A single game, not least one with 45 still to play, does not define a season. The results from the opening round of fixtures in League One will provide few clues for the campaign ahead. The league table an irrelevance.
And yet, there is a certain amount of pressure on Charlton Athletic as they prepare for their opening fixture against Bristol Rovers. A belief that Karl Robinson’s side will offer a performance of high quality to The Valley crowd. An expectation that victory will be secured.
A pressure born out of a pre-season of positives. The squad in healthy shape, the signings of quality, and Robinson keen to reiterate the capabilities of his side at every given opportunity. The 6-1 friendly thrashing of Ipswich Town seven days before the season’s first whistle merely a side note, but one that has increased the demands of Charlton supporters.
And a pressure that exists as a consequence of the fragile foundations on which those encouraging signs have been built upon. That pre-season has provided hope does not erase a disastrous effort during the previous campaign from the minds of supporters, which saw the Addicks four points from the bottom four with five games to play. Memories of last season remain, and belief will quickly fade among a set of restless fans still hurting and detached should the start to this campaign be an unconvincing one.
That convincing beginning required to take a summer of encouraging steps and turn it immediately into something more tangible. An opening day success that supports expectation and belief. Not an opening day failure that sees worry and uncertainty so quickly return at a club where the events of the previous campaign mean manager and side still have a point to prove.
That, of course, not to suggest that defeat to the Gas would diminish a summer of encouraging steps, nor leave Charlton condemned to another uncomfortable season of relative suffering.
Not least when the challenge of Bristol Rovers is a tough one. A side that, despite suffering two heavy defeats at the hands of the Addicks, overachieved during the previous campaign, and are seen as an outside bet for the top six among many pundits. The job Darrell Clarke has done, in building a structured and cohesive side without the resources to match others in the division, is an incredibly impressive one.
But on this fragile foundation where Robinson’s Charlton sits, encouragement can quickly fall away. The solid, aesthetically pleasing bricks that have been laid need further strengthening to drag minds firmly away from the failures of the past. Strengthening the framework, and setting the tone.
Victory points towards the hope built by a pre-season of positives not being misplaced. Defeat brings about nervous questions. Neither victory nor defeat would define the season ahead for the Addicks, but the importance of turning an encouraging summer into an encouraging start during this opening weekend is obvious.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 4-1 BRISTOL ROVERS (02/01/2017)
A quite remarkable response to a sluggish opening 40 minutes saw a Josh Magennis-inspired Charlton come from behind to comprehensively crush Bristol Rovers at The Valley in January.
The atmosphere a subdued one in SE7 as the Addicks failed to respond in convincing fashion to Jermaine Easter’s 12-minute opener. The Welsh forward finding himself through on goal after Patrick Bauer’s slip, Dillon Phillips rounded, and the ball tucked into an empty net. The visitors’ lead rarely threatened in the moments that followed, as the home crowd grew frustrated with a side that lacked composure and fluency.
But Robinson’s side, whether warranted or not, were able to find an equaliser as the interval approached. Magennis climbing highest to nod home from Joe Aribo’s free-kick with four minutes of the first-half to play. A goal celebrated with a hint of relief, and followed by hope that it would provide a platform for a much more convincing effort during the second period.
Provide a platform it most certainly did. Five second-half minutes all that were required for the Addicks to take a lead that looked beyond them just nine minutes of play previously. Another Aribo free-kick, Magennis left unmarked at the back post, and his header across the face of goal landing perfectly in the far corner.
From that moment forth, the Addicks found a level of performance that could have only resulted in victory. Total attacking dominance, displaying all the fluid play that had been missing for much of the first period, that Rovers could not contain. Jorge Teixeira’s goal, tapping in from another Aribo delivery, ending the game as a contest with just under an hour to play.
But there remained time for Magennis to make sure the afternoon belonged to him. Played over the top by Andrew Crofts, a perfect touch to pluck the ball out the sky, and a delightful curling finish well beyond the reaches of visiting goalkeeper will Puddy. A thoroughly deserved hat-trick to cement a marvellous victory, and a superb response to having appeared so sluggish during the opening period.
A goal that took Charlton’s combined score against the Gas for the season to 9-2. More appropriate for a batting side commencing an innings in unconvincing fashion during a game of cricket than 180 minutes of football.
Bristol Rovers: N/A
Such was the level of overachievement involved in Clarke pushing his Bristol Rovers side into the top half of League One last season, it a success as great as the two successive promotions that allowed the Gas to be in such a position.
Despite lacking the resources that many other clubs in the division can boast, Clarke’s finely tuned and structured side achieved numerous results that appeared beyond them. A tenth place finish the reward for their efforts, and a reward that was warranted. Their achievement certainly no fluke.
It does, however, provide the question of what is achievable going into this campaign. In their right to believe they can build on it, or do they need to be more pragmatic?
There are some who believe that they don’t require resources and mass improvement in personnel to build on last season’s efforts. Continuity, Clarke and cohesion the strengths that will allow them to compete with the division’s best regardless. Others who fear that, in their second season in the third tier, the relative lack of individual quality within their side will see them found out.
