The increase in volume from the stands that met each move forward had grown from a tone of encouragement to one of desperation. Anger increasing around The DW Stadium with each positive attack wasted; by misplaced pass, tame delivery or unthreatening strike. Testing efforts on the opposition’s goal no longer a sign of promise, but a source of immense frustration.
You needed only to listen to the collective sounds of the home supporters to tell you that Charlton Athletic were standing firm in the face of immense pressure. Wigan Athletic held control, the League One leaders constantly asking demanding questions, but the battling Addicks continued to dig as deep as possible to find answers. A side that had crumbled, both in terms of previous performances and available numbers, rediscovering structure and resolve.
Possession belonged to the hosts by default, much of which occurred inside the opposition’s half. The visitors sat so deep that Johnnie Jackson was often the player second most forward, and only five shots were offered. It by a collectively organised defensive effort, relentless hard work, and the occasional moment of fortune that the Addicks found themselves in a position from which to claim the point a goalless draw provides.
For such a battling display, ugly and gritty though it was, to go unrewarded would have been a cruel fate that the exhausted bodies of those in red did not deserve. The Latics, given their domination of overall play and regular threatening attacks, might suggest the real injustice would come if they failed to find a winner against this side with little interest in committing men forward. But when it considered how tamely the Addicks have wilted in recent weeks, how injuries have crippled their squad, and how desperate the travelling supporters were to see some fight in a game where comprehensive defeat seemed almost certain, admiration for the efforts of Karl Robinson’s side could only be held highly.
Admiration coming in spurts from a tense away end, where a fear of capitulation was beginning to become belief in containment. But there always a worry, regardless of how well the Addicks were battling, that the attacking quality of the Latics would ultimately secure victory for the hosts. The voices of frustration around the ground a source of encouragement, confirming the visitors’ resolve was not fading, and easing the panic that came with each Wigan attack.
But it another sound that stands to display the game’s decisive moment, heard two minutes into second-half stoppage-time. A sound that possibly increased claims that some fortune was involved in Charlton coming away from Lancashire with a point to their name. But it the sound that confirmed pain would lie with Latics, and pride with the Addicks.
The ping of the ball hitting the inside of the post heard as Sam Morsy struck from the edge of the box, only for Ben Amos to superbly deny Wigan’s skipper. Silent panic in the away end as the ball rolled back across the face of goal, but substitute Anfernee Djiksteel was the first to react, and relieve the Addicks of danger. The post’s ping a source of torture for the home supporters, denied what they would have believed to be a warranted victory; the post’s ping a source of relief for the visiting supporters, knowing that a shared moment of pride between players and a tiny pocket of Addicks would not be taken away.
A shared moment of pride, with admiration for those in red reciprocated towards the hardy travelling fans, standing in some contrast to the boos and heckles directed towards a set of players who had performed without quality or resolve at Southend United on Boxing Day. The man whose connection with club and supporters greater than all others, evidently still fuelled by determination and fight, even provided passionate fist pumps. That Johnnie Jackson could enjoy the sort of battling effort he is so often been a part of, and so often united supporters around him, particularly enjoyable the day after Katrien Meire, the CEO whose determination has been directed towards dividing club and supporters, had her departure announced.
If ever there was a good point, this was it. Entering the game without hope, and without a win or promising performance in six, the punishment the runaway leaders were expected to inflict blunted by the relentless Addicks. If ever a point provided pride, this was it.
The expectation before kick-off most certainly that pride was about to take a battering. Five wins in six, 19 goals scored in that time, and a four-point advantage at the top of the table would have made a trip to Wigan unwelcome at the best of times. That Charlton came into this having lost their spot in the play-offs, following a dire performance at Southend that saw a fourth defeat in six winless games, made this terrifying.
Made more so by what was available to Robinson. Though Mark Marshall returned, and Ben Reeves and Ricky Holmes sat in reserve, this was undoubtedly a makeshift unit. Harry Lennon with a first start in 14 months after injury as Ezri Konsa moved to right-back, the attacking midfield position withdrawn in order to have three battling figures – Jackson, Ahmed Kashi and Joe Aribo – sit deep together, and Josh Magennis forced to continue out wide.
The task of this makeshift unit becoming immediately obvious, as Marshall and Magennis involved themselves heavily in defensive duties, and Karlan Ahearne-Grant effectively became a stranded figure in attack. Men behind the ball, don’t get drawn in and give them any space to exploit, battle and frustrate. Shrewsbury Town had managed to succeed with such an effort on Boxing Day; a source of encouragement, if faith in Charlton’s defensive capabilities hadn’t been totally lost by the debacle at Roots Hall.
