His shirt was sodden, seemingly weighing him down such was the sweat his efforts had produced. His legs looked fragile, barely keeping him upright and carrying him across the pitch at no pace at all. His face carried a pained expression, with hands on hips and deep breaths taken each time the ball left the field of play.
Johnnie Jackson was broken. Not broken because he is past it. Not broken because his performance was not good enough. Not broken because his side were on the verge of defeat.
Johnnie Jackson was broken because he had given absolutely every ounce of energy he had, and some he didn’t, to fend off the persistent Norwich threat. He had pressed and pressed, hassled and hassled, fought and fought; he did not stop working all night.
But, with the clock yet to reach 90 at Carrow Road, that pain had to be withstood for what was little more than five minutes. Five minutes in the agreed understanding of time, but five years to Jackson, his equally hard working teammates and the vocal yet nervous Addicks crammed in to the away end.
If the Skipper could not muster one last burst of energy, if Andre Bikey and his fellow defenders could not remain impassable and if Jackson’s midfield colleagues could not continue to frustrate the Canaries’ midfield, this incredible, against the odds showing of determination, resilience and fight would be forgotten.
No one would congratulate the Addicks for holding up Norwich for 80-odd minutes; everyone would laud Jackson and those also wearing the Charlton badge on their chest if they could come away from Norfolk with a hard-earned point. Do or die. Heroes or villains. Enjoyable car journeys home or desperately miserable ones.
But Jackson could conjure up one last effort.
It wasn’t the effort that had been seen from the Addicks over the course of the preceding 85 minutes. Not the sort of effort that had seen Charlton relentless in their restriction of Norwich’s threat.
It was Charlton’s first effort of its kind of the half. An effort on goal.
Completely against the run of play, so much so that it’s something of a mystery as to how the Addicks found themselves in possession so far forward, Jackson found himself in some space on the edge of the box.
For the entire night, Jackson had closed down the opposition and forced them to make a sideways pass, or at least take them away from goal. Norwich opted to stand off the exhausted body on the edge of their box.
The Canaries may not have been aware of just what Charlton’s captain is capable of. His history of against the odds, game changing moments. His ability to produce unforgettable moments. His important goals in the recent history of Charlton Athletic.
Had they been, they surely would not have allowed Jackson to shoot. A touch was taken to get the ball onto his left, and another to fire towards goal.
The shot possessed the same lack of fizz that remained inside Jackson, but all the will and determination of the Skipper.
As is so often the case, Jackson’s determination was enough. The ball trickled past John Ruddy, the net rippled, the away end roared. Jackson slid in celebration, flanked by the teammates whose efforts had warranted this moment.
Johnnie Jackson may have looked broken, but fatigue, pain and the impossible is not nearly enough to break Johnnie Jackson. There was even enough fight left to make sure that goal was Charlton’s winner. Charlton’s winner against a top of the table Norwich side who were unbeaten at home, scored with regularity and possessed quality throughout the side.
Johnnie Jackson was once again the complete Charlton hero.
This may have been Jackson’s night, but it would have been a sorry night without the efforts of his teammates right the way through the side, and from the first until the last minute.
Lining up in a 4-5-1 formation, with Joe Gomez and Lawrie Wilson coming in for the unfit Chris Solly and Johann Berg Gudmundsson, it was apparent from the off Bob Peeters had set up his side to press, hassle and above all frustrate a frightfully good Norwich side.
Alas, it took just three minutes for the hosts to find a way past Charlton’s supposedly organised offerings. It was with some ease, too, as the always impressive Wes Hoolahan played Lewis Grabban through on goal. But Stephen Henderson was not to be beaten, tipping the fierce strike behind.
The pair combined again just moments later, with Hoolahan’s quick feet allowing him to skip past Yoni Buyens and pick out Grabban on the edge of the box. Much to the delight of the visiting supporters, the former Bournemouth forward flashed his effort wide of goal, but this was a worrying start for Charlton and an indication of the sort of evening they would be in for at Carrow Road.
