The voice of Karl Robinson, bellowing from Highbury Stadium’s away technical area, was a powerful noise in the opening minutes as Charlton Athletic began their battle with Fleetwood Town.
Charlton’s boss desperate to make a point from the sidelines. His tones dissecting the gaps between chants from both home and away supporters. Most certainly louder than a quiet game of football.
“Quicker, quicker,” Robinson continued to shout. Rotating his arms around one another, signalling that he wanted the ball to be moved at a greater pace. Sharing the frustration of the visiting supporters, as the Addicks held very tame and very unthreatening possession, and sharing their fear, as the signs of another deflating sluggish performance were on show in these early moments.
But come the concluding minutes of this contest, it was those of a Fleetwood persuasion calling for greater pace. Pleading for the ticking clock to move quicker. To escape from a rampant Charlton side, performing with all the pace, power and threat they had been lacking in recent weeks.
For Robinson’s men had not simply listened to their boss’ impassioned pleas, nor had they merely taken them onboard. They had displayed what was requested to great effect, turning tedious and tiresome to dynamic and driven. An almost perfect performance built on crushing direct bursts forward, and tireless pressing of the opposition, ending a run of four winless games and earning the Addicks a warranted 3-1 victory.
A collective effort that was almost perfect, inspired by an individual display that was most certainly perfect. The sluggishness, infecting the game in general and not just Charlton, only broken in the 13th minute when Tariq Fosu scored the first of three goals that would make up a marvellous, match-winning perfect hat-trick. The hosts caught in possession, Billy Clarke feeding Ricky Holmes, and the winger delivering a cross so perfect that even a man of Fosu’s relatively limited height could head the visitors in front.
But the Addicks would soon create a challenge for themselves. Despite threatening in the moments that followed taking the lead, showing much greater energy and intensity, the Cody Army would find a 25th-minute equaliser with their first effort on goal of the game. Jake Forster-Casker dispossessed inside his own half, Jordy Hiwula feeding Bobby Grant as Charlton’s backline were caught flat-footed, and his finish rocking the Addicks.
A repeat of Tuesday night in the Black Country, where allowing Walsall to score a soft goal gave them a route back into the game they probably didn’t deserve. Fleetwood created openings, Charlton off the pace. The response to conceding poor.
Or at least it was for little more than ten minutes. For having started to warm the gloves of home goalkeeper Alex Cairns once more, Robinson’s men would regain the lead with five minutes to play until the break. Fosu toying with Fleetwood defends, dancing inside with all the flair of a showman, before providing a left-footed finish with all the composure of an experienced striker.
Concern, however, a nagging noise that prevented this lead to be properly enjoyed as the second-half progressed. Robinson’s men continuing to play with direct attacking threat, if anything improving as the minutes progressed, while Uwe Rosler’s side became increasingly frustrated as their moves forward were blunted by a resilient opponent, but nerves remained while the lead was only one. An uncomfortable away end taking endless pleasure from the manner in which those in Charlton colours were pressing high up the pitch, preventing Fleetwood attacks, but desperate for the game to be killed off.
And so it was the celebrations behind Fosu’s third with 71 minutes played that had the greatest amount of energy behind them. Pleasure, pride, and pure relief. The winger’s perfect hat-trick, his marvellous performance, and the victory Charlton’s efforts deserved confirmed as he drove into the box and finished with his right through the legs of Cairns.
There needed to be no pleas for anything more. Robinson’s impassioned and vocal cries were certainly not the overpowering noises come the conclusion of the contest. The sounds of the celebratory chants and cheers from the away end, and the clapping reciprocated between players and supporters, all that could be heard.
For the first time in five games, victory could be enjoyed. For the first time in five games, a performance of real quality could be admired. A point that hadn’t been reached quickly, but the injection of pace, tempo, and power into this display, pleaded for so desperately by leader and followers, made it a marvellous one.
It not the style of play that brought about the immediate concern as Addicks began to arrive at Highbury Stadium, but those who would be carrying out.
Half of Robinson’s first choice back four absent, with Chris Solly joining Jason Pearce in the treatment room, and some reshuffling required. Ezri Konsa shifted to right-back, a position he’d looked somewhat uncomfortable in when asked to perform their last season, and Naby Sarr given his first league start of the season, with a point to prove after his long period of exile. A worry, not least with manner in which Charlton’s overall sluggish efforts of late had invited teams to threaten.
