Tuesday 16th March 2021, 1900 Kick Off
Charlton Athletic FC vs Bristol Rovers FC
The Build Up
My opening segment for this entry changed significantly at around 1400 the day before the match, when Lee Bowyer resigned after three years in charge at the Valley, to take up the vacant managerial position at Birmingham City. Up until that point I’d been fully primed to talk about Charlton’s indifferent form as they chased a Play Off spot, going unbeaten in four but ultimately failing to put together consecutive victories since early November last year. However, that feels somewhat moot under Johnnie Jackson, with the 38 year old stepping into the caretaker role, and the obligatory football cliché of a honeymoon period starting in earnest.
Talk has already turned to who could replace Bowyer – who it must be said experienced a fairly tumultuous tenure as manager – with names such as Danny Cowley, Jackson himself, and ‘a Brentford style appointment’ cropping up. Whoever it is will take over a squad which is well positioned for a Play Off run, sitting just two points behind Ipswich in 8th place. That Bowyer even had the Addicks competing is in my opinion testament to his ability as manager, having had to almost completely rebuild the squad in the summer – a skill set that will serve him well at Birmingham. Last summer he lost (at least) nine key players, including all his top five scorers. Macauley Bonne (QPR) and Lyle Taylor (Nottingham Forest) went out the door, whilst Conor Gallagher, Jonathan Leko and Andre Green all saw loan periods end. Chuck in the departures of Tom Lockyer, Naby Sarr, Omar Bogle and Academy product Alfie Doughty and it’s clear that Bowyer had a real job on his hands following their relegation from the Championship.
The visiting Bristol Rovers had also had to deal with a key departure last summer, in the form of Jonson Clarke-Harris. The Leicester born striker’s goals had propelled them to 14th last season, and now he’s the division’s top scorer for Peterborough United as they challenge for the title. Whilst Clarke-Harris sets his sights on the Championship, the artists formerly known as Black Arabs FC are the division’s third lowest scorers, and are looking nervously over their shoulders at the bottom. Indeed, as a club, they’ve only scored nine more than Mr Clarke-Harris has by himself. Coming into this fixture in 19th, they were only two points above the drop zone, and have recently changed managers themselves. After Paul Tisdale’s time at the club was brought to a close in February (after only three months) the club opted for the safe, headline-shy Joey Barton in a bid to drag themselves clear of the drop zone. His first month in charge at the club has brought two wins, two losses and a draw. Another facet to this match was the return of Brandon Hanlan – the Gas’s top scorer is a Charlton Academy product, and has played them three times since he left, losing every time…
As it transpired, the opening exchanges of the match were fairly stodgy, and the first fifteen minutes saw about as much meaningful content as the average Prime Minister’s Questions. Liam Millar and Ian Maatsen down Charlton’s left provided the most enthusiastic approach to the concept of attacking, but in the main both sides seemed to be feeling each other out. The Addicks did rustle up a couple of corners, but capable defensive organisation held them at bay, with Brandon Hanlan’s near post work top notch.
The caginess was cast aside on 17 minutes though, when Charlton left back Maatsen tripped Jonah Ayunga in the box. The bustling Kenyan international was a physically imposing test for the home defenders throughout, and as he drove into the box Maatsen brought him down from behind giving the Gas a great opportunity to open the scoring. Up stepped Bristol Rovers captain Luke Leahy, who slotted a tidy effort into the bottom left corner, bagging his 8th goal of the season. That means he’d now scored 22% of Bristol Rovers league goals, which is frankly absurd for a full back.
After the timid opening, the match had been firmly kickstarted into life, and there was no going back. Two minutes later Charlton were claiming a penalty themselves, but for the life of me I couldn’t see why, and then some neat link up play between Conor Washington, Liam Miller and Andy Shinnie resulted in a Washington shot being blocked in the box. At the other end, on 25 minutes, Ayunga nearly extended Rovers shot with a looping effort from outside the area, but it dropped just wide.
Shortly afterwards Ben Amos was earning his match fee with a good stop from Sam Nicholson. The summer arrival from Colorado Rapids made full use of Ayunga’s target man qualities to work a wall pass and get into the box, giving him time and space to shoot. There was nothing wrong with his effort, but Amos stood up well until the last moment and made a fine save with his feet.
There was nothing he could do moments later though, as Ed Upson put Bristol Rovers two up. From a fast moving counter attack, the 31 year old found himself with time and space about 30 yards out, and with Ben Amos wrong-footed (possibly they were still excited by the save they’d just made) he had no difficulty finding the net despite the range. I’ll be totally honest, I wasn’t expecting the shot, didn’t take any photos, and did the guilty photographers trick of taking about 147 photos of the celebration instead.
Charlton’s chances of getting three points looked about as likely as Meghan Markle eloping with Piers Morgan at this point, but I had reckoned without the delightful left foot of Andy Shinnie. Andy, by far the more presentable of the footballing Shinnies, has established himself as a key presence in midfield since arriving on loan in November, so much so that Charlton made the move permanent last month. When Conor Washington’s 35th minute cross was headed half clear by Alfie Kilgour, Shinnie was well positioned under the dropping ball on the edge of the area. His first touch with the chest took it away from Nicholson, and with his second he struck a crisp left footed volley into the far corner of the net. I don’t usually like to post a full shot sequence, but this strike is just too beautiful not too.
