The final fixture of Charlton Athletic’s previous season in the third tier of English football was a unified scene of celebration. Stands occupied by Addicks in red and white, and a glorious mosaic of those colours displayed. A final opportunity to appreciate the champions.
But this final fixture of a League One season displayed a unified scene of opposition. Stands occupied by Addicks in black and white, supplemented by a sea of balloons and an array of banners. A final opportunity to express anger towards a regime that must depart.
The promise, as the suggestions that Roland Duchatelet is ready to sell a club he has poisoned, that the protests before, during and after the match against already relegated Swindon Town would prove to be the ‘end game’.
The end of a three-year period that has left supporters disillusioned, disconnected, and denied any enjoyment from following their side. The opportunity to start again with the club in safer hands, for fans to reunite with their club, and for moments like the lifting of the League One title five years ago to be relived as more than simply a memory.
Expectation high, with the efforts of Leyton Orient supporters on Saturday in forcing their game against Colchester United to be ‘abandoned’, ultimately exposing the EFL as a morally corrupt organisation, raising expectations further.
The organised protests, in that regard, underwhelming. The blocking of The Valley’s carpark causing chaos, and as such embarrassing the club, but furious supporters wished for more direct action. Standing outside the West Stand, well-stocked on accessories and with voices vocal, had been done many times before.
But it mattered not. Opposing supporters could have stood in silence, and would have made the required impression. For what mattered on this occasion was the sheer weight of numbers prepared to oppose the regime.
The full extent of the opposition showed itself. The numbers that were led towards the West Stand from the North Stand quite incredible. Effectively the whole ground standing when cries of “stand up if you want them out” bellowed around The Valley.
And though an army of police and stewards made desperate attempts to prevent it, a healthy number of those standing up against the regime made it onto the pitch come full-time. A final message sent in the direction of those who own this club. You have poisoned a football club, you have destroyed bonds between supporters and club that appeared unbreakable, you have no choice but to sell.
By contrast, the regime hid. Unwilling to witness the extent of the opposition against them that they have so often pretended does not exist. Unwilling to see the signs that show clearly they cannot continue to own Charlton Athletic.
The windows of the executive boxes that overlook the West Stand carpark quickly covered. An empty seat in the directors’ box, that would normally be occupied by Katrien Meire. Another number added to the consecutive list of games missed by the club’s owner, who only cares when he has his tarnished name to defend.
Cowards, liars and failures. It no wonder many were saying goodbye to their season ticket seats, unable to return while their club is held in such poisonous hands. It they that have created this opposition and this disconnection, and they alone.
Among all this, a comprehensive victory was lost. A Swindon side performing with the sort of attitude that suggested they wished for the season to end as much as Charlton supporters wanted Duchatelet’s ownership to end. Josh Magennis, Jake Forster-Caskey and the marvellous Ricky Holmes taking advantage for a three-goal victory.
And within that, was an emotional moment of appreciation towards the heroic captain of this football club. Johnnie Jackson’s final game as a player, before moving into a player-coach role. There will be more appearances for this cult hero to come, but he warranted such appreciation nonetheless.
The football itself, therefore, a footnote. A regular occurrence under this regime, and not simply because the promised top six finish has been replaced by a bottom-half one. A comprehensive victory, and a fourth win in five, not enough to divert from a season of failure and good enough only to lift the Addicks into 13th.
But this a comprehensive victory nonetheless, and one that should have been enjoyed above anything else. A comprehensive victory that cannot be enjoyed when anxiety and fear exist that this regime will continue on their path of destruction, alienation and failure. A comprehensive victory that cannot be enjoyed while the focus of almost every Addick is on enforcing change at their club.
The real comprehensive victory will come when the weight of numbers who oppose this regime, who stood as part of a united Valley on several occasions, finally enforce change.
Karl Robinson’s pre-named side stepping out onto The Valley pitch for a final time this season with the colours of black and white overwhelming. Supporters in the stands, balloons by their feet, and the metaphoric mist that sits always over this club. Banners that had been held during the protests outside the ground, and voices that had been fully utilised to express opposition, displayed again.
Nonetheless, as has been the case over the previous three years, there were no concerns with supporting a Charlton side that, if not dramatically in quality, had shown massive improvement in attitude and effort in the previous three weeks. Not least with it led by Jackson.
