A third round FA Cup tie at home to a League Two side doesn’t seem like the obvious backdrop to a number of noteworthy occasions.
Alas, Oxford United’s visit to The Valley was momentous for three reasons.
The first was that The Valley’s playing surface was finally fit for football after three consecutive postponements. In fact, this was the third attempt to get this game played; a waterlogged pitch prevented the fixture being fulfilled on both its original and the first rearranged date.
The day Oxford fans were first prevented from making their journey to South East London, with the original fixture postponed on Friday 3 January, was also the day that Belgium businessman Roland Duchatelet completed his purchase of Charlton. With the home game against Barnsley also postponed on Saturday, this would be the first game of a new era.
But it wasn’t all new owners and new pitch covers at The Valley; some things are part of the furniture. Chris Powell was celebrating the third anniversary of his appointment as Charlton boss, with many Addicks supporters already looking ahead to the next three years of their flat-capped hero’s rein.
And, even in this new era, the SE7 club showed two elements, one heart-warmingly positive and another painfully frustrating, which have become synonymous with Powell’s time in charge.
Charlton’s trademark inability to perform in cup ties saw them embarrassingly capitulate to a 2-0 deficit at half-time, before Powell’s side’s signature sheer determination against the odds prevailed, with the Addicks snatching a draw they just about deserved.
Fears of a typically underwhelming performance against lower league opposition in the cup appeared to be averted before kick-off, with Powell clearly desperate to spend another Saturday in glorious Huddersfield (or, more plausibly, simply win a game).
Whilst Chris Solly and Dale Stephens were absent, the bulk of what many consider to be Charlton’s strongest XI took to the field to do battle with United for the right to travel up north in the fourth round.
Ben Hamer made a long awaited return from injury replacing Ben Alnwick, whilst Simon Church, Johnnie Jackson and Bradley Pritchard returned to the starting line-up. There was also a chance from the start for Jordan Cook, who impressed off the bench at Ipswich Town on New Year’s Day,
However, there weren’t many signs early on that the Addicks would be dominating the game, as many a Charlton fan expected.
Oxford were there to cause an upset, and raced out of the blocks; the home side sloppy and lacklustre in comparison.
Despite the overall pattern of play, it was the Addicks who had the game’s first meaningful effort on goal. Lawrie Wilson was played into space on the right and delivered a teasing cross. Cristiano Ronaldo would have been proud of Jackson’s leap, but less so of his header, as his powerful nod towards got flew just wide.
But any optimism taken from that attempt was misguided; Charlton’s untidy performance reflected the surface they were, when hopeless long balls weren’t pumped forward, delivering it on.
Rhoys Wiggins was caught in possession with ten minutes played, and hastily committed a foul on Scott Davies who had broken away from him. Whilst the delivery came to nothing, it was to be the first of many individual mistakes, and one of few Charlton weren’t punished for.
Although appearing to push Richard Wood, Oxford talisman James Constable broke free after getting the better of Charlton’s centre back. Only a timely block from Michael Morrison prevented the visitors taking the lead.
The resulting corner was won by Wood under no challenge, but he directed the ball back where it came from. Davies’ second delivery found John Mullins, whose deflected effort appeared to be floating into Hamer’s hands. That was until Morrison stuck out an aimless leg that directed the ball into the far corner of the net.
“Embarrassing,” was the rather vocal shout from one member of the Lower North Choir (consider it like a replacement bus service that pops up on a day when people are less likely to travel, like they were to attend The Valley for the visit of a League Two outfit), whilst many threw their head into their hands. That positive vibe from Duchatelet’s takeover hadn’t lasted long.
An already disgruntled Valley ground were left further frustrated by yet more individual errors, Pritchard, Morrison and Cousins all guilty, and Kermorgant’s inability to finish.
The Frenchman didn’t look himself for much of the half, not least when he turned down the chance to volley an equaliser and instead dinked the ball back across the face of goal, to no avail.
