All around The Valley, there were seats left vacant. There no boss in the home dugout where Russell Slade once sat, the seat that the owner of a football club might claim inside the directors’ box has long been allowed to gather dust, and there unquestionably more unoccupied seats in the stands than an announced attendance of 8,992 suggests.
The bizarre sacking of Slade leaving the Addicks managerless once again, and Roland Duchatelet reinforcing his distain towards Charlton Athletic and the club’s supporters in the week. Factors that have contributed towards the belief that this ownership have crippled the club, and have left many a committed fan without what was once an unbreakable connection.
So in these circumstances, these circumstances in which the club have dived deeper into crisis and driven their supporters further away from the feelings they once held, there is a desperate need to avoid dire results. To prevent the underlying and constant discontent and disconnection developing into to justified displays of anger and a toxic atmosphere.
It fortunate, therefore, that those in red were not vacant of character. Under the stewardship of caretaker manager Kevin Nugent, and oddly appointed coach Chris O’Loughlin, the Addicks able to achieve a 2-0 win over Port Vale in a situation that didn’t lend itself to a positive result being secured.
A performance without fluency, in a game that often failed to inspire, but a period of positive play towards the end of the first half was enough for Charlton to secure victory. The excellent Morgan Fox providing on both occasions as Josh Magennis’ perfectly placed header gave the Addicks a 30th minute lead, before Nicky Ajose tucked beyond Jak Alnwick to conclude a rapid break and double the advantage a minute before half-time.
It probably also fortunate that Vale had arrived in SE7 vacant of any sort of attacking potency. The visitors seeing the majority of the ball in the second period, as the Addicks retreated deeper and deeper, but unable to get themselves back into the game despite plenty of huff and puff.
The positive Vale response, and the increasingly cautious effort from Charlton, meant victory never felt truly certain despite the two-goal advantage. The second half, serenaded by the sort of atmosphere that belonged to a group of disillusioned supporters who had taken far too many knocks, a slog.
It probably no surprise, therefore, that the roar of celebration at full-time was more of a polite cheer of relief. Apathy and disconnection can’t be healed by events on the pitch, events on the pitch won’t fill vacant seats, and events on the pitch offer little more than a distraction from anxiety and concern while this regime remains.
But a distraction, after another torrid week for supporters, that was so desperately needed.
In truth, though the circumstances were testing, the tools available to Nugent meant recovering from Slade’s sacking, and the dire defeat to Swindon Town that cost the former boss his job, was not an impossible task.
Though injury meant Ricky Holmes was absent, and Kevin Foley had to fill in for Chris Solly at full-back, there reasonable attacking options available to the stand-in boss. Ademola Lookman and Magennis, having recovered from a hamstring injury sustained while representing Northern Ireland, returning to the starting XI after international duty, with Jordan Botaka back on the bench.
A hope that Lookman would instil some energy and creativity into the side, and Magennis’ presence would increase Charlton’s threat in attack, but attentions where elsewhere prior to and just after kick-off.
An impeccably observed period of silence held to commemorate the ending of the Somme a century ago, with members of the armed forces surrounding the centre circle and balloons sent skywards, before a universally backed period of anti-Duchatelet chanting soon after the game had begun.
Once attention had returned to the game itself, it could be noted that Port Vale, with only one away win to their name this season, had started the afternoon in more promising fashion. Former Addick Jerome Thomas, giving Foley a torrid time on the flank, particularly looking to threaten.
The problem for the Addicks in the early stages was a certain amount of tameness, both in their attempts to get forward and in possession. Too often was the ball gifted to Vale in midfield, with Lookman guilty on several occasions of being dispossessed cheaply. The Addicks struggling to settle.
And Vale might well have capitalised upon Charlton’s sloppiness had Ryan Taylor shown the quality from a dead ball that he has done for Newcastle and Wigan in the past. Declan Rudd’s clearance mishit, Andrew Crofts’ efforts to deal with it resulting in him being penalised for hand ball on the edge of the box, but Taylor’s strike disappointingly rebounding back off the wall.
The calamitous nature of Rudd’s attempt to clear seemingly the catalyst for composure to spread throughout the side. A realisation that there was a need to slow things down a little, and play in a calm and simple fashion. The ball needing to be cherished and protected in a contrasting manner to how Duchatelet has looked after the club.
And with the ball being properly looked after, there would soon be an opening for the Addicks, created in reasonably impressive fashion. Ajose doing well in a wide position, and his delivery picking out an unmarked Lookman at the far post. A better touch might have meant a certain goal, but the teenager took himself slightly wide of goal, and Alnwick was able to block the ball behind.
However, the threat had not yet passed. Lookman’s delivery from corners has been questioned in the past, but this was perfect, resulting in Jason Pearce’s header back across the face of goal clipping the bar before dropping wide. Frustrating, but more so encouraging.
Encouraging as the Addicks continued to cause a threat. There still no fluency in the middle, but Ajose and Lookman, with adequate support from Fox, were exploiting the flanks superbly. Magennis rising highest to nod an Ajose delivery back across goal, and the ball only narrowly floating wide.
These chances, of course, not reason for Nugent’s side to get ahead of themselves. With Sam Kelly lively on the right, and Thomas still giving Foley plenty of work on the left, Vale’s threat out wide was also substantial. Promising positions taken up, but a final ball deserting them.
As such, the difference between the two sides was becoming more and more apparent. Vale crumbled once they entered the final third; Charlton were at their best once they had worked their way into the final third. In simple terms, the hosts were creating chances, and only an excellent block from Remie Streete denied Ajose after the forward was picked out at the conclusion of a decent forward move.
