Bielik 2 Pratley 101
DONCASTER ROVERS 3
Rowe 11 Butler 88 Marquis 100
(Charlton win 4-3 on penalties)BY RICHARD CAWLEY AT THE VALLEY
It’s been 21 years since Charlton Athletic last reached Wembley – so no wonder their supporters flooded on to the Valley pitch after Tommy Rowe’s penalty veered wide of Dillon Phillips’ right-hand post on Friday night.
While Sunderland’s celebrations were low-key after grinding out a joyless 0-0 draw at Portsmouth the evening before to secure a 1-0 aggregate victory, there was no lid kept on emotions in SE7.
But you try going through what Charlton’s players and fans did in 120 minutes of football where fortunes see-sawed like a boat on the roughest of seas. And even at the end of that came a penalty shootout.
At full-time you saw real raw emotion. Relief? Yes. Excitement? Yes. Joy? Yes.
Drop me out of football when everyone in it acts like automatons.
This is why the play-offs are so compelling. Brutal with the feelings they invoke, but you can’t take your eyes off the matches for a second.
Charlton Athletic have history in it. Their 1998 Division One final against the Black Cats has not been topped for drama.
Eight goals, with three of the Addicks’ four scored by Sunderland-supporting Clive Mendonca. Then 13 successful spot-kicks tucked away until Sasa Ilic saved Michael Gray’s penalty.
What’s happened since then? Highs and lows. Eight of the last 21 seasons were spent in the Premier League, seven in the Championship and six in League One.
There has been one League One title, two promotions, four relegations and two League One play-off semi-final exits. Thirteen permanent managers have filled the hotseat – eight of those during Roland Duchatelet’s ownership of the club.
The Addicks have played 902 league matches – 908 if you also count the play-offs – since they last reached Wembley.
The moments after Charlton’s 48th game of the 2018-19 campaign are what you remember for the rest of your life.
The message on the big screen asking for fans to stay off the pitch was a tick in the box for going through the correct procedures and following protocol. But, we all knew the score if the Addicks went thought. The Valley turf was quickly covered by thousands of Addicks fans.
Jonny Williams was hoisted aloft, crowd surfing like he was the frontman of a band.
The fact that Charlton did not play particularly well – although that also does a disservice to the way that Doncaster refused to go out with a whimper – will be forgotten.
And it shows why stats are pretty much meaningless in these highly-charged occasions.
The Addicks were unbeaten in their previous 17 league matches in SE7 – winning 13 of them. Doncaster had just one away victory in their last 10, losing five.
The last six teams to win the away leg first in the League One play-offs have now reached the final. Charlton came perilously close to ending that sequence.
But while this was a defeat, both after 90 and 120 minutes, it was a huge victory. It was a victory for Lee Bowyer, in so many ways.
First of all, the attendance – 25,428 – with so many home fans wanting tickets that an extra 1,000 seats were made available in the Jimmy Seed Stand, usually just used for housing travelling support.
When Charlton played at home to Shrewsbury Town in the play-offs in May 2018 the crowd was just 14,367.
I never thought the stadium would be full again until Duchatelet had sold up.
But people who had boycotted during the Belgian’s spell in charge were drawn back. Their support and love for the football club – allied with wanting to back one of their own – brought them back for this crunch fixture.
It’s all been done without Bowyer spending a penny on transfer fees. It’s been done despite selling Karlan Grant – one of the league’s top players – to Huddersfield Town in January.
Despite budget cuts, Bowyer has moulded a stronger squad than the one that fell short just over 12 months ago.
Their form at The Valley has been nothing short of sensational. But they had a bad day in their SE7 office – where they have punched in and out like clockwork since early October – just when they needed to hold their nerve.
And Charlton got exactly the start they wanted to the second leg too. Just 110 seconds had elapsed when Josh Cullen’s free-kick was met by Krsytian Bielik, his header rippling the back of the net in front of the Covered End.
The favourites were in front. But Doncaster found a quick response. Herbie Kane’s flick was brilliant, as was Rowe’s thumping strike that screamed past Phillips.
The Addicks seemed unsure whether to attack or try and hold their aggregate advantage.
Bowyer tried to address their lack of control in the middle of the park as he brought on Darren Pratley for Albie Morgan at the start of the second half, as well as switching to the 3-5-2 formation which was also used at the Keepmoat Stadium.
Charlton were happy to run the clock down with Doncaster – as expected – showing the greater urgency without producing efforts on target.
But just as the finishing line was in sight, Rovers made sure there were more laps to be done by already fatigued footballers.
Ali Crawford’s 88th-minute corner was pumped to the back post where Andrew Butler headed down and inside the right upright, Charlton not assigning anyone to post duty.
From there, it was football with the handbrake off.
It could have been game over in regulation time, Mallik Wilks cut past Ben Purrington and produced a textbook ball across which Jon Marquis was inches away from connecting with.
Marquis was fortunate not to concede a penalty in the first period of extra-time – stopping Naby Sarr’s header with his arm.
Moments later the former Millwall striker was celebrating putting Doncaster in the lead on aggregate for the first time.
Anfernee Dijksteel was dispossessed on the edge of the Rovers box and the visitors broke quickly. Wilks, Doncaster’s best performer over the course of the semi-final matches, picked our Marquis to head in from about six yards out.
But Charlton’s most senior player was to find a quick response.
Marosi will have nightmares about how he lost his footing as he tried to drop on Lyle Taylor’s cross, his flailing attempts to claim the ball proving unsuccessful – with Darren Pratley arriving a fraction ahead of Paul Downing.
Taylor has been involved in 14 goals in his last 12 matches for the Addicks – 10 goals and four assists.
When it came to the penalties, Charlton’s turnout for this match again worked hugely in their favour.
Referee Gavin Ward was told that it had to take place in front of the Covered End due to safety concerns if they were taken at the other end where both sets of supporters were in such close proximity.
Doncaster boss Grant McCann made light of that decision post-match. But after such a fierce and tight battle, any advantage can make the difference.
Marquis walked up to a crescendo of jeers and catcalls. Maybe that took the remaining strength out of his legs. Whatever the reason, his penalty was desperately poor and Phillips saved.
Naby Sarr had the chance to clinch it, but Marosi dived to his right to make the stop.
Rowe had rivalled Wilks in terms of impact for Doncaster but was not able to take the spot-kicks into sudden death.
Charlton v Sunderland on Sunday for that last spot in the Championship.
Revenge or repeat? You can’t call it.