There several clubs in League One who will suggest their status matches, if not trumps, the two clubs who will meet at Ewood Park this weekend, but a game between Blackburn Rovers and Charlton Athletic is one that doesn’t belong in the third tier of English football.
One club that were in the Premier League for 18 of its first 20 seasons, winning the title in 1994/95. Another that spent eight out of nine seasons in the top flight between 1998/99 and 2006/07. Much time spent in the Championship in recent years, and that at least their level.
But status counts for very little when self-destruction of it has occurred. A pair of clubs with recent memories of the top flight very aware that their positions in the third tier are what they warrant. Instilled largely by ownerships whose actions have not only disconnected club and supporters, but overseen huge failures on the pitch.
In similar fashion, Venkey’s and Roland Duchatelet have dragged the clubs downward, treating the clubs with distain and showing a complete lack of footballing knowledge and ideas. Their actions, and their failures, causing fan revolt that has largely been treated with similar distain to the way the clubs have been treated as a whole. Little question that supporters of Roves and the Addicks have suffered heavily in recent years at the hands of horrendous ownership.
Their only belief that they warrant a place above this level in immediate terms comes from the understandable notion that anything less than promotion has to be considered a failure. Climbing above this level something only they can achieve, through their own efforts. But it has to be achieved.
A success that, if recent form and performances are to go by, Blackburn look the most likely of the two to obtain. Five successive league wins, in the midst of an eight-game unbeaten run, that has seen Rovers climb to third and just a point off the automatic promotion places. Charlton’s nine-game unbeaten league run has become one win in five, along with a horrid FA Cup defeat to AFC Wimbledon, resulting in their play-off place being seriously threatened for the first time in many weeks and supporters growing increasingly concerned with performances.
As such, the importance of this encounter for the Addicks cannot be underestimated. It not merely the need for three points, to bounce back from a poor effort in defeat to Portsmouth last weekend, but the need to challenge a fellow promotion rival and make a statement that confidence and quality has not faded ahead of some more testing fixtures. The reverse turning considered concerns into more obvious worries.
Status most certainly meaningless, when the need for any sort of win in the third tier is massive.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 1-1 BLACKBURN ROVERS (23/01/2016)
Charlton responded to two shambolic away defeats in succession, which amounted to a combined score line of 11-0, one offer to reimburse travelling fans, and an interim head coach impressively managing to get himself sacked, by earning a gritty point, while Charlton supporters made their point with protests against the Roland Duchatelet regime following the 1-1 draw with Blackburn in January 2016.
The Addicks, occupying a relegation spot and four points from safety, were led at home by Jose Riga for the first time during his second spell in charge. The Belgian magically appearing immediately after the embarrassing Karel Fraeye had been ‘dismissed’, despite his ‘interim’ period in charge lasting two and a half months. The continued appointment of bosses from inside Duchatelet’s network, despite continued failure on the pitch, one of many reasons why supporters of the Addicks had had enough.
Universal renditions of chants against the regime heard throughout the game, and the protest colours of black and white seen throughout the ground, but those on the pitch were at least making some attempt to redeem themselves after previous results and performances. A 30th-minute lead for the hosts as Jorge Teixeira nodded down Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s free-kick for Harry Lennon, and the centre-back’s heavily deflected knock towards goal crept past Luke Steele. Fortunate, but fortune was a factor the Addicks required in such a desperate situation.
Alas, they were not fortunate enough to protect their lead into half-time, despite surviving into the 45th minute. A stoppage-time header from Jordan Rhodes tipped onto the inside of post by Stephen Henderson, earning great respect from supporters following an emotion response to the 5-0 defeat at Huddersfield Town, but the ball bouncing back onto the goalkeeper and over the line. Little more the goalkeeper could do; leaving Rhodes unmarked probably not so clever.
The first half’s two goals papering over the game’s lack of quality, and it followed by a second half that would have been a neutral to sleep. But despite Blackburn creating the best chance to win the game, with Henderson doing well to save from Rhodes when one-on-one, there was at least some improvement from this Charlton side. The Addicks doing enough to hold out for a point, and showing much greater defensive determination than in previous weeks.