However, the Addicks soon began to settle, providing a much sterner resistance to Bradley Johnson and Alexander Tetty in midfield, while also getting forward themselves. Jackson’s free-kick may have cleared the bar and Igor Vetokele’s effort was comfortable for Ruddy, but the first signs of Charlton being able to compete raised the volume and increased the confidence in the away end.
Regardless, any attempts from Peeters’ side to compete would have been largely ignored by an impartial observer. In the eyes of most, Norwich would have clearly controlled the game for much of the first half. With a dominance of possession and a persistent exploitation of the flanks, it’s fair to say that such an assessment wasn’t inaccurate.
However, Charlton’s game plan was clearly doing the job Peeters hoped it would. The three men in midfield tirelessly pressed, hurrying Norwich into wasting possession or a wild long range effort, while the back four, Bikey especially, were utterly exceptional in their efforts to deny the Canaries when they did find a way into the final third.
That isn’t to say there wasn’t an element of luck involved in Charlton’s efforts to keep Norwich at bay; especially as the half-time whistle, desperately sought by equally exhausted Addicks on the pitch and in the away end, drew closer.
The lively Nathan Redmond and wing partner Hoolahan came agonisingly close to picking out their targets with a number of wonderfully delivered crosses, while the home fans were left bemused after Johnson’s push on Henderson from a corner meant Russell Martin’s resulting tap-in was disallowed.
Such a goal, with just four first half minutes remaining, would have been incredibly cruel on the hard working Addicks, and you could almost argue their efforts meant they deserved the rub of the green when it came to 50/50 calls. Regardless, there was a general consensus from those less partisan that referee Russell had made the correct decision.
It meant Charlton could trudge back to the dressing room at half-time, already showing signs of wear and tear from their energy-sapping performance, with their heads held high. While Vetokele had become completely isolated and few moments of attacking promise had been created, the defensive effort was close to perfection. A repeat display in the second period, and an unlikely point would be there’s.
Achieving such a feat, however, was by no means a simple task. The Canaries, with options on the bench, would surely come at the Addicks for the duration of the half and not allow a single momentary lapse. It may have been job half done in terms of minutes on the clock, but it was nowhere near that in terms of effort and concentration needed.
It therefore came as some surprise that it was the visitors who started the second half with a half chance, as if to remind the Canaries they too had to remain resolute at the back. The increasingly influential Wilson crossed for Jackson, but considerable pressure from former Addick Michael Turner prevent the captain’s header from finding Vetokele or being directed goalwards.
But if Charlton fans were hoping such a promising start would be the catalyst for a more adventurous second half, they were soon to find out such hopes were misguided.
Norwich quickly got back into the stride they had finished the first half in, and only another smart stop from Henderson, parrying the ball away low down at his near post, prevented Cameron Jerome from giving the hosts a lead that wouldn’t have flattered them.
It was the first effort of many in what became something of a half-long onslaught on Charlton’s goal. It wasn’t that the Addicks were offering less resistance, just that the force they were attempting to resist had grown more powerful.
A long range strike from Tettey failed to test Henderson, but Jerome really should have beaten the former Ipswich man, skewing a header from another marvellous delivery from Redmond.
Led by the young winger, was now a more penetrative quality to Norwich’s attacks, and Charlton’s defending increasingly became more desperate. Both Bikey and Ben Haim were called upon to make last ditch tackles, while Wiggins, Wilson and Cousins were fixated upon stopping Redmond.
So, with the former Birmingham winger looking the most threatening player in yellow, it was somewhat ironic that one of Norwich’s best openings came from the left. Hoolahan’s cut back was superbly intercepted by Jackson, but the loose ball popped up against Bikey’s not insignificantly sized arms. If the earlier call to disallow Norwich a goal was a fair one, this was certainly a sign that luck was on Charlton’s side. With 90% of Carrow Road furiously rising as one to call for a penalty, the small number of Addicks knew they’d got away with one.
As they did when, with just over 20 minutes to play, a fraction of the ground though momentarily that the hosts had gone in front.
Henderson, in no mood to be beaten, was again equal to a strike as Redmond was played through, but the rebound fell kindly to Hoolahan. With seemingly an open goal to place the ball into, Wiggins got back brilliant to acrobatically clear the ball away perilously close to the line. The sigh of relief in the increasingly concerned away end as loud as the groan of frustration from the home ends. It was surely only a matter of time before the Addicks fell behind.
