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01/02: Reports:

Worthington Cup Fourth Round, 27/11/01
Charlton Athletic
By Ian Grant

This time, you're spared the introductory waffle. There's only one thing that matters about last night, and it doesn't need an elaborate, pretentious metaphor to announce it.

Simply, this was an absolutely fantastic football match. It had everything. It took twelve thousand people, tired from work and travel and a game just forty-eight hours before, and transported them somewhere truly wonderful. Afterwards, you felt as if you'd been physically lifted up, as if someone had grabbed you under the armpits as you slumped wearily and pulled you into standing tall and straight again. As people made their way homewards, you could see the extra spring in their stride, hear the still-fresh happiness in their excited chatter, enjoy the sense of having shared something very special indeed.

For ninety minutes, with a half-hour encore that we can welcome with hindsight, we were reminded why we love this so much. We were given new reasons for our sacrifices and our dedication, for spending stupid amounts of time thinking about a game and a pitch and a ball and twenty-two players, for believing in it so passionately. This, right here, was all that we've ever asked for from a football match.

It seems unfair to burden it with the word "classic". It was exactly that, and yet so much more fun. Really, it's impossible to capture it without immediately referring to an insane performance from Paul Robinson, who spent most of the first half stomping around to mark his territory on the left flank before leaving his kingdom to seek fulfilment of his schoolboy dream of being a dashing, swashbuckling goalscorer. It seemed that every Watford attack would, at some point, involve Robbo arriving like an out-of-control freight train going down a particularly steep slope, leaving opponents with the choice of getting the hell out of the way or getting completely flattened. At any moment, you expected him to get bored of all that attacking stuff, bound up to Alec Chamberlain and ask to have a turn in goal. Utterly tremendous, completely bonkers, and typical of the riotous entertainment on offer.

And yet, beyond being doubled up with joyous laughter at these fabulous comic book heroics, there lurked the realisation that he was timing his runs perfectly, making tremendous use of the openings, playing the game with his brain as well as his pounding heart and his pumping legs. Again, that was typical, for this was no cheap goal-fest. Yes, every great cup tie needs a few mistakes, some terrible refereeing, missed opportunities, moments of high comedy and pulsating drama, and all the rest. But this was so much more than just another "cup upset", for it also had superb goals, mighty defending, stunning saves, bruising tackles, gleaming skill, full commitment to attack from two talented sides. It lacked nothing. Nothing at all.

Naturally, that includes a thoroughly stirring Watford performance in the grand tradition of such things. All around, there was excellence. Alec Chamberlain made fine saves at vital moments; Pierre Issa, back in defence alongside Ramon Vega and the imperious Neil Cox, seemed to grow taller and stronger with every passing minute; Lloyd Doyley ran till he wore holes in his socks; Micah Hyde and Paolo Vernazza, once aided by the determination of Gary Fisken after half-time, glistened with class; Tommy Smith terrified the wits out of the Charlton defence throughout, demonstrating why we should savour every second that he plays for us; Paul Robinson just had the time, and the game, of his life. For once, there were no passengers.

The opening forty-five minutes occupies two pages in my notebook, enough to cover the full ninety on more tedious occasions. The whole game required five pages, a new record. While the real drama was to come later, it was cracking stuff from the very start. The game set off at a tremendous pace, Charlton taking an attack into the six yard box before the occupants of the Rookery had even sat down. At the other end, one of Lloyd Doyley's long throws rebounded to Gifton Noel-Williams, and everyone paused inexplicably until Kiely had parried his angled shot at the near post. The night was still young, and we'd had only the merest taste of what was to follow.

In the early stages, the visitors' passing was noticeably more crisp and accurate as they took hold of the midfield against rather lightweight opposition. Apart from our sometimes laughable inability to clear the ball from around our penalty area, making it seem as if we were playing into a ferocious gale and causing Alec Chamberlain to raise both fists in celebration after finally wellying upfield on one occasion, we defended with some confidence. From another long throw, Marcus Gayle headed tamely at Kiely from a good position, although it turned out that Noel-Williams had already been penalised for a push.

A few quiet moments. They didn't last long. After fifteen minutes, Jensen's volley skidded half a yard wide of the goal after Neil Cox's header had fallen to him on the edge of the box. It was the first sign that we were playing a Premiership side, the kind that finds the back of the net before you've even noticed that they're looking. Shortly afterwards, Stuart's looping half-volley from distance tried, and failed, to catch Chamberlain off his line.

