In the week that Katrien Meire embarrassed herself, and the football club she represents, by arriving so late to her first FA Council meeting that she missed the introduction for new members, Charlton Athletic left it late in their game against Bolton Wanderers to salvage pride and a point.
For having performed without cohesion and quality for much of the contest, the improving side that had been on display in recent weeks seemingly not turning up on this occasion, it took a rare moment of excellence for the Addicks to draw level as stoppage-time approached.
Ademola Lookman, finding himself in space on the edge of Bolton’s box and with a sight of goal gifted by a gap in the opposition’s defensive line, firing so clinically beyond Mark Howard that most inside The Valley had started celebrating as soon as the ball left the teenager’s foot.
One-dimensional, frustrating and unthreatening prior to Lookman’s powerful strike to the extent that it was an undeserved equaliser, but at least Russell Slade’s side were able to find a way to make a greater contribution to their points tally than a silent Meire could to the FA Council’s meeting.
An equaliser required after the table-topping Trotters had taken the lead eight minutes after the interval. Gary Madine’s cool finish, converting after some rather tame Charlton defending had allowed Liam Trotter to break down the left and pull the ball back to the forward, particularly frustrating given that the Addicks, through Nicky Ajose and Jason Pearce, had failed to make the most of two excellent chances in a very physical opening 45.
And the physicality of a Bolton side well-drilled by former Charlton boss Phil Parkinson, in a game refereed incredibly leniently, contributed to the feeling that Slade’s side, seeing plenty of the ball but struggling to do anything with it, would not get back into the game. Ricky Holmes frequently outmuscled, and lacking an end product, Josh Magennis losing the battle with David Wheater and Mark Beevers, and Nicky Ajose bullied into anonymity.
But so too was Charlton’s structure and shape, in addition to several disappointing individual efforts, preventing the Addicks from seriously testing their opponents. Altered after a first-half injury to Johnnie Jackson, meaning Chris Solly moved into the middle and Ezri Konsa played right-back, there was frequently no man further forward than Konsa on the right-hand side. A real imbalance, and lack of cohesion, to Slade’s side, that meant attacks frequently stuttered to uneventful conclusions.
In fact, though Lookman’s 64th minute introduction at least injected a touch of pace and energy into a flat and frustrated side, support for him was lacking. The teenager often collecting the ball far too deep, and no teammate to assist as his lively runs headed towards dead ends.
So it was with some fortune in the context of the game that Slade’s side were able to rescue a point they scarcely deserved. Nothing fortuitous about Lookman’s emphatic strike, however.
A bonus point certainly gained against tough opposition and a moment of celebration enjoyed, but the overall performance making Slade and his side’s attempt to react post-game as if victory had been achieved feel a little false.
A reminder that, as much as Meire needs to improve her timekeeping, this Charlton side require improvement in order to be considered anything like the finished article.
A reminder, too, that Slade’s starting XI would surely improve from the inclusion of Lookman. The teenager, surely no longer lacking energy after his summer excursions with the England U19s, again kept in reserve as an unchanged side was named.
The individuals within it unchanged, but there an obvious alteration in the way the side lined up shown in the game’s early exchanges. Jackson and Kevin Foley most certainly occupying the wide positions, with Andrew Crofts sitting deep and Holmes, assumingly in the hope of harnessing his ability when running with the ball, given something of a free role further forward.
However, instead of Holmes’ exciting and penetrating runs receiving attention in the opening moments, it was the rather less ascetically pleasing physical battles between forwards and centre-backs that dominated.
Though Magennis too found himself in a tough contest, it was in and around Charlton’s box that the tone of the opening 45 was set, as Madine expressed displeasure with the way Pearce was grappling him, and Jamie Proctor was pulled up for undeniable shoves on Konsa. The Addicks, just about, standing firm.
That need to stand firm increased by the fact Bolton, with a midfield that included Josh Vela, Mark Davies, and Jay Spearing, looked controlled and composed in possession. In spite of both sides being unable to create any genuine openings inside the first ten minutes, it was the visitors who enjoyed the more promising and threatening start.
So it was to some surprise, given that Slade’s men had failed to create any sort of tempo and were seemingly still attempting to find their feet, that the hosts managed to create the game’s first opening.
In fact, such was the extent of the opening, there was some disappointment around The Valley that a goal was not being celebrated. Great pace and movement from Ajose allowing the forward to latch onto Holmes’ almost perfectly-weighted through ball, but Howard off his line quickly to prevent the Addicks taking an early lead.
Nonetheless, the chance lifted a previously sombre home crowd, and seemed to have similar effect upon those they were supporting.
