Watches were nervously being looked at all over The Valley. Charlton supporters unsure whether to wish for more time in the hope of finally beating Millwall or less and settle for a point against their rivals; the visiting fans seemingly wanting the fifth minute of five added on to be reached quickly and their unbeaten run against the Addicks to continue.
It was an enthralling ending to a hard-fought and well contested South East London derby. Neither side willing to sacrifice what they already had, but, even the visitors, desperately hoping to steal the bragging rights.
But there was a chance for the Addicks to steal the bragging rights. The best chance of a goalless contest. The best chance Charlton have had in 18 years to beat their neighbours.
Igor Vetokele suddenly got the better of the defence that had kept him quiet for most of the game, and played an unmarked George Tucudean through on goal. Checks of watches momentarily stopped; this was Tucudean’s time.
His shot delicately lobbed over David Forde, the home supporters rising in expectation, record books lined up to be ripped apart. The Valley was set for the most incredible of moments.
The Romanian forward, who became a father in the small hours of the morning, was seemingly about to top off a day he would never forget by moving from much criticised figure to something resembling a Valley legend. At the very least, people would surely be speaking of the celebrations after Tucudean’s winner for years to come.
And premature cries of celebration were heard as the ball moved towards the empty goal. But they, along with any thoughts of ending the Millwall hoodoo, were far too premature.
Players in blue were frantically tracking back, desperate not be part of the first Millwall side to lose to the Addicks in the 21st century. And with Tucudean’s effort proving to be too delicate a lob, a combination of Byron Webster and Alan Dunne got back to just about scramble the ball away.
But just about was all it was. For a brief moment, the ball seemed to be back at the feet of Tucudean, but the forward couldn’t capitalise when it seemed easier to score. Premature cries of celebration became very real cries of anguish, largely directed at a floored Tucudean.
The familiar feeling of pain against the Lions returned.
And although this was a much better performance from the Addicks when compared to previous contests with the Lions, the hosts edging the overall run of play in what was a tense encounter, it proved to be just as frustrating as any of the games since 1996.
Will the win over Millwall ever come? Undoubtedly it will have to at some point, but Charlton blew what was seemingly their time to right previous wrongs.
Even before kick-off, there was an expectation that this was a glorious opportunity for the Addicks, made more so by the presence of Vetokele in the starting line-up.
In fact, the inclusion of the Angolan, leading the line on his own despite being a major doubt for the clash, meant Charlton supporters were more willing to play down the importance of Stephen Henderson’s absence, with Nick Pope replacing the injured number one in goal.
And the young stopper proved himself up for the challenge in the early stages as two sets of vocal supporters and two sides seemingly intent on giving their all made for an intense derby atmosphere.
Racing off his line, Pope collected two dangerous looking loose balls inside his penalty area to make sure a bright start for a much-changed Millwall side, with former Addick Ricardo Fuller dropped to the bench, wasn’t capitalised upon.
And while Lees Gregory and Martin were getting the better of Tal Ben Haim and Andre Bikey in the early encounters, causing worry in the home ends given what has gone before in these fixtures, it was always likely that Charlton would cause some problems of their own against an out of sorts Millwall.
In fact, with just six minutes played, the Addicks carved out an excellent opening for their top scorer.
Gumundsson, having performed a signature turn out into the centre, sent Cousins steaming down the left with a delicious ball over the top, and the academy graduate picked out Vetokele perfectly.
But the forward’s execution wasn’t quite so pinpoint, with the ball skewing wide after coming off his head at an awkward angle. Not exactly a guilt edge chance, but one you would expect a player of Vetokele’s calibre to make better use of.
Alas, if Millwall’s efforts on goal were anything to go by, Charlton could afford to waste a few of their own. Martyn Woolford’s strike from range closer to the corner flag than Pope’s near post, much to the delight of the noticeably loud Covered End, who were otherwise spending a great deal of their time lauding the former Lions striker who patrolled the Addicks’ technical area.
