Willy Waving and the outrage factory

In case you’ve been wondering where the Town match reports have gone, and I can tell you that at least 3 people have made this enquiry (though 2 of them just asked without suggesting they were missed), they are the victim of Carlos Corberán’s squad’s relentless winning.

It’s not that I don’t like Town triumphs, it’s just that it has become monotonous and I find the style of play disconcertingly bloodless despite the occasional burst of excitement.

In the context of following a football team, this is an extremely first world problem and almost entirely assuaged by the phenomenal points total achieved. I just stopped wanting to write about it and will wait until we revert to being mediocre again (where all the nuggets lay).

However, I am moved to put down thoughts on the upcoming play off final; the culmination of a remarkable season which was supposed to be about anchoring ourselves to mid table and away from any drama.

A slow, Covid impacted start – not helped by having to face Fulham with a threadbare team and a keeper with a reverse Midas touch – culminated in a win against an equally dire Preston without having a shot on target.

The bad news pretty much ended there. A low cost, highly motivated and together group of players gradually won over a support ground down by the unabated drudgery of defeat and failure. 2020/2021, a season followed over laptops and tablets, was the final straw for many but most of those who resolved to stay away are probably, and happily, back in the fold now.

As ever with Huddersfield Town, the greatest success comes with barely a price tag and the ingenuity of Bromby and his recruitment team has paid off in spades, burying the understandable scepticism of most as one uninspiring signing after another trudged through the doors. How wrong we were.

Inevitably, a low cost squad lacked the free flowing flair of the top 2 in the division. Probably some of the bottom 6 too, but dips in results were few and far between all the way through and often predicated on matches falling too soon after travel.

The two league defeats in 2022 – more on the cup defeat later – fitted this pattern with a confidence shattering draw at West Brom preceding an entirely flat performance in South London and the traditional battering by Bournemouth. Then I returned from the States and there have been no defeats for me not to report upon, and just one draw.

Despatching Luton in the play off semi-final with less than convincing displays nevertheless broke the spell of never recording a home play off win without penalties. It has been a major feature of the season to break several voodoos, including a win at Middlesbrough which pretty much confirmed an extension to the season.

And so, to Forest. Excitable, hugely enthusiastic and desperate Forest.

Back in the early Spring, Town drew the Tricky Trees in the 5th round of the FA Cup. A rather mundane tie between 2 clubs from the same division, both with more pressing concerns than a competition they wouldn’t win. Then the 6th round draw was made, before the tie, and the East Midlanders’ unbridled joy at the prospect of a home game against Liverpool rather drowned out Town fans’ mild stirrings.

This outbreak of Tiggerish excitement was explained by the fact that Forest hadn’t played Liverpool for around 40 years and the collective memories of Clough inspired glory days were triggered to slightly uncomfortable levels. This is not to disparage the emotions – Town fans of a certain age will remember being drawn against a Gaza and Lineker inspired Spurs side in the 90s before losing to Blackpool in a rearranged tie. The disappointment was not only palpable, it is still remembered.

Town’s commitment to the game at a ground where they had rather robbed 3 points a few months previously seemed less than convincing and a fairly weak team was quite easily beaten despite taking the lead. The disappointment was fleeting and rather subsumed by astonishment at the endearing but vaguely odd celebrations of Forest fans.

Playing celebration police is never a good look and we have endured such crap before, but it was a little weird to see a famous and undoubtedly big club prostrate itself at the feet of the Premier League giants and compound it by desperately searching for evidence that the Scousers cared that it had been so long.

The build up to Wembley is taking a similar shape. It matters enormously to Forest that they are promoted to a league they have been away from for so long and, again, this is understandable. It is, however, nearly a quarter of a century since they disappeared from the top table and despite the delusions of some of their fan base, there hasn’t been a massive clamour for their return. 

Premier League clubs care about just one thing. Themselves. Most of them look at promoted clubs as likely fodder who will keep them afloat and away from relegation. They couldn’t give a toss about the City Ground’s capacity, history or atmosphere and once the first few months of unending patronisation is over, neither will anyone else.

Forest’s own play off semi final rather betrayed what could well be their Achilles’ Heel. An excellent hour at Bramall Lane saw them dominate and run roughshod over an injury hit Sheffield United, who wouldn’t have been able to complain if they had been 4 down, but they weren’t and a late goal pulled the tie back from a Forest formality to competitive.

At home, the expectations of their swelled support overheated the team and despite Forest grabbing a lead, they were second best for long periods as the weight of expectations bore down. A fortunate save by the excellent Samba near the end kept Forest in the game and Sheffield United crumbled in the penalty shoot out as badly as they did 10 years ago.

Man for man and £ for very little £, Nottingham Forest have better players than Huddersfield Town and this was evident in both league encounters. 

In the first one in West Yorkshire, the stifling presence of Houghton had been banished and the visitors were entirely convincing 2-0 winners and collected their first 3 points of the season under a caretaker manager.

It was a different story at the City Ground. As with a fair number of games this season, Town fans left at the end wondering how a win had been achieved and they particularly rode their luck on this occasion. However, one of the most difficult away games had been successfully negotiated and Town’s unbeaten streak of 17 was well underway.

At Wembley, Town fans can’t really lose. A defeat will be disappointing, of course, but a season where their presumed doomed team finished 3rd and reached a play off final is nothing less than an outstanding success. And we know what is in store for the winners.

For Forest, it is difficult not to sense that they are putting themselves under enormous pressure with their untrammelled belief in their destiny and they will not be helped by a media who very much like the look of Forest’s history and desperation for Premier League football.