But the Addicks started strongly, unfortunately reflected in the game’s tedium. Wigan’s attacking threat nullified, and even when Michael Jacobs fed through Will Grigg dangerously, the striker was harried quickly enough to prevent him getting a shot away from a strong position. Composure, coherent structure and simple defensive quality seen in much greater abundance than three days ago; at the very least, the visitors were to survive 12 minutes without conceding twice.
The Latics even had some defending to do of their own. Aribo bursting through midfield, breaking dangerously into the box, but becoming the meat in a Dan Burn/Chey Dunkley sandwich. An ambitious penalty shout turned away by the always helpful Trevor ‘he-of-Oldham-away-with-nine-men’ Kettle.
In fact, it not until beyond the 20th minute that the first serious fault in Charlton’s defensive line was exploited, and exploited dangerously so. A bit too much space offered to the Latics on the left, with Lee Evans ultimately crossing, and far too much space offered to Grigg in the centre, heading downwards at the back past and over the bar. A forward of his quality should probably have done better.
While Grigg moved to find space and waited for a chance to finish, another striker was sprinting and battling as much as possible with the thought of being inside the box simply a dream. Ahearne-Grant working as hard as anyone in red, and it his willingness to collect balls and subsequently run at the Wigan defence that meant the Addicks weren’t devoid of all attacking intent. A run down the right-wing, a low cross, but a blue and white body preventing Jackson from turning the ball goalwards.
A break from the relentless resolve Charlton were being required to display, but such were there continued efforts that a created Wigan opening offered a break from frustration. A corner half-cleared, Callum Elder delivering a bouncing ball back into the box that feel kindly for Grigg, but Amos able to claim what was ultimately a tame effort. Probably worth not letting Grigg go unchallenged in the box for a third time, mind.
But as Paul Cook’s side’s control of the game’s overall pattern increased, the ball almost always at the foot of a Latic, before being passed on at a reasonable tempo, so did the defensive resolve of Robinson’s men. The backline continuously tested, but Amos not required to make a meaningful intervention until stoppage-time. A crucial intervention, however, as Nick Powell’s beautifully struck volley, timed perfectly after a blocked Morsy effort fell his way, was held well by the diving goalkeeper.
Powell’s attempt one of few Wigan had mustered in the opening 45, but a few more than Charlton’s none. It not until almost the final kick of the half that the Addicks finally struck towards goal, with Ahearne-Grant battling his way into the box and firing against the side netting from a tight angle. Shots not what best reflected the determined effort of the Addicks in the first period, but the relative lack of opposition strikes as they were continuously halted in their attempts to turn possession into something more meaningful.
Just do the same thing again for another 45 minutes and Robinson’s side could come away with a respectable point, and an overall resolute effort that offered something to build upon. Problem being that, particularly as legs tired and with Wigan possessing attacking options in reserve, that wasn’t so simple. It didn’t look particularly simple just two minutes into the half, as Amos was forced to save a placed effort from Morsy following a half-cleared corner.
So too, however, was there any early reminder that reward could be had for testing Wigan’s backline. Dunkley climbing on Magennis, in the midst of a silent but hardworking performance, and a free-kick in an encouraging position presented. Jackson stood over the ball, the away end with a rendition of his name, but Ahmed Kashi taking, and curling the ball just over the bar.
In fact, amid the unrelenting defensive work, there certainly a greater willingness from those in red to get forward in the early stages of the second period. Something certainly helped by Wigan committing more men forward, and their backline rising further up the pitch. Space for Marshall to send Ahearne-Grant through on the break, and the striker taking himself beyond home goalkeeper Christian Walton, but Dan Burn’s presence between him and the goal meant his effort from a tight angle was cleared.
Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance to win this. A thought immediately ended by Powell heading narrowly wide at the far post from a Jacobs delivery, and Josh Magennis getting booked for time-wasting. The pattern of play restored.
A pattern of play that, unfortunately, was ending with more Wigan chances. The Addicks continuing to battle, and show immense resolve, but the Latics had found a greater tempo. Amos only able to parry Jacobs’ effort from the edge of the box, and a scramble ensuing that just about saw the ball cleared.
Although greater carnage inside Charlton’s box was to follow. The aerial ability of substitute Ivan Toney had given the hosts another dimension, and the forward was able to rise to collect a ball played to the back post, before having his shot from an inviting position blocked away. Lee Evans first to follow up, but falling as he was challenged for the ball, only for vigorous penalty appeals to be waved by Kettle.
