A new year, and a fresh start for Charlton Athletic? An opportunity to completely disregard the events of what has arguably been the worst year in this club’s recent history, and move on? Forget 2016, and embrace 2017?
Alas, that’s neither how football nor life works. Even Monday’s fixture against Bristol Rovers, the first to be played in 2017, is more intrinsically linked to the previous few weeks then the starting of a fresh calendar.
For it is the final game of the festive period of fixtures. A set of five games that was, in theory, to define Charlton’s season. A set of five games that was, in theory, to define Karl Robinson’s reign as boss in SE7. A set of five games, with four of them against play-off chasing sides, that would offer strong evidence as to whether the Addicks could challenge for the top six this season.
The first four of those five games, however, not quite having the definitive impact craved. Four points from four games not enough to throw Charlton back into the play-off picture, unconvincing performances both in defeat and victory not enough to define Robinson’s reign as having the potential to be revolutionary, and the general picture heading into this new year a rather cloudy one.
A cloudy picture without even considering the mist that Roland Duchatelet’s regime has covered The Valley with in recent years, and will no doubt remain heading into 2017. The unknowns that exist surrounding transfer activity, the return to fitness of key players, and just how well Robinson can blend the current group with the additions he’d like to make to it.
But before the full effect January might have can take place, the current side, performing indifferently under Robinson, faces one more test. The need to secure victory against an extremely competitive Bristol Rovers side, and push those more questionable efforts to the back of minds.
A definitive and confident victory craved among a set of supporters who don’t have many definitive answers to their questions at present. Though, in truth, any sort of win will probably do.
LAST MEETING – BRISTOL ROVERS 1-5 CHARLTON ATHLETIC (22/11/2016)
Though the Addicks were led by Kevin Nugent at the Memorial Stadium, could they have some kind of psychological advantage over their opponents on Monday as a consequence of the heavy defeat they inflicted on Bristol Rovers in November?
At the very least, it not so simple to forget such a unique game. The Addicks emphatic in their attacking play after the break, and capitalising on a capitulating Rovers side.
Every chance the game could have gone either way up until the latter stages of the first half, with the hosts putting plenty of pressure on Dillon Phillips’ goal as they looked to respond to Ademola Lookman’s 26th minute opener. The young goalkeeper, on his Charlton league debut, defiant.
Phillips’ efforts, therefore, worth double when Josh Magennis turned in Adam Chicksen’s low cross with a minute remaining before the break. Three points all but sealed for the Addicks.
And if they weren’t sealed before the break, they certainly were five minutes after it. Patrick Bauer’s emphatic header from a Lookman corner giving Nugent’s side a third.
Few would have criticised if the Addicks had played within themselves for the remaining 40 minutes, but instead they searched for more goals with real intent. The fourth coming when Chicksen’s deflected effort looped over hapless goalkeeper Kelle Roos, with the fifth following as Nicky Ajose struck into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.
A small blot on this perfect performance as Phillips was penalised for hauling down Rory Gaffney inside the box, and Matt Taylor stepped up to convert the spot kick, but this an emphatic victory. An emphatic victory witnessed by the set-to-be appointed manager Robinson, who watched from the stands.
Bristol Rovers: WWLWLL
There was, with good reason, concern that the 5-1 defeat at the Memorial Stadium in November would spark the end of Bristol Rovers’ flirtation with the top six and, as such, a third successive promotion.
For not only was that defeat in isolation a crushing and demoralising experience, it was followed by two further unpleasant results. A 3-2 loss at relegation-threatened Chesterfield, before non-league Barrow inflicted embarrassment on the Gas with a 2-1 win at the Memorial Stadium.
But three victories, and convincing victories at that, in the following four games have followed to leave Rovers just two points off the play-off places.
Largely the consequence of Matty Taylor’s goals, with his 17th and 18th goals of the campaign giving the Gas a 2-0 win over AFC Wimbledon on Saturday, and the impressive home form of Darrell Clarke’s side.
That home form impressive partly because it has to be. No away victory for Rovers since a 2-0 win at Oldham Athletic at the back end of October.
