There’s always a danger that special football related occasions will fail to live up to the pre-game expectations. Cup finals, derby days and, like today, special anniversaries often end in disappointment amongst both sets of fans and the neutrals with uninspiring 0-0 draws or scrappy ‘we’ve got a goal let’s spend the next 87 minutes with eleven men behind the ball’ victories. Despite Charlton marking their 20th year back at The Valley, the game against Brighton was far from dull and suited such a special occasion. Whilst frustrating for the two sets of fans, a game arguably both will feel they could have one, any neutral taking in the game would have been more than pleased with what they saw; an exciting end to end game that saw both sides create and waste chances in a 2-2 draw.
The Addicks took the lead twice, first of all through the returning Lawrie Wilson and then an emotional Bradley Pritchard with his first league goal, but strikes from Craig Mackail-Smith and Luzenga Lua-Lua respectively cancelled out the Charlton goals. It could have easily ended up with any score line in any team’s favour; such were the chances both teams had. Away from the action on the pitch, a collection of highly esteemed personal associated with the Addicks return to The Valley took to the pitch before kick-off and released a set of balloons to celebrate the 20 year return. An emotional video was played on the big screen and an inspiring speech from former chairman Richard Murray highlighted just how special Charlton Athletic Football Club is. No matter what the result, today, next week or in a year’s time, Charlton fans have every reason to love their club.
To the football though, and Charlton sprung a number of surprises with their team selection. Despite not having featured in a match day 18 since Middlesbrough at the beginning of November, Wilson was thrown straight in at right back, replacing Dan Seaborne with Chris Solly heading to left back. After an impressive display against Millwall, Dorian Dervite kept his place in the starting XI, partnering Michael Morrison, who sat out the derby through suspension, in the centre of defence. Leon Cort, despite rarely putting a foot wrong all season, strangely was dropped to the bench. Arsenal loanee Emmanuel Frimpong came into midfield, replacing Salim Kerkar and skipper Johnnie Jackson taking up duties on the left flank. Danny Haynes was also back into the starting line-up, replacing Yann Kermorgant.
Brighton lined up with a team that would cause problems to anyone in this division. Premier League quality in the shape of Tomasz Kuszczak and Wayne Bridge, exciting young players including Liam Bridcutt and Will Buckley and one of the best goal scorers in the Championship, Mackail-Smith. With the side being led by Gus Poyet, father of Charlton academy player Diego, any result in the favour of either team would have made for some awkward conversations at Sparrows Lane and the Poyet family dinner table.
The game sprung into life inside the first thirty seconds as Brighton appealed for a penalty after Dervite used an element of force to win an aerial challenge against Stephen Dobbie. There was nothing in it, but it set the tone for the rest of the game. With the following few minutes mainly contested in midfield, there was little to talk about before the atmosphere lifted up a notch amongst the home fans as the clock ticked over to 3:07PM: the same time 20 years ago on December 5th that Colin Walsh scored the only goal in a 1-0 win against Portsmouth in the first game home. The Charlton fans stood and clapped for a minute, following that up with a passionate rendition of ‘Valley Floyd Road’.
The crowd were alive and so were Charlton as they began a spell of dominance. Excellent power and pace from Frimpong forced a corner, which was executed with an interesting short lay off technique. It came to nothing, but the next corner just two minutes later, after a Bruno slice and Kuszczak’s attempts to keep the ball in play failed, delivered rewards for the Addicks. Stephens touched the ball to Jackson, who set it back to Stephens and his cross was flicked in from close range by Wilson. Such was the beauty of the ball in, the goal was originally credited to Stephens himself, but the smallest touch from the right back had given Charlton the lead.
A fantastic cross from Jackson moments later almost resulted in the Addicks stretching their lead as Haynes’ header was dramatically tipped over the bar by Kuszczak. The resulting corner, taken short once again, saw a chance for Morrison but he headed well over. Brighton had failed to muster a single opportunity of any note whatsoever in the first 20; that was until their first corner of the game resulted in a golden opportunity from Gordan Greer, but he fluffed his lines from close range. This near miss signalled a change in the game as Brighton began to get going, and they forced Ben Hamer into an unbelievable save just minutes later. Dobbie was played clean through and had only Hamer in his path to goal, but the striker’s effort was blocked away by a combination of face and hand as Charlton’s number one made himself big.
