Town kop another beating

In the run up to this ridiculously mismatched contest, the media applied the epithet “already relegated” to Huddersfield Town. While it made a change from Huddersfield Town nil, it was also a message to Liverpool – drop points here and bottling would be redefined.

Conceding within 15 seconds, with Stankovíc trying to play out from the back as two rather decent footballers breathed down his neck, that notion was instantly buried.

Kieta robbed the over casual Slovenian, received a pass from Salah and beat Lössl with some comfort to record Liverpool’s fastest ever Premier League goal. The visitors had managed to turn kick off in to a golden opportunity for opponents hardly reliant on such a gift.

If there had been even a glimmer of hope for Town, and this is a stretch demanding a lot of imagination, it was to frustrate the Reds and jangle their nerves as they strived to put pressure on the other outstanding team in the division vying for a title both deserve to win.

Ironically, rather than being a prelude to Liverpool asserting their overwhelming quality, Town produced 15 minutes of decent football which almost lead to an immediate shock equaliser as Stankovíc found himself in space and side footed an attempt goal wards which deflected wide off Lovren for a poorly delivered corner.

Mbenza had an effort blocked and also delivered a dangerous cross which Mouníe failed to convert, and the striker nearly connected with another corner as the visitors took the game to their hosts.

As ever, the bright spell faded away quickly but it should be noted that there was more adventure in that brief period than in the whole of the last visit to Anfield.

With a palpable yawn, Liverpool woke up to the fact that they needed to put away this upstart and, lead by the imperious Van Dijk who, striding forward in to a space he created for himself by disdainfully swatting off any attempt to intrude upon his elegance set up Robinson to swing in a perfect cross for Mané to bury.

Any pretence of competition disappeared with the doubling of the lead and the home side set their eyes on the one area where they are well behind City; goal difference. The Terriers had contributed to the discrepancy in their 6-1 capitulation with a scratch Wagner side in the second game of the season, so this was the Merseysiders’ lamb slaughtering catch up opportunity.

As the injury time board was held up showing just 1 minute to be added, Alexander-Arnold played a sumptuous ball through to Salah who expertly lobbed Lössl to salt the visitors’ gaping wounds.

Anfield, a little more atmospheric than last season, applauded off their team who had barely broken sweat for their 3-0 lead and could even afford 15 minutes of complacency  against a team consistently exposed as massively out of their depth. 

Only the dynamic Bacuna – who was taken out 3 times by Kieta without a word to the Guinean from a typically indulgent referee – provided comfort to the visiting supporters though Grant’s fearless if not flawless work out of position on the left promises good things as well.

Liverpool could, and probably should, have closed the goals gap on City to the point of parity in a second half played in an increasingly swirling, cold wind. As it was, Mané planted a fine header past Lössl following an excellent Henderson cross and Salah steered home a low cross from the excellent Robinson after a defence splitting Shaqiri pass had played in the Scotsman on the left and the hosts went nap.

Shaqiri had been brought on as a substitute. Oxlade-Chamberlain was brought on as a substitute on his return from horrific injury at the back end of last season. We brought on Löwe, a left back, to replace alleged striker Mounié.

With Mané hitting the post, Lössl saving well from Oxlade-Chamberlain and the hosts rather over elaborating at times, the score was a little way off humiliation but still humbling.

Town had actually been the first to get the ball in the net in the second half but the excellent Bacuna was deprived by a correct offside call – Sturridge was similarly denied minutes later.

Before those judgements, however, Mounié managed to encapsulate everything which has been wrong with the Terriers all season. After exposing Lovren with a decent attack featuring Grant, a loose clearance allowed the Beninese a clear run on goal with both Grant and Bacuna free to his right. Mounié took so long to weigh up his options you could almost visualise the confused thought bubbles. Mané – a guy who plays up front for the equal best team in the country, vying to be the best in Europe – got back to dispossess him.

There have been many situations which could have been the final straw for the immobile, indecisive non scoring striker – his failure to play in Matt Daly last week, for instance; surely and finally this piece of ineptitude will be it?

For supporters, the yearning for an end to the relentless punishment endures. There is a certain joy in the gallows humour which masks the humiliation of being one of the most inept teams in the top flight (going back way beyond 1992), but neither is there any comfort in looking to the future at a level at which we should be able to compete, there being little evidence – Bacuna and Grant aside – that the decline can be halted.

Two theories about Siewert compete amongst the fans; he is either hidebound by the circumstances in to which he was plunged and worthy of a transfer window to transform our fortunes or an entirely unproven naïf who has shown little discernible aptitude for the job.

Successful succession planning rather assumes a smooth transition in calm circumstances, not parachuting in an inexperienced (in fact, non experienced in terms of first team football) coach to take over from an emotionally drained miracle worker. Town have done themselves nor Siewert any favours at all when Hudson could have guided the club down without the apparent friction created by a man, understandably, trying to make his mark.

A heavy defeat to an elite club and team has to be viewed in context, but as another chapter in an appalling, exhausting season of hopelessness, Town’s incessant failure cannot simply be ignored.

