In expectation, in hope and in fear, 5,000 Charlton fans made the journey north for arguably the club’s biggest game in 14 years. If it wasn’t the biggest, it was certainly the best chance the Addicks have had of reaching an FA Cup semi-final, and Wembley. In fact, they’d probably never get a better opportunity.
A thousand times throughout the week every Addick had visualised a Johnnie Jackson winner followed by a trademark knee slide; the dream was imagined a thousand times more in the cars, coaches and mini-buses on the M1 up to Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane.
But, equally, the horrible thought of witnessing 25,000 Blades celebrate as their in-form side dumped Charlton out of the cup had cropped up time and time again in the past seven days. The worry, and the nerves, only got worse as the smell of a greasy chip butty got closer.
So impressive have the League One side been of late, and with the Bramall Lane advantage, you could go as far to say the club a division below Chris Powell’s Championship strugglers were favourites.
The pressure, however, was all on the Addicks. If United lost, there would be no shame, and their fans, as gutted as they might be, could take solace from their incredible run to the quarter-final stage. Should Charlton lose, they would have the embarrassment of falling to defeat against a lower division side, and only feelings of heartbreak, disappointment and regret to take back with them down south.
It was all or nothing. Make a break. Ecstasy or depression. The nerves amongst the large travelling number were understandable; they were replicated on the pitch from those in black in the first half. It was cagey, but the Blades were just about on top.
Surely the second-half would be better? In this wonderful cup competition, that creates heroes and villains, surely one of Powell’s men would make themselves a hero?
And with 59 minutes played, from a cleverly taken free-kick, an opportunity to be a hero emerged. Marcus Tudgay beat Mark Howard to the ball and his volleyed cross picked out Callum Harriott; the youngster who has found the going tough at times this season. All he had to do was slot the ball into an empty net, some were already celebrating, but the winger’s effort tricked well wide of goal.
From the chance to be a hero to a villain in a matter of moments; but Harriott had company as the Addicks capitulated in embarrassing style.
Richard Wood couldn’t deal with Jose Baxter’s cross, allowing Ryan Flynn to put the home side in front, and a deflection off the centre-back helped John Brayford’s effort beat Ben Hamer and give the Blades a second goal in the space of two minutes.
There was over 20 minutes to play, but this was game over. Heads had dropped, no fight was left and Powell’s system wasn’t its usual structured self. A mess, and an embarrassing one.
The nightmare of watching United fans celebrate was realised; Wembley was taken away from the side who, in putting in their worst display of a season with plenty of contenders for that accolade, simply didn’t deserve to grace the national stadium.
Expectations weren’t met, hope was crushed and the fear became a fright. Charlton Athletic had let their fans down.
It hurts to remember a time when there was hope, but the first belting of ‘Valley Floyd Road’ from those passionate Addicks who had defied the odds to get to Brammall Lane in time for kick-off made you want to believe this was Charlton’s day.
The real battle early on was between the lungs of the two sets of supporters as they belted out their anthems whilst a game of football stuttered into life in front of them. Charlton appeared reluctant to take their possession beyond the half-way line, losing it when they did, the Blades driving forward through midfield but unable to find an opening in and around the box.
In fact, the only meaningful chances of the first twenty minutes came from a corner kick for either side. Neill Collins nodded Baxter’s delivery horribly wide, whilst Michael Morrison was agonisingly close to making contact with a Jackson set-piece that surely would have given the visitors an early lead.
It would have been an undeserved advantage for the Addicks, who had been second best to that point, but the visitors had the game’s first two efforts on target in quick succession.
A lovely interchange between Simon Church and Tudgay, starting his first game for the club in Charlton’s only change from the defeat to Leicester City, saw the former direct a tame effort towards goal that was easily dealt with by Howard, and Harriott followed up with a well struck drive from range that was gathered by the United ‘keeper a minute later.
You hoped the shots would be the catalyst for Powell’s side to get their act together and take the game to their third tier opponents, but they continued to appear nervous and didn’t look comfortable nor capable of causing any threat outside of their own half.
On the other hand, United had players with the ability to canter forward with the ball at their feet, allowing the hosts a great deal more possession away from their defensive third. One such attacking move ended with Jamie Murphy’s effort flashing across the face of goal; Hamer was happy enough to watch the ball go by his goal, but it was a sign of the threat the Blades possessed.
