A team who had given everything for over 90 minutes, a manager who had masterminded his greatest win and a skipper who had delivered his finest moment in Charlton red were expected to do it all once again in a match of arguably larger significance just two days later.
A fifth round tie in football’s oldest competition; a tie that had previously been postponed due to Hillsborough’s waterlogged pitch. Only two wins were needed for Chris Powell to take his side to Wembley. This was massive, but also a massive task.
Sheffield Wednesday, who made several changes to the starting XI that took to the field in their win over Huddersfield Town, were not only fresh, but wanted this more. A trip to rivals Sheffield United would be the reward if they could knock the Addicks out of the FA Cup; a Steel City Derby with the winner heading to the famous arch.
There was surely only one winner; Wednesday’s desire for the derby fixture, not to mention their ability that has lifted the Owls well clear of the relegation zone in the league, would surely be too much for Powell’s sapped men.
Charlton’s odds could have only lengthened when the bookies got a hold of their team sheet. Where Wednesday’s changes strengthened them, Charlton’s five were mixed.
The return of Ben Hamer and Astrit Ajdaveric starting was excellent news; academy graduate Morgan Fox facing a tough debut, in place of the excellent Rhoys Wiggins, and Simon Church left to fend for himself up front was less so.
But this Charlton side care little for odds. There’s no way of measuring their most impressive qualities; determination, fight and a love for a club that has no doubt been drilled into them by their boss.
The desire to meet a rival in a cup quarter-final is one thing; the desire to find the strength to battle once again so soon after the most impressive of victories and to win for the club, teammates and manager you love is another.
It was all on show at full-time. Ninety-minutes of pure fight, with just that little bit of quality, Johnnie Jackson calling his close nit group of players in to visit the celebrating fans together, Andy Hughes holding a loft Chris Powell as the champion he is.
A scrappy game with a 2-1 victory for the Addicks is one way to look at it; but it was so much more than that. It was a team giving everything for 90 minutes once again, a manager masterminding an incredible victory once more and a skipper further cementing his legendary status.
It was a night to warm your heart; a night to feel proud of this great club once again. Chris Powell’s Charlton are back.
Those pre-games apprehensions and nerves were turned into pure excitement by the way the Addicks started the game; the best 20 minutes Charlton have mustered away from home this season.
Church broke free down the right and won his side a corner less than 30 seconds into the game, more than enough ammunition to send an already vocal away end into a frenzy of passion that would know no limit throughout the game.
The corner came to nothing, but Stuart Gray’s side looked shell-shocked in the opening stages; as soon as they gained possession they were pressured into panic that saw it handed back to the visitors. Former Addick Miguel Llera’s long balls picked out Michael Morrison and Richard Wood at the back for Charlton with alarming regularity.
Therefore, it was to the shock of no one inside the famous old ground that the Addicks had the game’s first chance; a chance that ended in desperate gasps but should have concluded with delirium in the away end.
Harriott, facing the daunting prospect of finding a way through two opponents on the wing, beat them both with one piece of trickery, a great deal of strength for someone so slight and an unbelievable amount of pace.
The academy graduate, one of five in the starting XI, picked out Ajdaveric, the only Standard Liege loanee on the pitch, and the Swede saw his shot blocked, only for the ball to return straight to him. Agonisingly so, his second effort took a slight deflection off Llera that diverted the ball wide by the slenderest of margins.
The disappointment in the away end didn’t last long; the travelling fans were determined to make this a night to remember, whatever their result. Twelve minutes in and neither Charlton’s superb start nor the atmosphere the Addicks were creating had allowed me to pause for breath.
But they needn’t have worried about artificially creating an unforgettable night, Chris Powell’s side were determined to do that for them. After ten more minutes of the visitors being in complete control, including a Church cross that just skipped past Harriott and a wayward shot from the young winger, they got the lead their performance thus far deserved.
Jordan Cousins, whose steady contribution has often gone unnoticed in recent weeks, set the ball back to Ajdaveric. The classy midfielder’s drilled shot was blocked, but the loose ball bounced up perfectly for Harriott on the edge of the box. His first time shot with the outside of his boot crashed into the top corner of the net; a vicious strike that sparked a deafening roar from the away end amidst their chaotic celebrations.
