Charlton Athletic 1 Leeds United 0
Report of match 1st May 2010
Reporter Phil Hay
"Believe," urged the message at the front of The Valley's away end and Leeds United did. But the heavy clouds that crowded out the sunshine as the banner unfurled warned that their day would fall short of perfection.
Promotion in London was never widely expected, or not by the majority who went there with that prospect in mind. For almost an hour, the club were a single goal shy of achieving it, in a season when they have already scored 100. Still the most elusive of prizes strayed beyond reach, relief delayed for another week.
The rub on Saturday was a League One table which required Millwall to lose to Tranmere Rovers in order for Leeds to free themselves finally of what Ken Bates, United's chairman, once called "this accursed division."
Tranmere rose to the occasion spectacularly, scoring two unanswered goals which generated as much euphoria at The Valley as they did on the Wirral. But there were two sides to the bargain, the other demanding that Leeds put Charlton to the sword. The full might of United's cavalry was beaten back and eventually breached two minutes from time.
Akpo Sodje opened the only wound in London, forcing a goal that was later credited to Leeds' captain, Richard Naylor, but it need not prove fatal. "Our destiny's still in our own hands," said Simon Grayson, a familiar remark in post-match discussions. And so it is, dependent entirely on a game against Bristol Rovers which is immune to hyperbole.
There was, in the body language of United's manager, the hint of disappointment and an opportunity forsaken in London. He promised before Saturday that he would take no heed of developments at Prenton Park but Millwall's game against Tranmere was an elephant in the room, too large and obdurate to ignore. Both he and Phil Parkinson, Charlton's manager, were patently aware of Millwall's trials long before full-time.
Leeds' supporters made plain the scoreline, communicating Tranmere's first goal at the end of the first half and spreading news of their second later in the match. By then, Grayson had been infected by the optimism which was rife inside The Valley, unable to resist an effort to achieve the improbable. Leeds reached the final whistle with five strikers on the field, cut loose by a manager who dispensed with caution.
If his tactics came at the cost of a point - Grayson implied that they had, saying he would "take responsibility for losing the game" - then it was only fair to admire his sense of adventure. The situation on Saturday seemed to justify it, a time for more than half-measures.
For as long as the match at Charlton remained goalless, United's imminent game against Bristol Rovers remained relevant. So laboured has been his squad's crawl to the line that Grayson was unlikely to contain himself when the opportunity to take a decisive step forward finally arose. Better that, many would say, than to die wondering.
Charlton's goal arrived at the very end of a rousing fixture, dominated by Leeds before the interval and dictated by Charlton afterwards.
As early as the second minute, Parkinson was quietly thanking Max Gradel for driving a shot against the body of Darren Randolph after Sam Sodje - Akpo's brother and a one-time loanee at Elland Road - sold his goalkeeper the shortest of backpasses.
Gradel advanced towards Randolph but lacked the precision to place the ball to either side of him. By such fine margins was the game won and lost, never more so than in the 34th minute when a crucial deflection off Deon Burton prevented Neill Collins from squeezing the ball under Charlton's crossbar.
In between those chances, Bradley Johnson's volley gave Randolph a fright and another shot from Gradel trundled wide while Johnson and Luciano Becchio stretched Parkinson's defence. Yet Charlton threatened, as a team in their prominent league position were liable to do. Burton's volley on the turn was met by the palms of Shane Higgs who dived to his right to meet their most dangerous effort of the half.
Organised and purposeful though Leeds were, Grayson did not set out with reckless abandon. His astute selection of Michael Doyle, pushing Johnson to the left wing and Sanchez Watt to the bench, was an unashamed call for muscle in his midfield, sacrificing the pace and flair offered by Watt. Only when the picture at Prenton Park became clear did Grayson decide that ambition was the better part of valour.
