The possibility that Charlton Athletic might be travelling to Fleetwood Town on Saturday with confidence and belief reinstated lasted a little over one minute.
For it seemed that Ricky Holmes’ stunning volley at the Bescot Stadium in midweek, struck first-time from the edge of the box and looping over Walsall goalkeeper Mark Gillespie, had done enough to secure an 88th minute victory. Enough to secure a first victory in three games. Enough to end a run of performances that had brought about genuine worry, and bring about hope that the Addicks were about to regain their stride.
But a little over one minute later, however, Daniel Agyei had curled a stunning equaliser for the Saddlers into Ben Amos’ top corner. Karl Robinson’s men sitting deep, standing off their opponents, and allowing Agyei to come forward unchallenged before he unleashed an effort to match the aesthetically pleasing qualities of Holmes’ strike. Mistakes of past being repeated, the same sluggishness of previous fixtures on show, and an injection of confidence replaced by a crushing sense of concern.
The confidence that would have existed had the lead been maintained would have been genuine. The encouraging start that the Addicks made to the match could have been seen as something to build upon, the nature of the strike uplifting, and a sudden sense the performances seen in the early weeks of the season may return. Needed to lift a set of deflated supporters, and also with consideration towards the self-belief required to compete with Uwe Rosler’s counter-attacking side at Highbury Stadium.
Alas, the blow dealt by Agyei’s equaliser has been a tough one to take, or at least it has for supporters. Heartbreak that such a wonderful winning moment was taken away from them, and anger with their side’s inability to maintain a lead. A question over where the result and performance that will see them rediscover their best form is coming from.
You worry, too, that it will be a tough one to take for the players. Who thought they might have finally done enough to end this sluggish run of disappointing performances and results. That they will head to Fleetwood deflated, and be exploited by a side coming into the game on the back of an impressive away win at Bradford.
A response needed. But a response has been needed in the previous four games, and it hasn’t come. As close as they’ve been to delivering one on Tuesday, only for it to be crushed in quite emphatic fashion.
The Addicks need to step up.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 1-1 FLEETWOOD TOWN (04/02/2017)
Fleetwood’s second-half pressure ultimately told as Amari’I Bell struck a stoppage-time equaliser at The Valley in February.
It not long into the contest before it became apparent that Charlton would be spending much of the afternoon on the back foot, with a need to defend diligently against a side attacking with intensity and threat. And when the backline didn’t have the answer, the Addicks were thankful that Declan Rudd did. The stopper twice denying Devante Cole, before a Cian Bolger header from a Kyle Dempsey corner was wonderfully tipped over the bar.
And such defiance, unconvincing or not, meant that the hosts were able to gain the advantage when a rare chance came their way with 37 minutes played. A half-cleared corner picked up by Jake Forster-Caskey, the midfielder dancing into the box, and his low pass turned home by Ricky Holmes. The simplicity of it making Fleetwood’s inability to convert all the more frustrating for them.
But it not enough to halt their confidence or intensity going forward, and Charlton became increasingly nervy as the second-half progressed. A mistake from Adam Chicksen allowing Cole through on goal, with Rudd rushing out to save, before David Ball was allowed to wander free inside the area and turn a wonderful opportunity from Ashley Hunter’s delivery over the bar. There a certain amount of determination against the persistent pressure, but greater cracks appearing.
So when Patrick Bauer flicked a Charlton free-kick into the path of an unmarked Tony Watt, The Valley was ready to first express a sigh of relief, and then celebrate a near-certain victory. Alas, the Scot managed to blast over the bar completely unchallenged from six yards out. A quite disastrous miss.
Particularly disastrous as, four minutes into ten minutes of stoppage-time, the Cod Army managed to find the equaliser they arguably deserved. The Addicks unable to deal with a Dempsey corner, the ball falling to Bell, and the wing-back able to bundle home from close range. No question it had been coming for much of the game, but still devastating given the determination to cling on that had been shown by Robinson’s men.
But by full-time, they were quite fortunate to come away with a point. Nathan Byrne dismissed for a two-footed lunge on Ball, before the same Fleetwood man turned on the edge of the box and curled a spectacular effort against the post.
It was, however, a result that gave Uwe Rosler the confidence to celebrate provocatively towards Charlton supporters at full-time. Raising a fist several times towards the West Stand as he departed towards the tunnel, for no justifiable reason. Strange man.
Of the 18,799 spectators that were in attendance at Bradford City’s Valley Parade on Tuesday night, only 99 of them were sat in the away end.
The huddle of visiting supporters a reflection of Fleetwood’s small size, and an opportunity for many to mock.
But as those that made up that huddle celebrated a fine three-goal victory for the Cod Army at a ground that once graced the Premier League, to have taken such a moment to ridicule the relatively small standing of Fleetwood would have been incredibly misjudged. Instead, while the 99 celebrated and the 18,700 slumped, you were reminded further of this club’s incredible overachievements that have seen them climb from the ninth tier to genuine promotion contenders in the third. It might be for few, but Fleetwood continue to bring unimaginable joy to those who have followed the club through their rise.
A win, nonetheless, that was needed. Before scoring three times at Valley Parade without reply, and in doing so inflicting Bradford’s heaviest home league defeat since April 2015, two heavy defeats had been suffered. A 4-2 loss at home to Southend United last weekend, just seven days after a 4-1 defeat at Portsmouth.
