BY BENJY NURICK
Throughout his many absences this season, Alex Gilbey has refused to let himself disappear. Frequently injured or just left out of the squad, Gilbey has still travelled with the team to every game, making sure to spend time in the changing room before kick-off to help those playing get “geed up,” as Conor Washington tells the South London Press.
Make no mistake about it, Alex Gilbey is a leader in this Charlton squad. Off the pitch at least, that is. But finally, on Saturday at The Stadium of Light, he made his impact felt in front of the cameras, scoring the crucial winner and looking once more like the player he has been throughout his career — and even in the background at Charlton.
See, Gilbey has faced an unfamiliar reality this season — watching football rather than playing. Ever-present at MK and Colchester before that, Gilbey had won a quite ridiculous three Player of the Season awards and one Young Player of the Season in his six full campaigns prior to his arrival in SE7.
But this time around, Gilbey has been restricted to just 10 starts and the lone goal on Saturday.
Washington, who played alongside Gilbey at Newport as well, watched the visit up north from the sidelines due to a hamstring injury. Despite his own unusual role, the striker savoured the moment nearly as much as Gilbey himself.
“The first effort was horrific,” Washington laughs. “But the composure to then get it underneath the goalkeeper just says all you need to know about him really. I’m so happy for him. Because he’s my friend just as much as he’s a team-mate. So for him to get the credit he deserves and especially to get the goal, his performances deserve that.
“His standards day to day are right up there with a winner. I’ve been in squads and seen players where that attitude is so prevalent and he’s got that. His attitude every day in training is absolutely spot on.Obviously the previous manager said that as well.
“The standards he sets every day and that he demands from everyone else as well is something that we might be sort of losing in the game a little bit. But in squads where you want to win stuff you just can’t afford to have days off, you can’t afford to have days where you’re not 100 per cent, and I think the manager loves that about Gilbs because that’s exactly what the manager is about.”
Holding the slenderest of leads heading into the final half an hour on Wearside, Adam Matthews launched a throw-in down the line. Just as he did all afternoon, Jayden Stockley rose highest to flick the ball on. When it landed in a pocket of free space inside the hosts’ box, Gilbey was the quickest to react. Washington isn’t wrong — Gilbey’s first effort was horrific. It seemed it might be another frustrating moment for a player who has largely faced a lost season. But then the ball fell a second time and Gilbey made no mistake — slotting underneath the keeper to give Charlton a 2–0 lead.
Just as in his moment of triumph, Gilbey’s entire season has been handed a second chance — with the arrival of Nigel Adkins — and thus far the signs are certainly promising.
The anatomy of Gilbey’s first Charlton goal helps explain why Adkins has been so insistent on bringing him back into the team. And really it’s a perfect example of why Charlton were desperate to sign him in the first place.
As Matthews prepares to take the throw-in, Stockley peels out to the space down the line. As he goes, he vacates a huge gap in the box.
Gilbey, starting behind the play, makes a perfectly timed run and eventually gets on the end of Stockley’s header.
In many ways, other than the initial finish, of course, the goal showcased everything Gilbey is all about and exactly what Charlton fans were hoping to see when he became the club’s first summer signing in August.
“I think in terms of what he offers different, not just to our midfield, but I think he’s almost a bit of a dying breed within the game,” Washington says. “He’s always wanting to break that line.
“Don’t tell him I said this,” he jokes. “But, like a Lampard or Gerrard, wanting to break beyond the striker. And the timing of his runs is brilliant. He doesn’t look massively quick, but his stride is so long. He’s definitely one of the quickest at the club. But it’d be doing a disservice to him to say he’s a runner, because he’s so much more than that.”
Recalled to the starting 11 for the Good Friday trip to Doncaster after an 80-day wait, Gilbey nearly got his starring moment that afternoon with one his trademark runs into the box.
A long ball from Ben Amos in the first half at the Keepmoat Stadium was unsurprisingly met in the air by Stockley. As Stockley looks to play it wide to Diallang Jaiyesimi, Gilbey is the furthest midfielder forward, breaking towards the box before the ball has even reached the winger.
Jaiyesimi carries it down the line before chipping a cross in Gilbey’s direction, the midfielder sliding in completely free between two Doncaster defenders six yards from goal.
Unfortunately, on this occasion, he can’t quite get his shot off and the chance disappears. But as Washington explains, Gilbey’s penetrating runs are nothing new. Rather, it’s what separates him from others in his position.
Washington, himself, is no stranger to lonely trips down the channels and he feels Charlton have at times been guilty of attempting to be too precise with their forward passes. Considering Gilbey’s unique style of play, Washington also believes his team-mates simply need time to learn his game.
“There were so many runs he made, especially Doncaster and Sunderland, where he’s breaking beyond the lines and you think ‘somebody pick your head up and look for that penetrating run,’” Washington continues. “And I don’t think we’ve done it enough this year, obviously, with the way I play as well, I’ve noticed it. He makes those blindside runs and when he gets going, you can’t catch him. If he gets the other side of you, he’s gone.”
A perfect example of the point Washington is making came early in the second half on Saturday. Jaiyesimi picked the ball up from Stockley and Charlton moved to counter at speed. Leading the break? None other than Gilbey driving into acres of free space.
