Almost two years ago to the day, Charlton recorded a win that has gone down in folklore. Mention ‘Oldham’ to the average football fan and they’ll probably respond with a ‘grim up north’ cringe.
Mention ‘Oldham’ to an Addick and they’ll retell the tale of nine-man Charlton snatching an ugly 1-0 win from Boundary Park; the win that convinced the remaining worriers that Championship football would be returning to The Valley for the following season.
Two years and a day on, the Addicks were looking for a win that would start to convince supporters, who have endured a torrid season for so many reasons, that there’s a light at the end of the rather gloomy tunnel.
A win against fellow strugglers Yeovil Town, and Championship football would be a step closer to staying at The Valley for a third successive season; defeat, and even the most positive supporter would be starting to worry about a return to League One.
That Charlton were in such a situation is, not totally but certainly mainly, a result of two successive ownerships failing to strengthen the squad and, arguably, weakening it. The heroes of Boundary Park, not to mention the men who led the club to ninth last season, were few and far between. Instead, there was a centre-back playing at right-back with none available, a goal-shy centre forward and a ‘keeper on the bench who shouldn’t be there, having breached his contract.
Suddenly, facing Oldham with nine men in a game that wasn’t must-win seems quite pleasant.
But pleasantness mattered little. Gritty; disgusting; ugly; it didn’t matter, as long as Jose Riga’s side got the three points.
However, when Astrit Ajdaveric opened the scoring with a beautiful strike ten minutes in, The Valley faithful briefly believed they were in for a perfect night. A Yeovil equaliser through Joel Grant, with defending from the Addicks that would have given Alan Hansen a heart attack, two minutes later, ended those hopes.
Yeovil domination followed; Charlton sloppy and looking like an accident waiting to happen. Several accidents did happen, but none were capitalised on. A brief rally from the home side just before half-time did little to remove a sense of panic in SE7.
But by the 64th minute, those nerves were quelled somewhat. Johnnie Jackson, one of the men who played two years ago, encouraged the crowd as he went to take a free-kick. The crowd didn’t need too much encouragement; goals from Dorian Dervite and Marvin Sordell, the aforementioned goal-shy striker, had pushed the Addicks two goals ahead.
That so easily could have been the end, but that would have been, well, too easy. Yeovil were more than just the plucky fighters punching above their level, they fought hard and Kieffer Moore’s goal, via more dreadful Charlton defending, gave them hope with 16 minutes to play.
They huffed, they puffed, they came up against a Charlton defence that probably should have been blown down, but the Glovers couldn’t find a way through. Five minutes were added, fingernails shortening by the second, but still this gritty bunch of unfancied Reds held on.
Jubilation and relief; the light at the end of the tunnel was Jackson and Ajdaveric’s tunnel jump.
If ever a win had the potential to define a season, this was it. The nine-men of Oldham; the weak and weary men who downed Yeovil.
Before all that, there was a tense and nervy atmosphere, not helped by the defensive reshuffle, which saw Richard Wood replace the injured Lawrie Wilson and Michael Morrison slot in at right-back, and Yohann Thuram’s appearance on the bench.
There were also starts for Sordell and Reza Ghoochannejhad, replacing Simon Church and Callum Harriott, in a formation that continued to change throughout the 90 minutes.
But, after James Hayter and Dervite exchanged off-target efforts, a moment of brilliance got The Valley rocking.
A tame Yeovil header in midfield was picked up by Ajdaveric in a wide position, and he charged towards goal with his supporters roaring him on. With the goal in his sights, his powerful strike from distance could only be helped into his own net by Yeovil stopper Chris Dunn. The Swede had showed glimpses of brilliance in his brief Charlton career to date, but this was pure excellent.
Ajdaveric raced over to the touchline, celebrating with Andy Hughes, whilst similar embraces occurred in the stands around them. Many were expecting a tough night, and this all seemed too good to be true.
Unfortunately, it was. Pressure was put on the hosts’ makeshift defence almost immediately, and a more often than not solid Addicks backline looked something of a shambles. They escaped punishment the first time the Glovers came forward, but not the second.
