The sight of the visiting supporters, their enjoyment always more painful than that of their club’s players, celebrating something that resembled an unassailable lead was surely about to seen. A miscommunication between defence and goalkeeper meaning Ben Amos had come too far, Charlton Athletic’s number one stranded, and the ball falling kindly for Matt Done. A grim hush of expectation from The Valley crowd seemingly guiding the Rochdale midfielder’s strike into the empty net.
But the hush became an angry demand for more. The sight of visiting supporters celebrating was replaced by one of the cluster of Dale fans in the Jimmy Seed Stand with hands on their heads in utter disbelief. The dire Addicks had escaped what would have been punishment for the second time in the game’s 21 minutes, the strike rebounding back off the inside of the post, and a route to overturn both their deficit and disastrous start to the game remained open.
A deficit instilled just 13 minutes into the encounter. Karl Robinson’s men lacking any sort of composure, control or cohesion, and Keith Hill’s out of sorts side wasting no time in taking advantage. Joe Bunny crossing low from the left, Matthew Gillam tucking into the far corner, and all in red delivering accusatory glances as attempts were made to work out how both men had the space they did.
Accusatory glances, and grunts, coming from The Valley crowd as few signs of improvement followed either the shock of conceding to a struggling side, or the huge let-off thereafter. Every right for the home crowd to be frustrated as the Addicks struggled to make meaningful forward passes, showed no threat on the ball, and gave their opponents too much time on the ball. In fact, the visitors remained in ominous control, still spending too much time in and around Charlton’s box.
So it against the run of play, against the side that had done all the running, that the Addicks forced a 35th-minute leveller. Jay Dasilva’s bouncing cross the first of the evening that Rochdale’s imposing centre-back duo of Jimmy McNulty and Harrison McGahey hadn’t dealt with, goalkeeper Josh Lillis unsure whether to come or stay, and Jake Forster-Caskey sliding to poke the ball home before he could make a decision. The midfielder holding his ear up to the away end as he celebrated; Rochdale’s second chance of celebration had been turned to silence.
Warranted or not, this a moment needed to reverse the mood inside The Valley. The Addicks far from fluent, but playing with greater confidence as the end of the first half turned into the beginning of the second. Faith in the side increasing; Rochdale faith decreasing.
Mark Marshall, therefore, guided forward by the encouragement of the Covered End as he drove at the Dale defence with an hour gone. No one in blue able to halt him, Lillis unable to halt his shot effectively, and a horrible fumble fell straight to the feet of Forster-Caskey, who gleefully converted. Fortune heavily involved in the poor start not becoming a calamitous one, some fortune involved in the turnaround, but lots of Forster-Caskey involved in the Addicks restoring composure and control into their performance.
Rochdale rocked, Charlton’s confidence growing, and the game might well have been killed off. Karlan Ahearne-Grant guilty of wasting a fantastic chance to double the advantage, and fears of a repeat of the weekend, in which an advantage was not made the most of, hovered. But the Addicks provided stubborn resistance, stifling a side that, for at least 25 minutes, had caused panic and concern; no fortune in how the game was seen out.
Home supporters could have seen those in the away end celebrating a second in the early stages of the encounter, and subsequently slumped away at full-time attempting to cover their eyes from taking in a glimpse of Rochdale fans and players uniting in a unison of enjoyment. But such a thought mattered not as the full-time whistle brought about joyous relief, the Addicks huddled, and Robinson sent a fist pump of delight towards the covered end. Fortune with an important assist, but the gritty resolve of this side, finding ways to win regardless of how ugly, with the finish once again.
Better overall performances, to both match the quality of the side and address the uncertainty that gritty victories provide, may have been reasonably hoped for, but an ugly win would have surfaced prior to kick-off in SE7.
Not only on the back of what was a frustrating, and potentially moment affecting, dropping of two points at The Valley three days previous against MK Dons, but with the treatment running out of beds. Tariqe Fosu, fit enough to make an important appearance from the bench at the weekend, now absent altogether, and unavailable for five further weeks. The Addicks unchanged from their draw on Saturday, but the bench lacking bodies capable of changing a game.
There still, of course, quality within the XI that Robinson was able to field, and two of those players of quality were able to get forward in the opening ten minutes. Ricky Holmes trying his luck from distance, but a deflection off a Rochdale defender taking all the pace off the ball and making it a comfortable claim for Lillis, and an explosive run from Marshall ending with an off-balance shot sailing comfortable off-target. An excuse for The Valley crowd to find their voices.
But these were not reflective of a dominant Charlton start. Certainly not reflective of a start the resembled the fluent and high intensity one that saw the Addicks play some of their best football of the season against MK Dons at the weekend. Misplaced passes, the ball being too slowly, and not a great deal of cutting edge weren’t exactly signs of horror in the opening ten minutes, but Rochdale were being allowed far too much time on the ball, becoming far too confident in possession inside Charlton’s half, and pressing from those in red was minimal.
