Those hearty emotions of pride and hope gained seven days ago still existed among Charlton Athletic supporters as the announcement of ten minutes of stoppage-time drew near. Those hearty emotions ten minutes of stoppage-time away from doubling. Just ten minutes.
For as was the case against Bolton Wanderers, the Addicks had defended a slender lead with determination and desire. A lead they had defended since the 37th minute. Ricky Holmes converting from close range after Jake Forster-Caskey drove through Fleetwood Town’s defence.
But there was a contrast in the confidence among those who occupied The Valley’s home ends, and those who had supported from the Macron Stadium’s away end a week ago. A contrast in the composure of those wearing red in SE7, and those who had worn red in Bolton. The Addicks resolute last Saturday, but panicking here.
Fleetwood were pushing. Pushing and threatening in a way they hadn’t been allowed to for much of the game. The composed possession play seen by Karl Robinson’s side both before and after their goal replaced by unorganised attempts to defend persistent opposition attacks and rushed clearances.
The Cod Army creating genuine chances; the home supporters praying for full-time. Those ten minutes of stoppage-time, required largely after an injury to one of the assistant referees, would unquestionably be a period of panic. There not the same assured belief that the Addicks would maintain their lead as there was seven days ago.
And with four minutes of that period of stoppage-time passed, the hearty emotions of pride and hope gained last week were eclipsed by pain and heartache. A Fleetwood corner defended with the panic that had crippled the Addicks in the closing stages of this encounter, and Amari’i Bell finishing with the sort of composure not seen often throughout the afternoon.
His side, and the small pocket of visiting supporters, joyous. The rest of The Valley sick. This a moment as deflating as the events at Bolton were uplifting.
An attempt to rally the Addicks as play resumed, probably made to hide those crushing emotions, meaningless. To the dismay of many, referee Tim Robinson opted Nathan Byrne’s challenge on David Ball deserved dismissal. Charlton fans still attempting to make sense of these events as, a minute later, Ball curled an effort against the upright.
At least the full-time whistle that followed prevented further misery, but there too many other emotions overwhelming Addicks for relief, and certainly not the relief that was hoped for ten minute previously, to be one of them.
Hearts still aching, and despair still felt, as the failure to record a second successive determined victory was considered. More gutting, more deflating, knowing that the panicked defensive efforts meant that, to some extent, Charlton had inflicted this pain upon themselves. Anger only increasing as Uwe Rosler decided inciting The Valley faithful with celebratory fist pumps in their direction was the behaviour of a professional as he headed for the tunnel.
In just a game’s period of stoppage-time, that growing pride and hope had been replaced by this.
Before that hope, a sense of hope that Robinson’s Charlton could make an unlikely challenge for League One’s top six, had been dented, it had increased before kick-off.
Holmes, replacing the suspended Lewis Page with Adam Chicksen dropping to left-back, starting his first game since early November, and Ezri Konsa, having been so marvellous at the Macron, keeping his place despite Jorge Teixeira returning from suspension. The creative winger and the impressive centre-back cementing confidence in a side that were seemingly starting to tick under Robinson’s leadership.
Alas, to feel assured of victory would be naïve, even with a strong Ben Davies challenge required to halt a rampaging Tony Watt in the game’s first minute.
For Fleetwood arrived in SE7 without having suffered defeat in 12 League One games, and came incredibly close to justifying their four-place position in the table with just two minutes played. Charlton’s backline caught flat-footed as Devante Cole got in behind, but Declan Rudd was alive to block the resulting strike with his feet.
A wake-up call that, quite possibly, was useful for Robinson’s side. The Addicks almost immediately settling into a composed and calm style of possession football. The ball retained comfortable, as the Cod Army toiled in their efforts to press.
But this slow and patient play brought with it a sense of frustration. Joe Aribo shot horribly wayward, Holmes and Byrne were making intelligent runs, and Watt was tireless in his attempts to chase every cause, but the home supporters were not seeing enough genuine threat in the final third. The groans growing as Konsa and Patrick Bauer combined for a five-yard pass for the 100th time.
In fact, despite Charlton controlling the tempo of the encounter and Fleetwood very much being on the back foot, it was the visitors who could claim to have had the most threatening openings in the game’s opening 25 minutes. Cole again getting in behind, with Rudd saving in similar fashion, before a Cian Bolger header from the resulting corner required the goalkeeper’s fingertips to keep it out.
There were, however, more important things to consider than events on a football pitch as The Valley’s clock reached the 29th minute. The ground rising to applaud in memory of Addick Liam Meadows, who passed away at the age of 29. The passionate chant of Valley Floyd Road that followed thereafter would have no doubt provided a moment of emotion for his friends and family.
