The resolve, determination and fight shown in the final game of 2017 would mean little if there wasn’t victory in the first game of 2018. A notion clear from the moment the full-time whistle blew at The DW Stadium on Friday night. The battling goalless draw had to be a foundation from which results would come, and a foundation from which Gillingham would become the first opponent to suffer defeat at Charlton Athletic’s hands in eight games.
Pride should have been turned into points. Pride, however, was followed by a pathetic effort and warranted punishment. The defensive resolve that earned the Addicks an excellent point against Wigan Athletic vanishing, unrelenting work rates replaced by sluggishness, and opportunities wasted by a side whose confidence sits in a more fragile state than the club’s promotion hopes.
The backline capitulating under the simplest of Gillingham attacks. Tom Eaves in behind down the left, the ball rolled across an empty goalmouth, and an unchallenged Josh Parker able to convert under no pressure at the back post to give the visitors an 11th-minute lead. Simple, disgustingly so.
Every ounce of energy given to hold the league leaders for 90 minutes, but a structureless unit had gifted a relegation threatened side a second with little over half-an-hour played. Luke O’Neill getting into space down the right, his delivery a flat one, and Eaves able to stretch out a long leg to poke the ball beyond Ben Amos. Those in red appealed in vain for offside; those in the stands appealed in vain for their side to perform.
Any sort of football that would threaten the opposition, any sort of response to a widening chasm between the Addicks and hopes of getting a result that would push them back towards the play-offs, not coming until after the interval. Half-time substitute Leon Best, lifting an opportunity over the bar before being denied by a combination of Max Ehmer and goalkeeper Thomas Holy, as dangerous as any other Addick in his first six minutes on the pitch. His only six minutes, needing to be replaced after damaging his knee during his second chance, as if to confirm the afternoon would not belong to Karl Robinson’s men.
Steve Lovell’s side sat deep, Charlton threatened to be threatening as they were invited forward, but end product was lacking. A familiar tale. The Gills dealing with a constant exploitation of the wings from the hosts, and chances wasted when the visiting defence was opened up.
Only seven minutes remaining when Gillingham’s defence finally wilted, and gutless defeat had a chance of becoming dramatic draw. Joe Aribo turning in Ricky Holmes’ corner. No celebration, no well dones, simply a collective sprint back to their own half from those in red to get the game going again.
The first time that positive energy existed in the stands, that positive energy existed on the pitch, but it not nearly enough. Gillingham, by whatever means, standing up to the pressure applied, and Charlton wasteful. A leveller, were it to come, would have been unwarranted.
The Addicks left to suffer a double negative. The pride felt at Wigan left meaning next to nothing, and nothing claimed from a game that needed to be won. Boos from the Covered End as Robinson’s men attempted to show their appreciation towards supporters.
Friday night’s warriors wilting into woefully weak figures. A side that were sniffing around the top two at the start of November now looking like a side without the qualities to finish in the top six. If there isn’t worry, then there’s anger.
The emotions at full-time in some contrast to the belief that existed prior to kick-off. The performance in Lancashire promised improvement, and Charlton’s battered and bruised side had additional resources available. Jake Forster-Caskey returning from a quad problem, Ricky Holmes into the starting XI after only being fit enough for the bench on Friday night, and Patrick Bauer and Best in reserve having recovered from their respective injuries.
Ben Reeves, having been left out of the side that faced Wigan in order to pack the deep-sitting midfield, also coming back in. Johnnie Jackson, Joe Aribo, and Karlan Ahearne-Grant all unfortunate to find themselves on the bench again after performing against Wigan. But Robinson’s side looked stronger, and held the attacking intent required to get at an opponent that, though vastly improved under Lovell’s leadership, had the threat of relegation to consider.
The only thing under threat in the opening stages, however, was Charlton’s goal. It the same backline that featured at The DW, but it appeared they hadn’t turned up with the same structure, resolve and defensive qualities. Mark Byrne with a ball over the top, Eaves bringing the ball down inside the box, and only an excellent Amos save prevented the hosts from falling behind with just three minutes played.
