As one of the most disliked figures to ever be associated with Charlton Athletic continued her desperate charm offensive, there was yet another muffled sound bite before kick-off. Muffled because it was said by Katrien Meire with her head in the sand, firmly ignoring the damage the regime she is part of has inflicted.
“The beauty of Charlton is that the fans have played such a massive part in the club’s history. You – the fans – are Charlton.” From anyone else, those words act as a rallying cry and remind that the soul of this broken club will always remain. From the woman who has created such a disconnection between club and supporters that only 14,000 were in attendance for the annual Football for a Fiver fixture, it feels patronising and insulting.
As meaningless as admitting to “huge mistakes” and that they are “working hard to put them right”, with the aim being “to get back into the Championship”, when performances on the pitch continue to be as weak, clueless, and directionless as Meire’s attempts to reengage supporters with the Addicks.
The noise of The Valley crowd as muffled as her half-hearted words, as Russell Slade’s side once again failed to inspire. An impossible to understand tactical structure, a lack of defensive cohesion, and desperate forward efforts allowing Rochdale to inflict a 1-0 defeat on Charlton. A defeat they unquestionably deserved.
In fact, the only clarity and conviction throughout the afternoon came in the boos that met the full-time whistle, sent largely towards the slumped Slade as he attempted to escape down the tunnel without notice. No brave face and directionless applause on this occasion.
Not even a missed penalty at the start of the second half was a valid reason to suggest misfortune or injustice. Josh Lillis saving well from Johnnie Jackson’s spot-kick, awarded after Ricky Holmes’ burst into the box was halted illegally by Joe Bunny, to maintain the lead Dale were given by Calvin Andrew’s far post header with 25 minutes played.
For Slade’s Addicks, as they have been for several weeks, were truly dire. The desperate punt up field to a lone front man long wearing thin, attempts to move the ball around in midfield far too slow and turgid, while Holmes and Ademola Lookman’s runs forward were without support from static teammates.
Even a late surge on Lillis’ goal, requiring the goalkeeper to deny Morgan Fox and Keith Keane to make a comfortable goal line clearance from a tame Lee Novak effort, did little to alter the wildly accepted opinion that this was a game Charlton deserved to lose. At the very least, Rochdale’s determined effort did not warrant being tainted by this half-hearted shambles.
A half-hearted shambles explained more diplomatically as “toothless” by Slade. His side toothless, but those above him still digging their poisonous teeth in as deep as they possibly can.
A charm offensive, repeating previous lies and insulting supporter intelligence, was never going to reengage supporters. Those words even more muffled as Slade, their English manager-shaped shield from the suggestions that nothing has changed, continues to struggle.
At the very least, if we are to believe that Roland Duchatelet’s regime are intent on learning form their mistakes and making changes, it might be worth sending that memo over to the man that represents them in the technical area.
For the groans began an hour from kick-off, as Slade once again named an uninspiring XI that suggested either an unbalanced midfield or an isolated front man.
The latter proving to be true, with Josh Magennis lumped up top on his own despite struggling to be effective in such a role during the draw with Oxford United last weekend. At least, with Lookman coming into the side for Novak and Holmes also starting, there was a genuine winger on each flank.
Slade having little choice but to name two out-and-out wide men with the injured Chris Solly replaced at right-back by Kevin Foley – a man without the dynamism to contribute going forward in the way the academy graduate does – but shoehorning in the three recognised centre-midfielders that began the gutless draw with Oldham Athletic on Tuesday night seemed unnecessary.
The only other change from the midweek mess saw Jason Pearce, having recovered from concussion, replace Ezri Konsa in the side. Both he and Patrick Bauer utilised in an early attempt to play out form the back, but it largely turgid and sideways passing that concluded with a punt in the general direction of Magennis’ head.
But, in spite of this tepid opening, there was a roar of confidence and expectation whenever Lookman had the ball at his feet. The teenager, in signature fashion, creating space for himself on the edge of the box before driving goalwards. Lillis saving well in his bottom right-hand corner.
If nothing else, the individual talent of Lookman provides hope even when a goal looks most unlikely.
A similar hope to what oppositions must have when they win an attacking set-piece in SE7. The count of poorly defended corners increasing as Andrew’s glancing header, though ultimately by a large enough margin to avoid genuine concern, flashed wide.
