Whether it be a glamour tie against Premier League opposition, or a less than glamourous tie against fellow residents of League One, each round of the FA Cup maintains a certain amount of importance that means it shouldn’t be seen as an unnecessary distraction.
For while a home game, for which only two sections of The Valley are open to Charlton Athletic supporters with an incredibly low attendance expected, against League One leaders Scunthorpe United appears something of a chore at face value, it is important to remember the rewards that lie beyond this first round tie.
Cup runs limited in recent years, and often ending in extreme disappointment, but that isn’t to say that Addicks haven’t experienced the joy cup success can bring from their brief forays through the world’s oldest competition.
A semi-final place on the horizon in 2006 before ‘Operation Riverside’ ended in failure, trips to White Hart Lane and Craven Cottage, then the host of top flight football, resulting in heavy defeat but containing a certain value for supporters of a third-tier club, and Chris Powell swinging on the Hillsborough crossbar is obviously where we stop discussing the 2014 run to the sixth round.
As such, with the positive experiences a cup run can provide in mind, to demean the clash against the Iron would be naïve. An early exit from the FA Cup, and especially once caused by Charlton boss Russell Slade playing a weakened side against strong opposition, would be extremely disappointing.
But, in truth, an early exit is probably the most likely outcome for Slade’s men. With a squad that lacks strength in depth, relying heavily on key individuals, rotation in order to protect players for the league campaign in which the bald-headed boss is truly judged seems likely.
Rotation that may well result in an XI that can be easily exposed by the side that sit three points clear at the summit of League One. Graham Alexander’s men a strong outfit, who not only have greater strength in depth, but can see a cup run as an opportunity to maintain their momentum and add additional success to a season of an overachievement.
Not quite a cup upset, but it would be something of a surprise if the Addicks force their way through to the second round.
LAST MEETING – SCUNTHORPE UNITED 0-0 CHARLTON ATHLETIC (20/09/2016)
Charlton responded to an embarrassing capitulation against AFC Wimbledon with a competitive performance against table-toppers Scunthorpe in September.
In fact, after the disappointment of turning victory into defeat over the course of the game’s final 12 minutes against the Dons, there was a sense of disappointment that the Addicks didn’t come away from Glanford Park having stolen all three points.
For not only did Slade’s men, having had to show a reasonable amount of resilience and determination for much of the evening, offer a commendable degree of attacking intent in the game’s final period, but they arguably came closest to breaking the deadlock.
With the game in stoppage-time, a Johnnie Jackson free-kick, struck almost as beautifully as his famous efforts against the Sheffield clubs in 2012, clipped the post with Iron goalkeeper Luke Daniels comfortably beaten. The look of frustration on the skipper’s face telling a story.
Though that Charlton found themselves in a position to steal victory late on was partly the consequence of good fortune. Josh Morris uncharacteristically wasteful, Kevin van Veen going close, while only a heroic block from Jason Pearce denied Hakeeb Adelakun from close range.
Jordan Botaka, who made a real impact having come off the bench with seven minutes to go, also went close for the Addicks in the game’s closing stages, wasting a glorious chance having been teed up by Ademola Lookman, but stalemate arguably a reasonable outcome.
Free scoring, three-point collecting, and three points clear at the top of the division. The Iron’s start to the season, and in particular their current run of one defeat in elven games, has been mightily impressive.
A 3-0 victory over Chesterfield and a 4-1 win at home to Swindon reaffirming their dominant position after a shock defeat away at Oldham. The position that Alexander’s side find themselves in is no fluke, and one that is unlikely to fade away as the season progresses. This impressive Scunthorpe side lead the division on merit.
And Alexander has heaped praise on his side’s attacking qualities, with the Iron’s 36 goals this campaign making them Europe’s top scorers.
The central pair of Paddy Madden (five goals) and Kevin van Veen (six) are as good as any at League One level, while Josh Morris (13) is the division’s top scorer, and Duane Holmes, a player that was close to signing for the Addicks in the summer, provides an exciting creative influence.
And with Luke Williams, Tom Hopper and attacking midfielder Hakeeb Adelakun in reserve, there is the option to rotate and place players succinctly into Alexander’s attacking set-up.
