The self-declared resurrection, lingering in League One’s depths, had risen to deal with the challenge that a side threatening the third tier’s top two posed.
A statement that suggests AFC Wimbledon had found an unprecedented level of performance to prevent Charlton Athletic from playing at The Valley. But their rising was largely displayed through impassable centre-backs Darius Charles and Deji Oshilaja climbing to win headers against a forward line of Addicks lacking any sort of threat or potency. Preventing the hosts from playing not the impossibly demanding task it should have been.
For Karl Robinson’s side had forgotten how to play, or at least how to do so with intensity, creativity and cutting edge. The physical bodies, and the structured body, of the Dons defence in control against a unit that became increasingly desperate in their efforts to get forward. The visiting midfield pressing with greater pace than Charlton were moving the ball out of their area, the ball constantly misplaced or overrun further forward, and the longballs turned to with no other option points with the physical battle lost.
In fact, there more meaningful aggression in cries against Robinson, former manager of the Franchise enemy, from the visiting supporters than in the hosts’ attacking efforts. The first half ending without the Addicks forcing a genuine strike on goal. The Valley surrounded by frustration, interspersed by pride and diligent determination from an AFC Wimbledon side here to defend, and enforce such frustration.
The feel that this was another game in which Charlton would fail to break down a struggling side cemented, but there was some hope. The second half would surely see an increased tempo, Neal Ardley’s side sat in the position they did for a reason and would surely tire, Robinson would surely get sick of the Franchise chants and attempt to start another fight to liven things up. If nothing else, maybe it would offer 45 minutes to catch up on sleep.
Tempo came, AFC Wimbledon’s defending became more uncertain, and Robinson displayed more energy on the sideline without punching anyone. A string of corners had the Covered End briefly turning their frustration to hope, while a simply sublime block from Charles denied Tariqe Fosu yet another goal. The sense, however, that this contest would have no breakthrough only growing, also among those at the other end of the ground as Oshilaja wasted the visitors’ only good chance from a poorly defended corner.
A miracle required to make the difference. So up stepped the man who, aside from looking like Jesus once his hair his untied, holds match-winning qualities. With just 12 minutes remaining, Ricky Holmes striking a spectacular free-kick from a narrow angle over George Long and sending the tense and frustrated Valley into a frenzy of celebration.
The reward for Holmes’ heroics a panicked period attempting to maintain the lead, followed by sheer fear as five minutes of additional time were announced. Single-goal victories, achieved in circumstances that take at least five decades off your life, becoming a regular occurrence. But a welcome occurrence once the sweet sound of the referee’s final whistle was heard around The Valley with the advantage still protected.
A truly dire game, a gruesome encounter, and a performance of very little quality. But scenes of post-game celebration not tainted.
Not for the players, embracing each other as a collective in the middle once again, constructed but not forced with the team spirit becoming increasingly obvious. Not for Robinson, exuberantly celebrating a win for his side, and a win against those who detest his past. Not for the Covered End, embracing positive results further alongside the growing suggestion that a takeover nears.
The cliché says these are the sort of games you have to win if you want to get promoted, and Charlton are certainly a step closer to promotion.
The edging towards promotion notion increased by the fact Robinson can rotate his side without weakening it. Jay Dasilva, a more natural and attacking left-back, back into the starting XI for Naby Sarr following last weekend’s dogged victory at Valley Parade, while options in reserve offered some promise if the Dons enforced disaster. Mark Marshall, returning from injury, sitting alongside Ben Reeves.
Buoyed by that win at Bradford City, the home crowd immediately behind their side, doing battle vocally with a healthy following from Kingsmeadow, and immediate hope of reward followed. A free-kick given on the edge of the AFC Wimbledon box, with Holmes and last weekend’s match-winner Jake Forster-Caskey standing over it. But the latter, to the delight of the visiting supporters behind the goal he struck at, comfortably clearing the bar.
Nonetheless, an early half-chance, with optimism the healthy disease infecting the minds of many Charlton supporters, promised to be the catalyst for a positive performance.
But said promise, without necessarily fading, soon became very unpromising. The guarantee fading with each misplaced pass, each sluggish and slow movement of the ball, and each challenge won by an AFC Wimbledon head. It the struggling visitors who were offering greater control, greater composure, on the ball in the game’s opening moments.
Scenes seen previously, a moment of encouragement usually bringing the Addicks alive, and concern not yet replacing optimism. But so too had Robinson’s men found themselves on several occasions delivering below-par performances against League One’s lowly sides, struggling to find a threatening a decisive tempo against those who sit deep and defend. There no question the visitors would do that if they took an early lead, and a brief moment of worry as Charlton’s backline was caught flatfooted to allow Andy Barcham to feed Lyle Taylor through, only for the blonde-haired forward to fire wastefully wide.
Defending with determination, however, was quite clearly the objective of Ardley’s side regardless of whether they had an advantage or not. A scheme played out in two parts, as a trio of experienced midfielders – Liam Trotter, Tom Soares and Millwall loanee Nadjim Abdou – harried the home midfield into wayward forward passes – and a pair of bullying centre-backs – Charles and Oshilaja – appeared to be winning every single ball against an anonymous Josh Magennis. The Addicks still without the intensity, tempo or attacking quality to counterattack a simple defensive gameplan, and with each wasted opportunity to get forward, the frustration in SE7 was growing.
Unthreatening going forward, and unsettled at the back. Barcham breaking, with Francomb overlapping, but opting, and somehow managing to run through several bodies to the edge of the box before feeding through Taylor. A first-time shot would have tested Ben Amos, but his indecisiveness allowed Ezri Konsa the chance to get back and block.
The threat snuffed out, but the threat that might have been obvious, and the reason that threat was there equally obvious. This not good enough from the Addicks. A roar, combining frustration, disappointment and encouragement, emerging from the Covered End.
A response required, but the response that followed summed up the desperation of Charlton’s situation. Fosu driving into the box, but throwing himself to the ground once meeting the imperious body of Oshilaja, and having his rather weak penalty claim immediately waved away. His shot, scuffed tamely wide, that soon followed less desperate and more a cry for help.
Cries of help increasing from around ground as half-time drew closer, desperate for a break from these dour proceedings. Action minimal, and Charlton showing very few signs of improvement. Still not enough intensity, quality and cutting edge to break down AFC Wimbledon, opportunities once in forward positions wasted, and a certain level of discomfort among the back four.
And it that discomfort among the back four that meant frustration grew to concern as the interval approached in SE7. An excellent tackle from Konsa first of all required to prevent Taylor taking a shot on goal, with the striker played in far too easily, but the defending from the resulting corner was dire. The ball bouncing threateningly off Dons heads, with Amos’ claim finally allowing the Covered End to breathe again.
But at least the half, half lacking positives of all kinds, ended on something that resembled a positive note. Fosu getting into some space down the right, and delivering a low ball across the face of goal, but no Charlton body able to get the faint touch required to turn it goalwards. At least, for possibly the first time in the opening 45 minutes, this was direct and threatening attacking play.
It not, however, enough to paper over what had been seen during the open period, and leave home supporters confidently believing the second half would see marked improvement. This a dire first 45, with the Addicks failing to break down the Dons, and somehow managing to find themselves second best in the overall pattern of play. An enthusiastic applause saw the players off the pitch.
Confident belief there was not, but there needed to be hope of better. If only because any worse from a quality and entertainment perspective might actually send the players to sleep. A bright start required, to reinvigorate a frustrated Valley, who expected to see more from their side.
But it almost a disastrous start for the Addicks. Konsa doing all he could do in intercepting a Soares free-kick, but his intervention only narrowly sent the ball wide of the post. A loud “ooo” from the away end, and a rather hushed “ooo” from the home ends; the hosts not too far away from conceding an own goal two minutes after the restart.
Nonetheless, you felt that such a moment of misery and madness was what this game required. Something out of the ordinary to liven it up. In the initial stages of the half, the same pattern remained, and the Addicks continued to frustrate in their efforts to get forward, while the Dons stood firm.
So in such a context, positives were to be extracted in any which way. Holmes had started to run with greater control, greater intent, while a series of corners, though ultimately not threatening, did actually make the visiting defence work to maintain their clean sheet. There a very, very subtle sense of improvement, or at least great pace and energy in Charlton’s performance, and the Covered End responded.
At least the wide men were playing with a directness, and delivering balls that asked questions, not simply poking an aimless ball to the first yellow shirt inside the box. Dasilva crossing to the back post, The Valley rising as it fell to Fosu, ready to celebrate. But Charles, seemingly from nowhere, threw his body in front of the strike to block what would have been a certain goal, and leave collective hands on top of heads.
Almost 70 minutes in and the Addicks had finally created a genuine opening. A reflection of their performance, AFC Wimbledon’s stubbornness, and the dire quality of the game. But it left 20 minutes to build upon.
Or at least it did in theory. A theory immediately quelled as Patrick Bauer blocked Soares path into the box, and conceded a free-kick in a very threatening position. Substitute Callum Kennedy’s effort from the resulting set-piece might well have been heading for the top corner had it not met the head of the big German on its path.
But with the Dons’ attack not yet over, it should have ended with them ahead. A first corner cleared for a second, and the defending of the follow-up absolutely horrific. The ball bouncing around inside the box, falling to Oshilaja, and the centre-back somehow managing to blast over the bar from close range. Sarcastic cheers from the home supporters, but they knew they’d got incredibly lucky.
Concern Ardley’s men could steal this, growing belief Robinson’s men had it in them to win it, but the overriding feeling one that this game was heading for a dour draw. The result this contest deserved. But The Valley was brought to life as Holmes burst forward, and was seemingly hauled down by Barry Fuller just inside the box.
Despite the claims for a penalty, however, a free-kick was awarded; The Valley crowd retreating back to their seats in disappointing, expecting this to be another set-piece comfortably cleared away. But the free-kick, from a crossing position, was fired towards goal by the right foot of Holmes, and somehow finding its way over George Long and into the far top corner. Pandemonium in the stands and on the pitch.
It hadn’t really been coming. It wasn’t really deserved. But, not least when it was a goal of such quality and one scored with only 12 minutes to play, few cared.
Twelve minutes. The realisation soon hit this wasn’t quite a winner. Twelve agonising minutes to see out.
Minutes that might not have needed to have been worried about had Magennis showed a bit more urgency in the box. Fed through by Holmes, the striker was too slow to get his shot away. The effort ultimately blocked, when he initially appeared in a position from which scoring was certain, and the visitors able to clear.