A let-off, but the sort that should inspire a response, featuring both a reshaping of the defensive line and attacking intensity. The Gills, however, used the opening as belief that they didn’t need to be second best in this contest. It not so much a blocked Jake Hessenthaler strike and a wayward O’Neill effort that worried, but the fact the visitors were able to come forward as a consequence of Charlton’s lack of composure and quality in possession.
Maybe it a chance, rather than a let-off, that was required to get the Addicks going. Holmes’ delivery skidding over the heads in the centre, the ball falling to Reeves, but the playmaker scuffing wide from a strong position. Alas, the chance would be forgotten just two minutes later.
Hope replaced by fury. Eaves again able to get in behind from a ball over the top, shrugging off the pressure applied by Naby Sarr with ease, and delivering across goal. The ball seeming to move in slow motion across The Valley’s turf as those in red watched it trickle towards the back post, where Parker stood to convert the simplest of chances.
An undoubtedly preventable goal, gifted to the Gills. A goal that wouldn’t have been conceded if the side were as structured, determined and resolute as they were three days ago. Where had that side gone?
Wherever it had gone, its absence was seemingly not going to be made up for at the other end of the pitch. Charlton too slow in possession, halted whenever they looked to threaten on the outskirts of Gillingham’s box by the organised visitors, and their only outlet coming down either flank. The result of the ball heading down the flank so often an overhit cross, or a delivery that Ehmer and Gabriel Zakuani could easily deal with.
Frustration around The Valley, uninspired by their side’s lack of intensity in their efforts to get back into the game, but the mood was about to become a lot worse. Lovell’s men had sat relatively deep after gaining an advantage, attached to their defensive structure, but they’d never stopped looking for ways to escape and threaten on the break. O’Neill getting forward down the right, a delivery picking out Eaves, and robust forward sliding in to convert.
Questionable whether Eaves stood in an offside position or not, but Charlton’s defending more so. The home crowd enduring the noise of the away end as they sat in silent disbelief, before voicing their anger and frustration. If their side had given them a feeling of pride on Friday, they were now providing one of embarrassment.
A desperate need to get something, show something, before half-time. If not to half the deficit, then to give supporters encouragement, and keep them even slightly onside. A cloud over The Valley as it was, but it would have become covered in darkness had O’Neill’s well-executed free-kick curled just an inch further left.
But response from the Addicks, with their attempts to get forward continuing to be restricted to tame deliveries from wide, was non-existent. Response from the crowd, as those in red were booed off at the interval. Response from Robinson, as Best and Aribo started the second half in place of Forster-Caskey and Reeves.
And it Robinson’s response that seemed to have the greatest impact. A ball into the box won by a Charlton head for probably the first time all afternoon, with Magennis looping Holmes’ cross over the bar, but it more the impact Best had on proceedings that encouraged. The forward positioned well as a ball from the right bounced through to him, but leaned back slightly and poked over, before an off-balance prod towards goal, under pressure from Ehmer, forced an excellent save from Holy.
Best’s direct impact, however, would quickly be curtailed. Injuring his knee in forcing Holy to make his first save of the afternoon, and unable to continue. Replaced by Ahearne-Grant, but the Irishman’s efforts on goal were the catalyst for a more threatening Charlton side to appear.
In fact, ten minutes into the half, the Addicks might well have been level. Magennis again winning a Holmes ball, Holy caught in no man’s land, and a looping header bouncing over off the bar. Had it dipped just a second sooner, the hosts would have been back in the game.
But, having spent much of the previous two months bemoaning an inability to take chances, an inability to take chances was not going to please the home supporters. Undoubtedly an improvement on the first-half efforts, assisted by Gillingham taking a more cautious approach that limited their threat on the break, but still only causing frustration. Excellent work from Ahearne-Grant unrewarded as a delivery from a driving run forward just evaded those in the centre, while Bradley Garmston threw himself at the post, and ball, to prevent Mark Marshall turning home an excellent Holmes cross.