A simple ball from back to front picked out James Hayter not far from the box. Bad enough in itself, but when the midfielder drove towards goal, the defenders in front of him lost balance and his route forward was handed to him on a plate. He picked out Grant, and his effort took a wicked deflection to take the ball away from an already committed Hamer.
Within the space of a just a few minutes, the momentum had swung dramatically, and Yeovil should have had the lead a little over a minute later. With Morrison looking incredibly uncomfortable, Grant cut the Addicks open down the left and sent a ball across goal to Hayter, but the forward could only prod the ball into Hamer’s hands. There was no excuse for missing such an opportunity.
If Hayter had managed to think of an excuse, he would have done no harm in passing it on to Ghoochannejhad, who was equally as wasteful down the other end. Superb work from Wiggins, unleashing his inner Gareth Bale, saw him break into the box and cut the ball back to an unmarked Ghoochannejhad, but the forward finished with as much conviction as his Yeovil counterpart.
With the Addicks at sixes and sevens, a goal to give them back the lead would have been a little unjust, and Yeovil continued to cause problems. There was a brief moment when a sweetly struck drive from Joe Ralls looked to be heading in, but a superb diving stop from Hamer, the brunt of criticism previously for some off-target distribution, tipped it wide.
From the resulting Tom Lawrence corner, the bar was struck directly. There was still over 15 minutes until half-time, but it couldn’t have come quick enough for the nervy Addicks.
But, without exactly looking composed, Charlton managed to deal with Yeovil’s threat for the remainder of the half, with a superb Diego Poyet to the fore, and there were few openings for the visitors. There were, however, a handful of glorious chances for the hosts, who sparked into life completely unexpectedly with half-time just moments away.
First, Ajdaveric created space for himself once again, and only a strong stop from Dunn prevented him from doubling his and Charlton’s tally, before the Yeovil ‘keeper was called into action again to deny Sordell after he was played through on goal by a superb Jordan Cousins through ball.
With that, it appeared the sides would go in level, something a sloppy Charlton would be happier about, but the Addicks had one more chance to regain the lead, and what a chance it was. Jackson’s superb cross from the left was met by Wood, and only the intervention of Byron Webster stopped the header from crossing the line.
The final few minutes glossed over the rather large cracks in Charlton’s performance that had been getting wider since the 12th minute; you couldn’t begrudge those fans inside The Valley who feared defeat.
But Riga clearly sent his team out with a message; to attack.
That certainly wasn’t an unwise idea, with the Addicks still a shambles at the back. Grant had the ball pulled backed to him after Morrison was again caught out, but the goal scorer blasted well off target.
There were groans, those ‘this isn’t good enough’ kind of groans, but there needn’t have been. A superb piece of play, with Wiggins and Ajdaveric combining, won Charlton a corner, which lifted a rather sombre Covered End dramatically.
Jackson’s delivery was sublime; Dervite’s header emphatic. The Frenchman reclaimed Charlton’s lead and those Addicks involved in the delirious scenes cared little if they deserved it or not.
But now that spell at the end of the first half had more legitimacy to it; it was being carried forward into the second.
An outrageous flick, almost on the level of one supplied by Yann Kermorgant the last time these two sides met at The Valley, by the outrageously impressive Poyet, set Ghoochannejhad free down the right. His cross was testing, and Dunn could only parry the ball straight to Sordell, who tapped in to give the Addicks a two goal lead with 51 minutes played.
Not 25 minutes of on pitch time ago, it was Yeovil who looked the most likely to be two goals in front, but this was a classic spirited Charlton response. “We are staying up,” echoed around three sides of The Valley for the third time of the night, but there was more conviction with this one.
However, for it to be ‘classic’ Charlton, the Addicks would have make life difficult for themselves. Almost immediately, the calamitous defending returned and Grant was through again, teeing up Joe Edwards after beating Morrison. Thankfully, his effort was blocked behind by a red shirt, and the two goal lead remained.
But it was never going to last, even with the excellent Grant strangely taken off and replaced with Moore.