A wasted opportunity that might well have proven particularly costly only a minute later. A Fuller delivery intercepted by the head of Solly, only to dip and meet his own crossbar. The bar playing the role of Amos’ fingertips in this episode of desperately maintaining a slender lead.
But Amos’ fingertips were not required, nor were any more breathing techniques. AFC Wimbledon without the cutting edge to test the Addicks, themselves now defending with determination, even with five additional minutes in which to find an equaliser. Charlton seeing out the game with relative calmness.
Energy retained for the release of joy in the post-match celebrations. Getting through the ugliness, the sloppiness, and discomfort. A celebration shared by players, manager and supporters that knew fortune was involved somewhere, but honoured most the value of such a win.
There is something quite odd about these sorts of wins. Coming out on top in a dour game, despite offering a poor performance. No doubt the emotion is one of joy, but there probably contested views on how intensely you view the importance of the importance beyond today.
For there no question the result so easily could have gone the other way. It very easily could have remained level. And, given the quality of the performance, there could have been no argument that either outcome wasn’t deserved.
The lack of intensity, a real slowness on the ball, going forward incredibly frustrating. Misplaced and overhit passing, combined with misdirected balls to a struggling Magennis, growing increasingly tiresome. The defence somewhat flatfooted.
You worry that a repeat performance gets punished. Again, you worry why we struggle to play with any sort of tempo against a side so lowly. You worry sides so lowly can’t be appropriately punished.
But that a winner is found, when the performance is substandard, has a certain value to it. Not a bundled in, rather fortunate, winner. But a winner of real quality.
Holmes is a matchwinner. Few teams in this division have players of that quality. You drag games out, and the more likely it is someone of his quality will make the decisive blow.
Tiresome, lacklustre and tame. There really few enjoyable moments until Holmes’ strike. Few moments that suggested this was a game Charlton would win.
And that does show there needs to be some improvement if both victories and this sort of position, or better, in the league are to be sustained throughout the campaign. I think there does have to be a concern that ultimately we’ll be caught out with performances like this, and there’s definitely a few faults in a quality side. In addition to excellent performances, and a bloody huge deal of determination, fortune has occasionally been on our side in recent weeks.
And that you’d like to see some improvement, on a day where the Addicks cement their position in fourth and move closer to the top two, can really only be a good thing.
Most would have been happy if Charlton Athletic were to return to The Valley this weekend on the back of collecting two points from two tough away games. Extreme difficulty expected in the games at the Kassam Stadium and Valley Parade. Anything more than two commendable draws a very encouraging bonus.
And so that they face AFC Wimbledon with four points gained from their ventures, and directly after a battling win over third place Bradford City, means SE7 is likely to be a pool of positivity and optimism on Saturday. Belief both in those representing the Addicks, and in victory. Victory over the lowly Dons, who make the trip across the capital having lost to fellow strugglers Plymouth Argyle last weekend.
But to get carried away, both in a long-term and short-term sense, would be silly. The league a competitive one, and concern of collapse lingers alongside justifiable hope of pushing for a top two spot come May. The league’s competitiveness meaning that a run of positive results and performances does not assure Karl Robinson’s men of victory against a side who sit 20th.
But these are the sort of games, if Charlton do wish to push for the top two, that must be won. Home games against sides with relegation worries the perfect opportunity to gain points. An opportunity that cannot be turned down.
And with eight points between the Addicks in fourth and Wigan Athletic in second, dropping unnecessary points could prove particularly costly. A performance required. Whether convincing or not, one that does enough to win.
There not much of an excuse for Charlton failing to build on the position they find themselves in this weekend.
LAST MEETING – AFC WIMBLEDON 1-1 CHARLTON ATHLETIC (11/02/2017)
A second late capitulation of the season against AFC Wimbledon saw Charlton drop two points at Kingsmeadow in February, as Tom Elliott struck in stoppage-time to equalise for the hosts.
In fact, Robinson showed greater fighter than his side, with the former MK Dons boss becoming involved in a scuffle with a member of the Dons’ ground staff at full-time.
The Addicks appeared well placed to put the collapse at The Valley earlier on in the campaign, which saw Neal Ardley’s side score twice in the final 12 minutes to come from behind to win, behind them when they took an eighth minute lead at Kingsmeadow. A lead gained in quite spectacular fashion, too. A Ricky Holmes free-kick curling beautifully into the top corner of James Shea’s goal, well behind the reach of his desperate dive.
But Wimbledon were not crushed by the early strike, and increased in their competitiveness as the half progressed. Unfortunate, in fact, not to have successfully found a route back into the contest prior to the break. First Holmes fortunate only to receive yellow after a dangerous tackle on Lyle Taylor, before Sean Kelly’s cross-cum-shot somehow evaded both all in the centre and goal.
Robinson’s men becoming sluggish, if not second best, towards the end of the first period, and an early Tony Watt run and shot, though comfortably saved by Shea, at the start of the second-half was encouraging.
But the visitors really should have killed the game off ten minutes after the interval. Holmes’ deflected cross bouncing kindly through to Lee Novak, but the striker somehow managing to put his effort wide of goal. A huge let off for the hosts, that they would capitalise on.
For thereafter, the Dons were dominant. Pushing and pressuring the Addicks, whose defensive efforts never provided a great deal of comfort. Elliott in particular providing a great deal of worry.
And their pressure finally told in stoppage-time, as Tyrone Barnett nodded on a Shea long ball perfectly for Elliott, and the forward finished superbly across goal. Just reward for AFC’s efforts. Just punishment for Charlton’s sluggishness.
The hosts understandably enjoying their moment, but a little too much in the eyes of referee Boyeson. The already carded Elliott jumping towards the crowd to celebrate, and receiving a second yellow as punishment. Not enough time left in the game, however, for the Addicks to capitalise.
And with the Wimbledon mood high, and Charlton frustration equally so, a member of the Dons’ ground staff developed the confidence to make a comment towards Robinson come full-time that resulted in something of a punch-up ensuing. The visiting boss, rather hilariously and also thankfully, restrained by Ardley to prevent the incident being anything more than a bit pathetic. A rather eventful afternoon at Kingsmeadow.
AFC Wimbledon: LWWLDL
Having suffered a three-goal defeat to Oxford United, leaving them inside League One’s bottom four with just two wins from 12 games played, the successive victories that AFC Wimbledon gained thereafter appeared vital to turning their season around.
A crucial away win at fellow strugglers Northampton Town, followed by an impressive victory over promotion-chasing Rotherham United. A bit of breathing space opened up between themselves and the bottom four, but, at this stage of the campaign, a more important message potentially delivered. The proof they could compete, and possibly that they would not be spending a season lurking in and around the relegation zone.
And with the Dons facing another side with fears of relegation at this early stage of the campaign last weekend – Plymouth Argyle – it seemed they’d set themselves a tidy platform from which to move into a position of relative comfort. A position from which to build upon. A foundation, allowing for a campaign of worry to be avoided.
Alas, a single-goal defeat at home to the Pilgrims has, without undoing the good work of the previous two victories, most certainly undone the positivity created. Bottom-place argyle gaining only their second win of the campaign, and their first away from home. The fragile nature of this Dons side exposed once again.
A season of fighting desperately to maintain their status in League One seemingly on the agenda for Ardley’s men.
It not long ago that four winless games had supporters of the Addicks understandably worried. The performances dire, a positive start undone, and the faults within the squad being exposed. A worry there were certain limitations that would prevent the obvious potential of this group of players from being displayed.
But such worries seem a distant memory, with performances in recent weeks offering the perfect response. A thrashing of Fleetwood, a determined effort against Doncaster when dipping below par, and a battling victory at Bradford. Charlton fourth, and the quality within the starting XI being displayed.
It probably telling that a frustrating effort against Oxford United, in which wasted chances and a failure to make the most of earlier dominance, was the least convincing of the previous four games, but still providing a pleasing point.
But there reason for caution. Without the magic of Ben Amos, points would have been dropped last weekend as occasional lapses in defensive contraction remain, the form and fatigue Josh Magennis, without a reasonable alternative striking option, is a concern to match a sometimes-displayed lack of potency, and options in reserve aren’t plentiful in general. It not a perfect unit by any means.
In one way, it a worry. There may come a time when performances similar to the run of four games without a win return. In another, it shows that this side, largely performing superbly and gaining excellent resulting, can still get better.
And with takeovers rumours in existence, they might well be aided in their efforts to continue to improve, and to gain promotion.
AFC Wimbledon will be without Dean Parrett, with a serious groin injury set to keep the former Charlton loanee on the sidelines for as long as three months.
Parrett, who played nine times for the Addicks in 2011 while on loan from Tottenham, has made himself a crucial part of the Dons midfield since arriving from Stevenage at the start of last season, and will be a huge miss to Ardley’s side while he recovers.
The Dons are also likely to remain without forward Kwesi Appiah, with the summer arrival from Crystal Palace not featuring since September as he continues to contend with a hamstring problem, and the versatile Jon Meades, who nears a return from a knee injury having not featured this season, but Saturday will come too soon.
Mark Marshall should be available for Charlton having missed the previous three games with a thigh injury, more serious than first feared.
The winger was initially expected to be absent for the game against Doncaster Rovers two weekends ago, before making an immediate return to the matchday squad. But the summer signing, who has made one appearance for the Addicks as a consequence of injury, hasn’t featured since. A return to training this week means he stands a chance of being in the 18 on Saturday.
Robinson, however, will remain without Jason Pearce (knee), Harry Lennon (groin), and Lewis Page, whose return to first-team availability edges ever-closer having recovered from a long-term ankle injury.
But the players Charlton’s boss does have available to him means he has a few selection decisions to make ahead of the visit of the Dons. Naby Sarr starting at left-back at Valley Parade, but Jay Dasilva’s attacking talents missed and more likely required in a game where the Addicks will be on the front foot, while Ben Reeves will continue to compete with Billy Clarke for the position behind the forward. Sarr moving into the centre to accommodate Dasilva the most likely change, with Ezri Konsa the incredibly unfortunate victim.
KEY BATTLE – AVOIDING COMPLACENCY
Twelve games into the League One season, and the division’s bottom two places were occupied by Gillingham and Plymouth Argyle. Both only winning one game. That one game coming against Charlton.
Were it not for Ousmane Fane’s dismissal three minutes after eradicating a two-goal deficit, the pattern of the game suggested the Addicks would have completely capitulated at Boundary Park against winless Oldham Athletic. The performance against Bury, placed inside the third tier’s bottom four, abysmal. Robinson’s side haven’t exactly been convincing against struggling opposition during this campaign.
