It just short of six months ago that Karl Robinson stood on the turf of Shrewsbury Town’s New Meadow, offering no excuses for his side’s 4-3 defeat. A three that belonged not to the team, but solely the individual talent of Ricky Holmes. A four that very much belonged to the failures of the collective.
Charlton Athletic’s manager questioned the attitude of 40% of his squad. Almost half not caring enough, behaving in a way he had never seen before. Words supporters, and not least those that had witnessed this Tuesday night abomination, did not need to hear at a time when the club sat in crisis and the relegation zone’s grasp threatened.
Words, though almost six months old and referring to the group of Addicks that represented the club in the previous of season, that reappeared as disastrous moment occurred just six minutes into a new season that was meant to offer a degree of greater optimism.
The sort of moment that made the heart sink and anger levels raise simultaneously. Lee Novak, only in the side due to an injury to first choice forward Josh Magennis, adjudged to have committed a foul worthy of dismissal by Chris Sarginson when he tackled Bristol Rovers’ Stuart Sinclair with some force. Some force, and always stretching for the ball, but seemingly not doing enough to commit little more than a foul.
A sense of injustice, and a sense of great panic. Without even considering the quality, the defensive resolve and tactical cohesion, did this group of Addicks have the attitude, the fight and the mentality to deal with such a situation. One that might well have crushed the weak sides that have worn Charlton red in recent years; giving 60% would certainly not be enough.
But as the entire group huddled come full-time, whether they had played, spent the entire afternoon sat on the bench, or were merely a member of the support staff, such a level panic seemed irrational. The huddle for show, but it an image that represented the cohesive and collective effort that had allowed the ten men of Charlton come away from their opening fixture of the season with a single-goal victory. There no question that 100% of this side had given 100%.
They had fought with diligence and determination beforehand, though the opposition’s best moment to score came with the game goalless as Chris Lines skewed wide from just a few yards out, but the platform from which to battle from came with seven minutes of the first-half remaining. Holmes’ delivery missed by Jake Forster-Caskey, but Patrick Bauer, who reached low to head towards the bottom corner of Adam Smith’s goal. Complaints from Bristol Rovers’ goalkeeper that the German’s header had not crossed the line, but complaints that were ignored, and ultimately becoming a lost cause as the celebrations grew louder.
The relief such that it might have felt the Addicks had won the game in that moment, but there of course remained a second-half and more to fight with ten men. Relief replaced by panic as the second period developed, with Rovers pushing Charlton deeper and deeper, but the visitors possessing no cutting edge. Or at least not the amount of cutting edge required to breakdown a collective unwilling to withdraw anything from their levels of effort.
In fact, in complete contrast to that disaster at New Meadow, it was not the individual quality of one that was relied on. It was the collective determination and resolve of a group, religious abiding by a structure and shape that constantly denied the unrelenting Rovers forward moves, that secured a victory that, in spite of the circumstance, could only be described as deserved. Holmes, tireless and tenacious, merely part of the cog.
Meaning that, after an uncomfortable and largely unenjoyable absence, relief could return as the full-time whistle blew. The first moment, without the panic created by Darrell Clarke’s men pushing forward, where the nature of Charlton’s performance could be truly appreciated. A wonderful battling effort, aided both by defensive quality and ability on the ball, brought together by a cohesive tactical working.
This time last season, Roger Johnson was informing supporters that if they don’t like what they see, they shouldn’t fucking come. As those had worn Charlton colours departed The Valley pitch this afternoon, they received the applause they warranted having fought tirelessly. Much can change over the course of 45 games, and the loss of a man means situations like this will rarely be repeated, but this side has provided an indication it will battle.
At the very least, 40% of it won’t have their attitude questioned.
There was, however, a question before kick-off about whether the confidence that had been instilled over pre-season should be cooled somewhat. Magennis, so vital to Robinson’s Charlton, left out of the starting XI with a knee injury. Pressure placed on Novak, a man who underperformed horrendously last season, to deliver.
Pressure, too, on the men who had helped to create an increased sense of belief in the side’s ability to perform to live up to expectations. Debuts for goalkeeper Ben Amos, winger Tariqe Fosu, and attacking midfielder Billy Clarke, with a return at left-back for Jay Dasilva. Ben Reeves, signed on Thursday, kept in reserve.