Comfort, therefore, to be found in those who occupied the bench. Mark Marshall, having suffered injury prior to the campaign, involved with the matchday squad for the first time, and Ben Reeves, struggling with fitness since arriving in the summer having not had a proper pre-season, returning after brief flirts with it. Pleasing to look towards those in reserve and see players who had the ability to change the game for once.
And if the game’s opening exchanges were anything to go by, the sooner it was seen as appropriate to bring the returning pair on, the better. Fleetwood set up to frustrate, structured and displaying a defensive resoluteness that showed no signs of any cracks, while there no pace or attacking intensity to the possession the Addicks were invited to have. Slow, sideways passing with little purpose, that frustrated both supporters and Robinson.
But just as thoughts of banging my head against the terrace barrier in front of me in Highbury’s away end started to come to mind, a Charlton player dared to venture outside his own half, and found himself rewarded for pressuring an opponent.
A’mari Bell caught out, with Clarke robbing the ball from his feet and bursting forward with such intent, backed by a roar of encouragement from the visiting supporters, that it appeared for a moment he may have continued alone towards goal. But Holmes, as he so often does, had burst into space down the right, and made himself available for the pass that the Irishman played perfectly. A cry of anticipation meeting Holmes’ resulting cross, largely because Josh Magennis’ frame was situated inside the box, but the ball floating over the Northern Ireland international’s body and finding a route to goal via the head of Fosu.
A goal, in truth, completely out of nothing. But one that reflected the reward that would come from being brave enough to push forward with greater pace, energy and intensity. Sloppy Fleetwood a step behind, and the Addicks, with the assistance of some well-executed passing, able to take advantage.
And while the away end sung, sung with all the vigour the game they had witnessed in the first 13 minutes hadn’t inspired them to do, Robinson’s side sought to add more life to the game. They might have chosen to continue to play as they had done, slowing the game down in the immediate aftermath of gaining the advantage, but they suddenly gained the confidence to drive at their stunned opponents. Konsa crossing to deep, and Fosu curling over having brought the ball under his control, before Magennis got himself between goalkeeper and backpass, but couldn’t get the ball out of his feet and Cairns was able to pounce.
Encouraging, and no doubt a monumental improvement on the tedious opening moments that threatening another sluggish performance, but memories of the midweek at Walsall did immediately come to mind. Fosu and Magennis hadn’t missed massive chances, but a failure to take openings when on top at the Bescot had crippled the Addicks. Robinson’s men had to make their advantage count at Highbury, and make their actual advantage unassailable.
So at least those in the away end, thick-skinned and almost accustomed to predictable and repetitive disappointment, were prepared for what was to follow.
Fleetwood had not threatened once 25 minutes into the contest, but Forster-Caskey’s failure to get a bouncing ball under control and subsequently gifting possession Hiwula possession meant an opportunity to break through had suddenly opened up for them. Konsa and Patrick Bauer, wearing the armband in Solly’s absence, hadn’t responded quickly enough, and Hiwula’s ball played Grant through on goal. A driven strike, the first one sent towards Ben Amos’ goal, beating the Charlton goalkeeper and levelling the scores out of nothing.
Perplexed faces on the pitch, and, having seen this all before, expressions that sat somewhere between frustration and anger in the away end. As the hosts began to create some noise, the response to this unexpected disappointment was vital. The pacey Bell being allowed to bomb forward and his subsequent strike on goal being just about tipped over the bar by the wrists of Amos, evidently unsighted, not exactly encouraging.
It the beginning of a passage of play that saw the Cod Army come alive, pushing into Charlton’s half on a consistent basis for the first time and as such preventing the Addicks from getting out of it. Moves down either flank causing concern, as wing-backs Lewie Coyle and Bell got forward. The energy that had been injected into Robinson’s men after they’d gained the advantage seemingly now lost.
But it a period with limited affect, and limited duration. Limited affect because those in centre for the Addicks stood firm, not least Sarr, who had been an unbeatable colossus. Limited duration because it would only take ten minutes before the pace, energy and intensity returned to their own attacking play, and they began to push the hosts onto the back foot again.
