There are draws and draws. Last Saturday was undoubtedly two points dropped, with us failing to hold leads of 3-2 and 4-3 against 10 men. Nobody left the ground today thinking anything other than this being a splendid, merited point secured in the face of extreme adversity. Well, Swindon fans might quibble with ‘merited’, but it was nobody’s fault but theirs that they thought the game was over when they went 2-1 up. Like last Saturday, it should have been. But, as we know, football is .... that sort of game. And today was great entertainment, not just for the spirit we showed in playing a game with nine men for more than a half but also for the tactical options it threw up, for both teams. Just how do you play with nine men – and how do you play against them when you have got in front?
For what it’s worth I think Parkinson got it spot on – except for the decision not to substitute Sodje(S) when he was bloodied. And now the spotlight is on Colin Cameron to come up with any previous case of a Charlton team taking something from a game played with nine men for more than a half. I can’t remember one.
The line-up was unexpected, to say the least. We knew we would be without Sam and Mooney, but I doubt that many would have predicted a 4-4-2 line-up which involved Bailey moving back out left, Wagstaff being dropped, and Llera coming in for Dailly. Shelvey came in to partner Semedo in central midfield, with Spring operating on the right, while Sodje(A) got the nod over McKenzie, McLeod and Dickson (all of whom were on the bench) to partner Burton up front.
Whatever the tactical plan was at the start, it went out of the window through the first half as we switched from 4-4-2 to 4-3-2 and then 4-3-1. A messy opening period was notable for Burton squandering a golden opportunity to head us into the lead and then Sodje(S) collapsing after an aerial challenge. It seemed serious from the start, but instead of a bad landing it turned out to be a head wound and a period of more than five minutes of us playing with only 10 on the pitch. Well, at least that gave us some preparation for what was to come. Given that no substitution was made the assumption was that Sam S would return. Indeed, he did, with a bandaged head. So it was less of a case of a rush of blood to the head than an absence of such when he dived into a challenge with both feet off the ground from a set piece. Whatever was going on in his head, I’ve seldom seen a home sending off greeted with such little complaint (of course we booed, but that’s obligatory). It was a straight red and nobody could argue.
The next crucial moment saw Sodje(A) challenged in the box and going down. The referee had a decent view and said no penalty. Seen them given, but not this time. That didn’t stop Burton continuing the debate and picking up a silly yellow card for his troubles. We’d already seen signs of indecision in Swindon’s defence and we exploited them to score an excellent first goal (if I’m honest I can’t remember if we scored before the first sending off or after it, but that’s celebratory red wine for you; and I’m far too lazy to check the club site). A cross from the right was worked back to Shelvey on the edge of the area and he took deliberate aim to curl a beauty into the bottom corner. His return was mixed before the goal, with some misplaced passes, but that moment just underlined the potential. There is something special about a player that gets a half-chance and instinctively makes the most of it.
One up but down to 10 men. Semedo had dropped back to central defence and Spring and Bailey tucked in to keep the shape. But a difficult situation became dire as Burton had one of those Henry moments and got caught. He was almost in but the ball bounced awkwardly and the keeper came out to collect. I thought at first that Burton was given a very poor second yellow for the challenge on the keeper (which really wasn’t a foul), but enough others pointed out that he had instead had a truly daft moment and had used his hand. Out came yellow again and suddenly the game took on a very strange tone. Like Sodje, you can’t say it was real intent; but like Sodje you have to say the ref had no real choice having already booked the guy. Dumb and dumber is too harsh; these things happen. But in the same game, and in the first half...... The ref deserved criticism for giving a free kick against Semedo and for not booking one or two of their guys for persistent fouling on high balls. But however much it hurts for nothing else, having set out his stall by booking Burton first time (and in that at least he was consistent, later booking Basey for a reaction to not being awarded a corner and one of their guys for dissent).
We managed to scramble out the remainder of the first half, but I think we all would have taken a draw at the break. Playing with nine you need to be tight – and lucky, because there’s no way you are going to stop chances being created. Parkinson kept the same (reduced) team for the second half, which was reasonable as long as Sodje(A) would be replaced when his legs had gone, chasing enough hopeless causes. It was all about defending and holding what we had. But instead of a desperate last 10 minutes two goals from Swindon changed the picture. First, a ball in from the right was met by their forward who gave it enough of a touch to send it into the bottom corner, with no chance for Elliot. No need for a change in formation as 1-1 would still have been acceptable, although around this time McKenzie came on to do the running around up front job with fresh legs (although unlike previous substitute appearances it was rather less effective). But with about 15 minutes left another from the right went across the goal and found their guy at the far post to score.
Heads were not surprisingly down, but then the onus shifted. Swindon just wanted the game over and thought it was won. We were bruised but had nothing to lose, so Wagstaff came on for Omozusi and then Dickson came off the bench. Instead of going for the throat Swindon took their foot off the pedal and that allowed us to hope; any set piece or opportunity. With a couple of minutes left that moment seemed to have arrived as Wagstaff got in a low cross from the right and enough bodies followed it in. But instead of a decisive touch the ball was left sitting a couple of yards off the line and was cleared.
With four extra minutes signalled we were just baying for another chance to get the ball in their box and hope for the best. Instead we were treated to the absolute delight of Swindon, who could have surrounded all our players from any set piece, watching as a ball to the far post was turned past their defender by Llera who then applied the deftest of lobs over the keeper. Cue pandemonium and a desperate howl for the final whistle after the resumption.
Llera takes the accolade as man of the match. He came back into the side and found himself with two different partners in the first half, then scored an absolute beauty. Semedo did superbly as well, as did Elliot in stopping what was possible. Basically this isn’t a game for player ratings as all nine deserve full marks. Sodje(S) had a bad moment and will no doubt hold up his hands for it; Burton had one silly moment and one aberration. But sod it, the pain of a stoppage time equaliser against us has just been more than balanced. You cannot beat a last-minute goal to get something out of a game, one in which all concerned on the pitch deserve credit. I just hope their not too knackered for Monday.