Leeds United threw the kitchen sink but the kitchen sink struck the outside of a post.
The “fine margins” Steve Evans talked about beforehand went against him at Charlton and his players counted the cost of them at the end of a goalless draw.
Karel Fraeye, Charlton Athletic’s manager, helpfully reminded everyone that football is never “played on paper” but results can be written on it and there was a difference between Leeds in the flesh and the scoreline in London: at face value, a low-key outcome which knocked Evans’ squad down a peg to 18th in the Championship.
In the flesh, Charlton were bullied in the second half and clung on as Lewis Cook hit one of his own players with a shot from no distance before Tom Adeyemi clipped a post from an even closer range.
Evans talked of an “absolute annihilation” and it felt like one while Charlton rode the pressure and their own fatigue to keep the match level until the final whistle.
“They had a really good 15 minutes,” said Fraeye at full-time with a touch of understatement.
“They pushed us and we were lucky not to concede from their biggest chance. But our other opponents have used up all the luck in the last couple of weeks.”
Charlton are down on good fortune, certainly, and Saturday tipped the balance slightly.
They had chances of their own and one in particular which Marco Silvestri clawed to safety but the last half-hour was an onslaught in their direction.
Leeds have not been so good at turning the screw this season and Evans was bewildered by the opportunities which went begging.
“We’ve not won the game because we’ve succeeded in missing a number of chances – gilt-edged chances,” United’s head coach said. “Over 90 minutes there’s no doubt we should win it. Tom Adeyemi hits the post when we all know it should be a goal. Cook’s the same – his shot shouldn’t hit Chris Wood. It should go straight in. You could have heard a pin drop when I went into the dressing room afterwards. The players knew their effort deserved a win.”
Evans was not able to be entirely effusive about what he had seen. The missed chances were expensive and he agreed that United had dawdled through the first half, allowing Charlton the better of the openings and contributing to an atmosphere which resembled a library in the passage before half-time.
It would not have mattered had Adeyemi scored from six yards instead of stabbing Jordan Botaka’s pass against the woodwork in the 78th minute or had Cook not driven Stuart Dallas’ cut-back against Wood’s body two minutes earlier.
Charlton were surviving on instinct in those moments, lacking energy and the will to attack, but while Cook danced and Dallas tormented them out wide, their clean sheet held.
“I said to the players ‘we have to feel disappointment because we came here to win’,” Evans said. “But the performance was stunning in the second half.”
What Charlton will take from the result is difficult to say. They are in trouble still and their tense state was reflective of a crowd at odds with the club’s owner, Roland Duchatelet. There were chants at The Valley referencing the “lining of pockets” – a jibe at the Belgian or so it seemed – and desperate moments in a game of eight bookings. Leeds had them hanging on.
Duchatelet did not attend Saturday’s game. Apparently he attends very few. United’s owner, Massimo Cellino, was there, however, just as he had been at Queens Park Rangers a fortnight ago, proving again that his decision to stay away from Leeds’ fixtures is subject to change for either away games or away games in London.
Cellino was targeted again by the away end at Charlton, albeit sporadically, and he was caught on camera outside the stadium gesticulating and imploring those listening to him – predominantly Charlton fans protesting against Duchatelet – to “support the f****** team.” The Italian was also reported to have appeared in United’s dressing room at half-time, in a repeat of events at QPR last month.
According to several sources, at Loftus Road Cellino stood without saying a word as Evans reorganised his team. His input at The Valley, if any, was not clear but Evans seems thoroughly untroubled by his owner’s close proximity.
The Scot made a substitution a few minutes into the second half, replacing Scott Wootton with Gaetano Berardi. Wootton had been booked at the very start of the match after felling Ricardo Vaz Te with a poorly-timed tackle. “He (Wootton) said ‘why are you bringing me off?’” Evans revealed. “I said ‘you’re on a yellow and you might get a red so shut up!’
“He just smiled and if I could turn the clock back and see our total dominance, I might not have made that change. He wouldn’t have done much tackling because all the play was around Charlton’s box.”
Leeds were considerably better in the second half and better with Berardi on the field. In the first, Charlton found the means of piercing Evans’ defence infrequently but dangerously. Vaz Te stabbed an early shot from a tight angle inches wide of Silvestri’s far post. Soon after, Ademola Lookman drew a two-handed parry from Silvestri with a strike from 20 yards. Alex Mowatt’s free-kick – tame by his usual standards and saved comfortably – was United’s only troublesome effort.
“In the first half there’s nothing in it,” Evans said. “We’ve not played particularly well. We were trying to flick things on and find passes that weren’t there and we looked half-a-yard off it compared to Hull last week. But the second half was even better than the first half last week.”
Only once did Evans fear that Leeds were about to get picked off, when a pass into their box on 70 minutes was left by everyone and fell kindly to Vaz Te. The forward toe-poked the ball to Silvestri’s left but the keeper reacted brilliantly, diving to push it wide.
“He came up with a fingertip save which was world-class for me,” Evans said. “I was expecting (Vaz Te) to score. But if we’d had left here with no points I’d have seen the Charlton players and staff leave with balaclavas. That’s how bad a robbery it would have been.”
For Leeds, chances came and went. Cook and Adeyemi had the best of them but Dallas failed by inches to lay a tap-in on a plate for Cook and then saw Charlton keeper Stephen Henderson block his low shot at the near post. An Adeyemi volley forced Henderson to push it off his goalline but Adeyemi’s earlier chance was the one. There were looks of astonishment everywhere as his point-blank flick brushed off a post and into the advertising hoardings. The midfielder held his head in his hands.
Evans was frustrated by that and annoyed to lose Berardi in injury-time to an ankle injury which saw the defender leave the pitch on a stretcher. It will hardly help to resolve the debate over who United’s boss should be playing at right-back. But Evans was pleased to be leaving London with the confident belief that his players had not short-changed their crowd in the way that they did at QPR, a day of anger and recriminations.
“I said to the players ‘look at the difference with the supporters today compared to two weeks ago at Loftus Road’, Evans said. “They’re with you. Why? Because you’re playing for the shirt and the badge. You’re representing them. They’ve seen their team put in a performance.”
In the second half there was no denying that.