Bristol Rovers 0 Charlton 1 (Liam Millar 64).
By Kevin Nolan observing press box etiquette from home.
Past masters in the dark art of torturing both themselves and their hypertensive supporters, Charlton at least ended their recent mini-slump in less than imperious fashion. A first clean sheet since October 31st and their streakiest goal of the season were enough to deliver this sorely needed victory. It wasn't always pretty but the result was potentially pivotal.
It hardly needs mentioning Lee Bowyer's boys were at pains to prolong the agony before all three points were nailed down. Yet again they were reduced to ten men, with Albie Morgan the latest Addick to see red but fortunately had enough about them to withstand a wave of late pressure from desperate Rovers. And had Omar Bogle finished an added time chance with greater aplomb, those last uncomfortable minutes might have been avoided. Let's start at the end and work backward.
Caught on the break while understandably flooding forward, Gas were split open by an artfully judged through pass from Ronnie Schwartz which sent fellow substitute Bogle through on his own to confront Joe Day. With possibly too much time to consider his options, Chris Gunter's left-footed shot was alertly saved by the advancing keeper. It was then Schwartz' turn to frustrate Bowyer, his inadvertent goalline block of Gunter's piledriver denying the visitors breathing space. The Addicks should have been punished for their profligacy but Alfie Kilgour may find it hard to explain to his manager Paul Tisdale how he managed to direct a point blank header over rather than under Ben Amos' bar. An equaliser then and Bowyer's sunny post-match mood might never have seen the light of day.
Charlton's 64th minute match-winner relied on the old advice that if you can't be good, be lucky. It arrived via a right wing corner taken by setpiece guvnor Jake Forster-Caskey, who declined Liam Millar's offer to improve his angle and drilled a head-high delivery along the right byline. On his way towards the near post, Millar made a game, twisting effort to help it on its way but missed. His feint did succeed in bemusing a slow-on-the-uptake home defence, which stood transfixed as the ball wriggled inside the near corner. Millar's hopefully tongue-in-cheek attempt to claim credit never really gained popular support. It was the otherwise outstanding Forster-Caskey's goal and reward for his dramatic improvement in form.
The goal, by the way, was saluted by a gathering of ecstatic Addicks around the corner flag from which Forster-Caskey had delivered his decisive flagkick. In flagrant contravention of the unofficial dictum deploring physical excess, they cavorted and capered in the usual manner, with not so much as a mask among them. In Grove Park, meanwhile, we kept our heads and celebrated a little more decorously. A hearty old-fashioned "Hip-hip-hooray" was quickly organised and elbow bumps were exchanged. We even remembered our manners enough to clap plucky Rovers off the field at the end. As someone with previous in away press boxes (most memorably among them an unfortunate misunderstanding which followed a late equaliser by Johnnie Jackson at Ipswich), I was anxious we behave appropriately. I've mellowed appreciably since the post-match unpleasantness at St. Andrews after we'd clung on to a 4-3 nailbiter all those years ago. Anyone who knows me will vouch for that. I'm not currently barred anywhere in the country, not even at Hartlepool, where a 4-0 thumping didn't sit well with the locals and led to some regrettably heated exchanges.
Until Forster-Caskey's fortune-favoured goal ignited the closing stages, a fairly routine game had chugged along with the visitors in charge but never quite secure. His hand forced by injury and suspension, Bowyer deployed a solid-looking side to face struggling Rovers. Without four centre backs, he moved Gunter inside from right back, continued with Deji Oshilaja alongside him and brought in Adam Matthews to replace Gunter. Old pros Gunter and Matthews were dependably steady while Oshilaja was excellent. Never giving anything but his best, Deji was inspirational, his tackling and interceptions backed up by a willingness to put his body on the line in a warrior's determination to block goalbound shots at source.
Chances were few and equally shared. Ex-Addick Brandon Hanlon squandered Rover's most promising opening, scuffing wide a perfect cutback from the left byline supplied by Jonah Ayunga. Both he and Ayunga blasted efforts into the sidenet before Ben Amos came to the visitors' rescue by denying Luke McCormick in one-on-one confrontation. Charlton were hardly explosive themselves, being restricted to early long range shots from Chuks Aneke and Forster-Caskey. An earnest but dull encounter was heading for goalless stalemate until luck positively beamed on the Londoners. The task of protecting their advantage seemed straightforward enough until Albie Morgan picked up two yellow cards, the second of them a needlessly late challenge on Jack Baldwin. Sensing an unexpected opportunity, Rovers rallied and made the closing minutes unnecessarily awkward. Five added minutes hardly eased the strain but there was no repetition of the late reverses which have blighted Charlton's season.
There's a promotion contender striving to surface in this injury-depleted squad. When -and if - Bowyer is able to name a full-strength team, it might assert itself. It's important until then to stay in touch with the pacesetters, none of whom appear to be impregnable. Tuesday's daunting trip to home specialists Peterborough might tell us more... nobody said it would be easy.
Rovers: Day, Leahy, Grant, (Rodman 90), Upson, Westbrooke, Hanlon, McCormick (Barrett 76), Kilgour, Ayunga, Hare (Harries 58), Baldwin. Not used: Van Stappershoeff, Little, Ogogo, Koiko.
Charlton: Amos, Matthews, Gunter, Oshilaja, Maatsen, Williams (Smyth 69) Gilbey 82), Morgan, Forster-Caskey, Millar, Aneke (Bogle 69), Washington (Schwartz 69). Not used: Maynard-Brewer, Purrington, Barker. Booked: Oshilaja, Morgan (2) - sent off.
Referee: P. Wright.