BY BENJY NURICK
Nope, you weren’t dreaming. Charlton really did win 6-0 on Tuesday night.
Irrepressibly brilliant, Nigel Adkins’ side put in their best performance of the season at Home Park, confident and clinical as they ripped Plymouth to shreds and fired a distinct warning to the rest of League One’s play-off hopefuls.
Earning their joint-highest away league victory of all time, nearly everything Charlton touched turned to goals. They scored four of their six in 11 minutes either side of half-time and a total of five different players found the net. But in the sea of epic red dominance, there was one moment where the game could have turned away from Charlton before all hell broke loose and things got out of hand in the best possible way.
Heading into the break with a 2-0 lead courtesy of Jake Forster-Caskey’s 25th-minute opener and Jayden Stockley’s diving header on the stroke of half-time, Charlton knew they were on the verge of a special night and a vital three points. But the next goal was always likely to prove decisive.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the hosts who came out firing in the second half, searching desperately for the goal that would bring them back into the contest. They thought they’d found it too, when the ball broke to Joe Edwards six yards from goal. He cut inside on his left foot before hitting an effort into the crowd of Charlton bodies ahead of him. Jason Pearce stretched but couldn’t get there. Akin Famewo made an unsuccessful attempt. Ben Purrington darted back to the goal-line as a last-ditch blocker. But rising above the mayhem of the scramble was the calming presence of Amos, making himself huge to parry the shot before grabbing the loose ball.
With a two-goal cushion and the moment of intense pressure survived, it would have been easy for Amos to dive on the ball in an attempt to take the sting out of the game. Instead, he bolted up and flung it into the space ahead of Liam Millar. The Liverpool loanee needed no second invitation, driving into Plymouth’s half before his cross was somewhat comically turned in by Kelland Watts.
In the space of 10 heart-pumping seconds, Charlton went from the precipice of a Plymouth lifeline to ostensibly ending the match. A dramatic – and permanent – switch in momentum and it was largely owed to their keeper. In honour of that game-breaking moment, we’re going to do something a bit weird today. We aren’t going to discuss Charlton’s scorers or even any of their assistees. Instead, we’re going to spend a few minutes talking about the keeper who helped make such a huge win possible.
Lee Smelt knows a thing or two about the often forgotten importance of goalkeepers. A goalkeeping coach at Charlton for more than a decade before joining Arsenal, Smelt then returned to South London to work with the club’s academy shotstoppers. Now retired, Smelt has been credited with helping numerous keepers reach their potential including Wojciech Szczesny at Arsenal and Dillon Phillips at Charlton.
While Smelt only worked one on one with Amos on a few occasions, he always saw the Manchester United academy graduate as the perfect example for his young keepers to learn from.
“His work ethic, both in training and in the other part of the game when you’re not training… preparation before, rehab, prehab, all of those sorts of things…he’s top class,” Smelt told the South London Press. “He’ll still be stretching when other players have gone home. And he’ll be stretching before other players have arrived. Top class. I’ve got nothing but admiration for people with his professional work ethic.
“When I came back to the club [from Arsenal] I was working with Ashley Maynard-Brewer, Joe Osaghae, and later Nathan Harvey.
“I used to ask them if they’ve ever seen how Ben Amos stretches, how he applies himself to his general all-round fitness and well-being. I used to tell them he would be a good role model for them. And his character was he’d always be helpful to all the goalkeepers and give advice.”
The role model for multiple generations of upcoming Charlton keepers including his own deputy Maynard-Brewer, “Mr. Consistent” as Smelt calls him, has endured somewhat of an unusual season – namely struggling for consistency.
After making zero appearances in the Championship last season thanks to the continued emergence of Phillips, Amos’ return to the fold this year was marked by winning League One’s October Player of the Month award as he kept six clean sheets in a row and went more than nine hours without conceding. But after that terrific autumn run when Charlton climbed to within touching distance of then-leaders Peterborough, Lee Bowyer’s side began to falter and alongside their floundering form, Amos regressed.
