The argument that this equaliser was deserved is a slim one, but whether it was warranted or not mattered little as those in the Covered End rejoiced Patrick Bauer’s stoppage-time leveller in a game that had long seemed lost.
In fact, it a reflection of how tame Charlton Athletic were in their push for an equaliser that those representing Sheffield United were called into more vigorous action when required to assist in the clear up of the assortment of foam taxis and balls that invaded the pitch than they were by the Addicks.
Another well-organised effort from the protesting supporters as the game began, with the unrelenting opposition to the regime reaffirmed despite recent victories and managerial changes.
New boss Karl Robinson watching the sea of foam toys invade the pitch, and hearing the anti-Roland Duchatelet chanting, from the relative comfort of the directors’ box before taking charge of the side on Monday.
But, as has always been the case, the former MK Dons boss would have seen that the players who he will soon inherit are unaffected by the protests around them. The Addicks, offered unrelenting support by their supporters once the game had resumed, involved in a competitive opening half hour where neither side was able to truly get on top of the other. Defensively solid, but running into dead ends on the counter.
The capitulation that followed the Blades’ 32nd minute opener, however, was far more obvious and concerning. As was the defensive effort for the goal itself. The Addicks static as a cleverly worked free-kick deceived all in the centre, and Mark Duffy was unchallenged as he finished from a relatively tight angle.
United responding with pace, energy and an unrelenting effort that meant Charlton were given no time whatsoever when on the ball. The Addicks terribly slow, without structure, and carless in possession. Were it not for Dillon Phillips, making several excellent saves during the second half, the deficit would have been far more reflective of the gap between the two sides.
But while the deficit remained only one, regardless of the struggle Kevin Nugent’s temporary troops were having in creating any sort of opening, there was always some sort of chance that something could be stolen. Even deep into stoppage-time, where positive energy around the home areas of The Valley was difficult to find.
It more in desperate hope, therefore, than genuine belief that roars of encouragement were made as a clever run from substitute Jordan Botaka won the Addicks a free-kick in a crossing position with two minutes of additional time already eaten up. The expectation was that the Blades would easily nod the delivery away, with Charlton continuing to be little more than tame in the final third.
But Adam Chicksen’s delivery was perfect for Josh Magennis to flick-on, and the flick-on could only be buddled over the line by Bauer’s big German limbs. The first time the Addicks had genuinely threatened, but enough to steal a point that, on the balance of play, might not have been deserved.
Enough to prevent the confidence that Nugent’s temporary reign has injected from being tarnished by a poor and pointless performance, and enough to give Robinson some positive energy to work with when he begins on Monday morning.
Improvement, and plenty of it, still needed, but a solid base from which to work from under the new boss. Even if the regime provides no base whatsoever.
The impressive 5-1 victory over Bristol Rovers in midweek almost an irrelevance when facing Sheffield United, given their 14-game unbeaten run. A completely different challenge to the one the Addicks faced in the West County on Tuesday, where the absence of key players might well be made more obvious.
Declan Rudd, Chris Solly and Ricky Holmes still absent, with Nugent making just the one change from the side who performed so impressively at the Memorial Stadium. Johnnie Jackson returning, with Chicksen returning to the bench.
But the uncertainty of whether the midweek effort could be repeated against stronger opposition was a conundrum temporarily ignored as a protest against Duchatelet’s poisonous regime began as soon as the referee’s first whistle was blown.
The foam footballs and taxis, in homage to the marvellous #TaxiForRoland trip, forcing the game to be paused and will once again be what attracts important attention, but the noise and length of the “we want Roland out” is something not to be ignored. With the majority of those in the home ends on their feet and voicing their opposition, it apparent that the strength of the opposition to the regime remains just as strong.
As too does the support for the side. The Covered End, competing with a sold out Sheffield United contingent, immediately vocally backing the Addicks once the game had resumed.
And their vocal backing was rewarded with some early encouraging signs. Magennis a handful, Nicky Ajose and Ademola Lookman making positive runs, and a delightful Jackson delivery from the left somehow avoiding the red shirts in the centre.
In fact, it appeared there was to be a reward for the supportive effort and the early promise in Charlton’s play as Magennis was played through and converted in clinical fashion. The Valley cheer postponed by the sight of the assistant referee’s flag being raised – The Northern Ireland international venturing offside.
