BY KEVIN NOLAN AT WHAM STADIUM
A draw containing many of the hallmarks of defeat continued Charlton’s mediocre start to the new season.
Having led through Karlan Grant’s fine early goal, they conceded a not altogether unexpected equaliser with 12 minutes remaining, their chronic inability to protect a narrow lead yet again proving their undoing.
Some teams make a virtue out of the 1-0 win; to Lee Bowyer’s men, even one would be a welcome novelty.
It might even have been worse – so much worse. After Jordan Clark exploited defensive chaos to balance the scoreline, the Addicks found themselves in grave danger of reprising their heartbreak at Sunderland two weeks previously. Substitute Offrande Zanzala should lose sleep over the free far-post header he sent wide from Sam Finley’s precise cross; his miss preceded a last-gasp hectic goalmouth scramble during which a grounded Dillon Phillips desperately ferreted around among flailing feet before Chris Solly hacked clear.
Bowyer will be concerned about his team’s painfully typical second-half disintegration. All four of the league goals shipped this season have been scored after the interval, three of them in the late stages of games they’d controlled in the first period.
Few of the 678 away fans who swelled Accrington’s slender crowd to slightly more than 3,000 expected the Addicks to hang on, knowing they rarely go the distance. They wouldn’t have been remotely surprised, however, if John Coleman’s sturdy over-achievers had snatched a late winner.
Deja-vu is a regular phenomenon among Charlton fans. They’ve seen it all before.
As the second side to score, Accy will be happier with their point. That’s the psychology underpinning the 1-1 draw, a result which wasn’t difficult to predict. When perspective returns, Bowyer will patiently sift through the blow-by-blow details in search of positives and will be encouraged by the Addicks’ confident start, not least the excellence of Grant’s goal.
A lightning break out of defence was led by ball-playing centre-back Naby Sarr, who stepped out of the back three he formed alongside his mentor Patrick Bauer and promising newcomer Krystian Bielik, sold Clark an exquisite dummy, surged over the halfway line and slipped a well-judged pass inside right-back Callum Johnson for left-wingback Lewis Page to chase down. Crossing accurately on the run, Page set up Grant to head firmly against the underside of the bar. With the help of an eagle-eyed linesman, referee Ross Joyce ruled that the ball had crossed the goal-line. And with VAR off duty, nobody argued with him.
So far so good for the slick-moving Addicks but a second goal, as usual, eluded them. Before the break, Solly’s perceptive pass picked out the revitalised Grant, who moved away from his marker before shooting narrowly wide. Turning provider, Grant set up Darren Pratley whose wayward drive barely eluded Lyle Taylor on its way off target. Stanley (never Stan apparently, just like Boris Johnson’s equally well-upholstered dad) were by now growing in confidence, with Billy Kee popping up unmarked in added time to glance Sean McConville’s dipping left-wing cross wastefully wide of the far post.
Possibly sensing a sea change, Bowyer moved Bielik forward to operate as a defensive shield, with Solly and Page less inclined to bomb forward. It was Page, though, who seized on a pass from human dynamo George Lapslie to shoot against the advancing Connor Ripley from close range. As half-chances continued to fall the visitors’ way, Pratley’s effort on the turn forced Ripley into an awkward, shovelling save over the bar.
Time was Accrington’s main enemy as a second half they were beginning to dominate began to ebb away. But with 12 minutes left, Charlton cracked. Finley’s dangerous delivery from the left created point-blank havoc, during which Phillips managed heroic saves from McConville and Zanzala. An unidentified defensive boot had a split-second chance to clear the lines but succeeded only in scuffing the ball to Clark. From eight yards, the midfielder made no mistake in burying a low shot past the unsupported keeper.
Suddenly, Coleman’s Accrington pals were all over their wilting visitors. Zanzala soared above mismatched Solly but headed Finley’s delicious centre inexplicably wide, while the scandalously overworked Phillips stood defiantly firm in a welter of goalmouth free-for-alls. Somehow the Addicks survived the battering, even emerging from the maelstrom to come within the width of a goalpost of filching two extra points in the last of five added minutes. Brimming with new self-belief, Grant took responsibility for the free-kick awarded against Ross Sykes for unceremoniously upending the indefatigable Joe Aribo. From all of 35 yards, Grant took deliberate aim and clipped the outside of Ripley’s left-hand post, with the keeper no more than a concerned onlooker. It’s a game of inches, so they say. And mere inches separated the Addicks from “undeserved” late glory. They would have sent several hundred loyalists heading down the motorway in high spirits. Racked with guilt, it goes without saying, but chortling anyway. That’s your football supporter for you, finding beauty in winning ugly in the last minute. Especially in the last minute.
Charlton: Phillips 8, Solly 7, Bauer 7, Bielik 6 (Maloney 90), Sarr 7, Page 7, Pratley 7, Aribo 7, Lapslie7 (Marshall 73), Taylor 6, Grant 7. Not used: Steer, Dijksteel, Morgan, Ajose, Hackett-Fairchild.