A certain amount of fear filled all four of The Valley’s stands prior to kick-off, with supporters of both Charlton Athletic and the visiting Northampton Town sharing a similar concern.
With the Addicks tame in attack during their defeat to Plymouth Argyle, and the Cobblers arriving in SE7 without a goal to their name in the opening weeks of this campaign, confidence in the ability of both sides to create and convert openings was low. The pressure placed on both sides, with greater offerings in the final expected, equally high. A need for Karl Robinson’s men to offer something more dynamic and potent, not least after the boss offered no promises a new forward would arrive, and those who had travelled from the Midlands simply desperate to celebrate for the first time this season.
But as Jake Forster-Caskey curled a strike delightfully beyond Northampton stopper David Cornell, scoring his second goal of second-half stoppage-time, an emotion of fear, complemented by fury and frustration, existed only in the Jimmy Seed Stand. Addicks marvelling at the beauty of the midfielder’s effort, Charlton’s fourth goal of the afternoon, and enjoying celebrations that were fuelled further by relief, the resting of worry, and confirmation of victory. Cobblers not only contending with a crushing defeat, but a growing concern their robust and battling side lack the potency to compete.
In truth, four for the Addicks was a touch flattering despite showing threatening attacking qualities throughout the afternoon, if only because Justin Edinburgh’s men had performed in such a way that made for a reasonable contest. So much so that, even after Robinson’s men had seemingly put the game beyond doubt with 61 minutes played, there remained a battle for the Addicks to engage in. Clear openings for both sides bisecting Josh Magennis’ clinical second-minute header and Ricky Holmes, against his former club, lashing in from close range having been teed up by Billy Clarke just beyond the hour.
For Cobblers captain Marc Richards, meeting Daniel Powell’s delivery at the near post to nod beyond Ben Amos, halved the deficit with eleven minutes to play. Atmospheres among home and away supporters that suggested victory and defeat was certain suddenly replaced by immense panic and inspired hope. The Valley faithful immediately replaying the chances they failed to take, or even create, in a period of repetitive counter-attacking threat as the visitors abandoned defensive structure in their search for a way back into the game.
But though the visitors had battled, the collective quality in possession, energy and forward threat meant victory was one that always belonged to this much-improved group of Addicks. Forward threat shown in the fourth minute of stoppage-time, as substitute Ezri Konsa broke forward and successfully provided for Forster-Caskey, who confirmed capitulation would not be on the cards. Not the cleanest of strikes, but an accurate finish to calm concerns over both result and attacking potency.
Forster-Caskey’s second strike, however, was most certainly a clean one. Occurring three minutes after his first, the ball whipped deliciously from the corner of the box into the far top corner, and offered the perfect treatment for the frustration a tame and tactically tedious attacking display at Home Park seven days previously had caused. As much as it sealed victory in perfect fashion.
And an impressive victory that answered the concerns, and the need for an immediate response, in perfect style. If the fear grew for one set of supporters inside The Valley, it was replaced by the confidence, expectation and belief that scoring on four occasions offers for the other.
There no reassurance that the pre-game concern, created in part by what appeared a lack of plan b and alternative options during the Plymouth defeat, over goalscoring and attacking play would be cooled as the Addicks took to The Valley’s pitch, with no changes to the 18 named by Robinson.
Teenagers, in the shape of Karlan Ahearne-Grant and Reeco Hackett-Fairchild, who had failed to make the difference last weekend again the only attacking options available in reserve to Charlton’s boss. A reminder not only the further depth is required, but also that promising forward play, and any chances created, needed to result in reward. A need to dictate and control, for chasing the contest appeared to not suit the hosts.
So dictate and control the Addicks immediately did. There was an obvious intensity and energy even two minutes into the game, and that displayed before the ball found its way to Holmes in a crossing position on the left flank. Deliveries wayward and Magennis wasteful seven days ago, but the Northern Ireland international climbed highest to power a delightful cross beyond Northampton’s Cornell.
The forward, who extended his contract in SE7 during the week, not only giving the hosts the lead, but spreading the intensity and energy on the pitch into the stands. Caution and concern replaced by delight and belief, as Robinson’s men showed no sign of retreating and simply protecting this early advantage. Holmes shooting tamely into Cornell’s hands, and Clarke firing horribly off-target, but there a tempo and cutting edge to the build-up play.
