The laughter that Karl Robinson displayed come full-time, sent in the direction of the Oldham Athletic supporters who took exception to him and his joy, had previously been expressed by the followers of Charlton Athletic who were in the Boundary Park away end, bemused by the comedically poor level of opposition that faced them in the game’s opening half hour.
Mocking celebrations from the home crowd as one of their own was embarrassingly substituted 27 minutes into the game. A lack of confidence, and a lack of composure, among individuals that meant a lack of collective quality was being made even more obvious. A two-goal deficit that might as well have been twenty, and seemingly meant the game was over as a contest already.
For Ricky Holmes’ extraordinary 18th-minute opener for the visitors was not only a moment of magic, but a reflection of what appeared to be the gulf between the two sides. The winger breaking forward, pulling the trigger while slightly off balance, and lashing a swerving and dipping effort into the top left corner of Oldham stopper Ben Wilson’s goal from the best part of 30 yards. As they had done in response to much of Charlton’s passing play in the opening stages, the hosts looked on without answer.
There certainly no suggestion, especially after Tariq Fosu had doubled the Addicks’ lead three minutes later, that the laughter and confidence in a positive result was misplaced. That the remainder of the afternoon would feature an uncomfortable level of concern and nervousness. That relief would be one of the main emotions, before Robinson resumed the laughter, upon the full-time.
But having been on the verge of total capitulation, a Latics side who have lost all four of their league games this season were revitalised with 34 minutes played. Patrick Bauer guilty of handling inside the area as Charlton attempted to defend a ball into the box, and experienced forward Craig Davies stepping up to finish emphatically from the spot. The Boundary Park crowd firmly behind John Sheridan’s side, the Addicks suddenly performing sluggishly, and only a vital goal-line clearance from Billy Clarke – denying Ousmane Fane on the stroke of half-time – prevented Oldham from going in at the break level.
Half-time, however, offered no reprieve for Robinson’s men. The Addicks now being placed under immense pressure by a rejuvenated opposition that were showing themselves to be much more than just a comedic pushover. In fact, it those in red that were being pushed over too easily, as Charlton’s backline failed to deal with a long ball played towards Davies with 51 minutes played, and Oldham debutant Eoin Doyle was on hand to convert from his tee-up.
From certain, and substantial, victory, to the threat of total collapse. With Robinson’s side still yet to find their feet again, and the Latics continuing to perform with a drive and determination that didn’t seem possible as their heads dropped once Fosu’s strike found the back of the net, Oldham had suddenly become favourites. Or at least that was the case for three minutes.
For three minutes after the hosts had drawn level, they were given a deficit in terms of numbers on the pitch. Fane, the man to be introduced on 27 minutes when Olli Banks was removed, had already been booked when he clattered into Chris Solly. A second yellow subsequently shown, leaving Solly to face abuse from the home supporters for the remainder of the afternoon, but the decision appeared justified.
But a decision that, with two yellow cards for dissent in the moments that followed, rattled the Latics. The previously seen lack of composure returning, and Charlton taking advantage. Surely no way back, and no fight left, for Oldham as Clarke finished coolly from Fosu’s ball across the face of goal with 62 minutes played.
And the earlier nerves seemingly replaced by a comfortable final 18 minutes as Joe Dodoo, making his debut from the bench, eased through on goal and converted beyond Wilson. The lead two and Sheridan’s side completely crushed; as you were.
Alas, it was probably naïve to believe this bizarre fixture would have a soothing finish. Jack Byrne given the space to curl beyond Ben Amos from the edge of the box with eight to play, and set up a horribly nervy finish. A horribly nervy finish full of desperate attempts by the Addicks to retain their advantage, and equally desperate attempts from the Latics to steal a dramatic point.
Charlton, however, survived. A victory of sauntering confidence rather than a struggle to survive the early indication, but a victory achieved nonetheless. A victory enjoyed by Robinson and his side, celebrated in front of the visiting supporters.