With 15 minutes remaining, the pressure on the Addicks was immense. This as threatening as Wigan had looked all evening, and as fragile as Charlton had appeared. Toney challenging for a delivery with Amos, the goalkeeper fumbling, and those in red somehow doing enough to prevent Grigg turning home the loose ball.
With Toney lurking, the Addicks could no longer sit too deep and allow Wigan to deliver from distance. But coming out of the structure brought with it dangers of being exploited. No questioning their efforts and determination, but the resolve was being tested somewhat, as Toney headed into Amos’ hands.
But, as has been the case on several occasions this season, a Charlton defensive effort was backed up by their goalkeeper when the opposition began to find ways through. Toney again the target from a delivery from the left, his knock down falling to Grigg, and another moment where the sight of the net rippling was anticipated. Amos, however, off his line and blocking the Northern Ireland international’s strike; a fine piece of goalkeeping.
And he would be needed again with five minutes to play, though on this occasion questions had to be asked of the forward involved. Powell getting space from a corner, a free header on offer, but able only to nod downwards. Amos reacting well to make what was ultimately a comfortable stop.
The away end tense, but believing. Those on the pitch under constant pressure, but their determination to protect this point unrelenting. Though it might not have been just a point they were protecting in the game’s final minutes.
The blue and white Alamo meant the thought of the Addicks breaking away had long been forgotten, but a cleared ball fell to Ahearne-Grant on the left flank, and the forward simply got his head down and ran. Ran past the few Wigan players that were back inside their half, and into the box. Ran before collapsing in a heap beyond the goalline, having seen his shot beat Walton but skid across the face of goal; agonising.
With such a determined effort, and now with a chance not being taken with three minutes to play, the thought of losing this was an agonising one. Five additional minutes not meant with pleasant thoughts. Five minutes that were going to fill like 50.
And after just one of those minutes, Wigan came arguably as close as they had come to finding the decisive goal. The ball half-cleared, it ultimately falling to Morsy, and his strike looked destined for the far corner. But Amos’ fingertips turned the ball onto the inside of the post, physics was wearing a Charlton shirt as the ball trickled across goal, and the sigh of relief from 300 in the away end was louder than the cries of frustration from the 9,000 home supporters.
Four more minutes to survive. A corner and a free-kick in a crossing position wasted by the hosts. The most wonderful piece of time wasting ever seen by Naby Sarr, as he ran to take a free-kick before stepping over the ball and leaving it to Amos, should have given the Addicks the point by default, but apparently that’s not how these things work.
And these things don’t work like that because, as the full-time whistle blew, the fight and determination of the Addicks met they warranted this point. The depleted and out of form Addicks, battling a Wigan side into frustration. The hosts with every right to feel they could have, and should have, won the game, but that taking nothing away from the efforts and deserved reward of those in red.
A classic determined, resolute and hard-working performance. Charlton’s signature in years gone by. Achieved at a time when we might just be getting our Charlton back.
Roland Duchatelet, as has always been the case during his time in charge, would not have understood the emotion of the supporters come-full. Pride in a goalless draw. Unthinkable.
Pride in the way the Addicks battled, against a Wigan side who had near total control of the entire game. The true extent of the hosts’ attacking threat may not have appeared until the latter stages of the second half, but throughout those in red remained determined, structure and resolute. They had a plan, and they stuck to it.
Appreciation for both manager and players in how they responded to the Southend defeat. Robinson not demanding that his side play his way, but instead being a pragmatist, and overseeing an excellent defensive display. Those on the pitch that looked so frail at Roots Hall, like Sarr, Konsa and Jay Dasilva, immense in their defensive duties.
And an effort made all the more impressive by the missing bodies, and those that came in performing. Ahearne-Grant, irrespective of the missed openings, immense in his role. Jackson and Aribo given a thankless task in the centre but, along with Kashi, maintaining shape, structure and defensive solidity throughout.
And when they failed, another stood up. Amos with a performance equalling his heroics at Bradford City. A command of his box, and important saves to prevent the work of the Addicks from being undone.
It is, ultimately, only a point. It now seven games without a win. Still Charlton sit outside the top six.
But, aside from being an achievement in itself to come away from the league leaders with a point, it lays a foundation. It injects confidence and belief into a side that had looked crippled. It makes the games to come, not least Gillingham on Monday, appear winnable.
And it sits on top of what will potentially be a firmer foundation. The club being sold, the short-term improvement to the squad made, and the long-term feeling of the club reconnecting with the supporters it has left disillusioned. That long-term feeling hopefully beginning with a hearty performance to admire.