Charlton Athletic’s opponents sat at the foot of the League One table. They hadn’t avoided defeat in six, and hadn’t scored in seven. And yet the fragile state of the Addicks meant their advantage over Bury appeared less comfortable than it should have been.
Karl Robinson restricted in adding to his squad, as Roland Duchatelet’s sale of the club progresses, but contending with the loss of a key figure. Ricky Holmes not featuring as a move to Sheffield United is finalised. With injuries thrown into the equation, only five of the seven places on the bench were filled, with two of those – were Chris Solly and Jake Forster-Caskey sat – taken by players whose fitness meant they wouldn’t have featured under normal circumstances.
Available bodies few, the situation draining, confidence not exactly soaring. A win against Oldham Athletic last weekend the first in nine, but a performance that displayed the need for further improvement. The sort of straightforward afternoon you might demand against such an opponent not entirely expected.
And comfortable it was not. A contest lacking in quality, the Addicks slow, sluggish, and timid when openings did arrive, and the Shakers rarely doing anything with the occasional promising break. Goalless at the interval, with the knowledge that a single moment of class would surely crush the out-of-form hosts, but equally a fear that Bury themselves could find a way through in this scrappy affair.
The away end reflecting such a mood. Cries of encouragement so often intercepted by sighs of frustration. More demanded, but more importantly something to ease a sense of anxiety.
With 63 minutes played, however, a cry of encouragement continued to rise. There would be no interception by frustration. Nor would there be no interception from the Bury defence.
The feet of Joe Aribo had found the moment of class pleaded for, delivering a delicious turn to beat Greg Leigh and drive towards the byline in space. His ball across the face of goal beating bodies, and falling to the feet of Mark Marshall. A composed finish, with the power that meant he was not willing to take any chances, into the centre of the goal.
A meaningful celebration following. Those in red almost immediately uniting in a huddle, as if a goal inscribed to the collective and not specifically Marshall. What remained, even through their own struggles to deliver a fluent performance, were together.
The lack of fluency meant, despite Bury’s woes, victory could not yet be celebrated. Maybe it would have been if Stephy Mavididi, at the end of a massy run, hadn’t hit his shot straight at jovial goalkeeper Connor Ripley, and subsequently seeing the ball deflect onto the woodwork. Ripley left to joke along with the ‘banter’ provided by the visiting supporters behind his goal; his side still having a chance.
A chance that might have been taken. The Addicks caught out with just a minute to play, Josh Laurent latching onto a long ball, and the net surely about to ripple. The midfielder, however, scuffing his effort horribly, and the ball trickling wide; that’s why you’re going down, sang those in the away end.
And those in the away end, having papered over their relief with mockery, would soon be replacing relief with celebration. It wasn’t pretty, in fact it was as ugly as what Duchatelet has done to this club during his reign, but it didn’t matter. In these circumstances, these testing circumstances, to claim any sort of victory warrants appreciation.
Most certainly appreciation for the group in red who approached the away end, sharing applause in the knowledge of how important this win, this determined win that lifts the Addicks back into the top six, was. This uncomfortable period, when the change required occurs, will end. For now, an uncomfortable period has been relieved with the joy of victory.
You can only demand and expect victory when, as a side chasing a top-six spot, you face an opponent without a win in six who occupy the division’s final position. But, while the demand still existed, confidence was tempered slightly so that expectation was not soaring. You needed only to glance over to the bench to remind yourself if the difficult place Robinson’s side were in.
Dillon Phillips, Johnnie Jackson and Reeco Hackett-Fairchild seemingly the only bodies Charlton’s boss would be able to call upon for any length of time should the game need changing. Solly and Forster-Caskey, not yet at the end of their recoveries from injury, taking up places and little more. Two left unfilled.
Holmes’ imminent departure and further injuries hampering the Addicks further. Ben Reeves replacing the man heading to Sheffield United, and Anfernee Djiksteel called upon with Patrick Bauer injured once again. At least Ezri Konsa, amid rumours of a move to Everton, took to the field.
And at least, though without important bodies, was there still what appeared a competent starting XI. Though it was failing to encourage in the opening moments. Bury not threatening, but displaying energy off-the-ball, only making the slowness and sluggish of the Addicks when in possession more obvious; turgid.
