In the final weeks of a disappointing season, where games are to be played that have neither genuine consequence on the top or bottom of the division, creating encouragement becomes as important as creating celebration.
The value of victory, knowing that three points merely changes the position of Charlton Athletic among League One’s also-rans, decreasing, while the value of positive performances, with supporters wanting to see signs that Karl Robinson is capable of making the Addicks competitive in the next campaign, rises.
Which, of course, isn’t to suggest that points become an irrelevance. Certainly not an irrelevance to the Addicks who had travelled to the Proact Stadium to see Charlton’s final away game of this tiresome campaign. Certainly not an irrelevance as a 2-1 victory over Chesterfield, a first away victory in nine attempts, was celebrated come full-time.
A tiresome campaign of watching the Addicks on the road had produced only its fifth win. Some joy, as inconsequential as it might be, for supporters that have been subjected to persistent suffering. Delight amid the disappointment and despair.
Those supporters, however, had not seen a performance from Robinson’s side that meant their delight could translate into something that resembled optimism for next season. It, to some extent, a victory against the already relegated Spireites that relied upon good fortune. At the very least, it a performance that lacked the intensity of Monday’s effort against Gillingham.
So much so that the moment of quality that swayed the fixture in Charlton’s favour came not only out of the blue, but after Chesterfield had wasted a glorious chance to go ahead. Wastefulness from the home side, often failing to make the most of openings offered to them by poor defending, something that stuck with them, while Jake Forster-Caskey’s 37th-minute powerful strike from distance stuck into the bottom corner of Chesterfield’s net.
And as Gary Caldwell’s men pushed for an equaliser, fortune provided the assist for the Addicks to double their lead with 57 minutes played. Ricky Holmes’ free-kick deflecting off the head of a man in the Chesterfield wall, wrong footing Thorsten Stuckmann, and bouncing into an unguarded bottom corner.
The remainder of the game, however, giving off the impression that Charlton’s two-goal advantage was slightly flattering. The Addicks dropping deeper and deeper, defending with less and less composure, and most grateful to their opponents for their lack of composure in the final third.
Something of a tiresome final half hour, therefore, and three minutes of additional time set up to be particularly so as Chesterfield’s pressure finally told. Declan Rudd saving from David Faupala, but Reece Mitchell able to emphatically convert the rebound.
Tiresome, in fact, until the final kick of this campaign that won’t take place on The Valley’s turf, despite victory being secured. A penalty awarded to the Addicks as they broke and Jon Nolan hauled down Forster-Caskey, but the resulting spot-kick from the man fouled was saved by Stuckmann. It probably summing up an affair low on quality, with the final whistle immediately following.
The joy of the supporters concentrated in a rare positive result on the road, and not the repercussions of it. For if a foundation has been laid for the next campaign, by this victory and the two achieved in the previous three games, it is not a very stable one. You still look at Robinson’s Charlton with uncertainty.
And maybe, amid those full-time celebrations, a reminder was offered that there would be instability to any foundation set by Robinson’s Charlton. “We want Roland out” belted out passionately by almost all of those in the away end before a minute of victory being confirmed had even passed. You still look at Roland Duchatelet’s Charlton with complete disgust and distrust.
But what those three victories in four have done, and not least this first away win since January 28th, is provide the smallest amount of relief and respite to suffering supporters.
It those in the away end at the Proact, combining opposition to an awful regime and support for a side who have shown greater levels of determination and drive in recent weeks, who warranted the good fortune, as much as those representing the Addicks on the pitch.
A small one, and it not something that necessarily inspires hope of more, but some sort of reward for remaining defiant in this season of dire despair.
The promise of some of Charlton’s younger players being handed starts, and the run without victory on the road, meant a replication of the ruthless win over Gillingham wasn’t necessarily expected, but the side Robinson named wasn’t as inexperienced as was hinted at.
Karlan Ahearne-Grant, handed his first start since December 2015, came into the starting XI in place of Jordan Botaka, but otherwise the side representing the Addicks had something of a familiar feel to it. Patrick Bauer dropping to the bench, though only to allow Ezri Konsa to take up his more natural centre-back position, while Joe Aribo took the spot vacated by Konsa in midfield.
But despite changes to the XI that was so impressive against the Gills being minimal, the Addicks started at the Proact in an unconvincing, unsettled fashion. A better connection from Mitchell in the middle after teenager Joe Rowley had broken free down the right far too easily might have put the hosts ahead with just two minutes played, but Charlton were just about able to scramble clear.
In fact, the threat of Rowley and Mitchell were causing persistent concern in the game’s opening minutes. Nathan Byrne and Jay Dasilva seemingly a step behind each time, as the Spireites midfield looked to set one of the pair through as soon as they received the ball. Rowley playing centrally but running into wide positions, while Mitchell hugged the touchline.
