BY KEVIN NOLAN AT ONE CALL STADIUM
A scrambled second half equaliser forced home by 19-year-old debutant Toby Stevenson prolonged Charlton’s interest in the FA Cup, at least until Mansfield visit The Valley to dispute this first round tie again next Tuesday.
Whether his manager Lee Bowyer will thank or curse his young defender for complicating an already daunting fixture list is a moot point.
Bowyer sounded thoroughly discouraged by the stalemate, making the curious observation that the replay was “the worst possible outcome for me”.
It was possible to imagine, of course, one that was still worse but so much for the romance of the Cup.
A weather-battered contingent of 472 hardy pilgrims were actually grateful for a second chance and philosophical about the failure to settle things at Field Mill.
Still recovering from losing Igor Vetokele and Josh Cullen to freakish shoulder dislocations at Walsall in midweek, Bowyer made nine changes from the side which won handsomely at Banks’s Stadium, handing Stevenson and youth graduate Taylor Maloney their debuts.
Only Darren Pratley and Naby Sarr survived from the starters who took care of Walsall. The regular loss of key players to long-term injuries would try the patience of a saint, something Bowyer has never been accused of being. The League Two hosts, on the other hand, included nine of the starting XI which beat Grimsby Town on Tuesday. They were more obviously up for the Cup.
Though irritated by the replay, Bowyer was honest enough to concede it was nobody’s fault but their own that the Addicks had another engagement to add to their crowded calendar. “We should have scored three in the first half, we weren’t ruthless enough,” he lamented, “we’re running out of numbers so these lads need to step up.”
Two of the three chances mentioned fell to George Lapslie, by now a virtual veteran among the beardless youths surrounding him.
Both openings were created by Karlan Grant’s elusiveness through the left-hand channel, the first scuffing Grant’s cutback into the ground, the second sidefooted wastefully wide from eight yards.
Sandwiched between Lapslie’s misses, the Stags’ danger man CJ Hamilton served notice of the threat he posed by clipping the outside of a post from a difficult angle.
Given a rare opportunity in goal, meanwhile, Dillon Phillips made the first of several important saves after Neal Bishop, set up by Tyler Walker’s clever dummy, shot ferociously from the 18-yard line.
The out-of-favour keeper was then indebted to Pratley for alertly clearing Bishop’s header off the line. A nip-and-tuck first half seemed to be petering out when Grant sent Nicky Ajose’s cross tamely off target but in added time, Hamilton had the last word.
Showing impressive pace as he outstripped the visitors’ retreating rearguard, the flying winger let fly on the run from 25 yards and found the net off the far post, with Phillips comprehensively beaten and blameless.
Soon after resumption, Hamilton came close to securing Mansfield’s place in the second round draw.
His searing speed carried him clear again to release another low, left-footed drive but this time, Phillips’ full length agility enabled him to tip the effort past his left-hand post.
Phillips’ heroics kept the Addicks in the tie, with sturdy support from emergency centre back Anfernee Dijksteel.
Answering his manager’s call to “step up”, the powerful 21 year-old Dutchman was “exceptional” as Bowyer gratefully acknowledged.
Alongside him, Mark Marshall and Naby Sarr stuck doggedly to their tasks in an unfamiliar back three, while Lapslie, Stevenson and Maloney showed enough to suggest that Charlton’s New Eltham conveyor belt continues in working order.
The kids are in good shape and it was one of them who rescued the visitors on 73 minutes. The goal was scruffy but kept them in the cup.
Ajose played an important part by supplying the low centre, to which Sarr applied a vital touch.
Nipping in amid goal area chaos, Stevenson bundled the loose ball over the line, his untidy equaliser bringing unwanted havoc to Charlton’s fixture list but making it four goals from two starts for the novice left wingback.
His hat-trick in the 8-0 rout of Stevenage in the Checkatrade Trophy is appropriately overshadowed by this crucial game-saver in the oldest cup competition of them all. This one was a kosher goal, the genuine article, the real McCoy.
Before the end, Ajose was foiled in one-on-one confrontation by Bobby Olejnik, a miss which will have dismayed Bowyer.
But there was good news for the plain-talking boss in Billy Clarke’s first appearance of the season as replacement for Maloney.
Clarke was hard to ignore, as much for his useful contribution as for the outrageous last minute “professional” foul he committed to bring down a Stag in full flight. Stevenson with his goal, Clarke with his cold-blooded ruthlessness, both made critical interventions to keep their team’s Cup hopes afloat.
Much to their manager’s chagrin.
Charlton (3-5-2): Phillips 8, Marshall 7, Dijksteel 8, Sarr 7, Ward 5 (Fosu 56,6), Pratley 6, Lapslie 6, Maloney (Clarke 69,7), Stevenson 7, Ajose 6 (Hackett-Fairchild 77), Grant 6. Not used: Steer, Morgan.