The picture at full-time one seen on several occasions at The Valley this season. Pained expressions on the faces of half of those wearing Charlton Athletic red, and the other half with heads and bodies bowed. A draw with Bradford City, but one that had provided the disappointment of defeat to Karl Robinson’s men.
The sounds, however, were very different to what has normally accompanied such a scene. Booing and anger replaced by an unrelenting rendition of “Robinson’s red army”. On this occasion, disappointment was not an emotion that had found its way into the sparsely populated stands in SE7.
For on this occasion, the Addicks had done themselves proud. They had performed with pride in front of a set of supporters who have so often been left embarrassed by their team’s pathetic performances. Genuine appreciation for the unquestionable effort, determination and drive of their side over one of the best 45 minute periods of a bleak season.
Pride that, on the blowing of the referee’s final whistle, a group of players who had devoted every last bit of energy to the Charlton cause weren’t yet able to acknowledge. Disappointment existing because, despite giving absolutely everything in the second half, their efforts were not enough to gain three points. Three points that were warranted, and would have been claimed with only the slightest touch of composure in front of goal.
That victory was warranted is quite a bold claim to make after a first half in which the Addicks were a defensive shambles, and struggled to make any sort of impression going forward. Fortunate that their defensive sluggishness, frequently allowing their opponents into promising positions down either flank, was not taken advantage of.
Fortunate, too, to take a 35th-minute lead that, at the time, certainly wasn’t warranted. Having been on the back foot for the duration of the half and created next to nothing, there shock around the ground as Patrick Bauer knocked Ricky Holmes’ free-kick into the path of Jorge Teixeira, who volleyed home with the confidence of a centre-forward.
But it only seven minutes before the Bantams finally made use of their constant exploitation of a struggling Charlton backline. A corner not defended properly, Mark Marshall able to cut inside and shoot, and his effort poorly parried by Declan Rudd. Timothee Deng pouncing on the loose ball and punishing both the Addicks and their goalkeeper.
Momentum with Stuart McCall’s promotion-chasing side, and a fear that their equaliser would give them the confidence to turn persistent threat into something more menacing during the second period. But the group of Addicks that emerged after the interval were not the same as the group that played in the opening 45.
No player in Bradford colours given more than a moment on the ball without a player in red applying pressure. Robinson’s men pressing in unrelenting fashion, finding energy and effort that had been absent throughout the first half. Pressing that was the catalyst for Charlton becoming totally dominant.
Domination that should have been converted into an advantage. Lee Novak turning Holmes’ delivery over the bar from a yard out, Tony Watt volleying horribly off-target after a deflected shot had fallen his way, and no one able to poke home after another Holmes delivery caused chaos in Bradford’s penalty area. The lack of a finishing touch the only factor tainting this second-half display of drive and determination.
The only factor that left those in red appearing crushed come the game’s conclusion. What they had given warranted more. They deserved to be finding the energy from within their exhausted bodies to celebrate.
But the wastefulness in front of goal, horrendous though it was, was not to silence a Valley crowd creating the sort of noise that a properly populated Valley would have been proud of.
Like the knowledge that a takeover of this football club will be a drawn out process won’t taint the hope that comes from the suggestion Roland Duchatelet is on the verge of selling, the wasted chances have not tainted the wonderful feeling of pride those in red provided. Pride that they themselves should also be feeling.
It merely 45 minutes, it not a victory, and it detracts neither from the state of the football club and a season of failure. But in a period where this football club has felt so distant from its supporters, where players have performed in ways that suggested they didn’t care, those 45 minutes provided solace. Provided something that felt like Charlton.
In addition, the expectation before kick-off was that avoiding crushing defeat would be a relative success for Robinson’s depleted side. At least they were facing McCall’s promotion-chasers, arriving in SE7 with the second best away record in League One, with two recognised centre-backs as Patrick Bauer returned to the side.
Alas, there still concerns with the defence as an injury to Nathan Byrne meant Adam Chicksen was forced to fill in at right-back, while Joe Aribo’s absence meant a rather one-dimensional midfield three of Andrew Crofts, Johnnie Jackson and Fredrik Ulvestad was formed. Holmes sat just in front, with Novak, taking the place left empty by Byrne’s withdrawal, coming into the side to partner Watt in attack. An XI that made the best of a bad situation.
But the early signs suggested that the Addicks were to find themselves in a bad situation, and be unable to make anything of it. Possession lost in midfield, allowing Romain Vincelot to fire just wide from distance, before a threatening Bradford move ended with Tony McMahon blasting over. A sluggishness about Charlton’s play and a sluggishness in the stands as the Bantams began brightly.
