Town plumb new depths

Bournemouth couldn’t have hand picked a better away game to reverse their poor 2019 form than at the John Smith’s Stadium and they strolled to a comfortable victory barely breaking sweat.

Absorbing what passes as pressure from the home side it would be easy to describe their performance as rope-a-dope (with the emphasis on dope), but that would imply energy from the home side and determined defending; the former, particularly in a quite dreadful first half, simply wasn’t the case and they didn’t need the latter.

Quicker, more comfortable on the ball and infinitely more coherent as a unit, the visitors should have won the game in a canter but were guilty of failing to convert several highly promising opportunities. Against other opposition, such profligacy may have cost them but once they went ahead the outcome was in little doubt.

Injuries to Hogg and Kongolo stripped the hosts of aggression which others, notably Billing and Zanka, were never likely to replace.

Bacuna, playing a right wing back role to which he looks entirely unsuitable defensively, played with the required intensity but in the wrong position before half time.

Offensively, he at least got in to areas to deliver in to the box – sadly, his efforts were as poor as his colleagues. On the rare occasion that crosses were not cleared by the first defender, they sailed over Mouniè or he was easily eased off his jumping by the excellent Bournemouth centre backs.

As always, some of Town’s build up play was acceptable with Pritchard, Mooy and Durm having some joy down the left, but none of it resulted in a goal scoring opportunity as the Cherries swatted away threat with consummate ease.

On the break, Bournemouth were lively, rapid and dangerous. In stark contrast to their hosts, they looked capable of scoring every time they crossed the halfway line and after 20 minutes they secured the 3 points.

Losing the ball upfield, Town were on the back foot and extremely vulnerable with Bacuna treading water trying to track Fraser as Brooks strode in to the wide open space in front of him. The former Blade had the simple task of playing in the unmarked Fraser who crossed for Wilson to chest in his umpteenth goal against the Terriers.

The goal celebration took up a ludicrous amount of time with Taylor making the point that he was looking at his watch to add on time at the end of the half. With blessed relief for the home crowd, only 2 minutes were actually added.

A single, weak shot from Mouniè and a Mooy free kick which was punched away comfortably by the under employed Boruc was the totality of Town’s threat on Bournemouth’s goal as the collective perturbation once the danger area is approached blighted the Terriers yet again. The quality of crossing was abysmal. Perhaps only Lössl could leave the pitch at half time with his reputation unharmed.

Siewert, presumably rueing some of his selection decisions, smeared some lipstick on the pig at half time by removing the languid Billing, relieving Bacuna of the failed experiment on the right in to central midfield and moving Durm to right back with Löwe coming on to the left.

The small improvement was inevitable rather than uplifting, with round pegs sitting uneasily in round holes and a better shape but the increased threat to the visitors was marginal at best.

A flurry of home pressure briefly excited a crowd subdued by the first half dross and a cold wind, but optimism was hardly surging as our collective memories of the past 15 months introduced grim reality.

20 minutes in to the second half, Bournemouth scored an unnecessary second. Stanković, who had a mixed bag of a game; assured at times but sloppy at others with a bad, potentially red card challenge on Brooks thrown in, failed to tackle King midway in the Town half and the Norwegian played an excellent ball to Wilson who reverse passed to the unmarked Fraser to finish.

The speed, understanding and clinical execution of the goal cruelly illustrated the difference between the two teams. While Bournemouth, all be it somewhat patchily over a season, continue to develop a philosophy, Town are a hollowed out husk of the team which made the unlikely leap to the highest level.

It is, of course, pertinent to point out that the south coast club has had many advantages over Town for several years, not least the ability to sign better quality players with a Russian sugar daddy and better geography, and that Town’s foundations were built on a once in a generation group of players who inevitably slammed hard in to a thick glass ceiling, but the deterioration is still difficult to take.

The introduction of Rowe from the new development regime offered a glimpse of the future, and he looked pacy and unfazed by the occasion even if his first contribution was to try a floated cross to the back post hoping for a teammate to be there. Add optimistic to his list of qualities.

Having accepted the inevitability of relegation quite a long time before anyone at the club (who may or may not have privately shared the view), supporters now turn their attention to next season and how the club can turn things around. The performances of recent weeks under a new manager, Wolves included, offer little evidence that a successful Championship season can be achieved. The team which took the field and performed as it did would struggle badly in the rigorous environment in to which we are about to be plunged.

The exodus of fans well before the final whistle should worry the hierarchy. The one constant of a dreadful season, other than the dearth of goals and points, has been the patience of the support. It has run out.

The season cannot end soon enough.

Stick a fork in us, we’re done

That didn’t last long, did it?

For the romantics dreaming of a hugely improbable barnstorming end to the season to recover pride from a horrible, possibly very damaging season yet another meek, mediocre performance away from home shook us back to reality.

There were a couple of mitigating factors for the defeat with Hogg going off in the first half with injury and Stanković (who impressed again) succumbing to muscle fatigue, but little excuse for an abysmally uninterested display from Billing who seems to have regressed all the way back to the irresponsible displays of his youth; forgivable then, but not now.

His failure to track Andone’s run on to Knockaert’s cross for Brighton’s winner was typical of a laissez-faire attitude permeating his afternoon which also included a slow motion recovery from what he believed to be a foul challenge and a saunter back while his team came under pressure. He also managed to prevent Town launching a counter attack with numbers in the second half with an exceptionally poor pass.

