It almost feels insulting to judge Johnnie Jackson on the basis of statistics. Like judging Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s ground on the number of seats it contains, not its character and wonderful ‘proper’ football ground feel.
ProZone cannot measure the importance of his leadership, particularly in adverse times. Opta cannot tell you his influential qualities, for no number can show the way he can inspire those around him. WhoScored cannot apply a rating to the legendary status he has created for himself in SE7, which is impossible to describe with a simple figure.
And even on a day where Jackson, on his 209th appearance in a Charlton shirt, reached a highly commendable landmark, the figures would still be doing him a disservice.
For though his second-half goal, perfectly timing a run to connect with Tareiq Holmes-Dennis’ cross and thunder a header into the bottom corner, was his 50th for the Addicks, the story of it, and not the statistic, was more important.
Like so many of his goals, this one was vital. Tainted only slightly by an uncharacteristically poor Jackson knee-slide, which was quickly addressed by the chaos above him in the away stand.
It gave Charlton the lead in an incredibly tight affair, with both sides unable to make the most of prior half-chances. An advantage that would ultimately be match-winning, as Jackson and his side dug in for the remaining 29 minutes of the match.
Unquestionably, the Blues, applying an uncomfortable amount of pressure in the closing stages, had cause to feel that the result was harsh on them come full-time. The hosts inches away from equalising on a number of occasions.
But there was little sympathy among the celebrating Charlton supporters, sharing the delight of their first Championship away win since March, and their first back-to-back wins of this campaign, with their skipper. His joy, as you would expect, expressed just as passionately.
And as the away end cheered and Jackson fist-pumped, a neutral could not have guessed that this was a set of fans apathetic towards their club. A crucial goal from their hero far more useful in reconnecting supporters and club than any of Katrien Meire’s misguided words.
That connection between Jackson and his supporters is one that you can do justice with a statistic. 100%.
However, the fitness of a number of Charlton players was somewhat below 100%, with a handful of absentees weakening the side that took to the St Andrew’s pitch.
Chris Solly’s absence meant a start for Holmes-Dennis in an unnatural right-back position, while Tony Watt’s injury, and the inability of Reza Ghoochannejhad and new signing Ricardo Vaz Te to start, meant 17-year-old Ademola Lookman was given his full debut. A tough test for both youngsters, given Birmingham’s pace out wide and the resolute figure of Michael Morrison leading the hosts’ backline.
The return of Jordan Cousins, in for the suspended El-Hadji Ba, provided some cause for optimism among the supporters who have travelled to the home of a side sitting in the play-offs, as did the unavailability of Birmingham’s talismanic forward, Clayton Donaldson.
Nonetheless, Gary Rowett’s side still evidently possessed a reasonable amount of quality going forward as they issued an early warning. Karel Fraeye seemingly not setting up his men to press in the manner they did against Wednesday, allowing Jacques Maghoma the time and space to drill a strike straight at Stephen Henderson.
And though the Addicks continued to look a little fragile defensively, particularly when faced with the pace of Demarai Gray, there were some promising signs going forward. Lookman’s confidence, constantly attempting to beat opponents with speed and clever footwork, warming up the frozen bodies in the away end, while Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s free-kick warmed the hands of Tomasz Kuszczak.
In fact, after the lively Jon Toral had fired harmlessly over the bar from the edge of the box, it was the visitors who had the game’s first clear-cut opening.
Morgan Fox’s hack clear was superbly kept in play by Simon Makienok, and his subsequent run and through ball provided a wonderful opening for Lookman. But the youngster, with a reasonable amount of time and space, could only fire against the side netting.
Such an opening increased the volume in the away end, but it proved not to be the catalyst for Charlton domination. Nerves felt each time the constantly uncoordinated Naby Sarr was forced to make an intervention, while Nicolai Brock-Madsen, hindered by Fox’s grab of his shirt that went unnoticed, was unable to connect with a marvellous defence-splitting low cross from Toral.
You would call the affair end-to-end if there was a touch more quality involved, with the faults of both sides often making it a testing watch. Although that might have been influenced by the bitterly cold wind, which caused the away supporters to sing “we’re fucking cold”.
