As we approach the halfway point in the League One season, more or less nothing has yet been decided and with each passing week more questions are being asked of which more or less none are being definitively answered. No matter which we way we choose to interpret this league table, it makes for extraordinary reading. There are, for example, just six points between Southampton in second place in the table and Colchester United, in eleventh place in the table. There are just nine points between this evening’s two teams – Charlton Athletic, in third place in the table and chasing an automatic promotion spot, and Swindon Town, who are in eighteenth place in the table are peering over their shoulders at the relegation places with some concern.
A win at The Valley this evening for Swindon will lift them three places in a league table that is still anybody’s to get promoted from and, while Brighton & Hove Albion have something of a cushion at the top of the table, the team to accompany them up will be the team that hits a purple patch of form between now and May. As such, a place in the play-offs or perhaps even an automatic promotion spot is not as far beyond Swindon Town as they should be by any stretch of the imagination. Charlton Athletic, meanwhile, have gone five league matches without a win. They started this morning in second place in the league, but had dropped a place by ten to five. Results this afternoon didn’t exactly go their way – Brighton, Southampton and Huddersfield all won – but a point will see them back into the second automatic promotion place.
There remains, however, something of a feeling of apathy hanging over The Valley this evening. It’s the very end of the holiday season and many people will be going back to work tomorrow morning. This, combined with a collective post-Christmas tightening of the purse-strings, the evening kick-off and the numbing cold all account, to some extent, for the empty seats here this evening. The first twenty minutes tell us a lot about the state of League One this season. It takes this long for the grumbling Charlton crowd to spark some life, and there is little to easily distinguish the team chasing promotion from the team fighting relegation. If anything, it’s a little scrappy and with little of note of trouble either of the two goalkeepers.
After twenty-two minutes, Charlton take the lead with a goal that hints at two different types of good fortune. The ball appears to strike Paul Benson on the arm as he controls the ball and releases it for Johnie Jackson, and Jackson also may have seen the ball hit his arm as he picks the ball out from under his own feet. As if to add insult to injury for the Swindon defenders, his shot from an angle takes an enormous deflection and loops up, as if in slow motion, and over the wrong-footed Swindon goalkeeper Phil Smith before bouncing over the line. This, it feels, is Charlton’s chance. If the Swindon defence’s concentration has been upset at all by the injustice (or perceived injustice, depending on where your allegiance falls), now is the opportunity for Charlton to take advantage and put the game beyond them.
They don’t, though, and Charlton allow Swindon to work their way back into the match. The Charlton goalkeeper has already made one flying, acrobatic save across his goal when Swindon catch the Charlton defence completely flat-footed, a cross from the left-hand side finds Matt Ritchie completely unmarked and, while Elliot saves his initial header well, there is nobody on hand to stick a foot in, allowing Ritchie to prod the rebound over the line to bring them level. Ritchie has looked lively throughout the first half, and he almost gets his head to an improbable cross in stoppage time, but half-time comes with the two sides level but Swindon starting to take the initiative.
Charlton’s torpor bleeds through into the opening stages of the second half, and after ten minutes a brace of mistakes by their defender Christian Dailly gift Swindon a second goal. It’s a long, reasonably aimless punt that Dailly heads straight back to the visitors. He then misjudges the return ball as well, and Charlie Austin sneaks in and drives the ball under Elliot and in. Dailly, a stalwart of the Premer League for many years, is thirty-seven years old and will have had better days than this. There’s an almost immediate flurry of activity on the Charlton bench and within four minutes they have made a double substitution, but they continue to look stagnant in comparison with an altogether’ more fluid and thoughtful Swindon team and as the match progresses, boos start to ring around The half-empty Valley.
The nest twenty minutes or so says a lot as a microcosm of Charlton’s day. Every long ball towards the Swindon penalty has – especially in view of the size of the Swindon central defenders – an air of aimlessness about it. Their movement off the ball is poor (when it exists at all) and there is no frisson of excitement or expectation when they get into attacking positions. They receive another warning when Charlie Austin is adjudged slightly offside in running onto a ball through the middle as he puts the ball into Elliot’s net, but again the respite is only temporary and, two minutes later, Sean Morrison heads in at the far post from a free-kick on the right to just about wrap the points up. The Valley starts to empty, and those that don’t head immediately for the exits have cause to regret this four minutes later.
Swindon’s fourth goal really is quite something. It’s a short corner, rolled diagonally back to the edge of the penalty area, which is curled into the six yard area for Austin to head past Elliot. So far, so predictable, but what is quite remarkable about it is that from the point at which the actual corner kick is taken, not one of the Charlton players that has dutifully trotted back into their own penalty area so much as even moves. The steady flow of bodies heading for the exit becomes a stream, which means that many of them miss Pawel Abbot hooking his foot around a knock-down to score a classy consolation for Charlton with four minutes to play, but the match is already beyond them.
Those that have stayed behind let up a small, defiant cry as four minutes of stoppage time are indicated as the clock ticks over ninety, but this has been Swindon’s day. They settled well after a nervy start, recovered well from going a goal down and deserve their three points. Charlton, in this most improbable of divisions, remain in third place and will doubtless be grateful for a week off and a trip to White Hart Lane in the FA Cup Third Round on Saturday to recharge their batteries. Sheffield Wednesday and Plymouth Argyle are next up for them in the league but their supporters may be look anxiously towards a match that may prove definitive to their season, away to Southampton at the end of January. Swindon, meanwhile, are now just six points below Charlton in the table, although they remain twelve places below them in the table. League One has been like this since August, and it is impossible to see how this division will be completely resolved without going to the last minute of the last day of the season.
Follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.