It appeared these had been made a thing of the past. The sluggish away defeats to teams that loitered around League One’s relegation zone. Painful losses that made the previous season particularly grim.
For the early suggestions at the start of this campaign were that Charlton Athletic had developed a ruthless, clinical nature. The side possessing enough attacking quality to dominate weaker opponents, and playing in a more fluent way under Karl Robinson’s stewardship. Once they have taken control of games, and they have done on several occasions this season, they have looked a force.
Gillingham surely the next victim of Charlton’s new-found ruthlessness and control over perceived weaker opposition. The Gills lingering at the bottom of the division, and without a league victory to their name all season. Bouncing back from a crushing midweek defeat to Wigan Athletic with a trip to Priestfield, supported by more than 2,000 Addicks in the away end, seemed ideal.
And yet, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The criticism of the Addicks against Wigan is that they were outclassed, and had no ‘Plan B’ in response to the Latics’ pressing play. The criticism of the Addicks against Gillingham was that they never found a level of quality above ‘B’.
This a replay of those tired, tedious and sluggish affairs that took place at the homes of relegation threatened sides last season. Throw last season’s kit on and a few masks on the faces of new signings and you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Never did Robinson’s men have any fluency in their attacking play, there so little energy and movement on show, and at no point did they have control of the game.
They kept control of possession, but in a manner that meant it was unthreatening, and as exhausting to watch as the sighs of disappointment and frustration shared among the away end were to repeat. When they did attempt to drive forward, their decision making and execution so often infuriated, and so often invited an opposition break. When they did farm out a rare opening, their finishing was astonishingly poor, with Josh Magennis particularly guilty, poking straight at Gills goalkeeper Tomas Holy from just a few yards out with the scores still level.
It only a matter of moments after that Magennis, in opening stages of the second period, that Gillingham took the lead. The hosts’ lack of quality apparent, but a lack of determination, drive and effort most certainly wasn’t. Their reward coming with 54 minutes played as Max Ehmer got in behind down the left, cut back for Tom Eaves, and the forward finished with all the ruthlessness Charlton had been missing.
A side playing at level ‘B’, and now required to display a ‘Plan B’, needing to push the Gills and take control of the game. But the Addicks remained lacklustre in their attacking play, appearing panicked and uncertain in possession, and what Robinson had to turn to on the bench failed to inject life into a stale side. The unlikely figure of substitute Ezri Konsa coming as close as any to equalising, but he too guilty of being wasteful and twice prodding at a defiant Holy from close range.
The justification for such a defeat might be misfortune, only heightened by the fact Holy was announced as Gillingham’s man of the match late in the game. But that the goalkeeper was required to make a handful of strong saves is not a reflection of a dominant Charlton performance that went unrewarded. More an infuriating Charlton performance, made even more so by the fact the chances that did come their way were wasted.
The Addicks, on this occasion, had reminded supporters of the suffering experienced in previous campaigns of misery.
Hope, yet to be eroded by the deflating scenes to follow, of an inspired response to Tuesday night’s emphatic defeat at home to Wigan was the feeling shared by most who entered the open, scaffolding-sustained structure that Gillingham house visiting supporters in.
Hope was something that Robinson had instilled in a group that has become Charlton’s regular starting XI. Despite the three-goal defeat, and the suggestion after the game that several of his players were nursing knocks, the boss opted for an unchanged side. The belief probably being that this one would rediscover the attacking spark it has previously shown, against League One’s basement club.
Although the Addicks were given an early notice that their task at Priestfield was a bit more complicated than turn up and win. Possession lost in midfield, former Charlton academy graduate Scott Wagstaff breaking alongside Sheffield Wednesday loanee Sean Clare, and the latter opting to strike a relatively tame effort into Ben Amos’ hands. A pass into Wagstaff’s run might well have been more threatening.
However, it also became immediately apparent that Robinson’s men were going to have more opportunities to run at their opponents than they did in midweek. While Wigan pressed, Gillingham sat deep without the ball, and invited the likes of Ricky Holmes and Tariq Fosu to drive forward. The former delivering for Magennis, only for Holy to react well to keep out the Northern Ireland international’s strike, and the latter having a go at goal himself, but the home goalkeeper getting down low to hold a relatively tame effort.
