Whether you’re about to be crowned champions, have nothing to play for in mid-table or fighting for your lives at the bottom of the league, the final away of the season is always one of the most enjoyable days in the football calendar. The club merchandise is left in the wardrobe for one weekend and the fancy dress shops are raided for the finest Superman, Rainbow and banana costumes. Charlton’s own take on the traditional dress down day of the season was to dress up; numerous fully suited, flat-capped and mask wearing Chris Powells made the long trip up north to Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium. Whilst the home side’s season was over, sitting in mid-table after falling drastically since their 4-1 win in the reverse fixture at the Valley in November, the Addicks still had the faint glimmer of the play-offs in the distance. With five points separating them from 6th place, results going the Addicks’ way and, of course, another three points away from home would have seen Charlton still have an outside chance of competing to extend their season on the final day. Their hopes, however, were dashed by a late Middlesbrough come back as the sides shared the spoils in a 2-2 draw.
The game couldn’t have got off to a better start for the Addicks as Ricardo Fuller broke down the left and played the ball into the box for Bradley Pritchard to finish with less than a minute on the clock. Both sides were creating chances but, with 17 minutes gone, it was Charlton who doubled their lead. A cleverly worked free-kick from Mark Gower was crossed on the volley by Yann Kermorgant and, under pressure from Michael Morrison, Boro skipper Rhys Williams could only clear the ball into his own net. The away side created several chances to add a third, but Middlesbrough never gave up, especially after half time when the Addicks began to look nervous and the home side began to test Ben Hamer in the Charlton goal with more regularity. The goal was coming, and with 76 minutes on the clock, Marvin Emnes flicked home Grant Leadbitter’s cross to give the Boro a lifeline. That lifeline looked to have vanished in Charlton’s next attack as Kermorgant battled through down the right and worked his way into the box before sliding the ball across goal for Fuller to tap home, but the assistant referee raised his flag for offside, much to the dismay of all inside the Riverside with a Charlton connection. With replays suggesting Fuller was comfortably onside, Scott McDonald’s 87th minute equaliser from Mustapha Carayol’s corner was a cruel and undeserved blow for the Addicks. There was still time for two penalty shouts to be dubiously turned down by referee Drysdale in stoppage time but the Addicks couldn’t get the goal they needed to give themselves an outside chance of the final play-off spot.
Charlton were forced into making alterations to their starting line-up for the first time in five games with hamstring injuries ruling out both captain Johnnie Jackson and lucky charm Andy Hughes. Gower came into centre midfield, alongside the returning Danny Hollands, making his first appearance of 2013 for the Addicks in a selection that raised many an eyebrow. The two like-for-like changes meant Charlton were able to be otherwise unchanged, fielding the remaining nine players from the current excellent run of form. Chris Solly, Dorian Dervite, Morrison and Wiggins protected Hamer’s goal whilst Pritchard and Callum Harriott flanked the new partnership in the centre of midfield with Kermorgant and Fuller remaining up top. There was also a return to the match day squad for Danny Haynes who filled the space Gower vacated on the bench.
Middlesbrough, on the other hand, made a host of changes following their 2-1 defeat to Bolton last Saturday. Out went Jonathan Woodgate, Kieran Dyer, Josh McEarchran and Sammi Ameob, in came Andre Bikey, Adam Reach, Curtis Main and Emnes as the Boro reverted from a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation to a 4-4-2 set up. And as the match day programme celebrated the Teesside club’s impressive record of producing first team players through their academy, Reach and Main were joined by fellow academy graduates Jason Steele, Richard Smallwood and Williams. Having been told he won’t be getting his contract renewed in the week, former Charlton captain and infamous penalty misser Nicky Bailey was given a place on the bench.
With the travelling 600 or so Charlton fans in fine voice, they were given a reason to be even more joyful with 30 seconds gone. Kermorgant set Fuller free down the left and, in typical fashion, the Jamaican attempted to cut inside and beat his man with some clever footwork, which he did, setting himself free to play the ball across goal for Pritchard to pounce and give the Addicks and early lead. The bunt of many jokes for his finishing, Pritchard was making no mistakes with this one, lashing the ball into the back of the net for his third of the season. Chants with a theme of Wembley and promotion were the order of the day in the away end, made to seem even more optimistic as Boro immediately came forward and wasted an excellent opportunity as Carayol blasted over from Main’s ball across goal. A succession of corners followed for the home side but the heads of Kermorgant and Dervite were able to clear the danger away from Charlton’s goal.