After a first half of vague promise with decent efforts by Pritchard and Bacuna, Town’s inability to provide decent service to either Mouniè or Grant, whose promising full debut was regrettably not followed up, meant they were unable to take advantage of a fairly dismal home side. Neither team looked like they belonged in the top flight with mistakes littering a contest short on quality, guile or invention.

Brighton’s best moment was an effort by Jahanbakhsh which dipped on to the bar with Lössl rooted and presumably assuming the ball would sail over. His one error of judgement was more than made up for by some smart saves as the keeper continued his good form.

In front of him, Schindler and Kongolo played well behind Stanković with the latter producing last ditch tackles which prevented the home side taking what would have been, at that point, an undeserved lead. Life, it should be said, was made relatively easy for the visitors with most of the home side’s play being attempts to bring an out of form Murray in to the game.

Brighton were a little more lively in the opening exchanges of the second half, but two substitutions turned the course of the game. While the Seagulls were enlivened by the appearance of Andone, returning from suspension, Town had to replace a key individual in Stanković and adopted a new shape.

His replacement, Hadergjonaj, produced an excellent late cross for Mouniè but Ryan made a good save to prevent an immediate equaliser and wasn’t further troubled.

Andone’s movement caused problems from the moment he came on, and he should have done much better when he slipped by Town’s defenders. Lössl made a comfortable save, but the alarm bells were ringing. Not long afterwards, the Dane had to be at his best to keep out a fierce drive from the Romanian.

Town were visibly disintegrating. The possession advantage gained in the first half disappeared, errors multiplied and opportunities for transition spurned. With passing laboured, the visitors’ threat, such as it had been, receded to virtually nothing – Mouniè’s late chance was an outlier to say the least.

Brighton deserved their win for a much brighter second half, aided by Town’s enforced change at the back; they were largely mediocre in a poor spectacle but still had too much for their surely doomed opposition.

This depressing season cannot end soon enough.

Wolves hunted down

Of course, it had to be Wolves. 

Town’s head to head record against all manner and shape of teams from the Black Country, in whatever form they are in, however much they have or haven’t spent and under managers as disparate as McCarthy and Nuno is quite remarkable, stretching back over 20 years.

The current Old Gold iteration is one brimming with talent as evidenced by an excellent first season back in the top flight, yet Siewert’s much changed team nullified their naturally expansive play with a combination of tenacity and discipline so sorely missing at St James’ Park.

Saturday’s performance, even given the early reduction to ten men, clearly rattled the new manager desperate for a first win or point. Eight of the starting eleven found themselves ousted with a couple excluded entirely as, notably, Grant was given a first start, Stanković handed the opportunity to finally show what a good player he can be and, in the most left field change, Duhaney was included from, well, nowhere, really.

Pritchard was drafted in after a long absence out of favour and the team selection appeared very bold, brave and potentially disastrous with Mooy – whose performance at the weekend was way below his high standards – relegated to the bench.

After a promising opening 15 minutes when Town dominated possession and territory but without causing much consternation for the visitors, other than a wickedly deflected Hogg effort which rather fortuitously flew narrowly wide, the first half descended in to something of a bore. Wolves’ superior technical ability eventually stemmed the early enthusiasm but without creating any significant danger for the hosts.

The one area of concern for Town in the first half was the inexperienced Duhaney being rather exposed defensively – his work on the ball was more than competent – and Siewert sensibly replaced him at half time with Bacuna. It was to prove to be an excellent substitution.

If the first half was a rather damp squib, the second came to life immediately with a goal bound Mounié effort deflecting off a defender and wide. From the corner, the hugely impressive Stanković could only head weakly despite little attention from the Wolves defence. Unfortunately, it was also slightly too firmly headed for the equally impressive Grant to apply a finishing touch near the line.

Grant’s willing running up front gave Town a new dimension up front (or, to put it a little more cruelly, an actual dimension) and Siewert’s stated aim of creating more chances, which looked very hollow at Newcastle, is taking shape. The problems are far from resolved, but the youngster’s movement is surely the way forward to improve the pitiful goals output.

Despite being on the front foot from the start, quelling the free flowing style of the Black Country men remained essential and, with some straining and occasional discomfort, the defence coped admirably. 

Central to the effort was Stanković’s cool presence, excellent timing and composed distribution. Kongolo and Schindler produced much improved performances than of late while Bacuna, playing an unfamiliar role, added aggression and pump fisting determination even if there were one or two flaws. In contrast to the youngster he replaced, he was able to recover and rectify his errors.

Bacuna’s influence down the right grew with the half and an excellent diagonal ball evaded Kongolo’s long legs (he had remained forward following a failed set piece) and bounced up invitingly for Mouniè. As has too often happened this season, his finishing instinct deserted him and he hit the side netting when he really should’ve scored.

The only real moment of genuine concern for the home side was when an unmarked Boly headed over from a corner, and it was the only moment where the back line could be criticised. Thankfully, and just for a change, the opponent wasn’t able to capitalise.

From then on, however, Town began to dominate and push forward with the greater conviction. Desperate to produce a win to reward the enduring patience of their disappointed but fundamentally realistic supporters, there was a palpable determination to their challenges on the ground and in the air, a noticeable fitness superiority and willingness to get men forward.