In a game that had started relatively slowly, an opening goal hadn’t necessarily been coming, but the lack of intensity from Robinson’s men had certainly invited Rochdale to get forward. The passing and movement up the left from those in blue to be applauded, but the Addicks a pace behind, allowing Bunney to pull back to Gillam without pressure. The 19-year-old starting his first game for the Dale, and marking it with his first senior goal, finishing across goal and beyond the desperate dive of Amos.
A defence so reliable and a team so resolute in the gritty wins of recent times exposed far too easily. It would surely regroup, the performance surely improve, as the disbelieving silence that followed the goal was replaced by murmurs of encouragement around the disappointingly populated Valley. But as Rochdale’s calmness in control of the ball in midfield grew, and their presence in Charlton’s defence became a more menacing one, the encouraging murmurs were increasingly difficult to sustain.
The threat of complete disaster, however, awoke the crowd from tepid acceptance into a state of angry-cum-delusional-encouragement outcry. Complete disaster that would have been self-inflicted, as Dasilva decided to call upon his goalkeeper to claim a ball, allowing Done to steal in and leaving Amos stranded. Rochdale’s winger turning, shooting, and agonisingly seeing the ball bounce away off the inside of the post with the goal at his mercy; his pain as great as the pain that home supporters had prematurely inflicted upon themselves.
This wasted opportunity for the visitors couldn’t be mocked or celebrated, though. We were the only ones that deserved mocking. As if only to be reaffirmed five minutes later as Calvin Andrew, a physical presence who scored in both games against the Addicks last season, was allowed space in the box to connected with Donovan Daniels delivery and head over.
Still the Addicks were standing off Rochdale, still they lacked energy, still they weren’t utilising the attacking quality in the side to push forward. No one brave enough to make a run forward, and not enough movement for the man with the ball to make a quick enough pass to launch a successful attack. The Dale comfortable in their defensive duties.
It taking until beyond the half hour mark for the Addicks to conjure up anything remotely encouraging. Marshall’s pace getting him to the byline, a corner won, and a strong block from Oliver Rathbone preventing Ben Reeves’ volley from the resulting delivery from causing the concern to Lillis that it appeared it might have done. Sarr heading softly into the goalkeeper’s hands from the following set-piece, however, and The Valley’s glimpse of positivity coming to an end.
However, the nature of this Charlton side alone means it provides reassurance. The quality within means that a moment of quality can be provided at any moment, even when quality appears to be completely lacking. Quality, or at least a moment that can change a game, and that something the Addicks were able to produce with 35 minutes played.
Dasilva’s cross from the left teasing, and helped made more difficult to deal with by Naby Sarr’s intervention in the centre, allowing the ball to bounce invitingly for Forster-Caskey. A dive required to make contact, but comfortable beating the slow to react Lillis, the midfielder able to draw the Addicks level in a game where they had been comfortably second best. A release of frustration in his celebration; relief, and hope of a subsequent turnaround, in the joyful reaction of the home crowd.
Marshall increasing that hope, cutting inside and striking a low, fierce effort that Lillis could only claim at the second attempt. But, in reality, there was no one of a Charlton persuasion not feeling fortunate to be going in at the break level. Parity was something they hardly deserved, or something they had looked like getting for 34 minutes of the half.
Nonetheless, fortunate or not, there was a foundation upon which to build going into the second half. A foundation that took a slight crumble as Reeves was unable to return after the break, exposing the weak bench, and Ahearne-Grant replacing him. A concern that losing one of the attacking midfield three would damage the momentum gained by the equaliser somewhat.
And there not a suggestion from Rochdale that they were going to alter their play in response to the goal. To take a more determined and dogged Hill approach, sitting deep and fight for what would be a decent away point in their position. Ian Henderson getting into a crossing position, the ever-threatening Andrew climbing to win the header, but Amos doing well to hold on.
Though the early signs were suggesting that the Dale were not going to be allowed to play with as much comfort as they did during the first period. Their more intensity and energy from the Addicks, and greater composure when they had the ball. Far from perfect but something to invest in.
In fact, such was the increase in composure, Ahmed Kashi felt confident enough to shoot at goal, when so often his strikes fail to match the accuracy of his passing. Composed, and well driven, to the extent that his effort bounced back off the base of the right-hand post with Lillis unmoved. Agonising, but the tide possibly turning, and the Covered End certainly a different to beast to what it was midway through the first half.
Alas, expectations and confidence had to be immediately reduced. Callum Camps swinging in a Rochdale free-kick, Daniels knocking the ball down, and Henderson forcing Amos into a superb save. A crucial intervention, with the first-half mix-up behind him.
An intervention that proved particularly crucial. For while one goalkeeper had prevented his team from falling behind for a second time, another had played a large part in seeing his side implode. The Addicks completing their turnaround with an hour gone, via a little help from the unconvincing hands of Lillis.
Bodies in blue blocking Marshall’s path to goal, but all too scared to commit in case giving the pacey winger space to exploit. Nonetheless, he found a route through to which shoot, and the sea of bodies through which the ball came through possibly meaning that Lillis saw it late, and ultimately spilt it. Forster-Caskey alive to snap up the loose ball, convert his second of the night, and create scenes of celebration around The Valley unexpected as Done’s 21st-minute strike trickled towards goal.