After absorbing some degree of pressure, the Addicks created another opening for themselves after 10 minutes. Kermorgant collected the ball in the middle of the park and played through a defence splitting pass into the feet of Fuller. The forward cut in from the left and shaped to shoot but was unable to get his effort away after being clipped by Williams. Falling to the ground, Fuller still had the ball and could have guided the ball back to Gower but instead stopped in anticipation of referee Drysdale blowing his whistle and pointing to the spot. Dyrsdale crossed his arms to dismiss Fuller’s appeals and the Jamaican’s distraught reaction gave the impression he wasn’t best pleased with the decision. The anger of not being rewarded the penalty was almost made dramatically worse as Charlton lost the ball in midfield soon after and the dangerous Carayol broke free of Solly, seeing his resulting shot blocked by a coalition of ‘keeper and defence as Hamer raced off his line.
Despite the threat from Boro, Charlton were beginning to dominate the game, looking comfortable in possession and defending solidly, and with 17 minutes gone, that domination was extended with the Addicks doubling their lead. Fuller was brought down 10 yards inside the Boro half and Charlton were presented with a seemingly innocuous free-kick; Fuller forced to stand off the pitch following a spell of treatment made the set piece appear even less threatening. Gower and Kermorgant stood over the ball but Kermorgant sprinted away with the referee ready to restart play and Gower’s delivery was perfect for the Frenchman to run onto and volley first time across the face of goal from just inside area. A collection of bodies wearing both red and black challenged for the ball and, amidst the confusion, Williams turned the ball into his own net in unfortunate circumstances. Unfortunate for Middlesbrough; delightful for Charlton.
Middlesbrough were in no mood to roll over and accept defeat, but a label of half chance would have been generous for the openings they managed to create. Smallwood fired horrendously off target from distance, whilst Carayol and Emnes combined down the left for the latter to get a shot away, but his effort rolled into the side netting. Charlton, on the other hand, were creating far more clear cut chances and wasted a glorious opportunity to go three in front after 30 minutes. Fuller’s headed flick on found Prichard and the winger went on a marauding run, seeming to have gone too far on a couple of occasions before shaking off his opponents as if they weren’t there, working his way to the outskirts of the box and picking out Kermorgant with a pinpoint pass, but the resulting shot flashed wide of the far post leaving the talismanic figure laying in the grass cursing his wasteful finishing. Fuller’s involvement in the build-up to Kermorgant’s effort was a sign of the level of performance the strike was putting in and soon after the experienced striker could have been celebrating an incredible goal with his effort from 40 yards catching an off-his-line Steele out and he could only watch as the ball sailed wide.
Hamer took the ball into his body well after a swerving effort from Reach provided a rare moment of concern for the Addicks as the away side won a corner with the clock ticking into the 45th minute. However, Boro, specifically Emnes, dealt with the set-piece and broke away at pace, going from goal to goal area, before Morrison and Pritchard prevented the striker from getting his shot away. There were cries for a penalty as Emnes hit the deck and boos from the crowd when referee Drysdale waved play on but there didn’t appear to be any substance to their claims on first viewing. It was left for Charlton to deal successfully with two late Boro corners before being serenaded off the pitch at half time with a series of chants and appreciative applause for another dominant Addicks display.
The second half got underway without the exciting start of the opening 45 as Middlesbrough struggled to maintain possession for more than a handful of passes and putting the ball mistakenly out of play on several occasions. Eight minutes into the second period, shortly after Harriott had been denied by Williams after Kermorgant had flicked through, Boro manager was left with no choice but to haul off Reach and Main and introduce Scott McDonald and Emmanuel Ledesma and the former made an immediate impact, testing Hamer’s gloves from just outside the area. Charlton were still looking threatening though and a break down the right from Kermorgant, who seemed to be popping up everywhere, produced a fantastic cross for Fuller but he couldn’t keep his header down and the ball sailed over the bar.
McDonald had made a real impact up top for the home side, collecting the majority of the balls pumped forward and making himself a real nuisance for the Charlton defence. He forced Hamer into another save, albeit comfortable, whilst his flick on from Ledesma found Emnes clean through on goal. It was an absolutely golden chance for the Dutchman to put his side back into the game but, somehow, he sliced wide when it seemed easier to score. The new found threat Middlesbrough posed gave Charlton the jolt they needed to create some chances of their. Fuller volleyed from distance on his weak feet but Steele got his body behind the effort, whilst Harriott worked his way in from the left and fired straight at the Boro ‘keeper, who wasn’t quite as helping to Harriott as his namesake Luke had been a fortnight ago. However, it wasn’t to be long before Middlesbrough gave themselves a root back into the game.
