Incredible joy, and celebrations of real emotion, among regular attendees at The Valley as Bristol Rovers were beaten with a second-half performance as good as any seen in SE7 for several seasons. Great pride, and equally passionate scenes of celebration, among the home supporters at The Den as Premier League Bournemouth were knocked out of the FA Cup.
Both Charlton Athletic and Millwall enjoyed marvellous victories in the game preceding this South East London derby, with rivalry renewed less than a month after the two sides last met.
It an odd situation, therefore, that battles on the pitch are not the most important to be won by either club at present. Charlton supporters still seeking to remove Roland Duchatelet’s damaging regime, while Millwall fans are fighting to protect The Den, and prevent Lewisham Council selling land around the ground which would effectively force the club away from its home and its community.
Important battles that simply must be won to not only protect the future of these two South East London rivals, but also their identities. Identities that are so important in creating bonds between supporters and clubs, and bonds between the clubs and their communities.
But they will be pushed to one side once the game commences at The Valley this weekend. The only focus from each set of supporters being a desperation for their side to perform with intensity, pride and quality. To perform in the manner expected in a derby fixture.
The Lions have their almost unblemished record against their neighbours since 1996 to protect, while the Addicks not only need to respond to December’s humiliating defeat, but the many humiliating efforts in this derby fixture prior to that.
Battles to be won elsewhere but, for 90 minutes on Saturday, no victory will be sought as desperately as the one to be earned from this encounter.
LAST MEETING – MILLWALL 3-1 CHARLTON ATHLETIC (21/12/2016)
The Den the setting for many horrific moments in Charlton’s recent history, and this pre-Christmas effort in Bermondsey as gruesome as any that have gone before. Quality, composure and character among the many absent assets as the Addicks were left embarrassed by a determined group of Lions.
After an opening 40 minutes lacking quality or creativity, it was Millwall, most definitely the more competent of the two sides during the period of sluggishness, who gained the advantage. Shaun Cummings allowed space to cross, and Aiden O’Brien converting with a firm header.
The goal doing more damage than merely putting the Addicks one behind, with slumped bodies losing concentration and composure. Desperately poor defending resulting in Ben Thompson being able to knock a ball into the box, Ezri Konsa slipping, and Steve Morison free to emphatically volley beyond Dillon Phillips. Understandably, there really anger in the boos for Karl Robinson’s side at half-time.
An encouraging start to the second period, therefore, required. And it was managed, with Nicky Ajose finishing well from close range to give the visitors some hope. The away end lifted, energy among those on the pitch.
But that hope lasted little more than ten minutes. The two-goal advantage regained by Millwall on the hour, as more horrendously weak defending effectively invited Morison to score his second. Pathetic.
The least the Addicks could do was offer some fight in the remaining half hour, but their effort gutless. An escape straight down the tunnel by the majority of those in red come full-time, avoiding their rightfully angered supporters, equally so.
Another grim encounter at The Den. Another grim encounter against Millwall.
Having lingered among League One’s also-rans for much of the season, showing some positive signs but struggling to string a run of results together that would allow them to flirt with the top six, Millwall’s recent form has left them just two points from the play-offs.
The Lions winning three of their previous four League One games, including that emphatic victory over the Addicks in December, and seven of their last 12. Neil Harris, previously struggling to get his side to replicate their efforts of last season which saw them reach the play-off final, seemingly getting his side back on the right track.
Only a three-point advantage over the Addicks in the League One table, but their confidence and form makes it appear a larger one than that. Confidence that will have gone through the roof after defeating Premier League Bournemouth in the FA Cup last weekend.
Nonetheless, it would appear recent results will be meaningless to Harris if his side can’t claim victory at The Valley.
“I would swap this victory for a win at Charlton, that’s how big it is,” said the Millwall boss having just witnessed his side defeat the Cherries. There no surprise that he’s up for this.
The collective effort of a side playing with the sort of energy and intensity that had not previously been seen under Robinson’s stewardship. The brilliance of young Joe Aribo, with the 19-year-old providing three assists. The stunning hat-trick scored by Josh Magennis, as part of an individual performance as good as any seen at The Valley in recent years.
