Victories without finding fluency were not attractive, but they were doing more than appeasing. They were celebrated. Contributing to the formation of a Charlton Athletic side that was displaying the resolve required to challenge for promotion from League One.
But more was expected of this impressive group of Addicks. Not necessarily demanded in an aggressive manner, certainly not in a way that cynically downplayed four rather ugly victories in five games. For it didn’t need to be; a reasonable degree of comfort that Robinson’s men would find attacking confidence from the gritty foundation they had formed.
And it appeared on this contrasting afternoon at The Valley, a wet, cold and uncomfortable one, that that foundation had finally set. The visiting Milton Keynes Dons side pressed with such intensity that they looked at a loss as to how to retain possession, the ball moved with such rhythm and intensity that opposition backline barely had time to reset before it had been broken through again, and chances churned out with regularity as the Addicks found an attacking panache absent in recent weeks. Deserved appreciation high in SE7.
Just six minutes required for Robinson’s men to claim an advantage, as Josh Magennis nodded home from Jake Forster-Caskey’s corner. The Northern Ireland international, struggling for form prior to beating Dons goalkeeper Lee Nicholls to the delivery, raising his performance in unison with his side. The forward relentless; his teammates deploying a marvellous brand of high energy, high intensity attacking football.
A deflected effort hitting the inside of the post, a free header put over the bar, and Nicholls uncomfortable within a Naby Sarr drive from 25 yards. The visitors had a highlights reel from their first half ventures of panicked clearances having been pressed by red shirts. Charlton in complete control at the break, the fluent football hoped for on show, but no one complacent enough to believe a second wasn’t needed.
The dominance that the Addicks were enjoying meant that a second would probably kill the game, or at least kill the visitors. Mark Marshall killing the premature celebrations of the Covered End as he somehow missing when one-on-one in the opening stages of the second half. The danger that a failure to take chances, and make this pleasing period of football count, looming.
Looming like Scott Golbourne’s delivery towards the far post, where Kieran Agard, introduced just five minutes previously, peeled away from the red shirts inside the box and headed home a 63rd-minute equaliser that came completely against the run of play. A first meaningful chance of the game of Robbie Nielson’s side. Intensity sucked from Robinson’s men in a single moment, and life would have followed had Chuks Aneke taken a glorious opening three minutes later.
The Addicks regrouped, regaining composure after the gut-wrenching moment of conceding, but the side that had the lead had vanished. MK allowed to have much more of the ball, intensity absent from Charlton’s play, and their attacking threat easily containable. This was a side that now needed to win ugly; a set of supporters desperate to see it despite previously pleading for something different.
So with three minutes to play, there was a beauty in the ugliness of what appeared to be their winning goal. Substitute Tariq Fosu played through, but his resulting shot seemingly floating wide, only to be helped over the line by a desperate Golbourne. The importance of the goal, with a winner found in unlikely circumstances to keep on the tails of the top two, not lost on a delirious Valley.
A delirious Valley that, while still soaking in the moment, were left devoid of their moment and delirious with rage. For as the clock struck 90, Peter Pawlett drew a loose leg from Ahmed Kashi inside the box and used the opportunity to hit the deck. Whether a penalty or not questionable, a debate that would have been avoided had Kashi not needlessly stuck out a leg, but it the fact referee Andy Woolmer, who had struggled to maintain control of proceedings throughout, turned to his blind-sighted assistant to make the call for him that really riled.
With most inside the ground raging, Agard stepped up with composure to convert, and send the visiting MK Dons fans into celebration. They would celebrate their draw at full-time, no doubt aware fortune had played its part in their point. A kind refereeing decision, and their opponents’ wastefulness.
Home supporters set sights on the officials. The Addicks felt justified in blaming them for their controversial role in denying them another ugly win. But, at least equally, there is frustration to be had in their side’s own failure to make the most of the chances their attractive fluency created.
Momentum maybe halted by two weeks without League One football, but there hope that at least bodies would be fresh. So unexpected injuries to regular starters in Robinson’s side was not an ideal return to league action. Billy Clarke and the previously ever-present Patrick Bauer both absent, while Fosu was only fit enough for a place on the bench.
It meant Ben Reeves, heavily booed by the supporters of his former club, came into the side, a start at centre-back for Naby Sarr, and a full league debut for Marshall. Just about enough bodies in the squad to make the starting XI a strong one. A weak bench, and Fosu’s tight thigh, hopefully wouldn’t be needed.
And the early signs were promising. Energy, positivity, and slick forward play seeing Forster-Caskey get into an excellent position on the goal line. But his hesitation, with red shirts waiting for a cut back in the centre, allowed Golbourne to put the ball behind and snuff out an excellent opening.
But while some (probably just me) were still expressing their frustration that more hadn’t been made out of such a position, Forster-Caskey had swung a teasing ball into the ball from the resulting corner. It wasn’t Nicholls’ to come for, but the goalkeeper came anyway and saw himself stretching desperately for a ball he was never going to claim. The perfectly placed Magennis taking full advantage of Nicholls’ recklessness, placing a header into a near-empty net.
