An apathetic quietness filled a home that was once the source of much pride, but now wilts with suffering from the disease inflicted upon Charlton Athletic.
The Valley as empty as it has ever been before for a league game. Statistics might offer alternatives, but the emptiness much more than just the overwhelming amount of unoccupied red, white or black seats. Or at least unoccupied by a supporter; each empty seat filled by apathy.
Emptiness to be found among those still in attendance. Devoid of belief, hope and connection. The bond that should be felt with their club, as it has been for some time, absent.
For there an emptiness that has left the club in a state far removed from the Charlton Athletic that supporters were previously in love with. Roland Duchatelet’s regime removing identity, offering insults at every opportunity, and overseeing chronic failure. The club without heart.
And on The Valley’s pitch came an empty performance. One without structure, quality and determination. A performance by a group of players, and a manager, that should be ashamed, but also one that mirrored the overall state of a diseased club.
This 1-0 defeat to Oxford United, from the moment the turnstiles were opened until the relatively few Addicks in attendance exited them, a symptom of a disease with only one cure. Mangers, players, positive words; none of those able to put the club into a state of rehabilitation. Only Duchatelet selling the club can provide solace to the empty, and begin to restore.
A fifth fixture without victory, and a fifth fixture largely devoid of any redeemable aspects, increasing the sense that the Karl Robinson experiment is beginning to fail. Another manager, and another set of players, unable to provide on-pitch distraction from the damage that has occurred away from it. A defeat that leaves the Addicks closer to League One’s relegation zone than the third tier’s play-off positions.
The difference on the night a single goal. Former Charlton loanee Conor McAleny allowed to drive forward unchallenged, before seemingly unleashing an ambitious strike towards goal from the best part of 30 yards. The ball beating Declan Rudd, bouncing off the post, and over the line to give the U’s a 12th minute lead.
And, to their credit, there were chances for the Addicks to equalise. Even in the game’s final minute, Patrick Bauer saw a header diverted off the line. But the scoreline, and a handful of wasted chances, don’t reflect the real difference.
The real difference shown in a determined group of Oxford players fighting for every loose ball, while this group of Addicks showed a distinct lack of fight for almost the entirety of the game. Their failure to fight at its worst following Chris Solly’s 70th minute red card; the response of dropped heads and decreased effort suggesting Robinson’s side were four goals down, rather than just one.
And while the visiting support, evidently proud of their overachieving club as it claimed their first ever win over the Addicks, offered passionate support for the entirety of the evening, the apathetic silence that swarmed The Valley’s home support was rarely interrupted by anything but expressions of frustration, and boos.
This not a failure to get behind the team, but a reflection of a group of fans, already battered and bruised, who aren’t being inspired to beat away apathy, hopelessness and despair. That the apathy was only broken by a valiant cry of “we want Roland out” a reflection of the situation. There cannot be hope while the regime remains.
Days and nights of crushing heartbreak have been aplenty while following this club over the previous three years. Where sitting inside The Valley has brought nothing but sadness. This among the bleakest that this empty imitation of a football club has offered.
You arrive in SE7, however, with fabricated hope. How can you not? You have to believe there will be reward of some degree or battling against apathy to attend becomes a pointless fight.
Maybe the return of Nathan Byrne, having served a three-game suspension, would make a difference. The wide man coming into the starting XI for Jordan Botaka, while Stephy Mavididi, after his incredible solo run at Rochdale, earned himself a start ahead of Tony Watt. Jorge Teixeira, scorer of two goals after coming off the bench at Spotland, the third and final change to Robinson’s line-up, with Ezri Konsa absent through injury.
And maybe the return of Byrne would have made a difference had his 3rd-minute strike been just an inch or two lower. The winger invited to shoot from distance, and his effort bouncing back off the crossbar. Frustration, but so too an offering of genuine, rather than forced, hope.
Hope that Mavididi was also intent on contributing to. Early cries of encouragement as he made bold and brave runs down the left flank, forcing men in Oxford shirts onto the backfoot. A shame that, particularly after cutting inside and shooting tamely at goal, an end product eluded him.
But either side of those two chances, there was defensive uncertainty. Teixeira looking extremely uncomfortable, and the U’s finding themselves in some threatening positions. The inability to defend that was on display at the weekend seemingly unaddressed, as Antonio Martinez, Marvin Johnson and McAleny asked early questions of this unsettled backline.