It coming as little surprise that the catalyst for Charlton’s move towards regaining control of the contest was the quick feet of Fosu. A drive into space, and a drive towards goal from the edge of the box. Relatively comfortable for Cairns, but it a provider of proof this group of Addicks weren’t willing to make the rest of the afternoon comfortable for the goalkeeper or his teammates.
In fact, Cairns was sweating just a minute later. Giving Holmes a sight of goal within 30 yards of it is an amateur mistake, and the talismanic figure took up the invitation offered by the lack of Fleetwood shirts around him. A stunning, dipping effort that was heading for the top corner requiring an equally excellent save from the man between the sticks for the Cod Army, evidently unimpressed by the lack of support offered by those in front of him.
Unimpressed as his defenders allowed Holmes a shot on goal, but no doubt furious as defenders in red shirts stood bemused and embarrassed by Fosu’s footwork before the winger reinstated Charlton’s advantage five minutes before the break.
A Holmes ball from the wing finding Fosu on the boundaries of the box but in a position too wide and too far out to be threatening, not least with the sea of bodies in front of him. Recycling the ball back into the middle might have been sensible, but fuelled by confidence he waltzed past the Fleetwood defenders in front of him, and then some more, and suddenly found himself in a shooting position. The most eccentric of young wingers often perform a moment of quality and lack a finish to match, but Fosu coolly converted beyond the helpless Cairns and ran off to celebrate with all the joy that such a goal deserved.
Joy echoed in the away end, knowing that the brief passage between Charlton’s goals was not enough to detract from the quality of this performance, but the agenda now a simple one. Just get through to the interval. The Addicks had failed to keep a lead for a little over a minute in midweek with the game in its dying moments, so nothing was certain.
But as the referee’s whistle threatened to signal the end of the game’s first half, the Addicks threatened to signal the end of the game as a contest. Every header his inside his own box, but now Sarr had climbed highest to win one in the opposition’s. A Fleetwood body blocking his goal-bound nod.
Not that that could take anything away from this Charlton effort as the half-time whistle was actually blown. Two marvellous periods of play, of real attacking energy and intensity, that pushed the opposition deep into their own half and made Robinson’s side a genuine threat. The period following Fleetwood’s goal able to be downplayed by just how positive the response had been, when so often this side had faded without resuming previous levels of performances.
Maintaining a level of performance now the challenge. And maintaining, or ideally doubling, this single-goal advantage. Rosler sending his men out about three decades early for the second half, making two substitutions and changing from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2, suggesting there would be a response from the Cod Army.
But disruption to Charlton’s plans came not through the threat Fleetwood could offer. Clarke slipping as he shaped to shoot, and injuring himself in the process. A debut for Marshall seven minutes into the half, giving the Addicks the terrifying attacking midfield three for Holmes, Fosu and Marshall, but possibly being introduced a little earlier than Robinson might have liked.
A terrifying three that meant the chance of a third for the Addicks was, at the very least, as high as an equaliser for the Cod Army. The introduction of Godswill Ekpolo had given the hosts some pace down the right, but they needed to pray for something more threatening. The Addicks pressing high up the pitch, frequently robbing the ball from their opponents in the centre of the pitch, and desperate balls forward were too easy for Bauer and Sarr.
But a rare chance for Fleetwood, coming 15 minutes into the half as if to reaffirm just how quite Charlton’s pressing had kept them, did provide the reminder that a one-goal lead was precarious. Far too easy for the hosts as Bell cut in from the left, supplied Ekpolo down the right, and he drove forward as if no Addicks were in front of him. His cut back perfect for Hiwula, but thankfully for Robinson’s men the forward’s finish – first time from the edge of the box – was a poor one.
For it to have been a wake-up call, the Addicks would have had to have been performing complacently before it. This simply a blip in their intense, structured and resolute efforts. Immediately resuming responsibilities, and almost catching the Cod Army out and the end of one move started having pressed their opponents, but Magennis’ header from Holmes’ cross was a tame one.