Dervite misjudged a header back to his ‘keeper, and Hamer was forced to rush off his line to a ball he was never going to win with Hayter bearing down. The forward got their first and calmly rolled the ball to Moore, who tapped into an empty net.
Through a combination of disgust and worry, The Valley fell silent for longer than you would have liked, but the crowd regained their voices in the heat of battle. And that’s exactly what the final few minutes were; a full on slog with survival on the line.
The excellent, but now shattered, Ajdaveric and Ghoochannejhad were replaced by Jonathan Obika and Harriott, with the former given the tough ask of chasing down the balls Charlton’s panicking defence smashed clear. He did an excellent job of it, but it failed to prevent Yeovil continuing to apply the pressure.
Corners were swung in, long throws delivered and shots fired anywhere but on-target; the Addicks were still clinging on. With the Glovers committing men forward, space opened up for Harriott on the break, but the winger’s shot was tame, and still The Valley faithful had to pray to every god and religion they could think of.
The return of Leon Cort, replacing the hard working goal scorer Sordell, got as big a cheer as the goals, and the giant defender immediately won a trademark duel in the air, but the overall battle wasn’t yet won.
Charlton thought they had dealt with the final piece of Yeovil pressure deep into five minutes of injury time, but Harriott, in attempting to get the ball clear, lost it on the edge of the box. It fell to Moore. Collective panic filled The Valley, with Moore included, as his shot couldn’t have ended up any further away from goal.
Some celebrated like never before as the full-time whistle blew. Others, like myself, chose to have a little moment to compose myself. Those final few moments were horrible but, when the dust had settled, the moments after the game made up for that.
“WE ARE STAYING UP, SAY WE ARE STAYING UP,” was sung for some time after the final whistle; not quite yet can Charlton celebrate their survival, but, with Millwall winning, a defeat would have been disastrous. Phew.
Those of a Yeovil persuasion will no doubt feel they should have deserved something from the game, and they really did. But we Addicks have seen this all before. How many times over the past three seasons have we dug in for a crucial, crucial result against the odds? 25 minutes into the game, a 3-2 win looked incredibly unlikely.
This wasn’t the greatest performance, winning Iain Dowie-ly more than winning ugly, but those buzz words of grit, sprit and determination were off the scale once again. Given the context, it sits alongside any of those hard thought victories over the past three seasons.
However, the period from just before the interval and 15 minutes into the second half, the Addicks were truly excellent. It wasn’t far off the 15 minutes blitz of Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup fourth round; an excellent spell of attacking football that got Charlton the goals to win the game.
The players involved in those moments are the ones that stand out. Ghoochannejhad and Ajdaveric, crucial to everything Charlton did in the opposition’s final third, had their best games for the club, whilst Sordell put in a superb shift and deserved his goal. Riga might have finally found his front three.
But, head and shoulders above the rest was Diego Poyet. The birthday boy was absolutely sensational; protecting the shambolic defence and spraying passes left, right and centre. “He’s better than Gus,” sang the Covered End, but I fear he may be too good for us to keep.
And for Riga, I have criticism and praise.
My criticism is twofold. First, the way the formation changed from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 and back again on a few occasions in the first half hardly helped with how all over the place the Addicks were, and secondly, his decision to bring on Harriott in such a tight situation was an odd one, and almost proved as costly as his decision to bring on David Petrucci on Saturday.
However, when he finally settled on the 4-3-3 towards the end of the first half, it provided the catalyst for that 15/20 minute period where his side genuinely looked very good. For the first time, Riga proved he’s capable of dealing with a set back and overcoming a very difficult situation, which was a huge relief to see.
But, once again, I can’t help but feel tonight was mostly about the players. I’ve said it before, and I’ll carry on repeating it, but the way they’ve dug so deep of late is absolutely outstanding. The performances haven’t been great, but the character has been. Characters like Johnnie Jackson, who dug as deep as any other and celebrated the win as much as anyone else.
You need heaps of character to survive in this league, and that’s arguably our biggest asset.
It’s a little bit disappointing to look at the table and see only a two point lead of 22nd place Millwall. But if these results keep being ground out, Championship football will be on show at The Valley once again next season. This really could be the ‘Oldham’ moment.