Two days and a year ago, Bradley Wright-Phillips stuck out his leg from a corner at Carlisle to give Charlton Athletic promotion to the Championship. A handful of the 900 odd fans who had made the long journey north invaded the pitch at full time, the players celebrated with the fans, Chris Powell shed a tear in his famous ‘it’s my mum’s birthday’ speech; on April 14th 2012, Charlton Athletic were reborn. Not long after that, tonight’s opponents Cardiff City were also reborn but in a way in which their fans didn’t appreciate. Gone were the blue shirts of the ‘Bluebirds’; in came the red shirts of the ‘Red Dragons’. Some argued they had sold their soul, others suggested it was an economic compromise with the club heavily in debt, but whatever way you saw it, as a Cardiff fan, you were outraged. Fast forward to the early signs of Spring in 2013 and Charlton were yet again involved in a fixture that had the potential to decide promotion for a club. The red revolution at the Cardiff City Stadium, whilst not forgotten, was shoved to one side as the Bluebirds gained the point they needed to seal promotion to the Premier League after years of nearly moments. But as the home supporters invaded the pitch on mass, there was a sense of pride from the travelling number slowly leaving the stadium and taking a glimpse of the party atmosphere. The Addicks hadn’t come to put eleven men behind the ball; they’d come to compete. On several occasions they threatened and arguably had the better chances. Charlton Athletic were 13th in League One two years ago, now Powell has led his club to five incredible performances in a row, a solid 9th placed position with three games to go and the outside-iest of outside shouts at the play-offs. We’ve got our Charlton back.
It was one of those 0-0s that both sides will feel they could have won. Ricardo Fuller went close on two occasions; a long ranger out of nothing in the opening moments that was saved by David Marshall in the Cardiff goal down to his left, whilst Marshall pulled off an even better stop to deny the Jamaican from just outside the area midway through the second half. Johnnie Jackson caught out Marshall with an intelligent free-kick in the first half, but his effort bounced back off the post, as did Andrew Taylor’s ferocious drive in the opening minute of the second half whilst Michael Morrison turned like an experienced centre forward inside the area soon after only to mishit his shot horrendously wide. Cardiff did have the ball in the net with 15 minutes to play, but Craig Noone’s header was disallowed for offside and whilst those celebrations were cut short in the home end, a goal for Millwall against third placed Watford meant the party had started in earnest. As the full time whistle went, the stewards did little to hold the delirious Cardiff fans back. A few Charlton fans chose to ignore the context and make tongue in cheek comments about how these wild celebrations were for Cardiff’s incredible point against the mighty Addicks, but the away side had really made them work for it.
With the Cardiff announcer springing no surprises, unlike Barnsley’s announcing ‘Johnnie Johnson’ was skippering the side, Charlton named an unchanged side for the third consecutive game, with Powell resisting the strain of thought that would have suggested adding an extra man in midfield. This meant a start for the trio who had been named in the Championship’s team of the week: two goal scorers from Saturday’s 6-0 thumping of Barnsley in the shape of Johnnie Jackson and Ricardo Fuller were joined by Chris Solly. There were also starts for three of the four other goal scorers from Saturday with the impressive Bradley Pritchard keeping his place on the right flank, Kermorgant joining Fuller up top and Callum Harriott on the left. Ben Hamer started between the sticks with Michael Morrison, Dorian Dervite and Rhoys Wiggins in front of him, whilst Andy Hughes, boasting an impressive record of victories when starting for the Addicks, completed the midfield. The bench was also unchanged from the trip to Oakwell, with goal scorer of the 5th goal Salim Kerkar taking his place alongside Swansea City loanee Mark Gower.
There were two changes to the Cardiff City that beat Nottingham Forest 3-0 at the weekend to all but seal their place in the Premier League. After scoring two goals off the bench, Rudy Gestede was giving a starting birth in place of the injured Heidar Helguson, whilst Noone came in for Tommy Smith. Away from the changes, Cardiff fielded a team fit for promotion with the likes of Craig Bellamy, Aron Gunnarsson and Leon Barnett all starting for the Bluebirds in an attacking 4-5-1 formation. The fact that Peter Whittingham was named amongst the substitutes only further highlighted the strength in depth the Cardiff signed contained.
