Ewood Park hadn’t heard noise of this volume all afternoon up to this point, and the game was 27 minutes old. The boos and heckles created by the home fans quite possibly as vicious as a returning player can receive. Blackburn Rovers supporters angered by the appearance of Leon Best, whose £3m move to the club in 2012 became something of an injury, poor-performance and loan-spell filled disaster.
In truth, Charlton Athletic supporters weren’t exactly pleased to see their recent signing enter the action at such a premature stage of the contest. Only required as another injury to a forward player – Billy Clarke twisting his ankle having caught it in the turf – forced an early change. Injuries joining defensive errors, an absence of structure and tame attacking threat as the main reasons for the relative struggles of Karl Robinson’s men in recent weeks.
So it scripted that, just three minutes later, Best would break the deadlock. “Leon Best, he scores when he wants,” voiced by the delighted supporters. The only problem being that those delighted supporters were those who despised him.
A Charlie Mulgrew free-kick requiring intervention but, with only limited direct pressure from a player in blue and white, should have been dealt with in more composed fashion. Best instead only managing to loop a header perfectly into the corner of his own net, becoming the second Charlton striker to score for the opposition in as many weekends after Josh Magennis’ own goal against Portsmouth a week ago. If you didn’t at least take a moment away from the misery to laugh at such a comedic situation, you’d only be denying yourself an opportunity to calm the pain inside.
The need to ironically appreciate that moment of comedy becoming clearer as the remainder of the game developed, with the Addicks only frustrating. In rare moments when the visitors genuinely threatened David Raya in the Rovers goal, such as when Best teed up Ben Reeves in the final moments of the first half, their finishing was painfully tame. And as the hosts sat deeper and deeper in the second period, Charlton’s attacking play became increasingly ineffective, creating only the tune of anger and disappointment in the away end rather than opportunities to equalise.
Passing often sideways or backwards, if not misdirected when played forward, with pace and movement lacking. Threat down either flank non-existent, as Mark Marshall and Josh Magennis stuttered into dead ends, or delivered tame crosses into the box easily dealt with. The panicked long balls that followed rarely worthwhile, as Magennis struggled once again to perform his main role, and Best’s overall performance only encouraged further Blackburn heckles.
It, therefore, came as little that surprise that deep into stoppage-time, while Robinson’s men were uncertain how to get the ball forward and still play without the intensity of a side desperately in need of a goal, Blackburn’s own intensity earned them a second goal. Chris Solly stuttering on the ball, and ultimately robbed, substitute Joe Nutall breaking forward and crossing for fellow replacement Danny Graham to head home from close range. A goal that means Charlton’s play-off place is only protected by goals scored.
And so the tale a familiar one. Defensive errors, strikers who seem potent only in front of their own goal, and tame possession that cannot be turned into genuine threat against an organised and defensively resolute opponent. Concern increasing, as the improvement in quality and confidence required grows larger.
The threat of a lack of threat promised offered before kick-off, as an unexpected injury left the Addicks without their main forward influence. Ricky Holmes frustrating in recent weeks, without the delivery to match his bursts into the opposition’s final third, but he the only player capable of performing such threatening movements forward. The only player, with Tariqe Fosu still absent, who can genuinely be labelled as a match-winner; Reeves, indifferent in his injury-struck start to life as an Addick, with big shoes to fill.
But there was at least greater reassurance in defence. Jason Pearce making his first league appearance since September having recovered from a knee injury, with the hope he would provide an organising quality to a side without structure in recent weeks. If nothing else, Naby Sarr needed to be withdrawn from the side after several weeks of uncertain, uncomfortable and error-prone efforts.
The reassurance of defensive improvement certainly required against an in-form, and goal-hungry, Rovers side. But it was the Addicks who started the game on the front foot, sort of. Magennis, having found himself in a bit of space 30 yards from goal but without support, trying his luck from distance, only to threaten the blue seats to the left of the post.
And it seemed those sorts of openings might well be what Robinson’s side would be restricted to, as Blackburn showed a tenacious and defensively determined quality to match an obvious quality that reflected their form. Rovers not pressing too high, but patiently waiting for an opportunity to rob the Addicks of possession they weren’t keeping with a great deal of composure, before threatening on the break. The clever footwork of playmaker Bradley Dack and pace of Dominic Samuel in attack particularly concerning, as Pearce just about continued to win the battle with the latter in quite aggressive fashion.
