There a sense in the latter stages of the second period, among those Charlton Athletic supporters who occupied the Roots Hall away end, that the efforts of Dillon Phillips and Joe Aribo would ultimately be futile.
Phillips marvellous in the Charlton goal, denying an attack-minded Southend United on several occasions. An outstanding fingertip save to prevent Anthony Wordsworth from scoring the highlight of an excellent display of shot-stopping.
Aribo, on his full league debut, composed, dynamic, and creative in the centre of midfield. No sense at all that the teenager was overawed, as he carried the ball forward with intent and attempted to create for a team still lacking in cohesion and fluency.
But it appeared a Southend goal, scored 24 minutes into the first half as Karl Robinson’s men struggled to make an impression in the opening 45, would be enough to send Phillips, Aribo and all of Charlton’s side and supporters back to South East London without any reward.
Simon Cox, not properly pressured by Josh Magennis, allowed to squirm into space inside the penalty box following a corner that wasn’t dealt with, and finish with all the composure of the experienced forward the former Nottingham Forest man is.
The Addicks second best, and deserving of at least the punishment Cox provided. It hard to argue, come half-time, that Phil Brown’s men hadn’t done enough to warrant a larger advantage.
So when the visitors responded in the second period, as Southend shot-stopper Ted Smith was called into action on several occasions, those in the away end had their own goalkeeper to thank for such pressure still being meaningful.
A game that, on several occasions, should have been put to bed by the Shrimpers, and would have been had it not been for Phillips, along with the occasional bit of Southend wastefulness in front of goal.
It meant that Charlton’s attacking efforts still stood to produce reward. That pressure was still being placed on Southend, and there always a chance of an equaliser despite what appeared a reasonably large gap between the two sides. That Aribo’s quality, including an effort that struck the crossbar, mattered.
But as full-time approached, hope was fading. The visitors lacking something definitive in the final third, and the hosts always threatening on the break. A second Southend goal as likely as a Charlton equaliser, though the advantage the Shrimpers already had appeared enough.
Enough until Aribo found space on the edge of Southend’s area, and found the delivery of real quality that he and his teammates had not been able to produce for much of the afternoon. Andrew Crofts connecting, and volleying home via the crossbar in the game’s 89th minute. Unexpected scenes of joy and relief in a packed away end.
A fair conclusion? Maybe not. Maybe Southend should have killed the game off long before Crofts’ strike bounced back off the bar.
But, if not simply reward for the increase in pressure during the second period, then this an equaliser that Phillips’ determination and Aribo’s drive warranted.
A full league debut for 19-year-old Aribo, but the absence of another teenager claiming the bulk of the attention as the team news was released at Roots Hall.
Following a week of speculation, suggesting Ademola Lookman would be joining Everton upon the opening of the transfer window, the highly-rated winger was not involved in the squad. Illness the official line, but quite apparent this absence would become a permanent one.
Lookman replaced in the starting XI by Adam Chicksen, while Aribo’s opportunity coming as a result of the groin injury that was keeping Johnnie Jackson out of the side. The skipper, instead, offering coaching assistance during the warm-up.
His assistance, however, not enough to prevent an erratic start to the game from the Addicks. Not one that left you longing for Lookman, with Aribo already making a positive impression as Charlton looked to get forward, but one that increased concern with the reliability of the back four.
Magennis heading over from Nicky Ajose’s delivery, before Fox was very fortunate not to be punished having cheaply conceded possession to Will Atkinson deep inside his own half. An early sign of the intensity to be found in Southend’s midfield.
Intensity that meant the Addicks were struggling to put a proper impression on this game in its opening stages. Those in blue first to loose balls, while those in red were far too generous in their conceding of possession. Robinson’s men not without the quality that allowed them to push forward, but finding it difficult to settle.
The positive response from the away end, packed and attempting to make their voices heard above a vocal home support, to Ajose volleying a half-cleared corner back towards the hands of Smith suggested this might be the moment where Charlton finally started to settle. But the visiting Addicks would be flushed with panic barely a minute later.
