The international break came at both the best and worst of times from a Charlton perspective. Whilst the fortnight gap in the fixture list gave several key players the chance to recover from injury, the two league games preceding the turn of attentions to World Cup Qualifying saw the Addicks put three straight defeats behind them with two impressive performances in draws against Nottingham Forest and Blackpool; a momentum of sorts interrupted. For the pair of single point-winning games to mean anything, it was of paramount importance that Charlton came away from Ewood Park with all three points and built upon their pre-international break platform. A third successive excellent performance and a second consecutive clean sheet produced a first away victory of the season as the Addicks shocked Blackburn Rovers in a 1-0 win. Job done.
With Blackburn exerting the early pressure, Charlton’s seventh minute opener came against the run of play. Dale Stephens picked up the ball in midfield and chipped it perfectly into the path of Simon Church, who took a touch on his chest before volleying beyond a stranded Jake Kean. The majestic goal belonged to a side in much better scoring form than the Addicks. Just as beautiful on the eye was Ben Hamer’s 30th minute save from Jordan Rhodes’ goal bound volley, with the Charlton ‘keeper diving full length across his goal to tip the effort around the post. With Blackburn growing into the game and creating a number of half chances in the lead up to the interval, the small contingent of travelling Charlton fans were delighted to hear referee Wright’s half-time whistle with their side still holding onto their one goal advantage.
The second-half performance was one of resilience, determination and high quality defending from the away side. Blackburn dominated possession and peppered Charlton’s box with long balls galore, but the heads of Richard Wood and Michael Morrison prevented Rovers from creating a serious opening time and time again. Lawrie Wilson and Rhoys Wiggins, dealing with pacey wingers Joshua King and Ben Marshall, halted several breaks and kept crossing opportunities to a minimum, whilst Hamer was there to pick up the pieces on the rare occasions Charlton’s back four was unable to make a decisive intervention in Blackburn’s attacks. The one time Hamer was beaten, the post was there to save the Addicks after Jason Lowe’s effort from the edge of the area veered just off target via a deflection only referee Wright noticed.
Charlton themselves had a number of second half chances, including a returning Yann Kermorgant attempting to lob Kean from the halfway line and missing narrowly, but the final 10 minutes was really a case of parking ‘the big red bus’ as Chris Powell put it. Rarely did a Charlton player venture into the opposition’s half as the Addicks, now containing another returning man in the shape of skipper Johnnie Jackson, kept their shape and composure to frustrate the host’s attempts to snatch a late equaliser. Alan Judge saw his tame shot trickle wide deep into six minutes of stoppage time, whilst DJ Campbell broke free inside the box only to be denied by Hamer and signalled offside anyway. The sense of relief, and sheer joy, was unparalleled as the full-time whistle was blown after what felt like a lot more than 51 minutes of second half football; Charlton’s rear-guard could not be broken.
The team news was bittersweet for Charlton fans, with injuries still preventing Chris Powell from naming a full strength side. Chris Solly remained absent and is still a few weeks from returning, but Kermorgant and Jackson returned to the bench. Whilst it was slightly disappointing to see the influential pair only fit enough for the bench, it was pleasing to see them involved at all after being labelled, less than optimistically, as ‘having a chance’ of featuring prior to Saturday’s game. In terms of those who began the game on the pitch, Bradley Pritchard, making his first start since recovering from a minor injury picked up in the defeat to Burnley, came into the side to replace Mark Gower, starting on the right of midfield as Powell reverted back to a 4-4-2 formation. The only other change of personnel saw Callum Harriott, who missed out on a place in the 18 altogether, replaced by Cameron Stewart, who started on the left of a midfield that also contained the central pairing of Stephens and Jordan Cousins. Marvin Sordell started up top alongside Church, whilst Hamer and his back four completed the line-up.
Blackburn manager Gary Bowyer made two changes to his side after their 2-1 defeat to Wigan a fortnight ago. Grant Hanley, who was sent off in the loss at the DW Stadium, was forced to sit out the game through suspension with Scott Dann, who partnered Matthew Kilgallon, replacing him at centre back. The other alteration to the starting XI saw former Leicester winger Marshall come into the midfield in place of Corry Evans. The concern Marshall and King provided to Charlton’s defence was amplified by the goalscoring front pair of Jordan Rhodes and Leon Best waiting to pounce in the middle. Lowe started in the centre of midfield alongside Tom Cairney, whilst Tommy Spurr and Todd Kane completed the back four with Kean in goal.