The Addicks couldn’t find a way forward, let alone test Clarke in the Oxford goal. The visitor’s centre back paring, with captain Wright to the fore, won almost every long ball sent forward by the desperate home side.
And the situation got even worse for Charlton with 24 minutes played. Cousins took far too long in possession, losing the battle with Constable, which set Davies free. He bore down on goal from a similar angle to which Constable had done earlier on, but this time there was to be no crucial intervention. Davies’ sweet strike flashed past Hamer and into the far corner. Surreal.
You couldn’t blame the Charlton fans for their anger, but their decision to take it out on Bradley Pritchard lacked rational thinking. The midfielder had a torrid time, but so had many others in a red shirt. That he was the scapegoat seemed clear when an over hit Cousins pass sailed over his head, but Pritchard took the blame.
Players are not deaf, nor are they immune to abuse. Confidence crushing actions from the home crowd.
Away from the Pritchard bashing, Addicks supporters almost had a third Oxford goal to curse as Sean Rigg’s long range effort flew just over the bar. No Charlton defender had closed the man down, and those defensive frailties marred the remainder of the half.
Morrison under hit passes, Wilson was dispossessed more than once and Cousins was finding life tough in the middle. Half-time couldn’t come quick enough.
But, just before the break, Charlton had something of a half chance. A blocked shot fell to Pritchard, and his low effort on goal was gathered by Clarke at the second attempt. It was as if the effort hadn’t occurred, with the Valley crowd silent but for the occasional tut.
The half ended with Kermorgant failing to control a long ball that might have been the catalyst for an opening had he fought off the Oxford defender.
He trudged off, with his team mates, to a chorus of boos, the level of which hadn’t been heard since the Millwall defeat in September.
A response was needed in the second period, and it was apparent Charlton would have the chance to put some pressure on their opponents. Oxford’s long balls forward were aimless, and they weren’t committing men forward.
And still, even with the visitors sitting off, the Addicks failed to make a real mark on the game. It was anything but fluid.
Alas, with opportunities at a premium in the first half, Charlton at least carved out some openings with the supporters chanting suggesting they were back on their side.
A short corner should have brought a goal back for Charlton, but Kermorgant’s shot was scuffed and was gathered with ease by Clarke.
But there was little the Oxford ‘keeper could so with the effort that followed the home side’s next corner with 54 minutes played.
Cook’s ball in was perfect, Morrison’s header was clinical. The vice-captain had made amends for his errors in the opening 45 and given Charlton a route back into the tie.
It was far from pretty, but the Addicks were now on top. Pritchard had a shot blocked, then saw a cross turned away and into the path of Jackson, whose effort forced a good save out Clarke.
Oxford, however, had no intentions of lying down and giving up their lead. In fact, they almost added a third when James Constable headed towards goal, but Hamer pulled off a superb stop to keep the away side’s lead to just a single goal.
Davies and Wiggins exchanged optimistic long range efforts that both veered way off target, before Bradley Pritchard, to the sound of cheers, was replaced by Danny Green with 25 minutes to play.
It didn’t click immediately for the substitute, but he was providing something of a threat down the right hand side, testing the tired legs of Oxford full-back Tom Newey.
But it was another substitute on the opposite flank who provided the assist for Charlton’s best chance to pull level with the game entering its final ten minutes. Callum Harriott’s excellent delivery was met by Jackson, but his header bounced agonisingly wide of the post. The look on the skipper’s face suggested he knew he’d blown his side’s chances of forcing a replay, but he needn’t have worried.
Green, often cautious and rarely showing such ability, opted to run at Newey and was rewarded with a bit of luck as the ball deflected off the defender and back into the winger’s path. Green’s cross picked out Kermorgant, and the Frenchman emphatically volleyed beyond Clarke.
Whilst the Addicks behind the goal were celebrating with such vigour to suggest it was the winner, the half-time boos now a distant memory, Kermorgant clearly wasn’t happy with just a draw. Eight minutes remained, and the forward made a dash to collect the ball from the net and restart play as quickly as possible; surely Charlton couldn’t win this?
