Football: Charlton clutching at draws

Charlton Athletic 0 Blackburn Rovers 0 Attendance: 20,041

ALAN CURBISHLEY had said that he always knew every single one of Charlton's matches this season would be a cup final, so yesterday's fraught meeting with fellow relegation-threatened Blackburn became the final of finals. And like so many crucial encounters, in the end both sides gave their all but neither could eke out the so- desired maximum points - though this was more a moral victory for the comparatively under-privileged Charlton.

Separated at the start only by goal difference, both sides knew that defeat would drag one or the other so close to the edge that another step in the wrong direction in the remaining fixtures would certainly be their last in the Premiership. The irony was that since last season it had cost Rovers nearly pounds 40m to reach the same point of new despair that faces Charlton whose expenditure in the same period has been a mere pounds 4.5m.

Charlton had conceded eight goals in two games and won only one match in their previous nine. Rovers had won only once in 10, and any comforting thoughts of having a game in hand could be dismissed - their opponents being Manchester United. If there was any hint of optimism on their part it came from having beaten Charlton twice previously this season.

The importance and atmosphere of the day was instantly translated into a cascade of opportunities in constant ebb and flow. John Robinson's unforgiving early centre found Rovers' struggling to hold their defensive line. Keith Gillespie skimmed a shot beyond the far Charlton post. Danny Mills rescued his beaten goalkeeper almost on the line. And so it continued, attack for attack, shot for shot, tackle for tackle, nervous clearance for worried one.

Charlton's fear multiplied when their goalkeeper, Simon Royce, collapsed with what seemed to be a badly damaged knee, but this was a day that had to be suffered rather than enjoyed - on and off the pitch. He struggled on, though clearly less mobile. Mobility was the theme. No one wanted to dwell on the ball, but anyone who did risked thundering attention. Tempers were permanently at simmering point.

If Rovers had slightly the more prolonged attacking pressure, Charlton perhaps had the edge in real chances. One particularly, set up by Martin Pringle from the right edge, somehow escaped the full force of Andy Hunt's outstretched foot. And John Filan was rewarded for those hours of practice in reaction saves to secure a cannon off a knee-high drive from Danny Mills.

By far Blackburn's most teasing opportunity came shortly before half- time when, from Gillespie's corner, Jason Wilcox got his head to the ball. Pringle did as well and Royce, defying his injury, had to touch it on to the crossbar. It was Royce's last serious contribution in a brave display. He was replaced after half time by Andy Petterson.

Driven on by the relentless energy of Mills, who attacked and defended with equal tenacity, Charlton pressed Blackburn back into an early second half siege situation. Pringle was always searching for gaps in a still- nervous Rovers' defence, and several times had shots from within the penalty area stifled more by weight of numbers than individual foresight. Similarly, Chris Powell had to thrust out a desperate foot to deprive Blackburn's Jason McAteer of what was a fine goal-targeted drive that followed another one from Callum Davidson. Midfield play was simply subsumed in the never- ending dash to create just such hopes of the single shot or cruel error that could decide the game and possibly the future of both clubs. Tension never released its grip.

In an effort to create the decisive breakthrough, Charlton took off Hunt and replaced him with Steve Jones, but Pringle remained the most likely striker to overcome the defensive attentions of Darren Peacock and Stephane Henchoz. Indeed, one of his best attempts, somehow screwing a shot at goal from an almost fallen position, deserved better than to have Filan anticipate it well and cover the danger. So finally Charlton thought that if courage and pressure appeared to be getting them nothing more than breathless, unfulfilled hope, it was time to introduce the ageing guile of John Barnes, but it was too late to change a long-set pattern of industry, muscle and sheer guts.

Charlton's fans had hearts in mouths in the closing minutes when Petterson had to intercept Ward and in doing so brought him down. Ward was not so much seeing stars as the chance for a last-gasp penalty. But the referee had a good view and though he had lengthy treatment, and Rovers fans behind that goal bayed like hungry dogs in the night for a penalty, none was forthcoming. It would have been a travesty if the game had been decided on a referee's decision. The incident was one of the few exceptions to Gary Willard's failure to take into account the physical and mental pressure on both teams.

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