By Kevin Nolan
They say the most heartbreaking finish in an Olympic final is fourth place and you can see their point. Finish third and your disappointment is softened by a bronze medal. You walk away with something tangible to show your grandkids. But fourth place is worse than nowhere. It heads the list of also-rans.
In English football’s lower leagues, ending in seventh place is similarly soul-destroying, a case of close but no cigar. The four teams above you still cling to the hope of a bronze medal, so to speak, while you head up the “what if” and “if only” roster of losers.
As Charlton take an enforced winter break and presumably use it for a spot of reflective soul-searching, an unconvincing seventh place in League One is where you’ll find them. And to be honest, it’s no more than they deserve.
Their patchy form is only partly explained by a freakish rash of injuries, the latest of which apparently rule out Ahmed Kashi and Jay Dasilva for a lot, if not the rest, of the season.
A lack of determination to back up their pleasing ball skills has been just as responsible for leaving them vulnerable to sides with less talent but more grit about them. For proof of that particular pudding, look no further than Charlton’s pair of defeats by workaday Gillingham.
In September, the Gills were rock bottom of League One when Tom Eaves’ second-half winner over the Addicks at Priestfield eased their problems. Karl Robinson’s post-game claim that Charlton “were the better team by far” blithely ignored the scoreline, which remains the only meaningful way of deciding superiority.
Their odds-busting victory turned hard-nosed Gillingham around and by the time they turned up at The Valley on New Year’s Day, they had climbed to 17th place. They duly confirmed their improvement by winning 2-1 – Eaves again on the scoresheet – and have risen steadily since.
The six points they took from “the better team” may prove pivotal to both clubs. They certainly torpedoed Charlton’s promotion chances.
The Addicks’ deceptively promising start to the season featured five wins from their opening six league games, with the solitary defeat inflicted by Plymouth Argyle, who have since recovered from an otherwise disastrous start to the season and recently leapfrogged them into play-off contention.
It was at Walsall in late September, however, that a morale-sapping habit of conceding costly late goals first surfaced; a wonderful 88th minute volley by Ricky Holmes had apparently secured a 2-1 win until Saddlers substitute Daniel Agyei replied instantly with his own super strike to silence the visitors’ celebrations.
A trend had been established which, in five subsequent games, has meant the quantifiable loss of a further 12 points.
The chronic lack of a goalscoring forward continues to haunt Robinson. Current top scorer is wholehearted Josh Magennis with eight goals, which put him on course to improve on his total of 10 last season.
Constantly labouring on his own up front, the Northern Ireland international receives unfair criticism for his strike-per-game ratio but soldiers on gamely.
He needs a goal area predator at his shoulder but that’s a luxury denied Charlton since 21-goal Bradley Wright-Phillips was curiously allowed to drift away following the triumphant 2011-12 season.
An outstanding academy continues to supply the first team with a steady stream of talent – but disappointingly not a natural goalscorer.
There happens to be a free-scoring kid operating down there at the minute called Alex Willis, whose obsession with scoring was self-advertised recently by a t-shirt recording his 500th goal for the club at every level from under-eight to under-18. Whether or not he breaks through remains to be seen but his chutzpah is duly noted.
Hopefully, if he does make it, he won’t turn out to be yet another winger. It would be much more helpful to send up a poacher coached to correctly anticipate the direction of a rebound; steal a yard on his marker; time a run to the near post; develop a technique to beat keepers in one-on-one confrontation and most importantly, of course finish efficiently.
All of Gary Lineker’s many goals were apparently scored inside the penalty area. That’s where Jimmy Greaves came alive.
And closer to home, Clive Mendonca did pretty well with the woodwork in sight.
They shared a natural instinct which constant repetition honed into an art form.
Back in the real world, meanwhile, Charlton begin their 13-game run-in with an awkward visit to Peterborough next Saturday, where Posh will be hoping to exploit new-manager bounce in the substantial shape of Steve Evans.
It was at The Valley in November that the Addicks staged a desperately late rally of their own to claw back a 2-0 deficit through Holmes’ penalty and an added time equaliser from Karlan Ahearne-Grant.
Excuses and explanations don’t cut it any longer. Winning is what it comes down to now.
Otherwise, Robinson will be asked to justify a failure to finish within the top six in a decidedly mediocre league.
The gold and silver medals are far out of reach. But a podium place, with a bronze medal to show for it, would redeem an exasperating campaign.
The boys of 1998 did it in style. It’s time Charlton’s 2018 successors marked the 20-year anniversary by making a new set of memories. Nobody remembers who finished fourth.