Mark Bonner made seven changes from the side that beat Wigan at the weekend as he looked to wrap up a top half finish whilst blooding fringe players.
Perhaps the most surprising name on the teamsheet was that of goalkeeper Will Mannion, coming in for Dimi Mitov, whilst fans were excited to see not only more of the emerging Liam Bennett, but also the return of Shilow Tracey after a number of months out.
United lined up with Bennett at right back, with an almost-certainly-departing Jack Iredale on the left. Lloyd Jones was captain for the night alongside Jubril Okedina in central defence. In the middle Ben Worman and Liam O’Neil were the midfield pairing, flanked by Tracey and Jack Lankester out wide, with Wes just behind Sam Smith.
The first half was an even game between two decent looking mid-table teams. United had a fair amount of possession, and the newcomers all looked assured of their places in the team with no apparent nerves. Jack Lankester worked hard, and Wes was doing Wes things, probably for the last time under the Abbey lights. Liam Bennett continued to impress at the back with some impressive defensive play, and we also saw an attacking side of his game with him getting into decent shooting positions a couple of times before opting not to pull the trigger. Best of all Shilow Tracey looked to have kept his electric pace, bursting through their defence on a number of occassions.
As the halftime whistle went both teams could be happy to be going in all square, although United probably just shaded the half despite not ever really troubling the opposition goalkeeper.
The second half started in much the same fashion, fairly evenly, but as the game went on it became clear United were tiring, with Charlton beginning to look the more impressive of the two sides. After putting in a great shift Shilow Tracey’s last real involvement came when he decided to pass to a marked Sam Smith instead of shooting himself, probably our best chance of the match. Digby replaced O’Neil just before the hour mark, and a few minutes later a tired Tracey made way for Knibbs and Ironside came on for Lankester, who’d began to drift out of the game a bit.
The changes should have given United a renewed energy but it was Charlton who took advantage, with the impressive Taylor-Blackett’s shot deflecting off Ben Worman and beyond a helpless Mannion, who until then had been stopping everything that came his way. Six minutes later another deflection, this time off a suspiciously-offside looking Connor Washington put the game out of reach for the U’s.
We’ve criticised Bonner for making a number of changes before (in particular the game against Wycombe) but we can’t fault him for trying out fringe players in what is essentially a dead rubber game against Charlton. Whilst it would be nice to finish in the top half (and possibly just one place below the “massive” Ipswich Town), it doesn’t matter a huge amount if we finish 12th, 13th or 14th, when every single pundit tipped us to finish dead last at the start of the season.
The players that came in all slotted in to the side well – special mention must go to Lloyd Jones and Jubril Okedina who talked Mannion through the game and protected him well in the first half. Ben Worman wasn’t at his best, but he’s got potential, and Liam O’Neil showed why he is an important part of this team – whether or not he gets a new contract is up for debate due to his injury record, but on performances alone he’s worth another season. Liam Bennett endured his toughest game to date, but still showed his undoubted class and he’s got a bright future ahead of him, whilst Jack Lankester started brightly but drifted out of the game as it went on, and the jury is still out on whether he’s worthy of a place in the starting eleven, although it’s more likely that we’ll see a better Lankester after he’s had a full pre-season and a run of games in the side. Tracey continues to look a fantastic prospect and once he’s back to full fitness will be a real asset for us next season.
Man of the Match: As mentioned Jones and Okedina both played well in defence, and at the other end of the pitch Sam Smith ran tirelessly all game. We’re going to go with Will Mannion though, an impressive debut, confidence in his box and some great saves to keep the scoreline down. He’s got a bit of work to do on his kicking, but he’s going to be a decent option for next season if Mitov gets injured.
Soundtrack of the Match: Blur – No Distance Left To Run