After the fresh developments in the investment/takeover saga on Friday, at least we were able to focus on the football for a little while. No question the interesting aspect of today’s game was just how Stockley would shape up against us on his early return to The Valley, including whether he and Inniss would last the game. Irrespective of that, this was one we went into expecting to win, Addicks over the Cod Army, with us having registered four wins out of the last five (the Bolton defeat rapidly fading in the memory) and Fleetwood coming down to us on the back of four successive league defeats – but having strengthened at the end of the transfer window, including Stockley, and having had a morale-boosting win in the cup over Sheff Wed during the week. Instead we didn’t play well, lost, saw both full-backs limp off, and Inniss managed to see red (albeit unfairly) even without Stockley’s assistance. Pick the positives out of that.
I’ll get to the thoughts on the display later, let’s just get the details out of the way first. The team to start was unchanged, not surprisingly, while the bench showed the welcome return of Wollacott, Sessegnon and Aneke – although whether he was included because he was ready or because of an injury ruling out Leaburn is a moot point.
Anyone hoping for a repeat of the first 20 minutes against Exeter were to be disappointed. Truth be told the first near 30 minutes were scrappy and unmemorable. Blackett-Taylor was causing them problems down the left, linking up with Penney and Fraser and able to get runs on his opposite number. But the only chance of note had come when Fleetwood got in a decent cross and two of their number, Stockley included, couldn’t convert. They were getting men back behind the ball when out of possession, entirely predictably, and we were seldom working the ball quick enough and with enough movement to create space.
Even so, when Fleetwood took the lead it was a surprise. A ball in from their left was headed out by Penney but not strongly, to one of theirs. He wasn’t being closed down but there still seemed little danger as he opted for a shot on the half-volley. Proved a good choice as with the outside of his boot it span and curved away from Maynard-Brewer’s dive to his left. He managed to get more than fingertips to it, but couldn’t divert it sufficiently to keep it out. A good if rather speculative strike, one which the replays and half-time discussions suggested Maynard-Brewer could have saved but misread the flight a little and got caught out.
That goal framed a period of Fleetwood domination, seemingly helped by a formation change as they had to replace a full-back and had another on a yellow. It took us until the 40 minute mark to have a decent strike on goal, with Dobson curling a shot from a decent position over the bar. And compared to what had gone before we did have a lively end to the half, including five minutes of stoppage time.
For once we caught them on the break with players over, but Bonne played a poor ball inside and the opportunity went begging. Fleetwood had a claim for a penalty at the other end, then Fraser came within a whisker of equalising. A ball into their box was contested by Bonne and dropped for Fraser, whose shot was goalbound only to deflect off a defender’s leg over the bar. No matter, there still proved to be time to level things up before the break as Clare threated a ball to Rak-Sakyi. He collected it well, was allowed to turn inside on to his left, then placed rather than hammered it into the far corner. Good marks for Clare for the ball to him, but really a goal of RS’ own making.
So when the break finally came we were in much better spirits. Fleetwood had done a job on us, taken the lead, but now level surely we would up the pace, put them under pressure, and go on to win the game. Arrogance perhaps, as that overlooked the fact that the game had all the hallmarks of some earlier in the season when determined opponents at The Valley denied us space, kept the threat from the flanks to a minimum and an isolated front man under wraps, and taken chances. We had seen it all before and still didn’t see it coming, perhaps as we thought we have improved.
Instead of taking the game by the scruff of the neck we were behind again not long into the second half. A Fleetwood shot was turned around by Maynard-Brewer for a corner and from that we screwed up badly. It looked like a routine they had planned for as a group of players jostled on the edge then broke forward, with Fraser either falling over or pushed leaving us outnumbered, while Stockley made a run to the near post, taking Inniss with him. That created the space for their spare man to arrive in total isolation to head in from a couple of yards out. It looked at first like a horrible goal to give away, another throwback to days we had thought were over. On replay (several times) you could see how it happened, leaving it just poor.
OK, we have to go again, still plenty of time left. But from our perspective the game progressively degenerated. We did have good positions to at least get back on level terms. Another good break and this time Fraser played a poor ball square with players over in space, especially Rak-Sakyi. Almost immediately after Fraser played a delightful ball for Blackett-Taylor to run onto into the box, only for a good last-ditch tackle to deny him. Then a ball into the box was headed down and found Rak-Sakyi in space – but on his right foot. Instead of taking on the shot he worked it back onto his left, allowing the defender time to get to him and block the effort. Before the last of those chances we had seen Clare stretch for a tackle and go down clutching his knee. Fortunately this time there was Sessegnon to replace him, but how serious the injury proves to be we have to wait to find out. Also, Penney picked up a yellow for a dive for a penalty.
With around 25 minutes of normal time left, and shortly after Clare had limped off, Aneke made his appearance. Holden opted not for a straight swap for Bonne but to take off Kilkenny and switch to a 4-4-2. Chuks quickly made his presence felt, holding off the defender but shooting rather tamely at their keeper. His next significant contribution was to clash heads with Inniss from a set piece, with the latter coming off worse and shedding some blood, all wrapped up with bandages. And after Aneke was able to bully their defender and get into a decent position but opted to shoot from a fair way out and his effort was easily saved.
Our hopes for a stirring end to the game then took a serious blow as we were reduced to 10 men. They broke clear and the ball was played down their left for a guy running onto it. Inniss came across and stuck out his leg. The replays showed he didn’t get any of the ball, no question it was a foul; also no question it was outside the box. Inniss’ first reaction was to try to make sure nobody thought it was a penalty, while the ref was marking the spot and getting the spray out. Just who or what alerted him to the possibility that a goalscoring opportunity had been denied remains unclear, but as he wandered away talking into his mouthpiece followed by Fleetwood players it became increasingly clear that Inniss was in trouble and the red card was produced. It was a poor decision. The guy was going away from goal and Ness was covering behind Inniss, not a clear goalscoring opportunity, nor was Inniss’ challenge a dangerous lunge. I hope the club appeals asap, but that won’t change the outcome.
To add insult to injury in the move Penney managed to get injured and had to hobble off, replaced by Campbell. And with us in some disarray, Fleetwood content with what they had and running down the clock at every opportunity, the final 10 minutes of normal time and 12 minutes of stoppage time failed to produce a meaningful chance for us (there was time just before the end for Ness to clear off the line to prevent a third for them).
Disappointing, discouraging for sure. But I think there’s a danger of going overboard on this one. I don’t think our display was much different from that against Exeter – with differences at the margins. Last time out we clinically converted a couple of chances in the first half and coughed up only one back, found ourselves ahead in the game for all but the first eight minutes. Yesterday we scored one good goal and were not clinical enough with other good positions, with poor passes and tame shots, while instead of one we conceded two, one a shot rather out of the blue and the other a defensive lapse. And yesterday we were behind in the game for about half of it – and never in front. Goals shape games. Also, Exeter were at home and took the game to us, Fleetwood were, like others before them, able to focus on keeping things tight; they kept their discipline and deserve credit for that. Different opposition posing different challenges.
We play again on Tuesday night and the decisions taken late in the January window may already be coming back to haunt us. We could well be without Inniss (perhaps a lengthy ban), Clare, Penney, plus of course the other full-backs Kane and Egbo, with it unclear whether Hector can be thrown in, leaving only Thomas and perhaps Elerewe or Mitchell.
With the Methven-led takeover now in the bin, we are back to waiting for some meaningful statement from Sandgaard about alternative suitors, while also keeping fingers crossed that the chaos doesn’t encourage Holden to up sticks if Huddersfield are interested. Hey, ho, an Addicks life is, right now, not a happy one.