BY RICHARD CAWLEY
There might be plenty of Charlton Athletic fans who have written off the League One play-offs this season. But, crucially, Lee Bowyer’s players are not in that group.
Optimism was thin on the ground after a depressing 3-0 home reverse to Blackpool at the end of February.
The start of March was sink or swim for the Addicks’ rapidly fading top-six prospects. The good news is that so far they have stayed buoyant.
Tuesday night was hardly a virtuoso performance against a Northampton side in drop danger. But Conor Washington’s brace made it seven points banked from a possible nine as Charlton climbed to eighth.
They find themselves in an iffy situation. If they can repeat the same return over the next three matches it would be interesting to see how the table shapes up – especially if the clubs with fixtures in hand don’t manage to make them count.
Any run-in, whether it is at the top or the bottom of the table, is about holding your nerve. You need your big players to come to the party.
And one thing you can’t dispute about this Charlton squad is that they have bundles of experience – Jason Pearce, Ben Watson, Chris Gunter and Darren Pratley have all played more than 500 senior matches. The quartet’s combined total stands at 2,138. That can also prove invaluable heading down the home straight.
Their form at The Valley has to be better. They were winless there since mid-December – a run of eight games – before seeing off Northampton.
With their next two also on their own patch, strugglers Shrewsbury and Bristol Rovers, they can further improve their record at home. It’s results there that have impeded their promotion prospects.
Charlton were the better side in midweek. They had an xG – expected goals – of 1.9 compared to their opponent’s 0.2.
But they also were the beneficiaries of the one big refereeing call of the night made by Paul Howard.
He decided that the collision between Jake Forster-Caskey and Jack Sowerby was a penalty – both men only having eyes for the ball as they came together.
“He just took Jake out. It was 100 per cent a penalty,” opined Bowyer.
Northampton’s caretaker boss Jon Brady had a contrasting view.
“If you watch it back in slow motion Jack is the one who jumps to head the ball and the guy hits Jack in the ribs. It’s a foul to us. The ref is 10 yards away and cannot wait to give it. When he looks back I think he’ll feel sick, as sick as I do about it.”
Alan Curbishley, hardly a neutral observer on Charlton’s in-house matchday streaming service, perhaps had the most telling take.
“That might be a bounce up if it happens in the middle of the park.”
Soft or not, Washington held his nerve superbly with a significant delay after the spot-kick was awarded.
Already subbed off before Ronnie Schwartz’s late miss from 12 yards at Oxford United, the Northern Ireland international made sure the ball was set properly before striking low into the bottom right corner.
Northampton keeper Jonathan Mitchell tipped over a Chuks Aneke header before Charlton did move into a two-goal lead.
Mitchell could only push out Andrew Shinnie’s strike and Washington ripped the ball home.
But Charlton and comfortable haven’t tended to go in the same sentence too many times this season. Alex Jones was able to climb above Matt Smith at the near post to convert Mark Marshall’s corner.
It was the Cobblers’ only effort on target all night and thankfully came in the third minute of added time.
The challenges will keep on coming for Charlton. Their run-in looks, on paper, about as hard as you can get. They still have to play Lincoln, Ipswich, Peterborough and Hull at home – with Accrington, Sunderland and Doncaster away.
But you can also view that as a prime opportunity to nobble your rivals.
Conor Washington. His double could still prove highly significant this season. Worked incredibly hard.
Washington lashing home his second of the night.
Pics by Keith Gillard
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