Six minutes into the contest, it was a goal Charlton needed to settle any sort of nerves created by the long break without league football, suggesting there may have been an interruption to the momentum built prior to it. Six games without one, this was a goal that the out of form Josh Magennis needed, and hopefully a boost to his struggling all-round play. The Valley celebrating with impassioned delight, but in such a manner that displayed confidence, and that any worries or uncertainties were rather silly.
On previous afternoons, such a slender leader would have needed to have been protected. But confidence was increasing on the pitch, and confidence was increasing in the stands. Ahmed Kashi driving wide from the distance the best example of it, but Charlton’s attacking football exactly what had been pleaded for, and the energy in their pressing making MK Dons look feeble.
The atmosphere inside The Valley almost celebratory, not yet claiming victory but taking the opportunity to marvel in the play of Robinson’s side and expecting further goals. Holmes fearlessly running forward and, without a teammate keeping pace, opting to shoot, only for Nicholls to hold on to his low effort well. Sarr striding forward with much less pace, but similar confidence, and giving MK Dons’ goalkeeper some concern as his strike rose towards goal.
Efforts from distance suggests the Addicks were being kept somewhat at bay, but they had earned complete control by the 25th minute, and somehow were prevented from seeing their material dominance doubled by the width of the post. Magennis, seemingly finding his former body, doing superbly to break into the box and tee up Forester-Caskey, but the midfielder’s effort deflected onto the inside of the post had somehow managed to stay out. Premature celebrations both has the initial shot floated towards goal, and after the ball ricocheted off the post and across the face of goal.
Marvellous though this football was, the misfortune in failing to find a second did bring about some frustration. The need to make the most of this advantage required. A notion reaffirmed as Kashi lost possession inside his own half and the powerful Aneke broke through threateningly, but Ezri Konsa did well to snuff out the danger as the forward stuttered.
And as the half hour mark was reached, there was yet another chance for the rampant Addicks. A short corner played back to taker Holmes, whose delivery was nodded across the face of goal by Konsa, where an unmarked Forster-Caskey couldn’t keep his header down from a glorious position. Another chance created; another chance wasted.
At least further reassurance was provided by the fact that MK Dons remained unthreatening. In part because Charlton continued to press with great intensity, and defend resolutely whenever the backline was called upon. In part because their forwards failed to test, as Peter Pawlett’s deflected and wayward shot was probably cause for celebration.
In fact, the only level of competition came when the two sides squared up to each other in rather unnecessary fashion as half-time approached. Not the most physical of encounters, but referee Woolmer nonetheless struggling to keep things calm, and some pushing and shoving between Magennis and Ed Upson was the precursor for a rather large scuffle. Holmes and George Williams wrestling on the ground, the referee withdrawing from an advantage with some drama as both teams got themselves into a melee, and Williams escaped with just a booking.
Nonetheless, the Addicks could in at half-time in a clam state, having performed superbly and with a lead to show for it. But Charlton would be punching in frustration if they didn’t make their dominance count. An early second-half goal required, to put this encounter beyond doubt.
It not taking long before red shirts found their home in the opposition’s half at the start of the second period, but this move didn’t seem like it would have a positive ending. Magennis bustling forward on the left flank, but with only a well offside Reeves to feed, and not much space for the Northern Ireland international to drive into without being dispossessed. The ball played, the offside flag about to be raised.
But Reeves stopped, the Dons defender did with him, and Marshall appeared from the right. The winger onside, and with a clear path to goal. Facing up to Nicholls, and with seemingly a simple finish to double Charlton’s advantage, there was real pain in the anguish that met his failure to finish his one-on-one effort.
With such wastefulness, such an inability to make such positive play count, the sense that the hosts would ultimately be punished was growing. A nervousness now, slightly lowering the energy in the support. Though Ed Upson’s 30 yard free-kick, comfortable for Ben Amos, didn’t increase the sense of nervousness at all.
Increasing the nervousness was the sight, a rare sight, of an opposition player in a forward position. Golbourne picked out in far too much space on the left, and able to deliver an excellent ball to the far post. Agard peeling away, and out of nothing, MK Dons had a 63rd-minute equaliser.
Silence. The only sound inside The Valley the celebrations of the visiting supporters. Silence in shock that they had undeservedly drawn level, that the Addicks had thrown away their lead, and they had not made their advantage count.
Alas, there could be no time for self-pity, for there was an immediate need to motivate and remind those in red of the dominance they previously held. But the slip Konsa made just three minutes after the visitors had drawn level felt metaphoric. Charlton’s defender falling to the floor as Aneke attacked, and the Addicks incredibly, incredibly fortunate that the forward lost all composure and blasted a glorious one-on-one opening horrible off-target.
The predictable ‘wa-hays’, but they heard within a sea of shouts for the hosts to wake up. Nervousness about not making dominance count had become genuine fear of complete implosion. A Ricky Holmes free-kick threatened relief, but Ethan Ebanks-Landell’s solid head protected MK Dons’ goal.