Improvement in the boardroom, however, could no longer be expected or appreciated. A huge turnout of supporters behind the West Stand calling for Duchatelet and Katrien Meire to depart. The first of many protests on such a scale, which now appearing to be nearing the desired response.
Following defeat to Oldham Athletic in October, albeit with games in hand, Blackburn sat as low as tenth in the League One table.
It a reflection of an indifferent start for a side that were expected, both among supporters and from viewers outside the club, to make relatively light work of an immediate return to Championship. Complacency, given the context, some might suggest. But the six wins and four defeats accumulated from their first eleven games were more a reflection of a side of great strength finding their feet after a high turnover of players in the summer.
But now it would appear that Tony Mowbray’s side have found the desired cohesion in which to display their undeniable qualities. A run of five consecutive league wins has seen 16 goals scored, while they remain unbeaten in nine since the defeat at Boundary Park. And even when placed under threat, as they were on Saturday with Peterborough taking a lead into half-time, they have serious answers; a ten-minute blitz meaning Rovers were 3-1 up before the hour, and would ultimately go on to win 3-2.
And within that performance the strength of their squad was displayed. Corry Evans replaced at half-time by youngster Willem Tomlinson, with Evans himself having replaced Whittingham, and Mowbray’s men in a situation where they might have crumbled. But the teenager impressed assisting the side in reversing the game’s position.
Maybe too their strength is displayed by the fact Danny Graham, good for a goal wherever he’s been and a scorer of 13 goals as Rovers were relegated last season, has struggled to nab first team places off Leeds loanee Marcus Antonsson, and summer signing Dominic Samuel. Goals also coming from defender Charlie Mulgrew, who has scored five in the previous four league games, and Bradley Dack, whose quality at this level is undoubted after impressing for several seasons at Gillingham. Defenders, midfielders and forwards all chipping in.
And so it they now who threaten Shrewsbury Town’s position in the top two most obviously. Only a point off second place and in rampant, seemingly unstoppable, form. You worry that once they do climb into the automatic promotion places, catching them will be an incredibly difficult job.
A performance of quality, or at least one that did enough to record victory, was effectively demanded on Saturday. One that would match the celebratory mood as 25 years since the return to The Valley was acknowledged. Every effort to make the day special, except by those on the pitch.
For the Addicks were dire. Portsmouth’s single-goal victory much more comfortable than such a scoreline would suggest, and that little to do with the fact that Ben Amos saved Brett Pitman’s penalty to prevent the visitors from going two goals ahead. The response to that, in fact, reaffirming how comfortable an afternoon it was for Pompey, with Karl Robinson’s men offering no meaningful attacking threat and playing in incredibly sluggish fashion.
The problem being that this wasn’t just a one off. This something that has been seen, in several guises, throughout a run of one win from six league and FA Cup games. Whether it be defensive calamities, a failure to take chances, or simply playing without an energy or quality, Charlton haven’t been good enough to match their ambitions of challenging the top two in recent weeks.
Particularly frustrating given that the Addicks, on several occasions this season, have displayed the extent of their qualities. They’re a side that can press with intensity, that can move the ball quickly, and be a threat in the final third. So too are they a side, when not performing to the highest of standards, that can find a way to defensively dig in and grind out a victory.
But it would appear that the winning without playing well scenario, seen by many (myself included) as almost entirely a positive from which the players would build upon, has instead lead to failing to win without playing well.
Improvement desperately needed. In previous weeks, there was trust in this side to achieve the desired improvement. The continued questionable performances mean that trust has faded somewhat, and confidence is low.
The impressive midfield that Rovers boast will be dented somewhat with injuries striking down central figures.
The experienced Peter Whittingham will definitely be unavailable having picked up a calf strain during the victory over Peterborough United, while Corry Evans, who replaced Whittingham just after the half hour at London Road only to be hauled off 13 at half-time with an impact injury, will be assessed in the days before the game.