And it was a decent forward move with half an hour played that resulted in the Addicks taking a lead that they had done enough to warrant. Johnnie Jackson and Fox combining out wide for the latter to deliver, and the full-back’s cross was perfect for Magennis to head back across Alnwick and into the bottom corner. It almost as if that sluggish start didn’t happen.
Though Vale were immediately keen to remind the Addicks that it did, and that their lead was far from secure. Alex Jones working himself an inch of space inside the box, but able only to fire straight at Rudd from a relatively tight angle.
In fact, knowing they were now chasing the game, the visitors were beginning to turn promising forward moves into genuinely threatening play. Patrick Bauer at his resilient best to make sure Anthony de Freitas couldn’t turn after receiving the ball inside the box, Fox putting his body on the line to turn a testing Taylor delivery behind, and Paulo Tavares one of many to see either a cross or shot blocked after the Addicks struggled to successfully clear a Vale corner.
But amidst the succession of deliveries and shots sent in the general direction of Charlton’s goal, Vale had left themselves short at the back. So short, in fact, that when Fox cut off a cross-field ball on the edge of his own box, it needed a handful of paces forward and one well-executed pass to send Ajose through on goal.
It truly calamitous from the visitors, but Charlton’s forward was in no mood to feel sympathetic. In a position from which Ajose has wasted several excellent openings this season, the former Swindon striker calmly tucked the ball beyond Alnwick to double his side’s lead.
There concerns that the Addicks would be heading in at half-time level but, out of nothing, they had now quite possibly sealed victory before the break.
Confidence certainly being rediscovered by those in red, as Ajose began the second period with a rather ambitious attempt to chip Alnwick, before Crofts’ dipping strike from a half-cleared corner, though ultimately landing on the roof of the net, had the goalkeeper scrambling.
But it wasn’t with such ambition and confidence that the Addicks played the half in. It vanishing almost as soon as the backline stood off Kelly and allowed him to create space to shoot, with the winger firing just wide. It adding to Jones’ earlier effort, with Rudd forced into a comfortable save, and seemingly the catalyst for the hosts to retreat and allow their opponents far too much uncontested possession.
Despite having performed so well in the latter stages of the first half with a high intensity effort, the Addicks had seemingly decided to grind out the result in the second period. Kelly the most likely in a Vale shirt to make them regret such a decision, with the lively winger again creating space for himself and firing not too far wide.
But though the Addicks were dropping deeper and deeper, and the visitors appearing to become more threatening, Vale once again had an issue producing anything meanwhile in the final third. Hardly helped by the need to withdraw an injured Thomas, but wide men were hesitant, forwards received the ball with their back to goal, and they were so often guilty of overplaying.
In fact, in spite of the visitors dominating possession and Charlton being camped inside their own half for the vast majority of the second period, it wasn’t until the 82nd minute when another reasonable opening was created. And that opening was created by those in red. Substitute Brandon Hanlan played through, the onside forward half-stopping expecting to see the assistant’s flag raised, and able only to prod a shot straight at the onrushing Alnwick.
That it had taken so long for an opportunity to be created reflective of the rather uninspiring nature of the second period. There frustration among Vale fans, hardly addressed as Martin Paterson shot straight at Rudd, that their side were unable to turn their dominance into anything noteworthy, and frustration among The Valley regulars that the intensity of their side had dropped so dramatically.
So the sight of Ajose turning in Hanlan’s cross-cum-shot with four minutes to play brought about great relief among a rather flat home crowd. Or at least that was the case until it was spotted that the assistant had raised his flag. Ajose offside, and a few more minutes to play with this nagging sense that the Addicks were at least going to find a way to make protecting their two-goal lead a little interesting.
At the very least, that lead probably should have been halved with a minute to play, as Nathan Smith somehow managed to divert Taylor’s delivery wide. The best chance that a persistent but timid Vale had managed to create all game, and taking it would have set-up a horribly anxious period of stoppage-time.
But Vale’s wastefulness meant the Addicks, as they had been doing for the duration of the half, were able to slowly grind towards full-time and three points.
Not the most fluent of displays, and one that might have been punished by a more potent opposition, but a win nonetheless. A win that not many were anticipating prior to kick-off.
And that, above anything else, is probably the best way to look at this result and performance. The sense of crisis around the club meant many, justifiably so, felt capitulation was almost certain today, so to come away with three points that was ultimately warranted is an effort that shouldn’t be knocked.
Warranted because that period of potency in front of goal in the final 15 minutes of the first half was more than Port Vale showed throughout the duration of the game, despite looking the more fluent side.
The difference that Lookman and Magennis make obvious if only in that 15 minute period. Their presence driving the Addicks forward, Lookman’s ability on the ball instilling confidence throughout the side, and Magennis a talismanic outlet in attack.
Those characteristics, along with two excellent balls from Fox and a composed Ajose finish, rescuing a performance that was otherwise lifeless and a little sloppy. A touch of quality in the final third much more rewarded than Vale’s persistent running into dead ends.
In fact, the manner of the victory makes the manner of Slade’s sacking even more questionable. Not only in terms of the fact his dismissal came after Katrien Meire had offered her full support, but because this is now our fourth consecutive home win, and a win that was instigated largely by the presence of those that were unavailable at Swindon.
Not that the performance in the defeat to Swindon was excusable, merely that using that performance in those circumstances as justification to dismiss a manager is rather odd.
This certainly not a win and performance that allows for Slade’s sacking to be brushed under the carpet, or for the opposition to the ownership to be toned down.
But it’s a win. A win that felt quite nice after this bloody awful week.