My journey up to Ewood Park, from my university halls in Eastbourne via home in Milton Keynes, was challenging, tedious and costly. I was hoping my commitment to the Charlton cause would be rewarded with an outstanding display from Chris Powell’s side and I wouldn’t have to add ‘disastrous’ to that list of negative adjectives. If the opening five minutes were anything to go by, there was a strong chance I would be heading back to the coast with a ‘why do I do this to myself?’ type of regret.
The home side dominated possession, not helped by some midfield weakness that resulted in the ball being tamely given up on a couple of occasions, as Charlton struggled to settle. Thankfully for the visitors, Blackburn could only muster one effort on goal from their opening burst; Leon Best’s header floated harmlessly over the bar from Spurr’s cross.
But Charlton grew into game, and quite quickly too. Cameron Stewart looked a real threat down the left hand side, always attempting to run at the Blackburn defence, and created the first Charlton opening after five minutes. The winger collectined a poor Rovers clearance and found Church in the middle, but the Welshman’s effort was blocked away for a fruitless corner. Church, who scored his second career goal for Wales last week, was clearly full of confidence, and that showed when he was presented with a chance to give his club the side lead with seven minutes on the clock. Stephens’ determination in the middle gave him possession, and he immediately spotted Church’s forward run, lifting the ball over the top of Kilgallon and straight onto the chest of the Charlton striker. Kean rushed off his line but there was little he could do as Church volleyed calmly into the corner of the net.
There were incredible scenes in the away end as the 250 or so travelling fans celebrated with the vigour of several times that amount, whilst their side began to play ever so impressively. But, as has been the case in previous outings, the final ball was letting the Addicks down. One such ball, a poor Pritchard cross, allowed Blackburn to break but Rhodes’ touch let him down as he was played through on goal.
Rhodes’ mustered his first meaningful effort on goal after 23 minutes, with King’s cross finding him perfectly in the middle. His header was aimed perfectly into the corner of the goal but lacked the pace needed to test a diving Hamer. Down the other end, Cousins had a rather, erm, ambitious effort from all of 35 yards that ended up nearer the corner flag than goal, whilst Marvin Sordell, putting in a decent shift after recent criticism, worked his way into a shooting position after receiving the ball out wide but could only fire straight at Kean.
Despite not creating anything more than some very dubiously labelled half chances, Charlton were comfortable and deserved their lead, so a Blackburn equaliser would have been gut-wrenching. Charlton fans had Hamer to thank as he pulled of an incredible save to keep their guts in working order. Scrappy but effective build up play from the hosts eventually saw the ball pop up invitingly for Rhodes; the sort of chance he buries in a weekly basis. His volley was executed perfectly and a grumblings from the Charlton fans around me suggested many thought there was no keeping it out, but Hamer flung himself through the air and tipped the ball around the post. Wood made sure the ‘keeper knew exactly how impressive his save was, whilst Rhodes himself went up to Hamer in order to shake his hand.
Best wasted a glorious chance for the visitors with seven first-half minutes remaining, sending the ball skyward after Lowe, who appeared to handle the ball, played him in, whilst the striker’s header just before half-time was kept out by a combination of Wood’s feet and Hamer’s hands.
Best’s chances were part of a 15 minute preview that Charlton’s back four endured of what their second half would be like with balls sent into the box from every direction. Morrison and Wood won almost every aerial battle, whilst Wilson and Wiggins were impressive out wide, and Charlton held onto their lead going into half-time.
Blackburn started the second-half as they did the first and immediately won a corner after King, whose pace would prove a major threat all half, broke down the left. Best rose highest to meet Marshall’s delivery but headed way off target. Sordell saw an effort blocked after Church teed him up, whilst Marshall attempted to curl an effort in from range and missed horribly as the half chances racked up for both sides with neither clinical enough to take one.