A poor touch as he attempted to play out from the back allowed Joe Powell to steal in and make it 2-0 to Burton Albion en-route to their crushing 4-2 victory at the Pirelli Stadium. Amos and his side went on to keep just four clean sheets in their next 19 games.
It would be grossly unfair to blame Charlton’s defensive frailties this season entirely on Amos, with his team spending much of the season leaking goals in an almost impressive fashion. But after going on a run of six straight home games conceding from outside the box, questions were naturally asked of Amos – particularly with the talented Maynard-Brewer in the background.
There were stupendous strikes and unfortunate deflections that carried the ball past Amos, but there were also errors of judgement and moments where the 31-year old will have felt he should have done better. Even after Charlton’s results improved following February’s 3-0 defeat to Blackpool, Amos continued to raise frustrated eyebrows. His inability to deal with Edward Upson’s long-range effort against Bristol Rovers gave the visitors a 2-0 lead. Charlton ended up coming back to grab all three points but that did little to stem the flow of uncertainty mounting on their starting keeper.
The following game, he conceded twice more at Wimbledon and while neither could be fully attributed to him, the second equaliser – Ryan Longman tapping home Akin Famewo’s underhit backpass – led to more nervousness around Charlton’s defensive set-up, starting with Amos.
But just as that pressure was reaching its crescendo and seemingly engulfing him, Amos has responded by reminding everyone that he can still stand up when needed.
The clean sheet at Doncaster was owed in part to a few saves from Amos, while he kept Charlton in the game through the early stages at Sunderland before his side could get going. After bailing his team out, they did the same for him as Charlton held on to win 2-1 at The Stadium of Light despite a slight miscalculation from Amos allowing Sunderland to halve the deficit.
When Ipswich came to The Valley, Amos was solid if unspectacular, keeping a clean sheet without having to make any particularly challenging interventions. And while it appeared the rising wave of pressure might destroy Amos just a few weeks ago, a new tide of confident assuredness is setting in. On Tuesday night at Plymouth, he once again found the form that had allowed Charlton fans to happily move on from Phillips at the start of the season.
Charlton began the game on the back foot and needed Amos at his best, commanding his box and marshalling the defence as Plymouth kept 68 per cent of the ball and threw cross after cross into the box. Amos stayed strong and Charlton grew into the game before their 11-minute burst either side of the half-time whistle ended any Plymouth hopes.
It’s rare for a goalkeeper to end as a team’s standout player after a 6-0 win. You know what, it’s more than rare – it’s nearly unheard of. But without Amos’ minute of glory when he kept Charlton at 2-0 up before igniting the attack to make it three, this game could have been a completely different story.
“Ben Amos has made a very important save at the start of the second half,” Adkins said after the match. “We know that 2-0 is a dangerous scoreline and we talked about that in the dressing room. From that save we’ve gone down the other end and scored. That was a big turning point in where the game could go.”
Charlton supporters have become accustomed to Adkins’ morning walks where he preaches positivity and celebrates all the good around him. When he went out on the south coast for his morning stroll on Wednesday, he’ll have had a tough time choosing just a few of the many positives from the previous night’s epic win to focus on. But the returning form of his number one goalkeeper will no doubt fill him and his entire team with confidence as Charlton head into the final five games of their play-off push.
After seeing first-hand the care and dedication Amos puts into his profession, Smelt isn’t surprised to see the keeper’s form start to come back around. What he’s really surprised about is that it was ever suffering in the first place.
“I’ve been around the game a long time,” Smelt says. “I know Ben from when he was young. I watched him play for Man United’s youth team when we were in the Premier League. When he first came to the club, just to watch him prepare and train before games…he was the most professional goalkeeper I’ve ever seen. He was as steady as a rock. That’s the only way I can describe him.