Despite Brighton’s spell of pressure, Charlton were still playing incredibly well. A cross from Solly somehow evaded everyone in the middle, only for the ball to Pritchard but his effort was closed down and blocked away. It was the last chance Charlton were to have to double their lead, as Brighton went down the other end and equalised. A seemingly innocuous ball over the top was misjudged by Morrison as he could only head backwards, straight into the path of Mackail-Smith, who finished well past Hamer. It was deserved, but the manner of the goal made it hard to take for the Charlton fans.
Charlton didn’t let their heads drop and were straight back down the Brighton end. Wilson’s pace was causing problems for the Brighton defence down the right, and he set up a chance for Haynes, who could only hit the side netting. That was to be the last meaningful chance for the Addicks of the half as Brighton took control of the final period of the second half. Their signature quick yet calm passing style was on display, but they failed to carve out any significant openings with the two teams going in level at the break.
Brighton continued to play their passing game at the start of the second half, this time managing to create a couple of half chances. Buckley was starting to live up to his hype and tested Hamer, whilst Dobbie was in the thick of a lot of Brighton’s best stuff, going wide on a couple of occasions. A quick Charlton break saw Hulse hammer an effort at goal from a tight angle but it was beaten away with ease by Kuszczak in the Brighton goal. It seemed Charlton’s only opportunities would come on the break, and Hamer sent Haynes racing down the right flank, being fouled as he went but maintaining balance to send a cross into Pritchard. His header had no pace on it and the ball fell nicely into the hands of Kuszczak.
With Brighton on top, their best chance game on the hour mark. Bruno found Buckley with no one around him just inside the box but his powerful shot lacked accuracy, ending up clipping the stanchion behind the goal. An awful pass across the halfway line from Frimpong saw Hoskins break away, leaving Wilson no choice but to scenically bring him down just outside the area and earn a yellow card for his troubles. The Seagulls brought on free-kick specialist Lua-Lua in the hope he’d give them the lead, but his effort hit the wall, falling into the path Mackail-Smith but his effort was blocked away for a corner. After soaking up so much pressure, it was remarkable to see Charlton take the lead just moments later through Pritchard. A ball along the ground into the box by Jackson was fantastically held up by the diminutive Zimbabwean, who managed to stick a foot out just as it looked like the ball was getting away from him and poke it into the back of the net. He didn’t know what to do, putting his head into his hands before being bundled by his team mates. The former non-league man’s first ever league goal, and his hard work throughout the last two seasons has more than merited it.
The lead didn’t last long though, as Brighton won another free-kick right on the edge of the area as Barnes was brought down. Lua-Lua stood over the ball again, the ball hit the wall again but this time it rolled into the net. The trademark acrobatic celebration followed. Both teams attempted to go for the winner in the final 15 minutes, but neither created any real opening except for a Barnes header that was just put over the bar and a similar effort from Hulse that was saved comfortably. A fantastic game and a fair result.
An outstanding performance from the Charlton players, everyone included, even Morrison, guilty of a costly error, was solid before and thereafter. Frimpong showed his class with some great strength, pace and passing, as did Stephens, whilst Solly dealt well with the threat of Buckley and Hamer picked up the pieces on a number of occasions. However, man of the match was Lawrie Wilson. Returning from injury you may have expected a slightly rusty performance, but he stood out above the rest at the back and going forward. He’s going to be a crucial player for the remainder of the season and one we need to keep fit. Now just four points from the play-offs and unbeaten in seven games, the rest of the season may well be an exciting one for the Addicks. Whatever happens, today showed what a wonderful club we have. Charlton Athletic might not be the most successful club, or the richest, but we have a special kind of gold that can’t be measured.