It was with shame that slumped figures headed towards the tunnel on Saturday, half-heartedly applauding those who sent boos their way. Pride non-existent, and pain overwhelming both player and supporter.
So that those representing Charlton Athletic could approach the Glanford Park away end come full-time of their goalless draw with Scunthorpe United with heads raised, confidently clapping a set of travelling supporters offering appreciation in return, is deserving of credit.
There not the celebrations to rid the embarrassing AFC Wimbledon capitulation from the mind of fans, but there certainly an acceptance that their side had responded to it in a positive fashion. The minimum expectations, to show a degree of character and compete with the table-topping Iron for the duration of the game, which were asked for after the Dons disgrace met.
But though players and supporters could look each other in the eye as they shared applause, it was not with complete clarity of mind. The point a good one against a side that haven’t lost at home since December, the performance one that regained trust in a so far underwhelming group, but there still a sense that this night could have been a much better one for the Addicks.
It felt greedy, ignorant towards the overall context, and unfair on Russell Slade’s side. But less than five minutes previously, a Johnnie Jackson free-kick had struck the post. It would not have been an injustice, and undeserved victory, had the skipper’s effort crept in.
For Charlton, after a very sluggish start in a game that rarely did more than flirt with the idea of having any sort of tempo, had enjoyed much the better of the second half.
They had, sometimes with relative ease and others with impressive determination, fended off a side who had scored 12 goals in their previous three league homes games. They had, having quite emphatically lost the battle for all but ten minutes of the first half, shown the composure required to take control in the middle. They had, through Ademola Lookman’s unrelenting runs forward, found a way to threaten in spite of the absence of Ricky Holmes.
It was, unquestionably, impressive. And yet, if Slade had shown a degree of adventure when the Addicks were on top, it might well have been better. The boss again too slow in making changes, with the additional attacking force his side had needed to make their advantage tell, Jordan Botaka, not introduced until seven minutes were remaining.
Maybe he would have been more obviously braver and bolder without memories of Saturday’s capitulation still haunting.
Maybe he would have made those attacking changes as his counterpart, Graham Alexander, altered his side had the Dons not inflicted misery.
And maybe this would be a result to be appreciated without any question marks, irrespective of the inability to make the most of a positive position, had it followed victory, rather than embarrassment.
Confidence might have allowed for victory to be more obviously sought, but a cure for embarrassment settled for. Slight frustration trying to interfere with the post-match shared applause, but there acknowledgement that this was, at the very least, a point and performance to restore pride.
Or maybe Slade’s side would have found a way to steal victory had Holmes, so often their only creative outlet this season, been available. The wide men absent with a back injury, which somewhat bizarrely resulted in the boss beginning with four centre-midfielders and no wingers.
Jackson reintroduced into the side after recovering from injury, with goal-shy Nicky Ajose benched in favour of Kevin Foley. The pair lining up alongside Fredrik Ulvestad and Andrew Crofts in the centre, while Lookman moved up top to partner Josh Magennis.
So too, possibly in response to the defensive breakdown that resulted in Saturday’s dire defeat, was there a change in defence. Ezri Konsa, impressing but possibly overused so far given his youth and inexperience, replaced by Patrick Bauer, with the German starting for the first time since suffering injury in December.
It, therefore, unsurprising that the opening exchanges of the game were rather cagey. A midfield knocking the ball around nicely, but without any genuine forward threat, and a backline determined not to be beaten.
But Scunthorpe, top of the division for good reason, soon settled into something that resembled a competent stride. The ball knocked around with pace and intent, far too much space available as Charlton’s midfield were guilty of dropping deep, and Chris Solly involved in an enthralling battle with the lively Duane Holmes.
And the hosts might well have found themselves ahead with 13 minutes played, as Josh Morris was first to react to a ball that popped loose on the edge of the box. His first-time strike flashing past the far post, with Declan Rudd well-beaten.
The game’s first opening, however, was not the catalyst for chances to flow. Jason Pearce and Bauer doing very well to keep Paddy Madden and Kevin van Veen with their backs to goal, while Rudd had was relatively unconcerned by Morris’ drive following a Scunthorpe short corner routine.
