Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Charlton Athletic 5 Cardiff City 4

“Um, well there are a few midweek games in London. Would be good to take the chance to go to one. Charlton would be a decent bet.

“But, err, it’s still quite a while until payday, would this actually be a good idea. Could put that money to better use, like the weekly big shop. Um, it’s getting quite cold in the evenings now too and Charlton’s quite a long way out.

“On the other hand, um, I should be going out to these things in the evening otherwise you’re sat inside playing on FIFA and doing very little all winter. Err, should I bother or not......”

[Five full minutes of deliberation later]

“Um err, oh sod it, I’ll take the chance. Will need another football fix. Will buy the Tesco value. Where’s that debit card?”

THANK GOODNESS I DID BOTHER. One of the best matches I’ve ever seen, magnificent, rip-roaring, thrill-a-minute stuff. A beautiful stadium in which to enjoy live football, an unexpectedly superb atmosphere and enough entertainment to keep my eyes open despite only snatching a couple of hours sleep between shifts the night before. 

It wasn’t just the eyes that were glaring wide at the classic Championship match unfolding down below, but my hands seemed to involuntarily go into auto-pilot, clapping along with songs I didn’t know or understand and my lips to, bellowing out “Chrissy Powell’s red and white army” as though I’d watched Charlton for years. 

For once in my life as a neutral football fan, I’d chosen a match that was not just decent but unforgettable. It isn’t the greatest quantity of goals I’ve seen in a match, nor the most dramatic 90 minutes, but it was a stunningly entertaining that reaffirmed my faith not only in football but in my sane judgement. 

The first thing I must note is The Valley’s brilliance as a matchday venue. It was only half-full on Tuesday night but the atmosphere was exceptional. I’d never have thought Charlton would be a noisy place, nor would many people, but to my left were a bank of people and a relentless wall of noise. Refreshingly, even the stewards were clapping along to the beat - first time for everything. 

So, a glorious match unfolded like this:

0-1: Just four minutes in and league leaders Cardiff delight their travelling support with the opening goal. It’s all too simple - Charlton show some of the defensive frailties that have them odds-on favourites to immediately return to League One and, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of marking, allow Heidar Helguson the most straightforward of headers.

0-2: Cardiff have the look and feel of an accomplished team who will almost definitely be in the Premier League sooner rather than later. They have Charlton’s defenders running scared and in the chaos and confusion following Ben Turner’s header against the crossbar, Joe Mason is opportunistic to crash the ball home.

1-2: The game is sliding towards half-time and Charlton have looked ineffectual, on the brink of useless. But a bolt from the blue gives fresh hope - Johnnie Jackson, the captain, lashes a shot into the top corner, giving Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall no chance.

2-2: Three minutes of stoppage time and, with the wind and noise firmly behind Charlton, they cancel out the lead. Another set piece and suddenly Cardiff are made to look amateurish - Salim Kerkar swung in from the left and there’s Jackson again, untroubled, to head into the bottom corner.    

Through half-time, I’m already congratulating myself on my choice of game. But it kept getting better. 

3-2: Firing towards me now, Charlton took absolute control of the game when Dale Stephens lofted in a very speculative free-kick which kept sailing high and didn’t really dip until it evaded Marshall. The North Stand are in raptures now, the thud of the drum getting ever quicker, the voices ever louder.
4-2: Five minutes later and Bradley Pritchard breaks clear on the right and finds a perfect cross. I’ll let the official Charlton match report take it from here as it’s quite funny: ‘Danny Haynes, who had stolen into space, was stumbling as he jostled for the ball, but he proved Ballerinaesque as he kept his balance and nodded through the arms of the keeper.’ Ballerinaesque - don’t see that very often in a match report!

5-2: Extraordinarily, the bloke sat behind me, so conditioned to disappointment this season, still refuses to accept that Charlton could win this. But then a fifth on 65 minutes when Kerkar crossed to Rob Hulse, who has the freedom of south London, to head in. Can’t help getting swept along now, yelling “We want six” like a  glutton. 

5-3: Nothing really happened for a while then, until the fourth official signalled six minutes of stoppage time for reasons that remain unclear. Most of the away fans were eying the exits when Craig Noone ice-cooly rounded goalkeeper Ben Hamer for what looks like a too-little, too-late consolation. 

5-4: Oh gosh, perhaps the bloke behind me was right. Cardiff have scored again through Gunnarsson in the fifth minute of the sixth and he’s gone ghostly pale. Even I find myself biting my nails. The Red Dragons (I really hate saying that nickname, what a scandal that was) push but Charlton stand firm in the nerve-shattering finale.

Powell and all the players were given an ear-splitting reception at the end. The manager, widely known as being one of football’s nice guys with good reason, went down the tunnel with acclaim ringing in his ears from three sides of the ground. 

I stood and applauded for a good five minutes with the crowd - for Charlton, for Cardiff and for the majesty of football. 

Next Match: With Boston United drawn at home in the FA Trophy this weekend, I’ll take the opportunity to visit another London venue - perhaps Brentford, who are playing Carlisle United.