As the full-time whistle blew, the exhausted legs of Igor Vetokele finally gave up supporting his battered and bruised body. There was not even the energy in reserve for a fist pump, a smile or an expression of anything more than a hint of relief.
But relief was the perfect emotion, and the fatigued figure of Vetokele perfectly epitomised the unrelenting effort shown by the Angolan forward and his teammates.
For this wasn’t the perfect performance from Charlton, at least not in the sense of a picturesque and potent attacking display. It probably didn’t follow too many handbooks for composed defensive work, either.
What it did show, however, is that this group of Addicks, who had already displayed attacking flair in their previous two home wins, are not lacking in another important attribute – character.
Having taken the lead through Yoni Buyens’ third minute penalty, the hosts were left withstanding heavy pressure from Watford for almost the duration of the game.
They dug deeper than those responsible for installing undersoil heating at The Valley this summer. They worked harder than the headband supporting Lawrie Wilson’s increasingly lengthy hair. They even got away with murder in a manner Oscar Pistorious’ legal team would be proud of on several occasions.
But, somehow, Bob Peeters’ side, who were without a clean sheet before today, held on. They held on for over 90 minutes as the Hornets mounted attack after attack. They headed clear as Watford desperately launched balls forward in the final period. They even found a way to prevent Stephen Henderson’s goal from being breached when the visitors created goal scoring opportunities, through both judgement and luck.
It was rarely enjoyable and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but you couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride as the broken bodies, sacrificed for the cause, wondered around The Valley turf once the victory was secured. Vetokele had previously been the goal scoring hero, now, as he picked himself up to perform the tunnel jump, he was the embodiment of the heroic determination showed by his side.
Watford, deploying their traditional 3-5-2 irrespective of new manager Oscar Garcia taking charge for the first time, were made to pay not only for a game-long failure in front of goal, but also for a series of mistakes in the second minute of the game that gave the Addicks their lead.
First, the Hornets carelessly and timidly gave away possession in midfield, giving Cousins the space to burst forward with the ball and the time to pick out a perfect pass through to Vetokele.
The Angolan’s pace and movement was far too much for the Watford defence, and also goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes, who charged off his line only to see the forward tumble over his out-stretched arms. As stonewall a penalty as you’re likely to see, and Gomes somewhat fortunate to get away with just a yellow card given the goal scoring opportunity Charlton had created.
Regardless, the opportunity now presented to the Addicks was an even greater one, not least with Buyens placing the ball on the spot. The nerveless Belgian sent Gomes the wrong way with minimal fuss, calmly rolling the ball into the bottom corner to convert his third penalty of the season.
But Watford’s attacking threat is considerable, and the still celebrating home supporters were reminded of that just a minute later as Troy Deeney capitalised on some uncertain defending from Tal Ben Haim and Chris Solly.
The prolific forward might well have driven closer to goal, but he opted to shoot the moment the chance fell his way, curling an effort agonisingly wide of Henderson’s far post. Addicks were already exchanging knowing glances in anticipation of this being a rather long afternoon.
Regardless of the pressure being applied on the Addicks, they remained comfortable in possession when did have the ball and passed it forward nicely, only to falter in the final third. You sensed there was a need to grab the second goal early, but over hit crosses and misdirected passes were proving frustrating.
But that was also the case for Watford, who seemed intent on finding an extra pass when taking a shot on goal seemed the best option.
Both teams’ struggles in the final third at least meant there was little chance of the 10th minute applause for former Charlton striker David Whyte, who passed away in midweek, being interrupted. The Valley rose to honour the former goal scorer, while also hoping to inspire the current crop of Addicks forwards to produce a strike Whyte himself would have been proud of.
Instead, it was the visitors who began to create openings. After Almen Abdi robbed Johnnie Jackson and teed up the forward, Deeney again came close, but Henderson got down well to stop his relatively tame first time strike.
Watford were growing more threatening with each passing minute, while Charlton’s defence looked increasingly more uncomfortable, and the home side’s failure to deal with a ball played into the box eventually produced an opening for McGugan, but the former Forest man snatched at his chance and blasted well over.
