Leyton Orient 1 (Spring 26) Charlton 0.
Dispiriting defeat at the hands of modest Leyton Orient punched holes through 10-man Charlton's deceptively wide lead at the top of League One. With chilling suddenness, the gap seems manageable for both hotly pursuing Sheffield clubs.
A second setback in an otherwise barnstorming season - and this to a similarly deflected goal - is hardly cause for despair though, certainly not when the Addicks' reaction to the first loss is recalled. After losing 1-0 to Stevenage on October 15th, Charlton reeled off six successive league victories. They hope to start the process at home to awkward customers Brentford tomorrow afternoon. It won't be easy.
There was no lack of fight at Brisbane Road on New Years Eve, where the visitors laboured ten-manfully for 83 minutes, following the mildly controversial dismissal of goalkeeper Ben Hamer. Let off the hook by Orient's dreadful finishing, Chris Powell's re-deployed troops gamely stayed in contention until Yann Kermorgant's effort skidded wide in added time and the jig was finally up.
Hamer's judgement in charging out of his penalty area to confront David Mooney, as the Irishman chased down an artfully channelled pass from Lee Cook, is open to serious question. Whether or not he actually handled the ball is also mired in uncertainty (a ricochet off his chest appeared to touch his hand) but, in any case, Michael Morrison seemed ideally placed to deal with Mooney's dubious threat. The keeper's brainstorm made nonsense of Powell's tactics, though the boss's decision to substitute John Sullivan for the wretchedly unlucky Scott Wagstaff might be one he regretted later. Leaving two up front was a bold statement of intent but possibly not suited to a subdued Bradley Wright-Phillips. Wagstaff's indefatigability seemed more the ticket.
From the long-delayed free kick, the Os launched their litany of missed chances, Jimmy Smith's header glancing Cook's free kick wide from close range. Elsewhere, though, Orient made intelligent use of their numerical advantage, with neat one-touch passing and movement designed to keep their depleted opponents working feverishly to cope. At the heart of a fluent midfield, Matthew Spring comfortably switched play from flank to flank; it was the former Addick who claimed the all-important goal before the half hour.
Picked out in space by Terrell Forbes from the right touchline, Spring feinted deftly to wrongfoot Charlton's defence before prodding a hastily contrived shot goalward. Diving in bravely to block, Matt Taylor was desperately unfortunate to divert the ball up and over the helpless Sullivan.
This was clearly an evening where anything that could possibly go wrong was at pains to do so.
Shaken by the twin twists of fate, the Addicks were in danger of subsiding completely. The profligate Smith again spared them by heading Stephen Dawson's perfect cross wide at the far post. Chris Solly's clearance off the line from Scott Cuthbert and a key block by Morrison on Forbes' follow-up kept their side in touch, before Smith was victimised by a linesman's premature flag when, from a flagrantly onside position, he emphatically volleyed Spring's glorious centre past Sullivan.
With virtually nothing coming back at them, the East Londoners continued their assault after the break. The much-persecuted Smith headed Cook's outswinging corner beyond Sullivan but Rhoys Wiggins hacked his effort off the line. Charlton's marauding left back then moved upfield to drive Kermorgant's pass over the bar, in a rare moment of aggression.
On 65 minutes, Orient's almost comical finishing prolonged the agony. Left with only Sullivan to beat following an uncharacteristic mistake by Solly, Mooney dribbled a feeble effort yards wide. He did better moments later but Sullivan turned aside his low left-footed drive.
The overdue replacement by Bradley Pritchard of Bradley Wright-Phillips (to fight another day against Brentford, perhaps) briefly galvanised the ten-men. The newcomer set up Solly for a low, driven cross which was safely gathered by Lee Butcher, with Johnnie Jackson possibly tugged back as he tried to touch in at the near post. Solly then blasted Paul Hayes' over the bar but it was Wiggins who came closest to rescuing a vital point. His low drive was sneaking inside the right post before Ben Chorley booted it to safety. It was a gallant last stand but fated, like Custer's, to end in tears. Unlike Custer, though, they have tomorrow. At The Valley. 3p.m.
Orient: Butcher, Cuthbert, Chorley, Forbes, McSweeney, Smith, Spring, Dawson, Cook (Cox 81), Lisbie, Mooney (Tehoue 72). Not used: Cureton, Porter, Laird.
Charlton: Hamer (sent off), Solly, Morrison, Taylor, Wiggins, Wagstaff (Sullivan 7), Hollands, Russell, Jackson (Hayes 81), Wright-Phillips (Pritchard 63), Kermorgant. Not used: Hughes, Cort.
Referee: Dean Whitestone. Attendance: 5,097.