The Championship – Saturday 22nd December 2007
Deep, deep into injury time and we are pressing forward, looking sharp, threatening, alert. The ball is diverted into the path of McPhee who hares goalwards – his first touch is indelicate and Weaver smothers, Folan misses the rebound and Barmby contorts his body to shoot…but shoot wide, and the Tiger Nation emits a strangled cry of dismay.
Of course, this was not our final chance to rescue a point from one of the season’s toughest fixtures – rather, it was the opportunity to win it, deservedly. Seconds later referee Anthony Bates concluded the afternoon’s entertainment and we filed out into dark London night bemoaning our ill fortune but lauding our achievement. The City we’ve seen for most of the season, the City was so inexplicably absent at Preston and Southampton, appears to have returned.
Phil Brown made a couple of changes to the side that cantered past Leicester a week ago, one of them enforced as Dean Windass sat things out with a suspension – his place was taken by Fraizer Campbell. Dean Marney was also unexpectedly absent, failing even to make the bench, which meant a welcome return for David Livermore alongside Ian Ashbee in midfield.
Alan Pardew and his assistant Phil Parkinson had some happy news before kick-off with Chris Iwelumo, Zheng Zhi and Darren Ambrose all passing fitness tests as the side that lay fifth before the start of the game sought to do the double over us following their, ahem, controversial victory at the Circle in October.
The match began brightly though with few clear chances being created, a free-kick from Matt Holland for Charlton being about the best opportunity for either side, although City did have manfully defend some excellent crosses. The first real opening for City came after twenty minutes when some uncertain defending allowed the ever-alert Fraizer Campbell to ghost in and send a header just wide.
David Livermore was the next to try his luck, sending a low shot that Weaver held on to comfortably. Charlton’s initial fortune with injuries took a turn for the worse midway through the half, as Sam Sodje ambled off in some discomfort, with Patrick McCarthy replacing him.
City were playing some good stuff by now, and we nearly took after winning a corner after a Garcia shot was deflected wide – that set piece was not cleared properly and Turner cracked a shot at goal that was smothered, the resulting clearance appearing from our distant vantage point to have involved the use of a hand.
The Tigers nearly gifted Charlton a comedy own goal against the run of play when Ashbee could only flick on a free-kick that required a smart intervention from Boaz Myhill. Shortly after City finally took the lead when Powell miscontrolled and presented a free run on goal for Campbell. He advanced a few yards and hammered home a low, hard shot that flew past Weaver into the bottom corner to spark riotous celebrations in the away end.
This frayed a few tempers, still short following Charlton’s anti-football at the Circle – Folan was cautioned for a foul on Danny Mills, but this sanction was evidently insufficient for the Charlton right-back, who then attempted to get Bryan Hughes sent off for a theatrical dive in front of the dug-outs. The latest in a series of instances of simulation from a group of people who evidently have immense difficulties in remaining upright, which one might think is something of a handicap for a professional footballer, this act of cheating drew a furious reaction from the City players, incensed even further when Mr Bates booked Hughes instead of Mills. Still, City held on comfortably to lead at the break.
Charlton made a further change during the interval, Izale McLeod replacing the injured Lloyd Sam. The pattern of the game remained broadly the same however, our hosts struggling for fluency and City determinedly holding on. Ian Ashbee directed a header wide from a corner, but after this mostly chanceless start to the second half Charlton equalised when Bougherra stabbed home the rebound after a brief goalmouth scramble.
This disappointment saw the home side take charge of the game for the first time, forcing several corners and pinning City back. However we kept our shape and discipline throughout this trying period, and managed to ride it out, the home supporters growing just a little frustrated at their inability to carve out many openings.
Indeed, City were the nearest scorers during this time, a great block by McCarthy denying Campbell after a fleet-footed foray. He was booked shortly afterward for a spat with Danny Mills, for whom the red mist had now totally descended. Quite why someone who became something of a cult figure during his brief stay at City was so determined to wind up our players and cheat even more than usual is a mystery, but his ambition backfired spectacularly after tumbling hysterically after a Folan challenge and directing some unwise words at the referee, for which he was sent off.
The City fans crowed with delight as he skulked off in shame, the home support mystifying applauding a serial cheat as he traipsed off and dimmed their chances of winning yet further.
Ashbee then sent another headed flying narrowly wide from a corner as City looked to steal a victory as the game wound down, though Phil Brown introduced Damien Delaney for Campbell to introduce a note of pragmatism amid the heady ambitions.
However, as the game ticked down we had the one final chance for glory, and had Barmby just managed to hook the ball a few yards further to the left…
Nonetheless, this is a good point. Two weeks ago, as we headed home in a state of shock from Southampton, we would have jumped at taking four points from the next two games. We’ve done exactly that, and even climbed two places to a very healthy 11th place. Two winnable home fixtures now present themselves, with Wolves and Sheff Weds visiting the Circle. A decent haul from these games will see us leave a turbulent 2007 in very good heart. (AD)