In the midst of the initial celebrations that followed Tuesday night’s dramatic stoppage-time equaliser against Peterborough United, the chaotic scenes of pure and unexpected joy, it mattered not who the foot that had prodded the ball over the line at the far pots belonged to.
But it gained greater significance upon realising that the figure who had completed the two-goal four-minute revival was Karlan Ahearne-Grant. The Academy graduate’s first goal in 20 games this season in all competitions, and his first in 43 since scoring against Cardiff City in September 2015. Additional joy and relief on the face of a young man, wrapped up in a memorable moment, that even his most committed critics would have taken pleasure in seeing.
For there no question that Ahearne-Grant’s efforts, particularly over the course of this campaign, have gained a great deal of negative feedback from Charlton Athletic supporters. It matters not where you sit at The Valley, or what position you occupy at away games, a collective groan will be heard as the 20-year-old prepares to enter the action. Groans that aren’t irrational, or simply the result of a player being unfairly targeted without genuine justification.
Why would they be? Charlton supporters take a great deal of pride and offer the highest possible level of support to their academy graduates, whether they remain at the club or not. It’s just that Ahearne-Grant has done little to prove he has the talents of those that have come before him, those he has shared pitches and training grounds with, and his failures have become tiresome.
Failures that stretch beyond a poor scoring record, which can in part be answered by substitute appearances and often being pushed out wide. There’s a weakness in possession that means he’s so often bullied off the ball, there’s quick feet but rarely is his opponent beaten, and a combination of poor decision-making and a lack of quality means end product, weather crossing or shooting, rarely threatens. On occasions, he gives the impression that if you took his pace away, he would hold nothing at all.
A late miss in a level game against Oxford United, which really should have been finished, and a tame header comfortably saved that could have killed off Rochdale last week haven’t helped his cause. Faith in the youngster, who has been required specifically to impact on games when attacking numbers have been limited, low among supporters. Faith in himself also low, it would seem, with Karl Robinson aware of a lack of confidence and his substandard performances.
But Robinson, speaking after the Rochdale game, was adamant in his faith in Ahearne-Grant. Making it clear he needed to return that faith with productive output, but that the boss could see there was quality being restrained within the youngster. Something a manager is always likely to say to protect a player, particularly a struggling 20-year-old, but there reasons beyond “he’s not good enough” why the apparent potential of Ahearne-Grant hasn’t appeared.
In many ways, Ahearne-Grant has been a victim. Of the academy’s success, of squad situation, and of his own early success. Conditions have been against him.
To say he’s been a victim of the academy’s success, one that churns out quality graduate after quality graduate and has contributed to Ahearne-Grant’s promotion to the first team, may appear a strange suggestion. But there an expectation now in SE7 that allow youngsters thrown into the side will make an immediate impression, without teething problems or struggles. With many exceeding in their teens, that belief in Ahearne-Grant has been lost at the still young age of 20, with time still to develop, is possibly an unfortunate consequence of that.
Maybe, as is the case for Josh Umerah and Brandon Hanlan, spending a period out on loan at the start of this campaign would have been beneficial to him. To build confidence in his own ability with regular starts at a lower level. But a lack of forwards, and the restricted availability of Mark Marshall and Ben Reeves, meant such a thought couldn’t be considered, and unfair pressure has been placed on him to make positive, even match-defining, impacts from the bench.
Finally, there a certain amount of frustration and disappointment knowing that, in his early games for the Addicks as a teen, he showed genuine potential that excited. A performance against Peterborough in the League Cup and generally impressing in the Championship at the start of the 2015/16 created a certain amount of hype, but he faded quickly in that same campaign, and hasn’t replicated those sorts of signs of encouragement since. He doesn’t appear to be that same player; confidence, being transformed into a player who plays more prominently out wide, or simply a struggle to develop possible contributors.
And yet, regardless of these criticisms, questionable performances and questions of confidence, it was Ahearne-Grant that was more alert than any in Peterborough colours to the danger Naby Sarr’s knock down posed in the 94th-minute at The Valley on Tuesday. It this genuinely struggling figure able to pounce, and score a second Charlton goal in four stoppage-time minutes to equalise having been two goals down and heading for certain, and warranted, defeat. It a man without confidence, as much a man without a goal, that was able to complete an extraordinary display of character from this group of Addicks, and create an extraordinary moment.
It may, of course, mean very little in the long-term for Ahearne-Grant. The celebration in front of the Covered End will never lose its meaning, but may not create change. There every chance he continues as the same player that offered few reasons to have faith in previously.
But this a moment that will inject confidence. The confidence that Robinson suggests was required, required for a player who he has reaffirmed he has faith in. The confidence that a player whose poor decision making and hesitation in possession, making him more likely to pick out an opposition player than his own, so desperately needs.
Confidence that will be supported from the stands. The groans that have previously met his introduction will be replaced with a positive response; one that effectively thanks him for such a wonderful moment and encourages more. Whether rational faith in his ability has been gained, and as such confidence in him, support for Ahearne-Grant certainly has as a consequence of that late goal.
And so what follows is a huge period in Ahearne-Grant’s career. With injuries harming Charlton’s squad, The FA Cup tie against AFC Wimbledon and the busy festive schedule to come, the forward will undoubtedly be given game time. Possibly chances to impress from the start.
There only a certain amount of time in which the confidence from scoring that goal will last, and only a certain amount of time in which supporters will place that goal above other performances. A period, the length of which is totally dependant on how Ahearne-Grant performs, in which the forward must show something different in his overall game that what has preceded the equaliser on Tuesday night. It will be challenging for supporters to maintain faith in the youngster if, in a situation where he is supported by his own confidence and that belonging to several other sources, a return to previous infuriating performances follow.
For it will undoubtedly take more than a single goal to settle Ahearne-Grant, and remove the reservations that so many rightly have about his ability. More than a single case of being in the right place, at the right time, to spark a moment of incredible joy. Ahearne-Grant is still the player that has spent much of this season struggling to deliver, but he now holds a different mindset to deliver something different.