And so to suggest that victory over AFC Wimbledon, who arrive in SE7 precariously perched above the relegation zone, is assured would be incredibly naïve. Not only because the Dons have a natural tendency to fight, picking up some positive results prior to last weekend’s costly defeat at home to Plymouth, but because of what has occurred during this campaign. That, and the fact Charlton are experts in bringing supporters down to earth with a heavy bump.
Oldham aside, the problem in those games has been a slow start that the opposition have either taken immediate advantage of, or the Addicks simply haven’t been able to properly recover from. A sloppy goal subsequently conceded, and the somewhat bemused men of Robinson without the confidence and composure to break down a defiant wall of defenders set up to maintain the struggling side’s advantage. I don’t think it’s complacency or arrogance, probably more a combination of poor performances and difficulty in responding to the unplanned, but it feels like complacency.
So too does a look back at least season provide another reminder to remain fully focused. The Dons salvaging points against Charlton in dramatic fashion twice last season, exposing a tameness that you would hope no longer exists. You would hope, but, if nothing else, soft goals have been conceded on several occasions throughout this campaign.
Past experiences offering reminders to Robinson and his side that performance levels cannot drop, and a below-par performance is unlikely to go unpunished irrespective of the opposition.
Scrappily holding onto an advantage for much of the second half, and adding a second with 15 minutes to play to avoid panic attacks, frequent watch-checking, and Ben Amos having to do something that defies logic. Charlton Athletic 2-0 AFC Wimbledon
Fierce gusts of wind that were affecting the flight of the ball by the beginning of the second half. Heavy rain leaving those on the pitch completely sodden. A gritty battle between two sides lacking fluency going forward, but certainly not without commitment.
To see this stormy, autumnal scene at Valley Parade as one of beauty would take an acquired taste. It certainly not attractive in the conventional sense. Not attractive to those who conventionally find themselves inside the home of Bradford City.
But for the visiting Charlton Athletic supporters, this traditional display of bleakness only aided the wonder of their result. You could only feel a greater sense of pride as the exhausted Addicks came to applaud at full-time, battered and bruised by opposition and gusts. Drenched in rain water and the sweat produced from their efforts.
For at League One’s most obvious ‘tough place to go’, on a particularly tough day to go there, Karl Robinson’s men had battled away to steal all three points. Neither pretty nor convincing, but those factors taking nothing away from the effort involved in getting through to full-time with a single-goal advantage maintained. One given to them, as it began to look like this scrappy war would have no winner, by Jake Forster-Caskey with 74 minutes played.
Arguments to be had about who had had the better of this tight affair, in a way that lacked all the quality on display at the Kassam Stadium in midweek, prior to the Addicks breaking the deadlock. Both promotion-chasers occasionally getting into good positions, but neither possessing any sort of quality in their final delivery to test two resilient backlines. Billy Clarke, against his former side, with Charlton’s best chance, and a Ben Amos save superbly keeping out Charlie Wyke’s header to prevent Bradford going ahead.
And argument to be had about whether the Addicks should have been able to get themselves into a position from which they converted. Home players, and the typically fiery Stuart McCall, furious with referee and his assistant as Ricky Holmes was questionably adjudged to have kept the ball in play on the right flank. Play continuing, a Charlton throw teeing up Chris Solly to cross to Tariqe Fosu, and the winger’s scuffed volley turned over the line by an alert Forster-Caskey.
Though Forster-Caskey’s contribution to victory was matched, if not bettered, by that of Amos’. As the Bantams instilled panicked upon the watching visiting supporters, the Bolton loanee first saved from Wyke, before pulling off a quite extraordinary stop to deny Matthew Kilgallon from the resulting corner. The goalkeeper’s interventions meaning Robinson’s men could celebrate with all the joy and relief that comes with a win in which fight, battle and just a touch of good fortune has been required.
And in a week where the Addicks have picked up four impressive points previously, and promising takeover rumours have emerged, such an impressive victory holds even greater value. The status Robinson’s side hold in League One growing greater. Their chance of success potentially growing if a stable base were to appear.
It might well be that the gale that blew over Valley Parade, along with Forster-Caskey’s decisive strike and Amos’ vital fingertips, were signalling the winds of change at Charlton Athletic.
Change, surprisingly, in Robinson’s starting XI once again. A man previously unwilling to make alterations to his side unless enforced naming three different line-ups in a week. Ezri Konsa returned to the side at the expense of Jay Dasilva, with Naby Sarr bravely placed at left-back, while Clarke was chosen ahead of Ben Reeves to start at the ground he called his home for three years.
But the main team news was that, having been labelled a doubt, Holmes was fit enough to play, and fit enough to make an immediate impact on the game. Driving forward, with cries of encouragement and expectation from a vocal away end matching every stride, the winger ultimately forced a dipping shot away from the edge of the box while under pressure from Nathaniel Knight-Percival. As the visiting Addicks started to clear their throats in order to celebrate, Bradford goalkeeper Colin Doyle hurried across his goal to superbly tip the effort over his bar.
Enough to get the voices of the visiting support fully into action, and to calm any fears that they would struggle to compete at Valley Parade. But they were under no illusions that the Bantams would make the afternoon a difficult one, and an important block from Patrick Bauer turned Jake Reeves’ strike wide. Omari Patrick doing the job of the Charlton defence for them from the resulting corner, as, under pressure from Ahmed Kashi at the back post, the winger volleyed horribly off-target.
And with a Josh Magennis nod-on sending Holmes free down the left, resulting in the winger volleying into the side-netting, there was an early suggesting that this contest might be somewhat end-to-end and open.
Alas, it would not be long before the referee’s blowing of his whistle was the game’s most fluent aspect. A horribly scrappy midfield battle ensuing, with niggly fouls preventing any real fluidity to the game, while any chance either side had to threaten in the opposition’s final third was abruptly ended by a misplaced pass or a weak final ball. The effort, particularly defensively, of both sides not to be faulted; their attacking execution very much so.
Charlton’s attacking tameness heightened by two factors in particular. Sarr delivering defensively, but reluctant to do the job that Dasilva does so well in getting forward and subsequently overlapping while a winger has the ball, meaning Holmes or Fosu were finding themselves stranded. The wide duo further limited by the fact that Magennis, following on from his tired effort in the final half hour against Oxford United in midweek, was contributing very little, and struggled to win the ball at all until looping a header way over the bar from a Holmes with 25 minutes played.
The game too slow, too sloppy in general, and both teams stuck in a very unappealing stalemate. An inspired moment required to bring the game alive, or at least bring about a brief interruption, and a clever piece of thinking at least provided the latter. The Addicks had been locking themselves in from throws on the right, but Solly’s quickly taken throw-in sent Clarke in on goal, and his drive flashed narrowly wide of the Bradford goal with his former teammate Doyle stranded.
One goalkeeper stranded, but the other required to be very much alert in order to prevent his side falling behind. It would not have come as a surprise if, after not taking a promising opening, the Addicks had conceded, nor if the game’s deadlock was broken by a set-piece, and chaos ensued in Charlton’s box from Nicky Law’s free-kick delivery. The ball eventually popping up to Wyke, just a few yards out and surely about to head McCall’s men into the lead, but the starfish shape of Amos somehow denying Bradford’s forward in outstanding fashion.
As such, for all the gritty and scrappy play seemingly only to worsen as the wind began to noticeably increase across this part of Yorkshire, there remained very strong tests for both defences as each side looked to force their way ahead. Sarr getting forward in natural fashion for possibly the first time, and to great effect, as he exchanged flicks with Fosu before a well-timed tackle from Knight-Percival inside the box prevented the winger getting a shot away. Kashi managing to get a shot away as the resulting corner was cleared but, though struck incredibly well, sending his effort straight into the hands of Doyle.
Holmes sending a free-kick high and wide and Wyke firing over at the other end after a free-kick was knocked down towards him as half-time approached, but the sound of the referee’s whistle to signal the interval came as some relief. A gruelling first period, both to be involved in the battle, and to witness it.
No doubt that both these sides had the quality within their units to push forward with greater intent in the second half in search of victory. But you weren’t getting the impression that that was the plan of either. Not least with their attacking, with passing wayward and crosses weak, so heavily restricted.
Nor was the hunt for a breakthrough helped by both teams defending resolutely, for which particularly credit was warranted in the increasingly difficult conditions. But it did appear at the start of the second period that the Addicks had lost a certain amount of their defensive structure and resolve. The visiting backline standing allowing the Bantams to come forward too easily, standing off Reeves, and ultimately giving him the opportunity to shoot just over the top from the edge of the box.
Settled Robinson’s men were most certainly not in the immediate aftermath of the interval, but some relief was to come. Holmes getting into a crossing position right by the goal line and, possibly assisted by the winds, seeing his resulting delivery bounce back off the bar and just out of the reach of Fosu waiting inside the box. As a man who has previously scored directly from a corner, well, there’s every chance it might have been intentional.
But the relief was only light as the Bantams continued to test a struggling Charlton backline, and waste opportunities to pull ahead. Alex Gilliead getting in behind Sarr, crossing low to Patrick, and only an excellent block from Konsa sending the ball over the bar and denying Bradford’s winger what would have been a certain goal. Cries from the away end for the Addicks to wake up, and those only growing louder following the resulting corner, as a delivery sent to the back post was nodded back into the centre, where an unchallenged Timothee Dieng should have done much better than fire over.
And with Patrick driving forward, bursting through blue shirts as if they weren’t now, before striking comfortably over Amos’ bar, a concern was growing that this would be quite an uncomfortable second half for the Addicks. Defensive weakness, but so too a struggle to retain the ball in midfield, and Magennis’ lacklustre display really hampering the side. Most would have taken a point prior to kick-off, and now many were quite desperate for it.
With 25 minutes remaining, however, Forster-Caskey issued a reminder that the Addicks were far from sitting ducks in this contest, and still had the quality to grind their way to victory. The midfielder, battling as much as anyone in the horrible central battle, finding himself in space 25 yards from goal, and curling an effort in the general direction of the top corner. A brief moment, while the ball was still in flight, where the away began to prematurely celebrate, but Doyle did extremely well to get himself across goal and push the effort behind.
Certainly enough to reinvigorate the visiting supporters, raising voices and making them believe that they could come away from Valley Parade with three points, and seemingly doing the job of settling the Addicks down into a more compact and coherent unit. At the very least, they soon looked less fractured at the back, offered much greater control in midfield, and a second chance would quickly follow. Fosu, winning and subsequently taking a free-kick, seeing a swerving strike from a dead ball punched away by Doyle, with the goalkeeper taking no risks in such windy conditions.