Perhaps the future ownership will be clearer by the end of this week, if rumours are to be believed, which may, finally, lead to some evidence of planning for the rigours of the relentless Championship season ahead. 

The club, which barely deserves the number of season tickets sold, must start communicating messages beyond the banalities emanating from them at the moment (like a picture of the away dressing room before the game last night). Even a little reassurance would be welcome, if not universally believed.

Still, it’s nearly over, thank God.

Quality gap exposed again

That a youngster from League One has become Huddersfield Town’s top scorer in just a few short months as he adapts to life at the top level tells you all you need to know about a squad which continues to fail to deliver even scraps of hope to a remarkably supportive fan base.

As has been the case for nearly a season and a half, Town faced opponents with much greater quality, application and coherence playing within themselves for much of the game and finding thwarting the sporadic threat the home team could muster all too easy.

An early goal for the FA Cup finalists – it would be due reward for a great season if the Hornets overcome the City juggernaut – augured badly for the Terriers who, in time honoured style, rather gifted the opportunity to the talented Deulofeu when a ball from Lössl to Hogg put the ex-Watford man in some trouble. 

His attempt to extricate himself saw him robbed and left defenders in big trouble behind him. Kongolo made a great block from Doucouré only for the ball to rebound to Deulofeu. The Spaniard bamboozled the recovering Kongolo and planted the ball in off the post with a marvellous piece of skill.

A pretty dreary first half followed with a Mooy free kick and a decent effort by Mbenza which was too close to Foster to cause much concern briefly enlivening proceedings. The shape and composition of the team was much better than last week’s horrendous mistake and there were one or two encouraging releases of Smith down the right and Durm down the left by the lively Bacuna but gloom largely pervaded.

Hogg, on a booking and near the edge of a red was withdrawn for debutant Daly and the youngster acquitted himself pretty well – had Mounié played him in during a bright period in the second half, he could well have capped his debut with an equaliser.

After the interval, Town were a little brighter and a little more competitive but rarely troubled Foster in the Watford goal as the final third failings which has engulfed all the other efforts throughout the season were exposed once more.

Grant, on whose shoulders next season appear to be weighing, replaced the disappointing and fundamentally immobile Mounié just after the hour. Other than his failure to release Daly in a momentarily dangerous looking counter attack, the Beninese had overhead kicked a loose ball over the bar and failed to connect with a decent Mbenza cross. His overall contribution was marginal, however.

Another feature of many games this season has been the obligatory 10-15 minutes of decent play. It rarely leads to a goal, never changes the course of events and cruelly tantalises supporters who wonder why these brief sparks of competence cannot be sustained and never deliver anyway. 

As hope is crushed on impact with the final third of the pitch, it is only a matter of time for the invariably superior opposition to counter and when Watford broke up Town possession halfway in the home half, alarm bells started ringing. Sema made a strong run past Durm before his dangerous low cross was deflected to Doucouré who brought out a good save from Lössl only for the ball to fall to Deulofeu to place a killer second past despairing home defenders.

A late consolation by Grant, who seems to have significantly more instinct in the box than the rest of Town’s failing strikers put together, put a little gloss on the predictably dispiriting affair – the goal means we have equalled the record low scoring season in the Premier League, held by Derby County. One more and the tiniest scrap of comfort can be drawn.

With ownership uncertainty, doubts over the new manager and one or two players going through the motions before inevitable departure, it remains incredible that the club receives the vocal support heard in the second half – some time soon, they need to see a plan to halt a debilitating decline which seems inevitable as things stand.

On the positive side, Bacuna and Kongolo performed excellently for the whole game, Grant looks like the type of poacher who could thrive in the Championship and Lössl reminded us what a good goalkeeper looks like.

It is anybody’s guess what sort of team Siewert will put out at Anfield but the challenge looks monumentally beyond any combination. 

Dazzled and befuddled

Town’s latest gig on the tour of forlorn futility rolled up to Tottenham Hotspur’s gleaming new citadel in North London to provide the Lilywhites with some light relief between their Champions League quarter final match up with Manchester City.

Feasting on the doomed Terriers in a ludicrously one sided first half, Spurs dictated the tempo of the game with measured ease. Pochettino had the luxury of resting his major players knowing that he could have picked a team out of a hat to secure 3 points. His counterpart Siewert appears to have actually followed that plan with another failed experiment which managed to add a new level of frailty to his so far entirely uninspiring tenure.

The timorous visitors approached the game with a debilitating level of fear and should have been buried well before a quick double between the 24th and 27th minute gave the score line a semblance of reality. For the first, Stanković was embarrassed by Llorente on the edge of the area before the Spaniard fed Wanyama to waltz through the little resistance there was in front of him. Minutes later, Durm lost the ball on the halfway line allowing a lightning fast counter which ended with Lucas Moura firing under the hapless Hamer.

Revelling in their sumptuous new surroundings, Tottenham strolled their way through a first half without, remarkably, adding to their lead leaving the away support with no choice but to stick around in the unlikely event that the old adage of 2-0 being a dangerous lead came true.

In fairness, Town showed more fight in the second half and had an excellent cross by Hogg been guided in by Mounié on the three quarter mark rather than creeping agonisingly wide, the game may have become interesting. By that point, the home side had contrived to miss a plethora of chances and their profligacy may have come back to haunt them. 

