As another body belonging to a Charlton Athletic man lost its ability to function just four minutes into the clash with Bradford City, a collective sense of low expectation in the away end was replaced by an acceptance that the worst was to follow at Valley Parade.
Jason Pearce’s injury meaning that Karl Robinson, in his first league game in charge, would see his side play for 86 minutes without six regular starters, and surely struggle to compete with opposition who were yet to suffer a league defeat at home this campaign.
And by half-time, predictable emotions of frustration and regret, after an opening period where the visiting supporters had found themselves crippled by despair on several occasions, were pungent.
But these emotions were not born out of Charlton’s failings. They came as a consequence of the tireless Addicks somehow not having the advantage despite creating numerous chances through both quality and courage. The unplayable Josh Magennis bizarrely not awarded a penalty after being hauled down inside the box, before the Northern Ireland international struck the inside of the post and had an effort cleared off the line.
Where these emotions have existed previously, the Addicks have been booed off the field at the break in disgrace. On this occasion, they were applauded and passionately encouraged. The wasted openings constantly replaying in the mind, but there no denying that, particularly in the circumstances, this was an effort to be proud of.
And come full-time, that pride still existed, but over a very different type of effort. A determined fight, utilising energy resources that appeared empty, holding off Bradford’s persistent second-half threat.
Threat that the Bantams could impose as a consequence of Robinson’s side tiring, and simply not having the energy to maintain their dynamic and high-intensity first-half performance. The hosts dictating, first to loose balls, and would have taken the lead were it not for Dillon Phillips superbly saving from Jordi Hiwula.
In fact, if the first half was about dynamic play and Josh Magennis, the second was about desperate defensive efforts and Dillon Phillips. The Addicks rarely out their own half, but the drained bodies in purple continued to find ways to frustrate their opponents, and the goalkeeper did if those in front of him didn’t.
The final test of Charlton’s strength of character and resoluteness coming at the start of stoppage-time as Patrick Bauer blocked off Marc McNulty’s run and received a second yellow card. Bodies thrown in front of Bradford shots and Lee Novak appearing inside his own box to clear the ball in no-nonsense fashion, but somehow the Addicks survived.
Survived to receive the applause and appreciation their efforts, both their dominant first-half display and their determined second-half fight, warranted.
A game that some will feel frustrated not to have won, and a game that some will fortunate not to have lost, but there no argument over the quality and character of this Charlton performance.
A performance in contrast to what many, quite rationally, feared prior to kick-off at Valley Parade. A capitulation anticipated, with the depleted Addicks unable to prevent Bradford from taken advantage of the side’s relative weakness.
The absence of Declan Rudd, Chris Solly, Morgan Fox, Ademola Lookman and Ricky Holmes meant Robinson’s starting XI for his first league game in charge was a somewhat cobbled together collection of those available to him. The inexperienced Phillips again in goal, Adam Chicksen coming in at left-back, while Nicky Ajose, Jordan Botaka and Novak formed a trio that sat behind Magennis and interchanged.
Defensive competence and attacking threat evidently not absent, but fielding a scrambled together unit, particularly during a period of transition, away at a side yet to suffer defeat at home was hardly ideal.
The opening moments doing little to provide reassurance. A vital header required from Bauer to prevent James Hanson converting a testing Mark Marshall delivery at the back post, before attentions turned to the sight of Pearce lying lame.
The centre-back attempting to continue, but ending his courageous effort by the time the ball had next gone out of play, clutching his groin as he hobbled off. Jorge Teixeira, making his first league appearance of the season, the man Robinson entrusted to replace the dependable Pearce.
But whether it came as a result of the enforced alteration or not, there was definitely a concerning lack of structure and resoluteness in Charlton’s backline as the game got back underway. Hanson allowed to take the ball down, spin, and shoot inside the area, with Phillips required to turn the effort behind, before Andrew Crofts’s intervention blocked what appeared a goal-bound header from the imposing forward following the resulting corner.
An unconvincing start, but one that was immediately contrasted by the directness and energy in Charlton’s forward play.
Nat Knight-Percival and Roman Vincelot evidently not comfortable with having to contend with Magennis, to the extent that the former felt obliged to haul the forward down after he’d shown great strength to get beyond him and break into the box. The Northern Ireland international quite clearly dragged to the floor in illegal fashion, but no penalty awarded.
Dismayed by the decision, but not allowing it to have a detrimental impact on him, Magennis found himself in almost exactly the same position less than five minutes later. This time, having rounded two markers, with a clear advantage on the Bradford backline and able to fire a fierce strike across the face of goal. The away end already celebrating, before the ball bounced back off the post and agonisingly rolled back across the line.
Robinson from hands raised to hands on head, and the visiting supporters briefly silenced. This, in a game where it was anticipated the Addicks would create few chances, was a gut-wrenching moment.