But it was not a moment that would inspire those representing the side Liam had supported. Still composed in possession, and calmly regaining it whenever it was lost, but finding it tough in the final third. The Cod Army defending in determined fashion, but the Addicks guilty of being indecisive towards the conclusion of their attacks.
An additional pass made when a cross seemed on, and no one brave enough to take a shot. So Watt trying his luck from the edge of the area, and forcing Fleetwood goalkeeper Alex Cairns to parry the ball behind, was encouraging. The Valley immediately lifted.
And they would be lifted further still as, from the resulting corner, the Addicks found that moment of quality they had been lacking in and around the opposition’s penalty area in order to take the lead.
Forster-Caskey’s initial delivery cleared, but only in the direction from which it came. Excellent work from Konsa held off the approaching defender, allowing the January signing from Brighton to drive into the box and play the ball across the face of goal. Holmes the gleeful recipient of Forster-Caskey’s third assist in two games, bundling the ball over the line from close range.
A goal not necessarily deserved, but one that made the patient passing play look a sensible strategy. Robinson’s side in control, and taking advantage when the moment arose.
And with only eight first-half minutes remaining, the patient passing play was now demanded. The Addicks stifling any of Fleetwood’s efforts to get forward before the break, remaining assured on the ball, and suddenly, when it seemed half-time would be reached with the home crowd frustrated, having what appeared a very comfortable advantage.
Nonetheless, this was not an advantage that assured victory. There no doubt the second period would be different, with Rosler’s men needing to push forward and pressure the Addicks in search of an equaliser. A greater test to come for Charlton’s backline, but hopefully more spaces further forward for the lively Holmes, Byrne and Watt to exploit.
In fact, the hosts were probably a better-timed pass away from doubling their lead as early as the second-half’s first minute. Watt driving through the heart of Fleetwood’s side, giving the ball to Forster-Caskey as he ran into the box, but the return pass evading the Scot’s run by the narrowest of margins. The sort of mentality that the Addicks needed to maintain; a second goal would kill this game off.
The sense that a second goal would be decisive increasing with Fleetwood still struggling to work their way through Charlton’s structured and resolute defence. Ball had been introduced at half-time, while the pace of Bell and Cole down the left at least gave the visitors a route forward, but the Addicks were unflustered.
So with the hosts still comfortable in possession, and such a pattern to the game remaining, a lengthy delay, caused by the need to replace an injured assistant referee, probably wasn’t what was wanted.
For just moments after play had resumed, an error from Chicksen set Cole clean through on goal. The equaliser would surely follow, and that a thought that still existed even after Rudd had blocked the forward’s initial effort. The loose ball popping out to Bell, who took one touch too many inside the box, and ran into a brick wall of red shirts.
A collective sigh of relief heard around The Valley, and the calming influence of Johnnie Jackson being readied was welcome. Though that the skipper was required to slot in at left-back, with the otherwise faultless Chicksen needing to be withdrawn, was certainly not helpful in reducing the sense of worry inside the ground. No doubt, however, that Jackson would give his all.
With an unfamiliar figure at left-back and Fleetwood beginning to ask greater questions of the Addicks, that much sought after second goal was desperately required. It not coming from a tame Bauer header, and wayward Holmes strike from distance. A piece of brilliance, as was the case in the first-half, needed from someone.
Though that someone might well have been Ball, with the influence of Fleetwood’s pacey forward growing with every move forward. A block from Bauer denying the substitute after he’d worked his way into a good position, before connecting with fellow sub Ashley Hunter’s ball across the face of goal and flicking it over the bar. Plenty of time still to play, Robinson’s side growing increasingly unstable, and The Valley increasingly nervous.
Nerves a nice excuse for a horror miss from Watt with 13 minutes of normal time left. The ball falling to him a matter of yards from goal after a free-kick wasn’t dealt with, but the Scot somehow ballooning the ball into the Jimmy Seed Stand’s red seats. The assistant’s flag sparing Charlton frustration, if not him from embarrassment.
The ‘miss’ a reflection of the panic spreading throughout Robinson’s side, as again a lack of structure and composure showed with Ball volleying narrowly off-target. The Cod Army’s combination play down the wings persistently catching the Addicks out, Kyle Dempsey and Cameron Brannagan seemingly always in space on the edge of the box, and Ball’s movement impressive. A moment to regain composure needed.