Seemingly on the back foot, the last thing the Addicks needed was for one of their key men to go off, so the anxiety around The Valley only increased when Johann Berg Gudmunsson, an injury doubt before the game, was withdrawn and replaced by Lawrie Wilson.
And that anxiety reached its peak as Deeney was sent through on goal with Ben Haim, a yard off the forward’s pace, for company.
The Israeli desperately attempted to dispossess his opponent, but did so clumsily, hooking Deeney’s foot away and sending him to the floor. Ben Haim’s furious reaction, telling Deeney in no uncertain terms to get up, suggested he thought it was a dive, but he was fooling no one. The Addicks had most certainly got away with one.
While they may have got away scar free on that occasion, 15 first half minutes remained for Watford to draw level, and the Hornets won a first in a succession of corners after Abdi’s over hit cross forced Henderson into tipping the ball over the bar.
Only a smart save from Henderson denied Ikechi Anya, striking from distance following the set-piece, while the stopper was called upon again from the following corner to save from Joel Ekstrand’s header as the home supporters nervously counted down the seconds to the end of the opening 45.
But the Addicks were allowed to slow the game down in the remainder of the opening period as Watford, seemingly growing frustrated, began to lose their cool. Abdi, Tommy Hoban and Ekstrand were all shown yellows for cynical fouls, two of which were committed on Vetokele, a constant nuisance regardless of the lack of time the ball spent in Charlton’s attacking third.
It meant that the Addicks were able to go in at the break with a lead. A lead that had come under serious threat, but a lead their determined efforts meant they deserved to cling onto.
Nonetheless, their showing of resistance in the first half would count for little if they couldn’t repeat it in the second, and it seemed apparent from the moment Bikey attempted an ambitious overhead kick following a Charlton corner that they would be spend the next 45 minutes camped in their own half, fending for their lives.
But there were signs that luck was on the side of the hosts. Rarely does Deeney allow a team a second reprieve after wasting a first opportunity, but Watford’s skipper couldn’t finish the third chance that fell his way, slicing a drive well wide from the edge of the box.
And while Charlton had used all the luck available in regards to referee decisions, the Hornets couldn’t make the most of the free-kicks that were somewhat questionably awarded to them. Daniel Toszer could only lash his set-piece against Charlton’s wall, with the ball deflecting away too quickly for Daniel Pudil to latch onto, while Toszer’s corners consistently failed to beat the first man. For all their possession, Watford remained wasteful in the final third.
It meant that the Addicks still had a chance of putting themselves well ahead in the contest, and that they almost did when Franck Moussa, on as a replacement for George Tucudean, instrumented a break.
His ball forward sent Wilson racing down the right flank, and the curly-haired winger’s cross was inviting for Vetokele, who had got free from his marker. But the Angolan couldn’t quite time his resulting header, directing the ball high and wide. At the very least, it was a sign Charlton still had the capabilities to counter and alleviate the mounting pressure they were under.
Alas, further forward flurries were not forthcoming as the introduction of the pacey Lloyd Dyer penned the Addicks deeper into their own half.
And, after McGugan had sent a couple off efforts goalwards that would still be rising now had it not been for the Jimmy Seed Stand blocking its path, the former Leicester man came within a whisker of pulling his current employers level.
In space at the far post, Tozser’s cross crept through the well-populated goal mouth and into Dyer’s path, but the winger appeared to lose balance as he went to strike the ball, resulting in his effort becoming little more than a stab into the side netting. It was their best opening of the half, and one Dyer really should have taken.
The opening, however, came with a little less than 20 minutes to play, and Watford were visibly growing frustrated and desperate. Gone was the patient passing seen in the first half, replaced by hopeful punts up field that Bikey and co. were all too often equal to. They seemed almost void of ideas.
So when Watford did finally create an opening, with Dyer and Pudil linking up well, and finish it, with Deeney lashing into a near empty net after Dyer’s ball across goal had bounced back off the post, 13 minutes from time, that frustration only increased with the sight of the assistant’s flag raised for offside.
