It had all the makings of one of ‘those’ nights. One of those nights that makes you question your sanity and look enviously upon people who get their kicks from knitting.
It started with a four hour trip from deepest Sussex to the East Midlands, part of which was undertaken on a service that promised plug sockets but didn’t deliver. I was also promised that I would be picked up from Nottingham train station, but my father’s Rover shot past me, unaware I was waiting, forcing me to walk.
And after taking several wrong turnings and being redirected on a number of occasions, the City Ground’s away end was finally located, only for an announcement of a delay to kick-off to be made not long after the turnstile operator had ripped off the end of my stub.
Finally, a steward who seemed adamant that the seats printed on our tickets should be sat in despite the fact not 300 Addicks had made the journey north. All these little annoyances were surely leading to one large one; Nottingham Forest achieving their first win in nine at the expense of Charlton.
You’d have been a brave man to bet against that after the first 45 minutes of football. It was a contest between two sides that had no idea what to do with the ball once in or around the box, but Forest were marginally the better side. In fact, they should have gone in at the break ahead; the post denying Simon Cox and Ben Hamer tipping away Darius Henderson’s header.
With half-time dedicated to moans about Charlton’s lack of bite when going forward, news filtered through that a certain Frenchman had scored his second goal of the night for his new club. One of those nights?
But as the second period progressed, the hosts regressed further and further. This was a performance from a great club that insulted the supporters that had seen their side start so well this season, let alone those who had witnessed European triumphs.
Forest were there for the taking, but it looked like the Addicks were going to pass up that chance. Improving, and showing plenty of huff, but still severely handicapped whenever Karl Darlow’s goal became something more than a distant figure.
It was all set up perfectly for a late winner from the side Gary Brazil was caretaking after Billy Davies’ departure, and there was a late goal. A horrendous error in midfield, the playmaker driving towards goal and sending the second half substitute free.
But this was Forest’s error, Charlton’s playmaker and a player introduced by Riga on the hour. Jonathon Obika, collecting Astrit Ajdaveric’s ball, might have seen his initial effort hit the post, but Jordan Cousins was there to tap in the rebound.
It wasn’t pretty, it was arguably a little bit lucky and undeniably very gritty, but it was a goal celebrated with vigour and a win that could hardly have been more crucial.
One of those nights? One of those nights that makes plug-socketless train journeys worth it.
When the game finally got underway 15 minutes later than scheduled owing to traffic holding up Charlton’s team coach, it became apparent almost immediately there was a certain amount of fluidity to Riga’s set-up.
The usual flat back four and a central midfield trio of Johnnie Jackson, Jordan Cousins and Diego Poyet gave the Addicks a solid look about them; the interchanging Reza Ghoochannejhad, in for Danny Green, Ajdaveric, replacing Obika, and Marvin Sordell, starting ahead of Simon Church, would hopefully give Charlton unpredictability and some sort of spark in attack.
After the rather lacklustre effort in Saturday’s defeat to Burnley, the new system could really only improve the chances of Riga seeing his new side score a goal from open play for the first time under his stewardship. Ajdaveric’s scuffed strike from 20 yards inside the opening minute might have started the shots on goal tally, but it did little to suggest Darlow was going to be in for a busy night.
But the Swede had made a lively start to the game, and he drew the first of many mistakes out of the Forest back line when he dispossessed Jamaal Lascelles. The curled shot that followed, flashing wide of the far post, was at least somewhat more threatening than this previous attempt.
Despite their recent run of form, there’s still an obvious degree of quality in the Forest line-up, and a good move down the left, their first attack, resulted in a stationary Addicks defence watching on as Danny Fox’s excellent cross was headed narrowly wide by an unmarked Jamie Mackie.
You could probably just about excuse Mackie for failing to find the target, but the same couldn’t be said for Darius Henderson. The former Millwall forward was played through on goal by Gonzalo Jara and appeared to have beaten Hamer to give his side a much needed boost after a traumatic few days. But the bulging net 17,000 inside the City Ground were waiting for didn’t materialise, and the effort trickled wide.