To their credit, Charlton were trying to settle and find composure once more, but were doing so while had found ways to exploit the Addicks. Those ways being simply run at a side in a state of uncertainty. Substitute Aidan Nesbitt bursting through, but pulling his shot wide.
Nonetheless, Robinson’s men had previously displayed their attacking qualities, and they hadn’t just vanished. One chance, one taken chance, and the tide could turn again. Magennis millimetres away from getting his forehead onto the end of a Magennis cross, as the Covered End sighed in agony once more.
But, in truth, the game’s quality had vanished, replaced by a scrappy and error-prone affair contributed to by both sides. It obvious the Addicks with greater mental intent to win the game, but their actions so sloppy that they couldn’t display it. Clear that if there was to be a winning goal, it would probably come in ugly fashion.
And surely, with a little less than ten minutes played, the ugly goal had been forced. A half-cleared Charlton corner sent back into the box by Jay Dasilva, the Dons backline not getting up quick enough, and unmarked Sarr waiting there to poke the ball goalwards. But his shot-cum-prod tame, Nicholls able to easily claim, and there no offside flag to ease further wasted chance agony for the Covered End.
Such an opening instilling belief that maybe, just maybe, the Addicks could steal this. But the Neilson’s men were not sitting ducks. Sarr, who had become unhinged somewhat defensively in the latter period of the game, clattering Aneke, and Ebanks-Landell glancing a header wide from the resulting free-kick. The frantic, somewhat calamitous, nature of the game meaning both teams still had a chance.
A chance. Definitely a chance for Fosu, as the substitute was played through by Forster-Caskey after a midfield tussle had been won. Breaking into the box, and taking up an angle slightly wide of goal, he curled an effort towards goal.
But it appeared to be heading wide, quite comfortably so. Under the pressurised conditions, however, Golbourne felt the need to act, and in attempting to divert an already wide ball wide, the full-back diverted the ball into his own net. With three minutes remaining, The Valley had been sent into pandemonium.
Pure delight from those on the pitch. A release of emotion from those in the stands. The ugliest of ugly goals to win a game that should have been won in convincing fashion, but it mattered nothing to no one.
Three minutes to play. Not a certain victory, but this side had defended for ugly victories superbly in the past. Surely they would so again.
But they went deep, maybe a little deep. And Dons came forward, forward with confidence and without frantic desperation. This wasn’t quite over.
The ball played to Pawlett inside the box, the Scot holding the ball up, then feeling for Kashi’s outstretched leg as he attempted to pull away. Referee Woolmer unsure, his assistant required, and a 90th-minute spot-kick awarded. Fury, frustration and confusion.
As Kashi pleaded innocence, players attempted to get their point to across to officials that had made a, at best, bizarre decision, and supporters displayed a fine knowledge of expletives, it was unfortunate that one man kept his cool. Agard lashing the ball into the left-hand corner. MK Dons fans celebrating their late equaliser with some verve; Charlton fans booing with some anger.
The players still formed a huddle at full-time. They still came over at full-time. They still deserved their applause.
But so used to seeing this side win. So sure a win would come after such an excellent first-half performance. So sure a win would come after such a late goal.
This was simply sickening.
Let’s get the refereeing nonsense sorted out first. Those of you who have followed me for a while will know I’m a referee myself, will know I’m an insufferable nerd, and will know I enjoy studying other referees. I like to view decisions impartially, and from a position where I’d have to make the call.
A great deal of the complaints come from the fact the referee went on the assistant’s decision. Absolutely no problem there, as long as the correct call is made, but it did seem odd in this situation which I’ll explain in a few paragraph’s time. Not to mention the fact that the referee’s weakness throughout the game – he was very lenient and didn’t keep a control of the players – meant that utilising his assistant on such a cool made him look particularly clueless through the eyes of a supporter.
The penalty itself is one that’s made difficult for the referee by Pawlett. Not a dive or simulation, but utilising his surroundings effectively. Kashi’s stuck a foot, which he didn’t really need to do with lots of other Charlton bodies there and the Scot going nowhere, Pawlett’s ran into it, and gone over.
The referee should have had a view to have seen that. The referee should have, as such, not given it. Though it would have been nice if Kashi had kept his foot to himself and avoided this controversy in the first place.
But as equally to significant to loss of points was the failure to make such a prolonged, and impressive, period of dominance count. And in saying that, you can discount Sarr’s miss while the scores were level. This being the misses while the Addicks had an advantage.
The game really should have been out of sight, and our performance warranted a greater leader. The passing play, the pressing, the dynamism in the final third. It was a display of the fluency that has been lacking while wins have been grinding out; a sense that the perfect performance was coming.
But the inability to take chances, big chances, has proven costly. If Marshall converts that chance at the start of the second half, I can’t see MK Dons recovering. Nor can I see us collapsing.
Either way, frustration rules.