Fellow midfielders Ben Gladwin, a peripheral figure having arrived from QPR in the summer but a handy option in this situation, and Middlesbrough loanee Harry Chapman, another who has struggled for a starting role given the usual strength of Rovers’ starting midfield, will join Whittingham in definitely being out, while long-term absentee Darragh Lenihan is also unavailable.
Teenager Willem Tomlinson, making only his second league appearance for Rovers, impressed having replaced Evans against Posh, and he’ll likely be competing with 17-year-old West Brom loanee Rekeem Harper for a place in the centre if the Irishman doesn’t recover in time.
Elsewhere, Elliott Bennett serves the third game of a four-match ban having received his second red card of the campaign during the original FA Cup clash with Crewe.
Charlton will travel to Ewood Park without several key men, who remain absent for this important encounter.
A particular problem with flat performances in recent weeks, and the desire to make changes following the defeat to Portsmouth last weekend. Mark Marshall and Ricky Holmes offered little threat in the final third, but Tariq Fosu continues to nurse a thigh problem, while the unavailability of Ahmed Kashi, recovering from an ankle knock, while again be keenly felt as shape and structure was lost in midfield against Pompey. Centre-back Patrick Bauer another who won’t play in Lancashire, who you’d particularly want available given the defensive struggles of recent weeks.
But the starting places of Ezri Konsa and Naby Sarr will come under threat by the return of Jason Pearce from a knee injury of his own. Forced back earlier than would have liked by Robinson’s own admittance, on the bench last Saturday after getting 45 minutes under his belt against Swansea City’s development squad in the Checkatrade Trophy, but another week of training to his name may mean the experienced centre-back will be fit to start against Rovers. Harry Lennon, another returning after an extended period out with injury, also an option.
Changes further forward also likely, with Leon Best threatening the position of Josh Magennis after the Northern Ireland international’s recent struggles, while Karlan Ahearne-Grant another who could start in attack, as much as he could in one of the wide positions.
KEY BATTLE – FINAL-THIRD THREAT
Irrespective of how diabolically poor Charlton’s efforts against Portsmouth were, there were moments in the game were positive attacking positions were taken up.
But the inability to make anything of them only increased frustration and disappointment among supporters. Best summed up by Mark Marshall and Ricky Holmes consistently bursting into promising wide positions, only to float balls into the box that were simple for Matt Clarke and Christian Burgess to deal with. Marshall cutting in from the right and, with better options awaiting a pass, choosing to shoot tamely with his weaker foot, while Holmes overhitting a pass that would have sent Josh Magennis through on goal, not helping matters.
And Magennis, too, struggled as much, if not more than, the wide men. Hardly receiving any service, but the issue lying more obviously in his ability to hold up the ball, to challenge centre-backs in various areas of the pitch, and his frustrating lack of sense that saw several needless offsides, fouls, and confrontations with the opposition. The Northern Ireland international no longer looking the shattered figure he did earlier on in this season, but just simply not performing.
Combine such tameness with an inability to take chances in crucial moments, and Charlton’s attacking efforts in recent weeks have been as concerning as the error-prone ones seen in defence.
At times this season, the Addicks have played fantastic attacking, or at least counter-attacking, football that has placed the opposition on the back foot. They now not only appear sluggish, but without a genuine plan. Pass the ball with little intent, find a wide man, hope for the best.
And even if Robinson’s men were to head to Ewood Park seeking to frustrate, placing men behind the ball and grinding out a result, the lack of cutting edge is likely to make such a plan difficult to execute. That in addition to defensive faults, and the absent of Kashi, meaning digging in and allowing an in from team to control the game being quite a terrifying prospect. Some kind of threat on the break required.
A change of personnel may be beneficial. Ahearne-Grant possibly pushing Marshall out of the side, and Best surely replacing the ineffective Magennis, but the game plan as great a concern as the form of individuals. Something better than seen in recent weeks required to test most teams, not least Rovers.
Recent performances, and the form of Blackburn, means it’s difficult to find confidence. Blackburn Rovers 2-0 Charlton Athletic