Still openings for Bolton, as Vela troubled those in the Lower North despite the ball falling to him in an inviting position and Proctor nodded comfortably off-target, but improvement in Charlton’s play. Holmes, with his signature drives forward, growing into the game, better link-up between Magennis and Ajose seeing the latter’s shot blocked well by Wheater, and Vela forced to chop down Morgan Fox as the left-back began to take more confident marauds forward.
But the sight of Patrick Bauer, set to make his first Valley appearance since December of last year, being readied meant many assumed the force of Vela’s mistimed challenge meant Fox’s day was done. An injury to the left-back rather fitting in the week that saw the man who previously covered him, Tareiq Holmes-Dennis, sold to Huddersfield.
However, it was Jackson who hobbled off, seemingly having tweaked something in an off-the-ball incident. Slade deciding not to replace the skipper with an out-and-out winger, and instead rather bizarrely reshuffle his side. Bauer at centre-back, Konsa to right-back, and Solly moving into a midfield diamond that compressed.
Difficult to make sense of his decision to move several players out of position, rather than introduce a proper wide men. A suggestion it would have been nice to see Lawrie Wilson brought on, as he was given applause by the home supporters while the Bolton substitute went to warm up.
But the reshuffle it didn’t totally derail Charlton’s growth into the game. Fox’s miss-hit crossing appearing poor at first, but Ajose able to get in front of his man, and ultimately rifle an effort against the side netting.
In fact, there was a growing theme of men in red managing to get in front of their opposing player. Dean Moxey earning himself a booking as he horribly scythed down a galloping Holmes, before Vela, fortunate not to already be on a yellow card, managed to escape punishment for illegally stopping another burst forward from Fox.
Managing to escape punishment something Bolton also managed to achieve from the resulting free-kick, as Holmes’ delivery picked out an unmarked Pearce at the back post. Premature celebrations inside The Valley, as his nod across goal bounced agonisingly wide.
Momentum, in spite of that slow start and the disruption Jackson’s injury caused, belonging more and more to Charlton, but it always likely that the division’s leaders would find a way to regain a foothold in the game.
A foothold that would have been a lead had it not been for the quick reactions of Solly. Wheater heading Spearing’s corner goalwards, and the stand-in skipper, with some assistance from the woodwork, just about managing to deflect the ball off the line. The same Bolton man nodding over from the resulting set-piece, before sighs of relief sounded around SE7.
The feeling, therefore, as half-time approached was that this was a rather physical contest lacking proper fluency, in which both sides had managed to create the occasional opening. A sense of equality.
But there a rather large suggestion that the Addicks should have gone in at the break with a man advantage, as Lewis Buxton, a Charlton trialist during the summer before joining Parkinson’s side, followed through with a high boot on Magennis. The referee quick to show he was punishing Buxton for the high boot alone, and dubiously allowed him to escape without a card.
Home supporters unimpressed with the decision expressing their displeasure as a North Korea flag, in reference to CEO Meire’s attempts to end free speech among Charlton fans, was hung from the Upper West. That it was quickly taken away by stewards both ironic, and rather reflective of the half of football witnessed. One that, given its physical nature, had lacked any genuine flow.
That not be addressed at the start of the second half as Davies, attempting to dispossess a stuttering Fox, appeared to trap his foot in the ground and fall down in agony. The Bolton playmaker, with a torrid injury record, applauded down the tunnel by all four sides of the ground.
Selfishly, however, there was hope the Trotters would take time to recover from the disappointment of losing Davies, and the Addicks could take advantage. Not that they were going to with tame Magennis efforts from the best part of 30 yards that just about reached Howard in the Wanderers goal.
Instead, with Charlton’s defence displaying the shellshock that theory suggested this Bolton side might, it took barely three minutes of the game resuming following Davies’ departure for Bolton to take the lead.
Bauer unfortunately caught out, seeming to lose his footing somewhat and not turning quickly enough, as Trotter breezed down the left to pull back to an unmarked Madine. The forward, a handful but relatively quiet up to that point, finishing ruthlessly into the bottom corner and giving Declan Rudd no chance whatsoever.
Out of almost nothing, the game had stopped being something of a physical stalemate, and become one that needed Charlton to turn their fleeting moments of fluency into proper attacking potency in order to get something out of it.
The response of Slade’s side following that goal, however, was not encouraging. Misplaced passes, a loss of the little shape there was, and a horrible short corner routine between Ajose and an increasingly frustrating Holmes played out as chants from the Covered End demanded the introduction of Lookman.