A great tackle by Hogg in midfield set Pritchard in motion. He found the ever willing Grant who, despite being pushed wide, found Hogg’s head at the near post but his instinctive flick went over.

The busy and creative Pritchard came off for Mooy shortly afterwards and Siewert’s second substitution was as effective and influential as his first with the Aussie adding his familiar calm to an intensifying home effort. It wasn’t long before he had a shot, either, fed by Mouniè and just wide.

By this point, the crowd sensed, rather in fervent hope than expectation born of experience, something may be on the cards. An excellent Mouniè strike curled just wide with the keeper beaten. Kachunga, lively as the third substitute, created the opportunity.

It was Mooy who finally opened up Wolves, capitalising on tired legs by bursting down the right and firing over a cross which reached Grant whose effort deflected off a defender, past the keeper and towards the prone Mouniè who poked in the winner.

The release of tension on the pitch, on the touchline and in the stands was as if the Terriers had won a trophy rather than their first 3 points since November, but who could blame us?

In stark contrast to Saturday’s dismal efforts, the second half performance in particular was brimming with spirit, energy and determination; which is all the fair minded, realistic supporter asks of the team.

Siewert’s bold decision making before and during the game delivered and, hopefully, both he and the players can gain much needed confidence to finish the season with a flourish to provide a springboard for the Championship campaign to come.

While Jon Gorenc Stanković will rightly take the plaudits for his flawless performance, Grant’s constant hard work caught the eye – he provided essential motion, something we have desperately needed all season. Bacuna’s promise was again on show.

A rare moment of joy in a quite horrible season was reward for a phlegmatic, largely good humoured and remarkably understanding support – a few more encouraging displays and results to create some momentum could prove crucial for the next campaign, even if dreams of a miracle escape are pure fantasy.

Town wash up on the Geordie shore

Newcastle United strolled to a victory over 10 man Town to put daylight between themselves and the increasingly adrift Fulham, setting up a scrap for the final relegation spot they look likely to avoid.

With injuries to Mbenza and Diakhaby stripping Siewert’s squad of pace, his selection was, nevertheless, curious to say the least. Seeing Kongolo on the bench was almost as depressing as the inclusion of the leaden Depoitre. In need of a drastic change in fortune, especially in front of goal, the limited opportunities given to Grant remains baffling – while it would be unfair to burden a lad with scoring the goals which could provide the season with a semblance of respectability, there is little left to lose.

For 20 minutes, Town dominated possession but the familiar strategy of trying to thread rope through the eye of a needle failed to trouble the Geordie defence in any meaningful way. Other than a potentially dangerous cross from Smith, which was cut out comfortably, Town’s laborious approach play was tragically easy to defend against and the home side simply waited for their opportunity to strike.

On 12 minutes, Newcastle beat the high press and produced a move of pace and quality which should have been rewarded with the opening goal. Carving the visitors apart in the space of seconds, impressive debutant Almiron chipped his effort over Lössl but on to the post. Following up, Rondón also hit the post, though a corner was awarded.

The move illustrated the gulf between the sides which was to widen as the game progressed. Pace, movement and understanding stripped the visitors bare and hope was already fading when Tommy Smith decided to perform a reckless, high challenge on Almiron which wiped out the Paraguayan and earned a deserved red card.

Relying on swathes of luck, poor finishing by United and some excellent goalkeeping by Lössl, Town survived a torrid test for the rest of the half but any thoughts of unlikely victory were effectively abandoned following Smith’s aberration. Replacing Puncheon with Hadergjonaj rather signalled Town’s intention to preserve a point – introducing Kongolo to play in a back 3 would have been less conventional and rather more brave but the already flawed selection would have required drastic surgery to change the course of events.

If the first half had, at least, seen Town display a level of resilience, the second was a pitiful capitulation which should have seen the visitors swept away. Again, the form of Lössl prevented a deserved towelling. The Dane could do little about the weak defending which saw Newcastle score twice in the first 7 minutes after the interval which removed any lingering doubts about the final outcome.

With Perez and Ritchie hanging out wide to exploit Town’s numerical disadvantage, Newcastle stretched their opponents effectively and often but it was indecision and passivity in the box which undid them.
First, Rondón pounced on a ball which deflected off Almiron’s knee before Mooy could put in a challenge, then Perez took advantage of defensive hesitancy to sweep home the second.

The contest was over and the only question now was how many the Geordies would rack up against their beleaguered and doomed opponents. Incredibly, the answer was none. Great saves by Lössl and some wayward finishing meant that Town entered the final 15 minutes with a flicker of a hope that if they could somehow contrive to score they may apply some pressure on to the hosts who should have been out of sight.

No chances came as Town played mostly sideways and backwards with the home team content to allow possession in the full knowledge that it carried virtually no threat whatsoever. Turgid progress was easily halted and replacing Depoitre with Mounié changed nothing, just as swapping Bacuna with Billing had little discernible affect.

In the end, a two goal defeat was highly flattering and monumentally depressing. All of the promise shown in the narrow defeat to Arsenal drifted away in to the north eastern air; while the loss of Smith was mitigating, the absence of anything like innovation to try to overcome the disadvantage was inexcusable.

A special mention here for yet another Hadergjonaj dive and die abomination. His embarrassing play acting is becoming seriously annoying and nearly lead to Newcastle taking the lead in the first half. On a more positive note, Bacuna, at least, tried to make things happen before being withdrawn following a knock, but there was little else, bar Lössl’s great saves, to commend a performance so feeble and benighted.