Energy in the Charlton side to match the battle that hadn’t faded, and Holmes attempted to burst up the right flank with a little more than 15 minutes to play despite Bradford men surrounding him. It appeared as if his efforts has been in vain, or at least in the very strong view of those representing the hosts, with the accusation that the winger had ran the ball out of play. However, he continued, and ultimately won his own side a throw, while Valley Parade regulars continued to voice their displeasure.
Maybe that part of the reason that those on the pitch were caught flat-footed as, from the quickly-taken throw, Solly was sent into an excellent crossing position without a Bantam around him. His delivery picking out an unmarked Fosu, but his resulting volley towards goal not a clean one, only for Forster-Caskey to appear at the far post and turn the ball over the line. Cue carnage.
The importance of the goal not lost on Robinson’s men, with groups of wild celebrations ultimately forming one, in front of a set of fans celebrating equally as wildly. A lead with 16 minutes to play in a horribly scrappy affair against a side who are incredibly difficult to beat at home, who had been putting the Addicks under some pressure. Huge.
There was, however, still 16 minutes to play. Bradford had already shown they could test this Charlton back four, and would no doubt find ways to do so in the time that remained. Though they would have to do better than Dieng’s effort, as Amos watched the Frenchman’s strike flash comfortably wide.
And in the face of undoubted pressure, there was a desperate requirement to remain defensively firm. So the sight of Sarr jumping for a header, completely missing the ball, and allowing Patrick in behind was not ideal. The winger squaring for Wyke, and only a sublime save from Amos at his near save retaining Charlton’s lead, sparing Sarr’s blushes, and allowing those in the away end to begin the process of breathing again.
But from the resulting corner, Amos, determined to protect these three points, managed to outdo his previous efforts. Kilgallon picked out at the back post, nodding towards the top corner from point-blank range, and the fingertips of the visiting goalkeeper somehow tipping the ball away. Quite incredible how the Addicks still had their lead, and this a quite incredible display of goalkeeper from the Bolton loanee.
Surely with such resilience, at least from the gloves of Charlton’s number one, a crushing moment in the final minutes would not come, but the signalling of five additional minutes was devastating enough. A panicked period in which the Addicks had to find one last burst of energy to continue this somewhat uncomfortable but totally committed fight. A period that began with Magennis breaking through, and shooting agonisingly wide.
The Bantams, however, failed to threaten. The Addicks solid, and their opponents with nothing left to give. The referee’s final whistle blown without concern preceding it, bringing about wonderful relief-filled joy.
It left this set of heroic, sodden, and exhausted bodies – including Johnnie Jackson who had come on for the final moments – to celebrate their victory in front of the travelling supporters. Their victory. For this was most definitely a victory that belonged to the effort and battle they had shown throughout the 90 minutes.
The fight shown not lost on anyone. Their reward the win, but this shared moment of celebration, and appreciation for Robinson’s men, most certainly earned. A win with huge value.
This a win as big as the gusts that meant the players wanted to escape these celebrations quickly, as meaningful as they were.
They had, to be quite frank, worked their bollocks off. They’d given absolutely everything in very tough conditions, in a very tough game. It a real battle, the wounds of which displayed, but one they had won.
A battle fought collectively. It simply had to be, given the lack of attacking fluency that the nature of the game allowed. This wasn’t a game where Holmes or Fosu could dominate.
It was a game where Bauer and Konsa challenging for every ball, and continuously throwing their bodies on the line, was vital. It was a game where, despite being beaten several times by Gilliead and Patrick, Sarr and Solly had to keep on tracking their men with all the energy they had to give. It was a game where Kashi and Forster-Caskey, up against the impressive Law and Reeves, had to be prepared to fight for every single first and second ball.
Moments, of course, of uncertainty. In fact, maybe some luck involved. It did appear that Bradford’s claim in the build up to the goal was a reasonable one, but equally they could have dealt with the threat better, and defensive frailties at the start of the second half weren’t capitalised on by the hosts.
But for almost the entirety of the game, the Addicks were successful in collectively battling as they needed to.
And when they weren’t in the period after taking the lead, they had a teammate on hand to bail them out. The hands of Amos absolutely vital. A sensational display of goalkeeping to secure the three points.
A sensational display of goalkeeping, a Forster-Caskey goal, and a battling collective effort that cements a position within the play-offs. Still some way off the top two but, having drawn level on points with Bradford, we possibly become the side that will capitalise if one slips up. That is, of course, if a mixture of quality and fight continues to be shown.
And there’s the attractive short-term potential of this club to an interested buyer – Robinson has got a side that, realistically, still needs some strengthening into a very good position in the league. The long-term potential also seen today, seen in the stands. The joy of those supporters, embracing the relief and excitement of victory, and hoping for more positive news to follow.
And it’s probably these wins those supporters, battered and bruised themselves in recent years, enjoy more than any other. Not totally fluent, but totally committed. A side fighting for victory in testing circumstances, and earning a result to be proud of.
To attempt to decide whether Saturday’s trip to Valley Parade to face Bradford City will provide a tougher test for Charlton Athletic than the one offered by Oxford United on Tuesday night is rather futile.
For regardless of whether the Bantams perform to a level above or below what the U’s offered in midweek, it will still be an incredibly testing challenge for the Addicks. One that means a certain level of performance is going to be required to gain so much as a point. One that means coming away from Yorkshire with a second point of the week has to be seen as a success.
Karl Robinson’s men will no doubt possess a reasonable level of self-belief, and certainly won’t be fearing facing another side that share a spot inside League One’s top six. A certain amount of wastefulness cost them something more positive in midweek, and allowed Oxford back into a game that became incredibly competitive, but Charlton played with confidence and attacking intent throughout at the Kassam. There no reason to feel that such an overall performance cannot be replicated at Valley Parade.
And so too will the Addicks look at recent Bantams results and sense they have vulnerabilities. Capitulating to a 3-1 loss at Bury having taken the lead at the weekend, before drawing with a slowly improving Oldham Athletic side in midweek.
But this a Bradford side who currently sit third in the League One table, were unbeaten at Valley Parade throughout last season under Stuart McCall’s leadership, and have won eight of their 14 league games during this campaign. The threat they offer a very real one. Their reputation as a difficult side to beat remains.
And so it would appear that the Addicks, whether a fluid contest shared by two teams playing with real quality or a gritty and committed battle, will have another highly competitive clash on their hands on Saturday.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 1-1 BRADFORD CITY (14/03/2017)
Charlton slipped to 15th in the League One table following their draw with Bradford in March, but their performance against a side battling for promotion was an excellent one.
Or at least their second half performance was, with the Addicks starting poorly at The Valley. Romain Vincelot setting the tone with three minutes played, with the Frenchman given far too much and shooting just wide from distance. Charlton’s defensive effort unorganised, and lacking any sort of intensity.
Future Addick Mark Marshall among Bradford’s chief tormenters, but the hosts fortunate that their faults were not more greatly exploited. Tony McMahon’s free-kick comfortable held by Declan Rudd, and Nathanial Knight-Percival’s head sent over the bar. The Bantams really should have been more threatening in the circumstances.
Nonetheless, it came against the run of play when Karl Robinson’s sluggish side were able to take the lead with 35 minutes played. The two centre-backs combining in the opposition’s box as Patrick Bauer nodded on a Ricky Holmes free-kick for Jorge Teixeira, with the Portuguese taking a touch with his chest and ultimately volleying home.
Alas, it was not a lead that would last long, with Marshall heavily involved as Bradford equalised just eight minutes later. Another future Addick contributing as Billy Clarke relayed a half-cleared corner into the winger’s path, before his deflected shot was spilled horribly by Rudd. Timothee Dieng on hand to pounce on the loose ball and head the visitors level.
But the pattern of the contest changed substantially in the second period, with the Addicks taking control. The backline organised, and the side pressing as a unit to prevent Bradford’s considerable attacking threat from getting forward. But Robinson’s men were causing a consistent attacking threat of their own.
In fact, they created more than enough chances after half-time to find a winner. Lee Novak heading over from close range, the otherwise excellent Tony Watt blasting off-target horribly after a bouncing ball fell to him inside the box, and Teixeira heading straight at Bradford goalkeeper Colin Doyle from a pinpoint Ricky Holmes set-piece delivery.
But the wasted chances, frustrating though they were, not enough to take praise away from the players in a period where performances without intensity or quality had been numerous. Those on the pitch evidently disappointed, but those in the stands appreciative of their efforts.
Having suffered a play-off final defeat last season, and subsequently saw a handful of key players depart, there was a sense that the task for Bradford to finish inside the top six this season would be a much tougher one.
But under the stewardship of McCall, a man who will always have maximum respect and worship in the city, the Bantams have again made sure they’re going to be given the label of promotion contenders. An impressive start to the campaign, blowing away the indifference that some had about a side after a difficult summer. Eight victories from their first 14 league games, as they sit third in the division.
There is, however, maybe just a small element of frustration. They were only two points off second after beating MK Dons 4-1 at the start of the month, but now find themselves five points off an automatic promotion spot having failed to win either of their previous two games. Having lost last season’s play-off final to Millwall, and lost in the semi-final in the season before that, avoiding that process again would be most welcome.
Frustration that those two recent games that failed to result in a victory were against sides that find themselves towards the foot of the division. A horrible collapse at Bury, where their lead was overturned in the space of two minutes, and somewhat disappointing draw with Oldham the sort of results you need to eradicate if your aim is automatic promotion.
Nonetheless, Bradford’s beginning to the League One season has been a promising one, and certainly enough to suggest a top-six spot at least will be theirs come May.
A positive point for Charlton at Oxford in midweek, but supporters were left somewhat frustrated that it wasn’t more.
For the Addicks, and not for the first time this season, failed to make the most of a position of dominance. In total control, and having created enough chances to be further ahead, prior to conceding an equaliser with 35 minutes played. The U’s, who looked completely out of it up until that point, subsequently invited back into the game, and threatened to steal victory as much as the visitors did thereafter.
The inability of Robinson’s men to take their chances, and subsequently prevent opposition from sneaking back into games, is ultimately going to grow from frustrating to costly if it’s not addressed. But the overall performance at the Kassam, in what became a highly competitive game, was an excellent one. At no point did Charlton settle for the point they ultimately gained, with attacking intensity displayed throughout the 90 minutes.
