Charlton Athletic 2 Aston Villa 1: Hughes cheers up a happier Valley

Substitute midfielder rewards Pardew's interval invective as late goal seals fightback
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The Independent Football

At least the year ended on a high for Charlton, with Bryan Hughes' headed goal in added time proving enough, just enough, to see off Aston Villa's 10 men. So their second win in the last 10 games lifted Charlton's hopes of squeezing through the narrow escape hatch above them.

"Justice" was what their new manager, Alan Pardew, called it, praising the character and commitment of the team he inherited only on Christmas Eve, while remaining frank enough to criticise the sort of wayward defending which could prove fatal if regularly repeated in the second half of the season.

Still, they battled bravely after going behind yet again, this time to a harshly awarded penalty just before half-time. Reminded by Pardew during the interval - "The season's on the line, right here" - Charlton went forth and won, assisted, to the home supporters' delight, by the dismissal on the hour of the Villa captain, Gareth Barry, relentlessly booed after being the fortunate (and innocent) recipient of the referee's generosity over the penalty.

With Hermann Hreidarsson a tower in defence as well as a regular supplement in attack, with Matt Holland and the second-half arrival, Hughes, doing sterling midfield work and, above all, with Darren Bent's electric pace, Charlton set about rescuing, then winning, a match which never let up on excitement. Villa were also desperate to get something from it, having gone eight games without a win.

That the total is now nine was down to the alertness of Darren Bent in heading home a huge upfield punt from Talal El Karkouri and, at the very last gasp, Hughes getting his head to the ball a split second in front of Gabor Kiraly's fist to knock in Hreidarsson's far post head-back of a Jerome Thomas centre.

Perhaps in a bid to lift spirits, Charlton showed a re-run of great goals from the past before kick-off, but it was a measure of the team's desperation that, in the 10th minute, El Karkouri made a meal of a jostle with Olof Mellberg as Charlton prepared to defend a free-kick, collapsing and clutching his head. That Mellberg was punished by nothing worse than a yellow card so incensed El Karkouri that he, too, was cautioned.

The enterprising Darren Ambrose conjured the game's first gasps, cutting inside for a curler which would have gone into the far corner but for Kiraly's fingertips. But with Villa controlling what their manager, Martin O'Neill, called "large chunks" of the later stages of the first half they threatened before going in front. When Gavin McCann, their most impressive performer, crossed from the right, El Karkouri unaccountably let the ball sail over him to Gabriel Agbonlahor, whose bouncing header was turned over by Scott Carson. Two minutes later came Villa's penalty, following a corner. Hreidarsson's sliding tackle on Barry seemed not only legitimate but a ball-winner. Mr Styles' award was as immediate as it was mystifying, and Barry smote the kick home on the rise.

The introduction of Hughes for the flagging Radostin Kishishev proved of immediate benefit as he got in front of Juan Pablo Angel's leap to supply a rescuing header almost under Charlton's crossbar. To mounting roars of encouragement, Charlton pressed and were rewarded in the 57th minute. El Karkouri's long ball was elevated to deadliness as it sailed into Villa's penalty area by Darren Bent, who forced himself goalside of Mellberg before directing a fine header across Kiraly.

Another couple of minutes and Barry was off, shown a straight red for stopping a great Dennis Rommedahl run with a weak challenge from behind. Unfortunately for Charlton, the offence occurred outside the area and El Karkouri's searing free-kick was bravely headed away by Aaron Hughes, who next cleared off the line when Ambrose tried to force in Djimi Traoré's rebound from the bar.

Deadlock seemed certain, especially when Agbonlahor rolled a golden chance inches wide with two minutes left.But Hughes' decisive header, turned the ground from Desperation Gulch into a Happy Valley.

Charlton jubilation will be sobered by a fixture list which sees only Middlesbrough among their next six opponents who are outside the top six. As a bubbling Pardew observed: "We start 2007 at Arsenal. What better place to get a result?"