Prior to the miss, Bacuna had released Grant with an excellent ball only for the youngster to run out of steam at the vital moment. These two combined again later to no avail but they represent just about the only hope that the club can be revitalised next season.

For the time being, we look hopelessly out of our depth even against lesser lights than a scratch Spurs team who scored two late goals through Mauro, allowing the Brazilian a first Premier League hat trick. The record books won’t have an asterisk denoting the appalling opposition he faced to achieve the feat.

A raucous celebration of our lamentable team at half time in the concourse provided just about the only entertainment for the visiting support – once it was broken up by stadium staff the beleaguered travellers had to go back out to endure yet another humiliation in a season of desperate, dreary tedium.

Growing and serious question marks now surround Siewert. Not because he has picked up just one, streaky, win since his appointment or because he has been unable to produce miracles with a squad destined for relegation long before he arrived or that he lost to a team on a completely different financial plane, but because there has been no discernible improvement in tactics or performance; pretty much the opposite, in fact.

Our identity was lost before he took over, but the path from dogged, aggressive Terriers to supine poodles has been accelerated rather than reversed. The pride we had in a team battling overwhelming odds has been replaced by the shame of humiliation, disguised with scathing self mockery.

The club is in a dangerous place and the decline is becoming malignant.

‘72 Revisited

Huddersfield Town were predictably dismantled by a Leicester side brimming with talent and confidence and they added a twist of cruelty by not emphasising their massive superiority in the first half with more than a slender 1-0 lead.

A bright start in the second half saw the home team achieve a semblance of threat before Vardy made it 2-0 following the Foxes’ first serious foray.

Reflecting the horrors of a season which has trashed the legacy built by Wagner and Hoyle, home supporters were given a glimmer of hope when the first penalty of the season was converted by Mooy only for the visitors’ overwhelming superiority to be reasserted as Town’s forlorn search for an equaliser was foiled.

Hogg, who picked up a cheap booking pulling back the excellent Maddison, tried to be calm on the edge of the area when a clearance was demanded and fouled Vardy as the ex-England striker nipped in to dispossess him. Maddison curled the free kick past a poorly constructed wall and the worryingly execrated Hamer to seal the points.

Vardy’s late penalty gave the score line a more realistic representation of the yawning gap of quality, organisation and resilience between the mismatched teams. By that point, many had left the stadium for pursuits elsewhere wracked with fear and doubt over the future of their club. 

Financial stability is the consolation but the stench of failure is beginning to hang heavy around a club which still does a hell of a lot right off the pitch – the invite to the girl from Texas inspired by Mooy was typical of that – but for how long will they be able to roll this turd in golden glitter?

Parallels with 1972 and probably the darkest period in Town’s history become stronger and stronger. Experienced, well remunerated players sidelined after making their departures public, disintegration on the pitch as dismal failure permeates and destroys confidence and the ownership, through no fault of his own this time, appearing to be ready to go. Gallows humour is just about the only thing left for a brutalised support.

Jan Siewert’s tenure has not gone well. One win over Wolves, a club seemingly and bizarrely hexed by the Terriers, doesn’t begin to mask his unremitting failure to offer any signs of hope despite some pretty brave decisions which are unmistakably experimental. Brief glimmers of excitement are all too easily buried by the cruel realities of a division far beyond the capabilities of many in the squad and the ease and propensity of collapse during games reflects a potentially engulfing chaos.

The appointment of Siewert is looking increasingly like an attempt to reheat a soufflé. There was undoubted logic in formulating a Wagner succession plan, but that surely presupposed a smooth transition rather than the quite horrible circumstances pertaining in January and since.

Where once the underdog Terrier identity was defining and useful, dropping down to the Championship with riches beyond the imagination as recently as 3 years ago has to mean change. We cannot pretend to be the paupers we once were – while geography and image still mitigates against established, quality players choosing the club, money does talk. That reality must be grasped and turned to advantage rather than ignored as being too vulgar.

Town’s situation surely demands an experienced manager to oversee a well recruited squad through the rigours of the Championship, but the reality is that the Siewert gamble will be played out to its conclusion. There is little evidence that the conclusion will be joyous, but maybe the planets will align as perfectly as they did once Wagner got the squad he wanted?

For many, the drop down barely registers as a disaster, and there are many aspects of the Premier League which won’t be missed – not least the Sisyphean futility of staying up – but this acceptance could easily translate in to a further relegation. It has happened to bigger clubs than us.

The unlamented Rebbe has yet to be replaced at a time which could be being used productively to source the players to make us competitive, which is an added worry to a pile of concerns over the short term future.

Back to the game itself; woeful passing, wasteful free kicks and corners and an all pervading lack of cohesion doomed Town from the start and a 3rd home win never looked like happening. To his credit, the much maligned Hamer kept the first half score down with some decent goalkeeping to deny the ever dangerous Gray but it was only postponing the inevitable.

Improved after the break, Town finally perturbed Leicester’s back four but ……. ah, who cares.

On to Spurs to look around their new home ahead of another thraping. 

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.