For seventeen months we’ve looked forward to the great return. Our collective fantasy painted a picture akin to the VE Day celebrations; it would all be over and normality would return on a great wave of emotion and relief; gap toothed squaddies would be kissing pretty land girls in the streets. Yesterday was that day, but not because it’s over and the war is won, but because we’ve reached a level of infection and death which we collectively believe to be acceptable, for now, at least.
From the outset I realised that I was out of match practice – where to park, when to leave, what to wear; the symbolic but clinical returns of last winter and in May were carefully orchestrated, a proper match requires you to plot your own path through the chaos.
Did it feel normal? Social distancing was impossible as people collected under the stand and few were wearing masks. A mistake, in my view, it’s hard to imagine that games won’t create a soup of infections which could push things to intolerable levels. Whether we’ll be locked out completely, I’m less sure, but I can see mandatory mask wearing and limited capacities returning. I felt my psychosomatic Covid symptoms return – my chest tightened slightly as people brushed against each other.
None-the-less, the stands bubbled expectantly. I’m not the best at small talk and did wonder what I might say to those around me whose only common reference is the games we watch. Given the age profile of the South Stand Upper I thought saying something like ‘you survived, then’, could be viewed literally rather than figuratively. In the end, the first rejoinder was emotional and shakespearean.
‘Good to be back.’
It was one for the ages. Just before kick-off Karl Robinson strode onto the pitch to applaud the fans. For over a year, he’s been team manager, media spokesperson, community champion and fan representative inside the club’s biosecure bubble. It must have been exhausting, but it has allowed him the opportunity to mould the club further into his vision. When he joined, one of the attractions was that he could address his work/life balance. He looks like he’s achieving that; healthier, calmer and more content.
As we waited for kick-off, someone in front had a programme open at a page that introduced our new signings; Williams, McGuane, Holland, Whyte. New, and at the same time, not so much. In the past, new signings have needed time to settle and that’s been reflected in poor early season results. Our new players know the club and most know Robinson and his ways. Simon Eastwood, a real clubman, warmed in goal knowing that his services were not required. If nothing else, he reinforces Robinson’s culture; others respond.
Charlton come with a reputation; you expect them to be competitive at this level, but they’re hard to judge. A large and noisy following enhanced the sense of occasion, but, like many similar clubs in the division, they teeter on the edge of disaster. Whether we were competing against one of the best or picking apart a struggling club was hard to tell.
The game seemed to pass slowly, the opening quarter felt more like the opening half. A lack of match practice on my behalf, I guess. Suddenly, from deep inside our own half the trap was sprung; Ryan Williams picking up a loose ball, feeding Gavin Whyte via Cameron Brannagan. Whyte’s blistering run and shot shredded the Charlton defence and Williams was there to mop up for the opening goal. 2014’s outstanding player latching onto the rapid counter attack of 2019’s outstanding player. Both new and yet also familiar.
Minutes later, Brannagan is there again to make it 2-0. His friend was involved in an accident this week, and with his difficulties last year, the relief of just being able to play was palpable. Karl Robinson’s strength is that he looks after the whole player, on and off the pitch, Brannagan responds.
It didn’t feel like a 2-0 game, but then, it didn’t feel like Charlton deserved to get back into it with their penalty. Defensively, as is often the case, we look thin on the ground in terms of personnel, but Charlton had layers to cut through and didn’t look capable of finding a path.
In recent seasons, we’ve looked to James Henry to pull the strings to get us through games; sometimes he’s had to yank them with all he’s got, but now the machine seems more coherent and solid, the burden of responsibility has reduced and he’s able to keep things ticking over, he can sit and wait for opportunities rather than go looking for them. Maybe it wasn’t so much that Charlton couldn’t find a way through, it was just a risk knowing they’d likely be caught at the other end.
The game became attritional in the second-half, but we had players like Taylor and Mousinho able to manage things when they got fractious. We stretched it where we could without taking unnecessary risks. There were no last minute panics, no heartstopping dramas. The leadership we missed at times last year, the ability to manage games as a robust unit, seem to be there this season.
The club we were annexed from seventeen months ago has matured in our absence. Karl Robinson seems calmer and more content, trusting his squad, whether it’s the firebrand pace of Williams and Whyte or the assuredness of Mousinho and Taylor. The benefits are clear, allowing him space to make cogent decisions, like responding to the late injury to Anthony Forde. In the months to come, that extra mental capacity may be enough to get us to where we want to be.