BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Charlton Athletic are heading to Wembley. And boy, did they do it the hard – but exhilarating – way.
The vast majority of the 25,428 inside The Valley were put through nearly every emotion possible during the 120 minutes and the penalty shootout.
But when Doncaster captain Tommy Rowe missed Doncaster’s fifth spot-kick, the tie was finally over. It was the only way to put a resilient Rovers down. They fully played their part in a thriller.
When the dust settles and the pitch cleared – thousands of exultant Addicks pouring on – it was time to digest what had just been witnessed. The Addicks are heading back to the national stadium for the first time since 1998. It is their first visit to the rebuilt. Wembley. After next weekend it will only be 10 – not 11 – clubs in the top four divisions who cannot say they have played there since the old stadium was knocked down.
I’m not quite sure where to start. Maybe the penalties is best.
Chris Solly, Josh Cullen, Lyle Taylor and Joe Aribo all converted. Ben Whiteman, Kieran Sadlier and Ali Crawford did the same.
Then came the first dud. Former Millwall striker Jon Marquis produced a poor effort and Dillon Phillips saved. Then came the second dud. Naby Sarr’s penalty was kept out by Marko Marosi. But Rowe sent his kick wide of the left post. Charlton had won 4-3 on penalties.
The message on the big screen to keep off the pitch was ignored. That’s always the case in situations like this. On and on came the home fans, bouncing away to their Allez Allez Allez chant.
The last pitch invasion had been in May 2016. Charlton were already relegated from the Championship but used that match against Burnley to rage against the Roland Duchatelet regime. The “fans’ sofa” was torn apart. The protests were loud and angry.
This time was happier, so much happier.
It wasn’t textbook from Charlton, but football doesn’t work that way.
From the moment that Andrew Butler made it 2-1 to Doncaster on the night, this was football with the handbrake off.
All the talk before the game was that the first goal was vital. Charlton got it.
There was less than two minutes on the clock – 100 seconds played – when Krystian Bielik rose to plant home the perfect header from Cullen’s inswinging free-kick.
The Valley erupted.
The Addicks’ tails were up and they threatened to quickly extend their lead. Albie Morgan was freed to break forward on the left of the box by Cullen’s pass but could only thump into the side-netting. Close, but no cigar.
Anfernee Dijksteel was implored to shoot soon after and followed instructions, but Marko Marosi parried away his effort.
Doncaster’s equaliser on 11 minutes was clinical. The only grumble from an Addicks perspective would be that no-one came to close goalscorer Rowe sooner. Herbie Kane’s flick was made to measure and the Rovers captain crashed the ball into the bottom right corner to make it 1-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate.
Grant McCann’s side had not scored the first goal of the night, but netting the second had brought them back into the contest.
Marosi plunged to his near post to keep out Patrick Bauer’s 24th-minute header from a deep corner by Cullen, Ben Purrington doing well to win the flag kick.
There were nerves on display. Sarr’s miscontrol forced the Frenchman into a clearance which Doncaster worked back into a shooting chance, but Ben Whiteman’s effort lacked the curl to seriously cause concern.
The little mistakes were no surprise with such high stakes. Aribo lost possession with James Coppinger only able to bend his shot straight at Dillon Phillips.
Charlton had another chance late in the first half. Dijksteel provided the pull-back and Cullen’s shot was blocked by a Doncaster defender. The on-loan West Ham midfielder appealed for a handball – as did the Covered End in unison – but play continued.
Manager Lee Bowyer made a change at the break – Darren Pratley replacing Morgan. Bielik dropped into the backline as the Addicks chief switched to the 3-5-2 formation he had opted for in South Yorkshire.
Kane’s pass picked out an unmarked Rowe in the box but he would have needed an unbelievable header to score from a fair way out. The unbelievable was not produced.
Kane drove another attempt wide from at least 25 yards, with Charlton undoubtedly happy if they restricted the visitors to efforts from distance.
Danny Andrew slid in to clear Aribo’s low driven cross from the left – a rare moment of danger from the cautious Addicks.
Taylor’s threat had largely been contained, but he produced a fine fizzed delivery from the right of the box which Josh Parker met at the near post but could only put wide.
Charlton were doing what you do in these kind of situations, trying to reach the finishing line without major incident. They were happy to slow things down, not over-committing numbers forward and running the clock down.
There were just two minutes of normal time left when Doncaster found a leveller. No fault could be attached to Cullen for initially blocking for a corner. But substitute Ali Crawford’s cross was powered home at the back post by Andrew Butler.
If any side looked likely to get a winner before extra-time it was Rovers. Mallik Wilks cut inside Bielik and his cross just evaded a stretching Marquis. Alfie May’s power-packed hit soon after was held by Phillips.
Then came extra-time.
Breathless. Anfernee Dijksteel lost the ball high up the pitch and it eventually came to the feet of the Doncaster player most likely to do damage – Wilks. He put it on a plate for Marquis, who could not miss.
But less than a minute later, Charlton pulled it back to 3-2, and 3-3 on aggregate. Taylor’s cross slipped through Marosi’s grasp and Pratley slid in.
Both teams looked fatigued in the final 15 minutes.
It left the outcome on the razor edge of a penalty shootout. Charlton got a boost by the fact that it was determined it would take place in front of the Covered End – on safety advice. The Jimmy Seed Stand had 1,000 home fans in it, in close proximity to the Doncaster travelling contingent.
Charlton face Sunderland. It’s 1998 all over again. But can the drama next Sunday top that thriller? Or even the one we saw tonight?