So the openings both sides carved out in quick succession as the 20th minute approached were an adequate affection of the sort of threat they were posing. Decent work down the left from the Addicks as Jay Dasilva and Reeves combined, but the latter’s pull back to Jake Forster-Caskey was ballooned horribly, horribly off-target from an inviting position. While at the other end, with Charlton’s backline losing its shape, a better connection would have seen an unmarked Dack turn in a Marcus Antonsson delivery from the left.
The visitors, as such, not without ways out of their half, but struggling to match the threat and quality and Rovers were offering on the break. Not helped by the space the hosts were being giving, in complete contrast to their organised backline. Dack allowed to cut in from the left and curl an effort narrowly wide of Amos’ left-hand upright.
And several moments prior to that opening, Blackburn’s threat had played a hand in Clarke suffering what appeared the sort of injury he might be able to shake off. Antonsson going forward and back on the left, and Clarke ultimately catching his foot in the turf as he attempted to keep up with the Swede’s movement. Several moments after, his efforts to continue had proven to be in vain, with the Irishman hobbling off to be replaced by Best.
The forwards introduction met by applause from the visiting Addicks, desperate for their new signing to solve their issues in front of goal, but there some contrast in the home stands. The sort of boos Katrien Meire received as she appeared at half-time of the Portsmouth game last weekend sent the way of the man who once wore Blackburn colours. Best, no doubt particularly determined to score, taking up the central role, and Magennis moving wide left.
And score he did, to the delirious delight of the Rovers supporters. Overwhelmed by the prospect of their side’s recent run continuing, and in a state of celebratory enjoyment, as well as being crippled over in laughter. The hated figure turning Mulgrew’s free-kick into his own net on the half hour.
The ball bouncing into the net after taking the touch of Best’s head, and the forward already had a look of horror on his face by the time the ball had come back off the ground. Amos only able to watch, bemused silence from the away end as the net rippled, and hands moving towards Best’s guilty face. Blue and white lurking, but the header was a clean one, and so should have been sent away from goal.
An admirable effort from the home support to follow the goal with chants in favour of Best, not least “he scores when he wants”, but there a growing fear Blackburn were going to be scoring when they wanted, having taken the lead. No red head meeting this Rovers set-piece, as Dack’s corner was flicked on to Derrick Williams at the back post, but the full-back somehow managed to turn the ball wide when it seemed easier to score. A horrendous miss, and disgruntled Charlton fans were left legitimately demanding more from their side.
A tame header hitting the side-netting, with Raya almost going to collect the ball before it had crossed the goal line, not quite what was in mind. Forster-Caskey’s corner finding Magennis at the back post, but the Northern Ireland international heading unthreateningly wide. Uninspiring.
Not least with Rovers continuing to break with threat, and the Addicks continuing to look uncomfortable in defence. Craig Conway allowed to run from the halfway line to the edge of the Charlton box without challenge, his resulting effort thankfully well held by Amos. The Addicks to tame both with and without the ball.
But, as is always the case, while the deficit remained at one, Robinson’s men were far from out of the game. Far from out of it if they could create a genuine opening, which they managed to do with three minutes of the first half remaining. Best doing well to hold up the ball, and subsequently tee up Reeves but, with a clear sight of goal, the playmaker could only weakly slot the ball just wide of Raya; the goalkeeper easily collecting a chance that really should have been scored.
The half ending with a final visual display of just how much the Addicks needed to improve, as Conway picked out an unmarked Williams at the far post, with the full-back’s ball across the face of goal just about dealt with, but Reeves’ chance at least offered some hope. Or at least a reminder that Robinson’s men, irrespective of how poorly they’d played during the opening 45, were not out of this game.
Though if Blackburn scored a second, given both side’s form and the context of this contest, it would almost certainly be game over. A succession of corners at the start of the first period ultimately leading to Mulgrew, in prolific scoring form for Rovers despite leading their defensive line, heading wide. Charlton couldn’t afford to be pushed back.
And so encouragement was to follow; something of an opportunity not taken but a sign that the Addicks were the side who were going to get on the front foot. Marshall and Reeves combining for the latter to curl towards goal, but the effort not quite having the pace to beat Raya. The goalkeeper only capable of palming the ball away, however, though both he and the offside flag were on hand to deny Best from just a few yards out as the forward attempted to make amends for his own goal.
What followed was, at least, better from the Addicks. They were at least pressing their opponents, and reward would have followed had Best’s touch not been awful after stealing the ball off Mulgrew and bursting forward. They were at least pressing Blackburn back, to the extent that they felt uncomfortable to display their threat on the break.
