Charlton u-18s 3 (Henry 9, Burstow 71, 90+3) Birmingham City u-18s 2 (Wakefield 84 pen, 89).
Kevin Nolan looked forward to a pressure-free afternoon at The Valley but ended up a basket case.
A madcap smash-and-grab finale to a rip-roaring semi-final saw Charlton qualify for the PDL2 final against Wigan Athletic - venue yet to be decided but hopefully at The Valley next Saturday May 22nd. The smash was provided by the visitors from the Second City, who stunned their hosts by wiping out a two-goal deficit with a devastating one-two in the 84th and 89th minutes to make it 2-2 going into five added minutes. But it was Charlton who grabbed a place in the final in the third of those minutes through as cool a piece of finishing as you are likely to see at any level, much less this tender category.
With the young Brummies flooding forward in search of the winner they clearly thought was inevitable, they were caught short-handed as the Addicks countered with lightning pace along the left flank. An error by right back Tom Fogarty added to their confusion and Jason Adigun's pass picked out Mason Burstow at the far post. Turning down a right-footed shot which Brad Mayo might well have blocked, the tall centre forward's clever turn inside deposited the outwitted goalkeeper on his backside before an ice-cold left-footed finish was carefully placed beyond two desperate defenders on the goalline. As a delirious pyramid of red shirts defied gravity near the left corner flag, the pitch was littered with prostrate Blues, their hearts broken and their illusions shattered. Bloody football! Unless, of course, you're on the right side of it.
The opening exchanges of an always entertaining clash were less breakneck but no less important to its exciting conclusion. Charlton came within centimetres of forging ahead when skipper Charlie Barker's gutsy header from Aaron Henry's inswinging corner was hacked off the line with no more than one revolution of the ball required to make it legal. Their bright start was soon rewarded when the side's heartbeat Henry accepted Tyreece Campbell's routine pass and tried his luck from 25 yards. His shot was powerful and on target but found the net with an inadvertent assist from Mayo, who allowed the ball to pass under him. It was a dream start for Anthony Hayes' kids and impressive keeper James Beadle made sure the lead stood up before the break with an outstanding save from Rico Patterson, City's bright young attacking spark. Patterson picked his way through a crowded penalty area to make space for what seemed a certain equaliser. His close range shot seemed an inevitable coup-de-grace but Beadle spread himself expertly and blocked bravely. Later on, he performed the same feat to deny Kieran Wakefield.
The well-schooled goalie was part of a hectic sequence of goalmouth scrambles which launched the second half. He made a couple of point blank saves and there were selfless blocks by several colleagues as the junior Blues swarmed all over them. Somehow the Addicks survived an endless siege (which probably lasted no more than a minute) and settled down to produce the perfect riposte of a second goal on 71 minutes. Hitting their increasingly reckless visitors on the break, a flowing move down the left flank was decorated by the deft final pass, delivered with the outside of Adigun's right boot, and an instinctive finish by Burstow into the far corner. At 2-0, it seemed reasonable to check the time and location of the final. This result seemed not only done but dusted. Except that these young City slickers weren't having it.
Charlton were beginning to wilt but looked likely to hang on until Leo Dos Reis carved out a shooting chance for Wakefield inside their penalty area. As the skipper prepared to pull the trigger, Nathan Asimwe's clumsy challenge took his legs from under him. Wakefield picked himself up and, after a nervous wait, buried the spotkick past Beadle. Five chaotic minutes later, City's No. 9 met George Hall's hard low cross from the left and slammed an emphatic equaliser past Beadle.
The dramatic late developments, including Burstow's matchwinning heroics, were missed by Lee Bowyer, who sidled out with the score still 2-0. You'd think he might have known better. After all, he was Charlton's manager when Birmingham's senior side caught up with the Addicks in added time and virtually sent them down from the Championship in 2020. Late finishes are par for the course when the Blues and the Reds collide. And this one finished right side up. Pity you missed it, Lee. Might have cheered you up no end.
The bad news for Anthony Hayes as prepares his youngsters for the final is that Jeremy Santos and Tyreece Campbell are unlikely to make the final. Both sustained painful injuries and were limping participants in the wild celebrations which greeted the final whistle. But Zach Mitchell, who replaced Santos, was outstanding and Joseph Ladapo, an 86th minute substitute for Campbell, is a frequent starter in his own right. Beadle impressed, Barker looked like a veteran in this company while Henry -what's to say about the all-round excellence of this mature operator? Except to predict that he will be in Nigel Adkin's first team mix next season. That might be a little soon for Adigun and Burstow but they will be heard from eventually, as will cool centre backs Nazir Bakrin and Deji Elewere. The kids are alright at Charlton. They'll be worth waiting for...but first, that final.
Charlton: Beadle, Barker, Bakrin, Elewere, Garande (Asimwe 45), Henry, Adigun, Santos (Mitchell 46), Campbell (Ladapo 86),
Burstow, Viggars. Not used: Whitling, Leaburn. Booked: Barker, Adigun.
Birmingham: Mayo, Fogarty, Barratt (Dos Reis), Oakley, Browne, Sullivan, Bellingham, Hall, Wakefield, James, Patterson.
Not used: Brodus, Manton, Khela, Nguepissi,. Booked: Sullivan.