Preston North End 2 (Hunt 55, Alexander 90) Charlton 2 (Haynes 10, N,Guessan 34).
Kevin Nolan reports from Deepdale.
It took the most implausibly romantic conclusion to an otherwise routine encounter to keep Charlton waiting another week in their quest for a record-busting 100 points. If you saw this ending at the pictures, you'd be tempted to bunk out rather than in. Or if you'd paid to get in, at least ask for your money back. Even James Cameron or Julian Fellowes would disown this schmaltz.
The Addicks were hanging on to a 2-1 lead with six minutes remaining when locally unpopular Preston boss Graham Westley unexpectedly succumbed to a scrupulously concealed, sentimental side of his nature. Bowing to mounting pressure, he sent on 40-year old substitute Graham Alexander to bring down the curtain on a distinguished career, comprising 1023 first class games, 420 of them in Preston's famous white shirt. What happened next is the very stuff of legend.
Slotting in at right back, Alexander had managed only a couple of workmanlike touches when Carl Cort was ruled to have impeded Chris Holroyd, as the striker eluded him at the edge of Charlton's penalty area. A palpable air of pre-ordination accompanied the grizzled veteran's wonderful free kick, bent around a four-man wall and expertly inside the right post. As Deepdale erupted in unrestrained homage to one of their own, Alexander was pedantically booked for excessive celebration. He was, as you might imagine, visibly shaken by his draconian punishment.
Charlton's last gasp setback stirred up again the misgivings of many among a sizeable contingent of supporters, who had had confirmed their suspicions that Chris Powell was another manager in indulgent late-season mood. No fewer than eight changes had been made to the side which beat Wycombe Wanderers a week ago. The three survivors were Chris Solly, Cort and Bradley Pritchard but such is the affection for the boss that slack was willingly cut in his favour. His decisions are more often than not spot-on.
At half-time, Powell's adjustments hardly seemed to matter anyway. His replacement Addicks had toyed with their opposition, cruising into a two-goal lead that might have been doubled by better finishing. North End's resistance had been tissue-thin as deputy strikers Danny Haynes and Dan N'Guessan helped themselves to a goal apiece. There wasn't even a hint that fortunes were to change so dramatically after the break.
With his first goal for the club, Haynes had efficiently fired the visitors into an early lead. Put through by Danny Hollands' cleverly lofted pass, the pacy forward made light of his encirclement by a posse of defenders, among them advancing goalkeeper Andreas Arestidou, instead turning deliberately to plant a low drive into the bottom right corner.
Twenty minutes later, Preston self-imploded again, as Arestidou rolled out a routine ball to David Gray, but was left stranded by the right back's distractedly feeble return. Fastening on to the gift, N'Guessan stepped neatly around the stranded keeper, before tapping Charlton's second goal into his vacated net.
There hadn't been much to worry the champions, apart from John Sullivan's clumsy handling of Paul Coutts' awkward low drive and a farcically skewed attempt by Jamie Proctor to exploit an error by Hollands. At the other end, Danny Green's clever free kick rapped a post and Haynes' failure to chip Pritchard's weighted pass over Arestidou seemed no more than a minor irritation. But, imperceptibly, the balance of power had shifted.
It was another old-timer who put Preston back into contention with a rare goal ten minutes after the break. Switched to right back, following Gray's withdrawal at half-time, Nicky Hunt chanced his arm from 25 yards as Haynes' headed clearance of Danny Mayor's corner dropped at his feet. His well struck low volley unerringly found the left corner, a feat he instantly marked by picking up a booking for fouling Green. Hunt then capped an eventful few minutes by making a determined bid for football's roll-over record when Green retaliated, his thespian excellence ensuring that his assailant joined him in the book.
A second fumble by Sullivan, in dealing with another innocuous low shot, betrayed Charlton's growing nerves. He was indebted to Cort for kicking Craig Morgan's point-blank effort off the line but might- or, indeed, might not - have been poorly positioned to deal with Alexander's free kick. Hard to tell, really, such was the quality of the strike.
So this was a worthy old pro's day, one of those moving occasions when reality for once takes a back seat to fantasy. Twenty one years in first class football came down to one parting shot of inspiration. We were involuntary extras in one of those gloopy, feel-nauseous flicks, all full of portentous lectures about following your dream, climbing every mountain and searching for the hero inside yourself. The estimable Alexander did all that and more. But there won't be a sequel, because he's heading off into the sunset, probably to reach for some stars and be true to himself and and all that soul searching stuff. Charlton won't be sorry to see the back of him.
PNE: Arestidou, Gray (Hayhurst 46), Robertson (Aneke 70), Morgan, Wright, Coutts, Hunt, Ehmer (Alexander 84), Mayor, Proctor, Holroyd. Not used: Procter, Cummins.
Charlton: Sullivan, Solly, Taylor, Cort, Evina, Green (Jackson 68), Hollands, Pritchard, Cook (Wagstaff 39), Haynes, N'Guessan (Hayes 83). Not used: Hamer, Morrison.
Referee: Kevin Friend. Attendance: 12,029.