CHARLTON ATHLETIC 2-4 NOTTS COUNTY
Wright-Phillips '50 Judge '16
Wagstaff '55 Forte '18, '35, '40
As impressive as Keith Curle's start as Notts County manager has been, I think it's fair to say that today's trip to league leaders Charlton Athletic represented the first big test for him and his players. Whilst Carlisle are doing well, their away form is attrocious, and whilst trips to Tranmere and Rochdale may always represent tough games, both are marooned deep in a relegation battle. The Addicks, however, have systematically pulverised the division for most of this season. Indeed, their first home defeat of the season in midweek, to Colchester United, was the first loss Charlton have suffered at The Valley all season. Their away form is equally impressive, with just two defeats on the road and win after win. Anything from this trip to South East London was, without doubt, going to be a real bonus.
But there was a strange sense of positivity lingering in the Greenwich air this morning. This may be because it's the first time NCM hasn't had to get about four trains whilst horribly hungover and tired to get to a game in what seems like months, but there certainly wasn't a feeling of an impending hammering. Whilst watching QPR score a goal that was so far over the line I declared it so whilst looking through half a pint of lager, I was feeling particularly confident about our chances of getting something today. This was tempered slightly be the team news, although we have come to expect Curle's starting line-ups to be best described as 'experimental', like a jazz fusion album that could go either way.
Keith Curle's latest team selection...
The Magpies started with a back four that did, at least, see the returns of Kieron Freeman and Alan Sheehan to the full back positions, with Damion Stewart retaining his place to partner Liam Chilvers. A four man midfield of Jeff Hughes, Neal Bishop. Gavin Mahon and Jon Harley looked solid enough, with Alan Judge playing off Jonathan Forte to provide the attacking threat. The name that really jumped out from the Charlton teamsheet, for NCM at least, was that of Yann Kermogant. The big Frenchman once provided one of my most awkward moments ever, trying not to burst into tears of laughter in the middle of a Leicester pub when he missed that penalty for the Foxes. Alongside Bradley Wright-Phillips, though, he was sure to pose a threat, whilst the Addicks' back four looked extremely strong.
In front of a 17,000 strong crowd, it was Notts who started the brightest, immediately unsettling the hosts with their ferocious closing down and relentless tempo. They created the first chance, too, when Judge scampered away and hit a cross to the far post that Charlton 'keeper Ben Hamer just managed to tip away from Forte and behind for a corner. The hosts looked to get the ball down and play but seemed frustrated by Notts' willingness to hunt the ball in groups of two and three, something which allowed Notts to begin to really get a stranglehold on the game. Indeed, when Alan Judge opened the scoring after sixteen minutes, it wasn't really a surprise judging by the game to that point. It was a goal of real quality, too, with Judge picking up the loose ball after some fine Notts pressure, spinning quickly and arrowing a shot from twenty five yards that, at long last, went between the posts rather than hit them one.
NCM had barely finished wildly grasping at the air before things got even better, when Notts' willingness to close down the hosts led to another goal. Bishop caught Dale Stephens in possession, before feeding Harley, who played it into the feet of Forte. The Notts striker laid off a first time pass into space for Judge, who raced away before squaring the ball for the onrushing Forte to slot past Hamer and double Notts' lead. Charlton looked genuinely shell shocked, but it was no less than the visitors had deserved for a fantastic start. It did seem to kick Charlton, spluttering and coughing, into life as Kermogant nodded down for Matt Taylor, but with all the finesse you'd expect of a huge centre back attempting a bicycle kick, his effort rolled tamely into the arms of Nelson.
Notts continued to relentlessly press the hosts when they had the ball and Charlton continued to seem utterly unable to cope, with their defence looking particularly shambolic. Indeed, they were wandering in different directions like a herd of spooked cattle when Forte beat Michael Morrison to Jeff Hughes' flick on, prodding the ball past Hamer who had found himself caught in the one place where he wasn't going to be able to save it. Things were rapidly approaching dreamland territory when the first half was confirmed as one of those 'is this really happening?' moments as Forte completed his hat-trick and bagged Notts' fourth. Freeman won the ball on the right and skipped away before playing the ball to Hughes, whose fine left footed cross was glanced home by Forte to complete the perfect hat-trick. It was Forte's first hat-trick since 2008, when he scored three in the first half at Barnet during his last loan spell at Meadow Lane. Can he play in London every week? The half ended with Kermogant bizarrely trying to claim that he was being wronged after receiving a yellow card for attempting to punch the ball into the net. That just about summed up Charlton's apparent lack of footballing prowess in the opening forty five minutes.
The Charlton defence struggle to deal with Forte...
We assumed that there was no way the league leaders could continue being quite so hapless, and it proved to be that way. Within moments of the second period starting they had pulled one back, albeit with a copious amount of help from the referee. Scott Wagstaff retrieved a loose ball out wide and whipped in a cross that Stuart Nelson seemed to have until Wright-Phillips just about barged him into the net, making sure that the ball went in with an overhead kick. I have to admit that, at the time, I was convinced it was Nelson's fault for dropping it, but having seen a replay this evening it is genuinely incredible that the referee didn't give a foul. Sometimes 'keepers are given too much protection, but this was as blatant as you are ever likely to see.
Notts responded well to the setback and were so close to regaining their four goal cushion when Alan Judge's inswinging free kick was somehow clawed away by Hamer and then scrambled clear by Taylor after Neal Bishop had just failed to get a strong enough connection on it. They were quickly made to pay for this miss when Charlton broke forward and cut the deficit to too, with Johnnie Jackson's fine through ball picking out Wright-Phillips who crossed for Wagstaff to head home past Stuart Nelson's half-hearted attempt at making a save. He was probably blinded by his own shirt. I have to admit, at this point, things were getting nervy. They were even more so when Stewart and Wright-Phillips tangled in the box and the hosts seemed to have a decent shout for a penalty, but it was waved away by an official whose decision making seemed to be becoming more and more like it was done by flipping a coin.
Stuart Nelson attempts to make a save....
Thankfully, with the introduction of Hamza Bencherif for Jon Harley, the tide seemed to have been stemmed. Charlton kept up the pressure but were struggling to find the incision of the early stages of the half, with aimless balls into the box generally being all they could muster by this stage. As time ticked away, Curle replaced the fantastic Judge and Forte with Ben Burgess and Ishmel Demontagnac, who inexplicably tried to pass the ball twice when having a real chance to run at a tiring Charlton defence. Not that it mattered though, the hosts had run out of ideas and Notts were able to hold on reasonably comfortably for a fantastic three points that keeps them in sixth place.