The scale of the challenge facing Jan Siewert is undeniably daunting and he needs to be given time but his selection and tactics yesterday failed to provide any vestige of hope. While the reputation of Pritchard, for example, is growing purely through absence, the new manager has to introduce new faces to a team still incapable of scoring or gaining the points necessary to overhaul Derby’s ignominious record.

Sadly, we won’t be visiting Newcastle again next season – a great city with great people and an exceptional away day. Apart from the 90 minutes we came for.

Hazard lights up a blue afternoon

It seems unlikely we will be asked, as we were after the Everton game, to look for positives after a 5-0 defeat but, counter intuitively, there actually were some at Stamford Bridge against an excellent Chelsea side and few, if any, in the slender home reversal.

The west London stadium will always be remembered for the draw which preserved Premier League status rather than this hammering, and rightly so, yet Town played significantly more football in abject defeat than they did on that legendary night and, for the first 45 minutes at least, performed as divisional equals rather than plucky survivors.

Eventually, the visitors were overwhelmed by the sheer quality of their hosts who were clearly determined to banish their Dean Court horrors against the weakest side in the league.

After a good move which created an opportunity for Mooy, headed just over by the returning Aussie, and a fair few breaks utilising Diakhaby’s pace (though, sadly, lacking a final ball or any semblance of composure), Chelsea took the lead with a piece of class from Kante who reverse passed to take full advantage of Higuain’s excellent movement.

The Argentine, who enjoyed an excellent home debut for the Pensioners had been denied by a good block from Schindler and a slightly too tight angle before opening his Chelsea account as a surprisingly open game provided a decent level of entertainment. Unlike on that glorious, status saving night, Town were willing to attack and defended quite well under significant pressure.

They should have been rewarded with going in to the break only one down and still in some sort of contention before being completely undone by yet another exceptionally poor refereeing decision. Kachunga, who worked hard but not particularly effectively throughout the half, tracked back and his gentle nudge on Azpilicueta, outside the area, was deemed a penalty.

Hazard, more of whom later, stepped up and ended the contest.
It was harsh on the strugglers who had played their part. The returning Mooy and Billing had given Town’s midfield a much more familiar look though it was Bacuna who caught the eye more than the returnees with a performance which showed no little promise.

The gulf in quality, however, was undeniable. Chelsea’s array of world class footballers passed and moved with effortless authority while Town’s journeymen strained every sinew to try to make things go their way. Hazard, in particular, was astonishingly good. 

Watching him on television showcases his enormous talent, but only in two dimensions; in the flesh, the Belgian is even better. An instinctive awareness of space, untouchable on the ball and a sublime passer, Hazard ghosts around the pitch and defies any attempt to man mark him – get too close and he will destroy you in a couple of feet of space, lay off him and he will bamboozle you in to giddy confusion.

Despite the contest being obviously over at half time, Town held out for 20 minutes in the second half though they were grateful for some rather wasteful Chelsea play. The sum total of Town’s contribution was a weak Billing shot from distance, though Kachunga, chasing a lost cause, looked to be caught in the box but, of course, the defender was given the benefit of the doubt in this instance.

Slowly but surely, however, the visitors began to unravel as incessant Chelsea pressure all over the pitch started to tell and midfield mistakes became more regular. One such error lead to Barkley striding forward and feeding Hazard who capped a great display with a clinical finish.
Minutes later, Chelsea conjured a quality fourth with Higuain firing home after being teed up, again, by Kante. The shot took a significant deflection over Lössl, giving the keeper no chance.

By this point, Town had dissolved in to an unseemly mess and whatever confidence had been garnered from a so-so first half evaporated in the face of the painfully huge gap in quality. By the time David Luiz’s header from a corner was diverted in to the net by Kachunga (Lössl would probably have saved the effort), Hazard had been replaced and while Town’s torment didn’t stop when he was off the pitch, they no longer had to worry about a player operating on a different universe to them.

Despite the spirit sapping performance in the second half, the away support continued to cheer on their team though the black humour so necessary to alleviate the pain was much in evidence. “You’re nothing special, we lose every week” was a particular favourite, along with jibes at the passive, touristy home support.

A brief and enthusiastic appearance by new signing Karlan Grant offered a glimpse of his willingness to find attacking space but no opportunities for him to actually use it. Hopefully, his chance will come against lesser opposition. Arsenal (!).

As we wait for relegation, the next few months can only be described as purgatorial. Somehow, the new manager and team are going to have to pull out some encouraging performances and maybe even a goal or two. As it stands, a soul destroying future looks far more likely with no end in sight.

Footnote: thankfully, I’m off until Newcastle away. Timing it to coincide with the FA cup, just the one game missed v Arsenal. I may report on the US experience of watching your team on NBC but I’ll probably ski instead.

Life on Mars

As those of us who lived through the 1970s can attest, a precipitous plunge from a dizzying height is unpleasant and corrosive.

It is difficult to clear the stench of failure as confidence disappears and efforts to turn fortunes around become increasingly difficult and, eventually, all but impossible. Gloom overwhelms supporters, envelops the people running the club and actively dissuades players from joining an atrophying enterprise.

