Saints' march stalls at Charlton
Having made the wasted journey to the Valley for what promised to be a top-of-the-table Boxing Day fixture between Charlton and Southampton, I returned on Tuesday night for a game between two sides whose fortunes have diverged radically in the intervening months. The large away following in and around the Antigallican pub was in good voice as I turned into Charlton Church Lane: Saints fans clearly relishing the prospect of their team continuing its ascent up League 1 against an opponent without a win in eight. By contrast, pessimism abound among Addicks fans in the queue for the chippie on Floyd Road. I couldn’t help feeling that the battered sausage which rolled off my tray into the gutter on the short walk round to the West Stand served as an apposite metaphor for Charlton’s season. Not quite sure where the vinegar-showered chips and mushy peas come in, but I’d recommend them in any case.
Hard times these may be for the south-east Londoners, but the Valley is still an impressive arena for football. The ground’s piecemeal redevelopment over the Premier League years has lent it a feel of continuity with the past that is totally absent from the soulless bowls that now litter England’s provincial cities. A shame then that the cavernous home stands were some way short of full, but the Jimmy Seed Stand was buzzing nonetheless as the two teams came ‘bob, bob, bobbin’ out of the polytunnel betwixt West and North Stands.
As the game started with a flurry of misplaced passes and sloppy play, I discovered that I was sitting next to the inveterate moaner (and I don’t mean my dad). Seemingly each touch by a Charlton player was met with a sarcastic `go on, fall over as usual’ from the bloke on my right. The Addicks’ predicament invites a bit of gallows humour, but this became tiresome pretty quickly. The only thing that perked him up was the concurrence with his opinion of Saints’ display as `disappointing’ by the BBC London commentary team on the portable radio he whipped out after 10 minutes of sluggish first-half play. I half-heartedly engaged in his downbeat conversation, until the point when an attempted pass by Southampton playmaker Richard Chaplow was greeted as a `good ball’, only for it to become `rubbish’ as it sailed high over Rickie Lambert’s head into the fans seated opposite.
He was right about Southampton, though. A line-up unchanged from last weekend’s victory over Sheffield Wednesday struggled to impose its will upon their opponents and their previously upbeat supporters grew quieter as the half bored on. The subjugation of Bradley Wright-Phillips and perennial loanee Frank Nouble by centre-back pairing José Fonte and Radhi Jaidi did allow Saints gradually to gain territory, but the most notable moment of the first 45 minutes came when Adam Lallana limped out of the fray and back to the dressing room for treatment. A smattering of applause greeted the interval, although it was hard to tell if this was in thanks for the players or for the temporary reprieve from watching their unproductive efforts.
A shanked clearance by Miguel Llera looked to have started the second half where the first left off, but thankfully a well-struck volley by Jaidi following a corner soon enlivened things. My neighbour wasn’t the only one expecting a capitulation from the home side, as Saints began to press forward. However, Charlton’s back four held firm: the disappointing front two of Lambert and Lee Barnard under the spell of Llera and Christian Dailly, while the vaunted Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lallana’s replacement, Dany N’Guessan, were well marshaled by full-backs Chris Solly and Federico Bessone. Both sets of midfielders continued to swap possession, and, going into the last 15 minutes, this lack of poise threatened to kill off the game. However, a change by Addicks manager Chris Powell reinvigorated his team at a crucial juncture, as the pacey Liverpool-owned forward Nathan Eccleston replace the largely ineffectual Scott Wagstaff. Eccleston’s prowling behind the strikers troubled the Southampton defenses immediately, and led to a deserved equalizer: a slick back to front exchange of passes ended with a line-breaking chip into the box by Spurs youngster Dean Parrett which was chased down by Wright-Phillips, who prodded the ball beyond the hitherto untested Kelvin Davis. Needless to say, Mr Grumpy leaped out of his seat and punched the air more enthusiastically than anyone else in the ground. The remains of the game were all Charlton’s, as the promotion chasers clung on grimly to a fair share of the evening’s spoils.
A fillip to a Charlton team who have surely hit rock bottom in their descent into mid-League obscurity, but a terrible effort from Southampton in the wake of Peterborough’s defeat to McDons the previous evening. On this evidence, Nigel Adkins’ men looked a long way short of matching his achievements at Scunthorpe, and the campaign for automatic promotion will remain open for some weeks yet.