Respite for the Addicks as Watt drove across the face of goal, evading Novak in the centre, but not something that changed the pattern of the contest. Possession being given away far too cheaply, Bradford allowed far too much time and space to constantly drive forward, and a constant threat down either flank.
It to the left that the Bantams looked to take most of their attacks, and it of no surprise with the Addicks struggling to halt the runs of James Meredith and Mark Marshall. The pair linking up well, and constantly getting into excellent crossing positions, but seemingly still finding their range when it came to delivering an accurate final ball. An accurate ball that would surely come if they continued to be given so much time and space.
And accuracy of sorts began to be found through the medium of set-pieces. McMahon’s ambitious free-kick held by Rudd, before Rory McArdle headed a corner back across goal for an unmarked Nathaniel Knight-Percival to head over. The vocal visiting supporters encouraged; the concern of the frustrated home supporters growing deeper.
The only real solace for Valley regulars was that for all this Bradford domination, controlling a game against a midfield that appeared absent and a defence lacking any degree of structure or composure, they were not creating the chances to match. A final ball still lacking.
Particularly frustrating, therefore, for the visitors that a rare opportunity for Charlton to deliver a ball into the box ended in success. Centre-back partners combining in the opposition’s box as Bauer peeled off his man to nod down Holmes’ free-kick, allowing the relatively potent Teixeira to pounce and emphatically force the Addicks in front. Not a chance this was deserved, but that not robbing the home supporters of an opportunity to celebrate.
Alas, the nature of the performance up to taking the lead meant that the chance to celebrate had not removed caution and concern from the minds of Addicks. The Bantams back into a rhythm right from the restart, and it apparent that the ten minutes that remained until half-time were going to be particularly difficult ones for Charlton. So difficult, in fact, that they could only survive seven of them.
And though Dieng’s equaliser merely robbed the Addicks of an advantage that their performance had not warranted, there remained immense frustration at the manner in which Robinson’s men had gifted their opponents a leveller. Marshall allowed to shoot following a half-cleared corner, his effort straight at Rudd but the goalkeeper fumbled, and Dieng was able to nod the loose ball over the line. A completely avoidable goal.
In superbly turning his man with a clever dummy before forcing City goalkeeper Colin Doyle into a strong save, Watt attempted to deliver encouragement to the home support, but an equaliser that reflected the overall defensive effort of the hosts meant the half-time whistle blew with Addicks concerned. A dramatic improvement required in the second period, or the Bantams would surely find further opportunities to take advantage.
But there some positive signs in the opening minutes following the interval. Expectations still low, and kept so with Marshall driving forward unchallenged and firing just wide, but a previously quiet Holmes had come alive. The winger winning a corner, and his resulting delivery causing a scramble in the Bradford box that Novak almost capitalised on.
A bit of noise from the Covered End following, and the volume increasing after Crofts, having endured as tough an opening 45 as anyone in red, volleyed just over from the best part of 30 yards, but it was not half-chances that were providing encouragement to The Valley crowd. It was the fact that their side had displayed more energy, intent and determination in the second half’s opening ten minutes than throughout the duration of the first.
Bradford now not creating because their wide men were lacking a final ball, but because they weren’t being allowed to bomb forward through midfield. Each and every Addick, with even Watt and Novak charging around the pitch, pressing their opponents and allowing them no time on the ball. The Bantams quite visibly shaken.
The Addicks quite visibly finding another level. Holmes bursting into the box from the right, spotting an unmarked Novak in the centre, and delivering the perfect ball. A mixture of pain and shock filling The Valley’s stands as the forward, getting a full connection as he stretched to meet the flat cross, somehow managed to diver the ball over the bar. A truly horror miss.
No rest for the lungs of the Covered End, however, as they continued to suck their side towards Bradford’s penalty area. The reward surely coming on this occasion as Novak’s deflected shot fell perfectly for Watt. Instead, the reward for miss of the match now had competition, as the Scot volleyed off-target in unbelievable fashion.
The encouragement continuing, and the home supporters trying to put the misses to one side in order to appreciate this impressive Charlton performance, but there a fear punishment would ultimately come for failing to take these chances. Ulvestad dragging a shot narrowly wide from the edge of the box, before a mix-up between Crofts and Watt meant an opportunity to burst through on goal wasn’t taken.
But that fear was being controlled by the continued determination of the Addicks when out of possession, and by how tame the Bantams now looked in comparison to their unrelenting attacks offered in the opening 45. Jackson blocking a Billy Clarke shot behind more a moment of respite for the visitors than one of concern for the hosts.
Greater concern for the hosts when Lewis Page went down with 70 minutes played. The injury-prone left-back needing to be withdrawn, with the rarely used Jay Dasilva introduced, and there a slight worry Charlton’s momentum might be affected.
