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.