And with a largely positive performance and point coming on the back of two victories – a hard-fought win over Doncaster Rovers and a sublime mauling of Fleetwood Town – there is certainly much improvement on the sluggish efforts in the four winless games that preceded.
It would just, you know, be a bit less stressful if we showed a bit more potency.
Bradford will be without former Addick Adam Chicksen after the left-back injured a thigh in the latter stages of his side’s draw with Oldham in midweek.
Chicksen, a steady performer in a Charlton shirt, has been a regular for the Bantams during this campaign, making a positive impression at Valley Parade. On loan Brentford left-back Tom Field the favourite to replace him in the starting XI.
And McCall will also have to make do without influential captain Romain Vincelot, after the midfielder received his fifth yellow card of the campaign on Tuesday. Arguably a much greater loss to Bradford, given his importance in the centre. Dieng, scorer at The Valley in March, in line to come into for his fellow Frenchman.
Elsewhere, defender Tony McMahon remains absent with a hamstring injury that is expected to keep him out for the best part of a month.
Charlton will remain without Mark Marshall after it was confirmed the former Bradford winger’s thigh niggle is worse than first feared.
Originally, it was expected that Marshall, whose debut for the Addicks was delayed until the trip to Fleetwood Town by a knee injury sustained in pre-season, would only miss last weekend’s win over Doncaster Rovers. But having sat out the draw with Oxford, he’s highly unlikely to add to his single Charlton appearance at his former home. A return after that, however, is expected soon enough.
Robinson will also remain without long-term absentee Jason Pearce, who continues to recover from a knee injury, Lewis Page, who is likely to be someway off match fitness despite appearing for the U23s in the week having recovered from a serious ankle injury, and Harry Lennon, who is approaching a year since his last appearance as a result of hamstring and groin issues.
But Charlton’s boss will persevere with Josh Magennis, despite himself accepting that his main centre-forward is in desperate need of a rest. The Northern Ireland international, as key a figure for Michal O’Neill’s side as he is Robinson’s, has had a demanding start to the season, and continues to look exhausted beyond the hour mark. But with a lack of alternatives available, and the Addicks facing a tough test, Magennis must continue to find energy from somewhere.
KEY BATTLE – FOSU’S FORM CONTINUING
A sixth goal in four games for Tariqe Fosu on Tuesday night, as he rounded Oxford goalkeeper Simon Eastwood before finishing coolly, and there no question that Charlton’s recent improvement in both performances and form owes a great deal to the 21-year-old winger.
In each of those four games, the summer signing from Reading has given the Addicks the lead, and that provides a clear indication of the sort of impact he’s been having. Creating moments when nothing seemed to be on, leading Charlton’s attacking efforts, and most importantly scoring goals that change the context of a game. His hat-trick at Fleetwood Town marvellous, but his other strikes and performance showing a man full of confidence.
And it definitely a case that his performances have been as important as his goals. A persistent threat regardless of which winger he’s attacking, with full-backs being forced onto the back foot. An increase in attack intent from the Addicks in recent weeks coinciding with Fosu finding some form, and as such the side able to attack with genuine threat on a consistent basis.
There are, of course, other threats in this Charlton side. Not least Ricky Holmes, who remains the most influential on the Addicks’ chances of victory irrespective of Fosu’s form. But having a threat from either flank of similar quality has given Robinson’s men much greater strength going forward, even if they’re not always making the most of it.
That a particular concern for Bradford, who will face Fosu without either of their first-choice full-backs. Possibly some at Valley Parade who believe they’re getting something of a reprieve with no Marshall to torment them, but that is far from the truth.
The Bantams have attacking threats of their own, and Charlton’s weak finishing in midweek means their strength going forward needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but there every reason for Fosu to make the difference in a tight encounter.
Visions of wastefulness from Tuesday night remain. But coming out of this week alive would be excellent, and set a handy platform. Bradford City 1-1 Charlton Athletic
In a city with highly respected education institutions, Charlton Athletic showed they’re still struggling to learn from previous experience. Plenty of practice papers surely taken, but finding the answers in the real thing continues to prove tricky. Hard work not being rewarded as it should be.
For a critical fault that has proved frustrating on numerous occasions throughout this campaign was displayed once again at Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium. A fault that taints the overall quality of this collective. A point away at a side sharing a spot inside the top six to be applauded and appreciated, but it might have been so much more had the Addicks shown potency in the opposition’s box.
Excellent chances not taken either side of Karl Robinson’s men gaining a 18th-minute advantage at the Kassam. Tariq Fosu pouncing as Simon Eastwood hesitated on coming towards a loose ball after Curtis Nelson lost possession, the winger rounding the stranded goalkeeper, and scoring his sixth goal in four games. Wasted chances of little interest to any Addick as Fosu’s name was sung by delight away supporters.
In fact, such wasted chances seemed to have little negative value in those moments, only providing further encouragement. For the Addicks were playing with such quality, and held such a control of the game, that those chances, as they did a first, surely foreshadowed a second goal. A confidence aided by Oxford’s rather panicked defending, and misplaced passes that quickly blunted attacks and increased quite vocal frustration within the home sections of the ground.
But the importance of the inability to take those chances would become clear with 35 minutes played. The U’s providing no real test to Ben Amos in the Charlton goal up until that point, and Chris Solly had had few more challenging things to do than superbly head away a James Henry delivery. Unfortunately, that cleared cross fell straight to Christian Ribeiro, whose accurate left-foot volley found the far bottom corner of Amos’ goal.
The game might have been out of sight had Robinson’ side made their dominance count for what it was worth. Instead, Clotet’s men were invited back into the contest, themselves now racking up chances, and made Charlton thankful to hear the half-time whistle. A situation that wasn’t occurring for the first time this season.
And while both teams, with the Addicks taking some deep breaths during the interval and composing themselves once again, contributed to an excellent game of football in the second period, with the pair obviously intent on winning the game, it was the visitors who had more right to be ultimately frustrated. Oxford threatening, and just as likely to gain the advantage each time they attacked, but Charlton’s threat a more persistent one. One they should have made more of.
In fact, with a minute to play, the Addicks failed to take arguably the best chance either side had to win the game. Substitute Karlan Ahearne-Grant found in a glorious position, but his first-time effort curling comfortably wide. Inexcusable not to have at least tested Eastwood in the Oxford goal; arguably inexcusable not to have scored.
The game subsequently concluding with a sour taste of frustration formed from the failure to make the most of the chances created, not least during the first-half period of dominance that meant the U’s were able to get back into the game. But so too was there reason to be pleased with the overall performance and the gaining of a point against a strong side. There also a niggling voice that suggested, given the threat Oxford posed, that there should be some relief felt in coming away from the Kassam without further suffering having been inflicted.
It’s probably easier to understand most Oxford University degrees than it is this Charlton side, at times.
Something usually fairly straight forward is Robinson’s team selection, with changes rarely made unless injury or suspension enforces them. But Charlton’s boss made two alterations to his starting XI for the trip to the Kassam by choice. Ezri Konsa and Billy Clarke dropping to the bench, with Naby Sarr and Ben Reeves, making his first league start for the club, coming in.
And one of those fresh faces came desperately close to opening the scoring for the Addicks with just five minutes played. A sublime set-piece delivery from Ricky Holmes beating all inside the Oxford box, and placed perfectly onto Sarr’s head, but the Frenchman could only head a glorious opening wide. A positive start for the visitors, that raised the volume coming from an already vocal away end, but they really should have been celebrating an early goal.
Attempts made by the hosts to immediately silence the visiting supporters, and the momentum their team was trying to build, but in rather tame fashion. Alex Mowatt, the match-winner in Oxford’s victory over Bristol Rovers at the weekend, striking a free-kick straight into the wall, while to call Ryan Ledson’s scuffed effort unthreatening would be flattering. Defensive resilience, and a sensible composure while in possession of the ball away from the opposition’s final third, increasing the control that the Addicks were steadily building.
Control that wasn’t translating into a lead, but it really should have been. Josh Magennis, in typically powerhouse fashion, bursting down the right, breaking into the box, and cutting back perfectly for a relatively unmarked Holmes in the centre. Premature celebration in the away end as ball neared Charlton’s talismanic winger, but Holmes somehow allowed it to creep away from him, when connection would have surely put the visitors in front.
A danger that this sort of wastefulness could frustrate. Frustrate players, supporters, and Robinson, who was watching from the touchline with an uncharacteristic level of calmness. Frustration certainly as Fosu broke forward to the sound of expectation, only to shoot horribly wide from distance with better options available to him.
But frustration certainly wasn’t the feeling among the visiting supporters, mightily impressed with the way the Addicks were passing the ball around with intent, before driving forward threateningly once an attacking player had been found. Oxford struggling to settle, even to leave their half in any sort of composed manner, and Charlton well on top. Fosu leaving Ribeiro for dead, and not for the first time, before shooting across the face of goal.
The goal coming. Surely coming. And with 18 minutes played, any slight sense of frustration was emphatically swapped for pure joy.
A catastrophe for Oxford, but equally reward for the Addicks and more specifically for the energy, intensity, and pressing of Fosu. Nelson pressured by the Charlton winger, the U’s skipper forced into forcing a ball back to Eastwood, but it one his goalkeeper wouldn’t have any chance of winning if he wasn’t fully committed. He wasn’t, allowing Fosu to steal in and round him, drive into the box as desperate Oxford defenders gave chase, before finding the bottom corner of an empty goal.
Unquestionably deserved. For Charlton and for Fosu. And the away end, having enjoyed the performance thus far, were certainly enjoying having to celebrate.
The U’s tried to respond, but it really only increased the confidence of the visitors. Henry shooting harmlessly wide, to a chorus of mocking cheers almost as loud as the cheers of celebration were for the goal two minutes previously. The hosts rattled.
Rattled to the extent that they might well have quickly found themselves two goals behind, and their backline would have taken much of the blame. All in yellow seemingly assuming that Fosu’s delivery was heading out of play, but Holmes had stretched to reach it at the far post, and his volley only narrowly missed the target with goalkeeper Eastwood equally unprepared. Something of a hostile atmosphere growing inside the Kassam.
An atmosphere that only grew as the Addicks maintained their control. A certain expectation that the hosts would struggle each time Fosu and Holmes broke forward. A certain expectation that the hosts would struggle each time they broke forward.
So there no question that Oxford’s 35th-minute equaliser came against the run of play. So too did it come out of nothing. But it was another reminder that the Addicks needed to make more of these periods they had on top.