And that all part of a team performance as good as any seen at The Valley in recent years. The second-half display against Bristol Rovers sublime, earning the Addicks a 4-1 victory that did not at all flatter. A quite breath-taking response to a dire first-half effort.
The points needed, to keep the Addicks within realistic reach of the top six, but the performance arguably needed more so. Four points claimed prior to the Rovers win, with a sluggish victory against MK Dons in a dire game and a last minute equaliser required to snatch something at Southend, but nothing emphatic enough to rid the embarrassing defeats to Peterborough and Millwall from memory.
A performance which showed what Robinson’s Charlton are capable of, and has created a sense of optimism. Optimism extended by the freshening up of an understaffed squad, but optimism that has existed previously this season, and so often crushed with disappointing results following.
And so, in a run of incredibly tough fixtures that includes games against Scunthorpe, Bolton and Rochdale in addition to Saturday’s battle with the Lions, Robinson’s men have the chance to prove themselves. To prove the Rovers win wasn’t a one off, and performances of that nature can be repeated.
A season defining period awaits.
Harris has named an unchanged starting XI for his side’s previous five fixtures, and changes are unlikely with no injury concerns for the Millwall boss to deal with.
That despite Shane Ferguson coming off the bench last weekend to score the Lions’ third against Bournemouth. The winger will be pushing for a starting spot, but is unlikely to dislodge O’Brien.
While Robinson has made additions to his squad over the previous week and a half, the news that Ricky Holmes has returned to training provides a positive impact as big as any new signing might.
The winger, absent since suffering a foot injury in the FA Cup first round victory over Scunthorpe, has a reasonable chance of making his return to action against the Lions on Saturday. A timely return, with Jordan Botaka away with DR Congo and following the sale of Ademola Lookman.
Holmes not the only absentee that stands to return with Declan Rudd also fit again having recovered from a hip injury, though the performances of Dillon Phillips in recent weeks would make his dropping rather cruel, while Tony Watt could be involved for the first time since his return from Hearts.
The returners stand to be joined by the recent arrivals. Lewis Page and Jay Dasilva, with Adam Chicksen also to be considered, competing for the left-back position vacated by Morgan Fox’s departure, Jake Forster-Caskey will do well to his force his way into the starting XI after the impressive midfield performance against Bristol Rovers, and Nathan Byrne’s versatility gives him a decent chance of being involved.
Fredrik Ulvestad, nursing a knock over the festive period and benched against Rovers, provides another alternative in midfield, but Jason Pearce, Johnnie Jackson, Ahmed Kashi and Lee Novak remain absent. The treatment room becoming a little less crowded.
KEY BATTLE – GETTING UP FOR IT
There have been many moments of disconnection in the previous three years, provided in many different forms, but there few delivered purely as a consequence of on-the-pitch events as disheartening as what was felt after Millwall’s second goal at The Den in December.
It not the horrendous overall defensive effort, nor Konsa landing on his backside as the ball came through to Morison, that really riled, but the attitude and body language of those wearing red.
With heads dropping and slumped bodies, there was a sense that the Addicks had lost the energy to fight. Not necessarily given up, but certainly lacking the intensity to make a comeback possible. At the very least, this was not an acceptable collective attitude for a side to have in such an important fixture.
An attitude that was repeated after Millwall’s third. No fight, no energy, no pride. This group of Addicks not representing their supporters on the pitch. Disconnection and embarrassment rife.
And so, it is absolutely vital that there is no repeat of that. That there is a response. That the Addicks offer some fight, and play with a bit of pride.
For this Millwall side are a competitive one, who will certainly be up for this fixture, and there will undoubtedly be spells where Robinson’s men are placed under pressure. Charlton cannot wilt again.
Millwall, innit? Confidence going into this fixture won’t exist until after this winless run in it comes to an end. Up to this group to prove me, and many Addicks who share a similar level of confidence, entirely wrong. Charlton Athletic 0-2 Millwall