A tough ask for any side to stop this rampant attack, not least for Charlton should the Iron be at full-strength on Saturday.
Two victories and two draws in their previous four games suggest the Addicks have, after a period where it seemed success under Slade would be impossible, have found some impressive form. But that run of results doesn’t quite present a true picture.
For improvement is something that is still desperately required. The self-inflicted loss of two points at Port Vale, a last-minute, and undeserved, equaliser against Gillingham, and the need for a late, and what appeared unlikely, winner against 23rd place Chesterfield to be considered alongside the results themselves.
There still plenty of faults in this Charlton side that desperately require addressing if they are to challenge the top six of the division, as is expected, and to not enter games against League One opponents as relative underdogs.
The cautious and tentative nature that Slade’s tactics have seemingly instilled in his side, the lack of fluency and cohesion that still exists as we enter the fourth month of the campaign, and route one tendency that, in addition to asking too much of Josh Magennis, often frustrates. Combine all that with a disappointing weakness in the key moments both at the back and in attack, and the Addicks remain in a concerning state.
But, for all those faults and following a torrid first-half performance, there were positives to be taken from Saturday’s second-half effort in the victory over Chesterfield. Wastefulness in the final third, but genuine attacking intent shown and a game dictated, that was ultimately rewarded with Lee Novak’s late header.
More testing opposition to face, and more fluent performances required, but a sign that this Charlton side are capable of better. That the improvement still required in spite of recent results is not a distant dream.
Scunthorpe will be without Neal Bishop after the experienced midfielder picked up his fifth yellow card of the season during Saturday’s victory over Swindon.
It leaves the Iron a little short of bodies in the centre of midfield, with Rotherham loanee Richie Smallwood also unavailable as a consequence of his loan agreement. Sam Mantom could come into the side, partnering Stephen Dawson, with former Rangers man Jamie Ness another option.
But forward Luke Williams, who hasn’t featured since the second week of the season, could return to the squad having returning to training in recent weeks. His availability could offer a chance to rest first-choice forward partnership Paddy Madden and van Veen.
Elsewhere, impressive youngster Levi Sutton could be handed his second senior start at full-back, while Harry Toffolo and Jordan Clarke remain absent.
Charlton boss Slade has suggested his side “have a few injury concerns” ahead of Saturday’s FA Cup clash, but was unwilling to name those who currently find themselves in the treatment room.
He was, however, able to confirm that changes to the side that started against Chesterfield last weekend are very likely. A possibility that fringe players will come into the XI, so key players can be rested.
It probably at full-back where the changes are most likely, given the need to protect Chris Solly’s knees at every opportunity and the lack of football that Adam Chicksen has had since joining the club. Kevin Foley the man likely to replace Solly, while Morgan Fox will sit out should Chicksen come into the side.
Young forwards Brandon Hanlan and Karlan Ahearne-Grant, having impressed for the U23s in midweek, could also be involved, while fellow academy graduates Harry Lennon and Ezri Konsa could save the legs of Patrick Bauer and Jason Pearce.
Rotation in midfield, however, is unlikely, purely on the basis of the lack of alternatives available. But a start for Botaka, having impressed off the bench on a number of occasions, would be welcomed.
KEY BATTLE – THE NEED TO WIN OVER THE NEED TO REST
As September’s league fixture showed, a competitive game can be had between these two sides in spite of the difference between them that the league table suggests.
A battle had between the two, with both going close to victory, and both needing to show a certain amount or resilience to keep their respective clean sheet. An enjoyable encounter, even with a lack of goals.
In fact, the Addicks are one of only two teams that the Iron failed to score against this campaign. An honour also held by Oldham.
But that honour was claimed with Charlton as close as possible to full strength. A weakened or rotated side, as is likely to be selected for this FA Cup tie, are highly unlikely to be able to battle as competitively against an impressive Scunthorpe unit, even if they themselves make a handful of changes.
And so the key battle is largely one of mentality – how important is the FA Cup to Slade? Or, more accurately, is the FA Cup important enough to Slade to prevent mass rotation, and motivate him to select as strong a side as possible against tough opposition?
The “focus on the league” narrative is likely to be heard come 5pm. Charlton Athletic 0-2 Scunthorpe United