A well-known funeral organiser’s brand name occupies one of the stationary advertising hoardings at St Andrews. It’s apt given the near silence that Birmingham City’s fans sat in throughout the game. But they had every right to be optimistic before kick-off. A valiant effort against Stoke City in midweek, a game in which they refused to die down, can only have boosted confidence and given a previously troubled Lee Clark an extra life, whilst Charlton’s starting XI looked vulnerable. Richard Wood, at the heart of Charlton’s four game unbeaten run coming into the clash, and Yann Kermorgant, the answer to the South East London club’s frailties in front of goal, were both out of the side; the Addicks were down to the bare bones. But, with Birmingham’s poor performance doing little to resurrect their fans’ voices, it was an impressive Charlton who gave out the critical blow, through Dale Stephens’ second half goal, thoroughly deserving their 1-0 win in the Midlands.
The first half was lacklustre, tedious and, above all, infuriating for the 850 or so travelling Charlton fans. There was very little quality on show, long balls were the order of the day and a few players in both blue and red struggled to make a positive impact for their side, but the Addicks were prevented from taking the lead by some incompetence in front of goal on several occasions. Johnnie Jackson, leading the side from the start for the first time since September, couldn’t direct his early header away from former Charlton ‘keeper Darren Randolph in the Blues goal.
A disallowed Birmingham goal, for a push on Hamer allowing Nikola Zigic to head into an almost empty net, was the only real action for the best part of half an hour, although Chris Burke looked somewhat threatening down the right for the home side, before those who were still awake saw a handful of chances to end the half.
Jackson’s free-kick cleared the bar, Church had the ball poked off his toes after the skipper teed him up, and the duo combined again soon after as the Welshman profited from Dan Burn’s slip and set the ball back to Jackson, only for him to fire wide. The best of those chances for the away side was gifted to them by Randolph after he slipped and released the ball, but he reacted well to block Jackson’s effort before claiming a Stephens’ volley with ease moments later. City’s Lee Novak had the final chance of the half, but Hamer got down well to his right to save the forward’s drive.
There were boos for referee Mathieson, who made some questionable decisions against Charlton in the latter stages of the half, from the vocal travelling fans, and some not entirely enthusiastic clapping as the players left the pitch for half-time.
In a dour opening period, Bradley Pritchard’s performance had caused much anger, making my comments both on this blog and in Birmingham’s match day programme look incredibly misguided. The Zimbabwean constantly failed to keep possession and struggled to win it back; sarcastic cheers were made when he passed to feet and a miss-placed pass from Birmingham’s Demarai Gray led to a shout of “are you Pritchard in disguise?” Looking to make amends for his poor display, the midfielder began brightly in the second half and sent through Simon Church early on, but Kyle Bartley got back well to prevent the Welshman from getting a shot away.
But, with 56 minutes on the clock, the Addicks finally had the lead. Cameron Stewart’s shot was saved well by Randolph and the ‘keeper stopped Jackson’s follow-up, but he could only look on as the ball popped off Pritchard and straight to the feet of Stephens who gleefully finished into an empty net.
Given the recent record between these two sides, Birmingham were far from out of it whilst the scores remained level, and Tom Adeyemi’s effort beat Hamer, only for Michael Morrison to heroically get back and clear the ball off the line. Shane Ferguson and Peter Lovenkrands replaced Gray and Novak as Clark looked for his side to grab an equaliser.
The action, however, was mostly down the other end. Mathieson angered the away fans again as a clear shove on Lawrie Wilson as he broke into the area resulted in no penalty being awarded, whilst Bartley taking away the legs of Church soon after was deemed to be acceptable by the man with the whistle.
But, despite the best efforts of Mathieson, the Addicks continued to dominate and were helped by some bizarre defending from Bartley and Burn, who seemed incapable of taking a touch without thumping/slicing/heading the ball off the pitch. But don’t let Birmingham’s dire display at the back, “f***ing useless do do do do” was the Charlton fans’ assessment, take anything away from Simon Church’s incredible ability to chase down every lost cause and win almost every one of them. He created corners, crossing opportunities and even had a chance himself but failed to get the ball out of his feet after Wiggins found him inside the box, but still Charlton couldn’t find the second goal.
The resoluteness in Charlton’s back four that had seen them keep three consecutive clean sheets before this one was again on show, with Dorian Dervite stepping into Wood’s shoes fantastically. It looked as if a second goal would not be needed for the away side. But Charlton’s defence was breached with barely a minute to play. Frantic activity in the goal area eventually saw the ball fall to Peter Lovenkrands, but the unmarked striker fired well over the bar from ten-yards out. And with that miss went Birmingham’s final chance of drawing level at the death; Charlton clung onto an invaluable victory as Chris Powell’s side continued to alleviate any remaining fears that they might survive in the Championship this season.
As a few tired legs trudged towards the tunnel, Jackson, who had left the pitch not ten minutes before after running out of steam, made sure they came and thanked the away fans first; as heroic an image as you could possible imagine. A trio of signature Powell fist pumps rounded off a fantastic day for the Addicks.
Where the away win over Blackburn two weeks ago was your stereotypical ‘smash and grab’, a 1-0 defeat flatted Birmingham. In the quality deprived first half, the chances created by Charlton deserved a goal, whilst the second half performance from the Addicks was on a par with the best this season.
Hamer’s save from Novak was crucial and his distribution was excellent, but it was another quiet week for Charlton’s number one with his defence doing the hard work for him. Morrison and Dervite were outstanding and dealt with the aerial threat of Zigic with relative ease. The pair was also impressive with the ball at their feet, especially Dervite who started several attacks by travelling powerfully through the midfield before picking out a pass. Wilson, who didn’t receive much support from Pritchard in the first half, put in another fine shift, as did Wiggins, who neutralised the threat of Burke exceptionally well.
Analysing Pritchard’s performance gives you a good idea about how the game panned out as a whole; incredibly poor in the first half, to the point that the chairman of the Bradley Pritchard Appreciation Society felt driven to depression, to hard working and excellent in the second. Although it’s frustrating that a player of such quality can put in abysmal displays like in the opening period, the way he responded was fantastic to see. Jordan Cousins and goal scorer Stephens did the simple things well and, along with Jackson, kept things ticking over in midfield, with the skipper putting in one of his trademark inspirational performances. Stewart, although a little hot and cold, attacked down the wing well and caused havoc on a number of occasions with his driven shots and balls into the box.
But the clear and obvious man of the match was Simon Church. I’m happy to admit I wasn’t too impressed by the forward in his first few league games for the club, but since then he’s been a revelation. In addition to those lost causes he chased down, there were several occasions where he showed great strength and footwork to beat several Birmingham defenders, whilst his hold up play was superb. He’s the sort of striker that won’t score 20 goals a season, but his work will create 30 goals for those around one way or another.
Five games unbeaten, four games without conceding and several key players still to return to fitness; Charlton’s Championship campaign has come alive in recent weeks. Don’t you just love these moments, these oh so rare moments, as a Charlton fan where everything feels rosy?