Nine minutes later, and the first half reached a crescendo as Jake Forster-Caskey drew the home side level. With 14 England U21 caps to his name, there’s no doubting Forster-Caskey’s ability, and he’s developed a reputation throughout the EFL as something of a dead ball expert, so when Jack Baldwin decided to test his elbows for durability on Jayden Stockley’s rib cage, it was no surprise to see Forster-Caskey standing over the free kick. The Southend-born midfielder stepped up and bent a sweet outswinger into the far corner to rack up his fifth of the season. 2-2. Decent half.
Again, the opening stages of the second period were not the most thrilling affair, and on 59 minutes Charlton had the first effort of the half. Ian Maatsen won the ball in his own half and brought it forward, exchanging passes with Millar, before teeing up Washington. The striker from Norn Iron looked to bend his shot around Day in the visitors’ goal, but set his effort too close to the ‘keeper and he gathered easily. Charlton started to move into the ascendancy, though with the strength of Ayunga and the pace of Hanlan Bristol Rovers always posed a threat, but as the game wore on the Addicks’ right flank started to threaten more and more. Albie Morgan was a persistent threat down that wing, with Chris Gunter his able support, and with the two coming forward it seemed to energise Washington. He’d been lively in the first half, but hadn’t really been able to get on the ball as much as he’d like, but in the second he came more alive.
On 78 minutes Leahy had a speculative effort from 25 yards which was straight down Amos’s throat, but the visitors by now were restricted to efforts from range whilst Charlton grew in confidence. On came top scorer Chuks Aneke and Diallen Jaiyesimi to increase the threat, and Jaiyesimi’s first involvement was an acrobatic attempt at goal. As a cross dropped into his path his eyes lit up as he visualised his wonderful scissor kick ripping through the net. He lined himself up, launched into the air, and proceeded to send the ball into orbit somewhere over Greenwich.
Conor Washington was denied by Day towards 80 minutes as the Cardiff City loanee came smartly off his line to smother an attack, and then minutes later was crowded out as he tried to cut inside Baldwin. Morgan was also crowded out as he surged into the box, and it really felt as if the goal was coming. Forster-Caskey was finding more space in the middle and setting Morgan and Gunter free almost at will. Maatsen was seemingly playing as an auxiliary central midfielder, and the Addicks smelt blood.
When it came though, it was an unexpected route. In the 85th minute, having spread the ball up the pitch on the floor at ease for the preceding fifteen minutes, Charlton dispensed with the play booked and hacked a looping ball forward. As it came down with snow on it, Chuks Aneke nodded it further on, and all of a sudden Conor Washington was in a race to the ball with Joe Day, and if he won, so would Charlton. He got a toe to the ball before the ‘keeper and stabbed it goalwards. He followed in, and although the ball struck the post, his striking instincts had put him in the position to tuck it into the empty net. Before following it in himself under the despairing challenge of Jack Baldwin.
Cue celebrations, etc. And I’d like to extend my personal gratitude to Mr Washington et al for running straight towards my camera. It’s great when players do that.
There was still time for more drama though, and Joe Day took the opportunity to go and get the hot water running for his teammates like the good egg that he is. Another high pall was pumped towards the head of Aneke, and as he rose to head on, flying into the challenge, around 45 yards from goal was a green shirted Bristol Rover. As Aneke won the ball, Day won the collision, sending Aneke flying, and earning himself a red card as the last man. It was right in front of me, and I would have got great pictures, but some dickhead of a TV cameraman came and plonked himself right in front of me exactly as it was happening. Cheers, mate. As it was, on came substitute ‘keeper Jordi van Stappershoef, causing the various commentary teams to breathe a sigh of relief that his wonderful name hadn’t been on for the whole match.
The Wash Up
So a final score of 3-2 to Charlton, and I think on balance the Addicks probably deserved the points. The first half had been pretty even, with Bristol fully deserving the lead they took, but huge credit due to the Addicks for their fightback.
Joey Barton will surely be disappointed with the showing his side put out in the second half, where they seemed to almost accept the inevitability of Charlton’s fight back. It was unfortunate given the way they had attacked the first half that they seemed too willing to sit back and allow the hosts to come on to them in the second. The Charlton defence never truly dealt effectively with Ayunga, and with the ability that the likes of Nicholson, McCormick and Westbrooke had shown to play through their hosts in the opening 45, you feel that this game could have held more for them if they’d pressed on.
However, it’s hard to underestimate the mental impact of Charlton’s equaliser in the 44th minute, on both teams. Having gone two nil up the Gas must have felt – as I did – that they had the Addicks firmly by the scruff of the neck. But it turns out the Addicks had been taking self defence classes discreetly, because they expertly evaded the hold before landing a neat one two and knocking the stuffing out of Bristol Rovers. Johnnie Jackson on the touchline will have been delighted by not only the spirit shown, but also the presence of mind to execute two such technically impressive finishes under that pressure.
For Charlton, both Pearce and Famewo had decent games at the back. In midfield, Jake Forster-Caskey was instrumental in the fight back, as was Andy Shinnie, as both grew in stature as the game went on. I thought Charlton’s use of width was impressive too, with Maatsen and Morgan particularly impressive. My man of the match though, was also the match winner on this occasion. Not only did he secure the winner, but Washington’s chasing of lost corners enabled him to put in the cross which led to Shinnie’s opener. Crucially, by chasing every seemingly lost cause (and improbably winning them more often than not), he enabled Charlton to play higher up the pitch than they otherwise could have, and that was crucial to a three points which has moved them above Ipswich into 6th.