The goalie. The stopper. The goalkeeper. Whatever you want to call the unfortunate glove-wearer who stands between the posts, most will agree that his position is tougher than any other.
In victory, the saves he makes will often play second fiddle as the goalscorer soaks up the plaudits. In defeat, there will always be questions over whether the stopper should have stopped the unstoppable, completely ignoring the ten other saves he made has his hapless teammates allowed the opposition a sight on goal with regularity.
It’s therefore incredibly tough to be a young goalkeeper coming into the game. Where a young outfield player can make an errant pass, fail to trap a ball with his a touch or mistime a tackle and still put in the sort of a performance that can see him labelled as wonderkid, an inexperienced ‘keeper can make one mistake, no matter how small, and see the praise he was set to be given quickly turn to criticism.
And that was the case for Charlton’s Nick Pope as his side crashed out of the Capital One Cup following a 1-0 defeat to Derby County at Pride Park.
Pope, making only his third start for the Addicks, had crucially intercepted a number of crosses and pulled off a string of superb saves before stepping outside of his area with ball in hand with just three minutes left. In fact, the 22-year-old only had possession after making a fine stop from Ivan Calero’s close range poke towards goal.
It was carless; the mistake not of an inexperienced professional but an amateur. From the resulting set-piece, Pope paid the price for his error in the cruellest of ways. Jeff Hendrick’s initial effort was blocked by a resolute Charlton defence, but there was little resistance on offer as Chris Martin collected the rebound and drove into the box before teeing up Calero for his first Derby goal.
The instillation of a Go-Go Gadget arm aside, there was absolutely nothing Pope could have done about the later winner. In fact, Calero’s strike was so sweetly struck and accurately placed that no ‘keeper would have been able to keep it out.
And the ‘keeper would have left been frustrated by the woeful efforts of his defence as they failed to deal with Martin and left Spaniard Calero with the space to execute such a shot. It was not the first time the Addicks had let Derby come forward and shoot without much of a contest, and nor would it be the last.
Nonetheless, such is the life of a goalkeeper, Pope will have to stomach the blame for a split second and marginal error of judgement.
The costly mistake count for the stopper contains two incidents, and you can throw in a couple of poor clearances that were largely the fault of his defence at Huddersfield if you want to be extra harsh, while the fantastic save tally has moved into double figures after tonight. Yet, still the ‘error prone’ stopper will be scrutinised.
I don’t envy those poor souls that try on a pair of gloves as a kid, make a few saves and think a lifetime of microscopic examination would be enjoyable.
It looked like being a tough night for Charlton and, by association, Pope right from the opening minutes at Pride Park. While Bob Peeters’ side might have contained five changes from the one that faced the Rams seven days ago, it was difficult to believe they had managed to dominate at any stage in the league fixture, with Steve McClaren’s men completely in control.
When the Addicks did get forward, their quality of touch eluded them at the vital moment; both Callum Harriott and Franck Moussa wasted promising openings by letting the ball get away from them.
Nonetheless, the quality of Derby’s possession wasn’t counting for much more. They had to wait until the 33rd minute for their first real opening, with long shots from Hendrick and Johnny Russell failing to test Pope.
A cut back from the right found Leon Best, scorer of the equaliser for Sheffield Wednesday in last season’s FA Cup tie at Hillsborough, but the Irishman’s strike was superbly tipped around the post by a fully extended Pope. Having had to deal with a number of crosses and corners being sent into his box, the young ‘keeper was so far standing up to the task.
And Pope’s area would face unnerving levels of bombardment in the final period of the first half, as Best’s chance was the catalyst for the hosts to turn their neat passing into something more potent. A glaring miss from Hendrick, pulling an effort just wide from the resulting corner, the best opening for the Rams as they ended the half in dominant fashion against a below par Charlton.
The sound of the referee’s whistle couldn’t have been sweeter for the supporters in the sparsely populated away end, but the pattern of the contest continued without interruption from first minute to last in the second period. If anything, Charlton’s ability to offer some resistance lessened as the half wore on.
Frustratingly for the home supporters, who no doubt grew fearful of an extra half hour with every wasted move forward, there remained a lack of real cutting edge to match Derby’s swift passing play that was so unchallenged, it might well have been a training exercise.
There were half chances, with Russell blasting over early on in the half from range, balls fizzed across the box with no white shirt to pounce upon or Pope collecting and the occasional strike causing the stopper to make a save, holding Omar Mascarell’s drive comfortably on the hour, but you expected something else from a side who had put five past Fulham on Saturday.
