Nobody knew what to expect yesterday. All six games to date decided by the odd goal, new manager/head coach (and with this possibly new pairings or formation), away at the league leaders, which at this stage means little or nothing other than a good start to the campaign but with the opposition normally very tough to play on their own patch. In the absence of further insight what stood out is how far we have fallen when we are rated 3/1 against to win against Stevenage, with no disrespect intended.
What did we get? Another decidedly mixed bag, another game which might easily have gone either way, one which was almost ruined by a dreadful performance from the officials, ultimately one in which a share of the spoils was probably on balance about right. The game highlighted our defensive frailties and in many respects was a carbon copy of Holden’s last game in charge at Oxford – except for the final few minutes and the result.
The team showed two actual changes from last time out under Pearce, both it seemed injury-related. Asiimwe was unavailable and Abankwah came in for his debut out of position, the others in defence unchanged - Isted, Hector, Jones, and Edun. Midfield was as before - Dobson, Anderson and Campbell(C). But up front May seemingly picked up a concussion in training and had to drop out. Leaburn moved up from the bench to start, to be flanked by Blackett-Taylor and Campbell(T) in a 4-3-3. That all meant a couple of places on the bench, with Aneke and Tedic coming in, offering some interesting choices up front if needs be.
The first 30 minutes was uneventful in terms of goalmouth action, especially from us, but carried ominous signs as Stevenage did what Stevenage do. After we started quite brightly we were progressively getting bullied, unable to deal with their pressing out of possession to get anything going in their half and looking increasingly likely to succumb to some half-chance. For that you have to give them credit, they closed down any threat. At the other end Abankwah made a couple of errors, the sort which Asiimwe and others recently have made and ended up costing us goals. Not this time, but worrying nonetheless, even allowing for him playing in an unfamiliar role.
The first half then turned on a few strange minutes out of keeping with what had gone before. We may have been increasingly under the cosh, but no question we should have been awarded a penalty with the first of a series of appeals. The ball was squared into their box from our right. Their defender seemed to have it all under control but took a heavy touch. Anderson read the situation well, nipped in to play the ball beyond the guy, only for his follow-through to take him out. It was one of those where the officials might get caught out as it was unlikely that the set-up might result in a penalty, but I thought it was one in real time and the replays leave absolutely no doubt.
Just how the game might have panned out if we had been given the penalty and taken the lead of course nobody can say. Undoubtedly its path would have been different – as it might have been as a result of what followed. Stevenage broke and their guy advanced in space down our left. Dobson came across and undoubtedly made contact, outside the box. Their guy stumbled on into the box and went to ground, ball cleared. Correct decision would surely have been a free kick to them outside the box, probably a yellow for Dobson (which came later), no red as there were covering defenders.
If that wasn’t enough, we played the ball forward, their keeper and defender seemed unsure how to deal with it, and Leaburn got in between them to just touch the ball past their keeper, then tumble over his body. That one fell into the category of ‘seen them given but on balance probably not’.
A minute later and we were behind. A goal which Stevenage would probably describe as very well worked and finished but which left us once more tearing our hair out. From a throw on their right they played a good one-two which put their guy in behind Edun, advancing into the box. Dobson came across to try to cover but was unable to block the ball back, which thus fell kindly for the guy he would otherwise have been marking. Jones moved towards him but was completely wrongfooted and out of the picture as the forward touched it around him. Still a tight angle but he unleashed a powerful shot which Isted mysteriously managed to get out of the way of. A case of a goalkeeper making himself small, which is not exactly what I was taught to do.
The rest of the half saw Stevenage pretty much in control. They nearly added to their lead from a corner, the header blocked on the line, and late on as it required a desperate block from Jones to stop their guy getting in. All the signs were that they could continue playing as they were and another goal would probably come, finishing off the game. At the break, with no efforts on target from us (and just two off target) despite 56% possession (which meant absolutely nothing), you struggled to see how we might get back into it, with both Campbells, Blackett-Taylor and Leaburn barely getting touches.
And that was pretty much as had been the case at Oxford, where we had been outplayed – in a very different but equally effective fashion – and found ourselves behind. And as at Oxford we did find a way to compete much better in the second half, probably in both games helped by the opposition tending to increasingly settle for what they had. This time around there was no magical turnaround, no changes to formation and personnel, just increased effort and determination, which increasingly forced play into Stevenage’s half, even though actual chances were few.