Until now, we hadn't quite found the final ball. When we scored, we still hadn't quite found it, but we no longer cared unduly. Thrillingly, our goals, and many of our near misses, were born of attacking that followed no particular formula and involved anyone who fancied having a go. Often, we were simply unable to pass it sideways, because the usual recipient was bombing up the flank with his arm in the air. Wearing the number three on his back, more often than not. It was fluent, buoyant, inspiring stuff, and it was something that Charlton never quite found an answer for. So it was Lloyd Doyley who picked up the ball on the right side as it rolled away from the remnants of a promising move, then smacked it firmly but inaccurately towards goal (in his head) and the opposite corner flag (in reality). As the resulting half-clearance fell to him, Paolo Vernazza briefly wondered what Robbo would do in such a situation...and bashed it bloody hard into the bottom corner. Get in.

From there, the whole thing just seemed to accelerate. Within a minute, we'd nearly conceded an equaliser as Stuart got in a tangle while attempting to convert Johansson's low cross from the right from just five yards, prompting derogatory comments about his quiff that lasted until half-time and beyond. Despite the determined scrapping of Vernazza and Hyde, Charlton were superior in numbers and largely dominant in midfield, which placed responsibility on the part of the side that you least want to have responsibility. Nevertheless, the defence took on the challenge, and bullish, example-setting performances from Cox and Robinson were copied after some small delay by Issa and Vega. When the rearguard was breached, Chamberlain produced a strong, two-handed save to push away Parker's swerving, wobbling shot from its intended destination.

Really, we didn't gain control until after the interval. But, even as they threatened an equaliser, there was too much for the Charlton defence to cope with in comfort. Those long throws continued to cause trouble, and Paul Robinson's first goal attempt, saved without problems by Kiely, came from one of them. The first of many. The second of many arrived five minutes later, as Smith's fine pass picked out a surging run from the ever-willing Doyley on the right. His cross was horribly mis-hit, but still found Noel-Williams, who in turn found Robinson rampaging into the area. Like he was born to score goals, he did superbly to hold off a defender, and was rather unfortunate that he couldn't quite wrap his foot around the ball enough to get it on target from a tight angle.

By this time, we'd also been royally entertained by one of the Charlton substitutes, who childishly clouted the ball away from Alec Chamberlain after it'd gone out for a goal-kick and, following much pantomime booing, was spoken to by the referee after grave consultation with his assistant. It was all going rather well, as Stuart sliced a shot out for a throw and then Robinson (theirs) air-kicked wildly when attempting to connect with Powell's cross to a great howl of derisive laughter from the Rookery. Unfortunately, in the latter case, Brown was standing behind Robinson to wallop a low drive past Chamberlain and leave the laughter hanging in the air for a moment before the Vic Road end exploded in celebration.

Even then, we'd enjoyed a belting first half. And what followed was anything but an anticlimax. As the game resumed, Gary Fisken replaced Marcus Gayle to add some strength to the midfield, enabling us to become combative as well as threatening. Previously, Charlton had looked the more composed side, except when we managed to make the ball stick in the final third. Now, they found themselves getting over-run, repeatedly hassled out of possession before they'd crossed the halfway line and then hit hard on the counter-attack. The pattern of this endlessly absorbing game shifted once more.

Within five minutes, Chamberlain had saved well from Parker at his near post, after the Charlton player had broken into the area from the right when given rare space. But that wasn't an indication of what was to come. On the contrary, it was the Watford strikers - and we'll include Paul Robinson in that, for reasons that will soon become clear - who turned and ran at their opponents, causing havoc and creating chances. Naturally, Tommy Smith was first, taking the ball on from a Doyley break and dashing across the face of the area, before failing to get quite the right contact on the shot to give Kiely problems. That Robinson followed suit was equally inevitable, although, faced with two defenders on the left, he took the phrase "run at them" rather too literally. From a - this might become repetitive - Robinson cross, Vega headed at the keeper.

The second goal was something special, even in this context. For it began with Micah Hyde swaying magnificently around two tackles, just as it seemed that he might be caught in possession rather too close to his goal for comfort. The ball went into Gifton Noel-Williams, playing an uncelebrated but significant role in so much, and came back out to Paolo Vernazza. We looked down to see a rude blur of yellow hurtling diagonally from the left into and across the penalty area, absolutely demanding to be provided with the ball. When the pass came, Tommy Smith's right-footed finish, dinked neatly over the keeper, was just as perfect as everything else. Except...hang on, that's not Tommy Smith...that' hell, it is...Robbo?!.

Hero of the hour. Man of the match. Goal of the season. Performance of the decade.

