Cod Almighty | Match Report
by Tony Butcher
12 November 1999
A surprisingly warm, but drizzly evening with the pitch retaining some surface water on the Main Stand side. The pre-match warm ups were instructively different. Mendonca warmed up with a shooting routine against Ilic whereby he ran back 10 yards, turned and shot. Charlton then warmed up as a team. Town players did their usual kickabouts, with no shooting practice as far as I could see. Croudson and Coyne just kept throwing the ball at each other, not even doing their usual 'crosses and shots' routine.
Prior to the game Livingstone (resplendent in black, just like the Milk Tray man) and McDermott (wearing an anorak) walked over to the Findus/Stones/Smiths Stand. Livingstone had the trace of a limp and was reminded by several members of the crowd that that was last week's injury. His neck was naked and seemed to move freely. The tannoy announcement of the teams drew intense apathy from the crowd until the Charlton No10 was introduced. He received a very warm and cheery ovation, for which he gave a little round of applause. The Town sections of the ground were quite packed, with the 'temporary seating' between the Pontoon and Findus almost full.
Town lined up in the usual 4-4-2 formation (but without several of the usual players) as follows :- Coyne, Butterfield, Gallimore, R Smith, Lever, Donovan, D Smith, Hamilton, Groves, Lester and Ashcroft. The substitutes were Croudson, Black, A Buckley, Burnett and Allen. Hamilton partnered Groves in central midfield. The rest were in their nominally correct positions.
Town kicked off towards the Osmond Stand with a slight wind and drizzle behind them. Nothing particular of note happened in the first 10 minutes, especially where Town's attacking was concerned. Hamilton's first three touches were terrible: a high kick which went backwards, and two passes that went out for throw-ins. After his first successful tackle he got better, i.e. wasn't awful.
Charlton had more possession and the movement from ALL their players was very noticeable. Mendonca and Hunt were constantly making sideways, darting runs and feints. Their midfielders were very quick to run up and support the forwards. It didn't bring them any chances, but they were probing and infiltrating the spaces between the Town defenders.
After 11 minutes Town got near their penalty area for the first time when Butterfield (who had been Town's brightest and most thrusting attacker) rolled the ball to Lester on the right edge of the area. Lester rolled his marker and won a free kick. D Smith, who seems to have become the Town free kick expert, expertly chipped the ball into the arms of Ilic. From his clearance, Charlton won a corner on Town's left. The ball was chipped into the near post, where Lever, Hamilton and two of their players managed to head the ball back to the corner taker. No Town player went back out to challenge, and he clipped the ball to Rufus, who ran into a position about seven yards out, just to the right of centre. He guided a relatively free header into the top right-hand corner of the goal. As against Wolves, Town players didn't challenge a tall player near goal. I seem to recall Lever being somewhere near Rufus at one point. The Pontoon were utterly silent.
During the next 10 minutes Town huffed and puffed and got near goal only once. A corner on Town's left was headed at the far post by R Smith. It was going a couple of yards wide but Lester diverted it goalwards, straight into Ilic's arms. And then something odd happened. D Smith ran at the Charlton defence, after an Ashcroft flick, and was pushed just inside the left hand corner of the box. Yet another penalty to Town. Ashcroft rolled the penalty to the goalkeeper's left as Ilic dived to his right. Against the run of play Town had equalised.
Charlton attempted to increase the tempo, but Town neutralised them, and the game. For the next 10 minutes the game fell into a midfield match, with neither side getting into their opponent's penalty area. The game went a bit flat, and then the referee, who had seemed to give every decision to Town in the first half, awarded Charlton a free kick about 30 yards out on the Smith/Findus Stand side. The ball was chipped, slowly, into the centre of the Town box, Coyne came, stopped, came again, and stopped again. Lever left it, went for it, and left it again. Rufus jumped and glanced a header into the top right-hand corner of Coyne's goal form the edge of the six-yard box. The Pontoon managed to fall even more silent.
The next 10 minutes of play were mainly Charlton, though again they didn't have any shots or chances. They were breaking quickly and with great organisation. On one particular break Hunt turned and raced forwards, Lever, who was marking Mendonca, looked at Mendonca then ran away from him. Fortunately Hunt tried to shoot and it hit Lever's bottom (which is considerably bigger than his brain), whilst Mendonca was completely unmarked on the edge of the box.
After 40 minutes R Smith was stretchered off. He seemed to fall badly when challenging near the half way line. Burnett came on and slotted into central midfield, whilst Groves went back to centre-half. And then it was half time, with Town trudging off to a small smattering of muffled and mumbled boos.