There didn’t, however, appear to be too much danger for the Addicks when McAleny picked up the ball in the centre of midfield and drove forward. Teixeira standing off him, but the Everton loanee with little support and still some work to do before striking towards goal became a realistic option.
But, with Charlton’s Portuguese defender continuing to stand off him and McAleny still pushing forward, the shot was effectively being encouraged. A shot he took from 30 yards, driven across the turf and aimed perfectly towards the far corner of Rudd’s goal. The goalkeeper beaten, the ball bouncing in off the post, and something of a potshot exposing the defensive woes of the Addicks.
McAleny racing away to celebrate something he never managed in Charlton colours – a goal at The Valley – as home supporters found themselves inflicted with misery once again. Chances not taken, questionable defending, and an opposition goal. This an all too familiar story.
And just eight minutes later, further exploitation of the dreadful defensive organisation of Robinson’s side should have allowed Oxford to add to their 12th minute opener. Phil Edwards left unmarked from a Johnson free-kick, and the defender heading a glorious chance over the bar. The good fortunate not preventing the night’s first chorus of boos from the Covered End.
At least, amid the chaos at the back, there was some degree of threat further forward. Lewis Page’s low delivery met by Josh Magennis, but the forward unable to divert it towards goal, before Mavididi’s strike from the edge of the box forced a save out of visiting stopper Simon Eastwood.
Further solace provided by the fact that, though they battling incredibly hard and appearing the much more determined and settled side, Michael Appleton’s men lacked a touch of quality in the final third. Further frustration expressed at Charlton’s backline as Sercombe was allowed to drive into the box, but his shot tamely driven across the face of goal.
With the deficit remaining at one, therefore, there always a chance this tepid and uninspiring effort from the Addicks would be livened up by a goal their performance did not warrant. Teixeira looping a header over the bar after a Ricky Holmes free-kick in a promising position had been deflected behind.
But these half chances, largely coming as a consequence of threatening runs down the left flank, were not enough. Neither to appease, nor to cover up the inadequacy of Charlton’s performance. The defence remaining a shambles, passes rushed or panicked, and both Andrew Crofts and Jake Forster-Caskey being bullied in the centre of midfield. An unstructured mess.
And as half-time approached, Oxford might well have gained themselves a two-goal advantage. Johnson far too easily getting himself in behind down the left, with several unmarked Oxford shirts in the centre awaiting his cut back, but the winger selfishly opted to shoot from a tight angle. Rudd gathering the ball at the near post.
A chance that provided unneeded confirmation that boos would meet the half-time whistle. The Addicks needing to appear after the break with some degree of defensive structure, much greater composure in the centre and, above anything else, a reasonable degree of determination and intensity. All of that completely absent in the opening 45.
The second period’s opening moments, however, offered little hope of change. Still there were struggles at the back, as a half-cleared corner allowed Sercombe to test Rudd, and still there was nothing in midfield, as Crofts in particular continued to concede possession almost metronomically.
It Crofts’ midfield partner that was sacrificed, however, as Watt and Joe Aribo were introduced in an attempt to inject some life into this dire performance. Forster-Caskey and Byrne removed.
And, with Watt playing just behind a previously extremely isolated Magennis, there was an immediate improvement. An immediate improvement that led to Charlton’s best few minutes of the game. Minutes that probably should have produced an equaliser.
First, it was poor decision making that denied the Addicks. Watt played through down the right, his cut back to Holmes perfect for a first-time finish, but the winger taking far too long on the ball and allowing a sea of Oxford bodies to shut him down.
Then it was the turn of the post. Mavididi doing marvellously well to cut inside from the left and somehow work himself an inch of space amid several visiting defenders, but his effort rebounded back off the woodwork.
And finally, it was the goalkeeper. Eastwood down low to save a Crofts attempt from a relatively tight angle, before pouncing on a fiercely struck Arbio effort having parried the ball initially. A battle in the mind between the missed chance frustration that has overwhelmed in recent weeks, and the hope that creating chances provides.
It soon emerged that frustration was the correct emotion to hold. That intensity lasting little more than three minutes, as Edwards fired over for the visitors and the Addicks returned to a side devoid of energy and ideas.
