Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Sheffield Wednesday 1-2 Charlton: Wembley Beckons For Heroic Addicks

In the space of 72 hours, this group of players have achieved far more than a bunch of academy players and castaways ever should. In the process of winning two of the biggest games of the season, they have demonstrated just what the club means to them, embodying the drive, the passion and the desire of their manager. The fight they've shown is a clear indication of how unified that dressing room is under Chris Powell. This is still very much Our Charlton.

"Everyone wants a Sheffield derby" in the quarter-final. How dare little old Charlton even think about spoiling such an occasion by grabbing that spot in the quarters for themselves.

Five change had been made by Chris Powell following the victory over QPR just two days previous. Ben Hamer made a welcome return between the posts, whilst Richard Wood replaced Dervite at the heart of defence. Wiggins was left out having played 90 minutes on Saturday following his return from injury, with Morgan Fox installed at left back to make his Charlton debut - this was no easy game to make your debut. Callum Harriott was brought in to replace Danny Green, with Cousins moving to the right of midfield. Astrit Ajdarević formed the link between the midfield duo of Poyet and Jackson, and Church on his own up front. Four recent academy graduates and a bunch of misfits who nobody else wanted to sign. A a team, though, we manage to exceed the sum of our parts. Chris Powell sees to that.

A strong Wednesday following created an intimidating atmosphere, but a good thousand or two Addicks had defied logic and work commitments to make the journey north on a Monday night. The away fans were in good voice throughout, fully behind their side. On top of that, Charlton's start to the game managed to silence the home crowd.

Wednesday played some rather unimaginative long-ball football, with Ha,era able to gather on the edge of his box on numerous occasions. Charlton did often look to kick long for Church in the channels, but the most effective play came through Ajdarević. Cool and calm passing from the likes of Jackson, Cousins and Poyet built the play up nicely, but when Ajdarević got on the ball he had that extra touch of class. His skill and composure combined to allow him space and time to pick out passes. Whilst not all of them worked, he was always looking to release either Church through the middle, or Cousins and Harriott down the flanks.

Harriott was lively, willing to take on his man and put crosses into the box. He created the first good chance of the game, dancing down the left flank before finding Ajdarević who only just shot wide. Cousins too was looking to beat his man, whilst Church had the beating of Miguel Llera. To say the ex-Charlton defender had a torrid night would be incredibly kind. He was a total liability.

Poyet did a good job all night off collecting the scraps in midfield and spreading the play, and on 20 minutes he found Cousins on the right. His cross to Ajdarević was met with a shot, blocked by a Wednesday defender. After a frantic scramble the ball fell kindly to Harriott, who lashed the ball home from 12 yards out, the ball curving into the top corner and sending the away fans bonkers. It was a fully deserved goal as Charlton had been playing some absolutely superb football, with crisp passing and dangerous wide play creating openings in the Wednesday defence.

Although Church had a harmless shot from distance soon after the goal, the momentum swing in the direction of the home team. Hamer had to catch a powerful shot and deal with a few more long balls towards his area, as Charlton sat a couple of yards deeper to protect their lead. Clearances often went back to Wednesday, whereas earlier they had been more accurate and composed. Ajdarević didn't see the ball as often, and as a result we had some more defending to do. Poyet almost played Best in with a weak back pass, but fortunately Hamer was quick enough to clear the ball. Diego shows that he is human after all...

A huge moment of potential controversy came just before half time. Ajdarević got the ball, and sensing Church could get the better of 'Liability Llera', he played the ball over the top beyond the pair. Llera was the wrong side and appeared to clip Church, sending the forward to ground when it looked like he would get on the end of the ball and have a goalscoring opportunity. Referee Mark Clattenburg was having none of it, and waved away the protests. When the half time whistle came, Charlton players surrounded the ref, and although this is inadvisable, they seemed to have a legitimate case. Jackson hauled the players away from Clattenburg, before walking off alongside him debating the incident.