Overall Town could not complain at the half time scoreline. The manner in which they had conceded the goals was annoying, especially considering they were very similar to ones conceded last week. A case of mistakes not having been learnt. In general it was incredible that our central defenders marked so loosely, it isn't like they don't know how Mendonca plays. Lever seemed to be 'marking' Mendonca far too often for any rational mind to consider acceptable. In attack the ball kept coming back from the forwards too often. The usual problem of lack of stickability. Nothing had been created at all – the goal was a penalty and the only other effort of the half was a reaction header from a corner.
On the other hand Charlton had had only two efforts on goal of any description. Two headers, two goals. Coyne didn't make any saves and I can't recall him catching/punching any crosses. A curious half in which, although Town appeared to be hanging on in quiet desperation, nothing much happened. Charlton seemed to have learned from last year, they appeared to be looking for weaknesses. Town? Weaknesses? Surely none sir! If they found any they would gnaw at them, like a green bug-eyed monster (Gallimore at the Grosvenor?) When Butterfield or Gallimore attacked either Mendonca or Hunt would immediately go and stand in the spot that had just been vacated. Only sometimes did a Town defender mark them, rather than watch play. Thus when Town lost the ball Charlton played it into the unmanned space. That seemed to be a microcosm of the difference between the teams. Charlton players were always concentrating, watching their opponents, whilst too many Town players were watching what was happening. Reactive rather than proactive. The supporters were gloomy and not looking forward to the second half.
No changes were made by either team at half time. The drizzle became far more persistent and heavy, it was almost driving into Coyne's face.
Town came out with some gusto and immediately produced the move of the night. Burnett slipped a cunning pass through the inside left channel to D Smith, who bamboozled Charlton with a half-Blackian pirouette. He ran into Lester, but fortunately between them they retained possession about 30 yards out, in the centre of the Charlton half. Lester eventually worked the ball over to Butterfield on the right hand touchline. Butterfield rolled the ball to Ashcroft, who produced a Woods-esque step over flick, allowing the ball to roll on to Lester, just inside the right-hand corner of the penalty area. Lester shielded the ball and watched as Ashcroft and Donovan ran past him, either side. He chose a Reesian lay off to the Childs-like run from Donovan, heading on the outside towards the bye-line. (A flashback to 1993?) Donovan took the pass in his stride and, from about eight yards out and a couple of yards from the bye-line, whipped in a hard low cross, as Ilic came out to block. Rufus dived across the goal and slid into the net with the ball. It came off either his chest or arm. Who cared. It was a crowd-pleasing way to complete his hat trick. Appreciative chants of Rufus, Rufus accompanied him to the half way line.
So Town were back level after a few seconds of the second half. The next 15 minutes were the most competitive of the match. Town suddenly started to produce crunchingly committed tackling, with man and ball disappearing over the touchline. The crowd got behind the team with some constant chanting and backing. However, although the tackling became harder, the number of chances, for either side, did not rise much above one. Kinsella tamely drove a free kick from 25 yards a couple of yards wide, and Rufus, unmarked, headed a free kick against the post from about eight yards out, at the far post, Findus side. Hadn’t he done something similar in the first half? Some players have the memory of a forgetful goldfish.
As the Town supporters were reaching a climax, Charlton scored again. Just after the hour a concerted Charlton breakaway attack on the Town left saw the ball eventually worked into space on the Town right A Charlton player was completely free, about 15 yards out, but Butterfield threw himself across the path of the shot and it deflected off him over the bar for a corner. The corner, from the Town right, was played to the near post, about 8-10 yards out. Coyne appeared to save a flick header, but pushed the ball sideways, across the goal. Mendonca, unmarked, right in the middle of the goal about three or four yards out, simply lunged forward and tapped the ball over the line. The immutable law of the ex struck again. Yet another cross not dealt with. A pattern developing. Possibly.
This goal seemed to deflate the Town players and, conversely, Charlton stepped up the pressure and really pressed to increase the lead. The pace of their attacks increased, and they piled more players forward. A scramble in the Town area saw a free shot smacked over the bar from a central position. A brief respite saw the ball played around in midfield, near the Main Stand. Eventually (about five minutes after their third goal) Charlton intercepted and cleared the ball high down their left channel. Lever shuffled across and produced a lovely flick header for Mendonca to run onto. Mendonca collected the ball just outside the Town area on the right near the bye-line, turned and laid the ball back to the completely unmarked Hunt, inside the area, on the right about 12 yards out. Hunt simply placed the ball wide of Coyne and right into the bottom left-hand corner of Coyne's goal. It was at this point that it was remarked that Lever is usually five minutes behind play, but at that moment it was five years.