Despite Cardiff’s considerable talent, it was Charlton who started the brighter of the two sides. After just three minutes, Fuller collected the ball out wide and, seemingly going nowhere, worked his way central and pulled off a 30 yard effort that had Marshall scrambling to tip the ball away from goal. The resulting corner came to nothing, as did a Kim Bo-Kyung free-kick in Cardiff’s next attack with Hamer collecting well. Wiggins was presented with a shooting opportunity 25 yards from goal with 5 minutes gone but he fired comfortably wide, whilst another Cardiff free-kick, this time from Bellamy, cleared the bar by a fair margin. Whilst the opening few minutes were evidently end to end, Charlton were defending solidly and breaking well, matching Cardiff stride for stride.
And it was Charlton who had the best of the next ten minute passage of play too. Fuller found himself in a more reasonable position to shoot than his third minute effort but the ball trickled wid, whilst Harriott was again causing all sorts of problems for the opposition defence, forcing a corner after some excellent wing play. With the corner coming to nothing, the next attack saw Harriott come down the left again and almost play in Kermorgant but Marshall was alert to the danger and raced out of his goal to pick the ball of the Frenchman’s feet. Charlton’s best chance of the half, however, was saved for the final minute of this spell of domination between the 10th and 20th. The Addicks won a free-kick 30 yards from goal in a wide position, so wide that only a ball into the box appeared sensible. But with Jackson’s goal scoring form, he had every right to try his arm at an outrageous curling effort that caught everyone by surprise, including Marshall who desperately scrambled across to his left. His efforts did little, however, as the ball raced past him and hit the post square on, bouncing back out and being cleared away by the Cardiff defence. If they weren’t aware already, Cardiff could now be sure that Charlton were there to spoil to their party.
Unfortunately for the Addicks, Jackson’s effort gave the home side the impetuous to up their game. Bellamy came close from just inside the area after having the ball set back to him but his effort curled high and wide, but Cardiff came forward again quickly and should have had the easiest of chances to put themselves one up. Kim picked up the ball in midfield after the away side lost possession and had a clear run on goal with Charlton’s defensive line pushed up the field. Driving into the box, the South Korean had an open Bellamy to his left and only Solly, attempting to cover both Kim and Bellamy, and Hamer between himself and the Charlton goal. Solly was left with little choice but to commit himself to the man with the ball and Kim’s second touch inside the area allowed the diminutive right back to put in an incredible tackle to dispossess the winger with Hamer picking up the loose ball. Charlton’s number one gave Solly a deserved arm around his shoulder to show his appreciation for such an exceptionally timed tackle.
Cardiff continued to grow into the game, with the eyes of the 600 travelling fans sharing their attentions between the pitch and the clock on the far side as it ticked over towards half time. Jordan Mutch was presented with a decent opening from the edges of the area but his shot was drilled straight at the legs of Dervite with the ball looping into a back peddling Hamer’s hands, whilst the youngster came close again soon after as his header floated wide from a Bellamy cross after the Cardiff captain, on a rare occasion, got the better of Solly. Another free-kick was awarded to Cardiff in a dangerous position and to half the home support, Kim’s rippling of the side netting looked like a goal had been scored, much to the delight of the away support who mocked the over enthusiastic home fans. With half time just around the corner, there was still time for Bellamy, via a tame header and Gestade, through another deflected effort, to come close with half chances, whilst Fuller’s trickery on the right flank in an increasingly rare Charlton attack saw him get the better of McNaughton but Taylor in the box after his ball in was cleared away with Kermorgant ready to pounce. Cheers, claps and encouragement were given to both sets of players with both sets of fans optimistic about their chances in the second half following a first half that was played at such a high standard.
