The antidote to Charlton Athletic’s tedious and tiresome slump had seemingly been found. The symptoms relieved by an injection of individual brilliance, relieving a weight of frustration and providing unmeasurable joy as is it travelled through the veins of the Addicks that occupied the Bescot Stadium’s away end. Suddenly, with one strike of the ball, a stuttering season was reignited.
For the brilliance of Ricky Holmes’ 88th-minute volley provided so much. The picturesque beauty of what appeared a match-winning effort, leaving those in Walsall colours both astonished and crestfallen, adding all the more emotion and inspiration to the celebrating visiting supporters. The sort of volley, struck on the full as a half-cleared cross fell to him on the edge of the area, that would more often than not trouble the back of the stand, but Charlton’s winger managing to dip the ball over Saddlers’ goalkeeper Mark Gillespie.
It sent the away end, having become increasingly agitated by their side’s performance throughout the evening, into a frenzy fuelled by disbelief, relief, and pure joy. Holmes mobbed by his teammates as he perfected a knee slide in front of the away technical area. Celebrations so aggressive that the goalscorer’s hair knot came undone.
A single moment that meant the 35-minute period of dominance that the Addicks enjoyed at the start of the contest, lost in the frustration that followed, could be celebrated for future reference. Karl Robinson’s side rediscovering the fluent attacking football that had been absent for the previous three games, and were left frustrated that they didn’t have greater reward for their efforts. Tariq Fosu finishing from Jake Forster-Caskey’s ball through with 13 minutes played, but numerous chances not taken.
A single moment that meant there was seemingly not to be punishment for a failure to take earlier chances, and the frustration over the increasing sloppiness in Charlton’s play could be forgotten. A goal gifted to Walsall four minutes before the interval, as the visiting defence allowed an unchallenged Tyler Roberts to prod home a Nicky Devlin delivery, and victory as likely to be claimed by Jon Whitney’s side as it was Robinson’s thereafter. The Addicks never regaining control of the game, with possession not kept as confidently and their attacking moves lacking the fluidity seen before, while the liveliness, and growing confidence, of the Saddlers meant they were able to provide at least as great a threat as their opponents.
But Holmes’ volley appeared to have provided the difference between a sluggish draw with the need for inquest, and remarkable victory with promising signs and an uplifting moment that reinstated belief in this group of Addicks.
And yet, Charlton supporters would still be leaving the Black Country feeling sick. The antidote lasting only a minute. A minute later, celebration was replaced with gut-wrenching silencing.
Surely, with two minutes to play, the Addicks would have had enough determination and resolve to maintain their lead. But they stood off substitute Dan Agyei, allowing him to cut inside and curl a quite stunning effort into Ben Amos’ top corner from the best part of 30 yards. As Walsall celebrated, you couldn’t help but admire an effort that matched Holmes’ for beauty and quality, but feel aggrieved Robinson’s men had not prevented it from occurring.
One injection of quality had seemingly won this game for the Addicks, patched over the wounds of previous weeks, and made this night a marvellous one. But the inability to add to a lead when on top, the conceding of a soft goal, and the failure to show resolve once gaining a late advantage meant Charlton had inflicted suffering upon themselves. Whether they warranted reprieve from the suffering or not.
And still the Addicks linger in their slump. A slump that needs to quickly find a certain cure before its symptoms become any more severe.
There also no immediate cure for Jason Pearce, who was left out of Charlton’s starting XI with a knee injury sustained during Saturday’s draw with Bury. A chance for Ezri Konsa to start in the league for the first time this season as a result, with Holmes also coming into the side, replacing Karlan Ahearne-Grant having completed his one-game suspension.
Konsa immediately looking comfortable within the back four, and Holmes, moved centrally with Billy Clarke playing wide right, attempting to dart forward with the ball at his feet in the opening moments, but the start to the contest from Robinson’s side wasn’t entirely convincing. Zeli Ismail first going close for the Saddlers, striking a half-cleared corner back towards goal and only narrowly wide, before the Addicks were left fortunate that a clean through Roberts denied himself an opportunity by tripping up over the ball. Walsall, with some confidence having beaten Oxford United at the weekend, asking questions.
But it certainly wasn’t the case that Charlton were appearing as lost, disorganised and lifeless as they did in the opening period of the weekend draw with Bury, and there were at least attempts at quick passing play that suggested this display would not be quite so sluggish as the previous three winless efforts.
Attempts, unsuccessful but with signs of encouragement, seen before one passing move ended with Forster-Caskey lifting the ball over the top and playing Fosu through. The winger, struggling as much as anyone in recent weeks, taking the ball into his stride and finishing past Gillespie in the Walsall goal with all the confidence of a man in much greater form. Somewhat out of nothing, Charlton found themselves with a 13th-minute advantage.
