Cameron Stewart does fantastically well to keep the ball in play and cut in back to the penalty spot, where Bradley Pritchard awaits. He sets himself, keeps his head over the ball and drills a shot into the bottom corner past a motionless Lee Nicholls in the Wigan goal. The regular match goers are in shock that Pritchard, whose finishing skills makes Izale McLeod’s look impressive, has managed to convert a chance; the five pound punters are just delighted to see a goal. “Bradley, Bradley Bradley, Bradley Bradley, Bradley Bradley Pritchard” is sung in the highest possible level of volume from the Covered End. The little Zimbabwean has given Charlton the lead; a lead they would cling on to.
Of course, the reality is Pritchard side-footed the glorious opportunity well over the bar, leading to moans and groans from all 23,000 or so Charlton fans inside The Valley on Sunday. It’s not the first time it’s happened. A crucial miss against Derby County last season stands out, with Derby going down the other end and winning a penalty that resulted in Michael Morrison being sent off and the Rams levelling a game that should have been out of their sights, but there’s many, many more examples of a trademark Pritchard miss.
I’m as a frustrated as anyone with Pritchard’s failure to take his chances, not least the opening he was presented with yesterday. There are no excuses for failing to find the target from that position, and very few for failing to score.
But it seems as if Pritchard’s incompetence in front of goal has led many to view him as a substandard player. In some cases, and more cases than there should be, he’s seen as a bit of a joke. No logical reason exists to Charlton fans of this opinion as to why the non-leaguer punching above his weight continues to get a game; Chris Powell is just as incompetent for selecting him.
It’s possible that, along with the dire finishing, his uncharacteristically poor performance against Millwall has yet to be forgotten or forgiven. How dare a player perform so badly on such an occasion and be given a second chance. I myself was left in disgust by the way he allowed Nicky Bailey and Liam Trotter to bully him in the middle that day, but it didn’t mean I had disregarded his dominant displays against Leicester City and Watford.
Nor did yesterday’s howler in front of goal make me view his performance overall in the game as a weak one. It was the usual Pritchard display of endeavour and hard work mixed in with, and I know some will disagree with me, genuine footballing ability.
Although he delivered a number of testing crosses, the myth that he can’t cross a ball is one I strongly disagree with especially considering the filth that was coming in from the opposite flank, the most impressive aspect of his game his defensive work. He won the ball back well, showing great strength against an experienced Wigan midfield, on a number of occasions, teaming up well with both Dale Stephens when drifting in from the right or playing centrally as he did in the closing stages and with Lawrie Wilson up and down the wing.
His run that saw him cut into the box and drill a shot at Nicholls was superb, but the shot wasn’t. However, no doubt he’d be criticised for squaring the ball even if a Charlton player was on the end of it and they failed to score.
And that’s what appears to be the case with Pritchard; for many he can do no right. For most of the many he’s a scapegoat; the first person to blame if things aren’t going right. Why? Mainly because he’s an easy target. An unfashionable player with a non-league history is always going to be viewed sceptically when compared with the experienced league campaigners and the promising young players in Charlton’s side.
But he’s a vital cog to the Charlton machine. When he performs, the rest follow, and he performs more often than not. He keeps things ticking over when playing centrally and the defensive side of his game has come on leaps and bounds since his first season with the club. I felt a little nervous when a player ran at Pritchard early on, but now he’ll win the ball on most occasions.
There’s also those that accept his merits in the centre of midfield, but refuse to believe he should be playing on the right flank. Whilst not the most aesthetically pleasing winger, he offers balance to the team and gritty determination down the wing; much like Johnnie Jackson did on the left wing during the 2011/12 title winning campaign. And, although repeating myself, he can certainly cross a ball.
The stats are also on Pritchard’s side. In the 23 games in which the Zimbabwean played on the right side of midfield last season, the Addicks won 12, drew seven and lost four; in the 23 games someone else played on the right, only five games were won, with seven draws and eleven defeats. His eleven assists last season, only Ince, Eagles and Brady could boast more, also makes for attractive reading for those fighting Pritchard’s corner.
Likewise in this season, his performances against Leicester and Watford were at heart of why the impressive results were gained, whilst, although a little quiet by his standards, he did well in the win over Blackburn Rovers.
But, even with all that taken into account, his failure to convert the chances he’s given mean he still won’t be valued as highly as he should be. Pritchard himself admits that he “should be scoring more” and has stated that it’s something he’s been working on with Keith Peacock. It’s a testament to his level headed character that he continues to want to improve and also continues to get into positions from which he could score when he could so easily shy away on the right.
Who knows what that missing ingredient is that will turn Pritchard into a natural finisher. He can score, his goals at the end of last season show that along with his goal record in non-league. That suggests it is purely a mental thing; something Peacock’s experience will surely help greatly with.
If he can transform himself into at least a competent finisher, Bradley Pritchard will no longer be that ‘clown’ running awkwardly down the right flank, he’ll be Bradley Pritchard, that complete footballer that is raising a few eyebrows in The Championship.
I’m happy enough with Bradley Pritchard the excellent footballer who struggles in front of goal, but excels otherwise.