Throwing his body into a Reading strike from distance as full-time drew closer, Johnnie Jackson’s block epitomised Charlton’s efforts.
This was by no means Jackson’s best performance for the Addicks; he and his midfield colleagues were often guilty of gifting the ball to the hosts. But it matched any of the skippers’ previous displays in terms of effort.
And that effort was replicated throughout Charlton’s side. The first Charlton side to win at the Madjeski Stadium.
It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t faultless and at times it was easier on the heart to look anywhere but the pitch, but this was an away performance to be proud of.
Taking the lead against the run of play, with Igor Vetokele heading intelligently past Adam Federici from Chris Solly’s delicious cross, Bob Peeters’ side dug in and fought superbly for the remaining 50 minutes.
Almost every cross was blocked, balls played forward were consistently intercepted by the dominant figures of Tal Ben Haim and Andre Bikey, and the Royals were pressured into countless mistakes by a relentless Charlton back four.
Encouraged by a vocal visiting support, the resilience that had been missing in recent weeks had returned. Reading were simply unable to turn their possession into anything threatening.
And as the game entered its closing stages, an exhausted side collectively found one last burst of energy, with each player in red persistently pressing and giving both blood and guts to protect their lead.
It was certainly nervy, made more so by substitute George Tucudean’s horrendous miss after a rare Charlton break, but such fight from the Addicks was worthy of a second away win of the season.
The celebration’s in the Madjeski’s away end that followed, not to mention those from battered and bruised Jackson and his teammates, as full of energy as the performance itself.
There were also celebrations in the away end as Igor Vetokele, having made two substitute appearances in the previous week, was named in the starting XI for the first time since Charlton’s trip to Bournemouth having recovered from an Achilles injury.
The Angolan replaced Tucudean as Peeters opted to deploy a 4-4-1-1 formation with Callum Harriott operating as a second striker.
But, without Rhoys Wiggins, there was also concern pre-grame. Morgan Fox, having struggled against Fulham in his previous start for the Addicks, replaced his fellow Welshman at left-back.
And it was the hosts, coming into the game on the back of two consecutive 3-0 victories at the Mad Stad, who looked the most threatening of the two sides in the opening stages.
Much of that was down to on-loan Crystal Palace forward Glenn Murray, who was offering a physical and aerial threat that Vetokele and Harriott couldn’t necessary provide, heading the game’s first opening narrowly over Stephen Henderson’s bar.
While Murray could hold up the play and add an extra dimension to Reading’s forward moves, Charlton, comfortable in possession up until the final third was reached, were struggling to turn positive positions into something more concerning for the opposition’s back four.
It meant that Nigel Adkins’ side were regularly handed the ball in their own half and given the opportunity to come forward. Only excellent defending from an unflappable Solly prevented Jordan Obita from creating an opening as the winger broke down the left.
But, for all the promise shown by the Royals, their efforts to get forward were too often curtailed by Charlton’s back four. Even when they did have some joy and seemingly fashion out a chance, a misplaced pass would cause frustration or the imperious centre-back pairing of Ben Haim and Bikey would beat the ball away.
In fact, it took until the 20th minute for Reading to create a chance of note. Jamie Mackie got ahead of Jackson to collect a short corner, before holding off the Charlton skipper and teeing up Obita.
With the away end momentarily silenced, a desperate block from Bikey saw the ball trickle wide by the narrowest of margins. A reprieve, but also a warning that the Addicks needed to improve or this Reading side would eventually take advantage.
Alas, the following passages of play were largely frustrating ones for Peeters’ side. Losing the battle in midfield, Jackson and Yoni Buyens were second to every ball, while both the central pairing and almost every other player in red seemed intent on wastefully misplacing passes.
Some encouragement was offered to a set of supporters growing weary in the away end after a fantastic passing move, evidence the Addicks could get the ball down and play, was rounded off by a well-struck effort from Johann Berg Gudmundsson. Federici may have been equal to it, but it offered hope Charlton had it within them to provide a stern test to a Reading side that certainly didn’t look an impossible opponent.
But the Addicks remained fragile. Having again gifted possession to the Royals, only a crucial intervention from Bikey prevented Murray from racing clear, while Danny Williams, scorer of the winner at The Valley in April, should have done better when volleying a cleared corner back towards goal.
As half-time approached, most visiting supporters were content to count down the seconds until the break in the hope going in level would allow Charlton to regroup and offer something more in the second period.
Instead, those final first half seconds were counted down in the nervous hope the Addicks would maintain their lead.
Against the run of play it may have been, but, while Reading had wasted countless chances to create something, Charlton’s goal showed perfectly the potentially potent nature of the side’s forward threat.
Immaculate defensively, Solly was offered a rare chance to bomb forward, and did so with similar levels of ability shown to fend off Obita. With his route down the right flank blocked off by Chris Gunter, Charlton’s full-back cleverly cut inside and moved the ball onto his left, delivering an outstanding cross with his weaker foot. The sort of ball Vetokele dreams about.
Stepping away from his marker with ease, the Angolan caught the ball with his head later than most would, but it proved to be a stroke of genius. The desperate attempts of Federici were futile as the looping header was placed perfectly into the far corner.
Undeserved? Arguably. A goal deserving of winning any game? Most certainly, and celebrated as such in the away end.
But Reading were in no mood to allow Vetokele’s eighth of the season to end their chances of taking something from the game. In fact, they might well have gone at the break level had Murray been able to divert Simon Cox’s blocked effort goalwards. Instead, it flashed wide in agonising fashion for the home supporters.
