Football can be oh so cruel. For much of the afternoon, Charlton Athletic of League One sensed an upset. Norwich may be a top-flight club in name only, but defeat for them at the Valley would still have been a shock of sorts.
Blush avoidance required the intervention of a substitute duo vital to Norwich’s slim survival hopes. Teemu Pukki crossed; fellow half-time inductee Milot Rashica tapped in his first goal in Canary yellow.
The 2,200-strong travelling contingent housed in the Jimmy Seed Stand celebrated their side’s first goal for 541 minutes; Dean Smith was relieved. “It certainly wasn’t a pretty game,” he said. “I thought they would be right up for it and would make it a proper FA Cup tie. I wanted us to control the tempo and I don’t think we did that. We weren’t good enough on the ball but thankfully the bench helped us out.”
Charlton’s manager, Johnnie Jackson, was patrolling the midfield last time his side progressed to the fourth round. This was their first chance to host Premier League opponents since demotion a decade and a half ago, and Jackson can draw comfort from the way his players acquitted themselves.
Pride then, but not progression. Jackson was frustrated, disappointed and honest in his assessment. “If you were watching that game, you wouldn’t have known there was gulf between the teams as far as levels,” he said. “I would argue my team was the dominant one.
“I’m really proud of the players, but at the same time we’ve lost, we’re out and they’re through. That rankles a little bit. We have to look at ourselves and ask why we didn’t turn chances into goals.”
The game had ambled along for 20 minutes until the Norwich centre‑back Ozan Kabak seized the initiative. Kabak may have a reputation for the over-adventurous, but his foray forward was most welcome here; it kick-started the tie.
But despite yellow flanking him on both sides, the attack was ended abruptly by a fine sliding challenge from Ryan Inniss, playing only owing to Akin Famewo’s ineligibility against his parent club. A rapid counter saw Elliot Lee cut inside and curl a shot narrowly wide of both Tim Krul at full stretch and the goal frame.
Belief, however, grew on three sides of the Valley. Rightly so: despite the absence of their two leading goalscorers, Jayden Stockley and Conor Washington, Charlton carried much of the attacking threat. Diallang Jaiyesimi, who spent more than four years at Carrow Road without featuring, was a livewire down the right, while Lee was a beating red heart.
It was Lee who teed up Jonathan Leko later in the half, but the forward, despite little by way of defensive attention, lifted his effort high and wide from six yards out. An awkward bounce meant Krul did well to parry Alex Gilbey’s strike shortly afterwards.
A penny was not required for the thoughts Norwich fans. For the second time in less than a fortnight they had travelled to south London to watch a side lacking in quality, cohesion and, unforgivably, endeavour. Amid the gallows humour – “We’ve had a shot” was audible as Kenny McLean drove their only attempt of the half over the bar – there were murmurings of discontent directed at Delia Smith.
Even their half-time switch-up failed, initially at least, to change the direction of the wind. Lee forced Krul to save with his feet, and Charlton’s 18-year-old Mason Burstow visibly grew in confidence; a pair of strikes in short order saw the volume rise.
Pukki’s first involvement, on the other hand, was to pass to no one, before McLean failed to sort his feet when presented with a golden chance to strike from dead centre. “That’s why you’re going down,” the home fans taunted.
With a rearranged league visit to West Ham in 72 hours, Smith wanted extra time like a hole in the head. And so the relief was palpable when Rashica intervened decisively. There was still time for Chris Gunter to slam a stoppage-time header into the bar. But that, for Charlton, was that.