Was the enforced international break an inconvenience for Charlton Athletic? A question that many will feel can be answered without needing to dedicate any time towards thinking about it. The chance to build momentum immediately interrupted.
For the response to four sluggish, winless, efforts had been found, only for a 14-day fixtureless interruption to follow. The Tariq Fosu-inspired 3-1 victory at Fleetwood Town arguably the Addicks’ most impressive performance of the campaign, but a barrier was put in place to build on it. You’d have ideally liked Karl Robinson’s side to have taken to the pitch again as quickly as possible.
And while the full extent of the momentum and confidence that might have been gained from such a marvellous performance potentially faded, and Saturday’s opponents gained some of their own. Doncaster Rovers arriving at The Valley on the back of an impressive 4-1 victory over Southend United last weekend. Only their second league win in then.
But to assume disruption will have harmfully disrupted what should follow such a convincing victory may be a little misguided. If nothing else, the training ground will have been a place of confidence and positivity for the previous week and a half, having been one of frustration during the run of four games without a win. Belief will not have subsided.
And to assume that one victory, irrespective of how impressive it was, immediately writes the wrongs that were displayed in the weeks that preceded it is a touch naïve. A period on offer, while confidence and self-belief is high, for Robinson to drill out the mistakes, the sideways passing with no purpose, and the overall sluggish. A period on offer to drill in a mentality the means the genuine quality of this Charlton side is displayed consistently throughout the campaign.
For it has to be displayed consistently now. With such a large chunk of the season still remaining, the word ‘disaster’ is hyperbole. But failing to record victory on Saturday after such an impressive win, and what felt like a turning point after those dire previous performances, will feel like a disaster to the confidence of both players and supporters on Saturday night.
LAST MEETING – DONCASTER ROVERS 3-0 CHARLTON ATHLETIC (28/01/2014)
Yann Kermorgant waved goodbye and I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a single minute of my life since.
Apart from maybe when I opened an envelope that contained a signed photo, a photo that I had taken, from the big Frenchman.
Or maybe when he scored in front of the Covered End for Reading and raised his hands in half-apology, half appreciation as Charlton supporters applauded.
Dale Stephens played his last game for the Addicks, too. And now he’s a regular in the Premier League, having been one of the best midfielders in the Championship for several seasons. Totally fulfilling the potential shown while in Charlton colours.
Oh, and I suppose I should mention something about the game. We were utterly, utterly dreadful, Lawrie Wilson got himself sent-off in the first half, and a three-goal defeat probably flattered the Addicks. The performance reflected a club on the verge of total, Roland Duchatelet-shaped, disaster.
One of the worst nights I’ve had supporting Charlton. I’d really rather not reflect on it properly. Apologies, Doncaster fans.
Three relegations and two promotions in the six seasons prior to this one. An impressive promotion, irrespective of a late stumble that saw them throw away a title that seemed theirs for much of the campaign, last season coming after much instability and regression. While it not so long ago that five seasons out of six were spent in the Championship, the value of a dreary season of stability in League One with no shocks or surprises would not be lost on supporters of Doncaster.
But to achieve stability, it fair to suggest that the 4-1 victory achieved over Southend United last weekend must prove the foundation for a more impressive fun of form. Darren Ferguson’s side winning just two league games in 11 prior to beating the Shrimpers, their first League One home victory of the season, and leaving themselves a precarious three points clear of the bottom four. In a league where many teams have performed consistently, consistently strugglers will quickly be judged as relegation favourites, but the confidence gained from striking four past Phil Brown’s men leaves them in a better position than many in the division’s bottom ten.
A ten-minute second-half hat-trick from 21-year-old Sheffield United loanee Ben Whiteman inspiring the victory, coming after John Marquis had earlier equalised for Donny on the stroke of half-time. Discovering goals vital for a side that had only scored 11 prior to last weekend, and Marquis finding the net as important as the young attacking midfielder’s display of promise and quality. A need for the forward to repeat the form that saw him score 26 times in League Two last season.
So too will Rovers hope a kind October fixture list presents hope of getting more points on the board. Peterborough United, Scunthorpe United, Shrewsbury Town and Bradford City all featured in the month of September, with just one point gained from those four fixtures, and just a further three – against bottom of the table Plymouth Argyle – in the month’s seven league games. Winnable games follow The Valley visit, that will be seen as particularly winnable if the confidence gained from last weekend’s victory is maintained.
Simply surviving in the third tier no disaster, but the Southend win shows Ferguson’s side can settle in League One more comfortably than that.
Plymouth Argyle sit bottom of League One, while Gillingham sit just one place ahead of them. Both have only won one game this season. Both winning against the Addicks.
Rotherham United occupy fourth in the division, while Fleetwood sit only a point off the top six in ninth. Rotherham’s record particularly impressive, winning five out of six home games, scoring 19 goals in the process. Both beaten by outstanding Charlton performances on their own turf.
Arguably the ideal display of the fluctuating fortunes of Robinson’s side during the first two months of this campaign. At times, they have been marvellously fluent and determined force against tough opponents. During others, they have wilted against weak ones.
And so the value of the outstanding performance in victory over the Cod Army at Highbury two weekends ago cannot be underestimated. Ending a run of four sluggish, increasingly concerning, efforts, and displaying the qualities of this group of Addicks that had been hiding for several weeks. Providing the belief that performances of such quality can be delivered on a consistent basis, and that the sluggish efforts would be silenced.