Charlton’s number 11 gets behind the Sunderland defence and is painfully open only for his run to go unnoticed before his side end up passing backwards and recycling possession.
Here, early in the first half, Gilbey has run free on the outside as Ian Maatsen picks up the ball on the far flank.
Maatsen crosses, but the ball is aimed towards the near post and is cleared before it can reach a Charlton shirt.
Able to eat up ground with his long strides and deceptive pace, Gilbey’s forays forward tend to lead to big openings when found. This was seen time and time again at Sunderland with Gilbey often looking Charlton’s most menacing goalscoring threat.
As the game entered stoppage time Gilbey picked up the ball inside his own half.
He played it forward to Liam Millar, before driving into the open space alongside and ahead of the winger.
Millar eventually returned the favour and Gilbey saw two shots blocked. No Charlton player managed more attempts on goal than Gilbey’s four while his 20 touches inside Sunderland’s half was third after Stockley and the continuously impressive Jake Forster-Caskey.
As is clear from their respective touch-maps below, Forster-Caskey and Gilbey play different and compatible roles, the former operating just inside his attacking half and the latter looking to take up space further forward.
Gilbey’s big moment came from him marauding into space high up the pitch, following on to one of Stockley’s 14 headers of the day. Selfishly, as a striker, it’s another reason why Washington is so happy to see Gilbey coming into form.
“I’m sure Jayden’s really appreciative of it,” Washington says. “Because I think at times we’ve looked disjointed, the balls coming into Jayden, he’s been unbelievable since he’s come in as well. A lot of the time as a striker, Jayden will just want to set the ball and get into the box, he won’t want to have to take four or five touches and bring people into play in that way as most strikers won’t. So to have somebody like Gilbs who’s playing that sort of eight or even that 10 role, when he’s getting that close and breaking beyond, Jayden will be buzzing because as strikers we’ve been calling for that all year for people to get closer to us and run beyond.
“When I was playing on the left-hand side, he was playing the left side of the three in the midfield especially early on — Crewe, Doncaster (home). You just know where he’s going. If the ball’s coming into me and I was in a deeper position, he was breaking beyond me.
“And I think it’s probably something we don’t have a great deal of in the team. We’ve got a lot of really good footballers that look really comfortable on the ball and wingers that will beat a man, but we don’t have too many that are willing to break that last line. And I think the manager seems to like him and he likes one of the eights or even both of the eights to be breaking beyond as well. So I think it’s hopefully a match made in heaven for him.”
Gilbey was usually spotted in Stockley’s orbit at The Stadium of Light, looking to profit from his team-mate’s aerial dominance. As the ball hung in the air midway through the first half, Gilbey is seen already making his run before Stockley has won it.
Gilbey’s movement, coupled with Stockley’s flick, takes three Sunderland players out of the game, but unfortunately, a fourth comes sweeping up to clear.
The combination wouldn’t be put off and when they linked up again in the 61st minute, there was no stopping Gilbey as he utilised the same quick anticipation seen above to get ahead of his markers and score.
Operating as the highest midfielder, the help Gilbey provides his strikers in attack can not be understated — just take Washington’s word for it. But the Dagenham native also aids his frontline when his team doesn’t have the ball, coming out of midfield to help pressure opposition defences.
Gilbey did this effectively on numerous occasions against Sunderland including here in the first half when he helped force Lee Johnson’s side into an aimless long ball…
…and again here when he did the same in the second half…
When Nigel Adkins was unveiled last month, he referred to Charlton’s final 10 games as a “new season.” No one embodies that idea of a fresh start more so than Alex Gilbey.
By his own admission, he ran out of steam against Doncaster while he’ll certainly feel he should have added another goal or two to his maiden strike at Sunderland. While there’s still room to improve, the 26-year old is grasping his renewed opportunity, and he’s doing so alongside his entire team.
“It’s a real testament to his mental strength and his general attitude — the way he approaches life in general,” Washington says of Gilbey’s return to prominence after a relatively disastrous personal season.
“We had many chats over those periods where he was being left out of the squad and stuff. And it was all new ground for him. I think he’s won player of the season at near enough every club he’s been at. So he’s always been a regular. And if he’s not been a regular, it’s been because of injuries, never because of form or anything like that.
“I think it sort of goes under the radar a lot of the time when it’s not clicking for a player — it’s not always necessarily down to their performance or their form. It might just be that what they’re being asked to do isn’t necessarily natural, or the way the team’s playing doesn’t particularly suit their strengths.
“Especially someone like Gilbs. He’s very different to what we’ve got, he’s very different to what a lot of the lads will have played with. And at MK it was quite clear to see for everyone that he was the main man. He was tasked with getting on the ball a lot. And then they were looking for him to break beyond because he was their main creative outlet. So when you go from that to then having to almost earn that right again, I think it probably takes a little while and hopefully, he’s building into that now.”
Massive wins at Doncaster and Sunderland with Gilbey in the side have given Charlton a strong fighting chance in the play-off race despite a campaign full of stutters.
Charlton’s crowded midfield, with Albie Morgan and Matt Smith not even able to get in the squad, means Gilbey will have to play at his best to retain a starting spot. But with seven games to go and his side on the cusp of the play-offs, Gilbey has a real chance to turn around his season. And that in itself is a major step forward.
MAIN PHOTO: KYLE ANDREWS
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