Gary Haines reports from The Valley
In the build-up to Tuesday’s match against Cardiff City, Charlton manager Chris Powell would have taken a win of any kind.
Without a success at The Valley since August, the home-sick Addicks were desperate to arrest their recent slump in front of their own fans.
So a one-goal success was just what the doctor ordered – right?
That of course simplifies matters in one of the most baffling and bonkers games ever seen at this famous venue.
Charlton fought back from two goals down to lead 5-2 20 minutes into the second-period – yet were clinging on for grim mercy as the visitors struck twice in injury time.
You just couldn’t make it up.
Sublime and ridiculous traded blows here in an SE7 perspective, but three precious points went the way of the under-fire home side as they finally arrested their poor form in these parts.
The fact Powell could scarcely jump out of the tunnel in customary fashion at the end was probably down to mental exhaustion in a game that saw so many twists and turns that those who watched went home dizzy.
But here are the bare facts.
A third-minute header from Heidar Helguson put the visitors in front and Joe Mason cracked home a second midway through the half to put Malkay Mackay’s men in firm control.
Skipper Johnnie Jackson turned the tide at the end of the half, firing home on 40 minutes and heading home a leveller in stoppage time.
And the goal rush continued after the break as Charlton romped clear with Dale Stephens’ free-kick sailing straight over the keeper and in from way out, the fit-again Danny Haynes heading home just before the hour and Rob Hulse nodding in just past it.
As the game entered six minutes of stoppage time the Addicks looked home and hosed, but the seeds of doubt were sown by Craig Noone in the second bonus minute.
Then, astonishingly, substitute Aron Gunnarsson hooked home a fourth for Cardiff on 95 minutes leaving 60 seconds to eclipse Arsenal’s staggering League Cup fight back at Reading a week earlier.
Thankfully it didn’t happen, but its hard to know what was the most palpable emotion at the final whistle, that of joy or relief.
Two near post corners reaped rich rewards for the visitors to leave the Addicks on the ropes in the opening quarter of the game.
First Helguson made a cleaver dash to meet a Peter Whittingham flag-kick and glance a header across goal and into the bottom corner.
And it was another corner from Whittingham that triggered a goalmouth flurry which led to Cardiff’s second.
Hudson this time met the ball and headed across goal with fellow centre-back Ben Turner heading against the bar from the opposite side of the six-yard-box.
In the mayhem that followed, Hamer scrambled the ball away but it was eventually crashed home by Mason to heap further misery on the hosts.
It looked a long way back for the Addicks at this stage but hope was restored by Jackson five minutes before the break.
The skipper kept his cool to curl a right-foot effort home from the edge of the box after keeper Marshall had spilled a cross from stand-in right-back Michael Morrison under pressure.
A half-time boost was quickly followed by a touch more inspiration from the skipper in added time at the end of the half.
After Rob Hulse was denied brilliantly on the line by Turner, Kerkar’s corner was a dream – as was Jackson’s powerful header.
The second-half resumed all square once more – but the irrepressible Addicks soon took charge.
Stephens netted his first of the season in strange fashion when his free-kick from way out on the left flew over all and sundry – including the embattled Marshall.
Haynes, relishing his return to the starting line-up after so many injury problems, then headed in a fourth from a Pritchard clipped centre, recovering well from an initial stumble.
And when Hulse sauntered in to head a third from a curling Kerkar centre on 65 minutes the hosts had netted five in 20 minutes.
The action quietened after that – thankfully for those in the press box if not the hungry home fans seeking six – but the hacks in attendance were left twitching in a crazy finale.
Noone looked like he had grabbed a consolation when he chased a long ball and skipped away from Hamer and netted from close in.
But then the Red Dragons, top at the start of play remember, netted again as Gunnarsson was left criminally all alone to cut the deficit to 5-4.
Thankfully for most inside the ground there was no final act, and the Addicks were finally able to toast that elusive win as Cardiff were knocked off the summit.
In terms of team news Powell was forced into more changes for the game against the newly-rebranded Red Dragons with Lawrie Wilson sidelined with a quad strain.
His place on the right went to Haynes as the home side reverted to a 4-5-1 formation – and there were more changes at the back.
Chris Solly moved over to left-back with Powell turning to Morrison to play on the right of the rearguard for just a second time in his Addicks career (the first was Stevenage away last season for those wondering).
The void in the centre of defence was filled by Dorian Dervite and there were changes across midfield.
Stephens returned to a three-man central unit alongside Bradley Pritchard and an advanced Jackson with Hulse ploughing a lone furrow up front.