And a win that Uwe Rosler will hope will see his side put those defeats behind them, and regain their stride. Which isn’t to say, not least given that to be flirting with a top six position remains an overachievement for a club of Fleetwood’s stature, that their start to the season hasn’t been a handy one. Five wins from their nine games, and just two points off the play-off positions with a game in hand.
Arguably League One’s smallest club continues to compete with the division’s best.
If there is anything to take from Tuesday’s draw at Walsall, and it’s the fact that the first 35 minutes saw football played that reflected the quality of that seen in the early weeks of the season.
The period between Tariq Fosu’s opener and Tyler Roberts’ equaliser provided the best and most fluent football the Addicks have played for quite a number of games. Most certainly over the course of the previous four. The ball moved with purpose, energy and pace exerted, and there a genuine threat.
The problem being that Robinson’s men were unable to make the most of their period of domination. Chances wasted, and Walsall, without creating anything beforehand, able to steal an equaliser that punished poor Charlton defending. The fluent attacking football replaced by the sluggish and frustrating stuff, which allowed the Saddlers back into the game and arguably have the better of the second half until Holmes’ goal, that has been seen during previous weeks.
No doubt an improvement on a side without a ‘Plan B’ being tormented by Wigan Athletic, and one without any quality whatsoever struggling to make an impression against Gillingham and Bury, but still undoubtedly a frustration.
And still the question remains as to whether this is just a slump, that will be resolved once a few issues have been ironed out and the confidence that a win brings is gained, or whether these recent performances have been more reflective of what we’re likely to see throughout the campaign.
Every reason to believe it’s the former, despite the sloppy response to Holmes’ strike on Tuesday night preventing a first victory in four, but with each game that ends without a win concerns that it’s the latter will grow.
Fleetwood will welcome back Aiden O’Neill after the midfielder missed Tuesday’s victory over Bradford City through suspension.
O’Neill was dismissed during the defeat to Southend United last weekend, but the Burnley loanee has been a regular in Rosler’s starting XI this season and is likely to come straight back into the side on Saturday.
But the Cod Army are likely to remain without Conor McAleny, with the forward struggling to shake off an ankle problem. The former Charlton loanee, who scored a match-winning goal at The Valley last season while on loan with Oxford United, made a return from his injury during the defeat to Portsmouth, but has since missed the following two games with a reoccurrence of it.
Charlton will be without Jason Pearce after it was confirmed that the centre-back would miss ten weeks of the campaign with a knee injury.
No question that the man replacing him, Ezri Konsa, is an excellent young centre-back, but Pearce’s leadership and experience will undoubtedly be missed. There few, if any, other figures in this side who share the qualities he has.
Though a boost does come for the Addicks in the form of Mark Marshall and Ben Reeves being in contention for the trip to Fleetwood. The pair having not made a league appearance yet this season, with Marshall suffering a knee injury during pre-season and Reeves’ lack of proper preparation for the campaign making fitness an issue. Neither are likely to be fit enough to start, but having options on the bench that could genuinely make a difference will be huge.
Lewis Page (ankle) and Harry Lennon (groin), however, remain unavailable.
KEY BATTLE – NULLIFYING FLEETWOOD’S COUNTER-ATTACKING FOOTBALL
The game at Walsall on Tuesday might well have been won inside the first 35 minutes had Charlton shown any sort of composure and competence in front of goal.
Their overall performance in that period excellent, taking control of the game and playing impressive passing football, but the inability to add to Fosu’s opening goal would ultimately come back to haunt. Sloppy defending effectively gifting the Shakers an equaliser, and the Addicks fading thereafter. Charlton harming themselves, more than a case of the opposition growing into the game.
And if a similar situation were to repeat itself on Saturday, there very little doubt that the Addicks would ultimately be punished. Punished by a side who are happy to soak up pressure, and counter attack with genuine threat.
For Rosler’s Fleetwood pride themselves on an impressive brand of counter-attacking football. Setting up with three-at-the-back, utilising Lewie Coyle and Bell at wing-back, and boasting an abundance of pace in the forward positions. They needed only 40% possession to win their game at Bradford in midweek by three goals.
If Robinson’s men are able to take control as they did in the opening period at the Bescot, then they must produce greater reward for themselves. For Fleetwood are unlikely to falter while the scores remain level or the Addicks have only a slender leader, irrespective of the pattern of play, when they have such effective options to utilise on the break. The Cod Army capitulating twice in recent weeks, but first those goals need to be scored, and chances need to be taken.
If they’re not, then the hosts will find ways to come at the Addicks, in much more fluent and regular fashion than Walsall managed on Tuesday night. The Saddlers gifted an equaliser; Fleetwood having the quality to create openings and goals of their own against the run of play. An improvement in both boxes required.
It can be nullified by finding some attacking fluency and taking the chances that follow, crushing them as a result. It can be nullified with stubborn resistance, blunting their attempts to get forward and successfully dealing with those that are more threatening. But either way, the threat that Fleetwood pose going forward needs to be dealt with.
A tough one, even for a side that has form and confidence. Not expecting the winless run to end this weekend but, with Peterborough United coming to The Valley next weekend, showing some quality and competing is vitally important. Fleetwood Town 1-1 Charlton Athletic