Apparent from these opening minutes that victory, if it were to come, would not be a dominant one, but one forced by a side without fluency. In such circumstances, the importance of taking chances obvious. Something that hadn’t quite got through to the Addicks.
Two promising openings with an unthreatening Reeves header sandwiched in between. First, Aribo raced forward and delivered a low ball across the face of goal, but no one in red able to get the faint touch that would have turned the ball goalwards. Subsequently followed by Magennis breaking in behind, shooting with power but easily blocked by Ripley in the Bury goal, and the hosts able to prevent a Charlton boot connecting meaningfully with the loose ball.
The importance of taking chances, however, probably greater for the Shakers. Despite a season hindered so often by failures in front of goal, there at least greater belief in this group of Addicks to score than the home supporters had in their side. Their run of seven games without a goal should have been ended with a little less than 20 minutes played, as Harry Bunn hooked a ball into the centre, and the imposing James Hanson headed a glorious opening off-target.
Struggles for both side’s centre-forwards. At least Hanson was giving Harry Lennon plenty of work to do; Magennis failing to contribute positively inside the box or out of it. Bury caught out by the simplest of balls over the top, the Northern Ireland international in behind with a bouncing ball to connect with, but ultimately turning premature celebrations into frustration as he poked tamely into the hands of Ripley.
If nothing else, in a game that regularly saw possession change hands cheaply, it was the Addicks who had more of the ball in the opposition’s final third. Reeves getting a yard of space, and seeing a shot from the edge of the area comfortably saved by Ripley, before the goalkeeper could only watch as a free-kick from the midfielder was floated into the box. A Bury player almost scoring for the first time in eight games, and aiding Charlton’s struggles in front of goal, as Nathan Cameron’s intervention saw him head onto the post of his own goal.
Nonetheless, that half-time was reached without either side gaining the advantage was the fairest reflection of this contest. Chances for Charlton, but the unimpressed grumbles with which the half-time whistle was met reflecting that their supporters had spent the half being more frustrated than they were encouraged. Energy in midfield for Bury, but next to nothing going forward, and the Addicks in decent control at the back.
Something more encouraging, more fluent, needing to be seen as the second period got underway. Lovely footwork from both Mavididi and Aribo at least promising, before the ball was robbed from the toes of the latter just a few yards from goal. No time to admire, however, as anger was expressed towards the referee; Ripley gathering from Laurent, who had seemingly knowingly passed the ball back to his goalkeeper after halting Aribo.
If not a refereeing decision, then at least such a promising piece of play would surely lay the foundation for more. But the game soon returned to its scrappy, unappealing nature that was seen before the break. Stephen Dawson shooting in the general direction of Manchester, and Charlton floating tame ball after tame ball into the box for Ripley to easily grab; the chance of a goal in this game decreasing at some rate.
So the sight of Aribo collecting the ball inside the box with a little over an hour played was as surprising as it was exciting. A surprise for defender Leigh as the quick feet of Charlton’s midfielder execute a glorious turn, increasing the excitement among those in the away end. Space for Aribo to deliver from close range, with bodies in the centre.
Having fired powerfully across goal in the first period, with no one able to get on the end of his delivery, the youngster got the accuracy and weight of this delivery spot on. Marshall found, the winger composing himself, and finishing into the centre of goal. Out of nothing, and from the excellence of Aribo, the game had escaped what appeared its certain deadlock, and in the manner those behind the goal Marshall had converted into craved.
Obvious what this goal meant to those red, as supporters equally delighted raced towards the front of the stand. In the difficult context they found themselves in, and their difficulty to deliver in the final third in this game, this was huge. The Addicks coming together to celebrate, huddling with the unity required in this situation, a goal that had every chance of being decisive in a game of such low quality.
Decisive, and seemingly the catalyst for more. Five further minutes played when Mavididi, from wide left, beat the Bury men between him and the goal, and incredibly found himself just a couple of yards from goal in the centre of the box. But the Arsenal loanee didn’t have the finish to match his run, firing straight at Ripley, and the goalkeeper’s unintended intervention looping the ball onto the frame of the goal.
