A chant was bellowed out by those in the Covered End as full-time approached that always carries with it a certain amount of emotion. It never one sang half-heartedly.
But on this night, on this occasion, a collective cry of “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” sent towards those representing Charlton Athletic contained even greater meaning that it might normally do.
For on this night, their shirts carried more than just the club’s badge. It carried a reminder of what this night was really about. A reminder that a proud performance had to be delivered.
PC Keith Palmer’s name emblazed on their chests. The season-ticket holder who tragically lost his life in the Westminster terror attack. For who this fixture, against MK Dons, was dedicated to.
A permanent source of motivation from which to produce this expected proud performance, though a determination to deliver should have been set in stone following the most marvellous of pre-match tributes for this fallen hero.
It had taken extreme sadness to bring this fractured club together and for persistent pain to be replaced by pride. But this togetherness and pride was special. The pre-match display, and a powerful minute of silence to honour PC Palmer, was the Charlton Athletic Roland Duchatelet’s regime has hidden from view.
It took just seven minutes for those fractures to reappear. Harvey Barnes cutting inside and shooting, his effort parried by Declan Rudd, and Stuart O’Keefe turning in the loose ball. Already the sense of pride damaged, replaced by a familiar feeling of pain.
Surely, however, there would be a response. Karl Robinson’s side would be motivated not only by being separated from League One’s bottom four by just four points, but by an occasion that didn’t deserve to have its pride damaged. On this night, they could only deliver.
But there was to be no response. No fight, no energy and no effort seen throughout the game. A fragmented side without quality and a group of characters who, in their gutless performance, displayed a symptom of Duchatelet’s disease rather than dig deep to deliver the expected performance of pride.
An attitude that suggested defeat was accepted and escape from The Valley pitch craved when Barnes, invited to shoot from the edge of the box, doubled the visitors’ advantage with 57 minutes played. At no point did the Addicks look like reaching an acceptable level of performance, let alone getting back into the contest.
And as such, this was a performance that would have disgraced under any circumstance. The boos come full-time for Robinson and his players, full of anger and totally warranted, would have been heard on any other night following such a pathetic display.
But to perform without any degree of character or fight on such a night went beyond measurable levels of disgrace.
Their performance had made anger the overriding emotion on a night where it should have been pride. Their performance reaffirmed a disconnection between supporters and club, on a night where unity and togetherness had been shown prior to kick-off. Their performance embarrassing, on a night where they had all the tools and motivations to make it otherwise.
They had not been fit to wear the shirt. To wear this shirt that carried both the Charlton badge and PC Palmer’s name.
The pre-match tribute to PC Palmer needing only to be followed by a fighting performance in his name for them to be perfect. No more could have been done away from the game itself to honour a supporter who lost his life in such tragic circumstances.
No more by the club, and no more by those paying their respects. That a Millwall scarf was tied to the Sam Bartram statue, bellow which sat several floral tributes, maybe best portraying the unified response this tragic incident has garnered. Togetherness felt outside The Valley, more than an hour before kick-off.
While the solitary white seat in a section of the East Stand made it all feel very real. That white seat previously the red season-ticket seat of PC Palmer, which he would not occupy again. His warrant number printed across it, and sadness felt at the powerful sight of it.
And in this environment, where displays that brought both pride and sadness mixed, the strength of character shown by John Curtis, brother of PC Palmer, as he led the teams out was immense. Members of the police followed, and their representative joined captains Johnnie Jackson and Dean Lewington in laying wreaths on the centre spot. Teams, police, and PC Palmer’s brother standing together, in unison with all inside The Valley, to observe a minute’s silence that was impossible not to get lost in the emotion of.
PC Palmer remembered, respected, honoured. The delivering of a performance that mirrored the pride shown in these tributes was now expected to follow. As each player in red shook hands with or hugged Curtis, you hoped they would be motivated by the occasion, and you hoped it would.