When the whole picture is taken into account, 2016 concluded in dreadful fashion for the Addicks. Arguably the worst year in the club’s recent history finishing with Charlton among the also-rans of League One, a fair distance back from the play-offs, and in an overall state of turmoil.
But, in isolation, the final moment of 2016 was quite the enjoyable one. Having at times looking set to concede a second to Southend United, while also persistently threatening the Shrimpers’ goal during the second half, there was great relief and joy as Andrew Crofts struck an equaliser in the game’s 89th minute.
A game that Southend, who led for 65 minutes, had amble opportunity to kill off, but one in which the efforts of the Addicks warranted an equaliser. If not as a collective, than certainly through the determination of Dillon Phillips, and the quality of 19-year-old Joe Aribo on his first Football League start.
Though there little getting away from the fact the Addicks are a long way off where they need to be, with six points and six teams separating them from a play-off place. The consequence of an indifferent season and, in the short-term, a rather disappointing festive period that has seen dire displays against Peterborough United and Millwall.
Crofts’ equaliser the foundation from which improvement can be made? We’ve been here before, but improvement is most certainly needed in 2017.
Rovers will remain without defender Jake Clarke-Salter, who is still recovering from an injury sustained during the defeat to Charlton in November.
But Clarke has a fully-fit squad to choose from otherwise, with numbers boosted further by the recent return of long-term absentees Liam Lawrence and Lee Mansell.
As such, rotation for the trip to The Valley is a possibility. Cristian Montano replaced by Byron Moore after 59 minutes at the weekend, and that a change that could be made from the start on Monday, while Stuart Sinclair, who has made 20 starts this season, was left out of the matchday squad altogether and will be hoping for a recall.
Rory Gaffney, Charlie Colkett and Jermaine Easter will also be hoping to take advantage of the possible need to freshen up the side with two games in quick succession.
Jay Dasilva, having officially signed on loan from Chelsea with the opening of the transfer window on Sunday, is in line for his first Charlton appearance against Rovers.
The 18-year-old, who is equally suited to play on the left side of defence and midfield, is likely to replace the out of form Morgan Fox. Whether Dasilva simply replaces Fox at full-back, or the youngster pushes forward with Adam Chicksen dropping into defence, remains to be seen.
But Tony Watt, who has had his loan at Hearts cancelled by the Scottish club, is unlikely to feature. It would appear that the two-week gap between fixtures after Monday will be used to test the Scot’s commitment to the club, and allow him to prove his worth to an unconvinced Robinson.
So too are Charlton supporters unlikely to see Lookman, with the youngster left out due to ‘illness’ on Saturday, but more unavailable as a consequence of his impending transfer to Everton.
He’ll be joined in the long list of unavailable players by Declan Rudd (hip), Chris Solly (knee), Jason Pearce (groin), Johnnie Jackson (groin), Ricky Holmes (foot), Ahmed Kashi (Achilles) and Lee Novak (knee).
KEY BATTLE – FITNESS AND FATIGUE
A left-back played on the left wing. Roger Johnson and Harry Lennon warmed up while Patrick Bauer received treatment. Karlan Ahearne-Grant and Joshua Umerah were introduced while the Addicks were chasing the game.
The lack of bodies available to Robinson on Saturday, the consequence of a small squad suffering something of an injury crisis, blatantly obvious. A situation not helped by Lookman’s ‘unavailability’.
A manageable situation at Southend, with those players that were handed a start all relatively fresh, but possibly more troublesome when Bristol Rovers are welcomed to The Valley just two days later.
The introduction of Jay Dasilva aside, there’s no real possibly of Robinson making changes to his starting XI without seriously weakening it.
By contrast, Clarke has alternatives from front to back who can all perform as adequately as those they might replace. Not just in terms of rotation from the start, but also important as players tire in the closing stages. Rovers able to bring on players of League One quality as the game draws to a conclusion; Charlton clutching at straws.
And so Charlton’s chances of a positive result depends as much on an ability to maintain fitness and avoid fatigue as much as it does on an ability to deliver a positive performance.
A sluggish, unconvincing end to the festive period, and as such a similar start to 2017. Charlton Athletic 1-1 Bristol Rovers