Alas, in the game’s final 20 minutes, Charlton’s effort somehow tripled. The players who had given so much to limit to Norwich’s threat found more energy from somewhere. They pressed and hassled their opponents with a determination that once again forced the Canaries out wide, where Wilson, now at right back with a Gomez injured, and Wiggins were growing more resolute.
In fact, such pressing meant the Addicks were able to get forward, if only for the sake of failed openings, with Jackson tamely giving away the ball on the edge of the box after it fell kindly to him.
And that loss of possession allowed Norwich to break. Steaming through, Grabban’s resulting effort curled fractionally wide of the post. The Skipper, it’s fair to say, looked a little sheepish and, having worked as hard as any other other man on the pitch, the appearance of Karlen Ahearne-Grant on the touchline suggested his minutes were numbed.
However, Jackson was immediately involved again, sliding in Vetokele after another Charlton break, but Ruddy came out well to block.
But Jackson’s involvement in forward positions offered no suggestion as to what would happen next. It’s that surprise nature that probably made the moment so special, that made the scenes in the away end so spectacular, that makes Jackson such an incredible leader.
Taking a pass from Buyens, the skipper pulled the ball onto his stronger left foot and unleashed a strike that appeared to deflect on its way towards goal. It was enough to take the ball beyond Ruddy and spark wild celebrations among the away supporters and on the pitch.
For Charlton, snatching a victory so late on and completely against the run of play was an incredible reward for such an outstanding night of effort and determination at the back. The delight in those on the pitch celebrations said just that. The exhaustion felt was worth it.
However, minutes remained on the clock, and work still had to be done. But Norwich were flat, the goal taking the zip out of their play, while the Addicks were buoyant, if it a little desperate. Cheers for debutant Ahearne-Grant winning a throw suggested just that.
But soon those rather anxious cheers became cheers of sheer joy; the full-time whistle sparking scenes not too distant from the goal itself. The emotional expression of delight from the Skipper as he came over to thank the visiting supporters for their efforts particularly enjoyable.
It was only when Jackson and found the energy to whirl his arms around for the tenth time that the achievement truly sunk in. Against a side top of the league and with serious ambitions to win the division, against quality individual opposition, and in the face of constant attacks, the Addicks had been determined, resilient and full of effort to achieve such an incredible result. I can’t have been the only Charlton supporter in that away end to quickly fill with pride.
That pride would have been there had the Addicks claimed just a point. The aspect of the performance most worthy of a feeling of pride was the defensive display. Of course, Charlton were fortunate at times, with Norwich coming so close to scoring on a number of occasions and often beating the back four.
But so brilliantly set up by Peeters, so perfectly executed by those pressing in midfield and supported by incredible work at the back to constantly deny Norwich’s frustrated forwards, the efforts deserved reward.
Cousins and Buyens did their job admirably, the pair visibly void of energy by full-time such was the persistence with which they pressed, while Wiggins, Gomez and Ben Haim dealt admirable and then some with the consider opposition they were forced to face.
But, in that defensive display, it was Bikey, Wilson and Henderson who outshone the rest. Almost every ball sent into the box was won by Bikey, while Wilson was faultless in a high intensity display of both defensive grit and attracting intent when the opportunities arrived. In addition, Henderson kept his side in the game on a number of occasions with some excellent stops.
Of the three, I would give my man of the match award to Wilson, if that doesn’t take away too much praise from a man who deserves endless amounts of it.
Before the game, there were calls for Jackson to be dropped. Working incredibly hard to press and help execute Peeters’ game plan perfectly, in addition to a dramatic game winning goal may, it’s fair to say those questioning the Skipper are somewhat quieter tonight.
With yet another moment supplied by Jackson which I’ll never forget, there is truly no greater inspirational leader for the Addicks.
Now, with a tenth game unbeaten, the question must be asked – serious promotion contenders or bright starters who will fall away?
If they are to fall away, it won’t be for a lack of effort. In fact, if promotions were awarded to those most deserving based on efforts and to captains who have warranted such a moment, it would be Charlton and Jackson.
What a night.