With one goal, and one leap, they were free. After four home games without a point, Charlton Athletic deservedly took three from an unexpectedly subdued Middlesbrough yesterday to spring up five places from the bottom of the table. They ran and chased, harried and hustled as if their Premiership status would be decided this very afternoon; and then celebrated as if it had been preserved for another season. It ought to be, come May, but the number of teams clustered together down at the wrong end suggests there will be twists and turns a-plenty yet.
The contenders are thinning out at the other end, and Middlesbrough's position among them did not look justified on this performance. Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu, touted recently as England's central defensive pair, were given a torrid afternoon by Jason Euell; the midfield was overrun for a long time, and the attack anonymous. When Steve McClaren decided a triple substitution was required midway through the second half, the number of candidates to be replaced was not far short of double figures.
"We had too many below-par performances," he admitted. "The quality and passing were not up to standard."
Charlton's Alan Curbishley, every bit as phlegmatic, had continued to believe in his team, but knew they needed a result in front of fans who had not seen a victory since 2 March. "We've tried not to put pressure on the players," he said. "It's a tight league and a tough league and you've got to be confident going into games. Scoring early was nice and the work-rate after that was phenomenal."
That level of endeavour was no surprise. Sir Alex Ferguson said following Manchester United's recent victory over Charlton that no team had ever worked harder against his side without reward. The greater shock was that an attack struggling to score a goal should cause such angst to what was statistically the tightest defence in the land.
Middlesbrough arrived having kept six clean sheets in nine games, and not having conceded for almost five hours. That run lasted less than five minutes. Franck Queudrue pushed John Robinson, Claus Jensen flighted his free-kick into the danger area and Euell reached it before Ehiogu to head home.
The previous three matches between the sides had all been goalless, the last of them, at the Riverside in February, a strong contender as the dullest game ever to be shown on British television. For reasons best known to Sky Sports' schedulers, the cameras were back yesterday for the first of three successive Charlton matches to be shown on a Sunday afternoon, with Sunderland and Blackburn to follow. Sky's analyst, Andy Gray, had bravely predicted before kick-off that there would not be another blank score-sheet, and must have thought after Euell's early contribution that further goals would follow.
It did not turn out that way because of some nervy finishing from Charlton and one fine save by each goalkeeper. Mark Schwarzer's came right at the start of the second half, as Robinson cut the ball back for the out-of-touch Shaun Bartlett, who was denied his first goal in 18 games. At the other end, Dean Kiely did not have a shot to save for almost an hour and was troubled only in the 70th minute, reacting splendidly to turn Jonathan Greening's drive onto a post.
An equaliser would have been undeserved. Charlton, buoyed by Scott Parker's first appearance of the season, and stabilised at the back by Gary Rowett's return to a three-man defence, were much the better side and the former players from six decades attending as guests will have been proud of them.
Goals: Euell (5) 1-0.
Charlton Athletic (3-5-2): Kiely 6; Rufus 7, Rowett 7, Fish 8; Robinson 5, Parker 7 (Kishishev, 77 6) Mustoe 6 (Young, 77 5), Jensen 7, Powell 6; Euell 7, Bartlett 4. Substitutes not used: Rachubka (gk), Johansson, Fortune.
Middlesbrough (4-3-1-2): Schwarzer 6; Stockdale 5 (Cooper, 67 5), Ehiogu 4, Southgate 5, Queudrue 5; Geremi 5, Boateng 4, Greening 6; Job 4; Maccarone 3 (Marinelli, 67 6), Nemeth 3 (Whelan, 67 5). Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Wilkshire.
Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe) 4.
Bookings: Charlton: Bartlett. Middlesbrough: Stockdale, Boateng.
Man of the match: Fish.
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