The result of a game of football never truly lacks genuine importance. There celebrations among the Charlton Athletic supporters as their side gained an advantaged, and ultimately a joyous sense of relief as the opposition’s defensive errors were capitalised upon to make victory certain. Frustration in the away end as Coventry City failed to take a series of promising opportunities, followed by anger as the Sky Blues capitulated in the game’s final 15 minutes.
But it was not the result of those on-the-pitch events that carried the greatest importance in SE7. The 3-0 victory that Charlton achieved, a flattering but efficient first win in eight, merely a bonus to the pre-game feeling of victory. The defeat that Coventry half-inflicted upon themselves did not mean those who were supporting the Sky Blues went home defeated.
For as those supporters who marched down Floyd Road, making their legitimate opinions about Roland Duchatelet’s regime and SISU heard with significant number behind them, who interrupted the start of the game with a sea of plastic pigs, ridiculing those in charge of the respective clubs and focusing the eyes of the world media on The Valley, and who sung together throughout the game in opposition to ownerships that have crippled both clubs, ignoring the traditional rivalry that normally exists between supporters, will confirm, there is much more to following a football club than merely hoping a side collects three points.
In fact, a sense of belonging, trust, and emotional ownership is arguably more important than on-the-pitch outcomes. Something that has been taken away from those who support Charlton and Coventry, but something both sets of supporters are desperately fighting to regain. Desperately fighting to enforce change at clubs who have created a clear divide and disconnection between themselves and their fans.
And their efforts, their passionate and determined efforts, in protest cannot be considered anything but a victory for themselves, and for football supporters in general. A display that shows fans are more important than any owner, more powerful than any owner, and ultimately sustain the true identity of any club.
The real victory, of course, will come when Duchatelet and SISU give into the weight of opposition and agree to sell the clubs. For now, victory provides a sense of pride, and merely weakens further the positions of those in charge. This not the final outcome.
But there can be no argument who the real owners of these two clubs are. Those supporters, who continue to fight tirelessly to regain a sense of attachment to what is truly theirs.
One day, these two sets of supporters won’t have to fight for the future of their clubs, and for the sense of attachment that should be accepted. When that happens, games won’t lack a certain sense of importance and will invoke more emotional responses. A normality will return, that doesn’t exist at present.
A normality that means two sets of supporters won’t need to march together, aided by banners, placards, and a balloon of Duchatelet almost as big as Katrien Meire’s ego. The organised pre-match protest nothing but an outstanding effort and a great success.
And a normality that means the first few moments of a game are spent assessing tactical set-up and searching for reason to settle nerves, not throwing plastic pigs onto the pitch in order to prevent play.
Most had already worked out that Russell Slade’s side were, finally, lined up in a sensible manner. The fit again Chris Solly replacing the injured Kevin Foley, Johnnie Jackson dropped to the bench so that, in the shape of Ademola Lookman and Ricky Holmes, two natural wide men could be deployed, and Josh Magennis was given a partner in attack as Lee Novak started.
But their shape in the opening moments was largely a circular one, as a ball was knocked around in order to keep warm and alert while Pigageddon took place.
The plastic pigs thrown onto the pitch from all directions, accompanied by incredibly vocal chants against both regimes, causing a delay of five minutes. There no emotion but embarrassment that the watching Meire could have felt, as only ignorance and arrogance beyond even her would have seen the CEO ignore the fact that this was the result of her doing. There no way she could ignore the total opposition to her and the regime she is part of.
And there no way, as has been suggested by this regime in the past, that those supporting the Addicks wanted their side to fail. The energy exerted during those protests creating momentum that meant those in red were given as vocal support as they have received at home game this season as the game finally resumed.
But, whether a response to the somewhat unexpected disruption or simply a reflection of two low quality sides, there seemed more intensity in those lifeless pigs than among those in red and sky blue. The game a rather sluggish affair.
There was, however, an early indication of the defensive frailties in Coventry’s backline that Slade’s side were more than capable of exploiting. A series of unsuccessful corners finally amounting to something, as Patrick Bauer nodded towards goal, with those defending it rather bizarrely frozen as an effort that lacked pace or power bounced away off the post.
Encouraging, or at least it would have been had the Addicks also not shown a concerning lack of structure and awareness at the back in those opening exchanges. Morgan Fox continuously being dragged inside, allowing for cross-field balls to be sent in the general direction of the lively Ruben Lameiras. A better first touch, greater quality in the final ball, or a forward in the centre a bit less cumbersome than former Addick Marvin Sordell, and Charlton would have found themselves in serious trouble on several occasions.
Those cross-field balls pushing the Sky Blues forward, and resulting in a still uncomfortable and unsettled group of Addicks dropping deeper and deeper. A reasonable argument could be made that it was the visitors on top.