Composure, in the mind of Robinson, could be regained with the introduction of another defender. But bringing Teixeira on, in place of Forster-Caskey, seemed to unsettle an already unstructured Charlton side even further. There no doubt that fortune and Fleetwood wastefulness would be important than the Addicks’ defensive determination with three minutes remaining, as Bauer’s intervention sent Bobby Grant’s effort bouncing just wide.
Panic and desperation on show again from the resulting corner, as a sea of red kept out successive strikes from those in blue, before Brannagan’s strike from the edge of the box fired not too far over. Fleetwood creating more genuine chances in one move than Bolton did in an entire 45 minutes.
And that what made the announcement of ten additional minutes so concerning. Fleetwood looked like scoring with each attack. Ten minutes more than enough time for them to find the leveller they had come so close to inflicting upon the Addicks.
Their pace, their energy and their drive unrelenting. Plenty of red shirts behind the ball, but still Fleetwood were finding ways through with ease. Jackson, determined despite his uncomfortableness with the left-back role, interrupting an attack from the Cod Army and putting the ball behind.
The resulting corner creating more carnage in Charlton’s penalty area, and Rudd ultimately required to the tip a cross over the bar for another. The panic summed up by Teixeira clinging onto shirts, Fleetwood always a step ahead of their defenders, and eyes looking at watches every second hoping time would go faster.
Had they been playing in different colours, a neutral would not have believed this was the same side that defended so calmly seven days ago. A neutral would have also felt that the Addicks failing to deal with yet another corner properly, the ball falling perfectly to Bell, and the winger slotting home was no less than Fleetwood’s deluge on Charlton’s goal deserved.
No time for rational thought among the home supporters as the visitors celebrated, however. Rudd sank to the ground, and the hearts of every Addicks went with him. Gut-wrenching.
But, with six minutes still to play, you had to convince yourself there was still a chance. The Covered End roared. Then it roared in anger and disbelief.
A Charlton free-kick cleared, Ball and Byrne both fully committed to winning the loose ball, and the latter losing the race by a fraction. Neither dangerous nor malicious, and warranting little more than a Fleetwood free-kick as punishment. The dismay around The Valley as referee Robinson revealed his red card as great as the despair at the conceding of the equaliser.
And so, having been desperately clinging on for all three points just three minutes ago, the Addicks now found themselves with three minutes in which to spare themselves from defeat. The man advantage no doubt convincing Fleetwood to continue their pursuit on Charlton’s goal.
The man advantage almost followed by a goal advantage. The ground silent as Ball’s stunning, curling effort seemed to hang in mid-air for an age. Rudd firmly beaten, but the ball striking the post. Quite unbelievable.
There still time for Hunter to fire over from distance before Charlton supporters were allowed to breathe again. Although maybe not breathe freely. The final whistle a sound that sparked disbelief, despair, and anger.
Disbelief born out of what had just been witnessed. Victory moments away, but full-time reached with the Addicks thankful not to have suffered defeat. The equaliser, the dismissal, the post being hit; it all incredibly hard to make sense of.
Though the utterly horrible sick feeling that followed Bell’s strike, the crushing blow that took two points away it seemed Charlton were going to stumble their way over the line, gave you some way of assessing those mad ten minutes. Gut-wrenching, painful, and a cause of despair.
In a way, it hurting more as a result of the events of last weekend. That a Charlton side had fought so hard for victory, but this one had faltered. That pride, that hope; both crushed.
To be truthful, an equaliser was no less than Fleetwood’s efforts had warranted. The Addicks losing all composure and structure in the game’s final half hour, the visitors persistently finding ways to test this unsettled backline. Their equaliser no fluke, but the result of a sustained bombardment on Charlton’s area.
Maybe you could look at that to take some of the pain away. The fact Fleetwood had worked hard for their point, and the fact a draw against a side in the top six is no disaster. A certain context that says you should not feel so crushed.
But immediately you’re reminded of the manner in which Robinson’s men inflicted this upon themselves. How a side who showed they could defend with class and composure melted. A resilient structure replaced by an untidy mess, who ultimately received the punishment they set themselves up for.
So too, though gap between the play-offs remains at six points, does a look at the table crush your spirits further. Southend, Millwall and Peterborough all winning. An advantage gained for them, as we slip to 12th, and find ourselves behind several teams who now have a much better chance of claiming sixth.
And then, if considering all that is not enough, you’re reminded of Byrne’s bizarre sending off and Rosler’s unnecessary post-game actions. There no chance of reflecting on this game without feeling immense feelings of disbelief, despair, and anger.
Feelings that appeared to the extent they did simply in stoppage-time. A stoppage-time that robbed supporters of the unbelievable pride and hope felt in a period where emotions of the sort had been lacking. A cruel, cruel afternoon.