These are supporters of a beleaguered football club who boast tales of woe. Who own wounds that cut deep into the skin as a consequence of following this football club. Who have witnessed the sort of horrors that would leave even the most resilient mentally scarred.
Afternoons of suffering for followers of Charlton Athletic are not a rare event. An afternoon of suffering at the Macron Stadium accepted just 13 minutes after the referee’s first whistle. Lewis Page dismissed for a cynical foul on Bolton Wanderers’ Josh Vela, and Zack Clough beautifully curling the resulting free-kick into Declan Rudd’s top corner.
The Addicks without a man, without the central figure of Josh Magennis, and seemingly without reasonable hope. The likelihood of defeat enhanced as Clough came close to a second. Full-time bound to feature a sombre Karl Robinson, effectively apologising to his travelling supporters, hurting once again.
But then a German centre-back, making something of a heroic appearance given that he only returned to training on Thursday, rose at the back post to meet debutant Jake Forster-Caskey’s free-kick. Patrick Bauer directing his 23rd minute header back across the face of goal, and levelling the scores. Joy in the celebrations that followed, no doubt, but shock and surprise the overriding emotion.
Could this be the start of something heroic? Surely not, surely it was simply the sort of false hope that would ultimately make the hurt even worse. The Addicks combining successful flirtations with lady luck and the sort of hard work that was tiring to watch to stand determined in the face of a Bolton Alamo.
The extent of their Alamo reaffirmed by Charlton’s next shot on goal not occurring until first-half stoppage time.
There a cheer of hope at the sight of Forster-Caskey carrying the ball through midfield, but a shot on goal was not on the thoughts of many Charlton minds. It merely an opportunity to keep the ball away from their own box with half-time approaching.
But Forster-Caskey kept going. There were some fortunate bobbles off Bolton legs, but they were bobbles his determination and tenacity warranted. The rapid Nathan Byrne overlapping, the ball through to him perfect, and the Wigan loanee finishing with class.
Unreal. Simply unreal. How the Addicks entered half-time ahead defied all logic and reason.
And it would surely require an effort above all logic and reason to avoid Bolton’s 11 men at least regaining parity in the second period. A group of supporters conditioned to suffering encouraging their valiant troops, inspired by their efforts, but still fearing failure.
But as the minutes passed, and as Bolton grew further frustrated with the impassable red wall in front of them, there came a growing sense of belief. As Rudd wasted every minute possible, as Ezri Konsa and Bauer won each and every header, and as those further forward chased every loose ball, a win started to seem likely. The Trotters simply not creating.
Never was there confidence, not least because Rudd was required to grab loose balls on several occasions as full-time approached, but there was a sense that this fight and determination warranted victory. Victory that would be celebrated with every positive emotion imaginable as the referee’s final whistle blew following four minutes of additional time.
The tales of woe momentarily forgotten. The wounds patched up. The mental scarring replaced by unbelievable joy, created by a performance that displayed the fight and pride so often absent of beleaguered Charlton efforts.
The sombre, apologetic figure Robinson was supposed to adopt replaced by a chest-pumping, fist-pumping boss, celebrating not only an incredible win in the context of the figure, but a win needed to keep a fading season alive.
So often left embarrassed by the actions of a poisonous regime. So often let down by a side not possessing the quality and courage to contrast the image created by those above. So often wondering why it’s all worth it.
This, this brief moment of joy created by a Charlton side giving their absolute all and achieving the most unlikeliest of results, is what makes it worth it.
A joy not only in contrast to what has largely been felt over the previous three years, but a joy in contrast to the anxious fear that existed before kick-off.
A starting XI, though still lacking the suspended Jorge Teixeira and the injured Magennis, slightly stronger than was expected at least cooled the extent of the concern among Addicks. Bauer and Page recovering from injuries in time to take to the Macron Stadium turf, a debut in a three-man centre-midfield for Forster-Caskey, and Tony Watt tasked with the lone striker role. A side strong enough to at least compete with the Phil Parkinson’s promotion challengers.
A belief reaffirmed in the game’s fluid opening exchanges. Bolton confident in possession, always looking to feed wide options that included former Addick Lawrie Wilson, but Charlton’s defensive structure was strong. Forster-Caskey’s first-time strike, well-saved by Bolton’s other former Addick Ben Alnwick, keeping the Trotters on their toes and signalling this was not a game Robinson’s men intended to let their more fancied opponents dominate.
Or at least that was the mentality among those in red until Bauer’s failure to deal with a bouncing ball left Vela with a clear run on goal.
The Macron Stadium rose in anticipation, and so did Page. It’s just that Page rose about three feet off the floor to take out Bolton’s young midfielder. The newly signed left-back, guilty of both serious foul play and denying a goal scoring opportunity, had no grounds whatsoever to contest the red card that followed.