Other headline news on a noteworthy team sheet saw a first start of the season on the right for Haynes after his hamstring problems, and Kerkar pushed upfield on the left.
Bradley Wright-Phillips dropped to the bench where he was joined by youngsters Morgan Fox and Adebayo Azeez with an ill Jordan Cook joining an ever-growing Valley casualty list.
Ben Hamer continued between the posts for the home side with Morrison and Solly flanking Leon Cort and Dervite in the middle.
Stephens returned to the engine room where he joined forces with Pritchard and Jackson.
Haynes and Kerkar were the wide outlets with Hulse down the middle.
Striker Azeez and left-back Fox, who both played in Monday night’s U21 game at Queens Park Rangers, were summoned to a bench which also included David Button, Matt Taylor, Danny Hollands, Danny Green and Wright-Phillips.
There was a familiar face in the Cardiff line-up in the shape of defender Hudson, who played 45 times for the club in 2008/09.
There was danger up front courtesy of Helguson and Mason, the latter who netted in the League Cup final against Liverpool last season with the dangerous Noone and Fulham loanee Kerim Frei out wide.
The influential Whittingham started in the middle of the park while there was no place in the squad for an injured Craig Bellamy.
The visitors were all in blue, much to the delight of the supporters in opposition to the controversial switch to red.
Noone warmed the hands of Hamer in the third minute, the keeper turning the shot round the post – and from the flag-kick Cardiff took the lead.
Helguson was the man on target, darting into space to meet the cross from Whittingham and glance a header across Hamer and into the bottom corner of the net.
It was a disastrous start for the home side and another set-piece concession would have been a bitter pill to swallow following Saturday’s Middlesbrough misdemeanours.
The Valley crowd may have been stunned by that set-back but they didn’t let it affect them, vociferously getting behind their leader Powell.
Kerkar’s shot from way out was well wide and David Marshall gathered a fired-across centre from Haynes,
Noone was wayward from range and a Joe Mason drive was deflected up and over the bar as the visitors continued to probe.
Mason, offside, diverted a Noone shot wide following a move that saw Frei skate away from his marker on the left
And things got even worse for the hosts in the 24th minute as Cardiff struck again.
Once again it stemmed from a Whittingham corner from the right, the visitors eventually converting at the third time of asking.
Hudson flicked across at the near post initially and centre-back partner Ben Turner looped a header back against the bar before the Cardiff skipper intervened again.
Hamer could only parry the ball off his goalline as the ball was not dealt with and Mason finally finished the opportunity, hammering a shot home from around 10 yards.
It was another sickening body blow for a side already fragile in confidence and when Stephens took the ball deep into Cardiff territory soon afterwards his decision to pass the ball into traffic with Hulse unmarked to his right summed up the hosts’ night to date.
It might have got worse as the Red Dragons breathed fire into a quick attack but Solly got back to make a telling block and Pritchard was booked in the 31st minute after a sliding challenge on Andrew Taylor.
Hudson won the battle of the skippers with a crucial stooping header to deny Jackson after a superb cross from Pritchard.
Charlton were tapping at the door at this stage, rather than hammering it down, and Noone was invited to shoot – and fired wide on the run.
But the Addicks did find a way through five minutes before the break as their skipper struck.
Cardiff keeper Marshall was challenged to a high ball from Morrison by Hulse and was appealing for a foul as he spilled under pressure.
In the aftermath Kerkar helped the ball back to Jackson and the midfielder was calmness personified as he curled the ball into the back of the net.
It was a composed finish to add a new complexion to Powell’s half-time team talk, although Cardiff fashioned another opening moments later as Mason teed up Don Cowie who fired wide on the run.
Matthew Connolly was booked in the last minute of the half after slicing through Kerkar on the far side, and a fine free-kick from Stephens into the dangerzone was headed behind for a corner.
There was a mini-scramble at the flag-kick and Cort, who had stayed up, rose to get in a header from a Kerkar cross that was saved by a plunging Marshall.
There was still time for an unmarked Helguson to head back across goal and wide when he might have done better – and a remarkable opening period ended all square as Jackson netted again in stoppage time.
Cardiff might have thought they had got away with it as Turner cleared off the line from Hulse, after the striker latched on to a Kerkar pass and skipped round the keeper before shooting goalwards from a narrow angle.
Turner did remarkably well to get back, but the decision to switch the impressive Stephens with Kerkar for the final set-piece of the half reaped rewards as the Addicks drew level.
Jackson was the man in the right place once more, rising majestically and thumping home a header into the bottom left corner of the net.