Though, as the first cry of ‘Valley Floyd Road’ came from the Covered End, the early signs suggested Robinson’s Charlton were going to be playing in such a manner where pressure would not be theirs to feel. The ball knocked around nicely in the game’s opening minutes, slowed to a pace the meant it would be their intention to dictate the tempo of play, even if it was Rovers who had the first shot on goal of the season in SE7. Ellis Harrison connecting with a corner, but side-footing a volley well over Amos’ bar.
Alas, an unavoidable pressure, if not puncturing, was to come with just six minutes played. The ball running away from Novak in a harmless area of the pitch, and just about under Sinclair’s control, leaving the Charlton striker to rather recklessly lunge towards it. Reckless, forceful, but studs not showing and risk to the opponent minimal.
Referee Sarginson, however, had made his decision as soon as he had blown his whistle. A coming together of players delaying the showing of his red card, but his hand had gone for to his pocket as soon he had stopped play. A decision more rash than Novak’s challenge was reckless.
There had been a cloud over The Valley before kick-off, carrying with it a thunder storm, and now a cloud had a returned despite the bright sunshine. The home crowd furious, restless, and wanting justice. Their anger only increasing as Billy Bodin appeared to throw himself to the ground on the edge of Charlton’s area without contact, but received no punishment.
And it seemed that the Addicks were yet to regain their composure as, with 11 minutes played, Rovers should have pulled ahead. Amos unsure whether to stay or go as Sinclair’s delivery bounced across the face of goal, the ball deflected back into the centre, but Lines able only to skew an effort wide. Head in hands, knowing a huge opportunity had been missed, while home supporters began to feel they might be watching the rest of this game through their hands.
Robinson’s side appearing cautious and uncomfortable. Possession being kept well enough inside their own half, not least by the cool head of Ahmed Kashi, but getting forward was proving difficult with Holmes and Fosu struggling for space, and Clarke still playing behind an absent target man. Or at least that was the case until Holmes decided to bomb forward, with Rovers’ backline retreating, and unleash a swerving effort that not only flew narrowly off-target, but also injected a bit of confidence back around The Valley.
The Addicks unquestionably remaining on the back foot. Harrison glancing a header wide from a corner, Liam Sercombe hitting a bouncing ball off-target, and Lines driving forward only to poke tamely towards Amos. But both resolve and fluidity was growing.
Two characteristics that were being displayed collectively, but most obviously by Fosu. Signed with the notion of being a classic, skilful winger, the youngster was providing much more than encouraging bursts forward down the right flank. His ability to hold the ball up mightily impressive for someone of relative stature, his willingness to get back and defend commendable, and it his drive out on the right that was a large part of the reason that Rovers began to look frustrated and the Addicks started to settle.
No coincidence, therefore, that the hosts had started to cause a threat from wide positions. No genuine chance created, but more questions being asked of the visitors. A parity in mentality in confidence seemingly restored after the severe immediate impact Novak’s dismissal had had.
But actual parity was not something that would be maintained for much longer. That wide threat utilised as Holmes’ delivery was swung into box and met by Bauer’s head. Goalkeeper Smith attempting to claw the ball away, and insisting that he had, but after referee and assistant had consulted the first goal of the season at The Valley, 38 minutes into it, was awarded.
The joy among those ten in Charlton colours on the pitch, who had endured a tough opening to the campaign, as great as that of those in the stands. The Valley rising in collective celebration, and taking a moment thereafter to breath a collective sigh of relief. If nothing else, they had something to protect.
Though it could be suggested that the advantage they had gained was more comfortable than it might under most circumstances when a side is a man down. The sense that Rovers, coming forward with increasing intent but consistently lacking a real end product, were growing frustrated only increasing as Harrison led what appeared a promising counter, only to prod a tame shot straight at Amos. The roar of the home crowd instilling further confidence in their side as they departed the pitch at half-time, with Clarke’s men appearing flat.
Though only the naïve would believe that the game was won, or that Charlton’s advantage was a truly comfortable one. If those beliefs did exist, they were quickly extinguished by Sercombe. Rovers’ summer signing first firing over the bar, before breaking into the box with greater intent and shooting powerfully into the side netting.
Further signs that this was going to be rather unenjoyable half for the Addicks as Ollie Clarke sent a strike over the bar, and Amos was required to keep out Sercombe at his near post. It not just the openings, but so too the clear sign that the Addicks would spending the second period on the back foot. Rovers allowed time and space in midfield and out wide, but a structure maintained and the figures of Bauer and Jason Pearce, who seemed to grow a further foot each time the ball was delivered into the box, determined to keep the opposition out.