It not an immediate solution. The performances against Wigan Athletic, Gillingham, Bury, and Walsall were largely dire, and questions raised by them remain unanswered. But the balance has tipped from anxious concern to hopeful belief as a consequence of the Fosu-inspired victory in Lancashire.
If nothing else, with the Fleetwood win still warm, you can look at Plymouth and Gillingham’s only victories and chuckle, rather than panic.
Mathieu Baudry is in contention for a return to the first-team after three months out with a stress fracture of a heel.
The French defender played for an hour in a development squad game against Walsall on Tuesday, and Ferguson will consider him for selection if he comes through Thursday’s training session without any after-effects on show.
But Luke McCullough, another who has so far spent this season in the treatment room, will have to wait for his return. The Northern Ireland international, who missed the majority of last season’s promotion-winning effort with a cruciate knee ligament injury, suffered another knee injury in the summer, and picked up a thigh niggle having resumed training last week. Absent on Saturday, but a hope he’ll once again be involved in training next week.
Elsewhere, Andy Williams remains a doubt after the forward missed last weekend’s victory over Southend with a thigh injury sustained during the Checkatrade Trophy win against Sunderland U21s, while goalkeeper Ross Etheridge (ankle), defender Danny Andrew (knee), and forward Alex Kiwomya (back) will be absent with long-term injuries.
Charlton should welcome back Chris Solly after the long-serving full-back missed the victory over Fleetwood Town through injury.
Solly had previously been an ever-present in the league, despite injury and fitness struggles throughout his career that have meant he’s needed to be carefully managed, but a speedy return is expected from the slight niggle that kept him out of the trip to Highbury.
It gives Robinson something of a dilemma in the heart of defence, with skipper Solly likely to start against Donny. That should see Ezri Konsa move inside to partner Patrick Bauer in the centre, with Jason Pearce continuing to recover from a knee injury sustained during the draw with Bury, but an impressive performance from Naby Sarr against Fleetwood throws him into contention. There even the possibility that Bauer, unconvincing to say the least in previous weeks after a superb start to the season, could find himself out of the side, but it highly unlikely that Robinson would drop the ever-present centre-back.
A dilemma, too, for Robinson further forward with the injury sustained by Billy Clarke at Highbury unlikely to keep him out of Saturday’s game. That may well mean that Ben Reeves and Mark Marshall, having both made their league debuts from the bench at Fleetwood, will have to wait for their first league starts in Charlton colours. The pair now fully fit after fitness and injury issues.
Elsewhere, Lewis Page nears a return to first-team duty having appeared in an inter-squad game during the international break.
KEY BATTLE – CUTTING OUT THE DEFENSIVE ERRORS
It is with some frustration that the word ‘almost’ must precede the description of Charlton’s victory at Fleetwood as a ‘perfect performance’.
For it only a ten-minute period that not so much taints an outstanding display, but prevents it from being a 10/10.
Jake Forster-Caskey unable to keep possession in midfield, Patrick Bauer and Ezri Konsa caught flat-footed, and Bobby Grant played through to equalise for the Cod Army, cancelling out Fosu’s first strike of the afternoon. It was Fleetwood’s first shot on goal of the afternoon, 25 minutes into the game, and first time that a side struggling to string more than a handful of passes together had threatened in the final third. It followed by a period where Uwe Rosler’s side were suddenly allowed to come forward, were able to take shots on goal, with the Addicks standing off them and seemingly a little lost.
Thankfully, Charlton’s forwards had already gained enough confidence and momentum, and Fleetwood as a collective were still stumbling, to mean their dominance was only briefly interrupted. Fosu and Ricky Holmes bringing the visitors back to life, and the former scoring his second of the game shortly before the break. The Addicks in complete control thereafter.
The concern being when these mistakes or lapses in concertation are made while Robinson’s men are not in total control, or with the opposition not completely dysfunctional and standing no hope of getting back into the contest despite some assistance. For they are happening. Teams are taking advantage to gain points, or to get themselves back into games that should have been seen out with relative ease.
In fact, in one way or another, it happened in every game during September. Which is why the Addicks are without a clean sheet in seven games. Two clean sheets in the league this season.
Doncaster may not have been prolific this season – 15 goals from their 12 goals is a modest return – but they come into Saturday’s contest on the back of scoring four against Southend last week. They also have John Marquis up top; a man who scored 26 times last season, bagged a goal against the Shrimpers, and will relish scoring at The Valley having come through Millwall’s academy. Rovers won’t waste an opportunity if gifted to them.
It an odd irony that, in overall play throughout this season, the defensive line has deserved praise. And, of course, with some of these errors coming from possession being lost in midfield and a questionable ability to defend from set-pieces, it not totally the fault of those who play at the back. But their lapses of concentration, seemingly regardless of which figures form the back four, are marring overall efforts far too often.
They absolutely must be cut out, and Doncaster can’t be allowed to gain the advantage in the game because of one.
It would be criminal, and a confidence-crippler, not to build on the Fleetwood performance. No doubt we’ll find a way to concede a goal the U14s I’ll be refereeing on Sunday wouldn’t manage, mind. Charlton Athletic 2-1 Doncaster Rovers