While Watford were frustrated, Charlton had moved on from being nervous or anxious, and had now entered a stage of panic. That was only increased when, rather alarmingly, Callum Harriott, not the sort of man you want on the pitch when defending for your lives, came on for Jackson, exactly the sort of man you want on the pitch when defending for your lives.
Harriott immediately got to work, heading a ball that was too low to head and losing possession before hashing a clearance. Deep breaths.
And even deeper breaths were breathed when Henderson was called into action for the first meaningful time in the second half with ten minutes to play. A well struck shot from Tozser forced the ‘keeper to dive full stretch and parry the ball away. It seemed as if Watford had found some potency in the dying embers of the game.
That, however, was not Henderson’s biggest contribution. With four minutes to play, Bikey failed to clear and Tozser capitalised, sending Dyer clean through on goal. But Charlton’s number one, after narrowing Dyer’s angle, pulled off a stunning one handed save to maintain his side’s lead.
It looked like being a decisive moment, especially when the Addicks staged three counter attacks in quick succession. But Charlton couldn’t kill the game off as Harriott had a glorious chance to run through, but cheaply gave the ball away, Moussa was then sent through by Harriott but lost the ball himself, before Moussa sent Buyens clear down the right hand side only for his cross for Vetokele to be well over hit.
It meant there was still a glimmer of hope for Watford. Still the chance that the feeling of relief on the horizon would become one of despair. Still a chance that packed away end would celebrate, creating a painful picture. A glimmer that only strengthened with six minutes added on.
Watford threw everything forward. The ball, players, and I’m pretty sure I saw Oscar Garcia run on at one point and attempt to battle for a header, but Charlton were equal. And when they weren’t, substitute Odion Ighalo could only head over from a promising position.
Deep into the sixth minute of stoppage time, one last scramble broke out in the Charlton box. The ball fell so kindly to Tozser I’d already began anticipating the eruption in the away end, but, somehow, a body in a red shirt threw themselves in front of the effort to keep the Hornets at bay for one final time.
Was it deserved? Was it gritty? Was it luck? There were few asking those questions as relief filled The Valley with the sound of the referee’s whistle. It didn’t matter how, just that the Addicks had dug deep for an excellent victory.
There’s no denying that within those relief filled celebrations, there were those that, after the initial jubilation, began to question how on earth the Addicks had come away with three points.
Was it deserved? In one sense, no. The opening three minutes aside, the attacking threat of the win over Derby simply wasn’t there. While possession was kept well in the first half, both in our own half and going forward, Charlton simply couldn’t get a hold of the ball in the second. They were struggling, while Watford were dominant.
Was it luck? There was an element of that. The Addicks certainly had some with Watford’s woeful finishing and Ben Haim again getting away with a foul in the box.
Was it gritty? Most certainty. The constant fight and determination to keep the Hornets’ chances to a minimum was incredible, as were the two saves made by Henderson at the death. A real gritty effort to maintain the lead, and effort that warranted victory.
Does any of that matter? There’s more than one way to win a game of football. The way Charlton won today may not have been pretty, but it was outstanding in its own determined manner.
And outstanding is the perfect way to sum up the performance of Charlton’s most valiant troops. Bikey made every ball his own, Solly dealt with the threat of Pudil and then Anya superbly, while Jackson and Buyens were composed figures in the middle, constantly dropping deep to support the under pressure back four.
Then, of course, there was Vetokele. Again supplier of the game’s decisive moment, while also working relentlessly from first minute to last. A real fighter, not just a finisher.
Now the question is whether or not to start to feel at home in the top six. In other words, is it time to get carried away? We’ve beaten sides who will have top six ambitions themselves, and we’ve beaten them with both attractive flowing football and gritty, backs to the wall determination. We’ve got a Plan A, a Plan B and do enough to create luck for ourselves.
On the other hand, there’s still signs that we’re fragile. A more potent side than Watford, or even a Watford side performing at their best, would have surely found a way through. While it’s good to win when we’re not at our best, it’s worrying that we’ve not reached the performance level of Derby at home since that game.
Regardless of whether you’re currently planning a trip to Chelsea in 2016, or fearing defeat to Wolves on Tuesday, there’s no getting away from the fact that today’s victory is a monumental one. We’ve got a side that will fight for every last point.