An extraordinary game of football. But one that caused such intense nervous breakdowns that the relief come full-time was more pleasing than the excitement that would have followed a convincing win would have been. Laughter so often a sarcastic tonic in response to a combination of disbelief and disappointment following this club, but here, for all the worry in between, it a response to a barely believable fixture that ended in relief, joy, and a win.
Predicting what was to follow impossible, but there was certainly some intrigue prior to kick-off at Boundary Park.
Despite the deadline day arrival of Dodoo, joining on loan from Rangers, it was Karlan Ahearne-Grant who took Josh Magennis’ place up top in Robinson’s starting XI. The youngster largely used as a winger this season, but trusted to fill in while Magennis represents Northern Ireland. A man of slightly greater experience, in the shape of Johnnie Jackson, replacing the other international absentee, as the skipper started in the uncomfortable position of left-back with Jay Dasilva unavailable.
Facing an inexperienced forward, and a left-back lacking legs, would have come as pleasing news for the Latics. Though their supporters were probably more pleased to see the numbers on their bench, owing to three league debutants in their starting XI, increase from three to six. Injuries and international absentees meaning Sheridan’s side was still short on numbers, having had just 14 available players for the trip to Blackpool last weekend.
And it was one of Oldham’s debutants that, with the game just three minutes old, gave the Addicks a small scare. Jason Pearce’s studs getting caught in the turf as he and Doyle competed for a ball inside Charlton’s box, the Irishman briefly looking like he was about to stride through on goal as the centre-back slipped, but Pearce ultimately recovering well to get the ball clear.
Without assistance from Charlton defenders slipping, however, the Latics immediately looked like a side that had lost their opening four league games of the season. No fluency whatsoever to their attacking play, as most in blue simply appeared lost in possession before pumping towards Davies, and a lack of pace and defensive resilience to deal with the counter-attacking play of the Addicks. The visitors quickly into their stride and, without creating a clear-cut opening, taking control of the contest.
But when that clear-cut opening did arrive, with 13 minutes played, bemusement spread around Boundary Park’s away end as to just how the visitors hadn’t pulled in front. Fosu, from a narrow angry, firing across the face of goal, with the ball running just past the reach of Ahearne-Grant’s outstretched foot and subsequently the far post. Agonisingly close in both circumstances.
And while a bit of misfortune could be blamed for the Addicks not taking the lead on that occasion, Ahearne-Grant was cursing himself only a few minutes later as Charlton’s dominance continued but the young forward failed to take an excellent opening. Lovely movement from the teenager to get in behind and race onto Fosu’s through ball, but his finish when one-on-one with Wilson was incredibly tame, and easy for the goalkeeper to keep out. The obvious question – would Magennis have finished that? – asked.
A question, however, that Addicks didn’t need to worry about for long. For they were given an emphatic response on 18 minutes that answered all questions. They were given a moment of sheer brilliance from Ricky Holmes.
Driving into the opposition’s half, but with the ball a little bit away from him than you’d normally like and his body slightly unsteady as a result, it certainly didn’t seem like that the platform from which the strike that ends the Goal of the Season competition in September would be scored. But this is, after all, Ricky Holmes. The winger unleashing a fierce drive from 30 yards, swerving and dipping as it passed the desperate full-stretch dive of Wilson and rocketed into the top corner of Oldham’s goal, and sending the away end into barely believing celebration.
There little doubt, even if the nature of it made it difficult to see as any other, that it a goal the Addicks had done enough to deserve. And a combination of Oldham’s efforts and Charlton’s continued attacking drive meant that a two-goal gap between these two sides could hardly be considered an unfair reflection of the apparent gulf between them. Three further minutes all that was required for the belief of certain victory to spread around Boundary Park’s away end, and boos to be voiced by its regular attendees.