And Bob Peeters was forced into action much early than he would have liked, having to call up Callum Harriott from the bench to replace the injured Yoni Buyens.
Initially, it looked like a huge blow for the Addicks, with the Standard Liege loanee possessing the ability to persistently break-up opposition attacks and be the catalyst for Charlton spells of dominance. In an end-to-end derby, such skills were seemingly vital.
Instead, Buyens’ injury proved to have a positive affect on the hosts, with the impressive Francis Coquelin dropping into a deeper role and quickly imposing himself at the heart of the midfield battle.
While playing in a slightly more advanced role, the Arsenal loanee had frustrated with a number of through balls that, although involved excellent vision, were either too ambitious or poorly executed. In fact, Charlton were having decent spells of possession, but, possibly through derby nerves, anxious to play the ball forward and far too wasteful when in the final third.
With Coquelin in a defensive midfield position, he simplified his game, and the Addicks in general looked more composed and comfortable almost immediately. Johann Berg Gumundsson began to be real threat, beating his man constantly, Johnnie Jackson and the now central Cousins pressed with greater threat and even Harriott, although frequently faltering in the final third, looked lively.
Nonetheless, while the battle was compelling and intense, chances remained at a premium.
In fact, it was arguably Millwall, still possessing a decent enough threat on the break, who had the better of them before the interval. Pope was forced into a smart stop from Ed Upson’s header and former Addick Martin flashed an inviting ball across the face of goal either side of a Bikey nod towards goal that was comfortably saved by Forde.
So while both sides could go in at the break fairly happy with how they’d battled in the derby clash, both knew improvement was needed in the final third. Especially for the Addicks, who had the foundations from which they could apply plenty of pressure to their opponents.
And with the Coquelin shaped base from which to build from, Charlton began the second half in fine fashion. There was a greater intensity, more accuracy in even the most impossible of passes and seemingly a real threat.
It was rudely interrupted by Scott McDonald, oddly playing as a holding midfielder, and doing it quite well, who had the ball in the net only for a handball in the build up to deny him a second fortuitous goal against the Addicks in consecutive seasons, but Charlton quickly got back into their stride.
A fantastic ball from Coquelin picked out Harriott, and his cut back found Jackson, but the skipper’s effort was blocked away by what appeared to be the hand of Webster. Another big call for the match officials, but this time it went against the hosts, with Charlton’s appeals waved away.
The openings, however, kept coming for the Addicks, with Harriott, although making questionable calls to take an extra touch on several occasions, forcing Millwall’s back four to throw life and limb in the way of his deliveries and shots.
But, for all the hosts’ good work, it wasn’t until the hour mark when the first meaningful effort on goal was mustered. The exceptional Gudmundsson cutting inside and forcing a decent save out of Forde. The momentum now truly with Charlton, epitomised by the wall of noise coming from behind the goal they were attacking.
Nonetheless, those passionate Addicks were going to remain somewhat nervous until a player in red finally put a chance away. Given what they’ve seen before, you couldn’t excuse them for beginning to feel rather concerned as attack after attacking failed to be converted.
So when Harriott, having collected Cousins’ cross after good work from the characteristically unflappable Chris Solly, beat Forde only for the effort to then be blocked away on the line, you started to feel like this, once again, wasn’t going to be Charlton’s day against their rivals.
Which meant it probably wasn’t the best of times to remove your head from your hands and see Fuller take to the pitch.
The former Charlton man, having horribly ballooned an effort wide shortly after coming on, immediately made an impression on the hosts’ back four, giving a rather shaky Bikey a difficult time and involved as McDonald shot wide.
In fact, Fuller’s introduction proved to be the catalyst for something of a Millwall resurgence. The Addicks, no longer possessing that persistent attacking threat, came under heavy pressure as Pope just about got behind Shaun Williams’ free-kick and did well to stop Scott Malone’s well struck effort.
But the goalkeeper, who this time last year was beginning the first of three loan spells at York, was still yet to make his best save. With Bikey stumbling, and allowing Jermaine Easter in, the substitute’s effort from a relatively tight angle would have found the bottom corner were it not for the fingertips of Pope.
