Pulses racing in the game’s opening minute as Josh Magennis found himself through on goal, but this was the evening where the faint pulse in Charlton Athletics’s play-off challenge faded to nothing.
The Northern Ireland international’s miss, ballooning the ball over the bar, the catalyst for what was to come. Karl Robinson’s rallying cry, designed to keep this desperate dream of a top six finish alive, completely disregarded.
A call to be more ruthless, from a manager whose words inspire less than they actually do. A deflated set of players would rise. A group of supporters losing hope would have it restored.
Oldham Athletic were to be punished in a way Fleetwood Town and AFC Wimbledon had not. A one-goal lead would become two, then three, then four. Boundary Park to be the scene of a turning point.
But, in fact, it was the Latics who would be punishing the Addicks. The hosts, aided by some dire Charlton defending, pouncing just three minutes after Magennis had failed to show the required ruthlessness. Oliver Banks striking first-time from the edge of the box, beyond Declan Rudd’s dive.
A fourth minute lead that John Sheridan’s side, who had several chances to double it with Charlton’s defending often shambolic, would not surrender for the duration of the contest. They fought hard, defended well, and needed the fingertips of goalkeeper Connor Ripley on a couple of occasions to maintain their advantage. But it was the tameness of those in red that really assisted them.
Little defensive composure, slow and wasteful in possession, and Magennis provided so little he may as well left the pitch after his costly miss, but still there were chances. Oldham sitting back, allowing the Addicks to drive forward, to attack. Attacks that, if not semi-rewarded with the winning of what ultimately be a wasted corner, were so often coming to a tame end.
So much so that as full-time approached at Boundary Park, all that could be heard coming from the away end were further desperate rallying cries. Supporters pleading with their side to discover some sort of potency and salvage something from this contest. Begging for this promised ruthlessness to appear.
This, however, another broken promise. For the Addicks, far from being ruthless, had been completely toothless. Toothless, useless and gutless from the referee’s first whistle, or at least from Magennis’ first shot, until his last as they succumbed to a terminal defeat on this cold Lancashire night.
A terminal defeat that all but confirmed the minimum of a top six finish, with nine points now to make up, will be another fulfilled promise. Another failure under Roland Duchatelet’s regime. The pulse in this football club becoming harder and harder to find.
Even before kick-off, the heart of this Charlton side was beating slower. Ricky Holmes and Tony Watt, seemingly a result of the fact they were still lacking full fitness after injury and absence, dropping to the bench. A rare start for Jordan Botaka and a first start for Arsenal loanee Stephy Mavididi in the wide positions.
Solace to be found in the return from injury for Jake Forster-Caskey, who replaced Jorge Teixeira allowing Ezri Konsa to drop back into defence, and a first start since injury for Magennis, coming in up top for Lee Novak after his wastefulness at Kingsmeadow. The return of creativity in the middle, and an injection of strength in attack.
And it appeared the pair had provided a great deal more than simply solace with 12 seconds of the game passing at Boundary Park. Celebration surely about to be experienced as Forster-Caskey’s punt forward found its way to Magennis, beating Oldham’s offside trap and racing through on goal. The away end collectively rising in anticipation.
Instead, there would be a sharp silence, and a simultaneous placing of hands on heads. Disbelief as Charlton’s most trustworthy forward somehow looped the ball over the bar and into the home supporters behind the goal. A chance that couldn’t be missed; a chance that simply had to be taken.
The scale of this blunder already relatively large, but it would double at the end of Oldham’s first meaningful move forward.
A meaningful move forward that could have been properly halted several times, but the attempts to clear of those in red were panicky and weak. Defensive composure lacking as much as composure in front of the opposition’s goal. Those in red standing off Chris Taylor, the winger teeing up unmarked Banks, and the midfielder’s first-time effort with the outside of his boot giving the Latics a fourth-minute lead.
The away end a mix of silent disbelief, furious shouts of frustration, and the resigned sighs that comes from seeing it all before. Punishment for Magennis’ miss bound to come. Though how soon it had come certainly hurt.
Punishment that could have, and probably should have, been doubled just eight minutes later. The Addicks, whether a consequence of the preceding events or simply a side generally lacking in any sort of confidence, an utter shambles, allowing Paul Green to send McLaughlin through on goal with complete ease. An unmarked Lee Erwin in the centre, or a relatively tight angle to shoot from, but the forward ultimately took one touch too many and Rudd was able to pounce.