But the wasting of such an opportunity, in this season where wasted openings have so often been punished, created sickening anxiety. Bury on the backfoot, rarely getting forward in a way that tested the Charlton defence, but still the single-goal lead felt incredibly precarious. Ripley rubbing his belly as the visiting supporters mocked his chubby frame, before laughing along with some light-hearted exchanges with those behind his goal, at least provided an enjoyable distraction from the rather unenjoyable worry.
Bury, however, remained on the backfoot. Each member of the backline, and Kashi ahead of them, impassable, the goal seemingly giving Marshall greater confidence to play with a directness, and Mavididi drawing fouls on the opposite flank. Fouls a constant all over as the hosts began to lose composure, but Magennis firing a free-kick from a promising position straight into the wall after Jay Dasilva had been hauled down.
In fact, despite the pressure that comes with holding to a slender advantage, it appeared the Addicks were in a more composed state than their opponents as the game entered its final five minutes. The defence still untroubled, a calmness in possession, and the game being slowed down nicely. The Shakers seemingly without the quality or mentality to steal anything; confidence growing.
And so the sight of Laurent collecting a ball over the top and racing through with a minute to play was crushing. The first meaningful opportunity for the Shakers of the half, and one that would surely be taken. But Bury’s seven-game long failure in front of goal was probably encapsulated in one sliced shot; a golden chance that simply had to be taken ending up trickling behind the goal.
Relief, but confidence calmed. Not least given a further momentary injection of panic as Konsa’s sliding block from Ryan Cooney’s delivery headed towards his own goal, and Amos needed to turn the ball behind. If the resulting tame Bury corner was what was required for some degree of calmness to be regained, the sight of six minutes appearing on the fourth official’s board was not.
The calmest, and most determined, figure at this football club thrown on for those six minutes. Just Johnnie Jackson’s presence on the pitch making you believe this group of Addicks would fight their way through to the end. Worry with each Bury long ball pumped into the box, but those in red remained watertight.
An equaliser in those additional minutes would have been undeserved. What was deserved was for the visitors to hear the final whistle, and have confirmation that their determined efforts in adverse circumstances would be heard. A wonderful moment of relief and joy shared by those on the pitch and in the away end as full-time was finally signalled.
A performance that wouldn’t take much praise in normal circumstances, an ugly one that only narrowly scrapped past the division’s bottom club. But that completely missing the point. The mentality of this side to secure victory by any means while their club displayed itself in a fragile position could only be applauded.
And that mentality definitely worth celebrating. With bodies missing, a key player on the verge of being sold, and those who were his teammates needing to perform with a backdrop of uncertainty behind them, it would have been easy to crumble. But those in red, a side crippled by injury and the restrictions the club faces in the final days of Duchatelet, stood firm.
The first half particularly ugly, a gruesome watch, but grinding through that gave the Addicks a chance. Aribo excellent throughout, and delivering a moment of brilliance to tee up Marshall’s match-winning goal. An improvement in composure once the lead taken, with a calm Reeves, a solid Kashi, and Mavididi, whose performance was tainted only by his wasted chance, joining Aribo and Marshall in keeping the ball in Bury’s half for as long as possible.
Even the fact that unfit Solly and Forster-Caskey, the latter of which was introduced with two minutes of normal time remaining, were willing to take a place on the bench worthy of praise. No complaints, given their states of fitness, if they hadn’t featured in the matchday squad. But their willingness to do so with bodies lacking commendable.
But I’ll reserve special praise to those in defence. A defence with an average of about 12 (20.75 if you’re actually interested in facts rather than overexaggeration), featuring a right-back who isn’t really a right-back, a centre-back with rumours of a move to Everton looming over him, a centre-back only recently resuming first-team duties after 13 months out, and a teenage left-back. Djiksteel, Konsa, Lennon and Dasilva were near immaculate, and most certainly a determined force.
It the sort of determination that, if the takeover isn’t completed before the end of January, might well be needed throughout the campaign. But successive ugly wins have lifted the Addicks back into the top six. Ugly wins, in the contest of the season and the context of the club’s uncertain state, that deliver a beautiful outcome so desperately needed.