Karl Robinson’s tone has been confident, assured and bullish during his first week in charge of Charlton Athletic. Promises of exciting football, a commitment to restoring the broken bond between supporters and club, and suggestions that the Addicks are a big club.
But maybe Robinson’s first game in charge of his new side offered a reminder that, in spite of the manager’s self-belief, caution is required. Both by the 36-year-old, and by any supporters who haven’t yet had every ounce of optimism sucked out of them by Roland Duchatelet’s ownership.
The Addicks, flat and relatively disappointing, playing out an uninspiring goalless draw with Robinson’s former club MK Dons at The Valley in the second round of the FA Cup.
In fact, Charlton would not be travelling to Stadium:MK for a second attempt at progression to the third round if a stoppage-time goalmouth scramble had resulted in the Dons goal it probably should have done. A Ryan Colclough effort blocked, before Andrew Crofts was alert on the line to deny Dean Bowditch from close range.
A late winner for the visitors would not have been an injustice, with Richie Barker’s side holding the advantage for much of the game. Their passing and attacking play smooth, Dillon Phillips called upon on several occasions, and a very tight offside call preventing Kieran Agard from heading the Dons in front midway through the second half.
Barker, in his final game in temporary charge before Robbie Nielsen takes the reigns, will have undoubtedly been frustrated that his side couldn’t find the goal that their overall effort arguably warranted.
But Charlton, despite too often being careless in possession and frequently delivering disappointing balls in the final third, found brief moments during the second half in which they themselves were able to threaten.
David Martin superbly denying Josh Magennis, and the slightest intervention from Paul Downing diverting an Ademola Lookman effort agonisingly wide. Big enough chances to make the claim that, during a game in which the Addicks were largely second best, victory for Robinson in his first game in charge was not an impossibility.
Without taking one of those chances, however, there was not enough to make the overall performance particularly promising. A relatively lacklustre beginning to life under Robinson, with it apparent that time is going to be required for the new boss to successfully instil his lively, high-intensity and attacking philosophy upon his side. For his confidence to be reflected in the performances.
In truth, Robinson himself would have probably wished for a different first opponent. One that didn’t offer quite an obvious distraction, and allowed complete focus on leading the Addicks for the first time.
His former supporters in the Jimmy Seed Stand, his former coaching staff in the away dugout, and his former players in one half of the pitch. The appreciation from the smattering of visiting supporters as loud as the applause from the sparsely populated home areas as Robinson appeared from the tunnel.
Two changes made from the XI Kevin Nugent fielded in his final game in caretaker charge, with the unavailability of both Chris Solly and Kevin Foley meant Ezri Konsa came in at right-back, while Johnnie Jackson’s absence paved the way for Jordan Botaka to make his first start in Charlton colours. No alteration to the 4-4-2 formation that has been used for much of the campaign, despite the new boss traditionally favouring other set-ups.
An obvious attempt, however, to make an impact elsewhere. His voice heard and his face pink from the moment the game began, constantly bellowing instructions, praise, and probably even the occasional piece of criticism. The latter needed early on, as the footwork of Bowditch and Ben Reeves created an opening for the visitors, but Phillips was able to calmly collect Agard’s resulting tame effort.
The new manager’s concern was immediately followed by applause, despite a promising Charlton break ending in disappointing fashion. The roar of expectation that always exists when Lookman is on the ball present, the teenager driving to the edge of the box and playing Nicky Ajose through, but the forward horribly ballooning a decent opening over the bar.
At least such a chance suggested the Addicks were intent on abiding by Robinson’s attacking and creative principles, but control of the game was soon grasped by the visitors. Samir Carruthers not too far wide with a first time effort from the edge of the box.
More concerning, however, was the fact several static bodies in red allowed Bowditch to go unmarked from a Dons corner. The forward peeling away from the cluster in the centre of the box, and nodding just over the bar. Without pressure being applied, he probably should have done better, and Charlton’s backline certainly should have been more alert.
A worrying pattern to the play beginning to develop, as the Addicks, and in particular Ajose, were constantly guilty of losing possession just inside the opposition’s half, and MK’s breaks were catching those in red a little flat-footed.
In particular, it was Reeves causing problems for the hosts. Morgan Fox beaten easily, and his delivery ultimately leading to Bowditch flashing off-target, before the creative midfielder himself had an attempt on goal, curling just wide from the edge of the box. The Addicks far too slow, and far too sloppy.
In fact, it probably only Phillips in Charlton colours who appeared truly composed. The goalkeeper saving a deflected Ed Upson free-kick without fuss, before George Baldock’s run on goal from a relatively tight angle was ultimately well stopped.
But the lack of fluidity, composure and control that was harming the Addicks both at the back and going forward would continue deep into the half, despite an enforced change being made. Konsa withdrawn having earlier received treatment for a head injury and still feeling groggy, to be replaced by the previously ignored Jorge Teixeira. An email undoubtedly delivered to Robinson’s inbox the moment the Portuguese defender stepped onto The Valley turf.
He showing no signs of rustiness, particularly impressive considering he was out of position at right-back, but it seemed as if none of Charlton’s forward players were aware of how a set-piece should be delivered. Groans growing as delivery after delivery failed to beat the first man, which was proving particularly frustrating in a game where the Addicks were struggling to launch cohesive forward moves.
It no surprise, therefore, that it was the Dons who continued to appear the most threatening of the two sides with half-time approaching. Reeves again tormenting, Upson trying his luck from range, and some rather untidy defending just about denying Bowditch from a well-worked corner. This, unquestionably, not the opening 45 minutes to his Charlton career that Robinson would have wanted.
