There are two things you can’t accuse Chris Powell’s Charlton of not having: passionate determination and hardworking fight. And yet, those two assets were seen to be lacking in the games preceding the international break. The gritty display to thwart Huddersfield was a sign that neither had been drained from the Addicks, but the seemingly gutless performances against Nottingham Forest, Burnley and Millwall had left many Charlton fans seeking a response worthy of the red shirt. That’s exactly what this week has given them. The Bolton result showed an incredible level of determination to overcome a dreadful start, and tonight’s 0-0 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion was all about digging in and fighting, quite literally, until the very end.
On any other day, against any other team who are still looking over their shoulders in this incredibly tight league, Brighton could have scored three or four in either half. Of course, such is the case in any ‘park the bus’ performance, Charlton had Lady Luck as their 12th man; Brighton were wasteful, the exciting Kazenga LuaLua fired several shots over the bar and arguably the best chance of the first half was wasted by Calderon, stabbing wide from five yards out, but that only tells one chapter to the story of this game. The defence was solid, shown to its highest extent in the first half by an inspired Dorian Dervite, who blocked superbly from point blank range to prevent Leonadro Ulloa’s goal bound effort from giving the Seagulls the lead. The counter attacks kept Brighton on their toes with Yann Kermorgant coming close and the Addicks threatening down the left constantly at the start of the second half.
The most important figure in stealing this vital point, however, was the man facing the Brighton onslaught head on: Ben Hamer. Charlton’s number one was equal to cross after cross that bombarded his box, whilst some exceptional saves, not least from Matthew Upson’s header in the first half and Lopez’s long range drive in the second, kept his clean sheet intact. It was, with this in mind, fitting that it was Hamer’s heroics that sealed the draw. Ulloa had the goal at his mercy after being played in by Will Buckley; his effort from close range looked to have given the home side all three points in stoppage time, but somehow, the ball went over the bar. Hamer and pulled off a remarkable save to tip the ball clear. Fingernails bitten, sweat pouring and stress ridden, Charlton fans were delighted to hear the final whistle; their side had pulled off an unlikely shut out.
Powell’s team selection was heavily influenced by the difficult of the task facing him on this bitterly cold Tuesday night. Despite the fantastic football played for the best part of 75 minutes on Saturday, a formation change from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 was in order to combat the threat posed by Brighton. Out went Ricardo Fuller, in came Lawrie Wilson with the winger slotting in on the right hand side of midfield. This meant Bradley Pritchard took up a central role alongside Johnnie Jackson and Andy Hughes, starting his second game in a row after almost 15 months out. The rest of the starting XI was unchanged from Saturday, but Dale Stephens, Matthew Taylor and Salim Kerkar were each given a place on the bench.
Brighton made just three changes from their weekend draw against Nottingham Forest. The man at fault for Forest’s last minute equaliser, Casper Ankergen, was replaced in goal by a fit again Tomasz kuszczak, whilst another man returning from injury, Liam Bridcutt, replaced Andrew Crofts in midfield and the third change saw Andrea Orlandi miss out in favour of Vicente. This meant the Seagulls fielded arguably their strongest side with exciting young players such as Buckley and LuaLua blended with experienced heads in the shape of Wayne Bridge and David Lopez.
It was Charlton’s first trip to Brighton’s new American Express Community Stadium, the Amex to me and you, and the travelling fans were treated to not only some Crystal Palace bashing on the ‘big screens’ but also the best pies served up a football ground in one 40-something year old fan’s lifetime. But the laughs, the well served stomachs and the all-round relaxed atmosphere soon turned to nerves in the south stand as Brighton quickly stamped their authority on the game. The midfield trio of Buckley, Lopez and Bridcutt were pulling the strings in midfield whilst Vicente and LuaLua were getting forward with intent down either flank. It was LuaLua who had Brighton’s first effort on goal after a Vicente corner was cleared out to the winger just outside the box but he shot wildly off target. Brighton’s attacking effort was assisted by Bridge and Calderon getting forward from full back on both sides, and it was Bridge’s clever link up play with LuaLua that crafted it out the first of many excellent chances for the hosts. Bridge’s one-two with LuaLua set him free down the left and, keeping Chris Solly at pay, put a driven ball across goal that caused havoc. Ulloa connected and it appeared as if he had given the Seagulls an early lead, but Dervite through himself in front of the ball to deflect it away for a corner.
It took the best part of ten minutes for the Addicks to get out of their half, but Johnnie Jackson’s corner from the right was collected by kuszczak with minimal fuss and a break away soon after was thwarted cynically by Bridcutt, who received a yellow card after bringing down Kermorgant on the half way line. Brighton continued to throw no caution to wind in their efforts to get forward as Calderon’s effort from the right curled just wide of Hamer’s far post, whilst LuaLua eked out a corner from which Calderon headed wide before the former Newcastle winger had another long range shot that flew harmlessly wide. The fact it took 24 minutes for the Addick’s to muster their first shot on goal showed the extent to which Brighton had controlled the game, but the away side could have so easily gone ahead. Pritchard started the move, bombing forward with the ball at his feet, before reaching a dead end and laying the ball out wide to right. Jackson picked up the ball and sent in a driven cross that found Kermorgant, via a Pritchard dummy, and the Frenchman’s turn and shot saw the ball narrowly clear the bar with kuszczak beaten.
