The efforts of Charlton Athletic’s supporters meant their protests were soaring before kick-off at Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium, but the disappointing performance of their side meant they were heading for further lows.
“DUCHATELET & MEIRE #TIMETOFLY,” read the banner attached to a plane that took several aerial laps around the ground in the early stages of the afternoon. The latest creative, and impressive, way Addicks have found to show their opposition to a club-strangling regime.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” the chant sent towards Russell Slade as he replaced the tireless Josh Magennis with Lee Novak as his side continued to chase an equaliser their performance didn’t warrant. The second time Charlton’s boss has been subjected to such a chant in successive games, and there as much justification in that message as the one that flew above the ground.
For Slade’s side, a goal down after Bradley Dack had nodded in from Paul Konchesky’s delivery with 41 minutes played, were lamentable.
Particularly in the opening 45 minutes, which concluded with those in red booed on their way back to the dressing room, there a lack of intensity without the ball, forward intent minimal, and creativity non-existent. The Addicks organised like a newly promoted side, without the resources to compete against the Gills, and playing with both fear and caution.
And while the introduction of a second striker, with Nicky Ajose partnering Magennis in attack, meant there was some second-half improvement, it was still not nearly enough. Chances created, but against the run of play, with the Addicks still sitting off Justin Edinburgh’s out of form side and allowing them to dictate.
The failure to take one of those chances in particular seemingly affirming that Charlton would be receiving just punishment for Slade’s questionable tactics. A penalty awarded on the hour after Ryan Jackson wrestled Fredrik Ulvestad to the ground as a corner was delivered, but Gills goalkeeper Stuart Nelson, a first-half replacement for the injured Jonathan Bond, diving full-stretch to his right to deny Ricky Holmes from the resulting kick.
Ultimately, as frustration with Slade’s decision making and Charlton’s sluggishness continued, there was to be one final chance for the Addicks to rescue something they probably didn’t deserve. Anger for Gills boss Edinburgh as referee Hayward awarded Charlton a second penalty, Chris Herd having blocked a Lee Novak flick-on with an upright hand, despite failing to give the hosts what appeared a certain spot-kick earlier in the half after Cody McDonald was sent to the floor by Ezri Knosa when through on goal.
With greater composure and conviction than Holmes, Ajose converted from the spot to rescue a point for the Addicks in the game’s final minute.
But despite his substitute scoring the equaliser, Slade had certainly not rescued any pride for himself. Charlton still second best against a Gillingham side who have struggled for much of this season, and his inability to get a side that is good enough to compete to the top six standard that was promised by those above him still inviting angry responses.
If not reaffirmed by the performance and the Addicks lying in 17th, then it certainly made apparent by Ajose quite clearly celebrating in front of his boss in an attempt to make a point, and Slade’s attempts to applaud a still furious set of visiting supporters responded to with boos.
A club that has crash landed under its regime, and whose boss is failing to give them any chance of rising.
In truth, after the wingers in the side were given greater attacker freedom for much of Tuesday’s draw with Port Vale, there was not immediate and outraged opposition to Slade once again deploying his side in a 4-5-1 formation.
A hope that Ademola Lookman and Holmes would offer continuous support to Magennis, who has found himself isolated on several occasions this campaign. Alterations at centre-back, with Patrick Bauer and Harry Lennon replaced by Jason Pearce and Konsa, the only changes from the side that started at Vale Park.
But, before the plane and its banner had even departed the Priestfield Stadium airspace, it became quite apparent that hoping for attacking intensity, or any sort of intensity for that matter, was wishful thinking.
With and without the ball, Slade’s side lacked intent. Passes played sideways, before desperation resulted in an aimless punt up field, while the wide men were stationed far too deep and constantly running into dead ends when given the ball. Gillingham given the freedom of their own half, with Charlton unwilling to press, and allowed to build the confidence and rhythm that a side without a win in five games requires.
It no surprise, therefore, that the Gills rather quickly became the game’s more threatening side. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, through pace and strength, causing all sort of problems to Morgan Fox, former Addick Franck Nouble giving Chris Solly a challenge on the opposite flank, and Dack keeping things ticking over in the centre. All the intent and creativity that Charlton lacked.
The Addicks thankful that, for all their forward power and moves into promising wide positions, Gillingham were still struggling to find the perfect final ball with 25 minutes played. That reflected in the fact that Charlton’s one shot on goal, a low effort from the edge of the area from Ulvestad that flashed wide, was as close as anything the Gills could must in their countless attacking moves.