There was now surely one winner, and it wasn’t the one many had predicted before-kick. A superb passing move in Charlton’s next attack after the goal merited a second, but Cousins pulled his shot wide, whilst Church took fire from just outside the area and forced home ‘keeper Martinez into a smart save.
But Wednesday haven’t climbed up the league table in recent weeks for nothing; they’re a decent side with a serious threat in the air, and that finally started to show in the latter half of the first period.
Owls forwards Benik Afobe and Leon Best, who came close to joining the Addicks, suddenly started testing Morrison and Wood, but the defensive duo were stern.
In fact, the visitors remained composed and resolute until the 38th minute, when Gary Gardner produced Wednesday’s first meaningful effort. However, with Hamer back between the sticks, no longer was there a feeling of panic with every half chance fired in the general direction of Charlton’s goal. The half-volley from the edge of the area was comfortably collected by the returning stopper.
Hamer was on hand again three minutes later as Leon Best volleyed towards goal from Miguel Llera’s 6,000,000th long ball of his career, but Charlton’s number one was more than equal to drive that was directed straight towards his palms.
After Fox had been outmuscled by Best in the build up to the strike, Hamer spared the blushes of another youngster by getting to Diego Poyet’s weak back pass ahead of Afobe, but you could sense a shift in momentum and half-time couldn’t come quick enough for Powell’s men.
However, just before the interval, the Addicks felt a sense of injustice as Simon Church was fed through on goal. The forward had put in a superb shift, giving Llera a torrid time all night, and the Spaniard appeared to haul him down with the Welshman clean through. Referee Clattenburg saw nothing wrong with the, at best, clumsy challenge and opted not to award a free-kick, let alone a red card. Dismay, disbelief and disgust from both Church and the travelling Addicks.
Nonetheless, half-time arrived with Charlton ahead; a deserved lead and one that was appreciated by the ever vocal away fans.
But the start of the second half was going to be crucial; if Wednesday built upon some promising signs shown at the end of the first, it was going to be an arduous 45 minutes from the Charlton supporters to endure.
They did exactly that. In fact, Charlton couldn’t get a touch of the ball for the first two minutes, whilst Leon Best saw an effort blocked and Giles Coke, after pushing Diego Poyet to the floor without being penalised, fired wide. Deep breaths.
With the Addicks finally getting a hold of the ball, some neat build up play created an opening for Jackson, but his shot from range just flashed with Martinez beaten.
Another opening should have come Charlton’s way when Harriott dispossessed Maguire and saw a path to goal, but Clattenburg saw a foul that didn’t appear to be there. The Premier League official, whether making wrong calls or not, seemed to be intent on breaking up the game and awarding free-kicks to both sides as frequently as possible.
It made for a rather stop-start second-half, and one in which set-pieces proved crucial. With 57 minutes played, a free-kick awarded for a rather soft foul by Wood on Best resulted in Sheffield Wednesday pulling level.
The delivery was won by Llera at the far post and headed back across goal, where Best was lurking, and the Irishman finished emphatically. A sickening blow, not least owing to how close the Blackburn loanee was to joining Charlton last week, that silenced the away end for the first time.
That silence had ended by the time the Addicks placed the ball back on the centre circle. ‘Red Army’ was the roar from the increasingly hungry away end; they wanted this, and they wanted to make sure the players did too.
Church was embodying the desire and determination of all eleven men in red, and his attempt to glide past Llera resulting in the clumsy Spaniard blocking him and Clattenburg awarding the Addicks a free-kick in a promising position.
Jackson’s delivery was exquisite, Church’s movement superb, the Welshman’s connection enough to reclaim Charlton’s lead. There was more than a hint of handball, but that mattered little to the once again delirious supporters behind the goal Church had just scored in.
Twenty-five minutes remained, but you could do little but believe this was meant to be.
The sense it was going to be Charlton’s night only increased when a corner was met by the head of substitute Atdhe Nuhiu and crashed against the post before, judging by the noise from the home ends, appearing to cross the line. But the excellent Hamer and reacted sharply to the ball bouncing off the woodwork, and the bearded stopper had claimed the ball just before it had trickled into his goal. Heart attacks in the away end.
The clock continued to tick, Church received a standing ovation as Reza replaced him and the Addicks maintained their superb resoluteness. In fact, they kept Wednesday away from goal right up until the final three minutes of the game. Even then, there was no getting past Charlton’s number one.