A piece of recklessness that, you could argue, would have had some justification to it had the Trotters wasted the resulting free-kick. But Clough’s effort, curling over the wall and well beyond Rudd into the top corner, was as picturesque as Page’s ‘tackle’ was ugly. Deep sighs in the away end as the young forward sprinted away to knee slide in celebration.
The Forster-Caskey effort on goal had only occurred three minutes ago, but this dramatic change in the overall picture of the game meant it felt like it had taken place on a different day. Parkinson’s side not only having a goal and a man advantage, but taking firm control of possession.
Possession that should have payed with 20 minutes played. Andrew Taylor’s knockdown perfect for Clough, the forward’s volley unquestionably bound for the back of the net, but Gary Madine unable to get himself out of the shot’s trajectory. The ball striking Madine’s head, and deflecting off-target.
There no doubt that the Addicks had been fortunate, and there seemingly little doubt pressure of similar nature would be applied for the remainder of the game. Byrne winning his side a free-kick in a wide position a momentary respite rather than opportunity from which to threaten.
But Bolton’s defence, the least leaky in the division, were caught flat-footed by Forster-Caskey’s excellent delivery. Bauer peeling away at the back post, and heading unchallenged into the opposite corner of Alnwick’s goal. Somehow, and completely against the run of play, the Addicks had drawn level.
No question that this was a goal enjoyed by the travelling support, made more enjoyable by its unexpected nature, but, in the context of this encounter, there was an acceptance that Charlton’s leveller had done little more than give the visitors something to defend. The equaliser not altering the pattern of the game at all, as Taylor found a way into the box and saw a cross-cum-shot bounce back off the frame of the game.
Nor deterring the lively Clough, whose quick feet and pace were proving very difficult to deal with. The diminutive forward sent through on goal, but marvellous work from Rudd meant the goalkeeper beat him to the ball by the narrowest of margins. Had the Norwich loanee been a split second later, then Clough’s exaggerated leap might have counted for something.
And as this Bolton pressure continued, against which a determined and hard-working Charlton faltered on very few occasions, the last line of defence remained firm. Wilson, a constant threat down the right, picking out an unmarked Vela in the middle, but his header was held well by Rudd, before the goalkeeper did well to beat away a swerving strike from Jay Spearing.
In fact, Charlton’s continued stubbornness also owed something to their first line of defence. Watt not suited to the lone striker role, and more often than not was losing the battle with David Wheater, but you certainly couldn’t fault his relentless effort. In these conditions, Watt’s attempts to hold up play were commendable.
This sort of effort, with the collective determination of a Charlton side under relenting pressure, was seemingly enough to get the Addicks through to the interval on level terms. But such was the pressure they were under, the relatively minor two-minute extension of the half brought about great concern.
Two minutes that appeared to have been successfully survived, as Forster-Caskey carried the ball forward in break after a Bolton delivery into the box was cleared. The sweet sound of the referee’s whistle awaited.
Instead, Charlton supporters would be drowned by the sound of their own celebration. A quite incredible run from the debutant, matched with the most intelligent of through balls, sending Byrne through on goal. The winger, as tenacious and tireless as anyone in red, capping a commendable individual first-half effort with a clinical finish beyond Alnwick.
The sound of celebration not silenced until the half-time whistle, by which time the simple question of “how?” was being asked en mass. How on earth had Charlton’s ten men, penned in their own half and defending desperately for much of the opening 45, gone in at the interval with an advantage?
That such a question was being asked meant no Addick was getting carried away. Bolton would surely respond after the break with even greater pressure than was applied in the opening period, and Charlton would spend 45 minutes desperately attempting to cling onto advantage that felt so slender.
Robinson had fearlessly beckoned his side in upon the moment the half came to a conclusion, and there no doubt that a faultless tactical structure would be required alongside unrelenting effort.
The half’s first five minutes probably setting the tone. Charlton sitting very deep, Bolton’s midfield allowed to the knock the ball around before a winger bombed into space, and the resulting delivery needing spirited intervention to be blocked away. Chris Solly preventing Taylor from picking a man out in the middle on two occasions in those opening moments, with Rudd doing well to claim the ball from the resulting corners.
The Addicks surviving, but there this was going to be a gruesome watch. A situation not helped with Watt receiving very little assistance from the officials. Quite clearly body-checked by Mark Beevers, but ignored by the referee, before what seemed a 50/50 tussle left the Scot on a booking.
Common-sense suggested it was not worth leaving Watt, exhausted from his commendable efforts, on the pitch for much and he would soon be replaced by Lee Novak. But not before a handful of Bolton half-chances had increased nerves.