Meanwhile, Charlton’s attacking moves were proving increasingly frustrating. Sideways passing, a reluctance to attempt to beat the opposition man that wasn’t addressed by Lookman moving out wide, and hesitation when opportunities to cross presented themselves meaning one-time Addick Luke Daniels needed to contribute as much during his appearanceless spell in SE7.
So it was to the relief of the away end that, with half an hour played, Slade’s men finally came to the conclusion that ending their attacking moves with a delivery into the box was worthwhile. Ulvestad heading Jackson’s cross wide at the near post, Solly’s ball across the face of goal somehow avoiding all inside the centre, and Magennis, rising in trademark fashion, guiding Morgan Fox’s ball just off-target.
Daniels’ gloves still as dust-covered as those he brought with him to The Valley during his time on loan, and the former West Brom merely watching as Fox fired over having found himself in space on the edge of the box, but this was encouraging. Sideways passing replaced by testing crossing, and producing a period of Charlton dominance from the ashes of what was previous a sluggish effort.
Neal Bishop, breaking into the box and forcing Rudd into a save at his near post, offering a greater genuine threat than Lookman’s attempt to drive forward before falling over the ball as he attempted to shoot, but the improvement of the Addicks meant they could claim to be matching their opponents as half-time approached.
Improvement that meant there was a base to build on, and maybe some momentum, as Slade’s side remerged for the second period. Certainly more confidence and encouragement emerging from the away end, with supporters seeing evidence that it was not unrealistic to believe their side could steal victory in a game short of clear-cut openings.
Confidence and encouragement that became more vocal as Charlton started the second half positively. A well-struck, and potentially goal-bound, Crofts drive needed the imposing figure of David Mirfin to deflect it away, and Pearce probably should have done better after latching onto Lookman’s free-kick.
But there was encouragement to be seen beyond these relatively unthreatening half-chances. There was greater intent in the way the Addicks moved forward, with Fox seemingly always in space on the left, and Lookman’s bursts forward becoming increasingly difficult for the Iron to halt. A more cohesive and fluid effort.
A shame, therefore, that Scunthorpe’s centre-back pairing of Mirfin and Murray Wallace were unwilling to provide the same gaps that were available in areas of the pitch they were not guarding. Magennis turning, but firing into a sea of Scunthorpe bodies, before a loose touch and a defiant Mirfin clearance prevented Jackson from getting a shot away when presented with a clear sight of goal.
Also a shame that, despite the increasing pressure they were under, Scunthorpe remained threatening. Holmes bursting through Charlton’s midfield in a manner his namesake would have been proud of, only for Pearce to slide in and nick the ball from the former Huddersfield’s man feet as he neared the box. The sort of tackle that would have resulted in heavy punishment had it been even slightly mistimed.
But it undeniable that it was the Addicks who were on top. They even managed to clear the dust on Daniels’ gloves, as Magennis knocked down for Ulvestad, and the Burnley loanee drove for the Iron goalkeeper to make a decent save.
In fact, not even Alexander could deny it was Charlton who, in this game of few chances, had the slight advantage. Withdrawing the lively Holmes and main goal-threat Madden, replacing them with Hakeeb Adelakun and Richie Smallwood, a suggestion that the Scunthorpe boss felt his side needed stabilising.
Though any sort of increase in stability and defensive diligence would not have been enough to stop Lookman’s next mesmerising run, as the teenager ignored the company of Magennis and drove towards, and then beyond, retreating defenders. His shot, skipping past the post and crashing into the advertising hoardings, ultimately a little disappointing.
And, in truth, there was a general sense of this Charlton attacking intent becoming a little disappointing. Magennis had sometimes cut a frustrated figure in attack, while Solly was often the furthest figure forward on the right, but yet Slade stood unmoved on the touchline. No sign of Botaka and Ajose being readied, and the opportunity to go both-barrels being ignored.