That almost changed with an hour gone as a Blackburn free-kick was only half cleared and fell kindly to Lowe on the edge of the box. His sweetly struck drive only just missed the target, clipping the post on the way out and, in the eyes of the match officials, taking a deflection off a Charlton body on its way through a melee of players in a crowded penalty area. Two minutes later, Blackburn were almost cursing their bad luck as what could have been 1-1 should have been 2-0 as Pritchard’s pinpoint cross found an unmarked Stephens, only for the midfielder to head straight at Kean. Either side of the ‘keeper and Charlton’s lead would have been doubled.
There were changes to both sides with 25 minutes to play as the wasteful Best was replaced by Lee Williamson, whilst Kermorgant made his return with Sordell heading for the bench. It took Kermorgant just two minutes to make an impact as the Frenchman spotted Kean off of his line and opted to shoot from barely over the halfway line. Kean watched it go wide, but it wasn’t too far away.
Kermorgant came close again after heading Wilson’s long throw over the bar, whilst Church sliced wide from a Wilson cross, but Blackburn were well on top and the Addicks were clinging on to their lead. Cedric Evina came onto replace a tiring Stewart and give something extra defensively, whilst former Charlton target Alan Judge replaced King as Rovers pushed forward. The nerves increased with every cross, corner and Spurr flat long throw the pelted Charlton’s penalty box, but Charlton stayed firm going into the final ten minutes of the game. Tom Cairney’s effort from range flew wildly off target as the hosts were restricted to desperate attempts in search of their equaliser.
Simon Church was given a hero’s send off as Jackson came onto replace him, whilst DJ Campbell was sent on to aid Blackburn’s quest for a goal. At times in the closing stages, Jackson was the furthest player forward as Kermorgant retreated to effectively join the defence and Charlton sat back and invited Blackburn to send their long balls forward. It was horrible viewing, but still the Addicks stood firm as six minutes of additional time was signalled.
Charlton had a chance to put the game to bed right at the start of stoppage time when the ball sat up nicely for Stephens after a free-kick was half cleared, but blazed high and wide, and instead it descended into six minutes of Kean sending the ball forward, Wood and co winning their headers and another red shirt swiping clear in Kean’s direction. Judge mustered Blackburn’s only shot of the six minute period; a tame stab that was comfortably wide, whilst DJ Campbell was sent through by makeshift striker Dann only to see the offside flag raised.
With one last ball pumped forward and cleared, and the clock heading towards a 98th minute, referee Wright finally blew for full-time and the indescribably nervous Charlton fans could finally breathe once again.
There is really only one place to start when looking back at this game, and that’s the defence. An incredible display of temperament and class from the defensive unit, alongside some excellent work from Hamer, won Charlton the three points. Picking a standout in back four not only devalues the work the other three members of the back line put in, but also ignores the work the rest of the side did defensively, but Richard Wood deserves to be lifted through the streets of SE7 on a throne after his display today. Not a single header was lost, the pace of King and Best was no problem for him and he showed excellent composure to collect the ball and start Charlton attacks on several occasions.
Morrison’s work alongside Wood was also exceptional, whilst Wiggins and Wilson had arguably their best games of the season and also both possessed an attacking threat. Cousins gave the ball away a few times more than we have seen in his previous appearances, but he still put in a very mature display in the middle, with Dale Stephens continue his rejuvenation of late. The ball he played through for Church’s goal is up there with his assists for Jackson against Bury and Ricardo Fuller against Watford; perfection.
Pritchard had a quiet game, but nonetheless worked his socks off and teamed up well with Wilson to deal with the threat of King and later on Judge, whilst Stewart’s ability to take on and beat his man was something we’ve been missing. Sordell, believe it or not, worked exceptionally hard and chased down a lot of lost causes but seemed to tire towards the end of his 65 minute appearance, whilst Church’s finish was outstanding and his work otherwise selfless and superb.
Suddenly two points from two games becomes five points from three games; clear and obvious momentum. Whilst the current league position of 20th doesn’t make for pretty viewing, today’s performance shows that we have the ability to climb the table and next week’s football for a fiver came against Wigan is the perfect setting in which this momentum can be continued.