Much like the first half, it took no time at all for the action to get going. Cardiff so easily could have had the lead just a minute into it when Noone’s cross was only half cleared and fell kindly to Taylor, and his first time shot ricocheted off the outside of the post with Hamer’s desperate dive across giving the look of a keeper who didn’t have the effort covered. Much like Charlton’s effort against the post in the first half, Cardiff’s shot against the woodwork gave Charlton a lift and just two minutes later the so easily could have had the lead. A Pritchard throw found its way through to Morrison, who spun his defender and worked himself an opportunity from just a few yards out. Despite the build –up play of a striker, Morrison finished like a defender, slicing well wide when he really should have scored. Gunnarsson, in a similar style to the half chances of the first half for the hosts, was presented with an opening from just outside the area, but his first time shot was scuffed wide, leaving Hamer to watch it sail away from goal. Moments later, however, his counterpart in the Cardiff goal was called into some very meaningful action. A Solly free-kick was played into Fuller, who worked himself yet another shooting opportunity, and with this effort curling into the top corner Marshall somehow dived across and tipped the ball away for a corner. The Cardiff stopper a changed man from his horror show at the Valley in November.
Despite the Fuller chance, Cardiff had the better of the final 25 minutes of the game. A succession of corners caused the Addicks all sorts of problems was Hamer helpless as Kim and Bellamy forced Morrison and co into some desperate defending. And with 20 minutes to play, it looked like Charlton’s hard work would count for nothing as Mutch’s cross was turned in from close range by Noone. As the former Brighton winger turned away in celebration and the Cardiff fans began to wonder when they would be playing Swansea, the majority had failed to notice the raised flag of the nearside assistant, disallowing the goal for offside. Scoreless it remained. Gunnarsson volleyed straight at Hamer, whilst Bellamy’s goal bound effort was blocked away just before the booked Fuller was replaced by Obika and Gower, much to the displeasure of the home fans, came on for Hughes. With Obika seemingly slotting in out wide on the left, Harriott moved to the right and created a chance for himself straight away, showing his trademark quick feet to cut inside and unleash a strike that just dipped too late as it cleared the bar.
There was still time, after Danny Green came on for Pritchard for Gestede to overhead kick horrendously wide and Dervite to stab the ball off target. The final action of the game, with it dying out after the news of Millwall’s goal against Watford, saw a Jackson free-kick just headed over the bar by Kermorgant and the players were ushered into the tunnel by the referee who informed them he was about to blow for full time before he did so. The party began for the newly promoted side, but Charlton fans had every reason to feel just as pleased with their sides display; twice now they have equalled, if not outplayed, the champions to be of this division.
I’ll never get bored of saying this: another truly incredible performance by Charlton. Hamer, bar a few squeamish moments from some corners, was solid, which was again helped by the dependency of Morrison (oh if only he could finish like he can head a ball clear) and Dervite. Solly and Wiggins were again brilliant at the back and linked up with the ever please Pritchard and the ever improving Harriott, whilst Hughes helped to keep things ticking over in his undervalued role, whilst Jackson put yet another captain’s performance. Kermorgant worked hard against a solid defence, and did equally as well in coming back to support the team in defence, whilst Fuller showed signs of his best in another hard working display for the man who is often accused of being lazy. A month or so ago I was unsure about rewarding Fuller with a contract extension, now, if the price is right, I think we’d be stupid not to.
There’s a real thrill, buzz and enjoyment about watching Charlton at the moment. The last five games have almost felt better than last season when the context of the league and the underdog status is considered. The only downside to note was that, as I arrived 20 minutes before kick-off, I missed out on a programme as Cardiff didn’t print enough and the oaf next to me who kept voicing his idiot view that ‘Powell isn’t good enough for this league’ and he was looking for a 0-0 to ‘keep him in a job’, I despair. But the recent performances have given hope to 99% of Charlton’s fans that next season, with the right investment in terms of finance and in the playing stance, could see Charlton take part in scenes similar to what Cardiff enjoyed tonight. If you are a Cardiff fan reading this, I congratulate you on such an excellent achievement and hope your Premier League adventure lasts more than a season too. We’ll be following in your footsteps soon.