Not that the Addicks were complaining, of course, and their constant reprieves meant the introduction of Igor Vetokele and Yoni Buyens promised to give Charlton something of a chance to win the tie. Vetokele, however, was isolated up top and rarely touched the ball in his time on the pitch, while Buyens, joined by a fragile Jordan Cousins in the centre, struggled to retain possession or stop the Rams’ midfield from dominating.
In fact, it was Derby’s subs who made a real impact on the game. The classy Martin was joined by youngsters Calero and Alefe Santos.
Santos made an immediate impression with his pace down the right flank, while Martin, a player who will always cause trouble, flashed an effort just wide of Pope’s far post and flicked an effort goalwards that was comfortably held.
But while the hosts still couldn’t find a way through, there remained a Charlton could steal the victory late on. The Addicks’ knack for scoring late goals almost continued as Callum Harriott, in space to offer something more testing, fired over and Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Charlton’s final sub, forced Lee Grant into a rare save from a cleverly taken free-kick as the game entered its final ten minutes.
But it was from a free-kick at the other end of the pitch that the game was won. Pope, having just been applauded for another excellent stop, caused his supporters to look on with bemusement as referee Salisbury blew his whistle just as the ‘keeper was about to take his kick.
It might well have been for holding onto the ball for too long, but the position of the free-kick suggests it was for taking the ball beyond the boundaries of his area; either way, a careless mistake to make with so few minutes to play.
The free-kick itself may have been dealt with, but no Addick could stop Martin as he flew though Charlton’s back four at the speed of sound, creating an opening for Calero, who finished emphatically. It was no less than the dominant Rams deserved, but the manner of the goal was a cruel blow, especially for Pope, who had been almost faultless prior to that moment.
In fact, Pope responded immediately to keep his side alive in the tie, saving superbly after Martin had been given the space to drive forward and unleash a low drive.
It meant that, after Martin had lifted a free-kick over the bar at the start of stoppage time, Charlton’s late surge had the potential to count for something. But, after Fox’s shot was deflected over, three successive corners came to nothing for the Addicks – a late equaliser would have been incredibly harsh on Derby and even harsher on the spectators who, in truth, probably weren’t getting their money’s worth despite only paying £5.
The final whistle came shortly after, ending Charlton’s hopes of progressing in the cup. More accurately, it ended their suffering as they could do little but chase after the ball and Derby’s shadows in a tough night at Pride Park.
There is, of course, no shame in losing to such strong opposition on their own turf, but Charlton were poor at best. Had the goal come in the opening three minutes, it would have been the most routine victory imaginable.
Some will suggest the League Cup is irrelevant and getting out of it, therefore losing a game, is a good thing. We can now focus on the league, as if a couple of extra games in midweek serious impact upon our chances in the Championship.
Regardless, it was worrying to see the Addicks struggling to cope with Derby’s passing and pressing, while offering very little on the few occasions they did manage to get forward.
That forward effort was summed up by Harriott and Moussa, two players who got into good positions and carried the ball well, but were unable to deliver a telling pass, cross or shot. It would seem that, after ending last season in such strong fashion, Harriott the enigma has returned.
Lawrie Wilson, without doing anything wrong, was quiet and had few opportunities to prove why he should be in the starting XI, while Jordan Cousins’ performance in the middle probably suggested he’s better off on the left, with the youngster losing possession on numerous occasions and rarely regaining it.
There were, however, a few positives. Not least the defence’s effort to keep Derby out for so long. Andre Bikey was back to his imperious self after a poor performance at Huddersfield, while Michael Morrison did his chances of being recalled for a league match little harm. Joe Gomez and Morgan Fox also coped well enough with a serious Derby threat.
But, despite playing a role in the defeat, it’s Pope who comes away with the biggest amount of credit from tonight.
Put that error to the back of your mind for one moment, and the other one, and consider that Pope is a young ‘keeper playing his first few games against Championship opposition. He has shown signs that he’s nervous and slightly uncomfortable, his kicking especially, but he’s also shown signs that he has the potential to be a very good goalkeeper. His shot stopping and cross collecting is already very good; addressing errors that are more to do with temperament rather than technique will come with experience.
Nonetheless, whatever positives you wish to take from the previous two games, that’s now two games in a row where the Addicks have looked second best and, at times, pretty woeful. A third poor performance against Brighton and doubts might start to creep in; a decent display in victory and we can all go back to dreaming of top half finishes and panic free Mays.