At least, with Fosu, Clarke and Holmes sitting just ahead of Charlton’s brick wall of red shirts, the opportunity to break had not been completely taken away by Robinson. A moment of relief coming when the excellent Fosu won a free-kick on the edge of Rovers’ area. Just a touch too wide for Holmes, however, as the winger’s effort curled towards the top corner, but Smith was able to collect.
That the Addicks still had those attacking options, preventing Rovers from committing every man forward and meaning the game was not simply a one-way siege, allowed for Robinson’s structured and deep defensive tactic to be performed with success. The visitors looking less likely to breakdown Charlton’s stubborn backline as the half went on, and it only one individual within it that looked uncomfortable. He wearing the gloves, with Amos rather bizarrely palming a long-range effort from Broadbent over the bar that looked simple to collect.
And when there were moments where the backline lost its stubbornness, Rovers weren’t able to capitalise. Lee Nichols winning possession inside Charlton’s area, but curling so harmlessly wide that Amos had his arms raised and was watching it trickle past him. With 20 minutes to play, the nerves remained as intense as ever, but the belief the Addicks were capable of doing enough was growing.
Lines saw a shot deflected wide, over hit crosses fell into the hands of Amos, and Gaffney volleyed so hilariously wide from a corner he might as well have been passing pack to the taker, but to note the tameness of Rovers’ chances as the 90th minute approached suggests they didn’t threaten in the game’s closing stages. They did. It just that the Addicks, still sitting deep and allowing them to come forward, remained so composed, so defensive resilient, and so determined, that almost every one of their attacks was halted.
So for each moment of panic as Clarke’s men broke forward with intent, there was a greater one of reassurance as those in red took up their shape. By the time the game had entered stoppage time, though the fear of heartbreak remained, it was apparent that Rovers simply didn’t have enough to break down Charlton’s stubborn resistance. Sercombe wildly hacking a cross-cum-shot into Amos’ hands, to the delight of The Valley crowd, summing up their complete lack of cutting edge.
Though reassurance could not really be felt until the final whistle was blown. The fear the Addicks, who had given so much, would ultimately collapse existing despite the evidence suggesting greater confidence could be felt. Too many times in previous situations had similar heartbreak been suffered.
And so, as the final whistle was finally blown, those capitulations and half-hearted attempts to battle that ultimately ended without reward were undoubtedly part of the reason that this victory provided such emphatic celebrations around SE7. Pride in a battling performance, relief that the ten men had not caved in under the face of immense pressure, and the extended joy that comes from an opening day win.
An opening day win that Robinson was keen to show the importance of. A huddle formed in the centre of the pitch by the collective, as barely a member of the home support left The Valley. Undoubtedly, 100% had been given by all.
Of course, in the circumstances of the victory and the joy of those celebrations, it is easy to get carried away. And that is something I’m keen not to do.
I think, ultimately, it’s very difficult to make any sort of long-term judgement on how Robinson’s side will fair over the course of the season on the basis of today. Just purely on the basis of the unique nature of the game. Under normal circumstances, and given the attacking quality within the side, I assume there’ll be a great attempt to dictate play.
So too, rather ironically after the incredibly questionable decision to send Novak, will some point to the good fortune that the Addicks had. It seems apparent that Bauer’s goal did not cross the line, while a side with greater attacking quality, given how tame Rovers were once they got into the final third, might well have found a way through.
But equally, I’m keen not to take any credit away from the Addicks that some might attempt to do on the basis of that good fortune.
For there can be no denying that the collective effort was an outstanding one. The defensive determination, the composed battling in midfield, the dangerous but sensible counter-attacking efforts of those in attacking all coming together with a shared drive and fight, and a cohesive shape. Robinson and his men, in terms of both ability and attitude, excellent.
A centre-back duo in Pearce and Bauer who appeared to win everything, Kashi’s understated but incredibly impressive calmness in the centre far too good for this level, and Holmes downplaying match-winning threat for workmanlike drive. Though it Fosu, battling defensively, holding the ball up superbly, and successfully leading counter-attacks whether out wide of in the centre, who provided the most impressive individual display.
Enough to feel confident about the season ahead? Enough to have a degree of belief and faith in this side, undoubtedly. Though what that translates into won’t become clearer until the season is at least a few months old.
But in tough circumstances, when so many Charlton sides have shown little fight and resolve in previous years, I saw a Charlton side battle their way to victory. And that is something, without taking anything else into consideration, is something I can appreciate.