My view was that it was clumsy, probably not deliberate, but a foul. However, I felt that we were better with Llera on the pitch than without him, such was his incompetence.

Despite that, half time arrived with the Addicks still in front.

The early stages of the second half followed the pattern of the period before the break, as Wednesday went even more direct with some success. Giles Coke managed to get a shot off but it went harmlessly wide of Hamer's goal. At the other end, Jackson had an ambitious shot from 25-yard which skidded across the turf but was the wrong side of the post.

Wednesday then drew level just before the hour mark. Following a long ball into the box, Charlton failed to win the header - with so many of them over the course of the game, it was a hugely difficult task constantly repelling them. The knock-down landed perfectly for Leon Best, who shot powerfully into the too corner despite what looked like a small deflection off an Addick attempting a heroic block. Hillsborough erupted, a powerful wave of noise hitting the away fan. It gave me a sinking feeling in the stomach. It would need a monumental effort to retake the initiative, and also silence the increasingly boisterous home crowd.

Much like at the Valley on Saturday, each renewed Wednesday attack brought roars from the crowd, lifting their side. Charlton dug deep. Another long ball was cleared following a desperate scramble. But the visitors managed to weather the storm, and on 65 minutes Church found himself with the ball facing only Llera between him and the goal. He tapped the ball past him and I deuces another clumsy foul from the Spaniard, who was booked. I knew it was a good thing he'd stayed on.

Johnnie Jackson stood over the free kick. The ball was in a similar position to that which he scored at Hillsborough in 2012, but slightly too wide and deep for a shot. I still had that image of Nicky Weaver diving in vain in my head. Could we be about to see an equally glorious moment?

Jackson crossed, the ball curling towards goal. Church had managed to get goal-side of he defensive line, and made for the ball. Indecisive goalkeeping allowed Church to get there first, and he managed to bundle the ball past the helpless Martinez in goal. GET IN!

Pandemonium. Blissful pandemonium.

Church was delighted, and the rest of the side charged over to celebrate with him in front of the away end. It was joyous carnage. Everyone was going spare. Charlton had silenced the hostile crowd and had out themselves back in the lead.

From that moment, it was about clinging on. Charlton fought like lions.

Wednesday continued to pepper the Charlton defence with long balls, and from a resulting corner they almost levelled for a second time. Substitute Nuhui rose to meet the cross, and his header had beaten Hamer and looked like it was going into the top corner. I couldn't tell if the man on the line or the post combined to divert it, but Hamer scrambled back to gather the ball, with the home crowd celebrating. No goal was given. I cannot tell you if it went in as I was well over 100 yards away. It was not the most pleasant experience, however. Charlton continued to cling on.

Wednesday once tried a different route to goal, getting a cross in from the right flank. Hamer dived out to gather, but couldn't quite reach cleanly, and the ball looked to be falling for Best. Hamer and about three defenders threw themselves at the ball, and somehow prevented the ball from reaching the goal. It was another horrifying moment,but again we had survived it.

Charlton forays forward had become more sporadic and infrequent, but Harriott won a free kick in a dangerous position after a horror scissored challenge from Loovens, for which he was booked. Jackson's free kick had a little too much weight on it, but only Morrison had been sent up, with the majority of the side committed to defensive duties.

I am usually quite a nervous watcher of football. The first half was fine. But the enormity of the occasion hit home hard in the second half, and emotions were heightened to a greater extent than ever before. If was behind-the-sofa stuff, the fear of conceding and being hit by that wall of noise was a constant threat. But we managed to roar the Addicks on as stoppage time approached. Channelling nerves into chanting didn't ease the pain, but it at least gave the impression that it did, and also lifted the team.

Richard Wood was caught out in similar fashion to Llera in the first half, with Nuhui looking to break into the box. Wood pulled him down cynically, and immediately we feared a red card. Only a yellow emerged. A moment of fortune. Llera looked to take the free-kick, but it was blocked by the wall and eventually cleared.