Stephen McLaughlin allowed far too much time and space as he drove through the centre of midfield, leaving the Irishman to try his luck from 25 yards without a red shirt applying any pressure whatsoever. Phillips beaten, and the ball flashing narrowly past his far post.
A wake-up call? Possibly. Signs of encouragement still being offered in and around the opposition’s penalty box, as fantastic hold-up play from Magennis was followed by a clever turn and shot on his weaker left foot. Smith, initially unsighted, getting down well to keep out the attempt.
Alas, the qualities and cohesion being shown when the side were without the ball remained troublesome. Too easily were they carrying the ball through midfield, while the wide areas, with an out of position Ezri Konsa and an out of form Fox, were being heavily exploited. A free-kick won by McLaughlin in one such attempt to burst down the left flank, though enough pressure was applied to Ryan Leonard in the centre to prevent his resulting header from testing Phillips.
It was, however, merely a pre-curser for the defensive failings that were to follow, which were to be more significantly punished. McLaughlin troublesome again, and Konsa forced into conceding a corner, from which Charlton’s defending was indecisive.
Cox ultimately able to hold up the ball inside the box, despite having Magennis on his back, take several touches to turn towards goal, and fire beyond a sea of bodies into the bottom corner to give the hosts a 24th minute lead. Well taken, no question, but this a goal that could have so easily been prevented.
The Addicks who occupied the away end loyal and willing to give up part of their New Year’s Eve to support their side, but it no wonder frustration was obvious from the moment Cox sprinted away in celebration. Gifting a side an opener who came into the game without defeat in 11 was simply not acceptable.
An immediate response, therefore, desperately required. Aribo had been linking up nicely with Fox and Chicksen on the left for much of the half, and found a way into the box with their assistance just beyond the half hour. A fingertip from Smith needed to make sure his effort across the face of goal veered off-target.
But what Aribo was producing, beyond expectation for someone so young and inexperienced, was in contrast to the rest of a side that had grown increasingly sluggish and sloppy. Defensive errors being repeated, as Michael Timlin was allowed to burst forward unchallenged, though thankfully firing more comfortably off-target, before a horrid effort from Fox resulted in boos from the away end.
Half-time approaching and, as such, a longing for the interval growing. An improvement in intensity, organisation and fluency would see the Addicks compete, but it felt that was not going to happen while they continued to perform so erratically, and with heads low, in what remained of the first period.
And so, two saves from Phillips prior to the break proved particularly important in the context of this game. Southend prevented from making their lead insurmountable by the fingertips and palms of this young goalkeeper, and meaning the Addicks could reappear for the second period knowing their deficit was only one.
First, the young shot-stopper saved superbly from Wordsworth’s goalbound effort. A reflex dive, responding to the emphatic strike from just outside the area, and an extended arm doing just enough to tip the ball around the post.
Appreciation from the travelling supporters, though little from his teammates, who might well have known their goalkeeper’s task was not yet done in this half. Cox again able to create space for himself just inside Charlton’s box, volleying towards the bottom corner. A more comfortable save from the 21-year-old, but a strong and important save nonetheless.
If not the determination of their goalkeeper, then the boos that serenaded the Addicks as they left the pitch at half-time provided a reminder to those in red that improvement was required. For themselves, to get back into this encounter, and to reward supporters and hard-working teammates alike. Ulvestad’s horribly wayward effort seconds into the start of the second period not quite what was in mind.
More promising was, after Aribo had drawn a foul from Timlin, Ajose’s free-kick delivery to the back post. An unmarked Teixeira awaited, seemingly set to equalise for the Addicks, but his first time dab towards goal had too much loft behind it, and was helped on its path over the bar by the fingertips of Smith. Promising, but so too a real wasted opening.
A wasted opening that should have been made even more costly when Southend next attacked. Dire, dire defending from the Addicks resulting in the ball falling to an unchallenged McLaughlin inside the box. Opting for power rather than placement, the Irishman’s effort canned back off the far post when it seemed easier to score.