With ten minutes to play, the course of the game had seemingly reversed. Previously pressing for a winner, the Addicks were now in a spot of bother.
So removing Jackson, and replacing him with Tucudean, was a brave and bold move from Peeters. Of course, sticking another man up top and going for the win was in some ways encouraging, but the side’s shape immediately disintegrated the moment the skipper went off.
It allowed Millwall further chances to get forward, and only a rather unconventional save from Pope, stopping the ball without his body behind it, prevented McDonald from stealing all three points for the Lions.
Charlton were forced to dig deep as The Valley grew tense. Solly especially as Malone and Fuller attacked down his side late on.
But, while Vetokele remained on the pitch, there was always a chance the Addicks could break forward as stoppage time was entered.
And that they did, as the Angolan collected the ball in midfield and burst forward before being cynically swiped out by Beevers. Frustration, however, was twofold for the home supporters, who were left cursing the referee after he failed to play an advantage that would have seen substitute Lawrie Wilson through on goal.
That, it appeared, was it for the Addicks, and probably the visitors. A seventh game without a win and a sixth without a goal against the Lions.
But, incredibly, Vetokele was given one more chance to break, and not even cynical defending from the Lions could stop the Angolan driving forward.
The Valley stood in anticipation as Vetokele perfectly picked out Tucudean, but the Romanian responded with a skewed lob that, although beating Forde, didn’t have enough on it to get past the desperate dives of Webster and Dunne. Heartbreak, and several choice words, in the Covered End.
In fact, some Addicks were still informing Tucudean that their mother, grandmother and their pet goldfish could have taken that chance when the resulting corner was swung in. Vetokele got to it, momentarily raising hope once again, but Forde comfortably held what was, in truth, little more than a flick on. The collective sigh telling.
And with the full-time whistle, there was an appreciative applause for the Addicks, who were a lot more deserving of appreciation than previous Charlton sides in this fixture, but frustration was also obvious. A hard point not to be sniffed at, but the reality is The Valley crowd should have been celebrating their first win over their rivals in 18 years.
In a sense, that late Tucudean miss summed up Charlton’s afternoon. There was plenty of promise, and plenty of positives, in this case the fact the Addicks were still looking to steal a winner despite considerable Millwall pressure, but the final delivery or telling touch was absent.
At times, Peeters’ side did everything but score. At times, Charlton were excellent.
The creativity and skilful play of Gudmundsson was a joy to watch, the composure and control of Coquelin vital to the periods of the game where the Addicks were on top and Solly, as well as being solid at the back, a real force going forward.
But for all the genuinely excellent play, there just wasn’t enough quality once the chance to cross or shoot became available.
A part of that was because Millwall did a very decent defensive job, with the lively Harriott, all too often blocked off by Dunne and the Lions’ centre-backs keeping Vetokele at bay for the majority of the game. Their efforts at the back probably mean they did enough to earn a point.
Nonetheless, it remains a frustration that none of the excellent attacking positions the Addicks got into, not least Tucudean’s one, were taken.
But, possibly, the Addicks could have been more of an attacking force were it not from some uncharacteristically sloppy defending from someone who has been solid all season.
Bikey was massively below-par, and that meant the momentum was never truly with the Addicks; Millwall always sniffed an opening whenever they had the ball.
Thankfully, the alertness of Pope, outstanding when called upon in tough conditions, meant the Lions failed to capitalise, but it’s incredible how fragile we looked at times against a relatively weak attack without Bikey to the fore. A player who, being as vital as anyone else in red, must perform well.
While the frustrations of wasting an opportunity, in more ways than one, to finally beat Millwall will wrangle for no doubt a few days, on balance, there are more positives than negatives to take into what will be another testing game against Ipswich next Saturday.
With that being a live TV game, there’s another hoodoo to break there. If Tucudean’s miss is anything to go by, it’s written in the stars that we can’t break the Millwall one, but a TV win could potentially make this a decent enough point.