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Novak Breaks the Silence on Free Speech Day

Free Speech Day it might have been at The Valley, with numerous supporters following CARD’s wishes and coming to SE7 with a banner bearing an anti-regime message, but it was the silence that existed for much of the game which did a better job of exposing the current state of the club.

The ground barely a third full, those within it evidently uninspired by an underwhelming contest between Charlton Athletic and Chesterfield, and the atmosphere muted at best. The disconnection created by Roland Duchatelet’s regime, that Katrien Meire refuses to acknowledge to the extent it needs to be, obvious.

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A sluggish Valley crowd half the result of the mood the club’s ownership have instilled upon their supporters, but also a consequence of those underwhelming events on the pitch.

Chesterfield structured and determined, showing the sort of resilience that will be required to escape a relegation battle, but also very much possessing the quality that reflected their tag as the division’s least in form side. A side to be beaten.

Understandable, therefore, that the tentative mentality, sideways passing, and overall lack of energy and intent displayed by Russell Slade’s side meant the silence was only interrupted by grunts of disappointment, and half-time boos.

And when the Addicks found an extra gear in the second period, still lacking in quality but possessing enough attacking intent to pen the Spireites deep inside their own half, the occasional promising move was punctured by an extraordinary lack of composure in front of goal. Nicky Ajose, having wasted a wonderful opening in a rare first-half move, particularly guilty as he headed wide from a marvellous Jordan Botaka delivery.

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The first-half hesitation, and the tameness that followed in the second, meaning it seemed that another disappointing draw against weak opposition was moments away from being confirmed. A disappointing draw for which Slade could claim no excuses to avoid criticism of himself or his players. Another dire afternoon on the pitch, to add to the overall gloom at the club.

So when Ricky Holmes, delivering a ball into the box for the umpteenth time, picked out an alert Lee Novak, getting in front of his man against his former club and glancing a header firmly beyond the reach of Chesterfield stopper Ryan Fulton with four minutes to play, it was with relief that The Valley rose. The threat of the silence being broken by full-time boos and angst avoided.

Instead, as Novak stood in front of the Covered End with hand to ear suggesting he had proven a point to those who had questioned his performances for the club, the silence was broken by joyous and relieved celebrations.

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A rare moment to enjoy as disconnection and apathy continues to run through the veins of Charlton supporters. A warranted win, if not on the strength of performance but on the number of clear-cut chances created, displacing what was seemingly set to be a draw worthy of inquest and further unrest.

Not enough to diminish the on-the-pitch worry that accompanies the overall despair among Addicks, given the nature of the display and the fear a more competent opponent may have taken advantage, but Novak had at least found a positive way to break the silence.

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In truth, against opposition who had taken just one point from their previous six league games, a single-goal victory was the absolute minimum demanded of the Addicks prior to kick-off, and the minimum expected once it was announced Slade had finally abandoned his single-striker formation.

Ajose, having scored a 90th minute equalise from the spot against Gillingham and made the point he should be starting rather clear to Slade in his celebration, handed a start for the first time since the middle of September and partnering Josh Magennis in attack. Johnnie Jackson sitting out as a result.

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There also a change in defence, where Patrick Bauer, a victim of the virus that apparently affected a handful of players last week, returned in favour of teenager centre-back Ezri Konsa. With Botaka available again after injury, and ready to be deployed from the bench, Slade’s side was arguably at full strength.

Such perceived strength meant victory was the only acceptable outcome, despite the bald-headed boss suggesting in the week that Chesterfield possessed players capable of winning games. Gboly Ariyibi and Ched Evans, starting for Danny Wilson’s side, did at least mean the Addicks could not ignore their opponents’ threat entirely.

Nor could Meire ignore the numerous banners and flags visible around the ground as the game got underway. The opposition obvious, and the message apparent. This regime is destroying the club, and is not wanted here.

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It would, however, have been nice if Slade’s side had taken one of the key principles behind the many North Korea flags that were on display. For instead of dictating, the Addicks were tentative and a little cautious in the opening exchanges.

Though a deflected Ademola Lookman effort was saved, with Chesterfield fortunate that the ball didn’t bounce away from Fulton, and Andrew Crofts shot horrendously wide with an ambitious effort from distance, it took barely 15 minutes for home supporters to grow frustrated with their side’s sideways passing and lack of intent.

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In fact, though they were placing ten men behind the ball whenever the Addicks were in possession, it was Chesterfield who showed a greater amount of urgency and energy when going forward. The lively Ariyibi causing constant concern for Morgan Fox, and the winger firing over from just outside the box.