Alas, the Cobblers were not simply going to sit and accept their fate as sitting ducks, and the Addicks were issued with reminders of realism twice before the ten-minute mark had been reached. A charged down clearance falling to Richards, and his volleying flashing wide from the edge of the area, before the Northampton captain was too easily allowed in behind and the palms of Amos were required to push away his strike across the face of goal. Unquestionable energy going forward, but maybe just a little flat-footed at the back.
And while Charlton’s control of possession, in addition to attractive and testing forward play, continued, it was Edinburgh’s physically strong side who were grafting their way to creating the better openings as the half progressed. A free-kick dealt with poorly, and the Addicks fortunate that Ash Taylor could only prod straight at Amos from a central position, with the former Aberdeen centre-back then left unmarked at the far post from another set-piece, but able only to nod harmlessly across goal. Still the hosts appeared uncertain and uncomfortable in defence.
But while Robinson’s side continued to display such intensity, energy and threat going forward, striking a second goal seemed the most obvious solution to the touch of concern created by the openings the visitors were being allowed to have. A second goal that seemed to have been found, as Holmes showed incredible quality against his former employers to burst forward, and a perfectly timed pass sent Tariqe Fosu through. But premature celebrations failed to grow, as the summer signing saw his effort slide across the face of goal and agonisingly wide of the far post.
The worry, of course, was that failing to take such an opportunity would be punished, and Charlton’s lack of potency would be exposed again. Something that might well have happened had it not been for Amos. The Addicks again unconvincing in dealing with a Northampton delivery, Richards knocking the ball on for Billy Waters, and what seemed a certain equaliser prevented by the frame of the Cardiff loanee as he blocked the close-range effort.
And while the half ended with Holmes twice shooting from the edge of the area at the conclusion of lively Charlton attacks, giving Cornell a scare on both occasions, enough had been seen from the Cobblers when not being run ragged by the Addicks’ impressive forward play to know the single-goal advantage maintained into the break was not enough to decide the contest. Irrespective, the ovation received as those in red left the field at half-time was more than warranted. Sideways passing and sluggish attempts to break down an opposition backline replaced by dynamic movement of the ball, relentless movement, and a touch of quality in the final third that offered hope this somewhat precarious lead could soon be doubled.
But just two minutes after the restart, the visiting supporters really should have been celebrating an equaliser. Walters delivering to the back post, Brendon Moloney getting away from Jason Pearce, and the defender somehow heading wide from a glorious position. A concerning start to the second period, but equally a showing of why Northampton remained goalless three-and-a-half games into the season.
Though a showing of why the home supporters had concerns over their side’s own ability to finish was soon to follow. The Addicks immediately regaining their positive forward edge, as Magennis failed to get enough on a Holmes delivery in order to convert and the unlikely figure of Ahmed Kashi broke forward only to see his effort well saved, but Charlton’s second goal would surely come after Cornell had been forced to parry Fosu’s curling effort straight towards Magennis. Alas, without challenge and a near-open goal in front of him, the Northern Ireland international somehow managed to side-foot his first-time effort over the bar, and with it raise a slowly growing level of uncertainty around SE7.
For it these situations, where a clear advantage is there to be had and not taken, that the Addicks have often crumbled in previous years. A worry they may ultimately end up sitting back and inviting pressure, which appeared not the way to go against this robust Cobblers side, a concern wasted openings would crush the energy and confidence in the attacking efforts, and ultimately a worry that punishment was on its way. For all the good Robinson’s side had done, they now desperately needed to settle the nerves.
And settle them Holmes most certainly did just beyond the hour mark. A goal that owed more to Clarke’s efforts in the build-up, carrying the ball forward superbly before teeing up his teammate, than it did to the former Northampton winger’s finish, but an emphatic blast into the back of the net from deep inside the area appeared to provide the signal that this game was won. Charlton’s attacking play finally receiving the reward it warranted.
The sense of confirmed victory not only provided by the nature of Holmes’ finish, but by the sudden drop in intensity and fight from the opposition. The Cobblers looking lost, and the Addicks almost left free to knock the ball around The Valley’s turf in whatever which way they liked. Magennis, still cutting a frustrated figure after his earlier miss and struggling somewhat overall during the second period, going close to adding further shine to the performance as he fired wide from the edge of the box.
Going close, too, was Jay Dasilva, with the Chelsea loanee firing off-target from inside the box. But how he came to be inside the box meant that, had he finished the opening, the left-back would have scored a sublime goal. Running from just inside his own half, and powering past several men in Northampton colours, before working his way into a shooting position.
The sort of run, even without the finish at the end of it, in such a situation that only increased the positive feel and energy among supporters. There even a sense that the remainder of the game would simply be nothing but Charlton attacks, as they continued to control possession and the Cobblers continued to look lost. That sense, however, was not correct.
