Leeds United at home is one of the fixtures that attract my eye at the start of each season they share a division with Charlton. In fact, it’s something of a pleasure to welcome such a historical giant of English football to The Valley. They travel in their thousands and don’t lower the volume for a second all game; that is until a late header from a less than prolific Charlton forward steals all three points in the last minute. And that’s another reason why I look forward to playing Leeds; the Addicks seem to do quite well against them.
Unbeaten in five fixtures between the two sides, as well as being unbeaten in their last five games this season, the stats pointed to a positive result for Charlton, especially given Leeds’ struggles away from Elland Road. But the stats hadn’t taken into account United’s 12th man.
Whilst their following was certainly vocal and Ross McCormack put in the shift of two men to score four, a bizarre performance from referee Keith Stroud played a crucial part in Leeds’ 4-2 victory over the Addicks.
Torrential rail before kick-off in South East London made Stroud centre of attention as early as 1:30PM, when he oversaw an inspection of the Valley pitch that had once again failed to contend with the elements. The rain had eased off by this point and, despite no official announcement, I made my way to the turnstiles after clogging my arteries in The Valley Cafe fully expecting to take to my seat for a 3PM start.
But Stroud called for a second inspection, any potential kick-off was put back to 3:30PM and the turnstiles remained closed; signs that suggested this game was in serious doubt and Charlton were heading for a second weather affected game four months into the season.
Thankfully, not least for the pride of Charlton fans and officials who would have surely faced a significant backlash, the pitch was given the green light. Colin Powell and his ground staff had done a wonderful job to get the game on, even with the 30 minute delay.
With the pitch far from perfect, standing water and grassless patches were holding up the ball, Callum Harriott, into the side for Bradley Pritchard in Charlton’s only change, used the conditions to his advantage for the first chance of the game. His touch from Dorian Dervite’s long ball got away from him, but the ball stuck in the pitch and the young winger was able to get a shot away, but a wayward one that failed to trouble Paddy Kenny in the Leeds goal.
The academy graduate came closer to giving Charlton the lead soon after, cutting inside from the right and curling an effort a fraction wide of the far post.
Charlton had settled well in the testing conditions, with Dale Stephens and Johnnie Jackson pulling the strings in midfield, whilst Rhoys Wiggins used the conditions to his advantage to test the Leeds defence down the treacherous left wing the home side were attacking. But for some wasteful and selfish play from Cameron Stewart, the home side might have farmed out some more openings early on. It was a bright start from the Addicks, appreciated by the home fans that did their best to match the volume coming from The Jimmy Seed.
But the home ends were silenced with 17 minutes played as Leeds took the lead with their first real effort at goal. A long ball was flicked on by Dexter Blackstock for Ross McCormack to run onto, and the forward made no mistake, becoming the first player to find a way past Ben Hamer and his defence in over seven hours of football. A bitter pill to swallow for the Addicks who had been in control of the game up to that point.
The goal failed to knock Charlton off their stride, and an outrageous cross from Wiggins somehow evaded Simon Church in the area with Jason Pearce putting the ball behind with Harriott lurking at the far post.
There was a strong sense that Charlton’s deficit would only be temporary with the Addicks continuing to come forward and the Covered End right behind their side. When Church drove into the area after collecting Stephens’ set back and was sent crashing to ground by an outstretched leg, it looked as if Charlton would have the perfect opportunity to equalise. Unbelievably and unjustifiably, Stroud had other ideas and refused to answer the calls for a penalty. Church stood mystified with the decision, and did so again moments later as he was penalised for a foul that appeared to be committed by Lee Peltier challenging for the aerial ball with him.
The Welshman, as he had done in last week’s victory over Birmingham, refused to give up despite the officials’ calls not going his way and carried on giving everything he could for Charlton’s cause. He did superbly to break free inside the area after the lively Wiggins teed him up just before the half hour mark, but the post prevented the Addicks from drawing level.
Leeds were visibly aware of the pressure they were under and resorted to time wasting tactics in order to preserve their lead over half-time. Kenny was in no rush whatsoever to take his goal kick and received a yellow card after failing to take Stroud’s prior warnings; a booking for an opposition player produced the inevitable sarcastic cheers from the Charlton fans. But Leeds fans were almost cheering for real at the end of their side’s next attack as Luke Murphy’s cross found an unmarked Peltier in the middle, but he could only head wide from a promising position.
There wasn’t much of an argument to suggest the Addicks deserved to be a goal down, let alone two, and that let off was the catalyst for five minutes of Charlton domination at the end of the half that should have seen them go into the break in front.
Church, who must have walked under several ladders and smashed the dressing room mirror before kick, saw his first time strike from Wiggins’ driven ball into the box superbly saved by Kenny, but there was little the Irish ‘keeper could do with Charlton’s next effort on goal.
Jackson’s free-kick was headed half clear to the edge of the box, where Cameron Stewart was lurking. With his selfishness resulting in some wayward crosses and shots earlier on in the half, those at the back of the Upper North were preparing to catch the ball as Stewart steadied himself to shoot but, with the sweetest of connections, he volleyed the ball well beyond Kenny into the top corner. With the ball hanging in the air for an age, the technique was superb and the finish emphatic; Charlton finally had their deserved equaliser right on the stroke of half-time.