“You’ve surprised me that he’s been up and down, because I think he is steady as a rock. I think it’s probably been a bit difficult for him to come back to the club and sit on the bench behind Dillon last season, but that’s just a testament to how well Dillon did. But having said that, Amos is obviously finding his way back now to where he wants to be. But I’m sure he treats it in the same professional way that he’s ever worked.
“It’s a difficult transition to go from first choice, then I think he had a difficult time at Millwall. And then to come back to Charlton and not go into the team, you’ve got all that to deal with mentally. But I would guess he would have acted in exactly the same way, worked in the same way, given the same everything, just waiting for the moment to get his opportunity.
“It doesn’t surprise me that a goalkeeper like that would come back up, because he works so hard at his game.’
As Smelt points out, Amos’ second spell at the club began with a season on the bench, while returning to the side for this one has had its fair share of complications. After starting the campaign with a bare-bones squad due to their ownership issues, Charlton have struggled for any sort of settled team. In fact, Amos has played behind 14 different centre-back partnerships this season and Smelt does believe the inconsistency in front of him could have impacted his uncertain form.
Amos also hasn’t been helped by the constant action he’s been thrust into. Despite challenging for a play-off spot, Charlton’s backline and midfield haven’t been able to protect Amos when he’s suffered through personal rough patches. He sits fourth in League One in terms of shots on target faced while his 114 saves rank joint-third.
Now, that isn’t to say Amos is blameless. Charlton have conceded far too many sloppy goals this season and Amos has been a constant member of that broken machine. Still, he’s remained an unquestionable starter in part due to the traits that impressed Smelt all those years ago.
Frequently in the emptiness of The Valley, it’s Amos’ voice that cuts above the silence while his fearlessness and ability to attack crosses has relieved his side of intense pressure on countless occasions – including throughout Charlton’s recent run of victories. In stoppage time at Sunderland, he and his defence repeatedly foiled each new attack as Charlton held out for a crucial win. On Tuesday at Plymouth, it was in the early stages when Charlton needed Amos at his commanding best to limit the hosts’ potency from wide areas.
“That was a massive strength of his in his first period at Charlton,” Smelt says of Amos’ bravery. “A real strength that I noticed. And also the way he stands up in one v one situations. He stands up very square, he’s very difficult to beat, he gets good blocks.”
It was in the 47th minute at Home Park when Amos was required to stand ‘square’ and make himself difficult to beat in order to block Edwards’ shot. But, of course, on a night that will be remembered for Charlton’s attacking prowess rather than their defending, it was Amos’ quick-thinking to send Millar free moments later that made the save that much more special.
Lee Smelt is a lover of goalkeeping. He always has been. Naturally, that means he believes in goalies, especially the ones he’s worked with. “Ben’s a smart guy. Goalkeeper’s generally are smart,” he explains. “The American Brad Friedel used to say: ‘To be a goalkeeper you have to be a mathematician, a specialist in equations, have the reflexes of a leopard…’
“Basically he’s saying if you imagine the ball’s coming towards you at 100mph, the wind’s travelling at 30mph another way, there’s players running this and that way and you’ve gotta deal with that one ball. You’ve got to be making all those assessments and then decide how to deal with it. And when you think about it, you have to be bright to get your timing right, when you go into one v one situations, when you dive at a player’s feet. Everything has to be perfect. Even a parry or a deflection, the timing of everything has to be right. So there’s a certain amount of brightness that you’ve got to have to be a goalkeeper. All those decisions you’re making in split-seconds in front of 15, 20, 60, 80 thousand people. And you’ve got to make those decisions and get them right.”
With the positive impact of Nigel Adkins’ arrival clearly rubbing off on the entire club, there’s finally a feeling of real confidence flowing through this Charlton team. A relatively consistent and high-performing defensive structure in front of Amos has certainly helped, but the goalkeeper’s effect can not be understated.
Ben Amos hasn’t had an easy season. In fairness, who at Charlton has? But Adkins’ side can’t get to Wembley without him at his best. Thankfully it appears they no longer have to worry about that.
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