Calls for Charlton to wake up, amid the boos, abundant. Evidence of Charlton beginning to wake up, less so. Magennis nodding wide from a Botaka cross not inspiring.
But, bursting through the tense atmosphere and half of Oldham’s side, Mavididi went about injecting some encouragement and belief on his own. An excellent run from inside his own half and, despite the away end calling for him to continue with it, an intelligent and unselfish pass to Botaka following. The Leeds loanee cutting inside, only to see his goal-bound effort superbly blocked by the head of Anthony Gerrard.
This better, Mavididi and Botaka making runs forward and proving a real threat, the mood among the visiting supporters improving. Something a bit more required in the final third, though. The wide men’s delivery being blocked behind, Joe Aribo’s poke at goal always going wide, and Konsa’s wayward header about as threatening as the Addicks got from one of their corners.
Wasted half-chances particularly meaningless while Robinson’s side continued to look shaky at the back, and Oldham looked to take an advantage. Konsa giving away a stupid free-kick on the edge of Charlton’s box, thankfully fired over by Banks, before redeeming himself with a superb, possibly goal-saving, tackle after Erwin had been allowed to run through several bodies into the box.
But the best chance for the hosts to double their lead came with a little less than first-half minutes remaining. Peter Clarke forceful and powerful as he rose above Charlton’s flatfooted defence to connect with Green’s corner. The ball bouncing off the bottom of the post with Rudd motionless.
Fury among those in the away end rightfully returning, not only as a consequence of these Oldham chances, but their side’s overall efforts. Horribly uncomfortable at the back, with Adam Chicksen in particular having a terrible night, too often giving the ball away in midfield, and showing no ruthlessness in attack.
So much so that a very brief rally as half-time approached was more a brief break from disappointment, rather than a provider of genuine belief. Ripley making a strong save to keep out a Konsa header, before the resulting corner saw an unchallenged Andrew Crofts head across the face of goal. Greater contact on the delivery, and the Addicks might well have gone in at the break level.
Parity that, when the overall first-half efforts of Robinson’s side are considered, would not have been deserved. Fragile in defence, flawed in midfield, and faulting in front of goal. The deficit only one, but a need for the Addicks to show signs of greater organisation, quality on the ball, and genuine attacking threat upon the restart for there to be belief of a turnaround.
A semi-promising start, as a corner wasn’t simply cleared away. Magennis meeting Forster-Caskey’s delivery at the near post, and heading narrowly wide. The visiting Addicks willing to see that as a sign that more was to come.
Not quite the rampant, ruthless outfit sustained by a composed defensive line that had been craved, but Robinson’s side were at least looking a touch more comfortable. A touch more threatening. The Latics standing off Forster-Caskey, and his effort from distance needing a good save from Ripley to be kept out.
And though Crofts headed the resulting corner over by some margin, the introduction of Ricky Holmes, replacing Botaka, allowed for some momentum to be sustained. A belief that surely the winger would provide the touch of quality that was lacking.
But with each passing moment, or attempt at passing that didn’t succeed, the silenced frustration was returning. Too much time taken to find the next pass, not enough quality in the final deliveries, and no way to get past this Oldham defensive line sitting ridiculous deep. The lack of quality in the final third forcing Forster-Caskey to try his luck from distance again, but his powerful drive comfortably cleared the bar.
And still, despite Oldham’s focus being on protecting their lead, this wasn’t simply a case of finding a equaliser with little else to worry about. Banks bursting through the centre of midfield, Erwin played through with a clear run on goal, but Konsa preventing the Leeds loanee from finishing. The ‘robust’ Gerrard heading wide from the resulting corner.
The growing sense that the Addicks were not getting back into this game summed up as the ball ran away from Magennis, and Ripley claimed. A kick of the turf and a cry of “fuck off” from the Northern Irishman. The feelings of all those behind him in the away end expressed.
For Charlton continued to appear tame in the final third, and without resolve when required to defend. Banks given another opportunity to score from a set-piece after Konsa conceded a cheap foul, but the goal-scorer curled wide, before Gerrard improvised with an overhead kick of sorts to direct a delivery towards goal but Rudd was able to claim.
And with the pattern of the game remaining unchanged, desperation began to appear as the game entered its final 15 minutes.
But there nothing desperate about the Charlton cries for a penalty. Solly most certainly prevented from winning a Chicksen delivery by an illegal push from Gerrard. Neither referee nor assistant spotting the infringement.