The skipper taking the place in the side that Joe Aribo held during the victory over Chesterfield, while Chris Solly’s return from injury meant Karlan Ahearne-Grant dropped to the bench and Nathan Byrne pushed forward to the right side of midfield. Patrick Bauer, for the ‘rested’ Ezri Konsa the final change of three.
But there initial concerns, in this end-of-season contest that seemed to exist purely to allow supporters of the Addicks to express their displeasure, of a lethargic affair occurring. Tempo lacking, clearances sliced and passes misplaced in the opening moments as balloons filtered down onto the pitch and The Valley’s collective voice reminded all that Duchatelet was not wanted.
The worry increasing as rather lethargic play from Byrne resulted in him needing to chop down Luke Norris on the edge of Charlton’s box. Anton Rodgers’ resulting free-kick beautifully executed but, agonisingly for him, bouncing back off the upright. Applause for his effort from the Covered End.
Rodgers’ strike, however, maybe a reminder that Swindon’s status did not mean a half-hearted effort would be enough. The strike seemingly the catalyst for the Addicks to enter into some sort of stride, though Patrick Bauer’s horribly wayward volley from a Charlton corner is best forgotten.
It much better to remember the next time the ball was whipped into the Swindon box from a wide position. Jay Dasilva’s delivery from the left exquisite, without much pace but placed perfectly for Magennis to meet, and the Northern Ireland international heading home emphatically with 14 minutes played. From this point forward, against a shambolic set of Robins, Charlton’s afternoon should have been a relatively simply one.
Alas, for the time being at least, some degree of fight and application remained among the visiting side. Norris’ driven strike, coming after the forward had worked himself into a yard of space, well-saved by Declan Rudd at his near post, with the goalkeeper’s excellent fingertip intervention from the resulting corner diverting the ball away from the head of Ellis Iandolo.
But already, to the backing tune of balloons being popped and anti-regime chants, you could sense Swindon’s frustrating growing. Comfortable enough in possession in the middle, but their forward passes so often misplaced, and their cross-field balls picking out supporters. Their reactions to such events belonging to a side already relegated, and with little interest.
A quick Charlton second, therefore, would have left the Robins more deflated than the see of burst balloons around The Valley. Solly teeing up Magennis in the centre, but the forward’s shot somewhat mistimed and skewed wide. A good chance to kill the game off at search an early stage of proceedings.
With 26 minutes played, however, it did appear that the Addicks had gained this theoretically unassailable two-goal lead. Holmes’ free-kick turned in by Jason Pearce, who had sprinted away in celebration before realising the referee had disallowed his goal for a push on Dion Conroy. Disappointment, but few complaints, particularly with Jesse Starkey’s wildly off-target strike for the visitors suggesting a second might not actually be needed.
But while the lead was only slender, there always a chance that the Robins could nick an equaliser their efforts didn’t particularly warrant. Swindon most certainly remaining on the back foot, as Bauer headed wide from a corner and Magennis turned the lively Holmes’ cross over the bar, but in between those openings a fierce Conroy free-kick had been fumbled by Rudd. The visitors showing the occasional sign of life.
Though, after Byrne had got into a decent position and curled wide, it only an excellent bit of defending that kept the struggling Robins in the contest. Magennis sent through, the ball poked over goalkeeper Will Henry as he rushed to close down the forward, and a second goal ready to be celebrated. Conroy, however, had raced back and managed to hack the ball away as it bounced towards the line.
With such pressure being placed on Swindon, and with the Addicks looking relatively threatening each time they moved down either flank, you could not begrudge the hosts a second before the break. And with two first-half minutes remaining, that second arrived.
All far too simple for Robinson’s men, as Byrne broke free down the left and his low cross was met by Forster-Caskey. The midfielder unchallenged, and forcing the ball over the line from close range. The expressions and body language of those in Swindon colours suggested they didn’t much fancy coming back out after the interval.
Feelings that probably increased when it was made immediately obvious that Charlton were in no mood to simply sit on their two-goal advantage in the second period, and continued to look to exploit the frailties of this dire Swindon side. Henry smothering Forster-Caskey’s effort from the edge of the area at the second attempt.