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Which isn’t to say that the visitors, or the hosts, were looking particularly threatening. Evans’ attempts to play on the shoulder of Patrick Bauer proving unsuccessful, with the big German in formidable form, while Magennis and Ajose being on different wavelengths hardly helped with the Addicks struggling to make anything happen in the final third.

A real tedious affair, adding greater importance to the opening goal. An opening goal that, Chesterfield almost secured just before the half hour.

After Evans’ movement had finally allowed him to get the better of Bauer and break into the box, a poor touch meant his resulting shot was effectively a prod straight at Rudd, who was able to block the effort behind for a corner.

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But from the resulting corner, initially half-cleared, Charlton’s defence were found to be unstructured and sluggish. The ball falling to Dan Gardner on the edge of the box, no pressure applied to him, and the winger able to bend an effort against the foot of the far post with Rudd well-beaten. A huge let off for the unconvincing Addicks.

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A wake up call for those in red, and from the home crowd, who summoned a cry of support to demand much more from their unimpressive side. Not one that Charlton were willing to respond to, however, as the infuriating sideways passing and unwillingness to drive forward continued.

So, with ten minutes of the half remaining, it was to the surprise of all inside The Valley to see the Addicks complete a flowing passing move that concluded with Magennis sending Ajose through on goal.

The home crowd rising, beginning their premature celebrations in expectation of the forward handing their side the advantage, but somehow Ajose could only strike against the post. Heads firmly in hands, and remaining in them as the loose ball fell to Chris Solly. His follow-up effort, unsurprisingly, wayward.

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Disappointment and frustration, undoubtedly, with there a growing feeling that that sort of miss would reflect Charlton’s fortunes and quite possibly the game overall, but a small hint of encouragement to also be taken. Proof that Slade’s side could play a competent style of football, and there every chance that attacking play would be rewarded.

In fact, with half-time approaching, there was to be one more opening for the Addicks, and another chance to make a rather underwhelming first-half effort meaningless. On this occasion, there was to be no fault attached to the forward involved, as Magennis headed powerfully towards goal from Holmes’ delivery, only for Fulton to pull off a marvellous reaction save. It would have been somewhat undeserved if a battling Chesterfield had gone in at the break behind, but such an outcome was only avoided thanks to their goalkeeper’s fingertips.

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Nonetheless, there was no real feeling that Charlton were unfortunate to go in at the break without a lead. A smattering of boos and an overall sense of disappointment reflecting that, with most unhappy with the sluggish, cautious and unexpansive football on show. The division’s 23rd placed side needed to be put under greater pressure, and tested more.

It was to the credit of Slade’s men, therefore, that they seemingly appeared after the interval with a much greater attacking mentality. Fredrik Ulvestad more positive in his passing, Holmes driving forward with a real threat, and Solly playing as a definite wing-back in support of Lookman. Chesterfield dropping deeper and deeper, with Evans an isolated figure in attack.

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But while there was most certainly a greater attempt to push forward, and a sudden discovery of some attacking energy, the quality of the end product meant frustration and disappointment continued to fill The Valley. Half a result of commendable defiance from the visitors, and a half a result of quite poor decision making from those in red when in a reasonably promising position.

Not until just before the hour mark did this more adventurous style of play result in a reasonable opening, with Magennis rising highest to nod Holmes’ delivery just wide of the post. The Northern Irishman giving Fulton something to worry about in Charlton’s next move, as the goalkeeper comfortably claimed another nod towards goal, but this slow improvement was still nowhere near enough to inspire.

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At least Chesterfield had seemingly abandoned any idea of stealing victory, with even Ariyibi unable to get forward. A wayward effort from Jay O’Shea, struck from distance, fairly reflective of desperation that was to be found in the rare moments of forward play in Wilson’s side.

But, to their credit, it was with sternness and resilience that they continued to deny Charlton’s attempts to push forward. Ian Evatt, at 34 years of age, a colossus in the centre, while the wide men were pressured enough to prevent their constant forward runs from resulting in genuine threat. The visitors seemingly in control of their own destiny, despite being forced to sit so deep, and frustration among the home support again growing.

The response from Slade to throw on the fit again Botaka, replacing the ineffective Lookman, in the hope his skill and fresh legs would deceive a determined defence.

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And, with 15 minutes to play, Botaka’s influence really should have made the difference. The winger in space, his delivery stunning, but the unmarked Ajose waiting in the centre somehow managed to nod the ball wide with the goal at his mercy. His reaction said it all; a huge miss, particularly in a game of limited openings.