Experienced winger Henry getting a bit of space on the right, before delivering a testing ball that Solly did well to head away. Alas, the ball landing straight at the feet of Ribeiro, and his volley finding the bottom corner, with Amos stranded. Suddenly, the emotions the two sets of supporters had been feeling had been swapped.
As had the overall pattern of play. Within a minute of equalising, Josh Ruffels found space on the edge of area to curl a sublime effort narrowly wide of Amos’ far post. Justified confidence among the visiting supporters replaced by a fear of collapse.
A fear that only increased as the U’s continued to create, and continued to look like a completely different side. Sarr largely composed throughout, but had occasionally threatened to get himself into trouble before being rescued, and on this occasion found himself caught out as Jack Payne sent Wes Thomas though on goal. The forward, thankfully, not taking the best of touches, and firing wide of one post, as Sarr kicked the other in frustration.
Some reprieve from the carnage offered with a minute of the half remaining as Magennis did well to tee up the rather quiet Reeves, but the time required to take a touch with his chest meant what appeared a clear opening became one that was easily charged down by a number of yellow shirts.
But half-time was desperately required, to give the Addicks a chance to settle and to half Oxford’s momentum. In fact, the visitors were incredibly fortunate not to have been going in at the break behind. Ricardinho – because every League One club needs a full back called Ricardinho – striking towards the bottom corner, with a superb Amos save preventing what appeared a goal-bound effort from putting the hosts ahead.
In the space of ten minutes, Charlton had gone from being in complete control to rather fortunate not to have fallen behind. It not particularly pretty. The U’s remembering how to play football, and the Addicks stuck in their shells.
The first 35 minutes of that first half, however, had been so impressive that a chance to settle during the interval would surely result in such performance levels returning. But, if only to calm the discomfort the final period of the opening 45 produced, a strong start was required after the break. Patrick Bauer getting himself in a bit of a mess and ultimately allowing Payne to shoot, well wide of Amos’ goal, not quite what was in mind.
More promising, and in fact the catalyst for Charlton finding their feet again, was Ricky Holmes doing something a bit ridiculous and it almost coming off. A cleared cross looping up to Holmes on the edge of the area, and the winger setting himself for the sort of volley that would find the Kassam Stadium’s car park 99 times out of 100. His effort struck superbly, with near-perfect timing and real venom, but not quite dipping enough to sneak underneath the crossbar.
Energy and intensity, with very obvious attacking intent, returning to the visitors’ play. Not quite at first-half levels, but they certainly now looked comfortable, and they’d certainly regained a threat. Magennis breaking forward, cutting back to Holmes, only for a yellow shirt to throw himself in front of his goal-bound strike.
Though Oxford provided a near-immediate reminder that they would not be rattled on this occasion, and would continue to search for victory as they had been doing. Henry delivering to Thomas just inside Charlton’s area, and the forward using all his neck muscles to test Amos. The visiting goalkeeper needing to tip the effort over the bar.
But it a rare opening for either side’s centre forward, with both defences doing an excellent job of keeping things relatively tight in the centre, and aiding this high-quality affair. Plenty of threat out wide, and a great deal of it unstoppable, but an answer waiting in the middle. Charlton’s promising moves so often blunted as a visibly exhausted Magennis became marked out of the game, with no real option in reserve.
To the Northern Ireland international’s credit, however, he kept going. Eastwood with body behind the ball as he shot from the edge of the area, before Magennis nodded just wide from Dasilva’s excellent left-wing cross. Twenty minutes to play, with neither side abandoning hope of victory.
And there a growing sense that Charlton had slowly become the side most likely to win the game, largely because of the effect the pace in their side was having in this period of the contest. Holmes breaking forward, and maybe should have shot, but ultimately teeing up Fosu to curl a good opening wide. Oxford flat-footed in their efforts to deal with the break.
The Addicks also having the advantage of the recently introduced Clarke’s fresh legs, playing out wide with Holmes moved into the centre. The Irishman beating Ricardinho, cutting inside, and unleashing a swerving effort that forced Eastwood into a very uncomfortable save. The volume and confidence increasing again in the away end.
Said volume just brought down a level as former Addick Jon Obika, an infamous scorer of late goals, was introduced from Oxford’s bench. Involved immediately, teeing up Henry to fire harmlessly wide, before testing Amos with a shot of his own.
Robinson, with full-time moments away, responding by making a substitution of his own. Fosu receiving a standing ovation as he was replaced by Ahearne-Grant. Some disappointment Charlton’s goal scorer didn’t have another few minutes in his legs, but at least the academy graduate would provide pace from the bench.
Pace, but not finishing. For barely more than a minute after coming on, Ahearne-Grant wasted a glorious opportunity to win the game for the Addicks.
Holmes, having driven forward, might have shot for himself, but saw the youngster in space inside the box. Then subsequently saw the ball float harmlessly off-target, and several red shirts drop to the floor in disbelief. Ahearne-Grant curling wide from an inviting position; he simply had to score.
Charlton’s final chance to win the game, but not the game’s final chance. For in the final minute of two added on, Ricardinho struck a fierce first-time effort from the edge of Charlton’s area that climbed just over Amos’ bar. The Brazilian with chances to give his side the advantage at the end of each half.
Ultimately, however, the full-time whistle blew with neither side having the advantage. Totally meaningful appreciation for those in red as they approached the away end following their largely excellent efforts, but hardly a mood of celebration among the visiting supporters. A positive point and overall performance, but the sense of frustration hard to shake.
First of all, what a bloody great game of association football. Two strong teams, with attack-minded players who display real quality on the ball, both going for the win for the duration of the contest when either might have justifiably settled for the point at some stage. Two big chances created late on as a result of the same intent that had been shown throughout the game, not just half-hearted hopefulness.
And in a game where both sides will feel they did enough to win, will look back and see moments in which they might have lost, and will believe they both played well in a competitive contest, a point for each probably stands as fair. A fantastic battle once Oxford found their equaliser.
But the frustration for Charlton comes from the fact that Oxford were able to find their equaliser. It another moment in a game where they had complete control, and subsequently allowed the opposition back in. Sometimes, such as on Saturday against Doncaster, it happens without the other team punishing, sometimes, such as tonight, it happens and completely changes the overall pattern and nature of the game.
That inability to make such a level of control count for what it’s worth is becoming incredibly frustrating. The inability to take chances is becoming incredibly frustrating. Excellent overall performances aren’t being rewarded as they should be, and it’s ultimately going to prove costlier if it’s not addressed.
Equally concerning is the way we respond once a team finds their way back into a game after it seemed like we had total control. Oxford could have easily found the lead before half-time, and the pattern of the game had been completely reversed. While a team scoring will, of course, resulting in them gaining confidence, it quite bizarre how quickly we seem to fade.
At least there was a very positive response in the second period, only let down by the inability to convert an opening. A wasted opportunity to gain a greater advantage in the first period, and wasted opportunities to regain an advantage in the second. Perfectly reasonable, I would suggest, to be pleased with the point and overall performance, but frustrated that a familiar story has hindered us somewhat.
For the competitiveness in the second half, combined with Oxford’s position in the league, makes that point a good one. And there no doubt the overall performance, removing the inability to convert, was promising. Excellent individual efforts in a collective display that had both structure and composure, and energy and attacking intent.
This wasn’t the Sarr of Fleetwood, too often flirting with getting himself into trouble, but he and Bauer largely dealt with the considerable threat at hand well, while Solly and Dasilva were excellent. Ahmed Kashi and Jake Forster-Caskey did the simple things well, though it was a shame that Reeves was fairly anonymous, in complete contrast to the always involved and absolutely outstanding duo of Holmes and Fosu. Oh, and as if we didn’t know already, we probably need a striker, as Magennis was hard-working for much of the first half, before looking absolutely shattered for much of the second.
It’s just, with something a bit more in front of goal, that performance might have resulted in greater reward.
It’s easy to look ahead to the challenge of facing two top six sides in five days with fear and trepidation. For if Charlton Athletic fail to record victory, or at least compete, against opponents with similar ambitions, then their ability to fulfil those ambitions becomes rightfully questioned. The growing confidence and optimism gained from consecutive wins is punctured.
Grinding out a single-goal victory over Doncaster Rovers, with a performance that was far from flawless, displayed defensive determination and a strong character. But the trip to Oxford United on Tuesday, and the subsequent journey to Bradford City on Saturday, will provide a greater test of the Addicks’ overall quality, as much as it will their character. An overall quality that must be seen in its entirety.
Tuesday’s opponents new entrants to League One’s top six, having stolen victory late on in an competitive contest with Bristol Rovers at the weekend. A third win a succession for Pep Clotet side, who appear to be finding their stride. A threatening mix of the core of those involved the club’s progression in recent years, and bodies pulled in via the wide range of contacts Garry Monk’s former assistant manager has at his disposal.
However, to approach both the trip to Kassam and Valley Parade is a stance that Charlton don’t need to take. And it would not be brazen to see them as exciting opportunities. A chance for Karl Robinson’s side to definitively stamp down their status as promotion contenders, and leave the rest of the division looking upon them with concerned interest.
They have self-belief to their name, and stumbling into a state of concern about the prospects of facing two top six sides takes that away from them without the opposition needed to test it. They have the self-belief, and the required quality, to get at both Oxford and Bradford and cause them problems. Promising performances, and a couple of points, would be encouraging, but the Addicks will believe they’re capable of more.
A big week. Possible the most important week of the season so far, given the confidence and optimism that could either be built upon or crippled. But the challenge should be savoured.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 0-1 OXFORD UNITED (21/02/2017)
Charlton’s sluggish and tame performance meant they had no response to Conor McAleny’s early goal, with the former Addick giving Oxford all three points at The Valley in February.
The evening might have been very different for Karl Robinson’s side had luck been on Nathan Byrne’s side. The Wigan Athletic loanee seeing a dipping, swerving effort from the edge of the box bouncing back off the crossbar at some velocity with visiting goalkeeper Simon Eastwood. Only three minutes played but the possibility at least that momentum lied with the hosts
Alas, with 12 gone, McAleny, who played six games as an Addick in 2015 while on loan from Everton, was allowed to come forward unchallenged. Red shirts watched without acting as he found himself 30 yards from goal, having drove from just inside the Charlton half. His resulting effort something of a daisy cutter, but enough to defeat Declan Rudd, and give the U’s the lead.