Heads still being shaken in disbelief that the Addicks hadn’t been allowed the chance to draw level from the spot as Watt replaced Forster-Caskey. The Scot immediately bursting through midfield, cutting inside, but with no end product. Lively not quite good enough with ten minutes to play.
Lively good enough for Oldham, though, as sub Michael Ngoo was proving a real handful for Bauer to cope with. His hold up play excellent, and his presence resulting in Chris Taylor getting a run on goal. Rudd saving well, and keeping Charlton’s faint hopes of salvaging something just about alive.
A corner soon won. The 13th of the night. Meaningless; it would be wasted again.
It therefore out of desperation that the visiting supporters roared, but those in red almost responded. Substitute Novak, who had replaced Mavididi, flicking on Holmes’ corner and, though it might have already been heading wide, the fingertips of Ripley were required to confirm that.
A real sense of urgency as Holmes raced to the other side of the pitch, a real roar of encouragement from the away end. His delivery again inviting, an invitation that Patrick Bauer would take up. The centre-back rising and heading towards goal, only for Ripley to respond and push the ball over the bar.
A third corner in succession, and a third chance to make one of these many set-pieces count. But the Addicks reverted to type, and a huge hack clear from an Oldham boot drawing a cheer almost as loud as the one that followed their goal. That belief those headed efforts created a false feeling; this was all but game over.
This small rally coming too late, and far from enough. That this was the only time Charlton had showed genuine intensity, and threatened from corners, a reflection of their overall tameness.
Tameness, too, in the Novak volley and Watt prod towards goal that occurred either side of the announcement of six minutes of stoppage-time. Both lacking power, and straight at Ripley.
Boundary Park’s small but supportive regulars making a real racket as Ngoo battled and won his side a late corner. The result of which saw Aiden O’Neill blast over when it might have been wiser to keep possession, but it mattered not. Their efforts were about to be rewarded.
The full-time whistle, ironically, coming as a tame Charlton cross was directed into the box for a blue shirt to clear. Tame. The opportunity to claim three points, an opportunity to fight back, and an opportunity to push for the top six all thrown away in tame fashion.
Oldham, sharing more hugs than most couples will on Valentine’s Day, left to enjoy their hard-fought win as the Addicks and their supporters, in near silence, slumped away. There no doubt this was a crushing defeat. Game over, in more ways than one.
In fact, there might have been some confirmation that Charlton’s play-off chances were now gone in the reaction to the final whistle.
Robinson, usually so desperate for supporter recognition, hiding while his troops, carrying gruesome expressions, applauded the travelling fans. A brief clap from a distance, before making for the tunnel head bowed. If the most blindly optimistic man in the world has lost hope, then we all have.
And, in reality, there no degree of optimism that can suggest Charlton’s already distant chances of a play-off spot haven’t been dealt a fatal blow with this defeat. A defeat that, like almost every dropped point this season, was the result of their own making.
An argument that it would have been a different game had Magennis finished his glorious opening in the game’s first few seconds. And yes, it might well have been. An early lead could have inspired the Addicks and crushed the Latics.
But in an argument lost by how often wasted chances have been used as an excuse, how poor the overall performance was, and how tame the Addicks were in front of goal thereafter. You got the impression that even if a penalty had been awarded for the foul on Solly, it would have been missed.
The lack of composure and structure in defence was quite staggering, and really should have led to Oldham scoring more. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt less confident in Bauer, who showed little conviction, Konsa was uncharacteristically lacking coolness, and Chicksen got caught out with and without the ball on far too many occasions.
The midfield lethargic and lacking ideas. There only so many sideways passes, or moments spelt dwelling in possession, you can bare before frustration takes over. Even the return of Forster-Caskey, whose delivery was persistently disappointing, failed to inject some intensity and creativity into the centre.
There was something out wide, something to cling onto, and it no surprise that many of the created chances stemmed from the wingers. Mavididi did well, while Botaka was, as ever, lively but let down by decision making. Holmes and Watt injecting energy into the side.
But the collective efforts in the final third were unbelievably poor. The wasted chances, the wayward deliveries, the failure of Magennis to hold up the ball. Clarke and Gerrard as dominant as Charlton were tame.
Dreadful is a more fitting description, but this a damp squib of a performance. A fitting way to end realistic hope of getting a play-off place, with them now nine points away. A fitting way for the briefest period of hope in a time where there has been little to come to an end.
It would appear the remainder of this season will be spent playing for pride. Something this club has been stripped of. Something that won’t reappear until there is genuine change.