Shall we now carry Chris Powell shoulder high in his moment of triumph? Laud his bold team selections and tactics?
We can be very happy for a professional, decent man who has had to cope with several changes in his Chairman’s direction, whether these will prove to be good decisions or not in the future, and who really, really needed this unlikeliest of wins.
In truth, there wasn’t a great deal of difference between this performance against a stuttering Charlton side who were still afforded enough chances to turn around a 2 goal deficit and the other games this season (other than the opener on Humberside which resembled an extension of pre season).
Unlike the other closely fought efforts – I didn’t witness Cardiff – we some how came out on the right side of this division’s very fine margins.
This may sound like faint praise, particularly when you consider several excellent performances in the team and the context of a squad and manager under not inconsiderable pressure after a frustrating and mildly disturbing start to the season, but successfully negotiating games often balanced on knife edges is exactly what is needed for survival and better, and they did it.
My lonely trip down south was accompanied only by massive doubts about the ability of this Town team and manager to gain anything from a tough looking fixture which had resulted in something of a beating last season.
In hindsight, Charlton’s reasonably good form to date had been rather punctured by an unconvincing home draw with lowly Rotherham – over 20 efforts on the Millers’ goal had resulted in a solitary, equalising goal and though it occurred to few, if any, at the time, this tendency to profligacy and the fairly consistent defensive performances of Town should have pointed towards more hope than acknowledged.
And then we saw the team. People can decide wether this was a desperate roll of the dice from an under siege manager or tactical adjustments to meet a new challenge against a frustrated and potentially vulnerable opponent, but the changes worked.
Davidson, not surprisingly, returned at full back in place of Smith who, again unsurprisingly, really isn’t a left back and hasn’t excelled at right back either so far.
Crainie, who has been excellent every time he has been given the opportunity, was installed at right back and fully justified his inclusion with a calm and consummate performance.
Carayol was also included in the place of Bunn on the left – a move which, finally, gives us much better balance and, crucially, an alternative threat to that posed by Scannell on the right.
Huws – who is not ready for a full 90 minutes according to the manager – took over from the injured Hogg, and Wells paid for poor form on the bench with the muscularity of Miller preferred alongside Bunn who was pushed inside and forward as support.
On paper, the changes looked bold and those who had travelled in some trepidation at least had the prospect of witnessing the emergence of the post Butterfield team which was never going to be about a simple change of player and more a change in shape and objectives, particularly from the flanks.
Town’s first half dominance was pretty damn impressive. Miller caused Charlton’s centre halves no end of problems and sewed a lot of doubt in a back four which looked distinctly discomforted for much of the game, even in the closing stages when Town’s forward play weakened through the weariness of Miller and their priorities switching to containment.
Huws looks an excellent player. Strong and positive, he formed an instant and very promising partnership with the excellent Whitehead whose experience was on full and dazzling display throughout.
With two wide men, Town carried much more threat than in previous games and the strength of the visitors’ display seemed to bamboozle the Addicks in to a laborious passing game which they didn’t shake off all night.
Scannell created the first goal by winning the ball in midfield from a dozing home player before firing a great ball in to Bunn whose fierce shot could only be helped in by Charlton’s custodian. It looked like a poor effort by the keeper but he was beaten by the pace and accuracy of Bunn’s fine strike.
Town didn’t rest on the lead and continued to take the game to their hosts with not inconsiderable menace at times. A Carayol drive could only be parried by Pope only inches away from the on rushing Scannell, which followed a weakly executed but presentable headed chance for Bunn.
At the other end, Town easily coped with their labouring opponents as Whitehead mopped up in front of an assured back four and an equally composed goalkeeper who had a fine game.
Miller’s tormenting of Charlton’s back line then paid dividends when he was barged in the back 20 yards out.
Huws stepped up and curled a superb free kick past the fallible Pope to cap an excellent but sadly truncated performance.
Before the blow of Huws having to retire hurt at half time, Charlton pulled a goal back to strike all the old fear and forebodings in to the away support (which was excellent all night).
A combination of Davidson and Carayol were adjudged to have fouled Charlton’s right winger by a linesman who had hitherto appeared scared of making any decision and his first looked like a poor one. That isn’t to excuse the defence of the free kick, though it was very well delivered to the head of Sarr by Gudmundsson for an ominous lifeline for the home team.
Charlton didn’t deserve the goal but the halving of the deficit signalled new and dangerous challenges to a team hardly imbibed with high confidence and it cannot be underestimated how the loss of the excellent Huws could easily have sunk a fragile Town.
Many have been asking for more bravery from Powell – his pragmatic approach tends to dull the team’s ability to surprise; that faith in the players to improvise and excite seems to be suppressed too readily, yet when confronting clubs with more money, more fans and arguably more ambition the capacity to spring the unexpected is surely an essential commodity.
It is hard to apply any adjective other than brave than Powell’s decision to replace Huws with Billing. At long last, an Academy product was on the pitch in a real game, not brought along to smell the changing room liniment or experimentally introduced 10 minutes before the end of a no pressure game. This is the real thing, Phil!
Raw, possibly nervous and with a small mountain of responsibility resting on his shoulders, his manager couldn’t have asked for more from the young Dane. While it would have been ludicrous to expect him to have the same influence on the game as Huws, he provided energy and, at times, not a little elegance to proceedings.
The whole team must have felt on the ropes in the first 10 minutes of the second half as Charlton finally injected urgency in to their attacking. Within seconds of the kick off, Ba fired a shot whistling past the post and intent was served by the hosts, though the next chance of note fell to Miller who headed disappointingly wide when well placed.
Town’s threat was diminishing and sparse in the second period, though Miller could have released the marauding Bunn in one counter attack which would have finished the contest.
As it was, Town were largely resolute against a mundane Charlton who, nevertheless can be accused of wasting a few decent chances with weak finishing and lack of composure – the factor we had all ignored prior to the game proved to be the difference between the sides.
The most pleasing aspect of the result was the context. This was a team which had never played together before and was pretty much unrecognisable from the one which represented us at Hull, 2 unproven players (Billing and Dempsey) were introduced and every one of them must have been feeling the pressure from an inauspicious start, to say the least.
There were good performances all over the pitch, from the goalkeeper’s calm and assured display, through a back four which was occasionally breached but largely resolute to the hard work in midfield and up front, even though Miller’s stamina is still up for considerable question.
But the undoubted star was Whitehead. For some reason – and probably related to his uncomplicated style – the ex Boro man has become a target for those among the Town support who are not happy without a scapegoat. Even his solid performances in early season have attracted criticism from this constituency, but his display at the Valley was flawless and, perhaps even more importantly in the circumstances of a newly constituted team, inspirational.
One win does not a season make, but there is a new platform for the manager to work with now. You would hope and expect that he will stamp on any complacency for the visit of Bolton – a team that may be far more resilient than their increasingly impoverished circumstances may suggest – and, at least, he can now work with one particular monkey off his back.