Momentum now most certainly not with Robinson’s men, crushed and without response to a set-back as has so often been the case. Oxford needing only to remain composed and organised to deal with a Charlton side already appearing frustrated and desperate. A second and they might as well have walked off the pitch, nearly provided by Phil Edwards as the unmarked defender headed over the bar.
If nothing else, questions were asked in the second half, both of the match officials and a little more of the visiting backline. Ricky Holmes, having collected Tony Watt’s cut back, bundled over by Ryan Ledson inside the box in such a way that an attacking team deems a clear penalty and a defending team would march through the streets claiming outrage. Referee Ward unmoved.
And while the deficit remained at one, an equaliser was not impossible while Holmes and Arsenal loanee Stephy Mavididi threatened. The latter dancing into the box from the left flank and firing a fierce strike towards goal through a sea of bodies, only to strike the bottom of the post. It didn’t deserve to be Charlton’s night, but the sense that it wouldn’t be was growing.
The sense that it wouldn’t be confirmed with 20 minutes to play. Chris Solly allowing the ball to get away from him, and subsequently lunging in on John Lundstram with both feet, right in front of the referee’s eyes. The full-back given a straight red card.
There was, however, one last chance for the Addicks to salvage a point they probably didn’t deserve. Goalkeeper Rudd in the tangle of bodies that waited for Mavididi to deliver a stoppage-time corner, ultimately won by Bauer. His header goalbound, but Ledson in position to clear off the line.
The final whistle immediately following. Maybe Charlton could claim misfortune. But their performance was one that warranted little reward.
The performance that earned victory over Doncaster Rovers wasn’t exactly pretty, and nor was referee Robert Lewis’ being concussed by the shoulder of Josh Magennis, but both were ultimately rather enjoyable.
For too often during Charlton’s run of four games without victory, too often in recent times, have pressurised situations resulted in the conceding of cheap goals or simply capitulation. The game undoubtedly should have been killed off, with chances wasted and Donny allowed back into the game via sluggishness from the home side, and so the pressure the Addicks faced was somewhat self-inflicted. But ten minutes of stoppage-time, ten nervy minutes for supporters, were dealt with defiantly and calmly by a defensive line unwilling to be beaten.
A performance in some contrast to the high intensity and fluent one that saw Fleetwood downed three weeks earlier, but a performance that is sometimes required in order to gain three points. A performance that means, all of a sudden, four grim performances without victory has become four games without defeat. Two of those games without defeat not exactly to be celebrated, but there a platform nonetheless for the Addicks, and confidence and optimism is growing.
Replacing the trustworthy figure of Michael Appleton, departing the Kassam after promotion from League Two and an eighth-place finish in League One last season to become Leicester City’s assistant boss, with Clotet was also going to be a little bit of a gamble. Monk’s sidekick, without much managerial experience and none in England, allowed to roam free. A bold attempt to push a progressing club further forward, with the niggling doubt it might not work out.
The early signs, however, are that Clotet is getting things right. Concern that the wheels were falling off with three successive defeats following a promising start, but three successive victories have more than balanced out those concerns. A 4-1 win at London Road over Peterborough United, AFC Wimbledon beaten by three, and jubilation as Alex Mowatt stole three points for the U’s in an incredibly competitive contest at the Memorial Stadium.
It’s a run made all the more impressive by the fact just about every forward they have with a pulse currently has some sort of body part that doesn’t function correctly. Arguably a sign that Clotet has the side well-drilled. And with the quality that exists in his side’s midfield, that is to be expected.
Of course, the three successive defeats will hang for a little while. Caution, rather than concern, that Clotet’s leadership isn’t faultless as a consequence. But Oxford certainly appear in a positive position.
Oxford are expected to remain without forward Gino van Kessel, who missed Saturday’s victory over Bristol Rovers with a hamstring injury.
Van Kessel, on loan from Slavia Prague, sustained the injury during the win over AFC Wimbledon, preventing him from going away on international duty with Curacao in addition to playing at the weekend, and he one of several forwards with injury concerns for the U’s.
A torn hamstring means Albanian Agon Mehmeti will definitely be out, while Tuesday is likely to come too soon for former Addick Jon Obika and winger-cum-forward Rob Hall, who are both nearing a return from groin injuries.
Former Swansea full-back Dwight Tiendalli (hamstring) is also a doubt for Clotet’s side, while midfielder Ivo Pekalski (knee), who is yet to make his Oxford debut having joined in the summer, remains a long-term absentee.
Mark Marshall should return to the Charlton squad having missed Saturday’s victory over Doncaster with a niggle.
The summer signing only made his debut for the Addicks during the win over Fleetwood two weeks ago, having recovered from a knee injury sustained in pre-season. But the knock that kept him out of the weekend win was unrelated to his previous injury, and a quick return to the squad for the winger is likely.
Having options of Marshall’s quality in reserve particularly important in a week where two sides in the top six are to be played away from home. The possibility, too, that Robinson may look to rotate his side. Ben Reeves make a second successive appearance from the bench on Saturday, replacing a rather anonymous Billy Clarke, and the summer signing will be pushing for his first league start.
Elsewhere, Jason Pearce’s long-term knee injury means he remains on the sidelines, while Lewis Page remains some way away from full fitness having recovered from an ankle injury.
KEY BATTLE – A CLASH BETWEEN TWO QUALITY CENTRES
There have been pleasing aspects about the previous two victories, with absent qualities returning to this Charlton side, but one of the most important ones is a calmness, control and composure in the centre of midfield.
Even Ahmed Kashi was below par during the run of four games without victory, with his passing particularly questionable, but he and Jake Forster-Caskey have largely been back to their best against Fleetwood and Doncaster. One breaks up play with stunning regularity, the other sets the more attacking midfielder frees. In a side where the likes of Ricky Holmes, Josh Magennis and Tariq Fosu are celebrated, the importance of the gritty centre is not lost.
In fact, one of the reasons they can do their job so successfully is because of the quality of what’s in front. Neither rarely need to take themselves out of position, sitting slightly deeper in preparation for when the ball is lot. Billy Clarke doing a fine job this campaign in the central attacking midfield role.
But they will face a midfield on Tuesday night that can certainly compete with the Addicks’. The quality of which arguably to be reaffirmed by the fact match-winner Mowatt, a player whose ability has previous been displayed in the Championship with Leeds United and Barnsley, only appeared from the bench with 20 minutes to play. And Mowatt, at 22, embodies the overall nature of it; young but excellent.
Ryan Ledson, a 20-year-old previously at Everton who has become the midfield leader after departures in the summer, both a battling and creative presence, Josh Ruffles (23) doing more of the gritty work, while Jack Payne (22), exceptional with Southend United at this level and doing well enough with Huddersfield Town in the Championship, sits just ahead of them.
The importance of both sets of midfields vital. Possibly more so to Oxford, given the quality of what Charlton have out wide, but the Addicks crumble defensively without an on-song Kashi and Forster-Caskey. Much of what Clotet’s side does comes through their quality in the centre, and their do doubt an on-song Kashi and Forster-Caskey is required.
Tough one, as is the away game to follow at Bradford City. Two points from these two games, with two strong performances to give with them? Promising. Oxford United 1-1 Charlton Athletic
To protect themselves from the growing panic that spread around The Valley, the Covered End raised their voices. Their noise drawing Charlton Athletic attackers towards goal, displaying faith in the side’s resilience, and preventing an atmosphere of fear from poisoning those in red. Volume that might well have trickled through to the sore head of referee Robert Lewis, recovering in the bowels of the ground.
Lewis, to the somewhat sinister delight of home supporters after his failure to award what appeared a clear first-half penalty, clattering into Josh Magennis as the second period kicked-off and needing to be replaced. The match official lying face down on The Valley’s turf for some time, and his treatment part of the reason that anxiety among Addicks reached unbearable levels. There already an acceptance that stoppage-time would be extended, that time needed to be made up, but seeing ten minutes signalled with a single-goal lead to defend provided trauma around SE7 as great as the one referee Lewis had suffered.
To be experiencing such trauma was unnecessary, if not somewhat self-inflicted. Doncaster Rovers’ response to an early Charlton goal was a tame one, and Karl Robinson’s side played with both composure and control. A ninth minute strike from the outrageously in-form Tariq Fosu, driven from outside the box and beating goalkeeper Ian Lawlor at his near post, appeared to have provided the platform for a relatively comfortable afternoon.
Comfortable, however, it was not. Neither for the Addicks or for referee Lewis’ head. The control denying a route back into the game for Donny, but it not utilised to make the hosts a persistent threat going forward. Control slowly replaced by sloppiness, as a series of mistakes allowed Alfie May to strike the crossbar, and a more competitive contest ensued.
But by the time those ten additional minutes had been signalled, Robinson’s men had left supporters exasperated at their inability to kill this game off. It might have been before the break had Rovers defender Andy Butler been punished for seeming tripping Fosu, instead of the latter oddly being booked for diving. It should have been on the back of some of the chances created in the second period, not least a goal-mouth scramble that saw a Billy Clarke header nodded off the line, two Magennis strikes superbly blocked, and a subsequent Clarke effort sent soaring over the bar.
And so those additional ten minutes, for all the efforts of those on the pitch and in the stands, were entered with both Doncaster and panic to beat away in order for three points that deserved to be Charlton’s to be protected.
This was, however, panic that existed as a consequence of the slender lead, the lengthy stoppage-time, and past experience. Darren Ferguson’s side had found possession easy to come by, possibly allowed to have it too easily, but genuine chances were limited. A struggle to create, and a struggle to find a way through a home backline that had showed impressive resolve in the closing stages.
Enough resolve to close out the game, and send joyous relief to replace the fear among The Valley’s crowd. A game that was more a grind that it was enjoyable, but a game that displayed certain characteristics not seen in performances when points have been dropped too easily. Robinson uniting his players in a huddle before allowing them to display their appreciation towards supporters felt fitting, given their collective determination to record victory in a less than perfect performance.
For concussed referee Lewis, pain and discomfort will remain for several days. For the panicked Charlton supporters, having worked their way through watching a win that should have been achieved in more comfortable circumstances, victory provides an immediate cure to their trauma.
(Apologies about the lack of photos/use of phone camera – full explanation at the bottom of the piece)
Maybe some trauma inside the mind of Robinson has he considered his starting XI prior to the game, irrespective of the impressive victory at Fleetwood Town prior to the international break. Ultimately, with any potential decisions probably eased with a calf niggle sending Mark Marshall back to the treatment room, just the one change made.
Naby Sarr, unfortunately so given his excellent performance in his first start of the campaign at Highbury, returning to familiar surroundings of The Valley bench, with fit again Chris Solly coming back into the side and Ezri Konsa moving into the centre of defence.
