Charlton 1 (Leko 90+1) MK Dons 0 - Papa John's EFL Trophy Round of 16.
With the trials and many tribulations of League One competition sidelined for the time being, Charlton returned to carefree Cup football at The Valley on Tuesday evening. Their guests were MK Dons, the prize a place in the quarter-finals of the Papa John EFL Trophy and ultimately a Wembley appearance. The holy grail at the end of a long and winding road, which began with a 6-1 demolition of Crawley Town on August 31st, will presumably be a tin pot. Be fair though, after all that effort, you'd want to win it.
The Addicks have played well and provided excellent entertainment in getting this far. After demolishing Crawley and Southampton U21s, they completed their group games by losing 1-0 at Leyton Orient. They had already qualified by then, making that loss no more than a blip. Could have happened to anyone and was forgotten when a talented Aston Villa U21 side was edged 2-1 in a second round thriller at The Valley on November 30th.
MK Dons have also taken the widely derided Papa John seriously. They polished off Burton Albion and Wycombe Wanderers, both 2-1, before losing 4-2 to Villa in their final group game. In the second round, Orient were knocked out 5-4 on penalties, following a 0-0 regulation time draw. Under new boss Liam Manning, they came to win. And expected to do so.
Making wholesale changes from the side which slumped to disappointing defeat by Wycombe three days earlier, Johnnie Jackson cobbled together a side which blended vast experience (Ben Watson, Chris Gunter, Adam Matthews) with innocent youth (Aaron Henry, Nathan Harness, Corey Blackett-Taylor, Mason Burstow), offered chances to fringe first-teamers (Jonathan Leko, Charlie Kirk, Pape Souare) and welcomed back Ryan Inniss from a lengthy spell on the injury list. Manning's selection, meanwhile, featured eight changes from the MK Dons side which dropped vital promotion points in a 0-0 draw with Gillingham at the weekend.
A meagre (1653) crowd included 170 mouthy visitors from Milton Keynes, who claimed that although no one liked them, they didn't care and had no intention of apologising for stealing another club's identity and nickname. They'd boned up on all the tired old songs and chants and you'd never know they've been around for slightly more than five minutes. It's not easy having less history than goldfish but, bless 'em, they make the most of what little they have.
Manning's men are, of course, unburdened by events which, in many cases, occurred before they were born. They settled into a pass-and-move rhythm which stretched their hosts, though never to breaking point. With Watson a calming influence in the middle of things, the Addicks defended stoutly, absorbed occasional pressure and stayed in the game. From time to time, they hit back menacingly, with the youthful exuberance of Mason Burstow a nagging thorn in the visitors' side. This mouthwatering tie never quite exploded into life but you couldn't take your eyes off it.
An absorbing first half pitted the patient probing of MKD against Charlton's well organised defending, at the heart of which was the hugely reassuring presence of Inniss who, to Jackson's relief, completed 77 impressive minutes before being replaced. By the time he left, Deji Elerewe, an old head on young shoulders, had slotted in to assume responsibility.
Shortly before the break, home hearts missed a beat as Tennai Watson's solo run was halted inside the penalty area by Souare's desperate tackle from behind. Watson's instinctive effort to stay on his feet possibly worked against him but you've certainly seen 'em given. Charlton's best chance was created by Burstow, who reacted to a defensive ricochet and set up Leko for a close range finish which Zak Jules smothered at source. The Burstow-Leko combination would be heard from much later to more decisive effect.
Attacking an empty North Stand in the second half, the Addicks were more purposeful, with Kirk setting up Leko to force a sharp save from Franco Ravvizoli and Blackett-Taylor arriving a split second too late to convert Kirk's deep cross at the far post. But midway through the session, Charlton had the jaw-dropping brilliance of Harness to thank for staying in the tie. At the end of a mesmeric sequence of one-touch passing, David Kasumu was left with only the young keeper to beat from no more than eight unhindered yards; his venomous shot was bang on target but somehow Harness not only saw but saved the screamer; a disbelieving Kasumu could be forgiven for muffing the rebound. Harness' fine save from Mo Eisa, a scorer in MKD's 2-1 league win back in August, was routine in comparison. He had already done his bit.
Ninety scoreless but far from boring minutes were up and the penalty takers were preparing themselves when, in the first of four added minutes, the quarter-final slipped from Manning's ready hands and into the grateful grasp of Jackson. A late attacking flurry by the hosts saw Souare cross from the left touchline to the far post, where Burstow waited to head back across goal for a stooping Leko to nod past Ravizolli. It was Charlton's name, not that of the Buckinghamshire arrivistes, which entered Thursday's quarter-final draw. Where, swear to God, they will be sent to hell... or Hartlepool.
Charlton: Harness, Matthews (Elerewe 61), Gunter, Inniss (Ness 77), Souare, Blackett-Taylor (Williams 67), Watson, Kirk (Davison 81), Henry (Dempsey 87), Leko, Burstow. Not used: Harvey, Gavin. Booked: Watson.
MK Dons: Ravizzoli, Watson, Jules, O'Hora, Darling, Kasumu, Eisa, Robson (McEachran 88), Boateng, Bird (Martin 60), Ilunga. Not used: Fisher, O'Riley. Twine, Harvie. Booked:Kasumu.
Referee: Lee Swabey. Att 1653 (170 visiting).