But you could not fault Holmes-Dennis’ attempt to add some extra class to the game. A superb shimmy to beat men in Blue on the right, followed by a determined run towards the box, allowed the youngster to get into a position from which he could test Kuszczak. The ‘keeper doing well to palm away the fierce drive.
Nor could you accuse Birmingham’s Gray of lacking the quality required to liven things up. The winger the focal point of almost every Blues move, with Fox having to dig deeper and deeper to keep out the exciting youngster.
And though the Welshman, if a little unconvincingly, was standing firm, there was always going to be a moment when Gray found a way through. Fox left for dead, Sarr in no man’s land, and Toral’s first time strike wonderfully saved by Henderson.
A let off for the Addicks, but the pattern of play was changing. Birmingham growing in confidence, and beginning to take control. Charlton visibly on the back foot, not helped by uncomposed clearances and a general lack of calm when the Blues attacked. Gray the architect again as David Davies lofted an effort over the bar.
That sense of panic was summed up by Henderson’s indecisiveness as Davies fed a ball through into the path Brock-Madsen. Thankfully, the Irish stopper eventually decided to come off his line, and did well to block the forward’s strike. Calm restored as Toral’s floated header fell safely into Henderson’s hands.
But just as those in the away end began nervously counting down the seconds until half-time, Charlton were able to find an unlikely late burst of attacking energy. A glorious one-touch passing move, more Brentford than Barcelona but still much better than anything seen in the preceding period of play, almost resulting in Lookman being put through.
A minute later, however, and only Kuszczak stood between the youngster and his first senior goal. But, having done superbly to get in front of his man and latch onto Makienok’s flick-on, the youngster’s effort was rash, and troubled only those sitting behind the goal.
Nonetheless, those brief moments of attacking quality meant the Addicks could go in at the break with a degree of confidence. Gray’s influence, combined with some uncomfortable Charlton defending, meant it was the Blues who had narrowly edged the half, but there remained a threat from the visitors when they were able to get forward.
It was, therefore, vital that the Addicks began the second half with at least a degree of composure and control. Not allowing Birmingham to dominate the game as they did towards the end of the first period, and at least compete evenly with their opponents.
Alas, the Blues, evidently encouraged by their exploits prior to the break, were intent on building upon the relatively handy foundations that had been set. Gray driving forward, and lashing an effort goalwards that required a diving Henderson to intervene.
But there was little Henderson could do but watch as Birmingham’s next strike moved towards goal. Stephen Gleeson’s superbly struck first-time effort so close to nestling into the top corner that it appeared to be heading in from my position in the away end. Nerves increasing.
If that had made Charlton hearts rest in mouths, than they were dangling from lips as Maghoma broke into the box. His cross-cum-shot avoiding all those across the face of goal, but only flashing wide of the far post by the narrowest of margins. The Addicks static, unable to deal with Birmingham’s rampage.
So the free-kick the visitors were awarded on the hour appeared little more than an opportunity for some respite. A chance to catch breaths; making the Blues hold theirs merely an afterthought.
But, having exchanged passes from the set-piece and been played into a crossing position, Holmes-Dennis’ delivery raised hope from the moment it left his boot.
Hope becoming expectation as the sight of an unmarked Johnnie Jackson, so potent in the box from set-piece situations, moving to make contact with the ball appeared.
Expectation became celebration as soon as the skipper headed the ball powerfully. Such was the fine nature of the nod, there was no need to wait for the net to ripple in order to begin the carnage. Arms and cheers all over the away end, as Jackson peeled away to celebrate.
Few were getting ahead of themselves, however. With just less than half hour remaining, there was still plenty of time for Charlton to do what the skipper had done while celebrating – slip up. His knee slide more of a swan dive.
But Birmingham, so dominant prior to going behind, looked rattled. No longer calmly playing the ball out of defence and using confidence-fuelled pace to exploit Charlton’s backline. Instead, they panicked. Misdirected long balls unthreatening.
And a big part of that was the newfound energy the Addicks were exerting. The Blues pressed while in possession, and the dominant Alou Diarra intercepting every loose ball.