Fosu left free on the left of the box, blue shirts standing off him as he forced himself inside, and the winger taking the invite to emphatically finish from close range. His first goal for the Addicks seemingly killing off the game, despite only 21 minutes being played. Robinson’s men rampant, and the heads of Sheridan’s side completely gone.
An attempt to inject life into his unresponsive side made by Oldham’s boss, as the underperforming Banks was withdrawn, to the delight of the home crowd, and replaced by Fane. Though that Fane was cautioned three minutes after coming on, having hauled down Jake Forster-Caskey, suggested the head loss had spread to the bench. In between which, the vastly experience Peter Clarke had rather hilarious been booked for re-entering the pitch and touching the ball without the referee’s approval following injury, as if to confirm Oldham were about to implode.
But having flashed his yellow card at two players in blue, referee Joyce would soon be pointing his hand at the penalty spot in the area Charlton were defending. A dangerous Oldham delivery, which might well have been converted at the back post, was half-stopped by Bauer’s hand, and a penalty subsequently awarded to the hosts having produced next to nothing for the previous 34 minutes. Davies, after a brief contest over the ball with Dan Gardner, placed the ball on the spot, and emphatically thumped it into the bottom right corner to half his side’s deficit.
It seemed impossible to believe there could be a turning point in a game where one side were so confident and the other in such a state of crisis, but the hands of Joyce and Bauer would produce it.
For immediately there was life in the Boundary Park home crowd, and life in their side. Determination and drive reappearing, and the ball spending much more of its time in Charlton’s half under Oldham possession. Robinson’s men seemingly stunned, performing sluggishly, and really struggling to get back into any sort of fluency.
In fact, there was suddenly a hope the Addicks would simply be able to get through to half-time, and go again thereafter. A hope that was almost dashed in stoppage-time as the ball fell kindly to Davies on the edge of the area, and the fingertips of Amos were required to tip the forward’s curling effort around the post. Not that those behind the goal Charlton were defending could breathe comfortable yet, however, as pinball followed the resulting corner, and only the most vital of goal-line clearances from the head of Clarke prevented Fane from converting what appeared a certain equaliser.
In a parallel universe, the Addicks had completely crushed a hopeless Oldham side, and were going in at the break at least four goals up. In this one, they walked off thankful to still be ahead. A quite bizarre final 11 minutes of the half, that seemed totally impossible.
Nonetheless, irrespective of whether the Latics continued to play with determination and drive or not, Charlton returning to their quality passing play of the opening half hour would put them back in control. It vanishing completely after the penalty, and half-time an opportunity for Robinson to force it back into his players. A fresh start after the break, having fallen away.
The early signs, however, were hardly promising. There still little energy and fluency to the forward play of the Addicks, and after one stuttering move had broken down they were very fortunate not to have been undone on the counter. Kean Bryan just overhitting a pass to Doyle, that would have sent the Irishman clean through on goal.
A let off, and possibly a chance to get going thereafter, but punishment was only a matter of moments away. Peace and Bauer often an unmovable object this season, but both challenging for a ball with Davies, and leaving Doyle free. The striker volleying across the face of goal and into Amos’ far corner.
From total control with 33 minutes played, to having thrown away a two-goal advantage and seemingly on the backfoot with 51 minutes gone. Boundary Park’s boos replaced by belief. The away end stunned, and their side stunned into retreat.
But maybe that belief, and very driven efforts, worked against the Latics with 54 minutes gone. Without the atmosphere and energy, the already booked Fane might not have gone in so recklessly on Solly, and earned himself a second yellow card. The hosts furious, protesting with as much passion as they were now playing, but what seemed a justifiable dismissal had turned this incredible game back in the favour of Charlton.
Or, at least, back in the favour of Charlton if they could find their attacking quality again. Even with ten me to face, their previous sluggish efforts were not going to break them down. A blocked Holmes free-kick, though never threatening the opposition, about as close as the Addicks had come to creating an opening for some time.