Andrew, with greater pace and more intelligent movement than the usual forward you would describe as robust, again finding space as he got a faint touch to nod wide a Bunney free-kick, but winning the occasional aerial battle against Rochdale’s centre-forward wasn’t the only thing that Charlton’s backline needed to start doing. The visitors being allowed far too much time on the ball in midfield, with the Addicks appearing lethargic.
Lookman winning a free-kick in a shooting position at least providing a momentary escape from Charlton’s defensive uncertainty, but Magennis’ resulting strike wasn’t a great deal more pleasant. A swerving effort, always heading off-target.
A momentary escape, however, was very much all it was, as Rochdale’s next forward move saw them exploit fault after fault in Charlton’s defensive set-up.
Holmes offering a suggestion as to why the Addicks sit deep and allow their opponents time on the ball, as the winger’s attempt to dispossess Bunney saw the Rochdale full-back waltz past him and drive into a crossing position unchallenged. Foley seemingly uncertain as to whether to fully commit, and as he dithered, Bunney’s cross had deflected off him, floating perfectly towards the back post where Andrew had peeled away. The forward heading home a chance he would have done well to miss.
And as Andrew headed to the corner flag to celebrate, the boos of discontent began to be heard around The Valley. A response was promised after the effort against Oldham in midweek, and this was certainly not what supporters were expecting.
Especially given that Charlton’s defensive frailties were mightily close to being punished for a second time less than ten minutes later. Space aplenty down the left, with Joe Thompson was keen to exploit, driving into the box and only being denied by a combination of some rather desperate blocks and a Declan Rudd. The goalkeeper ultimately providing some clam as he plucked Niall Canavan’s header out of the air from the resulting corner.
Calming that specific moment of danger, at least, if not the home supporters. Their disconnect continuing to increase with each desperate punt in the general direction of Magennis’ head, each run down the wing from Holmes that ended in possession being lost, and each sideways or backwards pass that came as a consequence of no forward ideas, intent, or structure. Slade’s side looking clueless.
It probably fitting that the half ended with determined Rochdale work, whose midfield energy had been in complete contrast to Charlton’s for the duration of the opening 45, earning a corner that was ultimately nodded off target by a stretching Andrew.
That the forward had once again been unmarked providing a warm-up boo, before the half-time whistle was met with home supporters displaying their disgust at an abysmal effort. If nothing else, the half-time boos a final reminder to Slade and his side before heading down the tunnel that improvement was desperately needed.
Promising, then, after Andrew had forced Rudd into an early save, that it seemed the request had been heeded three minutes into the second period. Holmes, having frustrated previously, ghosting past blue shirts with pure pace, before being bundled to the ground by Bunney as the winger broke into the box. A chance to get back into the game the Addicks hardly merited, but a penalty well-earned by Holmes’ drive.
And, while his record from the spot is indifferent, there no man more reliable in situations where team and crowd need lifting than Jackson. Converting the spot-kick, and following it with a trademark knee slide, the perfect remedy.
In fact, so perfect was this moment for the skipper that few had considered the impact a failure to convert would have.
Lillis, however, among the few. Jackson striking the ball well enough, but the goalkeeper guessing correctly and palming away, before denying Magennis’ follow-up. The chances of this confidence-depleted side being able to make the sort of improvement required seemingly diminished less than five minutes into the second period.
Lookman denied from a tight angle and Holmes growing more and more into the game, but there still not enough cohesion, structure or intensity for this Charlton to get back into the game.
Nor, for that matter, genuine attacking threat. Slade informed to go 4-4-2 by the Covered End, with the Addicks persisting with a turgid centre-midfield trio, but change was slow in coming.
Lookman had fired a free-kick not too far off-target and Dale substitute Donal McDermott had driven wide before the home support finally got their wish. Nicky Ajose replacing Andrew Crofts, with just over 25 minutes remaining for the forward to make some sort of impact.
But instead of being Magennis’ partner, hovering around the edge of the box in the hope of flick-ons and knock downs, Ajose went searching for the ball. The forward finding himself with his back to goal too often, and on several occasions supplying his own aimless punts. His presence doing very little to address any tactical concerns.
Still, as he drove forward and fired over, Lookman remained Charlton’s only genuine threat. A threat that required some good fortune in receiving the ball, was lacking any sort of support, and was beginning to find himself frustrated by Rochdale’s defiant and determined efforts.