Herd going closest for Gillingham in the early exchanges, but his effort from distance could still be watched wide by Declan Rudd, while a pair of strikes from Ryan Jackson following half-cleared corners were well-struck but never troubling Charlton’s goal.
However, when the hosts finally found the touch of quality that was missing from their forward moves, they really should have gone ahead. Emmanuel-Thomas leaving Fox for dead, before his perfectly weighted through ball sent Dack in on goal. Rudd, racing off his line and blocking the midfield’s effort from a relatively tight angle, sparing the blushes of his static defence.
And by the time the goalkeeper at the other end was given something to do, he wasn’t the same glove-wearer as the one who began the game. Sarcastic chants of “we’ve had a shot” from parts of the away end as Magennis stretched to knock a delivery towards goal, but substitute Nelson was down quickly to collect.
Not that such a tame effort was ever likely to change the overall pattern of the game. The Addicks still lifeless, still sitting far too deep, and an increasingly confident Gillingham continuing to be invited forward. A real concern when Dack popped up in space on the edge of the box, and fired over by a margin that was less than comfortable.
The danger Dack possesses when given a yard or two of space, however, was not a warning that Charlton’s backline heeded. For from Gillingham’s next attack, an unchallenged Dack gave his side the advantage that they arguably warranted.
At the very least, there was no question that this was punishment that the Addicks deserved. Nouble and fellow former resident of SE7 Konchesky combining on the left for the latter to cross perfectly for Dack, and the one-time member of Charlton’s academy nodded with relative ease past a motionless Rudd. One of Gillingham’s most potent threats, somehow, arriving in the box unnoticed.
And while a half chance fell the way of Slade’s side as half-time approached, with a well below-par Lookman lashing against the side netting having received a Magennis long throw, it was nowhere near enough to gloss over what had been a truly horrendous opening 45 for the Addicks. Almost all of the 2,300 supporters in the away end contributing to the chorus of boos that serenaded the players as they retreated down the tunnel.
Boos that were replaced by cheers as they remerged, with the sight of a ready-for-action Ajose providing, above anything else, a huge sense of relief. It quite obvious the lone forward formation was not working, and Magennis’ efforts would be much more worthwhile with a pacey striker alongside him. Johnnie Jackson, rather bizarrely played in a role that saw him sit slightly ahead of Ulvestad and Andrew Crofts, the man withdrawn.
The early exchanges of the first half, however, failed to offer the encouragement that those frustrated supporters required. A change in formation had seemingly not been accompanied with a change in ethos, as the Addicks continued to stand off the Gills, and give Emmanuel-Thomas and Nouble far too much space to run into.
Thankfully, their efforts in the final third still left a little to be desired. Billy Knott, with a strike from a half-cleared corner, troubling the supporters in the back row of the Rainham End, before Rudd got down well to deny Emmanuel-Thomas after those in red had allowed him to cut inside far too easily.
The hour mark approaching with Charlton still second best by quite some distance, so Lookman finally making a positive impact on the game was timely. The winger getting the better of Konchesky, delivering superbly for Magennis, and only an excellent reaction stop from Nelson kept out the Northern Ireland international’s header. Promise.
Promise that would become premature celebration as, after a lengthy chat with several individuals on both sides who were grabbling in the box, referee Hayward awarded the Addicks a penalty from the resulting corner. No question about the legitimacy of his decision, with Jackson rather brainlessly throwing Ulvestad to the ground despite being spoken to seconds previously.
A wonderful opportunity from Holmes to rescue Charlton from this concerning position they found themselves in, and lay a foundation from which they could potentially go onto win the game in its remaining half hour.
Instead, Holmes, and many of those beyond the goal he fired his penalty towards, were left head in hands as Nelson saved superbly. Little to bemoan about the power and direction in the winger’s effort, but Gillingham’s replacement goalkeeper was not to be beaten. A moment that gave the impression his side were not to be beaten, either.
An impression that might well have been secured just a few moments later as the hard working and combative McDonald was played through on goal at an angle, with Konsa for company. It appeared the teenage centre-back had clumsily hauled the forward to the floor, denying him a chance to double Gillingham’s lead in unfair fashion, but referee Hayward quite adamantly waved for play to continue. The home supporters bemused; the visitors quite aware they’d been fortunate.
Fortune that would continue as a corner was rather bizarrely awarded to the Addicks despite Nelson running past a loose ball to allow it to trickle out of play. The goalkeeper quite clearly fuming as he was forced to make another impressive save from the set-piece that followed, with Konsa’s volley tipped behind.