While Town’s survival against the odds in the top flight was always likely to end, the nature of the drop is beginning to look ominously similar to that sepia tinged nightmare which sucked all the life out of the club for 8 years until Buxton; 1 point from 11 games, a numbing scarcity of goals and the absence of anything resembling normal fortune weighs very heavily on the shoulders of a squad short of the necessary quality to stage even a token revival.

In truth, the decline has been evident since Leicester away in the new year of 2018 – points against Stoke, and the epic performances at Manchester City and Chelsea saved us, but only because our momentum had provided a cushion in 2017. Over one year on, the decline shows no sign of being reversed and there is a real possibility that we are already too far gone to prevent a spiral of doom.

With the exhausted and disillusioned Wagner gone, another German has stepped in to the fray facing huge challenges. 

Jan Siewert’s first game proved to be a pretty seamless transition. The announcement of the team highlighted the shallow pool of quality available, the almost certain dearth of goals in it and, without Mooy and Billing, a shortfall in creativity and nous.

Within 3 minutes, Everton took the lead when Davies was allowed to wander in to the box, untroubled by marking as Hogg stood by, square to Richarlison whose first shot was parried back to him to score.

The concession was not enough to stir the home side who played like strangers for 20 minutes and the Toffees looked capable of dismantling them at will. But for poor decision making in the final third – the scousers had confidence issues themselves – Town would have been buried long before half time.

Struggling to make any impression on a game slowly deteriorating, the hosts couldn’t even rely on stalwarts such as Schindler, who nearly gifted Everton a second with a terrible attempt at what was a straightforward pass intended for Zanka, or Hogg who was given a torrid time by Sigurdsson and the first attempt of any significance came just before half time when Mounié shanked a weak effort well wide.

Failing to land a punch on an Everton side which ran out of ideas about halfway through the half and the debilitating lack of innovation and thrust was all too familiar and the visitors adopted a comfortable cruise control perhaps induced by the stern refusal of their opponents to provide the home support with anything resembling hope.

The sum of the home team’s parts were decidedly less than the whole, not helped by the inclusion of the inexperienced Bacuna, who does display some encouraging attributes at times and Diakhaby, who remains, despite becoming a central figure in the events of the second half, horribly raw. The totem of the now widely disparaged, to put it mildly, summer transfer activity looks severely out of his depth and cruelly exposed. The new manager’s options were limited, however, with Mbenza ruled out of contention with injury.

The second half was following a similar pattern – sustained mediocrity from Town and unconvincing, if competent, dirge from the visitors – and it was easy to predict a now routine, deceptively narrow, home defeat until a very good through ball from Bacuna found Diakhaby alone and free to run at goal. Wether the young man would have scored a potentially confidence boosting goal became moot as Digné brought him down leaving the referee no option but to reach for his red card.

Mooy, on as a substitute and already making a positive difference despite inevitable rustiness, got the free kick on target with a decent effort but Pickford was equal to it, pulling off a spectacular looking routine save.
The Australian influence lifted the Terriers a little and with Everton’s deeply comfortable control disrupted with the loss of two left backs in quick succession – Digné had replaced Baines – hope reared its ugly head.

Town’s best chance fell to Kachunga. A poorly executed simple pass by Diakhaby to Mooy somehow rebounded back to the youngster who then produced a great piece of skill to get past a defender and deliver a perfect cross – the very definition of enigmatic over the course of a few seconds. There was little wrong with Kachunga’s header but Pickford pulled off a genuinely remarkable save to thwart him. 

Admiration of the England keeper’s quality was tinged with the realisation that the save was just a further illustration of how immensely difficult it is to compete. For all their troubles – which appear pretty laughable from our perspective but, you know, relativity – Everton have been in the top flight since the 50s and can recruit at a high, if not the highest, level. 

A point would have been earned, however, had the referee spotted a blatant pull on Kongolo’s shirt in the box in injury time. That he gave a free kick to Everton simply added insult. Again. There has been only limited outrage at another egregious decision going against us; it has now become normalised.

The painful process of reverting to the mean is now entrenched. The optimist can hope that the return of Mooy and Billing to midfield could spark some sort of inspiration which will help us achieve our last remaining goals; beating Derby’s record low points total, restoring a vestige of pride and building the foundations for a decent season in the Championship. They are hopes difficult to envision in the current fog of malaise.

Post Wagner, ergo propter hoc

An under par, often bored looking Manchester City predictably strolled past an experimental Huddersfield Town side put together by stand-in Mark Hudson in front of a crowd collectively coming to terms with the fact that a remarkable era in their football club’s history was over.

Shorn of Billing, Mooy and Williams, the rookie manager picked a brave, imaginative but ultimately futile formation and started three of the much maligned summer recruits together for the first time. It was worth a go but, given the absentees, the chances of upsetting Guardiola’s roster of superstars went from slim to near zero.

The plan was relatively simple. Defend deep and with discipline and try to expose City on the break with Diakhaby’s pace and it should be said that the strategy sometimes felt like it may work. The young Frenchman could conceivably have put Town in front before 10 minutes was on the clock but he appeared to shoulder a Kachunga cross wide when well positioned. It was frustrating that the plan precluded the inclusion of Mounié to meet the chance though, as events were to transpire, the result would probably not have been different.

In a game where it was likely to make no difference whatsoever, Town finally found themselves on the right side of a poor penalty decision. How Marriner ruled a Kongolo challenge on Sterling as legal is anyone’s guess but, hey, thanks for the gesture Andre.