Keith Hill’s side evidently with their sights set on maintaining, rather than adding to, their lead, but a rather uncomfortable final 15 minutes or so might have been avoided had Canavan, meeting with a corner, directed an unchallenged header on target.
For, as the visitors sat deeper and the pace in Charlton’s side became a greater threat, there were certainly openings for the Addicks in the game’s closing stages. Openings that began with Rochdale failing to deal with a touch of pinball inside their area, the ball falling kindly to Fox, and the full-back’s prod towards goal not quite having the required power to beat Lillis.
But it was the introduction of Jordan Botaka, despite the bizarre decision by Slade to sacrifice Holmes for him, that really gave the hosts some genuine threat in the game’s final nine minutes. His pace and footwork immediately troubling.
And with Lookman, whose determination and intensity was in some contrast to his teammates, still asking questions on the other flank, there was a very small hope that the Addicks could paper over a rather large crack as full-time drew ever closer. The teenager cutting inside, before unleashing a stunning, curling effort that required the fingertips of Lillis to keep out.
Botaka picked out in space at the conclusion of Charlton’s next attack, but the winger opted to shoot from a tight angle while Ajose, unmarked and facing goal, waited in the centre. With 30 minutes to play, such moments would be encouraging. With five, they were little more than frustrating.
Frustrating, too, was Novak’s inability to get any real power behind an effort after Lillis’ attempts to deal with a Charlton attack had left him stranded. The striker’s shot with enough behind it to beat the goalkeeper, marooned in the centre of his box, but not enough so Keane couldn’t hack it away from close to the line.
It probably there that any remaining hope was finally crushed. A sort of expectant sigh as the ball appeared to fall kindly to Jackson inside the box as stoppage-time approached, only for Bunney to make up for conceding the earlier penalty with an outstanding, last-ditch challenge to deny the skipper an opening.
A collective sigh among those in red, too, as Rochdale were able to see out four minutes of stoppage-time with complete ease. The flat, lethargic feel returning, and a fitting way for this desperate afternoon to end.
Flat and lethargic also the way in which Slade, normally so embracing of supporters regardless of whether they’re applauding or booing, trudged down the tunnel, head bowed and attempting to escape the boos that were sent the way of he and his side come full-time.
A response that was entirely justified. This a performance deserving of all the criticism and displeasure it receives.
A response entirely justified especially when it’s considered that Slade and his side promised they would address the issues that made the draw with Oldham in midweek a pathetic effort.
Those issues, however, remained. There no energy in midfield, passing negative unless a desperate punt up field, and overall cohesion and structure completely non-existent. Rochdale organised and determined, doing what was required to maintain the lead they earned, but their resolve barely tested.
That, of course, partly a consequence of individual efforts. Bauer and Pearce indecisive for much of the first half, Fox and Foley uncertain defensively and going forward, while Fredrik Ulvestad contributed next to nothing alongside Crofts and Jackson, who did little more.
All of that, particularly the midfield sluggishness, contributing towards this constant desire to pump long whenever Holmes and Lookman can’t run with it.
But it a desire largely born out of Slade’s incredibly difficult to understand tactics. Difficult to understand in the sense that he continues to deploy them, despite previous evidence showing they fail to bring success.
The defence and midfield sit deep, too afraid to press and pressure opponents. There no creative licence for those in the middle, with an overreliance on Holmes and Lookman creating. Magennis’ ability in the air, which is strong to his credit, entirely misused without someone supporting him.
Throw in the complete lack of energy and dynamism, and you fear all Slade’s questionable tactics have managed to do is deeper dent the confidence in a side, and club, that had none. A seventh game without victory, and only goal-difference keeping the Addicks out of the bottom three.
Is Slade the actual problem, though? He’s a problem, or at least he’s stifling tactics are, but not the actual problem. The actual problem gives ridiculous soundbites while this all happens, pretending all is well and we’re on the up.
An insulting and clueless ownership, supporters disconnected as a consequence, and now results and performances reaching a pathetic level of dire. This club is broken. Change, as it has been for such a long time, is needed.
Change. Not cringe-worthy soundbites that promise change or half-hearted attempts to do something differently under this regime. Actual change.