Football: Mills keeps the dream alive

All but relegated, seconds remaining, down to 10 men, Charlton bring the Villa down
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The Independent Online
CHARLTON HAD won at Villa Park only three times in 19 visits. They will never have another victory like this. With 15 seconds of normal time left, drawing 3-3, playing with 10 men and with an outfield player in goal, their Premiership place was fading away. Then a free-kick changed everything. It was pushed to the relentless Danny Mills, who crashed in a winning goal to give his team hope of survival against Sheffield Wednesday next Sunday.

Failing to beat Blackburn at The Valley seven days before had already left Charlton perilously placed, but you still felt they had become the people's champions, or at least the South's version of Barnsley or Bradford. Anyone with a shred of feeling for the romance of football just had to urge "everyone's second favourites", as Alan Curbishley said last night, to survive among the super-rich and over-paid. Of course their resources are corner shop compared to Manchester United's megastore, but if football is not to end up boring the designer pants off the public, there have to be some Charltons in the Premiership.

A desolate run of only one win in 10 matches mitigated against their hopes, and when Paul Merson threaded through their penalty area as early as the second minute, they looked to be in dire trouble. But they survived and, only a minute later, a centre from John Robinson arrived as Graham Stuart, Steve Jones and Gareth Barry converged on goal. The ball rebounded off Barry and into his own goal - Villa's first example of what their manager, John Gregory, said later was an afternoon of "basic errors and goals given to Charlton who were rewarded for the way they attacked the game".

Charlton's first taste of elation lasted less than five minutes before Richard Rufus, who was not exactly under pressure when intercepting a none-too-serious Villa attack, misguidedly sliced the ball sideways directly to Barry. Andy Petterson was stranded, and Barry comfortably planted in the equaliser.

Charlton's troubled situation took them to the edge of self-control. Every decision against them was vehemently contested. It was not pretty, but no one expected this to be a match of beauty. Villa tried to compose themselves defensively and in midfield, but Charlton's marauding right- back Mills kept driving forward, just as he had against Blackburn the previous week.

The tension Charlton were enduring resurfaced when Robinson tackled Steve Stone deep inside their penalty area. Stone fell and was immediately accused of cheating and pushed by Robinson. Surprisingly the referee opted out of any action. As for Villa, they seemed unsure whether to reinforce an attack lacking Dion Dublin, or defend their point. It all made for an untidy and uneventful first half. With Southampton also drawing, Charlton faced the second half in a desperately unchanged situation - victory still paramount. Having to contend with a suddenly fully involved Merson was ominous, but they coped well and even managed some solid possession.

Curiously, just as they gave that impression of greater midfield consideration, so a long 56th-minute clearance by Petterson was flicked on by Jones, and Clive Mendonca ran on to beat the isolated Michael Oakes. Curbishley admitted later: "I didn't think Clive was fit enough to play after all his injuries. But he just played on adrenalin."

Charlton worked furiously hard to retain their lead but it lasted only until the 65th minute when Julian Joachim was left with yards of space as he moved on to the substitute Darius Vassell's pass to slide a shot beyond Petterson. Charlton were far from defeated, though, and not only recovered but went ahead. Jones had played Mendonca in for a hopeful shot. Oakes parried the ball. Robinson, to the left of the goal, blasted a shot that even Gareth Southgate's acrobatics on the line could not stop.

A minute later, after Ugo Ehiogu had forced Petterson to save at full length, Joachim equalised, cleverly turning on a loose ball. Yet this astonishing drama had another twist when Petterson, rashly, came out of his penalty area and crashed into Joachim. The referee had no choice but to award a free-kick which came to nothing but, more significantly, he sent off Petterson. Curbishley had no substitute goalkeeper on the bench. "It was a massive gamble," Curbishley said afterwards. Yet the outfield player Steve Brown took over with all the defiance that his team had shown all afternoon.

Even then there was more frenetic excitement to come. Martin Pringle, who had broken through, was pulled down by Villa's Steve Watson - the former Newcastle man also seeing red. Mark Kinsella tapped the ensuing free-kick to one side and Mills hammered in a winning goal to leave Charlton a final chance to save themselves next Sunday and Southampton and Blackburn still with them in continuing danger.

UPS AND DOWNS

FA CARLING PREMIERSHIP

Relegated: Nottingham Forest

NATIONWIDE LEAGUE FIRST DIVISION

Champions: Sunderland

Promoted: Bradford or Ipswich

Play-offs: Bradford or Ipswich, plus Birmingham, plus two from Watford, Bolton and Wolverhampton Wanderers

Relegated: Bristol City.

SECOND DIVISION

Champions: Fulham

Promoted: Walsall

Play-offs: Preston North End, Manchester City, Gillingham, Wigan

Relegated: Macclesfield, Lincoln, Northampton, York.

THIRD DIVISION

Champions: Brentford

Promoted: Cambridge, Cardiff

Play-offs: Scunthorpe, Rotherham, Leyton Orient, Swansea

Relegated: Scarborough.

NATIONWIDE PLAY-OFF SCHEDULE

SEMI-FINALS

Sunday 16 May (1st leg): 6th place v 3rd place 5th place v 4th place

Wednesday 16 May (2nd leg): 3rd place v 6th place 4th place v 5th place

FINALS

Sat 29 May: Third Division final

Sun 30 May: Second Division final

Mon 31 May: Third Division Final

All finals to be played at Wembley Stadium

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