So much confidence, so much joy, so much belief. There a stadium-wide sense of invisibility in the aftermath of the goal, one so often felt after the completion of a comeback. But Saturday’s events, and the faults displayed throughout the first half, slowly injecting some nervousness into the veins of Addicks with time still to play.
The third, and a two-goal lead, craved. There attacking desire and intent in the side, not perfect fluency but they were coming forward, so there no reason why it couldn’t come. Marshall driving forward, but Lillis forcefully palming his shot away this time, just to make sure.
The majority of this attacking intent, and the subsequent attacking threat, coming through Marshall’s pace against a tired side. McGahey blocking another strike from the winger, but the ball falling kindly to Josh Magennis. His curing effort not quite dipping in time, landing on the roof of the net.
But in this trio of efforts, in the final one that really should have been taken. Excellent work from Magennis on the left to force a cross, his delivery finding Ahearne-Grant free in the centre of the box, but the young striker heading straight into Lillis’ hands. A chance that simply had to be taken and, with a little over then minutes to play, fears that the Addicks would be punished for failing to take chances again suddenly appearing with menace.
Appearing more so as Rochdale started, albeit without much attention to detail, to pump balls forward in desperate search of an equaliser. The ball falling kindly to Substitute Brad Inman after a cross was half-cleared, but Ezri Konsa making an important intervention. An ugly, uncomfortable finish on the cads.
Certainly uncomfortable for Amos, who took a kick in the stomach for his troubles. Another ball into the box, another melee of bodies, and this one ending with Andy Cannon swinging for a ball that just happened to be shaped like the stomach of Charlton’s goalkeeper. Amos, thankfully, unharmed.
But little respite for the goalkeeper as, with four minutes played, Rochdale finally found a way through the stubborn resolve of those in red and created a meaningful chance. A corner ultimately falling to Inman, the Peterborough loanee volleying towards goal, and Amos reacting superbly to tip the effort over the bar. It would just be nice if the final ten minutes of a game, just once, were anything other than soul-destroyingly horrible.
As four additional minutes were signalled, you wanted something to be scored on the break while Rochdale committed men forward. But increasingly it appeared the need would be to deny the opposition from equalising. Hard-working, but just lacking a touch of quality in the final third to exploit a defensive unit that had regrouped since its first half showing.
Each header won, interception made, and second spent in possession of the ball a moment closer to victory. No comfort inside The Valley, but those final four minutes seen out with relative comfort by those on the pitch. A truly ugly victory, in which they required fortune to succeed almost as much as their own grit and determination, but an important victory that was celebrated as such.
Important, primarily, because of the nature of the game. The nature of our performance. A game, and a performance, that leave you with so many questions to be answered.
Did we deserve victory? It’s a question that’s difficult to answer. One that doesn’t explain the complexities of the game, and our performance.
A better place to start is by asking, did we deserve to equalise, and go in level at half-time? The answer to that is no. We’ve not played much worse at home this season, were incredibly fortunate not to have been punished further, and were incredibly fortunate to have equalised.
Also, in assessing that first half performance, it needs to be remembered that Rochdale are a side in the bottom four playing against a team attempting to challenge the top two. They were allowed to play with confidence. We couldn’t stop them playing, we weren’t able to get at them, and we looked fragile.
However, after being fortunate enough to find that equaliser, were we the better side? I would suggest we were. Far from perfect, but there was greater attacking threat, possession was kept with greater composure, and Rochdale’s forward threat was weakened significantly.
Marshall, largely through sheer pace and a willingness to shoot, impressed, Kashi and Forster-Caskey, in addition to his goals, won the battle for control in midfield, while Magennis was a menace to the tired Rochdale defence. The growing attacking threat meaning Rochdale were pushed onto the back foot, and their presence around Charlton’s box weakened. But the Addicks’ backline became more composed and resolute.
But was, over the course of 90 minutes and with a somewhat fortunate and certainly ugly win achieved, this a performance that increases confidence?
In one way, yes. This side continues to find ways to win, and they’ve done it enough to suggest it’s more determination and resolve than it is luck or something to be panicking about. In simple terms, these sorts of results show there is always confidence in this side to find victory irrespective of performance.
But the performance was a touch concerning with the games that lie ahead. The next two games are ones where we’re going to require a more fluent display than the one seen tonight. A point at in form Scunthorpe United is to be celebrated, while Peterborough United’s inconsistency means you’re unsure what sort of side you will face but you’re likely to have some sort of challenge regardless.
We’ll need to find the level of performance displayed in the first half of the MK Dons game against those sides. Obviously with just a bit more potency in front of goal. And I think with the fortune that was involved tonight, it’s a little reminder we can’t complacently believe a performance below the highest quality will always go unpunished, because there will come a time where we’ll be caught out.
Nonetheless, we sit here following the conclusion of another hard-fought win, making genuine suggestions about how the side could still improve. The side still winning; faith that those improvements will happen still held. The foundation growing increasingly solid.