A simple move forward, not too dissimilar in manner to Charlton’s in the opening minute, saw Leadbitter send in a delicious cross that Emnes couldn’t possibly let up this time, flicking the ball past a motionless Hamer into the top corner of the goal. Game on. It so easily could have been game off again just moments later as yet more fantastic work from the determined Kermorgant saw him break down the right and cut inside, producing a fantastic drilled ball across goal with Fuller on the end of it to tap home to secure the three points. The near side assistant, however, was on hand to spoil the party with his flag raised for offside the moment Fuller made contact. Kermorgant and Fuller looked perplexed; replays later proved their shock to be justified with Fuller at least a year onside.
Powell threw on Salim Kerkar and late goal getter Jonathan Obika with the final five minutes approaching, giving Fuller and Harriott a breather. Middlesbrough, now with the incentive of a point in sight, came forward in search for the equaliser and some nervy defending saw the ball sit up for Leadbitter 25 yards from goal but his long range effort was always rising and soared over Hamer’s crossbar. Charlton fans thought they had sealed with 4 minutes to go as Hollands, excellent following his recall to the side, played though Obika with an excellent side-footed pass. The striker’s run towards goal was threatening but the shot was tame as Steele got down to save. With Obika still ruing that miss, Middlesbrough broke through Carayol and won themselves a corner. At the time it felt like Morrison’s intervention to stop Carayol’s ball in was an excellent piece of defending, but as the net rippled with McDonald’s nodding the ball past Hamer from Carayol’s corner, it seemed anything but. Boro had certainly giving it a go in the second half, but there was no way they warranted an equaliser. Utter heartbreak for the Charlton fans who had not long heard the news of Cardiff’s equaliser against Bolton, making the play-off dream slightly more of a reality if the three points had been protected.
All hope wasn’t quite lost with four minutes of added on time still to be played, and Charlton looked to have won it on two occasions. Excellent work from Kermorgant and Pritchard down the right allowed the latter to get his pall across the box with Kerkar and Obika waiting in the middle. Steele was beaten and all one of the Charlton players had to do was tuck the ball into the empty net, but their path was blocked by Justin Hoyte, who seemed to haul down Obika, but shouts for a penalty were again ignored by referee Drysdale. Carayol had an effort saved but Charlton came again, and this time Kermorgant worked his way into the box, shaping to shoot before being brought down by Williams. Again, nothing doing for Drysdale. Hollands had a shot from the edge of the box that sailed over the bar when he probably should have at least tested Steele but it wasn’t to be. The faint glimmer of a play-off challenge had vanished into the distance.
The performance, for 75 minutes at least, was another outstanding away day display. Let’s pretend that final period of play didn’t occur for the duration of this paragraph. Hamer was solid and did what he had to do well, Morrison and Dervite were as dominant as ever whilst Solly and Wiggins were excellent going forward and back, linking up with Pritchard and Harriott. Harriott had a slightly quieter game when compared to recent weeks, but Pritchard was absolutely outstanding; the goal the icing on the cake for arguably Charlton’s most improved player during Chris Powell’s time in charge. The return of Hollands was a complete shock but he did very, very well, as did Gower and it’ll be interesting to see if either of the pair have done enough to secure a future at the Valley. Fuller showed glimpses of utter quality and should have had a goal to his name; if only he didn’t demand such a high wage I’d want that new contract signed on Monday morning, whilst Kermorgant, operating deep in midfield, cutting out wide with regularity and up top, never stopped working and created countless chances for the Addicks.
Where did those certain three points disappear to? It was quite a remarkable turnaround by Middlesbrough but Charlton really should have had the game put to bed long before Emnes’ strike. Not only were chances wasted beforehand, but the questionable decisions of Darren Drysdale and his team left many a Charlton baffled. I could so easily be writing about the awaiting excitement of a play-off push on the final day of the season, instead, I have to settle for perspective and reflection on what has been an excellent season. Who’d have thought after the defeat to Millwall we’d even have a chance of a play-off spot? The mood regarding the club then was desperate and dark; now it’s as bright and positive as ever. With the final game of the season against already relegated Bristol City, it may be the right time to field some of the title winners from the club’s U21’s and U18’s sides. The likes of Cousins, Fox, Feely, Ajayi, Azeez and Poyet are names which are all highly rated, along with many, many more, and it would be a delight to see the future of this club given a brief chance to shine for the first team.
The capitulation today showed the side does need strengthening if we’re to be a serious contender next season, and whether that’s through the development and academy sides or significant investment means we can be a player in the transfer marker, Powell will have a plan. Powell will lead this team onwards. Powell will make us great again.