With the Addicks a little fortunate to be going in at the break on level terms, there was no doubt that improvement was needed. Or possibly a touch of luck. Not something they were awarded in the opening minute of the second period, as loud shouts unsuccessfully appealed for hand ball by a Dons man inside their area. Impossible to see, but the sheer volume of the shouts suggested there was something in it.
Good fortune seemingly on the mind of Agard, who rather optimistically drove an effort in the general direction of Phillips from considerable range, while Teixeira’s overhit cross had Martin a little concerned before it landed on the roof of the net. Textbooks largely ignored in the opening exchanges of the second period.
Or at least that was until the Addicks finally showed some degree of the attacking fluency and threat that employing Robinson as manager promised. An excellent passing move sending Josh Magennis through on goal, The Valley standing to celebrate as shaped to shoot, but Martin making a superb save and the loose ball just running beyond the reach of Ajose.
Frustrating, unquestionably, but there some relief in finally seeing a moment of attacking quality and promise. Hope that this chance would kick-start the Robinson era or, more realistically, give the Addicks the confidence to perform with a degree of competence for the remainder of the half.
Competence that would not be shown before Jason Pearce, in similar fashion to the one he conceded against Sheffield United, gave away a rather clumsy free-kick on the edge of his own area. Reeves, unsurprisingly, the man to take, and his effort well-claimed by the still-defiant Phillips.
Competence that was being shown in drips and drabs, but certainly in a greater quantity of both drips and drabs in comparison to the opening 45.
Still far from perfect, or even persistently threatening, but the Addicks, now more regularly building play from the back, looked more confident in possession, while the impact Lookman and Botaka were having on the game was increasing. Though the less said about Botaka’s wayward effort from the edge of the box, the better.
The visitors, however, still appeared the most fluent, and arguably remained the most likely to score. Bowditch in behind, but driving towards goal from quite a tight angle, and Phillips able to make another tidy save.
More concerning was an unmarked Agard finally breaking Phillips’ defences and heading Darren Potter’s cross powerfully beyond the goalkeeper, only for the Addicks to be spared by the assistant’s flag. Bowditch behind him most certainly offside, but Agard on the borderline. An uncomfortable moment.
Much like praying the trajectory of Lookman’s beautifully struck free-kick would send it wide was an incredibly uncomfortable moment for the visiting supporters. The ball seemingly on-target, with Martin beaten, as it was lifted over the wall, but it just diverting wide.
With a little over 15 minutes remaining, and though Dons still looked the better side, there was a growing feeling that this tie could ultimately go either way.
Colclough and Daniel Powell, two pacey and vibrant attacking wide threats, introduced by the visitors in a bid to maintain their increasingly minimal advantage in the overall pattern of play, and the former making an immediate impact. The former Crewe man cutting into the box, and drilling wide of the near post.
However, Colclough’s chance was a considerable distance wide in comparison to the agonisingly close effort from Lookman at the other end. The teenager driving forward, poking at goal, and his shot taking the smallest deflection off Downing to deflect an inch wide.
The rather unpleasant sound of premature celebration being replaced by relative disappointment filling The Valley. A sound that would be repeated as Magennis, comfortably in an offside position, converted long after the assistant’s flag was raised.
But for the underwhelming first half, and the occasionally frustrating second, Charlton were supporters were left to leave SE7 feeling somewhat fortunate that their side remained in the FA Cup.
For the Addicks were caught out by a Dons break deep into stoppage time. Substitute Powell picking out fellow replacement Colclough at the back post, only for the winger to see his shot blocked and the loose ball pop free to Bowditch, whose effort was somehow stopped on the line by Crofts.
The three or four criminally misplaced passes that the stand-in Charlton captain had made throughout the course of the 90 minutes forgotten by this piece of determination to prevent what appeared a certain goal. A quite incredible effort.
Enough to earn the Addicks a replay, and it did feel like a replay had been earned. The second half improvement shown in the increase in chances created, but it remained Dons, throughout the game, who looked the most threatening. A stalemate that an underwhelming Charlton needed to work hard for.
And so Robinson, who shared a hug and a smile with each member of the MK Dons bench before acknowledging his former supporters, will now face his former side three times in his first month as Charlton boss. His current side, hopefully, will be further towards fully integrating into his system by the time those two games are played.
For Robinson’s men, as you would expect in only their first 90 minutes under him, were far from playing the sort of football that the young boss had his former side playing.
Particularly in the first half, the Addicks were tentative, slow, and lacking any real sort of fluency and cohesion. To be blunt, it wasn’t particularly pretty, which comes as a disappointment given the confident manner in which Robinson has spoken since his appointment. I was expecting every issue in the side to be addressed immediately, not least given the fact that requires a transfer window, but I was hopeful there would be some kind of confidence boost among the group.
The backline flat footed, with Reeves enjoying himself far too much, the ball retention in the centre very poor, the decision making from the wide men letting down some promising runs, and Ajose having a very disappointing day in attack. Collectively, and as individuals, it wasn’t quite clicking.
But, as a collective and as individuals, there was a reasonable amount of improvement during the second half. Not to the extent that the Addicks performed at a pleasing level for the duration of the half, but there were certainly periods where they either showed the composure that was absent during the first period, or looked reasonably threatening.
Dons the better side in the context of the whole game and, in that stoppage-time scramble, creating the game’s best chance, but Charlton did enough in that second period to score. Whether a win would have been warranted given the nature of the performance is questionable, but there was certainly more pleasing attacking intent in the second period.
It still, however, quite apparent to improve this side, and to have it playing the sort of football that he ideally would like, there is a great deal of work for Robinson to do.