They were to get their wish, as the winger replaced the ineffective Foley, but his teammates were not. Frequent occasions where the ball was carried out from the back, with Bolton sitting deeper and allowing Charlton to do so, with those in red panicking as they failed to see an obvious forward pass. A lack of cohesion, structure, and effective remained.
It was, largely, the individual prowess of Holmes and Lookman that the Addicks were relying on to get them back into the game. The former without end product, and being well marshalled by those in white, while the latter was taking the ball into decent positions without being given useful assistance from the struggling Magennis and Ajose.
To their credit, Bolton were defiant, but Slade’s unit looked so dysfunctional that they were not being given a proper test. A Magennis header comfortably looping over the bar after a rare accurate cross, Lookman, having worked himself into space, dragging a tame effort wide, and on-target strike from Crofts being blocked about as good as it got for a Charlton side that appeared a little desperate.
Desperation that was reasonable to have as the 90th minute approached, so it no surprise that there were rather ambitious cries that Howard, having saved Magennis looping header, had taken the ball over the line as he claimed it. Desperation, amidst frustration at how tame and unthreatening a performance this unorganised side were putting in.
So even though it was apparent that Lookman’s last-minute strike was nestling in the bottom corner from the moment he made contact with the ball, there remained an element of sheer surprise in the celebrations around The Valley. Slade’s side not doing enough to deserve an equaliser, not looking threatening at all, but Lookman had somehow managed to punish an overly defensive Bolton when victory looked theirs.
And with the energy that those celebrations created, in addition to seven minutes of additional time there was suddenly belief, in a game that Charlton had long appeared out of, of an Addicks victory. Belief stifled by Howard’s slow taking of goal kicks, with the Trotters seemingly unwilling to risk their point in search of victory.
A point they might well have lost regardless, as Holmes, after numerous horrendous deliveries, picked out substitute Brandon Hanlan perfectly at the back post from a free-kick. The youngster throwing himself into the ball but able only to able against the side-netting.
But as Ajose, with ball at feet on a rare occasion during the second 45, travelled forward and fired wide enough for Howard to comfortably watch the ball sail past his post, there was an acceptance from both sides that this game would end in a draw.
A performance not worthy of the joy expressed by those in red come full-time, but a point that might well prove important if there are to be further moments of celebration towards the end of this campaign.
For there is no denying that a point, irrespective of the performance, is a positive outcome from a contest against a side who had a 100% record coming into the game at The Valley.
In truth, despite the contrast in emotions come full-time with Slade leading celebrations and several of Bolton’s players understandably appearing devastated not to have held on when Charlton chances were not being created prior to their equaliser, it probably a result that both sides can be relatively happy with.
But, while being grateful and not discrediting the useful nature of the result, Lookman’s late leveller cannot be used to cover up how disappointing and dysfunctional the Addicks were, particularly in the second half.
That the result, I would suggest, of three factors.
The first being disappointing individual performances. A reliance on Magennis’ ability to win punts forward and Holmes’ drives with the ball at his feet, that have allowed for Charlton to threaten in previous games and prevent faults within the side from being exposed, shown as the failure of both to impress in the second half increased the struggles of the Addicks dramatically.
Additionally, Ajose was disappointingly quiet after half-time, Fox has had much better days going forward, and misplaced passes in midfield were regular and felt like a result of a lack of cohesion.
The second issue being the system that Slade deployed, particularly in midfield. It has always been lopsided under the bald-headed boss, but especially so today, with there seemingly no player on the right-hand side for much of the second half. The system unorganised, lacking fluency, and seemingly revolving around getting the ball to Lookman and Holmes and hoping it for the best. It just wasn’t working.
Also, opting to replace Jackson with Bauer remains a very strange call. Solly, though calm and composed, not a midfield, Konsa defensively sound but not really making any sort of influence and going forward, and turning down the opportunity to actually having some balance in the middle with another proper wide man just seems very odd.
And finally, the third issue is a consequence of the lack of bodies available to Slade. Half of that through injury, with Slade persisting with off-colour Magennis for most of the game without Lee Novak available, but half of it through a genuine lack of depth, with no pacey forward to replace Ajose, no creative central midfield option, and a seeming lack of trust in Jordan Botaka.
It means, in addition to keeping a hold of Lookman, worthy of praise not only for his goal but for his persistent attempts to make an impact prior to it while the rest of his side struggling, there is plenty of work to be done prior to the transfer deadline.
And plenty of work for Slade’s side. The feeling of relief that a point was snatched to be enjoyed, but it certainly shouldn’t prevent a search for improvement prior to the next league game in a fortnight’s time. Cohesion, structure and consistency still to be found.