Regardless of who made up Charlton’s side, there a desperate need for the performance against the Cod Army to be repeated. Or, at the very least, built upon with another positive result. The sight of Ricky Holmes running forward with intent straight from kick-off and forcing Lawlor to unconvincingly cut out a cross most certainly encouraging.
To suggest, however, that the tone was set from the opening seconds of the game wouldn’t be correct. Partly because stoppages, one of which resulted in Doncaster skipper James Coppinger being substituted through injury, were contributing to a rather sluggish affair, and partly because the Addicks were losing possession cheaply in midfield. The visitors able to see a reasonable amount of the ball in Charlton’s half as a result, but without really displaying any signs that they knew what to do with it.
And if there was one very obvious difference between the two sides, even if Robinson’s men were struggling to make the most of it in the early stages, it was speed. Both in the sense of the pace of those in red, and the quickness in which they wished to do things. Rovers not alert as Solly took a ninth-minute throw a good few yards away from the touchline, straight to the feet of the unmarked Fosu.
Fosu allowed to run forward, unchallenged as he drove into a shooting position despite the confidence Doncaster would surely be aware he had following his hat-trick two weeks ago. Confidence that meant he had no fear in letting fly from the edge of the box. A shot that flashed past the sea of bodies before him, caught Lawlor off guard, and caused the net to ripple in attractive fashion as the goalkeeper was beaten rather tamely at his near post.
Rovers woeful in their attempt to prevent the goal from being scored, but every ounce of praise being sent the way of Fosu as he, his teammates, and The Valley crowd celebrated completely warranted. The impressive winger taking total advantage. The Addicks with a platform from which to take total control.
A platform they seemed to be growing from, with equal pleasure taken from the roars of expectation as Addicks bombed forward, and Doncaster attacks were cut out with composed and calm defending. Solly faultless at full-back, Jake Forster-Caskey first to every ball in midfield, and the threat of Fosu and Holmes keeping Donny on the back foot. Donny limited to rushed, first-time passes and punts up field in the general direction of John Marquis; a clear second best.
But with the halfway point of the first period passing, cracks in Robinson’s side begin to appear. A yellow card for Jay Dasilva, recklessly hacking away at Rodney Kongolo, the material reflection of the slight, and possibly first, struggle the Chelsea loanee was enduring. The free-kick that followed coming to nothing, but it part of a process where Charlton sluggishness meant their control of the contest was threatened, and their inability to create began to frustrate.
For it appeared all had momentarily switched off when Marquis won himself a bouncing ball in the final third of the Addicks. All in red standing off, and the former Millwall forward able to slide a pass through to May. Again, with May on the edge of the box, there was no Charlton man closing him down, and the striker cut inside before clipping the edge of the bar with a curling effort.
This could be one of two things. A warning about complacency, or the point in the game where the Addicks collapse. The cry of encouragement, which followed the initial low groan, from the Covered End suggested there was hope it would be the former.
And while Rovers were now appearing to have much greater direction and composure in possession, though a move ending with Marquis throwing himself to the ground inside the box hardly did them any favours, it was the Addicks who offered the greater response. A Fosu free-kick, awarded after Holmes had been cynically brought down while breaking forward, with more swing on it than a James Anderson delivery just about parried away by Lawler, before the goalkeeper claimed Magennis’ header as Kashi delivered the loose ball towards the back post. Deep breaths, still in control.
But Ferguson’s men were not to be deterred in their quest to grow into the game, while Charlton’s backline were growing increasingly unsettled. All a bit too easy for the visitors as Kongolo crossed for Tommy Rowe at the back post, with Amos saving a header that was probably going wide anyway, before the goalkeeper did incredibly well to hold onto a low Harry Toffolo free-kick with Marquis waiting to pounce on any rebound. The hosts’ advantage no longer secure.
Although, as half-time beckoned, that advantage might well have been doubled. For not only did Ricky Holmes, shooting inside the box from a slowly improving Dasilva’s cut-back, see a fantastic opening saved, but the aftermath resulted in Fosu seemingly having the back of his legs clipped by Butler as he shaped to shoot. A dive, rather than a penalty, in the mind of referee Lewis, though why an in-form goal-scorer would choose to dive in such a position is as hard to explain as the decision.
Boos for the match officials as they walked off at half-time, and applause that, though offered encouragement, didn’t stretch too far beyond gentle for the Addicks. The lead welcomed, promising signs within the performance, but a first-half that including a few too many moments and periods of frustration. Doncaster invited back into the game, and the objective in the second half was to quickly take them out of it.
Alas, the only quick taking out at the start of the second half was that of referee Lewis. Seven minutes the official spent laying on the ground, before leaving the pitch to chants of “off, off, off”. Even those of us (probably just me) showing concern for a fellow referee struggled to not find that a little bit amusing.
And once the game did finally resume, it was Rovers who created the first opening of the half. Charlton flat-footed, inviting the visitors to come forward, resulting in Toffolo delivering for an unmarked Marquis. The forward, thankfully, firing over the bar from 12 yards, but the Addicks really needed to wake up.
An injection of life required, and one provided by Holmes as burst down the left. His delivery finding Clarke, and the attacking midfielder heading back across the face of goal only to see the ball cleared off the line by Joe Wright. Better.
The ball still in Doncaster’s box, however, and falling straight to the feet of Magennis. A first shot fired into a sea of bodies, only for the rebound to come straight back to him, and his second strike to be superbly denied by Butler’s body. This scramble, at odds with the pace and intensity of the second half, ending with Clarke lashing the loose ball over the bar, and heads around The Valley collectively sinking into hands.
The second should have been scored, no doubt about it, and the little nagging voice suggesting that would be costly had appeared, but so had another believing the second was now coming. There space for the Addicks down the left, which Fosu was now willing to exploit, but Lawlor’s hands, having been wrong-footed, were able to beat away his resulting deflected effort. An effort slightly more testing than one that followed, which probably threatened a steward overseeing the North West Quadrant.
Confidence and energy back in the side, and the noise from the Covered End desperately attempting to claw the ball into Doncaster’s goal. But a reminder was soon offered that this confidence was meaningless unless it was turned into a second goal. Marquis knocking a ball down to Rowe, leaving him in an excellent shooting position, but the strike that followed was a poor one, and Amos was able to comfortable save what for a split-second felt like a clear chance to equalise for the visitors.
The result of such an opening only increasing the panic, and the desperate desire for ninth-minute Lawlor to return. Alas, he flung himself through the air to save from Magennis as his drove inside, before just about managing to turn Ahmed Kashi’s effort behind after Doncaster were too slow to realise the initial Lawlor save had remained in play by virtue of hitting the corner flag. Several years being taken off my life as the panic continued to increase, despite full-time edging ever closer.
For still Doncaster, with only a single-goal deficit to make up, were not accepting defeat. They knocked the ball around in midfield, waiting for the right time to pass to the pacey Kongolo, they pumped long to Marquis, or they simply delivered into the box. Their problem being that their options were limited, but as the game entered its final ten minutes, these were options that caused panic.
A marvellous tackle from Konsa halting Ben Whiteman’s run, the diminutive figure of Solly rising to win everything inside the box, and Amos claiming crosses and corners. The notion of getting a second goal now firmly abandoned, and defending defiantly the focus. Reaffirmed as Sarr replaced Dasilva, a few minutes before an additional ten were signalled.
Ten additional minutes that stood to be hellish. That could have been made a breeze had Forster-Caskey converted a free-kick at the start of the period of stoppage-time, but his effort sailed harmlessly over the bar. But these were ten minutes that the Addicks dealt with very well.
Well because they defended with defiance when they had to, but primarily because the ball was hardly in and around their box. They managed to break with regularity, drawing fouls and slowly the game down. Time appeared to be going backwards, and I’m sure it wasn’t moving each time I checked it, but they saw out ten minutes as if they were asked to see out four.
Doncaster without answer, frustration obvious as Matty Blair lunged in on Chris Solly, and their frustration doubling as the beautiful sound of the replacement referee’s full-time whistle blew.
Gruelling. As gruelling for supporters as it was for the players. But a gruelling afternoon with the reward, a deserved reward, of victory.
That it was deserved, that those in red worked hard for it, I think is reflected in Robinson organising the post-match huddle.
There’s more to it than a cheap gimmick, which it can be easily dismissed as. The strengthening of unity, but it also attracts supporter eyes in the midst of their post-match celebrations to those who have allowed them to celebrate. Robinson effectively saying, “look at my players”, before they breakaway as a collective to applaud.
And there no doubt that, once the panic and faded and a few sighs of relief had been taken, that this side deserved appreciation for their battling efforts. They fought, they defended sternly, and they should resolve. Ultimately, they collected three points.
The boss has admitted himself that his men weren’t at their best. If nothing else, this a performance several tiers below the one seen at Fleetwood. But the victory recorded was a different type of victory, achieved in a different manner.
There no doubt it should have been more comfortable, and really we only have ourselves to blame for how challenging it became. The failure to turn the early control into anything more serious, inviting Doncaster into the game as intensity faded, and a desire to do absolutely everything but score. But victory was successfully ground out, with defensive resolve shown, when so often in recent weeks we’ve capitulated under pressure.
The sort of performance that possibly can’t be repeated against a side with greater attacking threat. There little doubt that Doncaster were tame, having plenty of possession but not really knowing what to do with it. Not taking chances against a better team, and allowing them as much possession and space, is unlikely to end in the same result.
As such, another level needs to be found with the week ahead in mind. Two tough trips on the cards, with Oxford United and Bradford City to play. Robinson’s men can play like they did today, in that style, but with greater intensity and with a touch greater composure in front of goal.
Undoubtedly, however, this was the win that was required after Fleetwood. Anything less, after such an impressive performance in the context of this 90 minutes, would have been crushing. Needed, too, with those tough away trips to follow.
A stressful afternoon. My head hurts after it. Though not as much as Mr Lewis’, or something horrendous like that.
(Unfortunately I can no longer use my camera inside The Valley. It’s obviously a shame, and something I enjoy, so I’m a bit gutted, but the club have been very helpful. I have been offered a pitch-side press pass, whenever I would wish to use one. It’s not something I’ve done before, I want to be watching the games with my dad, and I’m far from a professional photographer. So, to begin with, I think I’ll take advantage of it for cup games and see where that takes me. Certainly something I’m very grateful the club are willing to offer me – would have been very easy to simply palm off a silly bastard like me)