BY KEVIN NOLAN AT THE CROWN OIL ARENA
After absorbing the shock of Ian Henderson’s fourth-minute goal for Rochdale, Charlton were left with the crumb of comfort that there was plenty of time to put things right. Falling behind was a body blow but there was no call for panic.
Hardly one of League One’s powerhouses, lowly Dale had conceded 31 goals in 15 league games. Class would eventually out. It always does – well, nearly always.
In chilly conditions justifying an extra pair of shoelaces, Keith Hill’s sturdy yeomen had their own ideas.
Used to the role of underdogs, they defended stoutly, rode their luck at times and handed their spuriously superior visitors a lesson in protecting a slender lead, something these brittle Addicks are infamously incapable of doing. In the process, they showed more than a little class themselves.
Henderson’s early strike exposed the faultline running through Charlton’s regularly depleted back four. An uncomplaining but disjointed deputy for Lewis Page at left-back, Chris Solly was wrong-footed by Stephen Dooley’s jinking run from the right touchline to the byline. The winger’s low cutback was drilled home through the goal-area chaos by the veteran skipper and the visitors’ fate, bar a particularly prolonged period of huffing and puffing, was already sealed.
The decisive goal, not to mention this disastrous result, went to reinforce the ancient warning that square pegs sit uncomfortably in round holes.
It’s clear that the estimable Solly, among the best right-backs in League One, is no more than adequate on the left, while on the opposite flank Anfernee Dijksteel’s undeniable promise comes with bouts of positional naivete.
An uncompromising stopper, Jason Pearce has been paired at centre-back with various partners, the latest of which is spiky old-timer Darren Pratley, clearly better suited to midfield where his physical excesses are more sustainable. Lee Bowyer is blameless for the relentless run of injuries which has eviscerated his last line of defence but his enforced adjustments have been puzzling. And beginning the season without cover for Page, a talented but chronically injury-prone left-back, left the beleaguered manager a hostage to fickle fortune.
Starting for only the second time since scoring the winner at Southend on September 1, Krystian Bielik was assigned to midfield rather than alongside centre-back Pearce, an odd decision after the Arsenal loanee’s outstanding contribution in that position in Charlton’s temporarily morale-boosting victory over Barnsley a week previously.
Anxious to impress but yet another of those aforementioned square pegs, Bielik was harshly scapegoated for the Addicks’ dismal first-half display and replaced by Ben Reeves at half time.
Bowyer was correct in citing Bielik’s lack of responsibility in possession but he was hardly a lone offender. Only Josh Cullen, who busted the proverbial gut in his efforts to haul his side level, emerged with credit from this debacle in both the first and second halves. And precisely what Bielik is expected to “learn” from this humiliation is problematic. Never volunteer, if he has any sense.
There were, meanwhile, chances for the out-of-sorts Addicks to salvage something from the mess they’d made for themselves, none clearer than the 20th-minute penalty gifted them by Dale goalkeeper Brendan Moore.
Rushing off his line in pursuit of Cullen’s free-kick, he fumbled the ball at Pratley’s feet, then dealt with the imminent danger by flooring his troublesome opponent. Reading Lyle Taylor’s intentions from the penalty spot, Moore redeemed himself by hurling himself to his right to save the spot kick.
Taylor had already clipped the bar from Jamie Ward’s pass but defensive heroics were also required at the other end to keep the scoreline manageable before the interval.
Jed Steer saved bravely at Jordan Williams’ feet and Pratley showed similar courage to block Henderson’s attempt to convert the rebound.
The second half brought improvement but no change in fortune for the increasingly desperate visitors. Pearce headed Cullen’s free-kick woefully wide, then Cullen spectacularly let fly from more than 25 yards but was denied by Moore, who took off spectacularly to touch the ball on to his right-hand post.
There was further frustration for Cullen, whose dangerously dipping free-kick eluded Moore on its way into the net but was ruled out, apparently due to the distracting presence of an offside Addick in Moore’s eyeline.
Steer again kept his side in the hunt with a superb save from Bradden Inman’s three-yard header before Peace’s timely block on the same player was noteworthy. But the Addicks were a spent force by the time Harrison McGahey popped up to divert Joe Aribo’s last-gasp header over the bar.
Charlton’s quest for consistency continues. Plummeting to the mid-table mediocrity of 13th place in an ordinary League One, with Rochdale for company, they’re exactly where they belong.
Occasional bursts of excellence are punctuated by descents into the kind of dreary drudgery they showed at Spotland. They’re not so much operating under the radar as becoming impossible for the radar to pick up. A faint blip, in other words.
Charlton (4-4-2): Steer 7, Dijksteel 6, Pratley 5, Pearce 6, Solly 6, Cullen 7, Bielik 5 (Reeves 46, 6), Aribo 5, Ward 5 (Fosu 61, 5), Grant 5 (Vetokele 76), Taylor 6. Not used: Phillips, Sarr, Lapslie, Ajose.