Energy instilled in the Addicks, and attacks that gave visions of being threatening, but the Gills coping with the bombardment of relatively tame deliveries that came into their box. In fact, even when a player in red had a chance to shoot, they crossed instead. Ezri Konsa breaking into the box, the goal insight, but his pull-back to Harry Lennon was blocked, before Holmes picturesque volley also struck a man in blue.
None of it enough to threaten Holy; a goalkeeper who proved his value in the reverse fixture, but was largely dealt the task of his marshalling the backline ahead of him on this occasion. Or at least that was the case until Marshall delivered for Magennis, a reaction save kept the Northern Ireland international’s header out, and the stopper was quickly on his feet to claim the ball ahead of Ahearne-Grant. With ten minutes to play, and just the sound of apathetic disappointment as Ahearne-Grant tamely headed a Marshall cross wide, Charlton’s efforts were seemingly futile.
But from apathy came a roar of hope around The Valley. Holmes delivering from a corner, Aribo meeting the ball at the front post, and his glanced header beating a stationary Holy. The reaction in the stands not so much one of celebration, but a cry of encouragement, sensing that, with seven minutes to play, the Addicks could force an unlikely, and arguably undeserved, point.
The hope half-instilled by the belief that Gillingham might well crumble given the increased pressure upon their backline. Instead, the visitors attempted to calm Charlton’s momentum by getting forward themselves. Eaves working himself into space and firing over; an ambitious effort, but that they were able to have it forcing the Addicks to think twice about committing every man forward.
However, had they continued to commit every man forward beyond the 87th minute, it might well have been in search of a winner. The ball falling to Aribo inside the box, blue shirts all around, and the midfielder able only to poke wide. An excellent opportunity not taken, to add to the already 57-page list of excellent opportunities not taken this season.
And with stoppage-time approaching, there a panicked desperation in Charlton’s efforts to get forward. Marshall striking comfortably over the bar, with little else on, just after Eaves had again found some space and shot wide. Defeat again accepted, or at least until six minutes of additional time were announced; new hope.
Several opportunities to run at the Gillingham defence. Corners won, for which Amos sprinted forward. Pressure on Holy and his backline.
Alas, but for Holy spilling a corner and the Gills reacting first to the loose ball, Charlton’s threat in the additional period was as tame as their threat to the division’s top two. Nothing. The boos and cries of anger at full-time, as those on the pitch sunk into their own bodies, of much greater threat.
And the Covered End had every right to respond to this defeat in such a manner. Eight games without victory, defensive capitulation after the heroic Wigan effort, the token gesture attempt to get back into the game just repeating the familiar faults in front of goal. Each week this side looks less and less like one capable of achieving promotion.
If the defeat is not put into context by its comparison to the determination shown on Friday, by the extending of the winless run, or the fact the Addicks sit ninth in the division, then it is by the opposition. Gillingham achieving their first ever win at The Valley. Relegation threatened Gillingham, able to expose the flaws in this Charlton side.
So easy for the opposition to get in behind, and score two of the simplest goals seen in SE7. Much like against Southend United on Boxing Day, defensive tameness gifting the game to the opposition before half-time. Frustration increased by how resolute the Addicks were against Wigan.
Sarr standing out as the flimsiest performer in a weak defensive line, the midfield non-existent at times as Gillingham broke in the first period, and their goals so, so simple.
And, much like the response at Root Hall, appearing for the second half was some attacking intent neither diverts criticism away from the overall performance, nor gives reason to suggest the Addicks warranted something from the game. Attack after attack invited, attack after attack wasted. Chances really do have to be taken when, once again in a situation of this nature, the end product is largely tame and predictable.
The pattern is boring now. Fall behind, build up apparent pressure with a series of defended deliveries from the flanks, waste chances when they arrive. Aribo providing hope, but the damage already done at both ends of the pitch.
Improvement to the squad is unquestionably needed, not least in attack, but you worry how much business Robinson will be able to do if a takeover is not completed before the end of the month. This squad needing more than the unwanted of other clubs if it is to challenge for promotion. Genuine quality required.
This squad seemingly needing more than a valiant display at the league leaders to inspire the return of confidence and performance.