There, of course, a chance that Gillingham would lose focus and concentration as a result of their anger towards these rather questionable refereeing decisions. And though Edinburgh was certainly occupied with the fourth official, his side managed to maintain their composure. The backline still solid, control in midfield, and forward intent still be showing.
In fact, with a little over ten minutes to play, it remained the Gills who were on top, and they might well have put the game beyond Charlton’s reach. The ball falling kindly to Dack inside the box, but the midfielder rushing his effort slightly, and only able to fire wide when the very least he should have done in such a position was test Rudd.
Though in the eyes of many in the away end, the decision by Slade that followed to replace Magennis with Novak was as good as conceding another goal. A bizarre call, with the Northern Ireland international still proving a handful. One of Gillingham’s own handfuls, Nouble, shot off-target after the game resumed.
But, with the hosts arguably becoming a little guilty of failing to put the game to bed, the Addicks still only required one decent opening to rescue the most undeserved of points from this contest. The opening seemingly coming as Lookman teed up Novak, but the defiant Nelson refused to be beaten one-on-one.
Wasting such an opening deflating, and numbers beginning to exit the away end. A feeling, and quite a reasonable one, that this game was lost.
No real cries of encouragement as Fox sprinted over to take a throw, delivering the ball in the general direction of Novak’s head. But there were soon shouts for hand ball, as the forward’s flick on struck the hand of Herd. Shouts that were responded to – a second Charlton penalty awarded with the 90th minute approaching.
Possibly a little harsh, given that the gap between head and hand was minimal, but there no doubt Herd’s hand was raised, and the ball struck it. Gillingham quite possibly more furious with several previous decisions made by referee Hayward, not least his failure to award them an earlier penalty.
Nonetheless, Ajose now stood over the ball, and needed to finally find a way past the unbeatable Nelson to steal a point. The eyes deceiving and the finish cool. Nelson sent the wrong way, and Ajose sprinting off to celebrate in front of Slade. The forward’s point most certainly made.
But it not yet confirmed that Charlton’s point was definitely gained. Encouragement towards the Addicks stealing victory into stoppage-time existing to begin with, but a foul from Konsa on McDonald just outside the box created quite an uncomfortable moment. A golden opportunity for Gillingham to regain their lead deep into additional time.
Pearce, however, as he had been for much of the game, was determined to at least protect this rather fortunate point. The centre-back racing out of the wall and throwing himself in front of McDonald’s powerful strike. The final whistle following almost immediately.
A final whistle that was met with what was little more than a slightly calmer version of what would have occurred had the Addicks not rescued a point. The mood certainly not one of celebration, appreciation for the players minimal, and Slade receiving the same level of boos as the match officials were from the home supporters.
This, unquestionably, still nowhere near good enough.
In fact, it almost insulting that Slade seemed to think that there was pride to be taken from stealing a point against a struggling side.
A struggling side that Charlton, for the duration of the game, allowed to dominate. That not to patronise Gillingham, or take anything away from their impressive exploitation of Emmanuel-Thomas and Nouble, but their dominant attacking efforts were only possible as a consequence of the Addicks sitting ridiculously deep.
It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever why a side that have been without a win in five and have struggled for much of this season weren’t got at. Why a leaky defence wasn’t tested, and a midfield allowed to settle. Why it took an embarrassing first-half showing for a second forward to be deployed.
The suggestion of a second half improvement is, to be fair, not incorrect. After a painfully stale opening period, with no energy or intent on show whatsoever, there were more encouraging moments for the Addicks going forward. At the very least, they were able to threaten on a handful of occasions.
But that shouldn’t need to be the case. We shouldn’t have to keep recovering from dreadful starts, we shouldn’t keep finding ourselves punished by questionable tactical decisions from Slade, and we shouldn’t keep needing to be rescued in fortunate circumstances for just a single point.
We’re not a relatively small club, attempting to hold our own in the third tier, we’re a club that should have ambitions of getting out of this division at the first attempt, and playing with the sort of quality that reflects that.
On previous occasions, you could argue that Ajose’s penalty is a starting point for improvement and an overall recovery. At least Slade might go two up top from now on.
But there’s only so many times such a position can apparently exist before it becomes tedious. There are issues with this side that won’t be resolved by a crack-covering goal.
It is, unfortunately, undeniable that pressure is beginning to build on Slade. An improvement in performances and results desperately required.