Wether Town’s tactics were working as they should or City were simply stuttering, the high quality you expect to come with an Emirate’s largesse was absent. Their possession was overwhelming but largely mundane and the breathtaking imagination they often display was replaced by ponderous build up, misplaced passing and underwhelming movement.

It was fitting that their opening goal was accompanied by a huge slice of fortune. Walker’s pass to Danilo appeared as innocuous as much of City’s play up to that point but he wasn’t closed down and decided to have a go. A not especially dangerous shot was turned in to a lethal one as it cannoned off Schindler’s head beyond Lössl and the game, to all intents and purposes, was over.

To their credit, Town kept battling away while the goal didn’t have any noticeable effect on City’s torpor. For 5 or 10 minutes before the half hour, the Terriers put some pressure on City and made them vaguely uncomfortable. Diakhaby robbed Fernandinho on the left and nearly found Bacuna at the near post only for Laporte to get there first. Bacuna was harshly booked for trying to meet the pass.

Shortly beforehand, Kongolo had a nicely struck shot easily saved while Walker may have been slightly fortunate only to see yellow for a lunging, dangerous challenge on Löwe.

The short lived dominance was encouraging and visibly unnerved the visitors but they regained control to see out a half where they were a little fortunate to be in front despite the obvious gulf in quality.

Presumably motivated by some Spanish invective in the dressing room, City put the game to bed before the hour. Upping the gears, the reigning champions were given the benefit of offside doubt twice as Sané and Sterling combined to devastating effect with a passing interchange which ended with the diminutive Englishman dive heading past a helpless Lössl.

Two minutes later, Sané scored a third as City capitalised on a misplaced pass by Puncheon. The home debutant had managed to escape a multi press inside his own half very well, only to shank his intended pass out wide to Danilo who played in Sané with an excellent ball matched by a composed, quality finish.

The fear was that the bottom club, desperately short of experience, would be obliterated but, in fact, City largely reverted back to comfortable complacency which may have been unconscious sympathy at the hopelessness of their opponents’ situation and circumstances.

Mounié replaced the raw Diakhaby whose main attribute, pace, needs to be supplemented with experience which may make him a player in time, and the Benin international had quite the 30 minutes. He curled an excellent shot just past the post, had a decent header routinely saved and won a lot of aerial duels. Unfortunately, his half hour will mainly be remembered for a horrendous miss with the last kick of the game when he fired wide from 3 yards out.

The consolation would have been a small and probably deserved boost for the beleaguered Terriers. Nobody could complain about their effort, there were little spells of decent play and considering the opponents, there was a desire not to be humiliated after a horrible start to the second half. 
City should have scored a fourth towards the end of the 90 minutes when the Silvas combined to put Bernardo through. Lössl, whose poor distribution caused the problem in the first place, made a good block to make up for it.

A strange afternoon, where emotions off the pitch were probably more relevant than the action upon it, was lightened considerably by cries of “ole” for a sequence of passing which put the league champions to shame. Their international superstars could only watch in amazement as a surge of confidence injected the home side’s play. Like an indulgent Labrador staring at a kitten discovering its surroundings, as seen on several thousand YouTube videos.

With Wagner gone, leaving a moving, genuine goodbye on the big screen at half time, the future of the club is now uncertain. Not the uncertainty which precedes collection buckets, the only thing which should ever be demanded of Dean Hoyle and barely worth mentioning because of its innate ludicrousness, but the rebuilding of the club after nigh on inevitable relegation.

Understandably, most if not all of the paeans to David Wagner concentrated on the timeframe from his arrival to Stamford Bridge. In totality, January 2018 to his departure have been disastrously poor, saved only by the colossal inheritance Premier League survival has bestowed.

An inability to score enough goals, to put it mildly, and the failure to improve that all important statistic threatens to create a death spiral even while financially advantaged in the league below. The new manager will have to rectify this by any means possible.

Even in the context of the Premier League, the goals for have been disastrously low and it has consistently undermined the evident progress elsewhere on the pitch; there have been long patches when our competence up to the final third has been more than adequate to keep our heads above water.

If the promotion and survival seasons had large dollops of good fortune, it’s complete absence since August has been painful. However, when things were going well, it could be easily argued that the luck which came our way was well earned through a collective spirit which shone brightly in everything the club did on and off the pitch. Setbacks, and there were a few, were easily left in the past while now they linger in a fog of uncertainty and indecision.

Underlying the change in fortune, the absence of the leader at the club, for reasons both beyond anyone’s control and infinitely more important than football, cannot have been anything but paralysing to an adventure built upon a deep, symbiotic relationship between two remarkable individuals. 
The new manager, hopefully to be installed early this week, has an enormous, multi layered, challenge in front of him. 

Realistically, preparation for the Championship has to be paramount, while at the same time delivering some joy and fight on the pitch in pursuit of a third consecutive miracle and restoring pride in the more likely event of demotion.

It seems inconceivable that Mooy, Billing and Kongolo will not be snapped up by non top 6 clubs in the summer or even before the month’s end and stripping out proven talent from a squad heavily weighted towards potential is fraught with danger. Schindler, Löwe and Kachunga’s close ties with Wagner must also put a question mark over their futures, while Zanka, Mounié and Lössl have international careers to protect.