But, particularly with Mark Venus’ men lacking the quality required once in the final third, the Sky Blues were by no means dominating. Expectation each time Holmes and Lookman carried the ball forward, and Magennis’ battling was commendable. At the very least, Lee Burge had his hands warmed while Declan Rudd remained untested, as Novak poked tamely towards goal.
Nonetheless, this was hardly an inspiring effort against the side who occupied the division’s bottom position. Murmurings of discontent became quite vocal anger as Coventry were allowed to break with ease through the midfield, with the ball ultimately falling to Jamie Sterry. The side netting struck with some force, and a static Charlton fortunate not to have been punished.
Fortunate, again, as Lameiras was allowed far too much time and space in the centre of midfield just beyond the half hour. The diminutive figure driving into a shooting position, and striking the inside of the post with Rudd nowhere to be seen. Having seemingly discovered some sort of genuine threat in the final third, Coventry were exploiting Charlton’s defensive frailties with serious intent.
So it is true to say that the 32nd minute lead the Addicks were able to gain came against the run of play. But the Sky Blues could feel no sense of injustice, as it was largely their dire defending that allowed Holmes to give Charlton a somewhat surprising advantage.
That isn’t to take anything away from the alertness of Holmes, who remained onside following a half-cleared corner and was able to get himself on the end of Frederik Ulvestad’s lofted pass back into the centre. The winger turning as a sea of Coventry defenders stood motionless, before poking beyond Burge.
So static were those in Sky Blue, that it seemed certain an offside flag would follow, and not until Holmes ran away in celebration confidently did the home crowd begin to cheer with conviction. A rather bizarre goal.
A goal, however, that was certainly needed. To settle this unimpressive Charlton side, and to give them the confidence to further test a defence that represented the division’s bottom side for a reason.
But there appeared no real difference in the composure, intensity and attacking intent of the hosts in what remained of the first half. Certainly no difference in the game’s overall quality, as Gael Bigirimana hit a tame free-kick into the hands of Rudd, and Lookman fired a dead ball somewhere in the general direction of those whose hands were pre-occupied with SISU out banners.
There was, however, no denying the position of strength that the Addicks found themselves in. Against this weak Coventry side, a second goal would undoubtedly kill the game off, and only a moment of average quality would be enough to find a way through a defensive line that really could have done with learning the art of stubbornness and determination from their supporters.
The game, therefore, an inch away from being wrapped up before the break. A drive forward from Holmes, a low delivery across the face of goal, and Magennis agonisingly close to making contact with his outstretched boot. Certainly a lot closer to doubling Charlton’s advantage than Ulvestad was, who horribly miscued a volley moments before the half-time whistle was blown.
Difficult to feel a sense of certain confidence as the players retreated through the tunnel, despite the goal advantage and how insecure the Sky Blues appeared. Partly because the Addicks had, in truth, largely been sluggish, and partly because the pigs, protests, and passionate in-game anti-regime singing from both sets of supporters were still central in the thoughts of many.
And the challenge to feel confident became even greater at the start of the second half, as Slade’s side were almost immediately punished for sitting far too deep and increasingly giving Coventry time on the ball.
A Sky Blues move concluding with the ball falling to Andre Wright inside Charlton’s box, with Rudd’s initial parry impressive enough, before the goalkeeper picked himself up to pull off the most marvellous of reaction saves, preventing the loopy Chris McCann rebound from finding the top corner. A truly incredible effort, which drew goal-like appreciation from the home fans.
It not enough, however, for Charlton to wake up or Slade to instil a greater sense of urgency and intent into his side. Coventry now quite clearly dominating, as Lameiras fired over, Wright shot off-target when a pass appeared the better option, and McCann dragged an effort wide. All coming as a consequence of the Addicks standing off their opponents.
Such was the pressure the Sky Blues were applying, it could not be argued that this was a legitimate tactic, to sit back and hope to steal a second on the break. Though it might have happened in Charlton’s first meaningful attack of the half, 15 minutes into it, as a struggling Novak broke into the box but disappointingly fired straight at Burge. A miss that might have had greater significance as Coventry immediately broke and Lameiras found himself in a fantastic position, but could also only fire straight at the goalkeeper who stood before him.
At least there was a distraction from this rather low quality affair, as shirted fans in the West Stand spelt ‘S I S U O U T’ and a group in the away end creating ‘R O L A N D O U T’. The focus on ridding each club of a crippling ownership there, even a crucial point in this contest.
A crucial point that could have been tipped in one direction by the introduction of Jordi Jones and former Addick Kyel, who threatened to push Slade’s side even deeper. So it was quite the surprise to see Solly on the end of a shooting opportunity. The full-back living up to his rather unthreatening reputation in front of goal, however, as his effort was comfortably collected by Burge.