Enough in the opening five minutes to provide encouragement to a boisterous away end, but truthfully the game had not yet found a pattern and the Addicks not their rhythm. Further signs were probably required to indicate what sort of control Robinson’s men would have of this match, not least with Ady Pennock’s side seemingly working hard for an under-pressure boss. The hosts competing in a manner that suggested, despite their league position, they weren’t fatally short of confidence.
And even if they were, there was a rallying cry for the Gills with 12 minutes played in spite of the assistant referee’s flag denying them the confidence boost they actually wanted. Clare’s free-kick rather bizarrely saved by Amos, seemingly a comfortable one to deal with but instead pushed onto the bar, and the follow-up headed home by Gabriel Zakuani. To the delight of the Charlton fans behind the goal, Gillingham’s captain had strayed offside, but the hosts, reaffirmed by the roar from the stand opposite, seemed to have a touch of belief in themselves.
Still, against a side who were yet to win this season, all it probably took was a goal to cripple any sense of optimism. It’s just that Robinson’s men hadn’t seemingly got that message. Their play so tentative, the ball moved around so slowly, and the quality of delivery in the final third desperately poor.
Holmes and Clarke tested Holy, but their efforts were tame, and the relative lack of power in the shots reflected the lack of energy and drive in their attacking moves. Sluggish, sloppy, and really rather draining to watch. The discontent in the away end, as the passes without attacking purpose mounted, growing.
At least as half-time approached there was a new victim for the discontent, coming after the Addicks had shown the sort of forward play that the visiting supporters had been desperately crying out for. Holmes and Fosu combining, with the latter bursting into the box, only to be sandwiched between two Gillingham players. Referee Salisbury deciding, rather dubiously, that Mark Byrne had won the ball cleanly, and awarded the Addicks a corner rather than the spot-kick they were pleading for.
The resulting corner meeting the rather hard to miss figure of Patrick Bauer, but his header was comfortably held by Holy and the two sides were ultimately forced to go in at the break level. A scenario the hosts would have been much happier than the visitors with. Charlton, as had been the case throughout the first-half, still struggling to find fluency and threat in their attacking play deep into what became seven minutes of additional time after an injury to Wagstaff that unfortunately saw him withdrawn.
Of course, at least the Addicks, in their sluggishness, had not been punished defensively. A clean slate to start the second half with, and a chance over the course of the interval for Robinson to inject some life into his inside. It bloody well needed it.
It would have, in truth, been naïve to have expected to have seen a totally fluent Charlton playing at an extremely high tempo emerge immediately after the break, but minimum expectations demanded some kind of improvement. So when Holmes’ snap shot from a cleverly worked corner fell to the feet of Magennis a matter of yards from goal, those in the away end were anticipating said improvement. That of a goal.
Holmes was looking to score himself, but his effort could not have hit the boot of Charlton’s Northern Ireland international in any more perfect fashion. It seemed all he needed to do was poke the ball over the line, and subsequently run off and celebrate. But instead, Magennis’ prod was tame, Holy managed to get enough functioning body part behind it to keep it out, and Clarke’s follow-up was blocked away.
There was a roar of anticipation as the ball landed at Magennis’ feet, followed by a painful silence of disbelief that spread throughout the away end as his effort was kept out. Though the silence, just two minutes later, was to worsen. And be partnered by a roar from the three other stands that made up Priestfields.
For 54 minutes Charlton had been attempting to drive down the flanks, but had found themselves running into a dead end or delivering a dreadful final ball. Gillingham, as Clare sent Ehmer through, got it right while a statuesque visiting defence watched on as if they were admiring. The ball across the face of goal finding Eaves, and the forward giving Amos no chance.
Had the Gills created enough to deserve a lead? Probably not. Had our play been so sluggish, so lethargic, that an opposition goal on the break was hardly a surprise? Undoubtedly? No sense of injustice in the away end, merely anger, which those in red were charged with calming.
Though if the Addicks were to get back into the game, the chances of Fosu providing the decisive moment were becoming increasingly slim. The young winger enduring a particularly torrid afternoon, becoming more so as a Magennis cross picked him out, only to bounce awkwardly off him and out of play. A reasonable touch, or even just a first-time prod towards goal, and Holy would have had a sweat on again.