But there no reason why Rovers, with solid foundations and positivity running through the veins of the club, shouldn’t have ambitions and intent to succeed this season. The first challenge will still be to cement their status as a League One side, but that shouldn’t be their fascination.
While their opponents are looking to build upon a campaign that exceeded all expectations, the Addicks are looking to right the wrongs of a season that saw them flirt with the notion of back-to-back relegations.
It only a run of four victories from their final five games of the campaign that rid fears of relegation once and for all, with Charlton four points from safety at the start of April and performing without any sort of quality or cohesion. A 13th place finish nothing to celebrate, and that it was ultimately a relief highlighted the disastrous nature of the season.
Highlighting, too, that The Valley remains in crisis. Something that is incredibly difficult to get away from while the Roland Duchatelet regime remains, for forgiveness is impossible and faith lacking. A much-desired sense of fresh air won’t be felt around SE7 until there is genuine change.
But that doesn’t prevent encouraging signs from a playing perspective going into this campaign from being appreciated. Robinson with a point to prove after his, at best, mixed time in charge after arriving in November, and a squad still lacking in depth in some areas. But the boss has said all the right words this summer, the mood in the camp appears positive, and there a side that, should injury be avoided, can compete for promotion.
The nature of what’s gone before means there is a greater need than at other clubs for this group of players to prove themselves, but the belief that they can prove themselves is much higher than in previous campaigns.
Rovers manager Clarke remains uncertain on which of his new goalkeepers will start between the sticks at The Valley this weekend.
Adam Smith, joining from Northampton Town, and Sam Slocombe, snapped up after his release from Blackpool, were both regulars at their previous clubs last season, and have both impressed during pre-season, leaving Clarke with a dilemma.
One debut to be made there, and debuts likely to be made elsewhere as Rovers’ summer signings get a first competitive appearance for the club. Defender and former army footballer Tom Broadbent (Hayes & Yeading) is pushing for a start, Liam Sercombe (Oxford United) could feature in the middle, and Tom Nichols (Peterborough United) Looks set to start in attack. Left-back Marca Bola, who is spending the season in Rovers colours on loan from Arsenal, may also make his debut.
However, there are doubts over the fitness of Daniel Leadbitter and Byron Moore, with both right-back and winger missing Rovers’ final pre-season game against West Brom.
Charlton will be without Mark Marshall after the summer signing suffered a serious knee injury during the pre-season victory over Stevenage.
Marshall, a much-celebrated arrival having been snapped up from Bradford City, will miss the first three months of the season, and his absence offers an opportunity to fellow new arrival Tariqe Fosu. The 21-year-old attacking midfielder likely to start on the right flank, with Ricky Holmes resuming duties on the left having signed a new contract at The Valley.
Joining Marshall in being unavailable are the long-term injured defensive duo Harry Lennon (groin) and Lewis Page (ankle), while there’s a doubt over Lee Novak, with the forward enduring a injury-hit pre-season and missing the victory over Ipswich Town. Phillips and Jason Pearce and Joe Aribo were also absent for the final pre-season fixture, but are expected to be available for the visit of Bristol Rovers.
And joining Fosu in appearing set to make their debuts are goalkeeper Ben Amos, who arrives on loan from Bolton Wanderers, and forward Billy Clarke, another to make the move from one Valley (Parade) to the other. Additionally, Jay Dasilva will start at left-back having returned on loan from Chelsea.
KEY BATTLE – ARE YOU READY?
If pre-season results and performances counted as much as some would like to make out, then the answer to the above for both Charlton and Bristol Rovers is an unquestionable ‘yes’.
Charlton crushing Championship opposition at The Valley last Saturday, with Ipswich Town conceding six to a rampant and fluent set of Addicks, while Premier League opponents suffered defeat at the hands of Rovers, with a full-strength West Brom side leaving the Memorial Stadium having lost 2-1.
But so often, for so many clubs, a pre-season campaign full of positive performances and results isn’t immediately followed by a positive start to the season proper. The proof as to whether these two clubs are ready for competitive League One football will be in their first competitive League One game.
That this is Charlton’s first full season under Karl Robinson, and as such the first season that follows an opportunity to adapt to his ways over a summer, means there remains a need to prove that the Addicks have settled into his system. The pre-season signs encouraging, but they did appear lost at times last season, and seeing a cohesive effort in a competitive game will provide a sense of relief.
For Rovers, being prepared with regards to shape and structure shouldn’t be a problem. This summer simply a case of Clarke imbedding a handful of new faces into a system that has worked so well for him. Questions only really to be had over sharpness.
And particularly in these early weeks of the campaign, there is certainly an advantage to be had for the side that is better prepared, operates under a more fluent system, and has no question marks over unity and cohesion.
The very fine margins they create in performance might well prove to be the difference.
Making a prediction for the first game of a new campaign is something I’d rather not do. But I certainly hope for a positive and convincing opening. A positive and convincing campaign. Charlton Athletic 2-0 Bristol Rovers