You hoped, too, that the changes Robinson had made to his side from the pathetic display in defeat to Peterborough United on Saturday would increase the chances of a positive result. The most welcomed maybe the absence of Lee Novak after his efforts at London Road, with Josh Magennis starting up top, but the returns after injury for Chris Solly and Jason Pearce, replacing Nathan Byrne and Jorge Teixeira, were equally as pleasing.
Joe Aribo also coming into the side, with Fredrik Ulvestad missing out, and a first start for Jay Dasilva, as Adam Chicksen dropped to the bench. The side freshened up; a result needed.
Alas, neither the occasion nor the changes could invoke a positive start form the Addicks. The Valley crowd playing its part, following further tributes to PC Palmer with vocal support, but their side forced onto the backfoot within the game’s first five minutes. Robbie Neilson’s side capitalising on a sluggishness in Charlton’s midfield, while the pace of Barnes and Robbie Muirhead found the Dons in behind down either flank almost immediately.
And a certain amount of sluggishness meant the Addicks may have found themselves behind with six minutes played. No real reaction to a short corner from the opposition, Barnes receiving the ball in space on the edge of Charlton’s box, but able only to fire over the bar.
A moment that should have acted as a warning to Robinson’s men, and possibly kicked them into life. Instead, space was offered to Barnes again just a minute later, and the consequences were far more damaging on this occasion.
Plenty of moments in which MK’s attack could have been stopped, not least when the unchallenged George Baldock was allowed to produce a cross that skimmed off the head of Solly into Barnes’ path, but the Leicester loanee ultimately able to take advantage of Charlton’s lacklustre defensive efforts to cut inside and drive towards goal.
His strike seen late by Rudd, and the goalkeeper able only to parry it straight to the feet of O’Keefe. The former Crystal Palace midfielder pouncing, and giving Dons the lead before the hosts had really got out of their half. A Valley still basking in its pride-inducing display suddenly crippled by feelings of pain and fear.
Feelings that only increased as the Addicks, to the frustration of the home supporters, continued to show no composure whatsoever in midfield. Sideways passing between those in defence so often being followed by possession being cheaply given away once over the halfway line. This not the performance that such circumstances demanded.
Particularly as there was no real intent or desire to win the ball back once it was given away. Ben Reeves dictating, and frequently able to feed Muirhead and Barnes down either flank. Too often were they getting in behind Charlton’s full-backs.
Hope, possibly, that Robinson’s side were about to grow into the contest as Dasilva’s delivery found Ricky Holmes, and the winger fired narrowly wide, but a rare opening for the Addicks did nothing to change the pattern of the game.
In fact, from MK’s next meaningful attack, they might well have doubled their advantage. Muirhead in behind again down the left, ultimately pulling back to Ed Upson inside the box, and a desperate block from Jackson required to keep out his strike. The Valley, if it hadn’t already beginning to lose patience.
Wayward shots from distance, as Holmes and Jake Forster-Caskey both fired horribly off-target, not doing anything to halt the growing anger among the home supporters, who still hadn’t seen their side make a meaningful passing move with the game 35 minutes old. There no quality or effort to this performance whatsoever.
As such, there could have been no complaints if the hosts had gone it at half-time two goals behind. Barnes, for the umpteenth time, in behind and firing across the face of goal but too powerfully for anyone in the centre to divert goalwards.
The youngster, as influential on this game as anyone else, also guilty of applying too much power to his shot when a chance next fell his way, as a combination of Solly and Rudd prevented O’Keefe from turning a Baldock cross home and the loose ball fell kindly to him. A clear sight of goal, but firing wildly off-target.
A second Dons goal not needed, however, for Charlton to be serenaded by a chorus of boos as the half-time whistle blew. The almost anonymous Magennis and Watt seeing tame efforts from an angle saved prior to the interval, but there remained no attacking quality or intent. The performance lifeless, effortless and stale.