But that certainty isn’t to say the Addicks were the dominant side in these early exchanges. The opening a competitive one, with the pace, movement and individual quality in United’s side was also made immediately obvious. An early warning for the hosts with Daniel Lafferty able to get free down the left far too easily, and Morgan Fox’s desperate outstretched foot required to prevent his low cross from causing the damage it might have done.
It was becoming increasingly apparent, however, that Charlton’s main concern would be dealing with Duffy. He the first player the Blades looked to pick out when breaking forward, and the sort of playmaker who seems able to glide with the ball at his feet.
The midfielder involved in the build-up as Andrew Crofts threw his body in the way of a Jack O’Connell strike, and as the previously quiet Billy Sharp volleyed over from the edge of the box. Duffy’s presence, and United’s threat, slowly increasing.
A threat that was only going to increase if Charlton were intent on offering the occasional favour. Phillips, who had looked comfortable and composed on his home league debut, charge down by former Addick Leon Clarke as he attempted to clear, and the blocked ball bouncing across the face of goal. The hosts, and in particular the young goalkeeper, very fortunate not to have been punished.
But punishment for the Addicks, in which Phillips’ fault was minimal, was not far off. Jason Pearce’s match-long tussle with Clarke had involved a lot of loose limbs, and the Charlton centre-back was punished for grappling with the robust forward. A free-kick awarded to the Blades in a promising position.
Promising in the sense that it looked a reasonable position from which to shoot directly at Phillips’ goal. Instead, the visitors made it promising by conducting a clever set-piece that completely caught out a Charlton defence that simply failed to react.
Duffy running over the ball, and into a position from which to receive a pass, the dead ball knocked into his path, and the playmaker finishing clinically in the far corner beyond a sea of rather confused players in red. A clever routine, undoubtedly, but the Addicks certainly didn’t cover themselves in glory.
At least there remained a reasonable amount of time before the interval in which Charlton could redeem themselves. Something which Ajose attempted to do, latching onto Crofts ball over the top and volleying an effort only fractionally over the bar.
But the early spark that was in the hosts’ play had all but vanished. There a real struggle for those in red to get out of their own half, with slow and turgid passing often resulting in a pass back towards Phillips, and the home supporters becoming increasingly frustrated. And when there was a chance to break, with one coming as Phillips fed Lookman with an excellent piece of distribution, Charlton could only run into dead ends.
The Addicks simply having no response to the intensity of United’s pressing, that had only increased since they had gone ahead.
In fact, Nugent’s side were probably a little fortunate to have found themselves only a goal down at the interval. Sharp twisting and turning inside the area after Charlton failed on several occasions to properly clear a corner, but the prolific striker succeeding only in firing straight at Phillips having created a sight of goal for himself.
At least that opening, if the scoreline and overall performance didn’t do it, provided a reminder that a serious improvement was required after the interval.
A reminder that seemingly wasn’t taken on board, as the Addicks continued to look slow and without direction, while the Blades continued to threaten. Sharp’s mishit overhead kick no problem for Phillips, but the goalkeeper required to make a decent save after John Fleck was invited to shoot from the edge of the area. Charlton given no time on the ball; United afforded plenty.
That made even more obvious as Chris Basham, a player without a reputation that suggests ripping apart defences is his trade, was allowed to drive half the length of the pitch unchallenged. His shot, thankfully, flashing across the face of goal and behind.
But none of these chances for the Blades, certainly more than just half chances and largely being created as a consequence of Charlton’s sluggishness, were enough to wake the hosts up. The unrelenting energy of the Bristol Rovers win seeming a long time ago as the struggling Crofts lost possession, United broke, and Phillips was again required to make an excellent stop as the influential Duffy shot towards goal.
All this occurring while the Addicks trailed, and were not simply desperately clinging on for some sort of reward. The extent of their struggles reaffirmed by the fact it took until the 73rd minute for Moore’s gloves to get a bit of dirt on them, as he easily collected Lookman’s drive towards goal, with a frustrated Magennis waiting in the centre unmarked.
And it probably wasn’t until the 75th minute when those of a Charlton persuasion were given a touch of good news. Duffy still driving the Blades forward this late into a game which had long lost any sort of competitive spark, given the extent to which the Addicks were second best, and the sight of him being forced off injured, though unfortunate for the man himself, offered a brief moment of relief.
Brief, as still a 2-0 win for the Blades appeared for likely than a Charlton equaliser. Substitute Caolan Lavery’s header had enough power and accuracy behind it for many in the Covered End to accept their side were about to fall further behind, but they had not accounted for the flying fingertips of Phillips. A marvellous save from the young goalkeeper, somehow keeping his rather undeserving side in the game.