A rare moment of further anticipation arriving just before the 70th minute, as a ball over the top sent Magennis through one-on-one with Eastwood, but the goalkeeper was to the bouncing ball quickly enough to block the forward’s stab towards goal. But, as was the case with any previous moment of encouragement, the feelings of despair and disgust soon returned.
For barely a moment later, it was effectively game over. Not because Oxford doubled their advantage, but because they gained an advantage in terms of men on the pitch. Solly dismissed for a late, and not particularly necessary, challenge on U’s captain John Lundstram in the centre of the pitch.
More energy put into the protestations by the Addicks that followed referee Ward displaying his red card than would be seen for the remaining 20 minutes. Any sort of structure there was completely dismantled, heads dropping, and determination absent.
Holmes effectively playing both at right-back and on the right side of the midfield, though a lop-sided defensive line stood for most of the time. Something Appleton attempted to exploit by introducing Kane Hemmings. Both he and McAleny seeing efforts saved by Rudd prior to the game entering its final ten minutes.
A final ten minutes that featured numerous incidents of Oxford time wasting, but they really didn’t need to. The determination of the visitors meant they looked assured in their attempts to protect their advantage, while Charlton’s tame and unstructured nature meant they offered very little. More energy in the stands, as this disillusioned group of supporters stood to demand Duchatelet sell the club.
Bauer heading wide from a corner, and Edwards firing off-target from a promising position at the other end, but this game petering out and heading towards the confirmation of the punishment the performance of Robinson’s side warranted. Five minutes of stoppage-time not offering hope of that changing.
But deep into those additional minutes, a corner was forced. Rudd thrown up, and one last rally in desperate hope this pathetic performance would end with an unwarranted equaliser being snatched. Ryan Ledson, stood on the far post, needed to make sure that wasn’t the case, as the Oxford midfielder nodded Bauer’s header away from goal, and Holmes’ follow up was blocked.
It doing absolutely nothing to change the predictable mood come the full-time whistle that followed seconds later. The Valley crowd vigorous in their booing and showing of discontent, the Addicks despondent, and Robinson exiting down the tunnel without acknowledgement. The bleak night getting the grim ending it deserved.
For Oxford, however, this was a moment to savour. And a moment they had more than done enough to deserve. A collective that had shown fabulous determination to protect their lead throughout the game applauding a jubilant set of visiting supporters; you couldn’t help but feel a degree of envy.
It Robinson’s favourite line when things go against the Addicks that other clubs are jealous, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. You wanted to be one of the supporters in the away end, sharing a moment of joy with a side and club they were connected to. You didn’t want to be a regular occupier of a Valley seat, enduring another moment of despair and having to find the energy to express disgust once again.
A performance that simply wasn’t anywhere near good enough. A defence without composure, a midfield without the ability to make simple passes and compete, forwards without any degree of ruthlessness. It a repeat of the previous five weeks, only worse.
Made worse not only be the accumulation of these dire efforts, but the increasing lack of effort from those in red. Robinson’s talk not something that would inspire me, but that little excuse for the side continuing to show very little determination. You want to believe they’re giving their all, as professionals and a group presenting the Addicks, but I just can’t.
And while the players must ask themselves questions, Robinson seems to have no response for the questions that face him. Or at least he seems too transfixed to a formation that evidently is limiting the Addicks, and has no idea how to provide the changes that will lead to improvement. Again, there no composure on the ball, again, the 4-5-1 variant left Magennis isolated and limited.
But ultimately, as has been the case on the countless similar nights under The Valley’s floodlights while this regime have ruled, the importance of the manager, the players and the performance is prevented from being the most pressing concern by the overall state of the club.
They need to be doing more, and it not an excuse for either the performance nor decision making, but this group of players and their manager are not the first to struggle while under this regime. While Duchatelet’s disease spreads through the club’s veins.
That the Addicks find themselves closer to League One’s bottom four than they do the play-offs is a reflection of a struggling side, but more so a club that has been ripped apart.
It has been reinforced again and again that change – both in mood and performances – is not possible while this regime remains. Their stubbornness, as they oversee the demise of this football club, is sickening. Duchatelet ignorant to the suffering, felt by both club and its supporters, caused.
Empty, deflated, distraught. Too apathetic for anger. Too overwhelmed by sadness as this football club sinks even lower not to feel heartbroken.
These bleak nights really do hurt.