And it was the former who was involved as the hosts tested Declan Rudd for the first time. Rowley combining with Dan Gardner, allowing the winger to break into the box and sting Rudd’s pals with an effort that was only claimed at the second attempt. A sigh of relief that Gardner had shot and not cut the ball back, where several blue shirts stood unmarked.
Slowly, however, the Addicks were beginning to grow into the game. Remaining unconvincing defensively, but displaying greater threat and fluency going forward. Holmes first of all driving wide after a half-cleared ball fell to him, before driving down the left and seeing his cut back intercepted by Tom Anderson with Josh Magennis lurking.
And, as is so often the case, this growth in attacking threat continued to be led by Holmes. Having earlier, in disappointing fashion by his standards, struck a free-kick against the Chesterfield wall, a second invitation to display his dead ball skills was made better use of. The effort heading for the top corner, until the fingertips of Stuckmann tipped the ball over the bar.
Holmes, and his incredibly consistent free-kick qualities, were generating more noise from an away end already making themselves hear. Chants against Duchatelet persistent in the opening stages of the match, though mixed with support of the side.
Mixed, too, with cries of frustration, and not just because the Addicks remained unconvincing at the back. Magennis played through into a fantastic shooting position, but managing only a tame prod towards goal that was easily claimed by Stuckmann.
And with that, the game settled into something of a rhythm. A rhythm of both sides exchanging attempts to get forward, normally having given an opponent the ball, but lacking any sort of potency to make their moves count. Rowley and Mitchell still threatening, but lacking an end product, Andrew Crofts drove comfortably wide, and Konsa failed to turn being played through over the top into a shot on goal.
But it seemed that with 35 minutes played, an end to that rather tedious rhythm had been found, and a side had broken the deadlock. That side being the hosts, as Crofts had the ball robbed from his feet on the edge of the area and Rowley was able to break through. A pull back to Kristian Dennis but, through a combination of red shirts throwing themselves in front of the ball and the hand of Rudd as the deflected shot trickled backwards towards the line, the forward could not capitalise.
Charlton supporters still bemoaning their side’s inability to defend, and feeling thankful for their good fortune, as less than two minutes later the ball fell to Forster-Caskey on the edge of Chesterfield’s area. Nothing really on for the midfielder, though a bit of space ahead of him, so the January signing opted to drive towards goal. A drive that combined both beauty and power as it flew beyond Stuckmann and into the bottom corner.
Out of nothing, and having flirted with falling behind, a moment of quality that went against this game’s nature had given the Addicks the lead.
Though there were immediate reminders that Forster-Caskey’s sublime strike was neither a match winner, nor a justification for further untidy defending. A Chesterfield free-kick ultimately falling to Rowley, and an important block from Konsa required to prevent him from scoring. Nolan attempting to emulate Forster-Caskey with the follow-up, but instead sending the ball in the general direction of the corner flag.
And while there was still time for Holmes to bomb down the right and strike into the side netting, the half-time whistle was a sound of solace with the Addicks still appearing something of a mess at the back. A situation not helped by a sliced clearance by Rudd causing chaos at the back, but Konsa just about able to tidy up.
But the break was a source of solace because Robinson’s men had the lead. A lead that, with Chesterfield’s finishing so tame, they would surely protect if the backline could be sharpened up over the course of the interval.
Alas, the early signs as the second half got underway were not exactly encouraging. But at least the Spireites remained woeful in front of goal, as Dennis fired horribly off-target after taking advantage of a Konsa slip to move through goal, and Nolan got in behind down the left only to tamely poke an effort into the hands of Rudd.
Gardner soon to fire straight at Charlton’s goalkeeper from a half-cleared corner, but there would surely come a time when Chesterfield would make the most of one of their openings if they continued to be given them. The defence still concerning; a second goal needed.
And it looked to have been found when Ahearne-Grant was hauled down by Paul McGinn. For though contact most certainly started outside the box, it appeared to continue into it. Referee Salisbury, however, opting to award the Addicks a free-kick on the edge of the box.
But when you have a free-kick taker of the quality of Holmes, a free-kick can often produce the same reward that a penalty might. Certainly not the winger’s finest effort, with the ball bouncing off the Chesterfield wall and ultimately trickling into the opposite corner he was aiming for, but another dead ball had produced a goal for the Addicks. A goal so vital in the context of the match.
And you could be forgiven, despite Robinson’s side being underwhelming and there still 33 minutes to be played, that the deflected strike had effectively sealed Charlton’s three points. McGinn’s ball across the face of goal, which needed just a touch to be turned home, a reminder of the wastefulness and tameness of this Chesterfield side, who would surely not recover from two down.
To the credit of Caldwell’s side, however, they had not yet accepted defeat. Mitchell’s striking wide from a promising position, substitute David Faupala not quite getting enough on a Rowley cross to divert it beyond Rudd, and Dennis dragging a first-time effort across the face of goal and wide. The Addicks sitting deeper, and the already relegated Spireites, with nothing to lose and plenty of youth in their side, having a go.
