On Saturday evening, after our failure to beat Shrewsbury, this game was looking like a must-win, to give a return of 7 points out of 9 from the group of three home games. With the departure of Lee Bowyer to pastures new, it took on a different hue. Would Johnnie Jackson join the ranks of those with a 100% record while in charge of Charlton, or lay a claim to getting the job at least until the end of the season? Would his team selection mark any departure from what had gone before (‘oh Johnnie Jackson, he picks the team for me’)? And would the players be revitalised or no longer give a monkey’s, given that it was hard not to interpret Bowyer’s resignation as at least in part an acceptance that this season we are highly likely to fall short? No definitive answers of course, but it proved to be a game of outrageous swings of fortune as we turned self-inflicted chaos into a deserved victory.
The team selection was in one sense not revolutionary, with two changes from Saturday, but read another way it was, as for I suspect the first time this season we would be starting without either Watson or Pratley. Whether this was down to an assessment of the opposition or JJ taking a different line from his predecessor is an open question. So the defence was unchanged (Amos, Gunter, Pearce, Famewo, Maatsen), as was the front two (Stockley, Washington), while in midfield Forster-Caskey returned after his rest. But while Millar and Morgan kept their places as the wider options Shinnie was brought in to start, with Watson and Pratley on the bench.
Rather than trying to outline the major incidents, perhaps the game is best summed up by how we all felt at key points along the way:
15 mins – Reasonably relaxed. Fairly even start to the game, both teams finding their feet, but we just had a decent move which almost had Millar clear, put behind for a corner.
20 mins – Angry. Opposition needlessly given a head start, another home game to chase. There was danger in our box, but just why Maatsen decided that it might be OK to barge a player over with no chance of getting near the ball is a mystery. Clear penalty, guy sends Amos the wrong way.
30 mins – Laugh or cry? We’d just conceded a second goal after two close shaves as Bristol Rovers took us apart. A fairly aimless ball forward by them prompted an audacious attempt to chip Amos from close to the touchline, the ball beating him but falling just wide. Then it was Amos to the rescue as a one-two put their guy through in the box, only for Amos to stick out a leg for the save. Then it was saint to sinner as their guy advanced but was a long way out when he tried a speculative thump. Amos presumably read it off the foot and its initial trajectory as he ended up diving to his left and being beaten by a ball which ended up in the centre of the net. If he’d stood still it would probably have hit him. Now at this point you wondered if the players would just throw in the towel and whether the rest of the game would descent into black farce, as against Blackpool.
40 mins – Cheered up. Glory be, we had levelled it. First, and crucially, we got one back just a couple of minutes after falling two behind. A cross from the left was half-cleared and Shinnie controlled on his chest then hit a great shot on the half-volley into the corner of the net. Then Stockley challenged for a high ball on the edge of the area and went down in a heap, inviting the referee to give him the decision, which he did. Forster-Caskey and Morgan shaped up to go either side and it was the former who dinked it over the wall and into the net.
45 mins – Anticipation. At the break it felt like we’d dug ourselves out of a very big hole, albeit one we had largely created with a couple of costly mistakes. Having done that, could we go on and win the game?
97 mins – Content. Whether as a result of our efforts or, as Steve Brown suspected, Bristol Rovers running out of steam, we dominated the second half. There was the fear that at 2-2 we would be robbed by some last-minute deflected effort, but Rovers never once threatened, or at least not until the final minute when their substitute goalkeeper – who’d come on after their keeper had been sent off in stoppage time for a challenge on Aneke outside the box, Chuks bravely going for a high ball and taking the hit – went up for a last-gasp free kick for a foul committed by Aneke.
Through the second half it really was a question of whether we could get the winner. Maatsen and Millar down the left had set up Washington, who tried to place it but with no power. Jaiyesimi then replaced Millar (who did not look happy at the decision) on the hour and caused them some problems, while Washington was increasingly getting joy running the channels. Aneke came on for Stockley with about 20 minutes of normal time left and with less than 10 to go the goal came, albeit curtesy of some good fortune. A long ball forward saw Aneke challenge and Washington run beyond. The ball did indeed get flicked on for him, but he looked well offside. In fact it had come off their defender. If Aneke had won the header Washington would surely have been flagged, but instead he managed to poke the ball past their keeper. It came back off the post but he kept running to knock in the rebound.
After that, aside from Morgan getting a yellow (Shinnie had one earlier), Pratley coming on for Shinnie as we entered stoppage time, some pretty poor attempts at taking the ball to the corner flag, then their keeper getting the red, the game blessedly passed without serious incident at our end.
So after 30 minutes we were ready for the beach (if that’s allowed by the time summer comes), after 97 we were back looking at other scores, where we stood in the table, and where we might reasonably sit allowing for others’ games in hand. With hindsight, as Curbs pointed out, the key moment was Shinnie getting one back shortly after we went two down. Without that the picture might look very different now. Instead JJ was able to laud the players’ character and determination and bask in the glory of that 100% record. Bring on Saturday and let’s see if we can indeed make a fight of it.
Amos – 6/10. He hasn’t made many mistakes this season but the one tonight was a bad one, unless it proves there was some deflection on the shot. Afraid to say that this did overshadow the excellent save that had kept the score to 0-1 shortly before.
Gunter – 6/10. Nothing exceptional at either end I can remember, but kept going and played his part.
Pearce – 8/10. Another good game, full of commitment.
Famewo – 8/10. Equally impressive.
Maatsen – 6/10. Leave aside the penalty he gave away and the mark would undoubtedly be higher as he put in good work at both ends. But how can you? It was a daft piece of defending that cost us a goal, could have cost us the game.
Morgan – 6/10. At half-time remember thinking he’d passed backwards just about every time he’d received the ball. But he had a better second half.
Forster-Caskey – 8/10. Worked hard, generally at the heart of our efforts, scored a good goal. No question we work better as a team when he’s fit and playing.
Shinnie – 7/10. Generally good stuff, also scored the crucial goal to get us back in the game. But really struggled with his delivery from corners in particular, we ended up wasting a lot.
Millar – 5/10. He might not have liked being taken off but it was clear he was struggling and, while always looking a threat, not making good decisions in good positions.
Stockley – 6/10. Worked hard, but struggled to have a real impact on the game, unless you count winning the free kick for our second. Would have been more of a threat if we could have put in some decent crosses into the box for him.
Washington – 8/10. What a difference a little confidence can make! He’s scoring goals and his all-round play is a notch better than before, making good runs and holding it up well. And when fortune smiles you end up latching onto a ball from potentially an offside position, poking it goalwards and it rebounding off the post back into your path. Sometimes you make your own luck.
Jaiyesimi – 6/10. Made a nuisance of himself but not able to make a decisive contribution.
Aneke – 7/10. A handful as ever, bravely put himself in the firing line to draw the foul that had their keeper sent off.
Pratley – Not on long enough for a mark, but did manage to avoid a card.