Deep into five minutes of injury time, a cross from the right looked to have provided Charlton with a third goal to mark Chris Powell’s third year in charge. Harriott was on the end of the delivery, and his header was heading in, but a crucial interception from David Hunt diverted the ball behind for a corner.
Despite the second half domination, defeat would have been unfair on Oxford, and a victory highly flattering to a lacklustre Charlton. In the end, a draw was just about fair.
First of all, credit must go to Oxford. Despite falling away in the second half, they made the most of Charlton’s dire first half display and were rewarded for their attacking endeavour. It’s not difficult to see why they’re near the top of their division; such energy and threat up top must scare the life out of League Two defences.
But the Addicks we’re well below even standards fit for League Two in the opening 45 minutes. It was an embarrassing display that provided no spark going forward and numerous individual errors from every man in a red shirt. Not even the absent of Dale Stephens’ creativity and Chris Solly’s heroicness could be used as an adequate excuse.
The improvement in the second half was huge, but it had to be. Even so, the performance in the final 45 was merely teetering on the verge of being adequate. It was still lacklustre but I can only commend Chris Powell’s side for showing their trademark fight to scrape over the line and earn a replay.
On an individual level, amidst the at times depressing performances from some, there were a handful of somewhat pleasing performances.
Wiggins, after that early error, recovered well and did little wrong in comparison to his team mates, likewise Jackson, although the pair will be left disappointed by their crossing and finishing on occasions.
Simon Church put plenty of energy and guts into his performance, chasing down defenders with lighting quick pace, but once again was let down by his end product.
Praise must also go to Green and Harriott, who really helped to give Charlton some impetus going into the final period of the game. It was obvious how much we missed Cameron Stewart’s threat down a flank, and the pair helped to provide something like that.
I would warn against getting carried away by either, they were playing against four tier opposition, after all, but it was promising to see two players I’ve criticised this season perform well.
However, the likes of Morrison (despite his goal), Cousins and Pritchard simply didn’t perform. Morrison’s performance can be passed off as a bad night, he’s been solid in recent weeks and showed some signs of recovery in the second half what must have been his worst 45 minutes in a Charlton shirt in the first.
But the performances of Cousins and Pritchard are a little more worrying.
Cousins, at just 19, is an excellent prospect and superb when at his best, like against Brighton on Boxing Day. However, on a couple of occasions in the last month or so, his performance level has dipped and he’s developed a habit of throwing away possession cheaply. Tonight was the first time he was properly punished for it. Hopefully it’s a huge lesson to the young man, but I would argue he could do with a game or two out of the team, having not missed a match since October. He will no doubt return stronger.
On the other hand, I have serious doubts as to whether Bradley Pritchard will recover from such a performance, and such a reaction from his supporters. In his three seasons with the club, Pritchard has been a big game player in League One, an excellent winger for much of last season and hardworking cog in a central midfield three. But the last few months have seen Pritchard decline steeply, so much so that he looked lost against a League Two side, not to mention incredibly unfit.
Despite his performance, the abuse he received was unacceptable. I felt embarrassed to have to sit and listen whilst a player in a Charlton shirt was treated like an enemy.
As many of my regular readers will know, I idolise Pritchard. Whilst others may have given up on him, I know he has the ability hiding away somewhere. I compare his performance in this game and the one against Barnsley in the 6-0 victory last season and they couldn’t be any more different. Out pacing his man to running in quick sand, using his strength to win possession to being bossed off every ball and delivery fine passes, crosses and scoring to looking lost for ideas with the ball at his feet. I hope he returns to the high standards he set last season, but I worry his chance has gone.
But, despite the serious issues with the performance, Chris Powell’s men have once again fought against the odds to salvage something from a certain defeat. Play up to the level that was at least shown in the second half and the replay should result in a Charlton victory.