehow regain their lead with 18 minutes still to play.
And with 16 minutes to play, out of almost nothing, they were back in front. The pace and strength of Magennis too much for James O’Connor down the right, and his ball across the face of goal beating everyone in the middle to find Ajose at the back post. A moment where it seemed the ball had got tangled between his feet, but the forward able to bundle it over the line, and claim his second of the game. Sheer, and slightly unexpected, joy among the visiting supporters.
Sheet joy that was, temporarily at least, replaced by caution, knowing full well the previous pattern of the game would return. Bakayoko’s shot tipped behind by Rudd, and Florent Cuvelier testing the goalkeeper from the resulting corner as it again became clear defiance was needed.
Defiance that would hopefully be helped by the appearance of Patrick Bauer on the pitch, replacing a drained Ajose who received the reception his goals deserved. The BFG, slotting into a position behind midfield but not too far in front of defence, making a return after eight months out through injury.
His presence not enough, however, to prevent the need for rather desperate and determined defending from the Addicks. Nor was it enough to scare the fourth official into signalling less than five additional minutes, and five additional minutes that really should have ended in disaster.
For though Walsall were still a unit that looked calm on the ball in the centre but panicked when attempting to go any further forward, they finally found a way through in the dying moments.
Erhun Oztumer, lively without much end product since coming on, sending a ball into the box, which appeared to take a slight deflection off the referee on its way to Joe Edwards. Charlton thankful that his touch was a little away from him, allowing Rudd to block his prod towards goal, but Simeon Jackson really should have found a way to get on the end of the loose ball that ran across the face of goal. A certain equaliser had he made any sort of contact.
Contact certainly made, however, by the Canadian as time remained on the clock for him to break into the box and latch onto the end of a lofted pass. The angle tight, but his volley well-struck, and Rudd’s save that followed, deflecting the ball onto the post, marvellous. The goalkeeper’s overall efforts more than making up for his tame attempt to deal with Walsall’s equaliser.
And so it was fitting that it was Rudd’s grab from a corner, as several Walsall bodies attempted to challenge, that signalled the end of the game. That allowed fear and panic to be replaced by relieved joy and ecstatic pride.
That meant Charlton, through determination, defiance, and the occasional bit of good fortune, had recorded a second successive win.
Of course, to win in such fashion, where slight margins made huge differences, does show the improvement that is still required. Not only would a side with more attacking fluency than Walsall at least taken something from the game, but Walsall would have taken something from the game were it not for Rudd’s brilliance.
The defence, at times, too deep, and opened up a little too easily in the first half. The midfield still lacking pace, and very much struggling to get a proper hold of the ball in the second period. But these are not aggressive criticisms, but points to address, and upon which to improve.
For the overriding feeling, irrespective of how close Walsall came to taking something from the game, is one of pride. Pride in how determined Slade’s side were, both defensively as the opposition attempted to break them down again and again and in response to conceding, in order to achieve back-to-back wins for the first time since November.
A win achieved in a completely different style to one in midweek, but worthy of similar praise. The gritty fight and hearty defiance, not least in the second half efforts of Jason Pearce and Ezri Konsa, as pleasing as the way Holmes blasted through Shrewsbury’s defence on Tuesday.
Pleasing, too, that Ajose finally managed to break his duck. It was not for the want of effort that the forward was yet to score, and though it is slightly a cliché, you do feel the goals will flow now he has two to his name. Not least given the fact his partnership with Magennis, maybe not as consistently effective as he was in the previous two home games but still vitally important and creating both goals, appears a strong one.
And a final mention to the marvellous support in the Bescot’s away end. A defiance and determination, both in support of their side and the prolonged chants against the regime that will remain irrespective of what is seen on the pitch, that matched their side’s.
A most marvellous effort all round.
Apologies for the delay in posting. Yesterday was spent hopping between Edgbaston, supporting the T20 Blast winners, and the Bescot. Supporting the Addicks. I’ve had worse days. Didn’t arrive at Walsall until twenty minutes into the game, so points made on the opening exchanges based on others’ views. Blame them if it’s all rubbish. Blame me for the rest of it.