A dangerous low cross was sent into the box by second-half sub Jeremy Helan, but Hamer raced out to tip the ball away from the feet of Nuhiu. The danger was far from over, however, as Best reacted to the loose ball, but Hamer again got to the Wednesday man and grabbed the ball off the tips of his toes. Reckless? Probably. Sensational goalkeeping? Most definitely.
The home side kept coming and Wood was lucky to stay on the pitch after he brought down Nuhiu with the Austrian bearing down on goal, receiving just a yellow. But Wednesday wasted the free-kick, and the resulting corner was headed well over by Nuhiu. One minute remained.
The cautioned Wood was taken out of the firing line, replaced by Dervite, whilst Diego Poyet won the Addicks a free-kick in stoppage-time 25 yards from goal. Wednesday barely bothered with a wall and no Addick stood in front of the kick taker, but Ajdaveric’s effort was well saved, and held, by Martinez.
Despite their brief foray forward, Charlton were clinging on desperately. Deep into five minutes of stoppage time, the ball sat up nicely for Maguire, but his effort towards goal was going to be claimed by Hamer. However, it took a wicked deflection off Morrison and the Charlton stopper was forced to make the most sensational reaction stop to deny Wednesday a leveller. There was still a corner to deal with, but it was celebrated like a goal.
The Addicks dealt with it, and Wednesday could give no more. The hosts had given their all in search of a goal that would keep their hopes of playing their neighbours alive, but there was no getting past a resolute, determined and inspired set of Charlton players.
With pandemonium once again breaking out in the away end upon Clatternburg’s final whistle, Jackson showed the calm and leadership ability that makes him so adored as captain. The players so easily could have come over in their own time, in small clusters, and no one would have batted an eyelid. But, sensing what a moment this was, Jackson called all his players in and led them over to the away end together.
Morrison, Dervite and Wilson were slightly ahead of the back, and the trio burst into celebration the moment they entered the penalty box in front of the end housing the Charlton fans. The rest followed, just as passionately celebrating a sensational display of guts and grit that had earned them progression to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
One man was missing though; the man that masterminded this triumph. Powell’s arrival produced one of the loudest cheers of the nights. The cheers only got louder as Hughes bear-hugged him into the air, before Powell was left to celebrate with his fans alone.
Passionate fist pumps followed, before, in act of sheer delight, the suited gaffer jumped up and swung from the crossbar. PE teachers all over the land reacted in horror; Charlton fans, if at all possible, fell in love with their hero just that little bit more.
What did I do during all of this? Watched. I might have clapped, but it was subconscious. I wanted to watch and let this moment sink in. Here was a group of players who loved this club, celebrating like fans, with a manager displaying such an incredible show of passion. The joy of winning was superb; the scenes after full-time made it the proudest night of my Charlton supporting life and the whole package made it one of the best nights of my life. Whatever has occurred in recent weeks, this football club is special.
Also special was the performance. The opening 25 minutes was the best passage of Charlton play away from The Valley since the 6-0 win over Barnsley. It was relentless, almost perfect, and another goal or two wouldn’t have been flattering for the Addicks at that stage.
And whilst the attacking intensity dropped off, the structured and disciplined approach that proved so crucial in the win over QPR remained. Wednesday provided a great deal more threat than the Rs, but the Addicks still stood firm. An astonishing performance that can’t be undervalued.
The back four were superb, Wilson again particularly impressing and Fox, whilst guilty of few errors, can hold his head high with his debut performance.
Harriott had his best game of the season, and arguably his best for the club, whilst Ajdarevic oozed class, and kept things ticking in the hole.
Poyet and Cousins carried on from where they left off on Saturday, along with Jackson, who was outstanding; not bad for a man many didn’t want in the team before Saturday.
The two stand outs, however, were Hamer and Church. Simply put, the two match winners. Hamer’s save at one end and Church’s endeavour, and goal, were the book ends to a sensational performance and a big part of the reason why the Addicks will again be travelling to Sheffield in two weeks to face United.
A place at Wembley awaits, and these last three days are probably turning points in the history of Charlton Athletic, but for now, I’m going to savour this moment for as long as possible.
What a performance, what a night, what a football club.