Either side of Henderson’s chance was a large period of Forest possession. Even when the Addicks regained the ball, it was quickly won back by their opponents, and the small travelling contingent was beginning to get a little restless.
But, somewhat against the run of play, a long ball over the top picked out Cousins’ run into the box. The youngster’s cut back found Sordell but, not for the first time this season, premature celebrations failed to grow into anything more substantial as the Bolton loanee’s drive rebounded back off the post. The Addicks were seemingly destined to never score from open play again.
And this wasn’t helped by poor decision making and dreadful execution that has plagued Charlton all season. Whether through a lack of confidence or a belief a better opening could be created, there appeared to be a reluctance to shoot, and even when another effort was struck goalwards, a deflection prevented Ghoochannejhad from opening his goalscoring account for the Addicks.
Overall, it’s not harsh to say there was a significant lack of quality on show, topped off by a rather dreary atmosphere, in what was a pretty low key first half that wouldn’t have impressed a neutral. However, the final five minutes had the Charlton fans in a state of panic as Forest pressed forward.
First, Lawrie Wilson did well to block Cox’s strike from the edge of the area, but the ball took an unfortunate change of direction off the inside of the defender’s leg and trickled only narrowly wide. And after Jara, following a corner, and Sordell, from a free-kick, lashed well over the opposing goals, stoppage time saw Forest end the half with a glorious chance to score.
Cox was played through on goal and, despite the ‘keeper’s best efforts, beat Hamer to the ball. However, the Irish international saw his stab at goal clip the inside of the post and bounce back into the goal mouth with no red shirt waiting to pounce. Mackie eventually returned the ball into the centre, and only a terrific save from the fingertips of Hamer prevented Henderson from ending Charlton’s resistance.
The Addicks may have had a few first half chances, but it was certainly Forest who had the better of the opening period. Down either flank, especially, the home side were causing some concern for the Charlton back four.
There needed to be some improvement from Riga’s side in the second half, but hopes of the visitors holding on, let alone taking something more back to SE7, were dashed when Dorian Dervite failed to return to the field after half-time. Seemingly injured, the inconsistent Richard Wood took his place.
But that clear lack of quality going forward from both sides continued at the start of the second period and, even when the Addicks came under some threat, a misplaced pass or a solid piece of defending prevented Forest from making a breakthrough. When the ball did find its way into Charlton’s box without a mistake from the home side hindering its path, Darius Henderson’s header was dealt with by Hamer.
And with that, Forest appeared to lose all confidence. There was previously at least some sort of fizz to their passing play and a genuine fear that their moves would result in Hamer’s goal coming under threat. Now, they appeared timid, barely able to string a pass together, void of ideas and looking like an accident waiting to happen at the back.
That wasn’t to say Charlton were now brimming with belief, and a frustrating reluctance to shoot remained. Both Cousins and Ghoochannejhad were guilty of passing up good openings by attempting one touch too many or making an unnecessary pass. With Forest’s frailties clear to see, Riga threw on the pacey Obika in hope of capitalising upon them.
And soon after, the best chance of the night thus far fell to Cousins. Despite working harder than anyone in the middle and carrying the ball forward well for the Addicks, the academy graduate continuously fell to pieces within sight of goal, and his volley just after the hour was no different. Wilson picked the unmarked youngster out at the back post, but his first time strike soared horribly over the bar when he really should have put Charlton ahead. His despair was visible, as it was on the faces of the rather cold and frustrated away supporters.
But, after being subdued for most of the night, Cousins’ chance, along with a noticeable improvement in the performance, got the Addicks behind the goal Charlton were attacking into good voice. There was genuine belief.
So, rather predictably, cue a handful of half chances for the hosts. Henderson, in his final act on the pitch before being replaced by Rafik Djebbour, blasted an effort over from a tight angle, before a free-kick in a promising position would have had the Charlton fans sweating had it not been far too cold for that to occur, but Fox flashed his effort past Hamer’s far past.