A worry, therefore, that with the final ten minutes approaching, Slade’s men might make the same sort of mistakes as they did at the weekend. Attacking energy and intent abandoned in favour of dropping deep and a complete loss of structure.
Worries that only increased as a Scunthorpe break concluded with the ball falling kindly to the robust van Veen. The Dutchman firing wide, but probably should done better with the opportunity presented to him.
The catalyst, possibly, for Slade to finally alter his side. A change that should have been made 20 minutes previously finally occurring, as Foley was replaced by Botaka, with the wide man immediately teeing up Fox to cross for Magennis, who nodded wide.
But those that had long been hoping Botaka would be introduced were suddenly made to feel a little sheepish, as the Leeds loanee somehow managed to miss the most glorious of openings with five minutes to play. The ball bouncing kindly to him from a Fox cross, but Botaka horribly blasted over with the goal at his mercy.
At least the Addicks weren’t sitting deep, accepting the result and attempting desperately to cling on, but there was immediately a sense that such a miss would lead to further punishment.
And it might well have done were it not for a simply heroic piece of defending from Pearce. The centre-back throwing his body in the way of a goal-bound Adelakun strike, who had popped into the box from the right at the conclusion of a Scunthorpe break. A block as valuable as a world class save.
Nothing world class about Rudd’s stop to deny Morris, allowed to canter forward but ultimately only able to fire straight at the goalkeeper, but any showing of composure as stoppage-time approached was to be appreciated.
Composure that was arguably lacking among the Iron backline as Lookman, in the first minute of four added on, man one last drive forward. Scunthorpe bodies attempting to track him, but none close enough to halt him. Bishop forced to haul him down as the teenager approached the box.
It gave Jackson a wonderful sight of goal from a free-kick in a position not too dissimilar to the famous one converted against Sheffield Wednesday during the title winning season. A chance to steal an unlikely victory.
His strike curling and dipping, without power and seeming to hang in the air for an eternity as all bar the scrambling Daniels watched. The goalkeeper still scrambling as the ball, at one point in its flight appearing goal-bound, hit the outside of the post. Agony.
At least there was little time for the hosts to provide additional pain, with a final Scunthorpe corner cleared and the full-time whistle blown.
A sense, created by the timing of Jackson striking the post in addition to Slade’s reluctance to add further attacking impetuous to the side while on top, that an opportunity to record victory had been wasted, but this frustration relative. Those in red receiving the applause their determined efforts throughout the evening warranted.
And when you view the performance in a certain context, it is a very good one. An excellent response to Saturday’s capitulation, competing with the division’s table-toppers, and arguably doing enough to warrant victory.
Individual efforts, both defensively and going forward, impressive. Bauer faultless on his return to the starting XI, with Pearce determined after a handful of indifferent performances, while Lookman embarked on countless attempts to drive his side forward during a lively second half showing.
Collectively, too, there was improvement. Organisation and structure that didn’t suddenly disappear when pressure was applied, which was particularly important given that Scunthorpe, even in the periods of the game where the Addicks were offering greater attacking threat, always asked questions.
But, in a truer and wider context, there is certainly some disappointment. That the opportunity to push for victory was so clearly there, but it not taken, is extremely frustrating.
It would not have been at the sacrifice of structure or defensive resolve had an additional attacking option been introduced on the hour, but instead shown the attacking intent that Slade has frequently failed to show in his time as Charlton boss so far.
The failure to do so meaning that there is a bitter after taste to what was genuinely quite an impressive performance. A sense of settling for the minimum, when pushing for the maximum would have done a much greater job of healing the wounds inflicted by the Wimbledon capitulation.
I’d love to nail my colours to the mast and say for certain how I feel in response to tonight’s efforts, but I’m really not sure. The lingering of previous disappointments and the annoyance that comes with not committing to stealing victory means I’m inclined to suggest frustration is the overriding emotion, but that feels an injustice to the overall performance.
I guess, at the very least, it’s yet another foundation laid for Slade’s Charlton to start performing like the promotion-chasing side they’re meant to be. There will be little forgiveness if this foundation caves in.