Sheffield Wednesday 0 Charlton 1 (Jackson 28).
Kevin Nolan reports from Hillsborough.
It might be stating the obvious but the first leg of Charlton's pair of back-to-back Sheffield fixtures worked out rather nicely. The cockle-warming performance which knocked the stuffing out of Sheffield Wednesday featured 14 red-shirted heroes, each of them ready to put his body painfully on the line. It was tense, hectic, sometimes violent and, as an added bonus, it was won by a truly marvellous goal, about which you'll want to hear without delay.
Midway through a bruising first half, the outstanding Bradley Pritchard knocked the ball between hulking defenders Rob Jones and Reda Johnson, before accelerating smoothly in pursuit of a possible shooting chance. Ruthlessly closing the gap, Wednesday's bouncers combined ruthlessly to nail the eager midfielder to the turf. The stonewall free kick, some 25 yards out and to the right of goal, briefly interested Yann Kermorgant, scorer of a setpiece beauty at Yeovil recently, but the angle clearly better suited the left-footed marksmanship of skipper Johnnie Jackson. A sumptuously curled drive duly left home keeper Nicky Weaver helpless on its unerring journey into the top right corner. There was no way of knowing at the time but this prickly, contentious game had already been settled by a flash of sheer quality.
His important contribution to the game's only goal was but one highlight in Pritchard's fine display. The non-stop newcomer consistently broke up the Owls' midfield approach play, setting up Charlton's slick counterattacking with economical passing and give-and-go movement. Since breaking into Chris Powell's side, the indefatigable non-league graduate has made himself at home, without awe of, or undue respect for, better known opponents. Afraid of nobody, he gets his foot in and will take some shifting from Charlton's central midfield. His enthusiasm is infectious.
Pritchard was surrounded by courageous colleagues. This determined Charlton side, light years removed from the collection of invisible ciphers who let down the club last season, simply refused to break under the direct area-to-area bombardment orchestrated by old school boss Gary Megson. Goalkeeper Ben Hamer stood up manfully to some borderline bump-and-bore tactics; centre backs Michael Morrison (as an ex-Owl on the end of some waspish comments from Megson) and Matt Taylor gave as good as they got physically; excellent full backs Chris Solly and Rhoys Wiggins didn't put a foot wrong between them.
Powell's midfield four scrapped for everything, with Pritchard's workrate matched by Danny Hollands while wide men Jackson and Danny Green provided skill along the flanks.
Up front, meanwhile, the goals which came so effortlessly for Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kermorgant earlier in the campaign have temporarily dried up but it's worth recording that Charlton's watertight defending (19 goals now conceded in 25 league games) has much to do with their wholehearted closing down of would-be ball carriers. You have to wade through layers of cover to get to Hamer.
The majority of the Addicks' chances at history-steeped Hillsborough fell to Wright-Phillips, now without a league goal in seven games since he scored the winner at Brentford on November 19th. The first, after just 4 minutes, was set up by Kermorgant and stung Weaver's hands from an acute angle. At the other end, the visitors lived dangerously themselves when tricky loanee Ben Marshall bamboozled Taylor along the left touchline to supply Chris Lines beyond the far post. Lines' low, angled shot was parried by Hamer, then hacked clear by Taylor. Hamer was grateful later that Johnson tamely headed an unchallenged chance into his hands.
Five minutes after the break, Wright-Phillips squandered a golden opportunity to spare his side an increasingly fraught ordeal. Too quick for Rob Jones as they disputed Hollands' cleverly flighted ball over the top, he shook off the struggling centre back but failed to beat the advancing Weaver in one-on-one confrontation. Weaver also won their third duel, sprawling full length to turn the goal-starved forward's low snapshot around his right post.
As the home bench, not to mention a poisonously hostile crowd, grew nasty, Wednesday's quest for an equaliser became desperate. They came closest in added time when substitute Clinton Morrison, whose goal earned them a point at The Valley in September, touched a deep cross from Miguel Llera past Hamer. Popping up on the line, Jackson booted the ball off the line.
Wednesday's children were full of woe by now, their hearts broken by the resilient toughness of a side they expected to bully into submission. The Steel City will try again on Saturday, when United come to town. These Addicks will be ready for them. Count on it.
Wednesday: Weaver, Mike Jones (Lowe 64), Batth, Rob Jones, Johnson, Otsemobor, Lines, Semedo, Marshall (Morrison 74), Madine (Llera 64), O'Grady. Not used: Bywater, Prutton. Booked: Madine, Mike Jones, Semedo, Lowe, Rob Jones.
Charlton: Hamer, Solly, Morrison, Taylor, Wiggins, Green (Russell 72), Hollands, Pritchard (Cort 90), Jackson, Kermorgant, Wright-Phillips (Clarke 74). Not used: Sullivan, Stephens. Booked: Kermorgant.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick. Attendance: 26,759.