Though of course, it obvious that the Addicks would not sit back, for there a goal to be scored by a man who had appeared to move himself into something that resembled a forward position. Jackson sent through, and agonisingly denied by Henry. Swindon’s goalkeeper, in preventing a wonderful moment, evidently unaware that this was the skipper’s final game before coming a player-coach.
The special moments created instead by the supporters, with “stand up if you love Jacko” emphatically bellowed out, and raising all from their seats. Mr Charlton.
With eyes fixated on Jackson, that Swindon had created an opening or two might well have passed some of The Valley crowd by. Iandolo curling well wide, but greater concern when a half-cleared corner was ultimately bundled over the line. The offside flag cutting short the celebrations in the Jimmy Seed Stand, and preventing the game from reigniting as a contest.
Though with James Brophy feeding Norris through down the left, and Rudd forced into a decent save, the sense that the visitors were getting back into the game was growing. Maybe some hope for Luke Williams’ men if they could quickly cut this deficit.
Hope, however, that was soon to be replaced by further despair from a Swindon perspective. For Holmes, having received the ball from Byrne, finished in the coolest of fashions into the far bottom corner well beyond the desperate dive of Henry. His 13th goal of the season, and a goal the performance of Charlton’s Player of the Year had warranted.
But there an immediate remainder of the main focus of those supporting the Addicks. Unquestionably joy in Holmes’ goal, but the noise from a chorus of “we want Roland out” emphatic. The ground once again standing as a collective when asked to do so if they want the owner gone; The Valley united.
United, too, in its love for Jackson. He’ll pretend there wasn’t, but I’m sure he wiped away a tear as he was substituted, leaving the field to emotional applause and chanting of his name. It’s not the end, but if it is, the admiration of him could not be expressed in any greater terms.
15 minutes of this contest still to play and, while Jon Goddard had fired wide just before Jackson came on and Norris and headed wide thereafter, the attitudes of both sides remained the same. Swindon half-hearted, if that, Charlton still rampant.
Magennis frustrated to see his close-range strike blocked by Henry having broken into the box, and a scissor kick of sorts from the Northern Ireland international picturesque but sailing just wide, while substitute Karlan Ahearne-Grant drove across the face of goal with no one able to apply a finishing touch before a finishing touch of his own was lacking as he diverted Holmes’ delivery wide.
These final attacking moves, though concluding without the net rippling, merely reaffirming the rampant nature of Charlton’s performance against a Swindon side with no resilience whatsoever. That the referee opted to avoid adding any addition time and blowing the moment 90 minutes had been played a blessing to the Robins.
The pitch not vacated before it was, in drips and draps as rather weak policing and stewarding attempted to prevent it, occupied by protesting supporters. Whether on the pitch or in the stands, most Addicks had stayed behind. Not primarily to acknowledge the performance, but for one last message to be sent in the general direction of a man sat many miles away in Belgium, with only the smallest percentage of interest in events in SE7.
Messages he has ignored in the past, but messages that must force Duchatelet to sell. If nothing else, it the numbers providing the same message. His regime cannot continue.
In times past and future such performances, regardless of the weak nature of the opposition, would be adored. In times current, it a sideshow to the goal of removing a regime that has performed only acts of destruction and disconnection.
It to take nothing away from the performance, of course. Each individual excellent, and the collective effort marvellous. A victory as emphatic as they come.
And, though reaffirming the failures of this football club and the regime that there is relief in finishing 13th, it to the credit of this side that they have shown much greater determination and quality following the defeat to MK Dons which seemed to have made them being drawn into the bottom four almost an inevitability.
But there no credit to give to this regime. This regime that has crippled a once marvellous football club, and a set of supporters who were so committed and attached to Charlton Athletic. Those supporters remain committed, standing in number to voice their opposition, but the attachment has been damaged by the actions of Duchatelet and Meire.
That energy that is placed into opposing the regime would be converted into untainted support for club and side were a new ownership to arrive over the summer months. A new ownership with new direction, new hope and, most importantly of all, a willingness to reconnect a damaged club with its broken supporters.
I simply hope that the next time I attend The Valley, Duchatelet and Meire have become the things of the past they should have been long ago. Please let there be change.