Church was replaced by Reza following an incredible shift. Dervite later replaced Wood and then Hughes replaced the classy Ajdarević in stoppage time. But there was time for one last moment of blind panic.

After a long ball, Chris Maguire was in the ideal position to collect the rebound, and he drilled a shot towards the left corner of the goal. Morrison deflected it up with his thigh, and for a brief moment we feared it would cruelly lob over Hamer and break the Charlton resistance. But the bearded wonder rose spectacularly and clawed the ball away for a corner, sealing the victory. It was an absolutely outstanding save that would have had the away end cheering if they weren't already shredded with nerves.

The five minutes of stoppage time came to an end, and Clattenburg blew his whistle got the final time. We'd done it!

Once again the scenes in the away end were incredible, as the fear of losing what we were so close to achieving had finally disappeared. The relief, happiness and joy exploded out, vocalised in numerous wonderful chants devoted to the brilliant team of players. They came over towards the away end, closer and closer to the goal. Still we cheered. Jackson, Wilson, Poyet, Cousins, Church, Ajdatevic, Harriott, Morrison, Hughes - everyone was visibly thrilled by what they had just achieved. Sharing that moment of joy with that group of players was priceless.

After he'd hugged every single one of his players and support staff, and Andy Hughes had lifted him up like a saint, Chris Powell finally turned to the away end for his exclusive moment. He roared with delight, and we reciprocated. He was so thrilled that he charged towards the crossbar and lifted himself up onto it, which reflected the outrageous joy everyone was feeling at the time. He couldn't stop enjoying the moment, and we must have made him do at least five of his tunnel-jumps before he finally disappeared, and the away end finally emptied.

What a night.

Taken in isolation, that was special. But given the situation - two days after a gutsy and vital victory against QPR, up against a long-ball team and a hostile crowd - that was one of the greatest performances a Chris Powell side has ever produced. Every single player put everything into that game, and their efforts ensured that Charlton fans can continue to dream of Wembley, and glory.

The first 20 minutes saw our best period, as we regularly cut Wednesday open with accurate and simple passing football. The goal was fully deserved. After that the situation dictated out play, and we were forced onto the back foot by the relentless long-ball game of Wednesday. After their goal, there was a chance that the home side could capitalise on their momentum and go ahead. It is a testament to the resilience of this Charlton side that they held out, and retook the lead. Clinging on to the result was down to Jackson's organisation, the willingness of our defenders to constantly battle in the air, some heroic blocking and an outstanding goalkeeping performance. Everything came together, and we held out to secure a fabulous result.

It would be unfair to single out an individual as man of the match, as so many players made vital contributions in different areas of the pitch. But among the top performers was Simon Church. He is often maligned for not being a goal scorer, and admittedly his return this season has been slightly underwhelming. However, he offers the team so much more than goals, and that was clear for all to see last night. He was confident in taking on Liability Llera, and spent large parts of the game charging down the Wednesday defenders. His work rate is one of the highest I've seen from a striker at Charlton. He even took the chance when it came, putting Charlton back in the lead. He was given a huge ovation when he went off, the crowd recognising how important he had been. He defended from the front, and when opportunities arose he looked dangerous in attack. An inspired performance.

At times in recent weeks it appeared that Ajdarević as not the most willing runner in football but in his role as deep-lying forward, false 9, attacking midfield or whatever he put himself about almost as much as Church. Not only that, but his class on the ball made a real difference, opening up opportunities in attack and bringing a combination of calm and conviction to Charlton's play. He almost scored, too. He's a player with class, but importantly he has immediately grasped what 'Charlton' is all about. His heart is in it with the rest of them, and we are starting to realise it. He'll be a very important player for the rest of the campaign.