By now, the nerves in the away end had only increased, and their volume was affected accordingly, but Tudgay’s effort, well saved by Howard, and Church’s dogged work to keep the ball in play got them going again.
But a lull in an already gritty game ensued, with fouls preventing any sort of flow. Jackson’s cynical swipe to bring down Flynn the ‘pick’ of a number of challenges that left a lot to be desired.
And with the travelling support just about regaining their composure after their skipper was only given a yellow as punishment for his nasty looking tackle, they had to pick up their hearts and stomachs after the net Hamer was guarding rippled. Thankfully, a linesman’s flag ruled out Connor Coady’s effort after Brayford’s blocked shot fell into his path.
Half-time really couldn’t come soon enough for the Addicks, but, after Murphy teed him up, Bob Harris was a whisker away from punishing the visitors’ sluggish performance in stoppage time. The full-back’s effort, hit whilst slightly off-balance, agonisingly cleared the bar.
An applause of encouragement serenaded the Addicks off the pitch as they trudged off for the break, and plenty of encouragement was needed at half-time from Powell, with his side second best to the expert cup giant-killers.
5,000 managers in the Jessica Ennis Stand called for a substitution before the second period got underway, most wanting a luckless Jordan Cousins to be taken off, but Powell intrusted his troops to respond which a much improved performance after the interval.
They didn’t. In fact, Sheffield United came out looking to add some threat to their promising moves forward, whilst Charlton had failed to calm their nerves and grow out of their timid first-half display.
The impressive Stefan Scougall, who must have clocked up some mileage with the ball at his feet in the game to that point, lashed a wayward effort from distance, but the equally as excellent Harry Maguire fooled one side of the ground into thinking he had given the Blades a lead they deserved moments later.
A Charlton head met Baxter’s corner, but still the Addicks struggled to clear. The ball found its way back to Maguire, who held off Morrison with relative ease, before the young centre back turned and fired an effort that hit the side netting with some ferocity. The second time a premature celebration from the United fans had pleasured the away supporters; they had little else to find enjoyment from.
But, a little over five minutes later, the anxious Londoners should have been up in celebration.
Whilst the game remained level, there was still hope that Charlton could break out of their shackles and make a real impression on the game, or at least nick a goal.
The second possibility seemed to be about to take place when a quickly taken free-kick from Jackson was chipped over the United defence and into the path of Tudgay. Howard raced out, but the Nottingham Forest loanee got their first, lofting the ball over the ‘keeper and into a dangerous area, where Harriott awaited.
The young winger was under a little bit of pressure, but there was really no excuse for missing the chance. Only the fact that it seemed too good to be true stopped me from celebrating, the ball whistling past the post and behind left me in despair; this was not going to be our day.
But Harriott was looking to redeem himself, and after the youngster picked up possession in midfield, he cut inside and picked out Tudgay, who had a clear run at goal. He may have shot too early, although it was another rare sight of goal and probably had to be taken, but the former Sheffield Wednesday hero could only drag his shot disappointingly wide.
Powell took off a hardworking but less than effective Church, bringing on Astrit Ajdaveric in his place in the hope that he would provide at least an element of creativity for his side that were now at least beginning to create chances, but the substitution proved irrelevant.
Baxter’s ball into the box appeared to be nothing more than a regulation delivery; one that Wood would surely deal with. But the centre back waved a half-hearted leg at the bouncing ball, getting no where near it, leaving Flynn free at the far post to poke past Hamer from close range.
There it was, the image I had thought would remain a nightmare, a celebrating Bramall Lane. It was too much; my dreams of Wembley were vanishing before my eyes, and the United fans were experiencing exactly what I wanted.
The players in black looked despondent, but on so many occasions Chris Powell’s Charlton had overturned situations like this. A one goal deficit with 25 minutes still to play, if the Addicks called upon their famous fighting spirit, could easily become a one goal advantage by full-time.
But that fighting spirit wasn’t on show; the players weren’t performing and lacked any form of confidence. In reality, coming back from a goal down was going to be a hard ask, coming back from two would be impossible.
So when Brayford latched onto a loose ball on the edge of the area and hit a tame drive that deflected off Wood to deceive Hamer and creep into the back of the net less than two minutes later, all hope was lost. Admits the standing Addicks, I sunk to my seat, unwilling to add pictures the sound of the Blades celebrating and in order to give myself half a chance of holding back the tears. The football club I loved so much had let me down when I, and everyone else in the away end at Bramall Lane, needed a win from it the most; it hurt.
