The rise of Fleetwood Town and the fall of Charlton Athletic reflected perfectly in the emotions of each set of supporters come full-time at the Highbury Stadium.
Those that had occupied the away end somewhat relieved to be leaving the North West with an additional point to their name, in spite of the perceived status of their former non-league opponents. Three minutes all that remained when Lee Novak turned in Kevin Foley’s ball across the face of goal to rescue something of an undeserved draw for the Addicks.
Fleetwood supporters, by contrast, frustrated to have gained just a point. Their side, controlling the midfield and exploiting holes in Charlton’s defence through dynamic counter attacking play, in control for large parts of the game. A victory, which looked like being theirs for much of the contest, would not have at all flattered the Cod Army.
For Russell Slade’s side had no answer to the energy and intent that fuelled Fleetwood’s game in the opening stages. Five minutes passing before Uwe Rosler’s men gained the advantage, as Chris Long was invited to shoot, and the slight deflection his fierce strike took helped it beyond the desperate dive of Declan Rudd.
Almost untainted dominance following, as Fleetwood’s midfield trio maintained control against a weak Charlton centre, with the pace of Devante Cole and David Ball making sure a disjointed and lacklustre group of Addicks were kept on the back foot.
Slade’s side only developing a degree of attacking threat when Josh Magennis, working harder than the rest of his teammates combined, was allowed to occupy a more natural central position. The forward threatening, before heading home Ricky Holmes’ cross with 32 minutes played and potentially give Charlton a foothold in the game.
Alas, the visitors finding something going forward did not address the struggles they were having in keeping the hosts at bay.
Such was their energy, and Charlton’s sluggishness, a Fleetwood shirt seemed to be first to every ball, as was the case when Ball found himself in possession on the edge of the box with half-time approaching. A lack of pressure applied again, and the forward able to curl beyond Rudd, before reminding the visiting supporters, who had just mocked Long for firing a shot so off-target it had found a practice goal, that they did indeed know where the correct goal was.
And while determination and effort were not attributes the Addicks lacked as they searched for an equaliser throughout the second half, quality was. It still Fleetwood, whose energy and pressing was unrelenting, picking up the loose balls, while Charlton’s decision making in the final third was questionable.
Frustration growing, with many rightfully unhappy to see Slade’s side performing so poorly and appearing second best by some margin.
So Novak’s late leveller, coming after Charlton had started to threaten with a touch more intent as the game entered its final ten minutes, provided more relief than it did genuine celebration.
This a goal to mask a disappointing and uninspiring performance, on an afternoon in which the opposition had been in control for large parts of the game.
But a goal to spare Slade and his side the punishment they arguably deserved, and provide a point that, in the context of the contest, could not be turned down. A point Charlton supporters, aware of their side’s underwhelming effort, were as relieved to take as their counterparts were frustrated to drop two extra points that they did enough to earn.
A reward for a certain amount of determination, but that a point had to be rescued against a side that were seven divisions below the Addicks ten years ago a helpful reminder that there remains a desperate need for genuine tactical and collective improvement.
The overall performance arguably made more disappointing by the fact the XI selected by Slade appeared to have the balance that had been occasionally absent so far this season. There no excuses for it.
New signing Frederik Ulvestad came straight into the side, replacing the injured Johnnie Jackson in the centre of midfield, while Ademola Lookman finally getting a start, seven league games into the season, gave the Addicks two natural wide men in what appeared a no-thrills 4-4-2.
But while Jason Pearce was diving in desperately to prevent Cod Army skipper Nathan Pond from getting a solid connection on a close-range effort, supplied after Cole had got in behind far too easily, those in the away end where attempting to make sense of their side’s set-up.
Seemingly something of a 4-3-3, with Lookman central and both Nicky Ajose and Magennis in wide positions. Maybe done to counter Fleetwood’s similar set-up, though it certainly wasn’t as red shirts rounded flat-footed Addicks with ease in the early stages. Kyle Dempsey enjoying particular success in drives through the centre, with Ball and Cole threatening as the wide figures of a forward trio.
Though it was the lesser-spotted central forward, Burnley loanee Long, who found reward for this dominant Fleetwood start.
Another drive through the middle, the ball at Long’s feet, and Charlton’s backline so flat-footed and unorganised that he was being invited to shoot from a central position. Plenty of venom on the effort, a nick off Pearce not helping, and Rudd quite easily beaten.
The Addicks apparently still on their international break. This the worst possible start to have against a side who came into the contest in very impressive form.