It is a considerable stretch to compare Town’s current travails with replacing a Busby or Ferguson, but the dangers of massive change loom and the complexities of managing them cannot be underestimated.
On the plus side, the loyalty of the supporters and the wider community to a club experiencing severe difficulties has been exemplary, the new manager inherits a strong, committed team behind the scenes and a substantially improved infrastructure. The foundations for future success are in place.

So, goodbye Dave. Who could have foreseen the momentous achievements and who would swap the experiences even if, deep down, we knew it was too far, too fast?

Tribute to Wagner from members of the HTFC mailing list

The Huddersfield Town mailing list has been around since the very early days of the Internet and we continue our archaic ways with polite discussion on all things Town from around the country.

We have never felt moved to make any sort of statement to the wider world; until now.

This week has seen the departure of the remarkable David Wagner. A man of inspiration, innovation and transparent humanity who has led our club to heights none of us could ever expect.

The thrilling, unlikely ascent to the top league was packed with moments which will live long in the memories of all Town fans and the determination to overcome huge odds and massive disadvantage brought colossal pride to a town too often overlooked for far too long.

But David, his staff and his family and the impact they had on our community transcended football. He genuinely and immediately understood the town and the character of it’s populace which he cleverly, and without pretence, harnessed to the fortunes of its football club.

In a close and deep partnership with our equally visionary chairman, Dean Hoyle, players of character, potential and determination were moulded in to a squad who took on the richer Championship and Premier League clubs and achieved feats beyond our imaginations. With a no limits philosophy, an incredible work ethic on and off the field and unadulterated honesty, setbacks were quickly forgotten as the club amazed and thrilled us up and down the country. 

Huddersfield people, supporters from the wider West Yorkshire area and those in further flung parts recognised the difference David could bring almost immediately – after just two weeks, an under performing team (only a few of which would continue the journey) began to play with intensity and aggression and the first 2 defeats were greeted with appreciation and a sense of anticipation.

The transformation was amazing. Inspired, the fans came back, organised to create an incredible atmosphere at the ground and instinctively embraced the change David and his colleagues had brought. We don’t suffer fools, but, boy, we recognise a smart worker when we see one.

From the infamous Swedish island to the sheer ecstasy of Stamford Bridge, the story brimmed with memories and deserved, wonderful achievement. Hefele at Villa, Payne at St James Park, Mooy at Elland Road, single goal, supremely managed wins such as the one at Rotherham, the flawless win over Brighton, Collin’s intervention at Hillsborough and Ward’s heroics. Wembley and the fitting finale of Schindler’s penalty. The party in St George’s square with all of the personalities on unabashed display. 

Palace and a dream start to Premier League life, the downing of Mourinho’s United, the noisy backing of the team even in defeat, a Christmas video which delighted, Ince’s late, late winner, blanking an incredible Manchester City team on their own patch and Laurent’s goal at Chelsea, with survival – unlikely, brilliant survival – secured.

Wagner swept us all along. When doubts crept in, he calmly reassured, victories were joyously celebrated in the Germanic style and everything in the world was right. He brought us all together, including people not necessarily interested in football, charmed us and a lot of the outside world, with his unique German humour and he put Huddersfield back in the map.
Above all, he gave us pride. Pride in him, his team and our town. 

It was all far too short, but in those 3 years he wrote his name alongside Chapman, Buxton and Greaves.

He brought joy, togetherness and a spirit of adventure we hope can last long in to the future. On news of his departure, the gratitude of the supporters, players and all who came in to contact with him was immediate, sincere and brimming with emotion. This is ours.

Goodbye David and all the very best to you and your family in the future, we will never forget and would welcome you back any time.

Members of The Huddersfield Town mailing list including:

Paul Stephenson   Chris Sykes                  Bob Knowles              Chris Eastwood     Ed Bradley  

Richard Scowron    Richard Holt               James Bartaby         Kev Salmon            Neil Horley

Anthony Rigg         Nigel Woodcock       Gerry Wilde                Simon Evans           Will Shaw    

David Hobson       Peter Watson             Robert Pepper           Mark Abbott            Paul MacDonald

John Thornton       David Ling                   Christopher Beever   Doug Walker          Dan Exley

Nigel Dearnley       Gareth Hardcastle    John Thornton             Nick Thorpe             Marcus Garside

Chris Newton John Hirst

Pointless point in Principality

Perhaps the linesman who overruled Lee Mason’s decision to award a penalty to the visitors decided that this artless, clunking encounter didn’t deserve the gloss of a winning goal, and he would have had a point. 

Neither side really troubled either keeper in 90 minutes of grunting, soul sapping dirge – even when Lössl was called in to action, an offside flag made it redundant – and the lack of quality on show was stark.

As ever, Town were competent until in sight of goal but woefully inadequate thereafter. Largely nullifying Cardiff’s more direct style for much of the game, though Hadergjonaj had to make a last gasp challenge in the first half to prevent Morrison’s head down being converted by Hoilett, the visitors dominated possession but simply could not find the right pass, that elusive moment of quality or applied ruthlessness to capitalise.

Up top, Mounié performed manfully but his efforts were not reciprocated by team mates who failed to provide him with a single good opportunity despite working decent positions out wide in both halves. When three consecutive corners pick out the same first defender, sympathy for the Terriers’ miserable scoring record disappears.

