BY BENJY NURICK
It’s understandable if you felt that your week’s supply of emotional energy had already been drained by the time Charlton kicked off against Bristol Rovers. And that was only Tuesday.
The previous 24 hours saw Lee Bowyer somewhat abruptly resign from his post to take over as manager of Birmingham City. It’s fair to say all has not been well at Charlton for some time. Things were often more dire and existential with Roland Duchatelet and ESI in charge, but now under Thomas Sandgaard, the issues plaguing Bowyer and his side had been on the pitch.
Perhaps everything would have been different for Charlton this season with fans at The Valley. But regardless, their home form and general stutters led to sections of the fanbase calling for Bowyer to go. Still, when the news broke on Monday morning, it was quite a shock. Heading into the week Aitor Karanka was still officially Birmingham’s manager and there was no reason to expect anyone other than Bowyer to lead Charlton out against Bristol Rovers.
But a day later the game came around and it was Johnnie Jackson calling the shots as he swapped his usual tracksuit for a burgundy button-down and black overcoat. After Bowyer announced his decision to the team in the morning, Jackson took charge of training in the afternoon and told the players he would be managing the side the following evening. He hadn’t yet discussed it with Sandgaard, but Charlton’s owner agreed it was the best course of action.
The sheer emotion of Bowyer’s tenure, and his central role in the constant drama, meant the end was always going to hit hard – however it came. The reality lived up to the hype and when the clock struck 7pm on Tuesday, some supporters were feeling ready for bed rather than prepared for yet another game.
But by full-time, Charlton reminded everyone why the greatest drama and most enjoyable moments occur on the pitch. Eventually ending 3-2, a wild game was capped off by Conor Washington’s 84th minute winner.
Sometimes goals come out of the blue and the emotion is released on impact. Other times the emotion builds as a move grows. And then there are the occasions where the moment in itself is a rollercoaster. This was one of those.
Charlton no doubt controlled the second-half but when Andrew Shinnie launched the ball forward with six minutes of normal time remaining it didn’t automatically look dangerous.
Then it fell in the perfect spot for Chuks Aneke who was sprinting ahead of his defender. In a full stadium, people would have started excitedly murmuring.
Instead, just a few Charlton players sitting in the seats of the West Stand leaned forward as Aneke got there and headed it on. Is it falling for Washington? It’s past the keeper….off the post! And finally, there’s Washington to finish it off.
You could only imagine how a packed Valley would have reacted to the late winning goal. We had to settle for supporters everywhere punching the air and screaming in front of their TVs. It says something quite special about football that the moment could truly be felt across the entire fanbase, despite the stadium being empty.
Charlton held on for victory, and it’s fitting that the rollercoaster moment decided a thrilling game.
A quiet start gave way to mayhem in the 18th minute when Ian Maatsen’s sloppy challenge allowed Luke Leahy to put the visitors in front from the spot. Ed Upson then doubled the advantage from distance in the 32nd minute, seemingly ruining Jackson’s big night.
Fortunately, Charlton started to claw their way back just seconds later, Andrew Shinnie chesting the ball down before smashing into the bottom corner from 20 yards out. Nine minutes later Jake Forster-Caskey helped complete the recovery with a delicious free-kick from just outside the box.
Instead of going into the break behind by one, or even two goals, and potentially crumbling, Jackson’s first half-time team talk came with his side heavily in the ascendancy. Harnessing the momentum, Charlton dominated the second half with 56 per cent possession and 12 shots to Bristol Rovers’ three. Yet, they couldn’t score. Constantly they found themselves in the right positions but Joey Barton’s side crowded the box and made life tough for the hosts.
Finally though, with little time running, Charlton scored their messy winner to cue the kind of joyous relief that can’t quite come with off the pitch dramatics.
It’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen next for Charlton Athletic. Sandgaard has made it clear he wants to appoint a new manager by the end of the week so an emotional period is unlikely to end with Tuesday’s victory.
There’s reason to wonder, however, if such a quick decision is necessary. Sandgaard is confident that Charlton will reach the play-offs, but the reality is his team are still on the outside looking in – as extra games played on all their rivals means their top six spot is slightly fraudulent.
Before the game Forster-Caskey made it clear the team supports Jackson, saying that they all “have his back”. If it wasn’t evident from his words, then it was clear from the performance and the spirit to recover from two goals down. Three years ago after Karl Robinson departed, Charlton avoided making a decision and instead gave the job to Lee Bowyer on an interim basis until the end of the season.
A strong finish saw Charlton reach the play-offs in 2018 and with little to risk in a season that could well be doomed already, there’s reason to believe Jackson is the best candidate for the final weeks of this campaign. In the worst-case scenario Charlton would miss out on the play-offs, but Sandgaard could use the extra time to carefully select a long-term successor to Bowyer. Best case scenario, a repeat of three years ago, and maybe Jackson emerges as the ideal candidate himself.
After the chaos and pain of the last few years, it’s completely understandable why Sandgaard would want a fresh start. And having worked as Bowyer’s assistant, Jackson isn’t that. However, a rushed decision could do more harm than good, and if one thing is clear from Tuesday’s victory, it’s that this squad is happy to give everything for their caretaker boss.
Either way, I’m sure further drama is just around the corner. It always is at Charlton. Thankfully, on Tuesday night, we were reminded as to why the ‘on-the-pitch’ variety just can’t be beat.
INSET PHOTOS: PAUL EDWARDS AND KEITH GILLARD
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