It meant the Addicks were able to cause something of a threat on the break. The introduced Vaz Te giving Paul Caddis a testing time on the wing, and Makienok should have done better than heading Gudmundsson’s cross horribly over.
While Birmingham had Gray, however, there remained a chance the day would end with the rather cheerful away supporters feeling blue. Charlton sat off him, the winger drove forward, and his drilled strike fizzed past the post.
A second needed, both to confirm the victory and prevent nerves from growing in the away end. Vaz Te’s inability to connect with Holmes-Dennis’ cross, and as such wasting a wonderful opportunity, not ideal.
But time, with much of it wasted by the Addicks, was growing ever more precious, and the home supporters increasingly becoming frustrated when their side took too long in possession. A threatening run, like the one Patrick Bauer was able to go on that resulted in Gudmundsson firing straight at Kusczczak, desperately pleaded for by the St Andrew’s regulars.
And though Reece Brown was able to get a shot away, firing comfortably over Henderson’s bar, there remained no indication as four minutes of stoppage time were announced that this Birmingham side, a shadow of the one seen before going behind, would be able to draw level.
Alas, a stress free ending to a Charlton game was always going to be too much to ask for. The hearts that had been pushed back into their proper place after the Addicks had taken the lead again dangling from lips as only the most crucial of headed interceptions from Holmes-Dennis prevented Jonathon Grounds from converting Gray’s excellent delivery.
Panic consuming Charlton’s box, and the away end. Henderson thankful to claim a tame Gleeson strike, but was unmoved as the ball fell kindly to Brown and his effort curled agonisingly wide of the far post.
And there was yet more suffering to come, beyond the initial four minutes indicated. With almost the final kick of the game, Viv Solomon-Otabor came even closer to equalising, placing his strike just fractionally the wrong side of the post.
The full-time whistle that followed producing a cheer, influenced by both delight and relief, as loud as the one that came after the Jackson goal.
They had been forced to dig deep, they had been severely tested, and there was more than an element of good fortune. But this felt like a classic Charlton away victory, the sort not seen since March, and the post-match celebrations of both those in the stands and on the pitch only confirmed that.
Of course, the outcome could have been so different had Birmingham taken just one of their chances.
A point would have been theirs with some composure in the game’s final minutes, and the pattern of play at the time suggests they might well have gained all three points had they taken the lead during their dominance at the start of the second half. Defeat harsh on a side that threatened constantly.
As such, it is only fair to admit that there was an element of luck about Charlton’s victory. Had it been the Addicks on the end of such a defeat, after cursing the inability of the forwards in front of goal, I would have felt a terrible sense of frustration.
But more than a healthy amount of that luck was deserved, such was the effort put in, fight offered, and character shown by a group no longer appearing to be overwhelmed by a lack of confidence.
For the Charlton side of a few weeks ago would not have come away from such an encounter with all three points. They would have crumbled under the adversity they were put in at several points during the game.
Henderson’s saves vital, Fox, though beaten often by Gray, battling incredibly hard, and Diarra constantly breaking up Birmingham’s attacks. Their defensive fight complimented by Bauer’s resilience, Holmes-Dennis’ maturity, and the midfield’s determination. Only Sarr, with sliced clearances aplenty, made you feel particularly uncomfortable.
So too was there enough going forward to suggest that the Addicks were not completely dominated in the overall play. Gudmundsson lively, Makienok frustrating but still a nuisance, and Lookman a real talent. Vaz Te also making a decent enough impression.
You could, therefore, suggest the appointment of Fraeye has been justified. There has undoubtedly been improvement.
That is, of course, incorrect. It telling that it was Jason Euell’s name sung through the game by the away end, and not the coach whose appointment remains an insult to the club and its supporters by a stubborn and misguided ownership. The mood remains one of strong opposition – nothing had changed off the field.
But those on the pitch are doing their bit to lessen, or at least halt, the apathy and disillusionment. No more so than Johnnie Jackson.
His performance epitomising the entire side’s, with fight and determination, and his goal so typical of a man who always seems to score when it matters most. That it was his 50th strike merely confirming his status as a club legend.
Long may he, and his teammates, continue to heal the pain caused by those above them.