The closest Town came to a goal was when Puncheon – who had a decent league debut – fed Kachunga in the area, only for the German to be closed down as he shot. Puncheon himself had an early shot which flew narrowly wide but these were rare moments in a game which barely elevated above dismal.

While the first half managed to hold some interest for both sets of fans, the second descended in to largely unwatchable attrition. Town were slightly the better of the two teams on the ball but decent periods of pressure simply failed to produce any opportunities. 

With 15 minutes to go in a game Town simply had to win to reduce the chasm which eight successive league defeats has opened, a raking pass by Billing found Hadergjonaj raiding down the right. Tussling with Bennett, the Swiss was brought down and after a moment of consideration, Lee Mason pointed to the spot for Town’s first penalty of the season.

Encouraged by several Cardiff players to seek a second opinion from his linesman, the decision was overturned for reasons unknown. At least we were spared the ignominy of someone missing it.

A win would have been undeserved and, in any case, would have made little difference to the inevitability of relegation but the complete absence of good fortune continues to plague the season, piling on the agony and deflating what vestiges of confidence remain.

A point at Cardiff on the back of a good December would have been more than acceptable, but that disastrous month sealed our demise. With no solutions to our desperate scoring record anywhere in sight, the next few months promise to be bleak to say the least.

The Hateful Eight

When Mounié met Mbenza’s perfect cross to put Huddersfield Town in to the lead in a game they surely had to win to cling on to any hope of survival, they were rewarded for a competent, if not exactly spectacular, opening half hour and the success starved home support revelled in the highlight of the night, possibly the year.

In truth and by the time the lead was established, Burnley were already the more likely team to triumph. Town’s play was scrappy and unfocused and the excellent Mbenza cross was an outlier though the relief for Mounié scoring his first, very well taken, goal of the season was tangible.

It all fell apart rapidly as the visitors deservedly levelled within 5 minutes. The excellent young prospect Dwight McNeil, starting only his second Premier League game, tormented the fragile Hadergjonaj, and not for the first time, on the left and swept in a low cross for Wood to equalise from close range. Given Hadergjonaj’s quite awful form, it was a major surprise for him to be selected over Durm though the German’s vulnerability to injury and unsuitability to playing two full games in a week may have forced Wagner’s hand.

Just one minute later, Schindler, apparently blissfully unaware that he had been booked, illegally halted a dangerous Burnley attack – which was initiated by a woeful restart by Town (the increasingly irritating ball back for Zanka to stop and Schindler to launch) – and the bemused German was sent off. 

Though there could be some sympathy for Schindler falling foul of Mike Dean’s idiosyncratic yellow card brandishing, the sheer folly of the situation highlighted the desperately muddled state of the club right now. Alternatively, it is also difficult to summon sympathy when a cynical play (the chances of Burnley scoring were high) results in the ultimate punishment. 

Down to ten – an equation we struggle with both when depleted or facing the depleted – Town’s paddle could be seen floating down the shitty creek. The Clarets had already shown they were a more efficient outfit who passed more crisply, moved more effectively and played with sheds more confidence and it was difficult to imagine anything other than another gloomy outcome.

So it proved. Pritchard’s creativity was replaced by Durm’s versatility when any reshuffle should have seen Hadergjonaj relieved of his misery instead. Mechanical, obvious thinking won the day as it almost always does – Mounié tried, unsuccessfully, to play in the spaces left by his diminutive colleague and was peripheral at best for the rest of the game.

The effort of most in the second half couldn’t be faulted, but Burnley’s control of the ball was exhaustingly effective and it was only a matter of time before they took a likely unassailable lead. 

The goal owed much to excellent centre forward play by Wood who, despite missing a very good headed chance at the back post, had an excellent game – one which could be instructive to both Mounié and Depoitre. Taking a ball with his back to goal, he laid it back first time with his head, moved in to space and received the ball back before moving it on. Burnley had, by the time Wood had done his work, overloaded Town’s back four and Barnes was played in to slot past Lössl.

Town’s attempts to get an equaliser in an increasingly frantic finale were far from convincing and the appearance of Depoitre (for the injured Durm) with 5 minutes to play didn’t augur well – Town have yet to score a goal when both he and Mounié are on the pitch but as the injury time board was held up, a good run from Mbenza was ended by a dangerous challenge by Brady which brought a well deserved red.

Billing lined up a shot from the free kick which was a decent effort but cleared the bar with Heaton scrambling and the 8th consecutive defeat was confirmed.

While there is no way of knowing if the result would have been different without the sending off, deep down those of a blue and white persuasion must concede that Dyce’s men looked more accomplished for most of the game and misses the crucial point anyway – for two seasons we have operated on the edge. One goal wins with good game management in the Championship and just enough paper thin wins and draws in the Premier League have provided two memorable campaigns but, eventually, when you are on that edge, you are going to fall off.

Criticism of the summer recruitment is valid but often ignores the reality of attracting players to a club certain to be fighting against expected relegation and the long term financial consequences of not planning for life in the league below. Mbenza is a case in point – loaned in for his potential, the early signs were not at all good but his displays at Old Trafford and against Burnley suggest that there is a player to emerge. He should have played at Fulham.

Barring a miraculous recovery, Town are down and need to prepare to take advantage of their financial strength next season – an advantage which will change the narrative we have been used to and which will present its own challenges.

The club owes the supporters a cup run now. A shadow team at Bristol on Saturday is not acceptable – they MUST take it seriously.