Just a minute later, Brighton put that brief lapse in concentration at the back behind them as they created yet another goal scoring opportunity. Vicente’s corner was met by the head of Upson, but Hamer was equal to it, scrambling to his left and palming the ball away. Another corner in the next attack presented with arguably the best opportunity to date as the ball fell to Calderon just yards from goal but he poked wide when he really should have finished. A collective sigh of relief was let out by the travelling fans, but Brighton failed to let up, creating more chances with LuaLua finally getting a shot on target, that was comfortably saved by Hamer, before reverting to type and firing over from range either side of Charlton’s second shot; a tame header from Kermorgant floating well wide after a Jackson free-kick. The remainder of the half petered out with neither side creating a meaningful opportunity, but Brighton remained utterly dominant, controlling the game in midfield and testing Hamer’s gloves from a number of crosses. The vocal Charlton fans applauded their troops at half time, knowing the Addicks were doing a sterling job in difficult circumstances. They had 15 minutes to regain their composure for what was sure to be another 45 of Brighton control.
But, in fact, the early signs were promising. The potent left hand side partnership of Rhoys Wiggins and Callum Harriott hadn’t been able to have such an effect as the pair did on Saturday, but they started the second half well with Wiggins unlucky to overrun the ball after overlapping and linking up well with the youngster. The pair then linked up again with Wiggins putting Harriott through and the exciting talent found himself in the box with an excellent chance to finish after beating his man but his shot was fired well over when he really should have tested the keeper at least. A drilled effort from just outside the area shortly after forced kuszczak
into a save as Harriott’s youthful exuberance gave him the impetus to right the wrongs of the previous effort on goal. Brighton soon created a chance of their own as Buckley headed wide from Vicente’s cross to the far post, but Charlton weren’t done just yet, as Jackson’s free-kick was headed narrowly wide by Dervite.
Brighton soon resumed their control of the game, and a succession of Lopez corners produced two excellent opportunities for the home side. You could be forgiven for mistaken Calderon for a centre forward as he had yet another effort on goal, this time connecting with the corner but sending the ball well wide. The next corner awarded to Brighton, however, saw Hamer tested properly for the first time in the half with just over 70 minutes gone. Upson met the ball in and his header looked to be heading into the top corner before an acrobatic Hamer dived upwards to turn the ball over the bar. Yet another incredible stop from the rejuvenated ‘keeper.
Brighton’s patient and sensible passing play left the Addick’s constantly chasing shadows, Lawrie Wilson especially struggled to get a foot on the ball and he was subbed off for Dale Stephens with 15 minutes to play after a long period involving wave after wave of attack from Brighton. The new man was involved in a rare Addicks attack just minutes after coming on as Jackson’s free-kick was headed into his path. Stephens appeared to lose control, only to get a shot away that was blocked and fell to Pritchard whose goal bound effort was brilliantly blocked by Bridcutt. It would have been totally undeserved, but it was Charlton’s best chance to take the lead in this contest.
The final ten minutes involved plenty of deep breathing and clock checking for the Charlton fans as they began with Hamer pulling off a fine save from Lopez’s long range strike, before the Addicks came under heavy pressure from a series of Brighton attacks down either flank. Solly and Wiggins were in fine form, stopping several deliveries, whilst Morrison, Dervite and whoever else found themselves back in support, along with Hamer, picked off the balls the beat Charlton’s full backs. The drastic effort to maintain the point was seen no better than by Johnnie Jackson’s efforts, putting his body on the line to block a powerful shot from Buckley. But the real scare for Charlton was to come once the 4th official indicated three minutes of additional time.
That, however, wasn’t before Stephens almost won it for Charlton. Completely out of nothing, the substitute unleashed a dipping, swerving effort from 30 yards that forced kuszczak into a fantastic save, tipping the ball over the bar. Charlton wasted the corner however and soon found themselves under pressure as Hamer’s ‘worldie’ saved the point. Buckley broke and sent in a perfect ball for Ulloa, but somehow, Hamer was able to tip the Argentinian’s effort onto the bar and over. The danger wasn’t cleared just yet as the resulting corner saw Greer’s header just about kept out by the post and Wiggins on the line. There was a suspicion of hand ball, but referee Russell saw nothing doing and soon after blew his whistle for full time. The travelling 2,000 applauded their heroes as if they had pulled of a miraculous victory, and that’s what it felt like. Special praise was, of course, aimed at Ben Hamer with the fans letting everyone know who they think is Charlton’s number one. A remarkable performance to hold onto a valuable point.
And breathe. For me, this performance was up there with the best of the season, such was the standard to which Brighton played at. Dervite looked a completely different player to his struggles early on on Saturday whilst Morrison was solid as ever. Solly and Wiggins, facing difficult threats from either flank, were given a torrid time but dug in and performed admirably. Kermorgant, a lone figure up top, fought for every ball and despite visibly being completely knackered at the end carried on putting himself about, whilst Jackson, Pritchard and Hughes did well in the centre both at the back and going forward on the rare occasions that they did. Harriott was incredibly impressive again, and it was a shame he didn’t have more opportunities to bamboozle the Brighton back four.
With Wilson below bar, that leaves one player to praise: Ben Hamer. After the Huddersfield match a questioned whether or not we would see him again after an excellent display from David Button, but Button has proved himself to be unreliable in between the sticks. Hamer has come back a changed man; gone have the flaps at crosses and the weak palms at shots, come back has the Hamer of the season and a half before his error filled run. It’s a delight to have him back. A special mention should also go to Chris Powell, who set up his team to perfection. I’ll always trust Powell and he knows what he’s doing; he’s something special.
Four points, which is in effect five due to Huddersfield’s goal difference, clear of the relegation zone and sitting in 14th place with 6 games left, another four points will provide safety in my opinion. I can see those points coming in the next two games against Leeds and Barnsley. I look forward to the moment where we can finally turn our attentions to next season.