So it ends at the quarter-final stage. An interesting contrast of styles and attitudes saw Sunderland’s youth team – which looked suspiciously full of journeymen veterans – claim a spot in the semis against Man City with a last-minute winner after the Addicks had levelled at 1-1. It was rough justice on Charlton, who had the chances to win the game and deserved at least to take the game to extra-time. But it wasn’t daylight robbery, with Sunderland as expected proving a very different kettle of fish to Sheff Utd and Swindon, just part of the learning process.
It was the same line-up for Charlton’s youths as in the previous two cup games. But something was different this time around. We weren’t 4-0 up after 20 minutes, were having to work harder than in previous games to gain and keep possession, and were up against opponents who meant business. Given the size and strength of them it was clear they couldn’t mean anything else. And with Waghorn up front Sunderland seemed confident that they could keep it tight and sooner or later he would make something happen. For their part Charlton soon moved Jonjo Shelvey inside, with Scott Wagstaff occupying the right side of midfield. And with Danny Uchechi tending to play up front alongside Ben Godfrey it was more a straight 4-4-2 than the previous more fluid system of Uchechi, Wagstaff, Shelvey and Rashid Yussuff playing off and around Godfrey.
It all added up to a cagey first half with few chances. Although Charlton enjoyed a majority of possession the best chances fell to Sunderland. A free header from a set piece and a break through the centre which saw a shot hit the outside of the post. However, just before the break Charlton showed what they could do as some lovely interplay on the edge of the box orchestrated by Uchechi created the space for Godfrey to have the shot which the keeper saved. But whereas in previous rounds Charlton were creating moments and chances like this at will, this time it took 44 minutes to create one.
If anything Sunderland tightened up further after half-time – and put a premium on keeping possession. That put pressure on Charlton when they finally won the ball back and for a while we seemed to be retreating into a shell, having to rely more on long balls forward which were meat and drink to the Sunderland defenders. It wasn’t a great surprise when they took the lead, after about 54 minutes. Sam Long seemed to have won the ball on the left and looked to me to have been pulled back, which allowed them to regain possession, the ball put in across the face of the goal to an incoming forward to score. It was probably Waghorn.
However, the goal galvanised Charlton, who realised they had to go out and chase the game. Alexander Stavrinou, impressive again as the holding midfielder, was sacrificed, with Ruairi Harkin coming on to play wide left, Yussuff moving inside. The tempo increased and they started to cause Sunderland problems, with Uchechi usually at the centre of things. After around 63 minutes we had our reward. Uchechi I think squared the ball and Yussuff drilled it low into the bottom corner from the edge of the area. Sunderland were flustered and just a minute later the ball fell kindly for Godfrey but his shot cannoned back off the same post that Sunderland had hit in the first half.
Whether through fatigue or Sunderland upping their game we seemed to drift back into our shell, with thoughts turning to extra time. Sunderland worked very hard at keeping the ball and protecting their back four and slowly regained the upper hand. They seldom looked like scoring, but Waghorn was doing enough to unsettle our defence with his pace. We started to threaten only sporadically again – although there was still time for us to hit the post again.
Callum O’Shea came on for Godfrey and extra-time loomed. Then some hesitation on the left side saw Sunderland gain possession in a dangerous area, the ball played inside, and a curled lob over Joe Woolley and we were out. Rough justice but we were looking tired towards the end.
So it goes. Good luck to Sunderland, who were well organised, compact, and professional – in the good and bad senses of the word. The ref was keen to let the game flow in the first half and to keep his card in his pocket (which was good news for Shelvey after one tackle), but Sunderland were not above leaving their foot in once or twice to let our lads know what’s what. And the training when it comes to arguing with the ref, contesting decisions etc obviously starts early up in the north-east. In the end they just proved stronger than us.
That said, I’d prefer to see our youth team playing the adventurous football that they do than focusing on organisation and strength. Sunderland played like a third division side comprising 40-year-olds. Waghorn obviously gives them something extra (although for the most part during the game Yao Mambo and Rhys Coleman handled him well), but without him they would have been pedestrian. By contrast Charlton can point to any number of the team as capable of continuing to develop and improve – from an already very high level. I think I’ll hang on to the team sheet and see in 10 years which of the players from both sides go on to make the grade in the top two divisions. I don’t mind making a bet with any Sunderland supporter that there will be more of ours that do than theirs.
Which ones of the Charlton team make it and which ones don’t is not for me to speculate on. And I'm not going to give individual ratings (although it is worth saying that the one in the starting eleven not already mentioned, Chris Solly, had a good shout to be man of the match). But whether by luck or judgement we have a crop of youngsters capable of going a long way in the game. That’s more important than who won on the night.