Hope, at least, that conceding would step Slade’s men up a gear. But still Andrew Crofts and Ulvestad were anonymous in the centre, while Fleetwood’s pacey forward line meant they continued to create chances. Bobby Grant unmarked as he attempted to head in a far-post delivery, with Cole straight to question why he hadn’t knocked it back across goal as the ball looped tamely into the side netting.
Instead, the Addicks were restricted largely to punts up field. Magennis, still bizarrely out wide, doing superbly to collect one and turn inside, but unfortunately only able to scuff wide. A rare moment of appreciation from an already frustrated away end following.
Their other attacking method coming from corners, as Fleetwood defiantly stuffed out the attempts of Holmes and co. to burst forward. Magennis, again at the centre of anything Charlton weren’t doing terribly, knocking one back across the face of goal but no Addick was willing to gamble.
Useful, then, that Magennis was finally moved central halfway through the half. The anonymous Ajose also put definitely up top, with Holmes and Lookman occupying the wide positions. Attacking structure at least giving Slade’s side something about them when they looked to go forward.
The same question marks still existing in the centre and at the back, however, with Fleetwood maintaining their own threat. A greater threat, fuelled by pace, tenacity, and the occasional bit of clever thinking. An excellent Crofts’ block required after a superbly worked free-kick had seen Ball float into a shooting position and strike goalwards.
So though the Addicks were improving going forward, it was still against the run of play that their equaliser came just beyond the half hour. A direct result of Slade’s decision to do away with his bizarre early set-up, as Holmes drove down the right, delivered superbly for Magennis, and the Northern Ireland striker headed powerfully beyond Chris Neal for his first Charlton goal.
Celebrations enjoyed in the away terrace, with the thought existing that the equaliser would allow the Addicks to at least compete more successfully with their opponents. A thought that lasted all of a minute, as Long worked himself into space, and flashed an effort beyond a motionless Rudd and centre meters wide of the far post.
The backline in need of the same burst of energy those further forward had seemingly benefited from. For while Charlton continued to look troubled whenever Fleetwood had the ball, there was plenty of testing intent further forward.
The less said about Crofts strike, sending a cleared corner back in the general direction of the corner flag, but Holmes wasn’t too far over after a burst forward, and another drive from the long-haired winger resulted in a free-kick which saw the wall turn over Ajose’s effort. The former Swindon forward, still struggling to have a real impact on the game, tamely firing off-target from the resulting corner.
Though not as tamely as Long. The Burnley loanee certainly less of a persistent threat than his attacking teammates, but possessing the pace and footwork to drive into threatening positions whenever the ball came his way.
Just that, on this occasion, his shot was a bit panicked, rifled towards the top corner of a spare goal used for warm-ups that sat next to the main stand. A mock celebration from the visiting supporters, followed by a chant of “wrong goal, wrong goal”.
A chant they would quickly live to forget, as the ball sat up nicely for Ball on the edge of Charlton’s box as half-time approached. The forward gifted far too much space, and utilising it with a delicious side foot curler into Rudd’s top corner. His celebration seeing him run towards the away end, point towards the goal, and mouth “that goal, that goal” amidst a sea of wanker gestures.
The truth is, however, that regaining their lead was no less than Fleetwood deserved. No doubt that the Addicks had improved going forward as the half had progressed, but they were disorganised, static and almost cowardly whenever the Cod Army came forward. There no injustice in this dynamic and pacey Rosler side taking advantage of yet more defensive sluggishness.
A hope that Fleetwood would ultimately tire, or that maybe the half-time introduction of former Addick Eggert Jonsson would help, and that Slade’s side could attack with intent and without the worry of being punished on the break. But there a need to improve defensively regardless. At the very least, Charlton’s backline couldn’t sit so deep in the second period.
At the very least, they needed Holmes to show the same sort of pace and tenacity he was beginning to show prior to Fleetwood re-taking the lead. A what is already a traditional run down the left wing beginning the half, but his resulting effort dragged wide.
Becoming traditional, too, was Charlton standing off their opponents and letting them have too much time. Amari’i Bell even able to slightly mishit a low cross and still finding a man, as Cole fired over from an excellent position.
Dempsey also driving off-target, again the consequence of being gifted far too much space to move into, as the attacking effort of Slade’s side lacked the puff to back up the huff. The huff to increase as Novak replaced the struggling Ajose.
Though, despite having two robust figures together in attack, Holmes remained Charlton’s main threat going forward. The former Northampton man working himself into an excellent position, cutting in from the left, but curling horribly off-target. The groans in the away end followed by encouragement.