A conflict over whether such a glorious opening was an encouragement or the wasting of it was a further sign that the Addicks were to be frustrated, but the atmosphere inside the ground suggested many were resigned to disappointment. Hushed, frustrated, without confidence.

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Novak replaced the misfiring Ajose, and Chesterfield’s backline were certainly struggling to deal with the former Spirite forward and his fellow substitute Botaka more than anyone else in red, but that inability to add a final touch of quality to attacking moves was again on show. Deliveries constant, but so often blocked or beaten away.

And when they did find a man, as Holmes picked out Bauer at the far post from a corner with five minutes to play, the resulting effort on goal was uninspiring. An acceptance of disappointment heard in the sighs around the ground as Fulton plucked the German centre-back’s header out the air.

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In fact, it wouldn’t have been surprising to the home supporters, so used to disappointment, had Chesterfield managed to steal victory. Ariyibi bursting forward for quite possibly the first time during the half to be on the receiving end of a Spirite break, but his resulting effort was fairly tame, and Rudd got down well to save.

An immediate move down the other end, but the volume of excitement as Holmes made another burst down the flank definitely lower than it would have been had he made the same move at the start of the half. Too many attempts to exploit the wide areas, and pick out a man in the middle, had resulted in failure.

But Holmes’ delivery was a useful one, perfect for Novak, who had moved away from his man in excellent fashion, with the striker producing a glancing header with the pace and accuracy to mean there were unexpected cries of celebration before the ball had even crossed the line.

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An element of surprise in the response, with the goal interrupting a sense of certain frustration, but so too was there huge relief. Supporters spared the embarrassment and anger that would come with failing to defeat such a lowly side, while those on the pitch found a reward for the effort shown in periods of the second half, and a platform from which to release frustrations. Novak’s hand held to his ear, and Crofts aggressive in his interaction with the Covered End.

Alas, though a goal scored with five minutes to play and in such circumstances, felt like a winner, there was still time for frustration to return. For Novak to turn from hero to villain, as he wasted a glorious chance to double Charlton’s lead having been teed up by Botaka’s wonderful flick and resultant cut back.

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In fact, in the three minutes of additional time added, the pattern of the game had very much reversed. Chesterfield pressing forward, Charlton sitting deep, half determined and half hopeful to maintain what they had.

But, in truth, it was through good fortune that the Addicks did not concede in that period of stoppage-time. O’Shea’s effort taking a wicked deflection, wrong-footing Rudd, and only narrowly flashing wide of the post. A relief greater than seeing Novak’s header find the back of net upon realising O’Shea’s effort had gone behind.

Relief, too, when the final whistle was ultimately blown. A victory that Slade’s side made hard work of, reflected in the fact that full-time was so desperately pleaded for, and an unconvincing performance, but a victory nonetheless.

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A victory, therefore, from which mixed feelings are taken from.

No doubt in the joy and celebration as Novak’s late winner was scored. The quantity of clear-cut chances making that a goal that was just about deserved, and, though it was Holmes who provided, made more so by the influence of Botaka and Novak in the game’s closing stages.

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For once, Slade’s subs helped rather than hindered. So too did he seemingly finally allow his side off the leash a little in the second period, where a restricted and dour first-half effort was replaced by genuine attacking intent. There no denying that elements of this performance, and Slade’s decision making, were an improvement in showings seen throughout this season.

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In equal measure, there is no denying that there were still plenty of elements of the performance that were incredibly sluggish. Both during the first half, were the play was tedious, unthreatening, and lacklustre, and in the second, were the inability to break down Chesterfield despite the intent became incredibly frustrating.

Slade’s side still far from fluent, and still far from one that can realistically have ambitions of moving up the table. Further improvement most definitely needed, especially against opposition able to provide a great threat than Wilson’s men were.

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Contributing to this mixed feeling also is the sense of sluggishness that existed around The Valley, with the increasing feel that apathy and disconnection is the overwhelming feeling amount supporters. .

The amount of banners, despite this being a protest that required individuals to do all the work themselves, and the definitive cry for Roland to be removed after scoring, reflective of that, and the focus on forcing change in order to be able to reconnect.

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For low attendances and apathetic atmospheres have long passed a stage of being addressable by results, and it’s quite upsetting to think that Meire, at least in what she chooses to say, doesn’t realise that. The regime in general unaware of the damage caused, and I think that is greater reflected in days where victory is secured.

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Nonetheless, the Addicks were able to secure a victory that expectation meant had to be secured, and there were signs of encouragement to be taken from a very mixed performance that was reliant on that late winner to be acceptable.

It very much an afternoon where a win being a win holds true.

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