But, ultimately, the pressure grew increasingly tame. Reeves prodding a handy opening on the edge of the box straight into Raya’s hands, Best appearing to break through on goal but deciding he’d see if he could get away with scooping the ball over a Blackburn head with his head, and a Marshall free-kick from a tight angle comfortably clearing the crossbar with unmarked men waiting in the centre. Lots of clueless expressions while in possession, as tepid passing still rained supreme, and weak crossing either nodded away or held by the impressive Raya meaning Charlton’s ball control wasn’t being turned into meaningful threat, and certainly not cooling the frustration of supporters.
There at least the sense, given the pattern of the game, that the deficit would remain at one, but this a sense generated not out of an improvement in the way the Addicks were defending. The game might well have been over with 15 to play, as Dasilva lost sight of Conway, a long ball sent him through on goal, and his strike flashed wide as Amos stood in no man’s land. Hand the scot delivered to a number of waiting blue and white shirts and centre, particularly with Amos stranded, the hosts would have certainly doubled their advantage.
And so the opportunity for the Addicks to equalise was still there. But the opportunities created were horribly tame. Forster-Caskey almost rolling the ball towards Raya from the edge of the box, while, pleasing further the home supporters, Best headed comfortably over as Reeves delivered a rare testing Charlton delivery from wide. As has so often been the case, simply not enough in the final third.
A final third that the Addicks seemed afraid to venture into as the 90th minute approached and subsequently surpassed into four additional minutes. Seemingly a consequence of all in red being uncertain of how they were supposed to threaten, the ball was too often passed around sideways, with our own time too often wasted. The resulting punts forward easily dealt with by Rovers, who remained composed, while Charlton looked a spent force.
A spent force that, in the final minute of the four added on, Blackburn were able to capitalise upon further. Solly hesitant, and robbed in midfield without bodies behind him, allowing pacey forward Nuttal to burst through. Seemingly going too wide and then overrunning the ball, but still able to deliver, resulting in Graham being picked out and the experienced striker nodding in a chance that even a Charlton forward would do well to miss.
The silence, but for the sound of feet walking down steps as supporters escaped Ewood Park, in the away end as emphatic as the celebrations of the home supporters. Blackburn making a huge statement, beating a promotion rival on the way to winning a sixth game in a row and keeping the pressure on the top two. Charlton making an equally huge statement, that massive improvement is required, for they have gone from pressurising the top two to seriously worrying about their top-six position in just a few weeks.
A worry reflected in the obvious sorrow of Robinson come full-time. Normally so boisterous in his interaction with supporters, the boss instead hiding behind a set of deflated players, hardly worthy of applause from the few fans still remaining in Ewood Park’s away end. Confidence drained.
Some might point to the quality of opposition as reason not to overstate the nature of Charlton’s poor performance. And it unquestionable that Blackburn look a side ready to challenge the top two. Raya confident in goal, the backline defiant, and the pace, link-up play and overall threat on the break reflective of a side that have been goal hungry in recent weeks.
Others might also point to the ‘pressure’ applied to Blackburn in the second half as enough to drain some sort of positive out of this game. It true Rovers were pushed back. It true Charlton had both possession and chances.
But not only does this take a bizarre underdog tone, as if we’re a midtable side not attempting to fight for automatic promotion, we’ve seen this all before in recent weeks. A failure to offer a consistent threat going forward, and a failure to take chances when they do arrive. It only Reeves’ chance at the end of the first half that was particularly clear cut anyway, while the rest of the game was spent making very occasional half openings, or seeing tame attacks blunted.
Equally, faith in the backline, even with Pearce’s return, decreases by the week. It not simply the result of Ahmed Kashi’s absence ahead of it, though that seemingly has left the side devoid of all structure, for the biggest problem is individual errors. Solly, Ezri Konsa, Pearce and Dasilva all guilty, and Pearce’s return offering no improvement in collective unity.
There will be some improvement when Holmes, Fosu and Kashi return. But performances were declining with Holmes in the side, and it a concern that the entire shape relies on a single player, if that is the case with Kashi. It brings up the question that has been asked before during times of disappointment – does Robinson not have a plan ‘B’?
There’s certainly a reluctance, or inability, to change the way we’re playing. A formation other than 4-5-1 is never used, there’s no injection of alternative play in attack, and the pattern of sideways passing without a way forward before a desperate punt was incredibly frustrating today. In a testing time, Robinson needs to come up with the answers, and make us look like a side capable of achieving promotion again.
It would be quite unbelievable that we are teetering on the verge of losing a play-off place that was ours to lose a few weeks. It would be quite unbelievable if we hadn’t performed so poorly for a number of weeks. A huge improvement required, but having belief that that will suddenly appear is difficult after witnessing recent performances.