Now Cardiff, seemingly in cruise control, were on the ropes as the revitalised hosts entered the break in the highest of spirits.
The visitors quickly threatened but Cardiff threatened as Mason teed up Whittingham six minutes in but his placed effort was inches wide, after a lunging Cort got a key touch on the ball.
Whittingham’s inswinging corner bounced behind off the top of the bar but Charlton hit back moments later as a pass Jackson had no right to make triggered a raid on the left.
Haynes eventually teed up Solly who cut inside and his pass was taken on by Stephens but the visitors just about smuggled the ball away.
They were breached again as Charlton’s turnaround was complete in bizarre fashion.
Solly was fouled on the left and Stephens stood on the ball, aiming to supply another dangerous set-piece.
It was more than that, it was one of the strangest goals seen at The Valley in recent times as the midfielder’s curling free-kick soared over everyone – including the back-tracking Marshall – and nestled in the back of the net.
The keeper did get a touch, but could not stop Stephens scoring his first of the campaign, and The Valley was rocking.
But this was far from the main course – just an aperitif if you like.
In an incredible sequence of events Hayes first zipped down the right and crashed a shot wide and at the other end Helguson sliced horribly wide after good work from Frei.
Things then got even rosier in the SE7 garden a minute shy of the hour mark as Haynes headed Charlton further in front.
Pritchard was the architect on the right, gathering the ball and getting the better of his man before centring into the dangerzone.
Haynes, who had stolen into space, was stumbling as he jostled for the ball, but he proved Ballerinaesque as he kept his balance and nodded through the arms of the keeper.
From two down the hosts were 4-2 up in what was a sensational turnaround – and even better was to come.
After Morrison was booked, Andrew Taylor’s cynical trip on the speedy Haynes earned him a yellow card, and Charlton banked a fifth goal in the 65th minute.
Cardiff were a shambles at the back at this juncture with Kerkar centring from the left and Hulse running in unopposed to head home.
The shell-shocked visitors sent on Kim Bo-Kyung and Aron Gunnarsson but already some fans in the Jimmy Seed Stand had seen enough and filed out before Hamer saved smartly from Mason.
Hulse was booked after catching Connelly before Haynes, quite possibly suffering from cramp after an electric performance, earning a standing ovation as he made way for Wright-Phillips.
Taylor cleared an inswinging corner from Jackson from close to the line and Marshall got down to gather a self-made shot from Cort, the big defender spinning sharply to administer a falling volley.
Bookings for Jackson and Turner preceded a looping heard from Hudson, which was watched over by Hamer and Noone curled just over the bar four minutes from time.
Taylor fired just wide from range before the excellent Stephens made way for Hollands a minute from time.
As Azeez waited to enter the fray – and a bemused Powell tried to digest SIX minutes of stoppage time - Cardiff grabbed a third goal as the clock reached 92.
Noone was the man on target, gobbling up a ball down the middle and coolly taking the ball around Hamer and tapping home, almost in the same motion.
Incredibly, in the fifth added minute the Red Dragons struck again.
Whittingham slung a ball into the mix and the ball was headed down for Gunnarsson to spear the ball into the right corner of the net.
They couldn’t – could they?
The answer, thankfully, was no. But it wasn’t for the lack of trying as the several more desperate balls were pumped into the box.
And the hosts just about held firm in a nerve-shredding finale to cling on for a quite amazing win.
The season starts here.
Charlton: Hamer; Morrison, Solly, Dervite, Cort; Haynes (Wright-Phillips 68), Stephens (Hollands 90), Pritchard, Jackson, Kerkar; Hulse.
Subs (not used): Button, Taylor, Fox, Green, Azeez.
Goals: Jackson 40, 45, Stephens 54, Haynes 59, Hulse 65
Booked: Pritchard 31 (foul on Taylor), Morrison 60 (kicking ball away), Hulse 68 (foul on Connolly), Solly 73 (kicking ball away), Stephens 86 (foul on Bo-Kyung)
Cardiff: Marshall; Connelly, Taylor, Hudson, Turner; Noone, Whittingham, Cowie (Gunnarsson 65), Frei (Bo-Kyung 65); Mason, Helguson (Gestede 74).
Subs (not used): Lewis, McNaughton, Conway, Kiss.
Goals: Helguson 3, Mason 24, Noone 90 (+2), Gunnarsson 90 (+5)
Booked: Connelly (foul on Kerkar), Taylor 61 (foul on Haynes), Turner 83 (throwing ball away)
Referee: K Stroud
Att: 15, 764 (822 Cardiff)