Still, however, you wanted that third. For every piece of excellent pressing play, or every time Fleetwood showed their tameness going forward, the fear that an equaliser for the hosts would appear out of nothing did not decrease. Charlton calm, in complete control, but the concern a natural one.
So just the sight of Fosu running through on goal, leading a counter-attacking that those in red had no chance of stopping, brought about premature relief-filled celebration that those in the away end knew wouldn’t be misguided. A man with this confidence, with this opportunity, would not miss. And he most certainly didn’t.
A perfect hat-trick for Fosu celebrated wildly, as if the goal were defining in the game, and not simply one that provided a cushion. Near confirmation that this excellent Charlton performance would be getting what it warranted. Confirmation that Fosu’s performance had got what it warranted.
There still, of course, no room for complacency with 19 minutes to play, and as the game entered its final ten minutes, the Cod Army should have reduced the deficit. Substitute Ashley Hunted delivering for Devante Cole, but the forward somehow managing to skew over from just a few yards. It followed by confusion between Bauer and Amos as red shirts swarmed, but the goalkeeper recovered, and the position Charlton were in meant this was all rather funny.
A position that meant Fosu could receive the ovation he deserved. Replaced by Reeves, giving him some minutes, as full-time drew near, with mighty applause in recognition of his efforts. A stunning performance from the young man.
But even with him off the pitch, the Addicks might have added to their total in additional time. A cross-cum-shot from Magennis stylishly flicked home by Forster-Caskey, only for the assistant referee’s flag to deny him the goal. A margin of three would not have been flattering.
Not that failing to have that goal awarded took anything away from the full-time celebrations, and the appreciation for the efforts of those wearing Charlton colours. A marvellous collective effort, driven by the energy and intensity that individuals put it, on top of the footballing quality that was provided. A performance far greater than anything seen in recent weeks, and one to be enjoyed.
This the closest the Addicks have come to being in complete control of a game this season.
And were it not for the small ten minute period that followed the gifting of a goal to Fleetwood, then the Addicks would have had total control of this contest. Only then did they appear uncomfortable, but even then they managed to resume playing with attacking intensity before the loss of it had proved too costly.
It a performance in contrast to what has been seen in recent weeks. Too often the Addicks have knocked the ball around inside their own half with no genuine attacking intent, no energy, and no purpose. Too often they’ve expected the chance to come, and not gone about and threatened themselves.
Too often, as a consequence of that sluggish possession, have a team with limited attacking threat been invited to attack. Too often have they managed to take advantage of that. Too often have we been making the same mistakes, and had no response when those mistakes have been made.
There a concern when the Addicks started the game slowly, and there a concern when a goal was gifted to Fleetwood and they began to come forward with Charlton suddenly sluggish, but on both occasions Robinson’s men brought themselves alive.
The first goal setting the game up, with Clarke pressing to rob possession, and his teammates getting forward quickly to join him on the counter. It the catalyst for energy and intensity to spread through Charlton’s attacks, and to exist while they didn’t have the ball. Fleetwood managing to play how they would have liked to today for no more than ten minutes.
And all it took after Fleetwood did get into the game was one attack to rekindle the energy that the Addicks had previously been displaying. Energy that didn’t last for a spell, but lasted for the remainder of the game. A threat on the counter always there, and often there as they rushed and dispossessed while on the ball.
While when they did attempt to push the ball forward, they found a backline that, in a 3-1 victory, might not get the praise it deserves, but deserves plenty. Konsa excellent in a position he’s previously found difficult, Bauer solid, and Jay Dasilva continues to improve both going forward and defensively with every game. Though it Naby Sarr, winning everything in the air and looking a class above with his feet, that deserves special mention, given that he looked a different player to the one that earned the reputation he has been looking to shake off.
And then, of course, there’s Fosu. Supported most notably by Holmes, no less superb than you’d expert, the young winger was sensational. The hat-trick no fluke, and a marvellous effort particular given that recent weeks have seen struggles for the summer signing.
Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t mean the performances of recent weeks can be forgotten, but what it does do is reaffirm the quality that’s in this side. Not seen for the previous four games, it needed to be seen again. To reassure, and to calm.
The frustration being that we find a performance like this, but now don’t play for 14 days. As Robinson might say, it’s a shame that period isn’t going to move quicker.