For though the Addicks were performing without any cohesion, structure or quality, there always remained a chance of a leveller while the deficit was only one. A typically strong run from Magennis creating a small roar of expectation, but Moore was equal to his fierce near-post strike.
Encouraging, too, was the sight of Botaka being readied on the touchline. His pace and trickery exactly what was required to test fading legs and lift this stale Charlton performance, even if one of his first involvements was to receive a Chicksen throw-in and send it straight back out of play.
His runs failing to achieve a great deal, but his confidence and energy was eclipsing all but Lookman who had already attempted to get the Addicks back into the game. The winger lurking in positions from which to break as Charlton defended a corner as stoppage-time approached meant that, though logic suggested otherwise, it wasn’t completely irrational to believe the hosts still had half a chance.
Still half a chance as Botaka glided beyond Lafferty, with only the stumble that followed the full-backs cynical trip prevented the substitute from breaking into the box. A free-kick awarded in a wide position, only a matter of yards from the box.
It didn’t seem like the most inviting position from which to test the previously untested United backline. Too close to treat it like a corner, not an angle to shoot from, and the Blades would surely have the advantage in challenging for a floaty cross.
But Chicksen’s delivery, picking out the head of a man who had been calling for the delivery to come his way from the moment the free-kick was awarded, was near enough perfect. Perfect for Magennis to meet ahead of his man, and flick on dangerously for Bauer to bundle in.
Such was the manner in which the Addicks had performed, and the somewhat undeserved nature of this goal, there was a moment of shock and surprise before finally coming to terms with the fact Nugent’s men had somehow stolen a late equaliser. It a shame that Phillips didn’t sprint up field to join in with the celebrations, as they were only possible thanks to the goalkeeper’s impressive efforts in keeping the visitors’ advantage to just the one.
It also a shame that this equaliser didn’t come five minute earlier, for there was suddenly momentum and energy throughout this Charlton side. Another run from Botaka, another cynical attempt to stop him, and a corner won. Moore just about intercepting the delivery, and the referee’s full-time whistle to follow, but this was a quite unbelievable finish from the Addicks.
Nonetheless, as several wearing Sheffield United colours dropped to the floor in disappointment come full-time, it was important to remember that this point alone was rather fortunate. Undeserved in the overall context of the game, and there no sign that a late equaliser would come before Bauer bundled the ball over the line.
And, as such, a good point against strong opposition was celebrated. Or a lucky escape. One of the two.
In truth, it was probably more a lucky escape than something to be wildly celebrated. This the first time in the previous week under Nugent’s stewardship where the Addicks haven’t been allowed to set the tempo of the game, and they struggled to respond to the dominance of the Blades.
Particularly against Bristol Rovers, the standout points of Nugent’s side were that they were pacey, direct and adventurous. Largely because of the way United pressed, but also because of their sluggishness and sloppiness in possession, Charlton were simply unable to replicate the style of play that was seen on Tuesday.
It seen at the back, with the defence cautiously knocking the ball between themselves before being rushed into a wayward pass or clearance. It seen in midfield, with Crofts, after a reasonable few performances, really struggling to retain possession. And it seen going forward, with the decision making of Ajose and Lookman rather disappointing, as dead ends were quite often run into.
From the moment they scored, the Blades had control, and Charlton were looking a little lost against a relatively impressive side. Wasteful on the ball, and that half the reason they failed to double their advantage, but mightily impressive without it. Chris Wilder evidently instilling a good mentality into his side.
But in undoubted that Phillips, not least considering his inexperience, deserves plenty of credit for restricting the Blades to just a single goal lead for the majority of the game. At least three of his stops in the second half, particularly the one from Lavery’s header, seemed destined for the net, and his efforts certainly kept the Addicks in the game. A role equally as important as his one while Charlton’s lead was just a single goal in Bristol in midweek.
So too can you credit the impact Botaka made, with the winger finally giving the Addicks some sort of attacking outlet. Directionless and dreary going forward before he was introduced. A useful time to make a big impact while your new boss watches on from the stands.
And what will, having seen both this and the fixture on Tuesday, Robinson have made of the side he’s about to inherit? That there’s certainly something there, some defensive solidity and attacking quality, but an improvement against teams who press high or attempt to take the game to the Addicks is desperately required.