So when Fosu found some life and burst down the left with 62 minutes played, his ball across the face of goal produced the first genuine opening the Addicks had created since doubling their advantage. It picked out Clarke, who could have closed his eyes and thumped an effort in the general direction of the goal with bodies around him, but the forward showed a great deal of composure. A touch taken, the ball placed into the far bottom corner, and the madness reserved for the subsequent celebrations as the Addicks, to relief of all in the away end, regained their advantage.
On this occasion, however, no one was going to make the mistake of suggesting it was game done, even with Sheridan’s side lacking a body. An immediate response from the hosts, as Byrne got some space on the edge of the area and curled wide.
But a fourth goal, and surely those of a Charlton persuasion could breathe easy. Oldham continued to fight, and the Addicks still struggled for fluency going forward, but out of nowhere Dodoo, introduced off the bench at the start of the half, had found himself clear on goal. An opportunity the Rangers loanee couldn’t turn down, a debut goal coolly taken, and the Addicks, without being anywhere near their best, had at least shown some character to get through a difficult situation.
It mattered not, therefore, when Dodoo was sent clean through again with 81 minutes played, but able only to prod straight at Wilson. A really tame effort, but it could be forgotten. Victory already sealed.
A really tame effort that instantly came to mind just a minute later as, for a second time, the barely breathing corpse of Oldham Athletic Football Club gave itself some life. The ball cut back to Byrne on the edge of the box, the midfielder allowed far too much time to pick his spot, and the bottom corner of Amos’ goal found. A self-inflicted nervous breakdown, and game on again.
Utterly, utterly painful viewing as Oldham’s ten men attempted to push for an equaliser that, just a few moments ago, had seemed impossible. The Addicks uncomfortable, but the Latics not doing enough to threaten. Five minutes of stoppage-time to survive, and steal a win in a quite odd encounter.
The opposition won free-kicks, they flung balls forwards, and to say Charlton stood totally and convincingly firm might be a little generous. But time passed without the Latics able to produce a meaningful opening. The sound of the referee’s final whistle and wonderful injection of relief to those in the away end, still not quite sure what they’d just witnessed, but able to finally celebrate with certainty.
Celebrate, for the fourth time in the league this season, with a manager and his squad in front of them. A manager taking some pleasure in the stick he was getting from the home supporters. A group of players seemingly as relieved as the supporters they were showing appreciation to.
Relief. That is probably the main emotion that supporters left Boundary Park with. Relief that a very embarrassing, a very possible, capitulation was avoided.
The state that Oldham found themselves in after the first half hour really can’t be exaggerated. They looked set for a heavy loss, and that not least given that the Addicks were performing to a high standard. Full credit to Sheridan for managing to lift his side, when it appeared all their heads had been firmly lost.
But they got back into the game because Charlton stuttered as emphatically as they recovered. The attacking play vanishing, defensive composure lost, and individual errors in abundance. The period between Oldham’s penalty and sending off arguably as poorly as we’ve played all season.
As such, Fane’s dismissal was undoubtedly vital. As vital as Bauer’s handball was to Oldham. There a real sense when the hosts equalised that they were in a position to go on and win the game, and so the midfielder’s recklessness came at a very useful time. I’m not sure we’d have the game if Oldham’s momentum went unchallenged.
Nonetheless, despite the fact we were undoubtedly struggling somewhat, that we were able to grind something out after finding ourselves in a difficult situation deserves credit. Very few chances after the initial first-half burst, but two important ones taken by Clarke and Dodoo once created. The subsequent Byrne goal probably another reminder that the Addicks wouldn’t have won with 22 men on the pitch, but all the same, they managed to stand firm in the period that followed.
An unconvincing display, something that Robinson and his players have happily admitted to, in a very odd game. But one that produced victory. Somehow.
And ultimately, I’m just bloody thankful to come away from there with three points.
What a bizarre afternoon.