A game that seemed destined early on to repeat the extraordinary 4-4 draw between the teams in their epic play-off final four years ago ended with Charlton Athletic the happier again. Kevin Lisbie's late goal secured them the point required to banish any fear of relegation after a poor recent run, but Sunderland departed for the long journey home knowing they may need to take something from their last match of a miserable season. Just as well it is at home to Derby County, while Ipswich, three points behind, go to Anfield.
Had Peter Reid's team shown the same combination of determination and enter-prise over the past few months as they belatedly produced yesterday, last season's seventh place would have been a more likely target than simply avoiding the big drop. The manager was understandably pleased with yesterday's performance, all the more so given last week's abject effort at West Ham. "The lads have done fantastically well today, and had a right good go," he said. His claim that they "defended really well" was more contentious, for it was both teams' vulnerability at the back that made the day so eventful.
Appropriately, The Valley bade an emotional farewell before the game to Clive Mendonca, the second Charlton striker in successive seasons (after Andy Hunt) forced into premature retirement. Of his 45 goals in 89 starts for the club, the best remembered were, of course, the three against yesterday's opponents in the fingernail-biting 1998 play-off final, all the more dramatic for coming against the club he has always supported.
Since then both teams seemed to have established themselves at the higher level, before sliding down the table recently amid a dearth of goals. Charlton, with Jason Euell acquitting himself well but Jonatan Johansson's lack of confidence evident again yesterday, have missed both Hunt and Mendonca, while Sunderland suddenly found the archetypal little and large partnership of Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn floundering. That was put right yesterday, after a run in which Quinn had not scored since Boxing Day, nor his nippy little partner since 2 February.
Perhaps the two teams' defences had grown weary of bailing out their team-mates. Each were caught out in a breathless start that had latecomers cursing. Only 63 seconds had passed before Johansson latched on to a quick throw-in down the right and crossed for Euell to half-volley his 13th goal of the season. The home side were still congratulating themselves when Thomas Butler began a hugely impressive full debut by sending Kevin Kilbane in between the central defenders for the equaliser.
The marking was negligent on both occasions and even worse at Charlton's end in the 11th minute. Jorge Costa's late tackle on Kilbane brought a free-kick that McAteer floated over for the unmarked Phillips to head in.
Just before that, Graham Stuart had played Scott Parker through a gaping Sunderland defence, but the England Under-21 international – presented with an award as London's young player of the year before kick-off – may have stumbled as he went round goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, who got away with a corner kick. Sorensen then had to save from Johansson and John Robinson, who had cleverly dinked the ball over his shoulder before shooting.
In the second quarter of the game it was Sunderland again creating the better opportunities. Paul Konchesky, panicking under pressure, jabbed a back-pass at Dean Kiely, who felt he had to handle, Charlton's defensive wall scrambling away the resulting free-kick a few yards from goal. Two minutes from the interval, Quinn, who normally thrives against Charlton, should have established a two-goal lead but headed wide after a smooth build-up between Phillips and Jason McAteer.
Charlton replaced Konchesky with Chris Powell at the break, while sticking with a 4-4-2 formation that often offered little cover as Sunderland tried to exploit Phillips' pace and Quinn's aerial ability against the ponderous Costa. It was a change for the better, like Alan Curbishley's two substitutions later in the half, as the two defences continued to look flaky. He sent on the transfer-listed Lisbie to inject some pace down the right and Mathias Svensson for some added vigour up the middle. It would prove just the right blend, though only after Johansson had wasted a wonderful chance; a clearance by Kiely, racing out to deny Phillips, sent the Finn fortuitously clear, but his control was poor, the hurried shot allowing Sorensen to block.
So the frustrated home supporters had to wait until eight minutes from the end, when Svensson challenged as Stuart knocked Powell's centre back into the middle and Lisbie, with his back to goal, hooked the ball in.
"It's an exciting industry we're in," said Reid. Charlton have had quite enough excitement for now.
Charlton Athletic 2
Euell 2, Lisbie 82
Kilbane 2, Phillips 11
Half-time: 1-2 Attendance: 26,614Reuse content