But there just wasn’t enough, with the final 15 minutes of the contest approaching, to suggest that the Addicks had enough attacking quality and fluency to create a meaningful opening. It all a bit tepid, and Fleetwood showing greater composure than a side holding onto a lead should be.
Even after a rare chance was created, with Ulvestad enjoying the sort of space that a Fleetwood man might have to curl just wide of goal, the hosts hit back immediately. Bobby Grant not too far over from a free-kick. Something of an acceptance growing that Charlton would be getting what they deserve.
A feeling that only increased as Magennis, almost faultless in the preceding 77 minutes, somehow managed to miss the simplest of close-range chances. Holmes’ dink into the box clawed away by Neal, and the Northern Ireland international, arriving at the back post, only able to bundle the ball into the side netting.
At least, with ten minutes to play, the Addicks were finally giving Neal something to do rather than hear his name jokingly cried by the away fans. Novak, showing great strength to hold up the ball and fight his way into a good crossing position, dinking across goal in a similar style to Holmes, only for the goalkeeper to tip the ball over the bar.
Still though, something more was required. Holmes was tiring, the central midfield pair continuing to contribute very little, and there no one with the pace to make the most of the fact Fleetwood were beginning to sit deeper. Kevin Foley brought on for Ulvestad and, more importantly, Jordan Botaka replaced Holmes, whose race had long been run.
Immediately, the DR Congo international looked lively. His footwork tricky, and his pace a handful. An extra, fresh, edge to Charlton’s forward play.
And it was Botaka’s pace and skill that ultimately crafted an equaliser that had long seemed unlikely, let alone unwarranted.
In fact, all three substitutes combined, as Botaka rounded Bell, fed Foley, and the Irishman’s ball across the face of goal was bundled over the line by Novak. Not necessarily a glamorous end to a move that began with pace and style, but a move than had finally found a definite chink in Fleetwood’s armour, and rescued something for the Addicks.
A something that might still have been stolen from them, as the referee bizarrely allowed play to continue after Pearce had taken a nasty boot to the head in the centre of the pitch.
The robust centre-back thankfully okay, but it did mean Charlton were left to defend a corner with ten men deep into stoppage-time. A Fleetwood head first to the delivery, but Pond succeeding only in guiding the ball over the bar.
And with that, the Addicks escaped from Highbury with a point their performance probably did not deserve. The contrast in emotions with the late draw rescued against Bolton obvious, with little more than applause for supporters offered as the full-time whistle blew. This not a point that warranted celebrations.
For there is no real denying that this was a point that allowed a very underwhelming performance to be slightly glossed over. The Addicks second best for the majority of the game, and a large part of that their own doing.
Slade’s side never really getting properly back into the game after their dire start. A dire start not helped by the boss’ decision to play players out of position, but it largely the result of weakness in midfield and the defence being far too static.
It’s common knowledge that Fleetwood, particularly under Rosler, play a brand of dynamic, counter attacking football, but that they did seemed to take the entire Charlton side by surprise. Their midfield three, particularly the stylish Dempsey, completely dominant in the opening period, while Cole, Long, and Ball were consistently given far too much time on the ball with the backline collectively sitting far too deep.
Ulvestad looked a little overwhelmed defensively on his debut, while Crofts struggled for the duration of the game. The latter a big part of the reason why the Cod Army were so on top in the centre, and why they persistently created threatening counter attacks.
And though the Addicks were slightly better when opportunities arose to attack, it moved from disappointing to underwhelming. Intent and drive, but not always the quality to much, probably summed up by the fact genuine chances weren’t really created until the final ten minutes after Fleetwood had regained their lead.
The positive for Charlton being that, in spite of a poor performance and a struggle to create genuine chance consistently, you could once again not fault their attitude.
If there is one thing Slade has instilled in this side, it’s a level of determination and effort that we as supporters crave. That was absent while Roland Duchatelet’s mates stood in the technical area, and that has rescued us in recent weeks. From the diligent effort to hold onto all three points at Walsall, to snatching a quite fortunate point at Fleetwood.
It is, of course, just a worry that determination won’t win us undeserved points forever, and the faults in this side, from the defence sitting too deep, the midfield being too weak, and the attacking unit lacking complete fluency, will eventually be properly exploited.
It frustrating that a month into the season we’re still lacking tactical fluency and structure. A need to see genuine improvement soon, and not simply feel fortunate to have stolen a late point.