The man who occupied the other flank, however, still carried Charlton’s greatest threat. It probably the only time a roar of anticipation wasn’t forced when Holmes was carrying the ball forward, and Holy was required after another run from the winger ended with a curling shot sent in the general direction of the top corner. Though a free-kick that followed, floating comfortably wide, carried less of Holmes’ usual threat.
And, to their credit, threat was something that Gillingham still had. With Robinson’s men totally committed to levelling, there were gaps for the hosts on the break, and a curling effort from Eaves wasn’t too far over Amos’ bar. With Charlton still lacking fluency, despite pushing men forward, there no question a second Gills goal would kill them off.
At least now they were creating, opting to push forward with intent, rather than play tentatively and lost. The predictable target of Bauer found from a corner, the ball nodded towards goal, but Byrne alive to clear. More than these half chances had to be created; something still missing.
Robinson had turned to Joe Dodoo in place of Fosu, dropping him behind Magennis and Clarke out wide, but the Rangers loanee had been largely anonymous. A tame shot from distance straight into Holy’s hands hardly what was required as the clock continued to tick. And nor, really, was anything left on the bench going to provide the desired impact in this sort of situation.
Karlan Ahearne-Grant and Ezri Konsa thrown on, but the system repeating, and those in red looking increasingly lacklustre as the game entered its final ten minutes. Not so much accepting defeat, but looks of frustration spreading. Energy very quickly draining.
With one minute remaining, however, an away end as drained by these events as those on the pitch were suddenly brought back to life. A bouncing ball falling at the feet of Konsa, in an even more inviting position to score than Magennis was before him. It would have been fortunate, and it would have been fairly undeserved, but it mattered not to those visiting supporters surely about to celebrate an equaliser.
Alas, Charlton’s substitute could only mimic Magennis. A prod straight in the general direction of Holy, parried away by the goalkeeper, with Konsa getting another go that was also saved the inspired stopper. A quite incredibly stop but, particularly with regards the first attempt, Konsa had to score.
That probably the confirmation that the Addicks would not be scoring this afternoon, even with nine minutes of additional time to be played. Nine minutes in which Jason Pearce found the side netting with a header, but so too did Mark Byrne and Tom Eaves force Amos into saves on the break. Nine minutes which ended, probably quite reasonably, with Holy adopting a starfish shape on the floor in celebration as the Gills claimed their first victory of the season.
A first victory that had come at the expense of a Charlton side that had, for much of the contest, performed in lacklustre fashion.
A lacklustre performance, but one that Robinson has justified because a handful of chances were created within in. I find that an incredibly frustrating perception.
First of all, wastefulness is something that has cost us points for several seasons now, and that in itself is part of a below par display. Magennis and Konsa really should have taken their chances – there wasn’t really anything that was so clear cut so as to ignore the overall sluggish performance.
A sluggish performance against, before today, the division’s bottom side. It would have made sense to get at them, to play with adventurous attacking football we have done at times this season, and not play rather cautious passing football in midfield that seemed to have little ultimate purpose. Doing so, by having no end goal and so often a poor end product, invited them to break and gave them the opportunities they did to get a foot into the game.
Within the system that Robinson used is that adventurous, fluent and threatening attacking football that has been seen on occasions this season. Hidden somewhere. It made perfect sense to utilise it today, with those bodies within, in the hope that one of the early season performances would be repeated.
But it evidently wasn’t working. The passing too slow, a complete lack of movement, and too often the ball ending up in dead ends. The lack of reaction and response is incredibly frustrating.
I have sympathy with Robinson in that there’s not a lot you can turn to on the bench that will alter a game after we’d fallen behind. But at the same time, the sluggish passing play became almost robotic, despite the fact it evidently wasn’t driving the side forward. Flexibility, ‘Plan B’, depth – sure we’ve been here before.
It is ultimately two defeats. No response to a very good side, and subsequently horrendous against bottom of the league. We still, as reward for our start to the campaign, sit inside the division’s top six in this early league table.
But my confidence in the side has taken a dent in the past few days. I’m still sure it can perform incredibly well. But I’m concerned about how it reacts in certain, testing, situations.