Clough nodding wide, James Henry tamely firing wide, and Rudd called upon to claim Madine’s header from another Bolton corner. Full-time still a little less than 30 minutes away, but it simply couldn’t come soon enough.
Full-time always an age away for the visiting supporters, but it creeping ever closer for a set of home fans that were growing increasingly frustrated. Their patient passing play a cause for consternation as Charlton formed a formidable barrier of defence, but long balls or deliveries into the box were so often met by the imperious pair of Konsa and Bauer. With Rudd’s anger-inducing time wasting also to deal with, expectation was being replaced by dismay among Bolton supporters.
They had long become aware that their side’s possession, having seen so much of the ball to prevent the Addicks from having a single shot on goal since the one that had given them the lead, was meaningless without some sort of reasonable end product. Spearing volleying horrendously over the bar, though an enjoyable sight for the nerve-crippled Addicks, not what the hosts hand in mind.
In fact, as the game entered its final ten minutes, Bolton were still struggling to find any gaps in this formidable red wall. Partly a fault of the Trotters, best summed up by Clough’s prod into the palms of Rudd from a relatively promising position, but more so a result of Charlton’s resilience. Pressing with energy, solid in the tackle, and still commanding in the air.
There were whispers. Whispers that we were going to do this. Whispers untainted by the tameness of substitute Conor Wilkinson’s effort, which Rudd dived low to claim with ease.
But for every whisper, for every ounce of belief that this performance of fight and determination was to receive its reward, there was a reminder that the lead was only one. One moment all Bolton needed to snatch something.
Scrambles in the area, the ball headered back and forth, the Addicks not quite clearing their lines with the certainty that they had done for much of the game. Thankfully, composure and certainty something Bolton still lacked. Madine found at the back post, but his chested touch merely teeing up a tame volley wide.
Four additional minutes of this to survive. Four minutes of panicked attempts to pump the ball into the box, and nervy clearances. Bolton supporters momentarily hid their frustration and roared for an equaliser; the visiting Addicks not so good at hiding their nerves but found the composure to encourage further determination.
The scenes inside Charlton’s box frantic. A shirt might have been tugged, a penalty called for out of sheer desperation, and Madine shooting straight into Rudd’s hands. Watches and phones checked more frequently than the game itself, with Addicks hoping minutes would in fact last seconds.
And then there was a whistle. Three blows of it. The sound that signalled the need for panic was no more.
The sound that signalled Charlton Athletic, the ten men of Charlton Athletic, had found the determination, shown the character, and delivered just enough quality to achieve a victory that, from some many perspectives, they had no right to claim.
Those in red gathered in a circle as their supporters celebrated. Robinson’s words issued before his men were allowed to join the celebrations. Celebrations both on the pitch and in the stands that showed all were aware of what an achievement this was.
And the final world, or at least fist pump, left to Robinson. A giant punch of celebration towards his supporters. A giant punch that echoed the sheer joy felt by these Addicks, so often left to experience contrasting emotions.
A fist pump of celebration, and of relief. For there no question that Charlton had been required to dig deep and cling on for the most unlikeliest of victories.
A victory that simply wasn’t possible after the game’s 13th minute. A defeat that might well have been certain had Madine’s head not blocked Clough’s goal-bound shot just moments before Charlton equalised. A defeat that, in truth, still seemed the most likely outcome as Bauer celebrated.
But from that moment forth, the determined organisation, the relentless energy, and the character-filled heart of the Addicks meant their efforts were worthy of the final outcome. Some fortune to create a situation where such efforts would result in victory, but not enough to diminish in the slightest the incredible efforts of those in red.
The tactical intelligent of Robinson, who sat his side deep but still allowed them the freedom to press, which prevented Bolton from creating anything and so often left them looking lost in possession.
The individual determination, from the calmness and cleverness of Rudd to the fight of Watt. From the unbeatable defensive duo of Konsa and Bauer, assisted superbly by Solly and Adam Chicksen, to the relentless pressing of Aribo and Andrew Crofts. From the creativity of Forster-Caskey, to the persistent pace of Byrne.
And the collective effort. A collective effort, considering the circumstances and the context of the game, as hard-fought and inspiring as has been seen for some time.
There are, of course, factors that bring you back down to earth. The state of the league table, the fact performances and victories of similar nature are required on a consistent basis for a genuine play-off challenge, and the uncertainty that surrounds any activity in the transfer market. And that without mentioning that a regime who embody the complete opposite of a performance like this remain.
But, in a sense, it’s factors like those that make this win more special. That a most marvellous win was achieved against the odds, in a period of regular disappointment, while a crippling regime remain. Unexpected and unbelievable joy.
Embarrassment so often the emotion that has swarmed Charlton fans in recent times. Today, it is pride.