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.