With the fourth official, whose holding up of the board was probably the most accurate piece of officiating all afternoon, signalling four minutes off additional time, there was the chance of a momentum driven Charlton to swing the game completely. Lawrie Wilson, evading the disgusting lunge from Rudolph Austin, broke free down the right and hit a low cross into the middle that was turned goal wards by Church but cleared off the line by Tom Lees amidst calls for handball and for Austin to be booked. Stroud warmed himself to Charlton hearts further by giving neither. Jackson’s delivery after the initial corner was cleared caused havoc, and Harriott’s effort with the outside of his boot dipped just too late to creep underneath the bar in the last action of the half. The Addicks were applauded off for their fine performance; Stroud followed after to a chorus of boos.
Charlton wouldn’t have wanted the first half to end with it seemingly only a matter of time before they took the lead. Within three minutes of the second, Stroud took the momentum away from the Addicks.
Danny Pugh collected the ball in the area and went down under Harriott’s clumsy yet legitimate challenge. It certainly wasn’t something you’d see in a defending textbook, but there was no argument for it being deemed a foul. Two seconds after Pugh had hit the turf, Stroud sounded his whistle and pointed to the spot. Anger and disbelief filled The Valley; Hamer saving McCormack’s spot-kick was the only hope for justice to be salvaged. McCormack made sure that wouldn’t be happening by lashing the ball into the roof of the net and putting Leeds back in front.
After the hostility towards Stroud and Leeds died down a little, a flat atmosphere filled the home ends and Charlton responded on the pitch with much of the same. The zip and spark that had been on show in the first half had vanished and the Addicks were struggling to get forward. But Harriott, who was probably the player guiltiest of fading at the start of the half, finally tested Kenny ten minutes into the half, forcing the ‘keeper into an outstanding save from his deflected shot. Leeds quickly broke after the resulting corner, which Dervite hit over after Jackson found him unmarked at the back post, and, after being sent through in acres of space, Austin sliced a glorious opening for the visitors horribly wide.
With the clock ticking, Powell brought Yann Kermorgant on for Harriott as the Addicks hoped their talismanic striker would provide the equaliser they craved. Although not involved, he’d barely been on the pitch five minutes when Charlton pulled level for a second time.
Church chased down a lost cause in a wide position in signature fashion and finally had some luck when his initial delivery deflected off a Leeds body and came back to him, allowing him to drive into the box and pick out Jackson, who tapped in from close range. The skipper turned to the covered end and signalled he wanted them to lift themselves for the final 20 minutes of the game in a way that only the captain of Charlton Athletic can; game on.
Three minutes later, the game once again slipped from Charlton’s grasps, and once again much of the anger was directed at Stroud, if only to deflect from Charlton’s inept defending. A foul was given against Rhoys Wiggins by the corner flag, which seemed incredibly harsh, before another foul was given which led to more angry protests from Charlton fans and players. The resulting free-kick was pumped into the box, the Addicks failed to clear with Dervite heading backwards and into the path of McCormack, who sealed his hat-trick with a sweet volley past Hamer. It would take a monumental effort to come back for a third time.
In a carbon copy of the response to the second goal, Charlton fell flat again and resorted to hopeful long balls that caused few concerns to Leeds’ defence with even Kermorgant struggling to win a header. There were more shouts for a Charlton penalty after the Frenchman appeared to be pushed in the box as he went up to challenge for a cross, but again Stroud refused to listen to the desperate cries.
Pritchard and Marvin Sordell were thrown on in place of Wilson and Jordan Cousins, but they had no time to make an impact. The Addicks never looked like equalising as the game headed into stoppage time, and the game was soon well out of their reach. A free-kick, and this time one that couldn’t be challenged, was awarded after Wiggins brought Austin down just outside the area, and not inside as Michael Brown pleaded for. But he needn’t have worried as McCormack stepped and curled a delicious free-kick into the far corner of Hamer’s goal to round off an incredible display by the forward and condemn Charlton to their first defeat in six.
To lose was incredibly harsh on Charlton; to lose by two hurt. The Charlton fans made it known to Stroud as he walked off the pitch at full-time that they were blaming him for their disappointment.
From the pitch inspections, to the shower of goals and the never ending questionable refereeing decisions, it was a rather odd afternoon at The Valley. One that I’ll remember for the sheer anger I felt as I walked out the ground listening to the Leeds fans sing.
Jealousy and bitterness? I’m not ashamed to admit that that’s probably the case, but I couldn’t help but feel Stroud’s incompetence, mixed in with some incredible hard luck in front of goal, had prevented us from being the ones celebrating after the final whistle.
17 Charlton shots to Leeds’ nine and 64% possession for the Addicks tells a story in itself. The impressive performance that saw the game controlled by Charlton for the best part of 70 minutes tells the same tale. The best side on the day lost.
Stroud’s decisions were key, Charlton’s failure to take their chances just as crucial, but our ability to deal with long balls into the box was possibly the most frustrating aspect of the defeat. The first and third goals were easily preventable; a fit Richard Wood in the back four and even Mr Stroud might not have been able to deny Charlton at least a point.
But that shouldn’t take anything away from an incredible performance from Ross McCormack, who showed Charlton’s forwards how to finish off chances when they’re presented . Church was excellent, and was desperately unlucky, but would McCormack have finished the chances the Welshman had? I’d imagine so.
The most frustrating thing about this most frustrating of days to be a Charlton fan is that we have to wait a whole two weeks to get going again and start another unbeaten run. There were plenty of positives in the performance, and Powell will no doubt get his side going again in time for the tough trip to QPR.