Out of nothing it may have been, but its importance seemed to stretch beyond simply giving the Addicks an early lead. Those that occupied the away end, celebrating seeing their side go in front for the first time in four games, had seemingly been given the same injection of confidence that those they supported had. Belief among the visiting fans, as the tiresome sluggishness of recent weeks began to leave minds, only increasing as the fluidity and threat in the passing moves of Robinson’s men increased with each one.
On another night, or in another moment without an injection of confidence provided, maybe Clarke would have simply held the ball up and subsequently passed it back towards the defence, choosing not to show adventure. Instead, the Irishman, flocked by red shirts, drove into the centre from wide and managed to get a fierce shot away. Fired low and hard, the palms of Gillespie required to turn it around the post.
But that save from Walsall’s stopper a fairly regulation one in comparison to what was to follow. In fact, the away end had already started to celebrate when an unmarked Magennis rose and headed powerfully across the face. Surely a certain goal, but Gillespie’s fingertips were able to direct the ball onto the post, and the hosts escaping with only critical cries of frustration from their supporters as further punishment.
Immediately came the concern, as has been the case on countless occasions before, that a failure to convert while on top would come back to haunt the Addicks. A failure to convert that continued, despite Charlton’s fluent attacking football and subsequent control also continuing. Ahmed Kashi with time to steady himself on the edge of the box, but lifting the ball over the bar, Holmes played through by Fosu, but the winger blasting horribly off-target from an excellent position, and Patrick Bauer’s big German frame rising above all to meet a Forster-Caskey corner, but should have done better than the tame header at goal that followed.
If not only to take advantage of the way the Addicks were playing, then the need for a second was made doubly important by the evident concern among Walsall bodies. Defending panicked, clearances rushed, and possession rarely held for long enough in order to execute meaningful attacks. The home supporters growing increasingly frustrated, and increasing their deficit would surely be crushing.
The ball moving from player to player with purpose and pace, Forster-Caskey in particular carving out attacking passes from midfield, and Holmes’ regularly carrying the ball forward with threat. It certainly not for the want of trying that a second couldn’t be found, and there no drop in intensity to Charlton’s performance. Gillespie reacting to comfortable claim a deflected Magennis effort, before a Holmes free-kick cleared the bar by only a slender margin.
So maybe Walsall’s first genuine opening since the Addicks had gone ahead would actually prove beneficial. A reminder of the quite immediate need to be more clinical, and how a one-goal lead is very unlikely to be enough irrespective of what level of control is had. Kieron Morris, a scorer in the same fixture last season, striking from distance, and Amos required to make a strong to keep out the attacking midfielder’s testing effort.
Instead, as Morris and key man Erhun Oztumer then saw efforts blocked inside Charlton’s box, it foreshadowed the fact that the one-goal advantage would not be enough.
For with four minutes to play until half-time, the Addicks switched off defensively. The ball cut back to an unchallenged Devlin, who had time to deliver towards the front post for a completely unmarked Roberts, and the West Brom loanee needing only to hang a boot out to force the ball beyond Amos. If not taking the chances created by their dominant play wasn’t self-harm, then this certainly was.
And before the half-time whistle was blown, there was still time for 5’3 Oztumer to win a header inside Charlton’s box. The visitors should have been going in at the break in complete control, both in terms of the scoreline and in the game’s overall play, but instead they went in somewhat deflated and leaving their supporters somewhat concerned. They’d left themselves needing to start again in the second period, and with greater work required than should have been needed.
A fast start, and a fast return to the fluent football, desperately required to settle nerves. Instead, Walsall made the more encouraging opening to the second period. Oztumer’s free-kick off-target by the smallest of margins with Amos well beaten, before Roberts found himself in an excellent position but couldn’t coordinate his legs smoothly enough to turn Morris’ cross towards goal.
Though if Walsall were keen on doing some self-inflicted suffering of their own, that too would have been welcomed. James Wilson’s under-hit back pass almost allowing Holmes in, but Gillespie just beating the Charlton man to the ball. The pair colliding, but the goalkeeper doing enough to prevent Holmes from forcing a way through.
It seemed, however, that a moment like that to come off in Charlton’s favour was now what was required. For the Addicks had hit a lull. Possession too regularly being gifted away, the energy in their passing and movement fading, and attacking moves fading to nothing as supporter frustration began to increase.
By contrast, Walsall had discovered some energy. Pace and intensity displayed, alongside belief from their supporters, as they continued to pick the ball up in midfield at the expense of Charlton’s continued stuttering. Edwards bombing forward, cutting inside, but firing comfortably enough over the top.