Having a go to the extent that, with 16 minutes still to play, they were agonisingly close to putting themselves back in with a shout of stealing a point. Anderson’s knock down volleyed goalwards by Dennis, only for the ball to bounce back off the crossbar.
The ball also bouncing back off the hands of Rudd, as the goalkeeper horribly fumbled a strike from Laurence Maguire. The ball travelling some distance out of his control, but there thankfully no man in blue inside Charlton’s box, and Rudd was able to pounce on the loose ball.
And so, despite the visitors having a two-goal advantage against an already relegated side going into the game’s final ten minutes, there was still an element of pressure on the Addicks. Pressure that was always eased by Chesterfield’s quite laughable inability to finish, as Rowley flashed wide from a half-cleared corner, but pressure all the same.
Pressure that would have been eased completely had Charlton substitute Jordan Botaka not done an impression of a Spireite forward. All the time in the world for the Leeds loanee to calmly finish after a Holmes cross came through to him at the back post, but instead the ball was blasted well over the bar.
A miss that, with the game now drawing close to stoppage-time, really shouldn’t have counted for anything. But in the first minute of three added, Chesterfield forwards stopped doing impressions of Chesterfield forwards.
That despite Faupala, in behind and firing straight at Rudd, doing his best to waste another glorious opening for the hosts. Mitchell alive to the loose ball, and depositing it right into the far top corner of the empty Charlton net.
Two more minutes still to play, the home crowd encouraged, and the visiting supporters uncomfortable. More importantly, the visiting defence was uncomfortable. As a series of long throws were launched into the box, time-displaying devices were looked at every half second in the away end, in the hope that would somehow speed up the arrival of the conclusion of this contest.
But there was speed displayed as, from another attempt from Chesterfield to get the ball into the box, the Addicks broke. Botaka leading the charge into the opposition penalty area, with Forster-Caskey with him for company all the way. The winger, probably quite wisely after his previous attempt, opting to pass to his teammate, only for Nolan to bundle Forster-Caskey over and concede a penalty.
This, irrespective of whether it was scored or not, was surely game over. Probably a contributing factor to the away end signing for skipper Johnnie Jackson, subbed on a few moments previously, to take the penalty despite his dubious record from the spot.
Instead, and with Holmes seemingly also taking an interest, it was the man fouled who placed the ball on the spot. Alas, so too did Forster-Caskey place the ball comfortably for Stuckmann to save.
The midfielder’s penalty, in some contrast to his goal, lacking power and direction, and Chesterfield’s goalkeeper able to at least prevent the scoreline from flattering the Addicks. The final scoreline, with the referee’s whistle blowing before Forster-Caskey had even placed his head in his hands.
But it mattered little, a source of humour in fact for seemingly both players and supporters, as a rather bizarre game ended in Charlton victory despite the miss.
Appreciation for the players was combined with determined and vocal shouts against the regime, but this remained a victory that, regardless of the overall context it sat in, was to be enjoyed.
Without a win on the road for almost three months, and with only four previously gained this season, there every reason to make the most of the final away game of this campaign providing a rare moment of joy.
And in some ways, this was the sort of away win that the Addicks have rarely had this season. Perform in a relatively unimpressive fashion but, through moments of quality and fortune that didn’t necessarily suit the overall pattern of the contest, secure victory nonetheless.
On many occasions, though still performing poorly, they have played in a manner that emulated Chesterfield. Incredibly tame in the final third despite getting into good positions, and cracking somewhat in the important moments both going forward and backwards.
That, in one respect, is credit to the increase in determination that has been on show since the pathetic defeat to MK Dons. If nothing else, you need a degree of determination to grind out unattractive wins.
In another, it is really down to good fortune. Holmes’ deflection and Chesterfield’s wastefulness allowing the Addicks to claim three points from a performance that wasn’t exactly worth of three points. Periods of sluggishness in possession, combined with horrendous defensive efforts that were somehow not capitalised on.
But make no mistake that there is enjoyment to be had in only the second away victory of the calendar year.
For particularly in this half of the season, there have been some unbearable games and moments on the road. To make a list would leave me forgetting some of the other horrendous experiences away from SE7 during this campaign, but Oldham, Shrewsbury and Peterborough spring to mind as being particularly painful.
And while Charlton’s unconvincing performance attempted to do otherwise, there was no pain to be had come full-time at the Proact.
Not a win to inspire or allow predictions of success next season, but, having witnessed all 23 league away games this season, merely a win to be enjoyed in isolation.
And if nothing else, I’m simply grateful that this torrid campaign of away performances has ended with victory.
Apologies for the lack of proper photos. My camera was confiscated because of “what’s going on at (our) club”. Stewards are strange people.