There a need for a monumental improvement after the break, but Muirhead heading over from a Lewington delivery before the forward lifted a free-kick over the bar inside the second period’s first few minutes was hardly encouraging. The home crowd, justifiably returning to the disconnected state so often occupied while Duchatelet has been in control, needed to be shown something that would make them have at least a degree of belief.
Instead, they received the punishment that destroyed all faith, and meant the pre-match pride was all but lost. The Dons doubling their lead with 12 second half minutes played. Upson sending Barnes through, and the winger finishing well to score the goal his performance probably deserved.
As he jumped in celebration, home supporters slumped. “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” followed by a series of ground-wide, passionately sung, anti-regime chants. Anti-regime chants not interrupted by Watt wasting a wonderful opportunity to half the deficit, heading Dasilva’s delivery wide at the back post.
The fight, the effort, even the professional pride. None of it was there. The pre-match events should have motivated the Addicks to perform, but instead this performance was so poor it was distracting from the good of the tribute to PC Palmer.
So poor, that a shot on target got sarcastic cheers from the Covered End. Patrick Bauer heading a free-kick straight into the hands of Lee Nicholls. The comeback most certainly not on.
Even with MK, as the game entered its final 20 minutes, sitting deeper and playing more conservatively, they still possessed greater intent then their trailing opponents. Rudd needing a second attempt to gather Barnes’ drive from distance, while Dasilva delivered to centre forwards who weren’t there and Holmes ran into dead ends.
And with ten to play, the visitors were able to create two genuine chances to claim a third. Upson’s effort from the edge of the box taking a wicked deflection and requiring Rudd to readjust himself in order to make the save, before substitute Kieran Agard volleyed against the post from close range. Charlton’s defensive efforts as tame as ever.
A delivery towards Magennis the final opportunity for this pathetic group of Addicks to reclaim the smallest amount of pride, but the forward headed comfortably over the bar. A chance that he should have done better with, but it hardly mattered. The game long lost, and the attitude of those in red long making The Valley atmosphere flicker between apathetic and poisonous.
It most certainly poisonous as the final whistle blew. Boos for this outrageously pathetic effort ringing out around The Valley, and at their loudest when a head-bowed Robinson made his way down the tunnel, with another reminder that this group of Addicks were not fit to wear the shirt.
Certainly not fit to wear the shirt that carried PC Palmer’s name. Not performing for the club has become such a regular occurrence it’s hardly surprising. To fail not only to perform, but to play without any degree of effort or determination on a night where so much pride in remembrance and honour was shown almost feels insulting.
How has it come to this? How do we find ourselves four points from the bottom four of League One, with a side who cannot motivate itself to perform on an evening where total commitment and determination was the absolute minimum expected?
The victory for MK Dons so simple. The midfield battle almost always theirs, no pressure applied to the likes of Reeves and Upson when in possession, and Barnes in particular able to run riot down the flanks. Charlton offering little challenge.
Robinson appearing more powerless, more pathetic, by the week. Not only unable to motivate his players, but his side structureless and lacking any sort of cohesion. The defence a shambles, the midfield non-existent, no threat in attack.
Not a player in red doing themselves proud, and if there was their performance was lost in an embarrassing collective effort. Much like that embarrassing collective effort meant the pride shown prior to kick-off has been lost.
Their performance not tainting PC Palmer’s tribute. It too powerful, too moving, for that to happen. But it has replaced that pride with the familiar feelings of pain and disconnection.
Disconnection, on a night where supporters, players and many others stood to honour one of our own. Disconnection should not have been on the agenda tonight. But when a side, representing a club that has been crippled and so often insults its supporters, performs without any fight, how can there be any sort of connection?
A side that has failed to alleviate fears of relegation. There no solace to be taken from the fact that we play four of the division’s bottom five in our final five games, before the bottom five of League Two would comfortably beat us should we repeat such a pathetic performance. And it’s difficult to see where the required improvement to win games of football is coming from.
PC Palmer’s tribute offered a glimpse of the football club we were once proud of, but that now just feels more distant than it did before tonight.