It’s the kind of form that would make you switch off in anger if it happened on a football video game. Dominating for long periods, if not the whole game, but only having one goal to show for it, Charlton sit back and the opposition, who haven’t looked like scoring, pop up and steal the points. Not once, not twice, but three times in consecutive fixtures has this sickening outcome occurred, all be it today’s last minute capitulation saw Birmingham City head back to the midlands with just a point after a 1-1 draw. Just a point, but a point that was seemingly beyond them when the forth official lifted up the electronic board to reveal four minutes of additional time.
After a slow and scrappy first half (and that’s being kind), Charlton’s second half display was up there as one of the best 45 minutes of football this season. Chance after chance fell the home side’s way but a mixture of poor finishing and an inspired Jack Butland, showing all the qualities that have seen him fast tracked into the England set up, in the Birmingham goal prevented the Addick’s getting any reward for their considerable effort. With a sense of inevitability that the game was heading for a scoreless draw, a wonderful cross into the box from Chris Solly was met by the head of Yann Kermorgant who powered the ball past the stranded Butland with just two minutes left on the clock. With just stoppage time to hold on, Powell and his team rightly reshaped to sit back in an attempt to finally hold on to a lead, but once again, it wasn’t to be. A ball drilled across the face of goal by Chris Burke was scrambled home by Wade Elliot, an apparent transfer target for the Addicks in January, to steal an undeserved point. Sickening, agonising, painful; there isn’t really a phrase that can do it justice.
In terms of team news, Charlton reverted back to a 4-4-2 formation after cracks had begun to appear in the 4-5-1 that, before the defeats over the last two weeks, had been used in victories over Blackpool and Blackburn. Dorian Dervite was sacrificed from the holding role he occupied with distinction against Crystal Palace in order to allow Kermorgant to return to the starting line-up and partner Ricardo Fuller up top. The partnership had left the Watford defence in tatters during their last game together on New Year’s Day and, with both of them in good form, Charlton fans were excited by the prospect of a repeat performance. The only other change from the defeat at Selhurst saw Dale Stephens come back in to replace Bradley Pritchard, with the Zimbabwean unlucky to miss out after a series of hard working displays.
The away side packed their team with experienced Championship players. Curtis Davies partnered Steven Caldwell at the back, Elliot and Burke were in midfield whilst top goal scorer Marlon King was up front. Most eyes, however, would have been drawn to Butland’s name on the Birmingham team sheet. The 19-year-old stopper, who secured a move to Premier League side Stoke in January before being loaned back to the Blues, has attracted rave reviews from many a respected name inside the higher esculents of the game. There were also a few Charlton fans disappointed that former Addick Darren Ambrose wasn’t in the squad. If included, he could have been sure to receive a ‘warm’ welcome after leaving Charlton for Palace in 2009.
The first ten minutes, much like the entirety of the half, was sparsely populated by action with the tattered pitch having an effect on both teams attempts to maintain possession. A free-kick from Birmingham’s King was blocked away and the follow up shot from Gomis was fired way over the bar whilst Charlton, despite Fuller looking dangerous and winning almost every ball he challenged for, only had a number of corners to show for their efforts without creating any real chances. That was until a free-kick from the right was played into the box along the ground by Jackson and met by Stephens, only for youngster Callum Rielly to get a desperate block in and divert the ball away for a corner.
It was Fuller who forced the first save out of either keeper just beyond the minute mark, running at the Birmingham defence and displaying an array of stepovers before unleashing a driven shot heading into the far bottom corner but Butland reacted well top tip the ball around the post. But the next 15 minute period contained even fewer chances than the first, with Birmingham limited to wayward long range attempts, whilst it took Charlton until just before the 30 minute mark to create another opening; the lively Scott Wagstaff nodded Solly’s cross to the far post into the path of Kermorgant who saw his shot blocked away for a corner, which resulted in the home side’s best chance to date. A short corner routine that was in use for almost every flag kick saw Stephens interchange lay-offs with Wagstaff before the former crossed in. Lawrie Wislon beat his man to the ball at the near post but, still under pressure, contrived to head the ball wide and against the stanchion.
Despite the game lacking any sense of excitement, Charlton were growing into it come the end of the first half. Fuller fired a shot from inside the area just wide of the far post whilst Wilson latched onto a drop kick from Hamer but could only shoot straight at Butland. With that the last real action of the half, there was a sense of relief that the first 45 minutes were coming to a close as, despite a respectable performance from the home side, there really wasn’t anything to write home about. Both sets of fans inside the Valley were hoping for something a bit different in the second half, and they got their wish, although it probably wasn’t what the Birmingham fans had in precisely in mind.
The change in tempo coincided with Yann Kermorgant upping his game. Despite battling throughout the first, much of what he tried in the first period failed to come off, but his second half performance was a Yann master class in holding up the ball, winning aerial battles and unselfishly creating openings for his team mates. The Frenchman was at the heart of Charlton’s first chance of the half; Birmingham failed to clear in defence and eventually gave the ball away under pressure to Kermorgant with the ball running loose. Competing with Davies, it seemed for a moment as if Kermorgant was in but the centre back got back to block his charge on goal, only for the ball to fall straight into the path of Wagstaff, whose powerful shot took a deflection that saw flash past the post.