Nonetheless, it was quite apparent that the pace and attacking flair of both Jones and Reid was required for Coventry, who were maintaining possession with ease in midfield but growing stale further forward. Sordell, suitably nearing anonymity on his return to SE7, wayward effort from distance reflective of a growing desperation with just over 15 minutes to play.
Though still there remained caution, and maybe even some fear, among Charlton fans. As Burge’s stunning reaction save prevented the excellent Magennis from doubling the home side’s lead, the sense that this was all preceding a Coventry equaliser grow. Natural supporter nervousness.
But maybe those nervous would have done well to remember the inability of the opposition to defend.
For it seemed Mark Ricketts had beaten the rampaging Magennis to a ball forward, and had plenty of time to deal with the situation. Instead, the experienced defender was left embarrassed, robbed with ease by the Northern Ireland international, who unselfishly supplied Lookman with 78 minutes played. The teenager converting, and The Valley filled with a sense of relief they were not expecting to experience moments previously.
Cruel on Coventry, unquestionably, but the difference obvious. Charlton capitalising on Coventry’s defensive mistakes despite showing no real attacking intent, while Coventry lacked a finishing touch to the moves that often allowed them to exploit Charlton’s backline. All the life now sucked out of the Sky Blues, as McCann fired wide and Sordell stuck straight at Rudd.
Though the idea of the Addicks being potent in front of goal was soon to be disputed. The winning margin meaning Lookman’s horrendous miss, from a similar position to his goal and coming after more terror-like work from Magennis, could be laughed off. Just about.
Or at least it could be forgotten as, with two minutes to play, the flat-footed and static trait of this Coventry backline was seen once again. That certainly not to take anything away Ulvestad’s perfect ball over the top, Magennis’ excellent first touch, and the forward’s cool finish over the advancing goalkeeper. A horrible cliché, but this really was a goal that the relentless work of Magennis deserved.
Jones’ skewed free-kick confirmed that the Sky Blues, who had been much the better side in patches but could not contest the manner of the defeat owing to their own defensive errors, confirming that there would be no consolation on the pitch for Coventry.
There fans coming away from The Valley with no pride in their side’s performance, but in a pride in their own efforts against a crippling regime. Those in the home ends come full-time fortunate enough to experience both a sense of pleasure in their side’s efforts, which added to the pride created by their own protesting efforts.
A victory for the Addicks, ending a run of seven winless games, following a victory for both sets of supporters. A rare marvellous day in SE7.
First of all, in assessment of the game itself, it is important not to overstate the quality of the victory in spite of the scoreline. Coventry were very poor, and even then a 3-0 win was very flattering for the Addicks.
A performance with similar sluggishness in midfield, defensive uncertainty, and a general desire to sit deep would be punished by a side with greater quality. This, as such, not a performance to suggest Slade has addressed all the faults in his side in one afternoon.
It does, however, provide or show three things. The first is confidence, and a sense of self-belief among a side that had forgotten how to win. The second is, after several games this season which have lacked any sort of potency in the final third, a sense that this side does have the ability to be efficient, and capitalise on opposition mistakes. And the third is a base, from which real on-the-pitch improvement can be made.
We’ve gone backwards in these sort of positions on several occasions during this campaign, so it will be the results that follow that are arguably more important, or at least more revealing than this one. That we find ourselves in a position where some sort of base has been laid again is encouraging, though.
More encouraging, however, is that the determination and desire among Charlton supporters to enforce change at their club remains as strong as ever. Assisted by the marvellous efforts of those in blue, the protests seen in SE7 were as strong, passionate and effective as any of those that were made last season.
It has been suggested that a sense of apathy, which exists towards the club as a consequence of the disconnection, has found its way into the opposition against the regime. That was certainly not the case, as thousands lined the streets, as vocal anti-regime chants were made, and an effective attempt was made to disrupt the game for a positive cause.
In truth, that apathy was on display as the game drew to a close today. The victory not vigorously celebrated. The ongoing sense of disconnection still there.
But, with the continuation of these determined efforts to win our club back, the emotion that a victory provides will return. The feeling of a true sense of connection to the club, which we sustain among ourselves with our committed and cohesive efforts as supporters, will ultimately return.
Our work will be rewarded.
(Thank you to everyone who said hello to me today, and made what should have been a quite difficult event for someone with crippling anxiety feel relatively comfortable. In the past few weeks, where my mental health has somehow found a way to decrease even more, the kindness of Charlton supporters has been incredible. In character and in displays of passionate protest, it certainly true that the true identity of this club is maintained by its supporters.)