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)