Ben Hamer was outstanding. Not only did he sweep his box with confidence, but he made a couple of instinctive decisions that prevented goals, before rounding off the night with one of the greatest reaction saves you'll ever see. He was moving towards he corner, but Morrison's deflection appeared to be taking the ball over him. To react as quickly as he did to tip it round the post shows just how good a player he is. The decision to replace Thuram was definitely the correct one. Hamer's performance caught the eye even the FA, who have nominated him as one of the players of the round. It was a performance of stubborn defiance, where he did everything he could to avoid conceding. We have definitely missed him.

Michael Morrison was excellent, winning numerous headers and clearing the danger when necessary. Richard Wood was more frenetic, sometimes too panicky in his clearances, but he made a number of good blocks and tackles along with Morrison to keep Wednesday at bat. Laurie Wilson put in the kind of shift we have come to expect from him, looking to get forward down the right, but also very solid in defence. Morgan Fox did extremely well given it was his Charlton debut. Caught out positionally a couple of times in the air, but he stood firm, made tackles and was calm enough on the ball to pass infield and build up attacks. He rose to the occasion superbly.

Diego Poyet looks like he's been playing for years, which is a similar impression to the one that Jordan Cousins gave when he came into the side earlier this season. Poyet played the deeper midfield role with the composure that sometimes eludes even experienced players in a game as important as this. He was often found to be controlling the ball, knocking it wide into the channels for the full back or midfielder, and although he made one error with a back pass, he looked like a professional. Jordan Cousins has also developed with supreme ease, slotting in on the right of midfield and making it look like familiar territory. He might not possess the skills of an attacking winger, but he's got a great work rate and an eye for a run, which took him into a number of dangerous positions during the game. Callum Harriott was also impressive, not just showing promise but an end product as well. He took his goal very well indeed, and although slightly naive diving in defensively he worked hard all game, waiting for his chance to run at Wednesday.

Johnnie Jackson might not stand out on a football pitch, but once again he demonstrated that when the key moment comes, he is there. His cross for the second goal was inch perfect, even though goalkeeping indecision assisted Church's scoring efforts. He was constantly seen to be organising his side positionally, ensuring we had the right shape to defend from the front. He was even throwing himself in the way of shots to block them. His commitment to the cause is faultless. Having played a full 90 just two days previous, to do the same again in a game of that magnitude, and to play so well too, shows his class.

As for Chris Powell? The past two results are without question the greatest he's achieved as Charlton manager. In the we've won big games, but with more quality available and more experience. To beat QPR's dream team at home, and then Sheffield Wednesday in the 5th Round of the FA Cup away, with players aged 18-20 and a collection of players it seemed no other club wanted, takes an incredible effort. Chris Powell has managed, against all the odds, to maintain his fantastic team spirit - perhaps even to enhance it. He has been unfairly criticised for his tactics, but in keeping it simple he ensures all the players know what they are doing. Roles are clearly defined, and players are given such brilliant motivation that they are willing to put everything into their performances. The celebrations at full time showed how much this squad of players means to him, what the FA Cup means to him, and also what is football club means to him. You would be insane to suggest any other man could have done the job he has done with such limited resources, and such adversity facing him at almost every turn. The two victories in three days is the perfect reward for his dedication, desire and commitment, which was embodied in the efforts of every man in red on the pitch.

An unbelievable result thanks to a gritty, determined and heroic performance. Every player deserved our adoration at the end, but it was a mutual feeling. The result and the support combined to create the happiest celebrations since that promotion day in Carlisle. His club is a really tight community, and we absolutely love it.

90 minutes between Charlton Athletic and Wembley. This means just as much for Powell and the players as it does to us fans.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent write up... only I feel you failed to give appropriate praise to Hamer's beard. Simply calling him a "bearded wonder" completely fails to appreciate the sheer awesomeness of his facial growth which was undoubtedly a factor in causing fear and loathing within the opposition players causing them to hoof balls up high the sky to limit the number of times they accidentally caught sight of it.

    I'm not going to say that we won because of the beard... or that we'll lose as soon as he shaves it off... but I figure why take the risk. We need Hamer to keep it until we've both lifted the cup and assured safety in the Championship.