Though there was no feeling of comfort as Edwards’ free-kick found an unmarked Wilson at the back post with a little more than 20 minutes to play. A glorious chance, but the Walsall centre-back failed to get a clean connection, and could only divert the ball wide. Somehow, it was now the Addicks that were on the back foot.
A feeling not helped as the ever-lively Roberts found space to shoot, forcing Amos into another parry away, but the immediate sight of Fosu shaping to shoot in the opposition box as Charlton broke did offer some release. The ball fed to Charlton’s goalscorer, only for Wilson to make a defiant block and prevent his strike from testing Gillespie.
And as Konsa shaped to shoot with 15 minutes to play, there a few in the away end who thought they might well be on the verge of celebration. A free-kick sent into the box from deep, the Saddlers unable to deal with it properly, and the loose ball falling to Charlton’s young defender just a few yards out. But, having turned to shoot, Konsa could only succeed in firing a very decent chance comfortably over the bar.
And with that, the sense that this game was heading for a draw only grew. Frustrating for both sides, but not least the Addicks, still replaying every missed opportunity from their period of dominance in their heads. Amos doing well to fist away a Jon Guthrie header, and Magennis, showing signs of life for possibly the first time all half, bursting forward only to fire a cross-cum-shot across the face of goal with no one to receive, as confirmation of frustration drew closer.
Which isn’t to say that, as the Addicks brought the ball forward in the closing stages, there wasn’t still encouragement from the away end. Hope expressed as Chris Solly crossed, only for a Walsall head to clear. The ball falling straight to Holmes, but surely an attempted volley would end up in the car park behind the stand.
But, of course, this is Ricky Holmes. Charlton’s midfielder with match-winning qualities striking the ball superbly, timing it perfectly and just taking a little bit of the pace off the strike in order to get it to go up and down, and beating the fingertips of Gillespie. Uncontrolled release of joy in the away end, knee slides on the pitch, and in quite staggering style the Addicks had somehow managed to steal three points.
Well, steal three points assuming they could survive for the two minutes that remained. A relatively simple task. Remain firm against a side that, in response to Holmes’ goal, are going to be crushed.
But you could see it happening the moment they stood off him. The moment they allowed Agyei the space and opportunity to travel with the ball, cut inside, and curl an effort towards goal. Just one minute later, Walsall’s young Burnley loanee had struck a spectacular equaliser, punishing a Charlton defensive effort that hadn’t responded to the task at hand in quite emphatic fashion.
They stood with hands on hips as the hosts celebrated, barely believing what had just happened. The away end full of supporters in equal states of disbelief, but expressing for greater levels of anger. Not only crushing to see such an excellent moment go relatively unrewarded, but to see a lead gained so late on not held on to.
Morris struck an effort off-target in four minutes of stoppage-time, while Bauer headed a Holmes delivery into Gillespie’s clutches, but this game’s story had been told. The home supporters left to enjoy a moment of celebration. Charlton supporters, once again, left deflated.
A real punishing, sickening, crushing level of deflation. From the joys of Holmes’ quite incredible winner to the misery of an avoidable equaliser being conceded just a minute later. The celebrations of Holmes’ goal lost in the fury that followed.
The small margins of football mean that had Holmes’ goal gone untainted, it might well have set us away again. Walsall finding an equaliser so quickly, and in such circumstances, feels crushing. A worry we may find ourselves stuck in this slump further still as a consequence.
But, beyond the context of the game’s decisive two minutes, the more important aspect of Charlton’s failure to win, and with regard to future games, is their inability to make the most of their period of dominance, and the stutter that followed.
For a large part of the first-half, Robinson’s men were excellent. Pacey and fluent attacking football, to provide as great a threat as has been seen all season. But its value is only so much when you can’t find reward for it.
And its value is even less if you find ways of harming yourselves. In addition to Charlton’s failure to take chances, Walsall’s goal before half-time was an awful one to concede, while all the control the Addicks had for much of the first period was replaced by something that failed to create genuine openings and frequently gave the ball away.
It has become evident that we can’t perform to that impressive first-half level, on the occasions that we do, for the entirety of the games. That makes it even more important that we take our chances. It makes it even more frustrating that we struggle.
The answer, of course, is to take our chances. But the answer must also be to cut out errors in the other box, and to avoid the extent of the stumbling that follows thereafter. To find potency, resolve, and consistency.
At least there was an undoubted improvement on the previous three games. At least, in that first-half period, the attacking football that had been absent reappeared. At least there were some promising signs in this performance, rather than only concerns to take as has been the case of late.
But it doesn’t provide much comfort in the immediate aftermath of a rather crushing night.