For with eleven minutes to play, Powell’s cross picked out Richards in the centre, and Northampton’s skipper was able to halve his side’s deficit. A leap towards the travelling supporters, letting them know this game was far from over. A goal that hadn’t been coming, but a goal that was now here.
Maybe Robinson’s men had been a little bit complacent during their period of comfortable control, taking their foot slightly off the peddle and preferring to knock the ball around instead of driving forward with intent. Maybe, having created numerous chances before conceding a second, this was what Northampton warranted. Certainly, there a need to avoid losing points that were seemingly theirs, and almost definitely warranted.
Robinson’s response was to withdrawn Holmes, who received applause from his current and former supporters as he left the field, and replace him with Konsa. A suggestion the Addicks were to see this game out by sitting deep and battling to maintain their advantage. Undoubtedly deeper, but Konsa himself, breaking forward and drawing a foul out of Matt Crooks, showing that there remained a desire to get forward on the counter.
In fact, as the 90th minute drew closer, Konsa found himself inside the opposition’s box. A battle between himself Cornell to reach a ball sent through first, which resulted in the teenager going over the outstretched arms of Northampton’s goalkeeper. The cries for a penalty vocal, but a touch on the ball before making contact with Konsa may have saved Cornell.
Penalty or not, that the Addicks were getting into those sorts of areas showed it was they who remained in control despite Northampton’s desperate need for an equaliser. The signalling of five minutes of additional time not exactly keeping heads cool inside The Valley, but the Cobblers offering next to nothing. They certainly didn’t have the intensity of a side searching for a goal.
A lack of intensity that was soon to become a complete loss of all energy and hope. For the Addicks, again breaking forward following a desperate attempt from the opposition to pose some sort of threat, were able to seal victory. Konsa teeing up Forster-Caskey, and the midfielder’s somewhat mishit volley bouncing goalwards.
The reward they warranted overall, but also a reward for not abandoning what had previously worked for them since conceding. The energy and intent going forward remaining, and not dying even with victory now assured. Substitute Karlan Ahearne-Grant cutting inside and curling towards goal, but his effort just bouncing wide of the far post.
Curling towards goal, however, was no issue for Forster-Caskey. His sublime effort from the edge of the box rounding off this marvellous display of attacking football seven minutes into stoppage time. A picturesque finish to an afternoon that had largely been filled with creative and colourful forward play.
So it left the Addicks to celebrate a warranted victory, and receive the appreciation their performance deserved. And there certainly plenty of appreciation among a joyous home support, injected with a strong dosage of belief on the back of such a display. A superb effort.
For undoubtedly, this was a performance of attacking quality that brought about much promise, in addition to three points.
If not the groans being replaced by celebration, then the main contrast between this afternoon and the one at Home Park seven days ago was the manner in which the Addicks moved the ball, and themselves. Too often last weekend they were sideways and static; almost every move at The Valley containing passes with forward intent, while movement with and without the ball was excellent.
So often starting in the centre with Kashi, having either received the ball or broken up play himself, or Forster-Caskey beginning, before one of the pair fed those stationed slightly ahead of them. Holmes, Clarke and Fosu all excellent in carrying the ball forward and working openings, with the first two in particular outstanding. Glimpses of such play, even at Home Park, had been seen in previous game, but today it was rewarded.
Though whether or not a 4-1 scoreline reflected the overall nature of the game is questionable, for Northampton did threaten. Amos made some crucial saves with Charlton’s advantage only a single goal, and it positive see him make an important contribution after a shaky start. But the scoreline certainly a reflection of how good the Addicks were going forward.
It doesn’t, of course, deter from the fact a forward is required, though I’m sure most are sensible enough to see that an afternoon of quality attacking play and a desperate shortage of attacking alternatives are two different elements. There has always been strong optimism in the starting XI, but the bench was again light on attacking options, with those in reserve inexperienced, and there still a concern about responding when chasing a game. You would hate to see a lack of depth, so harmful in previous season under Roland Duchatelet’s ownership, prevent this Charlton side from performing consistently.
For there no doubt that this group can hurt, terrorise and decimate opponents once they have taken control of a game and are in their stride. As was seen today, the quality possessed on the counter means that sides searching for a goal to get back into the game are always likely to have defensive gaps exploited. Controlling games is, of course, something that needs to become a regular thing.
If nothing else, this an exciting performance, in which each player offered moments of quality, the energy levels were relentless, and the forward play was often sublime. A performance of promise.