But so too was it one that not only motivated those in the away end to utilise their vocal cords, but motivated the Addicks to place a rather shell-shocked set of Bantams under further pressure. Jordan Botaka’s quick feet and trickery getting him a yard of space down the right, only for his delivery to be half-blocked by James Meredith, and loop onto the top of Colin Doyle’s crossbar.
The crossbar then cleared, but only by a fraction, as marvellous work from a much-improved Ajose saw him cross for the head of the unstoppable Magennis. The ball settling on the roof of the net, as Charlton began to wonder when their pressure would finally tell, and Bradford defenders looked at each other in bemusement.
There no doubt that the hosts were rattled. Completely rattled. So rattled that Knight-Percival showed no composure on the ball whatsoever, and was dispossessed by a determined Novak just outside the Bradford box.
The forward breaking down the right, cleverly pulling the ball back to an unmarked Magennis, and the Northern Ireland international again sparking premature celebrations in the away end as his strike beat Doyle. Stephen Darby, however, had positioned himself on the line, and managed to clear, with Crofts’ follow-up disappearing into the Addicks occupying the upper tier.
In the circumstances, it almost felt greedy, but this was excruciatingly painful. A battle between applauding the outstanding effort, or simply curling up in a ball and crying in despair and frustration.
The worry, of course, being that failing to take one of these glorious openings, largely through misfortune than poor finishing, would ultimately come back to haunt the Addicks. Josh Cullen’s strike, allowed to bomb forward and flash an effort just beyond Phillips’ post, a reminder of the threat that Bradford still posed.
It not, however, a strike that altered the game’s momentum. While Charlton’s football had been fluid, knocking the ball around nicely and utilising the flanks, there biggest threat remained a punt in the general direction of Magennis.
Bradford’s centre-back pairing assuming a bouncing ball was heading to straight into Doyle’s palms, but Magennis nodded the ball on before the goalkeeper could claim it. There not quite enough on the initial header to send it over the line, while the forward couldn’t get proper contact on the ball as Doyle scrambled to reclaim it from his feet. Heads in hands once again.
Heads that would remain in hands for the remaining ten minutes of the half, as Bradford finally found a touch of quality and composure, and began to seriously threaten. The thought that they could punish Charlton’s wastefulness seemingly providing a greater sense of jeopardy, as the lively Marshall crossed for Nicky Law to pull an excellent opening wide.
That coming before Law turned provider for a chance as clear-cut as anything the Addicks had created. Hiwula sent through on goal, one-on-one with Phillips, only for the goalkeeper to deny the forward in superb fashion.
Enough to prevent McCall’s side from making anything of their late first-half resurgence, and maybe enough to make those in the away end more readily accept the stalemate. But there no doubt, as the Addicks were given the passionate applause off the pitch their superb performance and display of character warranted, those wasted opportunities were weighing heavy.
Despite the pre-game expectations, it was hard not to feel disappointed that Robinson’s men had not got the reward they deserved and found themselves ahead at the break.
Robinson, however, desperate for those wasted chances not to have any impact on the result. An inspiring gesture to the away end as he appeared after the interval, and his side subsequently inspired by the roar of the visiting supporters.
A bright enough start from the visitors following. Botaka, whose decision making had frustrated in the opening period, took aim from distance and forced Doyle into a very good save low down to his left, before Novak volleyed Ajose’s delivery well off-target.
But it soon became apparent the second period would not simply be a repeat of the first. Partly a result of Bradford improving going forward, with Marshall becoming a real threat and chances beginning to fall to Hiwula. The latter’s effort from the edge of the box flashing wide by the narrowest of margins with Phillips stranded.
The more telling difference, however, was the decline in energy and intensity among the Addicks. Not a conscious decision to take their foot off the gas, but seemingly a result of physical tiredness. A side not used to playing Robinson’s brand of football, and unable to maintain it for the duration of the game.
Not only did it mean the creation of chances was restricted, with Charlton looking slow and sloppy in the final third, but it allowed Bradford to have much more time on the ball. The Addicks not pressing with the energy they did in the opening 45, and the Bantams allowed to appear more composed and controlled in their play.
And so, when Marshall played Hiwula through on the hour, it appeared as if that difference was now about to be shown in the scoreline. The forward again only having Phillips to beat, but failing to beat Phillips. A stunning save from the young goalkeeper, diving to his right and turning the ball away.
With 30 minutes remaining, it was apparent a determined effort from the Addicks would be required to come away from Valley Parade with a point. The disappointment of wasting those earlier chances now replaced by concern that the visitors were appearing a little defensively weak, as Meredith prodded a low Dieng delivery into the hands of Phillips, before the goalkeeper held a fierce Hanson header. Nervy.