At about this point Allen came on for Hamilton (aka Griffin, the invisible man). Hamilton did produce some decent cross field passes in the first half, but had been very anonymous in the second. He might have been making contributions but as he is such an identikit Buckley player, how could one tell? At least one Pontoonite was moved to remark "It's Widdo!" after one particularly awful cross-field pass to Alan Buckley. With the arrival of Bradley Allen (whom the Pontoon had been calling for since the first half) Town changed to a 4-3-3 formation, with Ashcroft in the centre, Lester on the right and Allen the left. Now that made sense, didn’t it.
And this tactical change made such a difference. Town played much, much worse. It was like watching a souffle crumple before your very eyes, playmates. Charlton were utterly ruthless in their pursuit of goals. They stepped the pace up even further. Their full-backs, especially, pressed up further and further, taking great advantage of the spaces left by the reduced numbers in the Town midfield. Donovan and D Smith had to play much more centrally, leaving Gallimore and Butterfield with two players sprinting towards them. It was not a pleasant sight to see.
After 70 minutes Town had their first describable effort on goal. Lester chested down a ball to Ashcroft, who hit a half volley a foot wide, from 20 yards out to the left of the goal.
With 15 minutes or so left Town won a throw-in in front of the Findus/Smiths, about 20 yards out. The ball was thrown to Burnett who lost a challenge with Jones. The ball was immediately played forward, with Charlton players running up in support, whilst some Town players dropped their heads in momentary disappointment. Within 10 seconds the ball was in Town's net. Charlton advanced up the centre, drawing in Town defenders as they did so. Eventually they reached the edge of the Town area, with just Butterfield to beat. Robinson drew Butterfield towards him, as strikers drifted off to the Town left. The left full-back, Powell sprinted forward and Robinson rolled the ball into his path, just inside the Town area. Powell hit a shot/cross towards the far post, across Coyne. Groves slid in to intercept, but only managed to hit the ball against Coyne, and it dribbled in to the goal off Coyne’s shoulder (I think). The Charlton supporters and players were extremely happy.
Large sections of the Town support stood up and walked away. Wet weather supporters, one game per year and they go early. They don't understand it's ALL about misery. A couple of 'fans' tried to have a fight with the stewards, which resulted in a steward falling over and having to be taken off for treatment. There were two such sets of disruptions within the Pontoon, which resulted in the whole of the Pontoon standing up for 10 minutes so that they could either see the (non) fights or the match. With a couple of minutes left two blokes ran across the pitch towards the Charlton end. All they did was wave their arms around.
Out on the pitch Town spent five minutes desperately attempting to avoid conceding another goal. From one attack first Groves, then Butterfield had to kick the ball off the line. Groves was forced to head over the Town bar from about five yards out, and Coyne saved a cross/shot at his near post. Town had, by this stage, no shape and were being out run, out thought, over powered and thoroughly out played. The end couldn't come soon enough. And eventually it did, but not before Town had their second effort of the night. Burnett hit a 20 yard free kick way high and wide in the 92nd minute.
Town had been ruthlessly dissected by (far) the best team they have played this year. Every flaw and mistake was punished, in numbers and at speed. Every chance created by Charlton resulted in a goal-bound shot. In essence they have learnt from their time in the Premiership that they have to make the most of EVERY opportunity. They simply placed men, and the ball, where Town players weren't. And they played as a team. There was no slacking, even at 5-2, they worked ALL game, as a unit. The scoreline accurately reflected the gulf between the players they sent out against the players we sent out. And there is the lesson.
Town had too many squad players filling in. Pouton, Coldicott, and Handyside were missed greatly. Our physical weaknesses down the flanks were exposed, as was Town's inability to defend in the air. Once again Butterfield was Town's best player, both defensively and offensively. When the team was announced the crowd muttered about "lack of creativity" in midfield, and a rocky defence against "them". Town didn't get away with it today, for the third game running – and now R Smith is injured and Groves is banned. We appear to be left with Lever as our only fit centre-half. It hardly fills one with hope. This may be the nadir of the season, but probably not.
In summary, they were better than us. They played like we think Town play. As Mr Punch is quoted as saying "that's the way to do it".