So with Southend still carrying the same threat, or Charlton still showing concerning signs defensively, but the Addicks looking more threatening in attack, it felt that the cliché of the next goal would almost certainly prove match-defining. Ulvestad’s flighted effort from the edge of the box looked destined for the back of the net, but still the fingertips of Smith had other ideas.
And from the resulting corner, there was more frustration, as Fox was left with his head in his hands after the cleanest contact he had made with a ball all afternoon resulted in a volleyed effort well-saved by the increasingly defiant Smith. You could no longer question Charlton’s intensity or cohesion, as you might have done in the opening 45, but there was no reward for this improvement.
In fact, there a feeling that this improvement would ultimately go completely unrewarded as more marvellous work from the feet of Aribo saw his curling effort strike the crossbar. Though the Addicks probably should have been trailing by more than one, you still had the impression that this wasn’t to be Charlton’s day.
At least Anton Ferdinand was able to provide some light relief. Having won a free-kick by his own corner flag, having been barged by Magennis, a Charlton supporter pointed out that he is “just a shit Rio”. A comment the younger Ferdinand brother has clearly heard many times before, turning to the away end with a smirk, saying “I know”, and getting a high five off teammate Atkinson.
More welcome relief, however, would have come in the shape of Ferdinand’s defence crumbling and a goal being scored.
Though as stoppage-time drew closer, and the away end began to mix subdued emotions with anti-Duchatelet chants, it seemed that a second Southend goal was the more likely outcome.
A Charlton body and Phillips’ fingertips were required to prevent the net from rippling, but Atkinson would have felt extremely disappointed not to have finished from deep inside the box following a cut-back, while half of Roots Hall were celebrating before Marc-Antoine Fortune had made contact with the ball, such was the belief that the forward would score, and not nod wide. Southend again wasting excellent chances to kill the game off.
And so, though they could feel frustrated by Phillips’ brilliance, the Shrimpers could feel no sense of injustice as Aribo delivered from the edge of the box in the game’s 89th minute.
Crofts, popping up at a vital time to score his first Charlton goal, connecting emphatically with the cross, and volleying beyond Smith with the assistance of the crossbar.
The celebrations suggesting that, in the week that Duchatelet’s latest words of wisdom implied creating a social event was more important than delivering success, those in the away end were relatively pleased with their brief moment of success.
The briefest moment of joy and relief to end this torrid year on.
An argument, of course, that this brief moment of joy was achieved in fortuitous circumstances. There no doubt that, on several occasions, Southend should have taken advantage of lacklustre Charlton defending to double their lead. Victory for the Shrimpers would not have been an injustice.
But so too is there as strong an argument that those celebrations that followed Crofts’ goal came as a consequence of collective determination and individual quality within the Charlton side.
The Addicks something of a mess in the first half, and with no attacking quality to mask the extent of their defensive chaos. And though defensive improvements were not seen too heavily, the attacking intent and determination that appeared after the interval enough to suggest the visitors had threatened enough to warrant scoring.
So too did the individual performances of Phillips and Aribo warrant rewarding. Nurtured talents, in their first season of League football, offering wonderful determination with fantastic saves, and quality creative play both with the match-saving assist and in general.
Always greater pleasure to be taken in performances of homegrown players at a time when the club is controlled by a regime intent on stripping all sense of connection that exists between supporters and club.
Regardless, whether a fortuitous point or not, it’s a point worth taking. Away at an in-form side, this a result that may have exceeded the expectations of many. And provided a wonderful moment of celebration.
Alas, there is not getting away from the fact that that moment of celebration was merely a brief one. A brief one to end a torrid year. The reality, in addition to the disconnection and anger created by a poisonous regime, is that the Addicks sit among League One’s also-rans, a long way off the play-offs, and a long way from being the finished article under Robinson.
A performance that had encouraging aspects to it, maybe more so than in the victory over MK Dons, but so too a performance that featured repetitive mistakes, defensive uncertainty, and a familiar lack of cohesion and fluency at times.
Nonetheless, these gritty results do provide a base. A base that, once Robinson’s side has had bodies taken from it, bodies added to it, and functioning bodies returned to it, will hopefully be built from.