Oh, it took a very long time to calm down from that. Maybe by next week. For now, I can only laugh triumphantly whenever I think about it. While we were still trying to come to terms with the impossible, Johansson's overhead bounced wide and Jensen's dipping drive cleared the crossbar by not very much. Then Gary Fisken won a tackle in the Charlton half and went on a straining run, before shinning the ball wide from the edge of the box when he'd probably have preferred to find a colleague to pass to. Not a moment's pause for reflection. God, what a wonderful game.

With a lead to defend, we were almost physically shoving Charlton back towards their own goal, roared on by the fans as we pressed and pressed until they gave us the ball. They made it through on a couple of occasions, Jensen's low shot bringing another excellent save from Chamberlain at the foot of his post and Bartlett's volley in the middle of a scramble spinning a few yards wide.

All the time, though, we were slaughtering them on the break. Too much pace, too much unapologetic ambition to handle. This was everything that we've seen and applauded before, only so much more so. Once more, Fisken surged through midfield in that bustling way of his; once more, he found Robbo tearing forward alongside him, probably bellowing "GIVE IT TO ME! LET ME SCORE ANOTHER!". He made it into the area, gave no thought to the idea of doing anything but thumping the ball into the bottom corner again, and was knocked from behind as tried to do so. Penalty. That yer man actually let someone else take it was a little surprising.

It was a bit of a turning point, unfortunately. Tommy Smith's spot-kick was poor, well within Kiely's grasp once he'd dived the right way. Instantly, panic set in. Having previously done tremendously well to keep Charlton at arm's length, we were suddenly under siege in our half and faced with surviving the remaining minutes....

Which, actually, we did superbly, remaining strong and remarkably composed even as Charlton poured forward at us. Indeed, the only noteworthy incident prior to the start of injury time came when Fisken burst forward yet again, feeding Tommy Smith. Having turned inside a couple of defenders, Smith came upon a clear sight of goal from twelve yards. And Kiely responded with the best save of the night, somehow getting enough of a hand to the ball to divert it away as it shot towards the top corner.

The three minutes of injury time were unbearable. But not as unbearable as conceding the equaliser with just seconds left on the referee's watch, as Jensen floated in a cross and Robinson (theirs, in case you had to ask) managed to sneak around the back to score with a diving header. Shattering. Really, it was our only lapse, the first time we'd failed to pick someone up in the penalty area. We paid for it, and you wondered whether we'd be able to recover in the additional thirty minutes. Everything went a bit quiet.

Everything stayed quiet as Charlton, predictably, began extra time with eager attacks and confident passing. Momentarily, and understandably, our heads had gone down. After two minutes, Johansson's fizzing shot missed its target by a couple of inches, then Jensen curled a free kick over the wall and just over the bar. In the Rookery, a few shakes of heads and disappointed shrugs of shoulders.

Then we were breaking forward again. And Tommy Smith was holding off challenges with uncommon determination, stretching to belt in a shot from a ridiculous angle. And, although it brought another reaction save from Kiely, fortune favoured us this time. For, rather than going over the bar, the ball looped across to where Heidar Helguson waited to score with a header from a yard or so. And this marvellous football match had rewarded us once more. And we believed again, especially when Lisbie was ruled offside within thirty seconds of the re-start as he appeared certain to score.

So, yeah, the second bit of extra time was really mental. After Smith had hit a sharp, angled shot at Kiely, it contained perhaps the best moment of them all. Perhaps. Fortunately, there's no need to choose. It was Robbo again, of course. Pelting upfield to support Helguson's break, he nearly brought the house down with a superb shot from twenty yards that beat Kiely and hit the foot of the post with a thud. Having wheeled away in celebration, he looked back in frustration to find a defender on the ball after it had rebounded away. So he chased that defender down, winning a corner by threatening to booter him, then bootering him regardless. And then forgetting to take the corner until someone reminded him. Completely, utterly and ecstatically brilliant.

But it wasn't yet finished. Vernazza sliced wide, Lisbie had a shot blocked. Then Parker picked up the ball on the edge of the box, belted it forcefully towards goal and watched it smack against the upright. It bounced out through a crowd of players, no-one able to get a touch. And still it continued, as Vernazza broke through and sent a shot swinging wide of the target from the edge of the box. And still, as Fisken crossed for Helguson at the death, but the Icelander couldn't quite stretch enough to direct his header downwards. And no more. No more. Just a lap of honour from Robbo.

My word, what a game. It's easy to resist the temptation to speculate about reasons for our inability to rise this high in the week-to-week business of the Nationwide, or to wonder whether this will be continued into Saturday's game with Forest, or to look forward to the quarter-final. Because this was so great, so great, that it deserves to stand on its own. It doesn't need a context. It was just the most extraordinary football match.

Don't worry about what it means. Just remember how it felt.