Kevin Nolan’s big-match verdict on Charlton 0 Preston 1 – North End show mastery of football’s dark arts

Gallagher 58 pen

Canny exponents of football’s dark arts, Preston North End clambered to the top of the Championship table with this victory over below-par Charlton.

After going ahead early in the second half, the streetwise Lilywhites handed their rope-a-doped victims a lesson in what is euphemistically called “game management” these days. There are other, less charitable names for it.

Not that North End didn’t deserve to win. They were solid, stolid, stoical and several savvy steps ahead of naive Charlton.

Having drawn the sting out of their hosts in a mundane first half, they were correctly awarded a 58th minute penalty when Jason Pearce manhandled Jason Stockley as they competed for a left-wing cross.

Substitute Paul Gallagher calmly converted the spot kick and this game was effectively over both as a contest and as a spectacle.

Those Sky televiewers who stuck with it must have marvelled at the efficiency with which Alex Neil’s men reduced what was left to a non-event.

If there’s such a game as anti-football, Preston are its pastmasters. They sucked the life out of Charlton and a frustrated Valley.

Darren Pratley

And it should be noted that they achieved their aim despite having to cope with an alarming outbreak of ill-health.

Scarcely a member of their team – with ex-Addick Patrick Bauer a notable exception – avoided the kind of serious injury which required several minutes of treatment from a painstakingly thorough two-man team of medics.

Every throw-in was excruciatingly slow, while belatedly-booked keeper Declan Rudd soldiered through attacks of apparent paralysis before taking goal-kicks.

The second half disappeared down a voracious plughole, with the award of seven paltry added minutes (“bizarre” according to Preston’s official website) proving that blatant time-wasting works.

A minimum of 15 minutes would have been nearer the mark though the visitors would doubtless have whiled them away earning throws and corners as they beguiled us with their version of the shell game.

An ominous air of weariness, both physical and mental, accompanied Lee Bowyer’s brothers-in-arms to defeat. Depleted by injuries, they have battled bravely against sometimes overwhelming odds in keeping their heads well above water. This assignment against experienced, cynical opponents simply asked too much of them.

Even normally indefatigable midfield dynamo Josh Cullen was subdued but, like his colleagues, lack of effort was not the reason.

There were encouraging contributions from Beram Kayal and warhorse Darren Pratley, while Conor Gallagher ran himself into the ground. But unmistakeable desperation dogged their efforts.

It was Gallagher who went closest for Charlton in the first half, his header re-directing Ben Purrington’s excellent left-wing cross narrowly wide of Rudd’s left-hand post. Wingback Purrington was finding space on the flank, where he picked up Gallagher’s pass and forced Rudd to parry his fierce cross shot.

In a half of few chances, Preston’s top scorer Tom Barkhuisen was possibly startled that Darnell Fisher’s hard, low centre from the left reached him at the far post and could only prod a half-hearted effort straight at Dillon Phillips.

Before the break, Barkhuisen was similarly unconvincing when heading Ben Pearson’s accurate cross over the bar with the goal at his mercy.

Bowyer’s interval replacement of a dangerously vague Naby Sarr with Jonathan Leko seemed sensible with a consequent adjustment to his 3-5-2 formation but Leko made little impact.

Charlton were still adjusting to the change when Pearce’s loss of concentration (“our captain has made a bad decision” – Bowyer) cost them even the chance of the scoreless draw which seemed on offer.

As soon as Gallagher’s penalty hit the net, the visitors changed their attitude. While never exactly Dr Jekyll in the first place, their inner Mr Hyde took over.

With gormless referee David Webb’s mischievous connivance, they exploited every legal loophole and found quite a few on the shadier side of the law to press home their advantage.

Their dream away performance was a nightmare for Charlton.

On an afternoon where nothing went right for the Addicks, their consolation must be that Gallagher, Pratley and Tom Lockyer each avoided a fifth booking of the season, which would have brought with it suspension from the next game.

That just happens to be next Saturday’s collision with Millwall at The Den, where Charlton last won in the snow four years short of the 21st century. No pressure then.

Charlton (3-5-2): Phillips 7, Lockyer 6, Pearce 5, Sarr 5 (Leko 46, 5), Solly 6, Cullen 5, Gallagher 7, Pratley 7 (Aneke 74, 5) Purrington 7, Kayal 6 (Oztumer 89), Bonne 5. Not used: Maynard-Brewer, Oshilaja, Lapslie, Davison.

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