It was obvious as he walked to the tunnel at half-time that events in Birkenhead were becoming interesting. The stand behind Higgs' goal bounced in response to information - accurate, as it turned out - that Ian Thomas-Moore, a former player of theirs, had converted a penalty and given Tranmere a valuable lead. "Just one goal and Leeds are up," came the chant from their end of the field, a small wish at the tail-end of an extremely long season.
Ironically, Parkinson claimed that the news spread by United's crowd was as much of a help for his players as it was for Grayson's. Charlton had nowhere to hide on Saturday, certain that their fragile claim to automatic promotion was utterly dependent on beating Leeds.
They might still fall short, despite League One concertinaing behind United, but they attacked the second half with an attitude which suggested Parkinson had ordered them to go for broke.
Grayson was ready to the same, and Jermaine Beckford entered the fray as a substitute in the 64th minute. Watt soon followed him and Mike Grella was added to a top-heavy team seven minutes from time, shortly before United conceded the game's only goal.
At one end of the field, Higgs parried a Therry Racon shot with one arm and watched Sam Sodje nod a ridiculous header over an open goal from a position where he could hardly miss.
At the other end, Robert Snodgrass dragged a tired attempt into Randolph's hands and Beckford side-footed the ball wide after Gradel picked him out with low cross to the near post. All the while, the implications of a goal in United's favour hung in the air.
Grayson's defence grew increasingly ragged as the second half progressed, and more so once right-back Andrew Hughes made way for Grella. It was amid random, disorganised marking that Akpo Sodje's header forced Naylor to throw himself at the ball and send it flying into the roof of Higgs' net. At that late stage, Charlton might just have earned their victory.
As the game slipped into injury-time, Kyel Reid clipped a free-kick against a post and Beckford's header on the end of Gradel's cross brought a save from Randolph which defied description of its brilliance.
Regardless of it, Grayson had already accepted that a win over Bristol Rovers was the only answer to the question of how to escape this damned league. For a club used to living life the hard way, it seems a straightforward scenario.
Shane Higgs: His defence kept him tightly guarded until their late capitulation but he made a good save from Burton in the first half and an equally impressive parry from Racon in the second...7/10
Andrew Hughes: United's box was peppered with crosses from both wings but Hughes was the more solid of their two full-backs and gave his trademark, dependable shift for 84 minutes...6/10
Richard Naylor: Had no choice but to attack Sodje's header and could not be blamed for the own goal. Looked comfortable in the main but United's backline began to fray amid very ambitious tactics...7/10
Neill Collins: Quite superb and the best of a group of defenders who stood up strongly to Charlton. Won many headers and took responsibility for organising the players around him...8/10
Shane Lowry: Charlton threw most of their attacks down the right wing and Lowry lost track of Sam in the build-up to the goal. Came under constant pressure and his limitations in attack were evident...6/10
Robert Snodgrass: The one disappointment among so many creditable displays. The Scot's jaded contribution unsurprisingly ended early in the second half, without him influencing proceedings...5/10
Michael Doyle: Deserved his recall on the evidence of a
74-minute outing which was as successful and effective as any he has produced since the turn of the year. Aggressive, but tidy with it...8/10
Neil Kilkenny: Ran rings around Charlton's midfield in the latter stages of the first half and picked his passes nicely. Provided the urgency that Leeds required as they chased an elusive goal...7/10
Bradley Johnson: Might have been fielded by Grayson with the intention of tying up Richardson but Charlton's full-back saw a huge amount of position and regularly posed a problem. Lively enough, though...6/10
Luciano Becchio: Got stuck into two veteran centre-backs and he did a good job of keeping Charlton's defence honest. His combative role came at the expense of goalscoring chances...7/10
Max Gradel: Must regret his failure to beat Randolph in the second minute but he was impressive again, creating two opportunities which Beckford could easily have converted in the closing minutes...7/10
Substitutes: Jermaine Beckford (for Snodgrass, 64)...6/10
Sanchez Watt (for Doyle, 74)...6/10
Mike Grella (for Hughes, 84)...5/10
Not used: Casper Ankergren, Jonathan Howson, Leigh Bromby, Gary McSheffrey.