In a more even contest we started to make a few things happen. Leaburn came close to deflecting a Hector shot from outside the box into the net. That was followed on the hour by a triple substitution, with Abankwah taking another knock and replaced by Thomas, while Anderson and Campbell(C), who had been unable to get into the game, left for Watson and Taylor. Watson’s first contribution was a shot just over, then Campbell(T) seemed to have been found in space to have a run on goal but wasn’t able to control the ball.
All of this would have counted for nothing if Stevenage had taken a gilt-edged chance with about 20 minutes left on the clock. We lost a tussle for possession in the middle of the park and suddenly we were all at sea as Hector and Jones parted, tried to play offside, just went AWOL. The ball was played into space for their forward to have a run in on Isted. He hit the bar instead of sealing the game.
After that we were on the offensive in the later stages. Players went down in a crowded area with fresh appeals for a penalty, nothing given – and to be fair nothing obvious overlooked. We made what looked like our last throw of the dice as Aneke and Tedic came on for Leaburn and Campbell(T), with no change of formation, Tedic slotting in on the right side. And we were quickly reminded of what Chuks can bring to the team as we were denied another penalty. Long clearance from Isted was allowed to bounce and Aneke was pressuring their defender inside the box. Suddenly the ball was diverted to go behind – and the replays showed that the defender had, perhaps unwittingly, used his hand to knock it away. You could forgive the ref for not taking the decision as it was right in the view of the linesman. He signalled for a corner for us, an admission that the ball had been diverted by some part of the defender’s anatomy, but nothing more. Not as stonewall as our first appeal, but another that surely would have been given by VAR – and by now enough to incense the Charlton fans behind the goal.
With a couple of minutes of normal time left Taylor was left flat out in their box, seemingly concussed and bleeding. That allowed us to replace him and I guess Appleton just had a choice between Ness and Maynard-Brewer. He went for the former, which is just as well as he was to play an important role early in the 11 minutes of stoppage time.
The ball was held up on the edge of their box and Ness – I have no idea where he was meant to be playing – made the overlap. Low ball into the box picked out Tedic, with his back to goal. Their defender made a challenge, down went Tedic, and Dobson and others, with the backing of the massed ranks of supporters, turned to howl at the ref for one last time. He thought about it, then pointed to the spot. Up stepped CBT and despite a mazy run-up buried it.
There were still nine minutes left when that happened. And in that period either side could have grabbed a winner. That didn’t happen and at the final whistle – which came bang on the 111th minute, despite the stoppage for the penalty and goal – we had something tangible to show for a determined effort in the second half.
And that’s the contrast with the Oxford game. That time around we’d levelled things up with around half an hour left to play and had gone chasing a winner in the closing minutes. To recap, from a throw we had eight players in their box, got caught hopelessly on the break, and lost. If we’d scored a winner from that set piece everyone would have praised Holden for his positive approach in not settling for a point. We didn’t, we trudged off the pitch with nothing to show for our efforts, and coming on the back of consecutive home defeats Holden was out of the door shortly after. Narrow margins.
Appleton claimed after the game that we were the only side likely to win in the closing stages and if the game had continued longer. Not a daft claim but one which overlooked that Stevenage had been ahead all through the second half, had the chance to wrap things up, and if not sitting on their lead were not chasing a second. That would have changed if we had equalised sooner in the game.
Enough of if and buts. We didn’t get beaten, an outcome which was highly likely at the break, and deserved our point. Can’t say that there was any evident difference in our play under Appleton, but it’s really too soon to tell. Perhaps he can add an element of discipline and game control, we shall see.
As for a ‘winning mentality’, I should say that in my report on the Port Vale game, my first of the season, I wrote that “there was no evidence of any kind of winning mentality” – and since then the club hasn’t stopped talking in those terms. But a winning mentality isn’t just instilled, it is developed, by not accepting defeat, by doing what it takes to win a game, however pretty or ugly. The practical steps towards that include sorting out a defence which is at present collectively not good enough (no news there) and trying to ensure that we don’t treat the first half of games as some sort of learning exercise (we have gone behind in the first period in each of our last three games).