But while it was apparent Bradford were now comfortably on top, and the Addicks were running on empty, you could not fault their effort. There not a single player in purple giving their absolute all to halt the Bantams’ forward moves, and their display of fight most inspiring and encouraging.
Not that it was enough to prevent the hosts from creating further openings, with Hiwula again close as he drove forward and dragged an effort just wide. You could more accurately accuse the forward of wastefulness, but his misfortune in front of goal was rivalling Magennis’.
And maybe, given the ease with which Bradford were finding themselves in Charlton’s third of the pitch, you could accuse them of tameness in their forward play. Chicksen and Ezri Konsa doing a sterling job of halting the Bantams down either flank, and Phillips claiming crosses with composure beyond his years.
Even when a cross picked out its intended target, there was a shattered body thrown in front of the ball. The introduction of a slightly fresher set of legs, belonging to Johnnie Jackson, also proving useful, with the skipper doing well to block a Law strike.
There no doubt that, despite this persistent pressure, the Addicks had done enough to warrant their point. A wasted break, that resulted in a tame effort from Botaka, probably reinforcing the idea that feeling more than a point was deserved was now slightly misplaced, but this courageous and determined defensive effort did not warrant punishment.
A brief moment of agony, therefore, when substitute Filipe Morais overhit a cross, and forced Phillips to scramble back and tip the ball just wide. To have conceded in any fashion would have been heartbreaking, but not least like that.
If nothing else, it offered a reminder that, as stoppage-time approached, the point was not yet Charlton’s. A fact reaffirmed as McNulty’s attempt to break through on goal was rather crudely halted by Bauer. A second yellow card for the German, and four additional minutes to play with ten men, and without the heart of the defence.
Panic in the away end, and so too appearing in Charlton’s box as the resulting free-kick was delivered. Bodies thrown in front of the ball as a scramble ensued, before Chicksen managed to take the ball out wide and clear. An unbearable few minutes promised.
But, to their immense credit, and with the assistance of a few defensive interventions from Novak, the Addicks found a way to maintain the point that their fight had most certainly deserved. It would have been wrong to celebrate come full-time, given the nature of the first-half, but there was certainly joy, relief, and pride in both the result and performance among those in the away end.
A point, that could have reasonably been three, achieved against the odds. A side showing quality and then character. Robinson’s start to league management as an Addick encouraging, and he and his men appreciated accordingly.
In the emotion that followed the full-time whistle, there no doubt that this was an effort and result to be applauded. Each hard-working member of Charlton’s side worthy of praise.
Bauer’s dismissal not taking away from a typically solid effort, with Teixeira alongside also showing remarkable composure and resilience given his lack of first-team football this season. Konsa and Chicksen as defensive a full-back pairing in a Charlton side as there has been for some time, but both doing a sensible and resolute job of keeping Bradford’s pacey wide men at bay.
In midfield, Crofts and Fredrik Ulvestad’s influence decreased massively after half-time, with the hosts really taking control in the centre, but they were creative in the opening 45, and determined in their efforts to break up play thereafter.
Botaka, whose ability obvious but brains less so, frustrated on occasions and arguably the only Addick who didn’t quite commit himself in the second half, but still managed to create with his quick feet, while Ajose and Novak, despite their natural roles as forwards, worked hard in all areas of the pitch.
Even the supporters, mixing determined support, passionate chanting, and vocal anti-regime numbers, deserved immense credit. This an afternoon to feel good about.
But it is Phillips and Magennis who take the bulk of the praise. The latter making numerous saves to prevent the Bantams from altering the course of the contest, and Magennis simply unplayable in a first half were luck deserted him in front of goal. On another day, the efforts of the two might well have combined to give Robinson’s men victory.
On reflection, however, you do have to ask whether it’s a slight disappointment that that victory wasn’t recorded. That Magennis didn’t have the officials, or fortune, on his side. That an unlikely three points weren’t stolen from a game where the pre-match expectation was that nothing would be gained.
The answer is, truthfully, that it probably is. Just simply as a consequence of how many clear-cut chances were created, and how impressive Charlton’s high-intensity play was for much of the first-half. The Addicks in tune with Robinson’s thinking, if not able to carry it out for 90 minutes.
But that takes absolutely nothing away from either the first-half or the second-half performance. For the Addicks could not have done more in their efforts to win the game during the first period, and could not have done more in their efforts to fight for a point during the second.
In fact, it really not worth considering the league table after today. For that we’ve fallen further behind the play-offs is not the sort of reward that is warranted for such an effort. Instead, such an effort should simply be appreciated.
If nothing else, it’s a new manager getting both class and committed performances out of his side in the same game, gaining a point in adversity, and potentially laying a foundation.