The resulting corner also made Charlton sweat, with Michael Hector’s header narrowly bundled wide at the far post. A reminder, although ignored as the Addicks were loudly serenaded off the pitch, that Reading were bound to provide a sterner test in the second half.
And from the opening moments after the interval, it was clear this was going to be a gruelling 45 minutes for Charlton fans and players alike. The ball belonged to Reading; the Addicks simply unable to have a spell of possession of their own.
Murray stung the palms of Henderson from range while Obita headed off-target as the Royals looking to make their ball retention into something more telling.
But, totally against the run of play, it was Peeters’ side who had the best opening of the second half’s early stages.
An excellent break forward resulted in Harriott, now playing with an element of confidence, threading the ball through to Vetokele. Had the Angolan brought the ball under control, he would have almost certainly doubled Charlton’s lead, but frustration was shown as the ball skipped just beyond his boot.
And further frustration might well have been shown had the Addicks not been somewhat fortunate in Reading’s next attack. Given the space to shoot, Oliver Norwood’s effort was well hit, but veered off goal and clipped the post. A huge relief as the hour mark approached.
But, Norwood’s strike aside, Charlton were becoming increasingly harder to break down. While Reading could have all the possession they wished to have in the middle, the moment they pressed forward, an Addick was harrying them. Where Murray was having the better of the battle in the first half, Ben Haim and Bikey had now completely nullified his threat.
In fact, another break for the Addicks almost resulted in their lead being doubled, but Harriott curled an effort wayward when he might well have continued on his run.
Alas, Charlton’s chances of doubling their lead were shortened when Vetokele, seemingly injured again, left the field to be replaced by Francis Coquelin.
The Arsenal loanee immediately made an impressing, proving a cool and composed head in the centre that not only allowed Charlton to see more of the ball, but also gave Jackson the freedom to press opponents all over the pitch as he so often does.
So when Jackson’s cross was blocked at one end of the pitch, it was no surprise to see him immediately down the other, putting life and limb at danger to fling himself in front of Williams’ forceful effort.
It was not just the skipper, however, who was defending sensational effort. Solly and Fox, although occasionally troubled, were resolute in their efforts to stop Reading down the wing, while Bikey and Ben Haim continued to defy the Royals’ attempts to create something from a more direct move.
In fact, it took until the game’s final ten minutes for Reading to momentarily silence the visiting supporters, who had not stopped singing all half.
Given a bit of space to do so, Mackie cut inside and unleashed a vicious, swerving effort. For a moment, it looked to be heading in, but an outrageous reaction save from Henderson denied the former Nottingham Forest forward. The silence ended by a standing ovation for Charlton’s stopper.
But from the resulting corner, there was again concern in the away end. Murray rose highest to meet Gunter’s delivery, but the ball flashed across the face of goal and behind. Dig in, lads.
With Reading committing more men forward than ever before, there was always likely to be at least one more chance for the Addicks, and when Jackson set Gudmundsson free, the points were seemingly about to be sealed.
With Tucudean breaking with him, the Iceland international played the ball across perfectly for the forward, but, somehow, the Romanian contrived to strike the ball straight at Federici, before fluffing his lines for the follow up. Six more agonising minutes awaited.
But Charlton remained resolute, while Reading had grown desperate. Pavel Pogrebnyak’s attempts to win a penalty after losing an aerial duel to Ben Haim were commendable, if a little laughable.
And while the match officials didn’t oblige on that occasion, they did when additional time was announced. Six minutes of it.
The away end was uncomfortable, in fear of conceding late on. So much so that Jackson’s tactical booking, so late on a Reading man that the challenge might as well have been made in the next encounter between the sides, earned him his name being sung.
Had the Addicks conceded in that period, it would have been a cruel and undeserved blow. Such an unrelenting effort in the second half to protect their lead was worthy of doing so.
In fact, it was telling that even in those additional minutes, Reading struggled to create. One chance fell their way, but Williams’ strike was always going wide. The home ends emptied at alarming pace as it was sliced off-target.
It hadn’t been anything like routine, it certainly hadn’t been without worry and elements of the afternoon were pretty gruesome, but the celebrations that met the full-time whistle were more than deserved.
There’s more than one way to a win a game of football, and the way Charlton had gone about things was done as close to perfection as possible.
In a sense, it was more rewarding to see the Addicks win in such a way.
For Charlton have looked a little sloppy defensively in recent weeks, and had troubles holding onto a lead all season. To show grit and determination to protect their lead was fantastic to see, and suggests the phobia of winning away from home may about to be overcome.
And while Reading, despite all their possession, offered very little threat going forward, it takes nothing away from just how excellent they were at the back.
In fact, repeat defensive performances, led by the dominance of Ben Haim and Bikey, against most sides in the league would result in a Charlton victory.
From Henderson, collecting a number of crosses and making that stunning save from Mackie, to Fox, at times caught out but almost always quickly making amends, to Jordan Cousins, offering much needed support to Fox, the effort to keep Reading out was sublime.
But it was Solly’s performance that was the most impressive. The full-back was simply faultless, stopping Obita persistently, composed on the ball when others weren’t and topping off his day with an outstanding assist. I dread to think just how good the academy graduate would be if he wasn’t working off one knee.
Of course, you would like to see more going forward. Harriott showed glimpses, but he was largely frustrating, Gudmundsson had few chances to break forward and the less said about Tucudean’s miss the better.
One piece of magic from a Royal or a monetary slip up at the back could have meant all the hard work of the Addicks was undone.
But when you’ve got a resolute back four and a forward in Vetokele who is capable of taking the once chance that falls his way, showing movement and intelligence beyond this level in doing so, such a game plan is capable of coming off.
This was certainly a case of a job very well done.