A succession of headers followed with substitute Djebbour’s findng the roof of the net from a Greg Halford cross and the former Charlton loanee being picked out unmarked from a corner, only to see Hamer block his effort and the Addicks get the ball clear. With 15 minutes to go, neither side had given up hope of winning this one.
But, despite their chances, it was Forest who continued to look the most vulnerable. The visitors were calm and assured in possession; the hosts anything but. And when Mackie gave the ball away on the halfway line, the Addicks countered with interest.
Ajdaveric suddenly found himself on the edge of the area, and his through ball was perfect for Obika, but the Tottenham loanee’s effort crashed back off the post. You wanted to cause unspeakable harm to yourself, such was the level of heartbreak as another fine chance failed to be converted, but there was no time for such thoughts as the loose ball fell straight to the feet of Cousins.
With a crisp and accurate side footed strike, the youngster made amends for his earlier errors in front of goal and sent the travelling fans delirious. Cousins himself looked like he enjoyed it, celebrating in some style with a knee slide in front of the coaching staff that his skipper would have been proud off.
When the dust settled after Charlton’s first goal from open play in the league since the beginning of February, the Addicks had nine minutes to hold onto their lead. But there was never a real threat to Charlton’s three points; Forest’s players looked shot of any confidence and chants of ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’ rung around the City Ground.
A handful of desperate shots were sent towards Hamer’s goal, but he was under little serious threat. In fact, there was even time for Morgan Fox to make his league debut with four minutes of stoppage time prolonging the Charlton party. Only a Danny Collins header, which went just over from a Danny Fox free-kick, gave any indication that it might be postponed.
And when referee Haines finally blew his whistle, jubilation and relief filled the away end. Three points that lift Charlton three clear of the drop with three games in hand.
The players were lauded as heroes as they came over to the away end as one to applaud the travelling support, and they’d certainly put a shift in. There was grit, there was endeavour, and there was fight. There were also three central midfielders who were utterly superb.
Johnnie Jackson, Diego Poyet and Jordan Cousins, baring the howlers in front of goal before his winner, epitomised the performance. Not particular impressive, but there was more than enough on show to warm your heart and get your pulses racing. Jackson and Poyet kept things ticking over, winning back possession when Forest were at their worst and looking for the next pass, whilst Cousins showed a real intent to drive forward with the ball at his feet. That one of the trio got the winner was more than deserving.
But the performance was by no means spectacular, and the frailties in front of goal continue to be a huge worry, so much so that a better team might well have beaten the Addicks.
It’ll go down as one of those ugly wins; the sort of wins a team fighting the drop needs, and a sort that made the victory just as enjoyable as any other. At times the Addicks were lucky, at others frustrating, and almost always you found yourself lamenting a decision from a player in white. But an almost unbreachable defence and capitalising upon Forest’s frailties just at the right time saw Charlton gain a huge win.
Maybe that’s the difference between Powell’s and Riga’s Charlton; you could easily argue the level of performance overall hasn’t improved at all, and we arguably look weaker going forward, but there’s a greater resilience at the back, and results are being ground out. Individual mistakes have been cut out, and, whisper it quietly, luck is on our side.
The other difference appears to be that Riga has a man who he can bring off the bench that can make a real impact. With Forest already struggling at the time in which he came on, Obika’s introduction coincided with an improvement amongst the whole team, and a desire to push forward spread. Obika, in partnership with a free roaming Ajdaveric, forced Forest into a number of mistakes and compounded their lack of confidence and the mood inside the City Ground. An excellent substitution, after Riga’s diabolical ones on Saturday, which gave the Addicks something of an advantage.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement, and Saturday’s trip to Derby might well end in disaster, but, for now, I’ll ignore all that, savour tonight, one of ‘those’ nights, and take the occasional peek at the league table.