With the game unfortunately back underway, Ajdaveric tried his luck from the edge of the area but his effort trickled wide, much to the delight of the increasingly barmy United faithful. They had no reason to believe they would not be going to Wembley; Charlton fans had every reason to break down into a chaotic mess of tears and anger in a now horribly silent away end.
A chaotic mess was also moonlighting as a football team in front of them; the second goal had caused the Addicks to descend further into a shambles. Powell needed to bring some fresh attacking legs on, and the introduction of Reza Ghoochannejhad and Danny Green, begrudgingly in the latter’s case, were welcome, but the decision to bring off Diego Poyet and Lawrie Wilson completely destroyed the shape of the side. Charlton were there to be carved open.
Their plight wasn’t helped by individual errors, and a group of players who seemingly had no desire to play out the final twenty minutes with any sort of effort.
Baxter, Murphy and Flynn all went close to giving United a third, before the hosts were only denied another goal by the linesman’s flag, with Coady in an offside position again as he tapped in after the ball rebounded off the post.
United boss Nigel Clough had the chance to give his heroes the standing ovation they deserved, with the superb Baxter, Scougall and Flynn all replaced, but the home side couldn’t find the third they deserved, and Charlton’s response to the second goal merited.
In fact, Charlton came close to rescuing the smallest ounce of pride in the final minute of four added on when Ghoochannejhad forced Howard into a point blank save with his sharp volley, but a defeat by a margin of just one would have flattered the Addicks.
As full-time came, the contrast between the two sets of supporters couldn’t be any more marked. The jubilation and joy of the Blades, who struggled to stop themselves invading the pitch, and the sombre and angered Addicks, who booed strongly the players brave enough to come over and thank them for their support.
As I stood there, staring disapprovingly at the Addicks, hoping they may catch my glare, I thought back to the last time Charlton came to Bramall Lane. The score was 2-0 that day too, but Powell’s side were victorious, and it was a win that cemented their position at the top of League One.
Give me the rock solid Matthew Taylor over the shambolic Richard Wood. Give me a fit Chris Solly. Give me Scott Wagstaff, Dale Stephens and Bradley Wright-Phillips. But, most of all, give me Yann Kermorgant. That side was better than the one that embarrassed the club today; that side was the one we used in League One. We’ve gone backwards.
So much so that almost every United player would get into our side on a regular basis; every United player was much, much better than his Charlton counterpart today.
But that wasn’t hard; only Morrison and Jackson can feel anything more than disgust in their performance.
Hamer’s distribution was dreadful, Wilson struggled to deal with Baxter all afternoon, whilst Rhoys Wiggins had similar problems with Flynn. Their performances, however, were positively bearable compared to the shift, or lack of, put in by Richard Wood. At fault for both goals and error prone throughout the 90 minutes, I dream of seeing a fully fit Leon Cort as much as I do a Chris Solly.
But in midfield was where battle was really lost. United’s was strong, quick and forward thinking; Charlton ‘s was weak, timid and rarely making a successful pass forward. Where United’s wingers drove their side onwards, Cousins had his worst game in a Charlton shirt and Harriott’s decision making, not to mention that miss, was dreadful.
The front two were isolated, the subs unable to make any impact on a game that was already lost. No player in black deserved to be involved in a side that had made a FA Cup semi-final; every player in red and white was outstanding and they thoroughly warranted their victory.
Of course, I have every sympathy for Powell; comparing our side now both to the League One XI and Sheffield United’s shows just how weak his hand is. But he made a number of mistakes that played a part in the embarrassing defeat, not least failing to motivate his players for such an occasion and the prospect of Wembley.
Do I have faith in Powell to motivate the confidence-sapped players in order to avoid relegation? I most certainly do. Do I have faith in the ability of his players, and that they have enough to claws us away from bottom and out of the relegation zone? It’s really hard to argue for that after the embarrassingly display today.
Today really was make or break. Sheffield United are living the dream; Charlton are left with nothing but thoughts of anger, a lot of hurt and an ever increasing fear of relegation.
It’s a day in which being a Charlton fan is painful. I worry there are more of those days to come. I worry we may never have a chance of seeing our club march towards the FA Cup semi-final stages again. Im distraught and I’m hurt.