With Charlton dictating the play in midfield, especially with Stephens showing the form that had seen him heavily linked to Premier League side Aston Villa, Birmingham’s only efforts came on the break. West Ham Loanee Rob Hall forced Hamer into a couple of saves for which Charlton’s number one barely had to move, whilst, in arguably the away side’s best opening, a break from Burke saw him drive into the box before cutting back to King with a clear sight of goal, only to fire way over the bar. This was partially down to Cedric Evina’s last ditch attempt to block the shot by diving across the ball and seemingly distracting King from his finish. Evina then showed his talents going forward after a curling effort from Fuller just evaded the top corner. The left back beat his man and cut inside into the middle of the park, distributing the ball back out wide and continuing his run in to the box. Jackson’s resulting cross caused chaos as Wilson beat Butland to the ball, with it falling to Evina. An open goal and the perfect chance to score his first goal for the Addicks, his eyes lit up but the youngster could only fire wide on the volley when off balance. A player with more experience in front of the opposition’s goal might have fared considerably better.
Fuller, continuing his trend from last week of collecting long balls and dribbling past all comers with the ball stuck to his feet, was giving the Birmingham back four a torrid time. Lovely interchange between himself and Wilson saw Fuller battle his way into the box from out wide and, from a position where all he had to do was pick out a body part belonging to a Charlton player for a goal, knocked the ball against Davies with Butland just about gathering before it crossed the line. Birmingham continued to break well with the pace of Gomis and Hall looking threatening, but chances remained at a premium with only long rage efforts lacking any accuracy and tame stabs from inside the box threatening the Charlton goal.
Charlton on the other hand continued to create glorious chances one after the other. None more so than when Fuller and Wagstaff were involved in a goal mouth scramble, with both appearing to be fouled but remained on their feet, that eventually resulted in Wagstaff shot fantastically saved by the inform Butland from just a matter of yards out. Birmingham, settling for the fact only breaks would produce any threat to Charlton, brought on the pacey duo of Wes Thomas and highly rated Nathan Redmond, with the latter immediately getting to work with terrorising Charlton’s defence, but to no avail. With just ten minutes left on the clock, and with Caldwell’s header from a corner saved by Hamer and Wagstaff’s effort from inside the area, which looked destined for the back of the net, again saved fantastically well by Butland, the smart money was on neither side grabbing a goal irrespective of all the chances.
This was reflected on the pitch in the closing stages as both sides seemed more nervous of conceding than scoring a late winner. A free-kick from Birmingham no more than 20 yards from goal was blocked away and just about cleared, whilst Green, on as a substitute, almost capitalised after a sloppy pass back from Rilley but could only clatter into Butland as the keeper managed to clear. Fuller, again finding himself out wide, crossed to Kermorgant but he could only head wide under serious pressure from Davies, but that proved to foreshadow what was to come next. Solly, Fuller and Green built up the play superbly out on the right hand side, with Fuller coming into the middle in an attempt to get the ball into the box, but it was beaten away, only to fall back into the path of Solly. First time, the right back swung a peach of a cross into the box and Kermorgant, free of his man, could do little but header the ball home. The home fans, who had grown frustrated not only by events of recent weeks but the failure to take the chances offered to them in this game, let out all their emotion as it appeared Charlton were receiving their own late gift of three points.
With only two minutes plus stoppage time to play, it looked like even the Addicks could hold onto this one, and it seemed to be beyond any doubt in the first minute of stoppage time. Substitute Bradley Wright-Phillips, who had come on alongside Dervite , raced onto a pass from Kermorgant and tucked the ball into the far corner past Butland, only for offside to be given, which seemed a correct decision. If only Wright-Phillips had held his run back for just a few more seconds, as Birmingham went down the other end and, despite not creating a serious chance all game, grabbed a late equaliser. Charlton failed to clear after Redmond attacked the left and the ball eventually came to the dangerous Burke. He took a touch before hit a shot across the face of goal that was flicked home by Elliot. Just as they had done in the reverse fixture, the blues had secured a dramatic point with almost the last kick of the game, and an unjust point at that. You only had to look at Kermorgant come the final whilst, striking a pose of agony, to see how much the dropped points meant to the Charlton players.
Again, as in the two previous games where points were dropped late on from winning positions, it’s difficult to find any real negatives from the performance. Once again, the only negative is a failure to finish off a number of golden opportunities. The Addicks could easily have been three of four up by the time of the late leveller, much as they could have been against Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace. It’s difficult to find anyone to blame for this gut-wrenching run; Powell got it wrong against Wednesday by sitting too deep too quickly, but Palace was down to the Eagles changing shape and personnel, whilst you can’t criticise Powell for wanting to hold on with just moments left in the game. The performances are superb, but something needs to be done about the composure of the players in the final moments. What that something is, however, is anyone’s guess.
In terms of individual performances, almost every player deserved to feel a sense of pride in their performance, so much so that Solly, Evina, Wagstaff, Stephens, Fuller and Kermorgant all stood out as exceptional. Solly and Evina were excellent going forward and at the back, with the latter’s form emphasised by the fact a fit again Rhoys Wiggins remains on the bench. Stephens put in some fantastic tackles, seemed to be the man that collected every loose ball and knocked out some excellent passes both long and short. Wagstaff continues to show both fight and talent since coming back into the side and in reality could have had a hat-trick if he had converted his chances today, whilst Fuller showed again his undoubted ability that probably could still see him do a job in the top flight, and Kermorgant’s desire is matched by none, not to downgrade his ability, which again saw the front man cause all sorts of issues for the opposition defence.
Eventually the wins will come, but it’s horrible to see that if the deserved 9 points had been collected, Charlton would sit 6th in the table; a play-off position. It does show we can compete, and we’re in no danger of relegation. If Powell can lift heads and get the performances to continue, there’s nothing to say a late surge on the play-off picture isn’t out of sight. No one is going to argue with a mid-table finish though, are they?