That, however, was not the case. The Addicks still applying unrelenting pressure, and still the side seemingly most likely to steal victory. Ezri Konsa, also introduced at the same time as Dasilva with Crofts making way, sending Novak free down the left, a cut back picking out Holmes, but the winger taking too long in possession and his shot ultimately blocked.
Though it was weak defending from Dasilva that allowed Bradford their first real opening for the best part of 25 minutes. Clarke cutting inside, beyond the left-back, and shooting for Rudd to save in the bottom corner.
A half-chance, but a chance for Charlton to justify a change in their mentality. A little over 15 minutes to play, protect what would be a point gained against strong opposition, and sit deeper. Something the Addicks have done on several occasions this season, and normally not successfully.
Instead, they continued to press, and continued to create chances. Big chances. Holmes’ free-kick picking out Teixeira at the back post, but the centre-back lacked the potency of his earlier effort, nodding straight into the hands of Doyle from a glorious position.
Each time Watt, Holmes or Novak drove forward there was a sense of anticipation. Each time Holmes stood over a set-piece or shaped to cross there was genuine belief. Watt winning a free-kick, Holmes delivering, and the ball bobbling around Bradford’s six-yard box for what felt like an age without anyone in red able to poke home.
Another Watt run, another cynical Bradford foul, another free-kick for Holmes to stand over. But Jackson claimed ownership of this one, as a chorus of “Johnnie, oh Johnnie Jackson” emerged from the Covered End, and curling an effort that may have just clipped the bar. Five minutes to play, and as such this was a time were close efforts offered as much frustration as they did encouragement.
Five minutes to find the winner that this Charlton effort, the actual drive and determination of the side as much as the chances created, warranted. Five minutes, also, to avoid the cruellest of defeats. Teixeira’s header from a Charlton corner hacked away close to the line, before determined defending was required to prevent the Bantams threatening from corners of their own.
Alas, as Marshall’s wayward strike trickled towards the corner flag, the sound of the full-time whistle meant it was a draw that both teams had to settle for. A result that did Bradford few favours in their hunt for an automatic promotion spot, and a result that wasn’t just reward for the unrelenting efforts of the Addicks during the second period. It a result that, in different ways, neither side were pleased about.
But if you were walking past The Valley, only able to hear what was occurring inside its walls, you would assume it was Charlton that had finished the game victorious. Supporters that have suffered so much, so often finding themselves detached and deflated, desperate to show their appreciation for a second-half performance that was wonderful.
The failure to turn a point into three was of minute importance; the fight and determination shown meant everything to the Addicks.
The home crowd still chanting until the very last Charlton body left the field and headed down the tunnel. This a rare moment, in this dire season and dire period, to truly enjoy. In many ways, it mattered not that those chances had not been taken.
It mattered because you could not help but feel gutted for those in red come full-time, knowing they had given their absolute all but had been left disappointed. Given their all after a period where their effort and commitment and rightfully been questioned. They deserved not be facing the floor in frustration, but facing the supporters with pride.
You wanted to see celebrations from Watt, Holmes and Novak. Watt a relentless threat, Holmes delivering marvellous balls and battling for every ball, and Novak, in what was probably his best performance for the club, persistently pressing while providing genuine concern for the opposition backline. If only one of those chances had been taken.
In previous games that have ended without victory, we have wasted chances that were created in spite of a wretched performances. These were chances that were created because of an excellent performance. Chances that should have been taken, and would have given this determined effort the reward it warranted.
But it mattered not because it took nothing away from a performance that spread pride around The Valley. The recovery from a dire first-half effort, the unrelenting pressing, and the persistent threat going forward that pushed a side pushing for promotion onto the back foot. A marvellous 45 minutes, which cannot allowed to be tarnished by those wasted openings.
If there was something to play for, if we needed points to push for the top six or the threat of relegation hadn’t been quelled, then the missed chances would be a great frustration. In these circumstances, where mid-table obscurity is all but confirmed and a season where supporters have endured relentless misery is petering out into nothing, a charismatic performance can be celebrated before the disappointment of wasted chances is considered.
It simply felt heart-warming to see a Charlton side show so much determination, so much fight, and so much effort. A complete contrast to the efforts against Oldham, Oxford, Bury, Shrewsbury or Northampton. Genuine fight on show, and it great to see.
Equally great to get behind it. To hear the Covered End, despite it lacking bodies and the damage Duchatelet’s regime has done to the club still visible by the sea of empty seats all over the ground, find its voice. Certainly one of the better Valley nights in recent times.
A distraction from the suffering and failure. Energy on the pitch, and in the stands. Won’t it be wonderful when that energy is harnessed by whoever it may be that is hopefully buying this football club?