Next Sunday will rest on a few factors; the quite fascinating clash of 2 of the best coaches in the game (not just the Championship), Forest’s attacking intent from the start and how Town cope with that, how Forest react to frustration if they can’t get past a stingy Town defence and at what point the favourites begin to tire as they are want to do.

Most of all, however, will be how Forest cope with all the self inflicted pressure. If they don’t let the occasion overwhelm them, they are the more likely to win but it is just as likely that Town’s stifling and pragmatic style can pile on the pressure and create the few openings they need to win.

For many Town fans, defeat will be met with stoic disappointment. Memories of the sheer ruthlessness of a brutal league rather tempers the excitement this time around and it just isn’t convincing that inevitable and grinding defeats will be accepted on the altar of earning lots of money.

Regardless of the consequences of winning, however, win we must.

The stakes are much higher for Forest and you rather fear for them if they fail. They are reliant on a few too many loans, the obvious talent of some they do own will be gone and the estimable Cooper will have something of a rebuild to do. Winning will resolve these issues but the other problems begin.

For both sets of fans – enjoy it and remember it’s only a game.

See you on the other side.

Optimism quietly rises

Scoreless draws take a few forms. The one in Lancashire midweek was a poor example of the genre, while yesterday’s Yorkshire derby was a stalemate at it’s best.

This was despite only one save of note being made by the keepers and genuine chances being at a premium; it was the spectacle of two pretty decent teams going toe to toe for a win which created an edge of the seat drama right through to injury time.

With both teams in form – though the much nicer Sheffield club’s rise up the table has been built on wins while Town’s admirable unbeaten run has relied on resilience and draws – a tight contest was expected, in which the visitors began as favourites.

Carlos Corberán sprung some selection surprises with the inclusion of Russell in midfield and Ruffles at left back in place of Toffolo. The former had thrilled and intrigued supporters in the cup against Barnsley, though some remained sceptical about his pace and ability to compete against the better midfields in this division, while Ruffles’ elevation over a pretty subdued incumbent has possibly been too long coming.

Russell, whose languid style is at once thrilling and alarming, produced a first class, if not flawless, Championship debut and would have celebrated his arrival with a goal but for the incompetence of officials who incorrectly interpreted a tussle in the 6 yard box which should’ve been a penalty, not the cause of disallowing Russell’s excellent header.

Not long afterwards, United appeared to illegally prevent Russell meeting another corner. 

The referee, who had a very poor first half with both the big decisions and the more mundane ones, which included leaving unpunished a ridiculous number of niggly and cynical fouls by the Blades in the opening 15 minutes, managed to balance out the generous calls Town have had over the past few weeks.

It was unfortunate for Berge to collect the booking his team deserved, but the overdue caution settled things down and the game was all the better for it.

An excellent start by the hosts yielded too little threat with a tame Ward header from a difficult angle and a wild shot from Pipa being the meagre return for some otherwise enterprising play.

Once the Blades stopped infringing and started playing, their quality began to emerge and a dominant 10 minutes rather unsettled Town who found it difficult to gain possession and gave it away cheaply when they did. However, and like their hosts, United were unable to turn superiority in to genuine chances.

The pendulum swung back in Town’s favour once they got to grips with United’s surge and it was noticeable that this followed O’Brien giving Russell some forceful positioning advice as the debutant’s defensive inexperience had been a little exposed.

Getting back on the front foot, Town put together some decent combinations to create some shooting opportunities for Ward but the top scorer failed to connect with one effort and hit the other tamely wide.

Down the left, Ruffels was having an excellent Championship full debut, attacking with energy and defending well against Sheffield’s dangerous right side. Sadly, his left side partner, Koroma, was not up to speed and wasted good attacks with poor choices; a failure which was to recur badly in the second half.

It was Ruffels who won the corner from which Russell scored the disallowed effort. An excellent Thomas delivery was superbly met by the soaring debutant only for the nonsense on the line – Baldock wrestled Ward to the ground and Fotheringham fell over him – to be misinterpreted by the referee, linesman or fourth official (or a combination of the 3). The referee was clearly happy with the goal and allowed celebrations to go on longer than it usually takes to dawn.

Doubly annoying as it was, a goal for Russell would have capped a very good first half, Town haven’t much room to complain about referee decisions recently, though this looked entirely like a cop out for officials unsure what had happened on the line.

To their credit, Town didn’t collectively sulk and finished the half strongly with intent and a flurry of corners. They had been the better side and more than unfortunate to be going in level.

The second half proved to be much more even as the Blades’ quality came more to the fore. Berge, in particular, saw more of the ball though perhaps more could be expected of a clearly talented player than neat, tidy and very safe passing. 

It was Town, however, who should have made much more of an excellent break with United found short at the back. No fewer than 3 players gave Koroma options to left and right only for the out of form winger to lose the ball to an outnumbered defender.

A rare poor ball from Hogg, who is looking far more like the influence he is in the past two games, saw Russell robbed midway in his own half which allowed United to break. A rare opportunity for McBurnie saw him loop a header towards goal, but the attempt was comfortably gathered by Nicholls, who also saved a reasonable Berge effort minutes later.

For Town, Pipa and Thomas were combining well down the right to cause the visitors’ problems but the openings were always thwarted by good defending. The combination, however, augurs well for the final run in.

Koroma was finally, and mercifully, replaced by Holmes just after the hour and the Anglo-American made a big difference with a performance brimming with energy and intent, in stark contrast to his midweek efforts.

The awkward McBurnie’s elbow found the face of his captor, Matt Pearson. Town’s central defenders, augmented out of possession by Hogg, were excellent throughout and Sharp was similarly subdued by Lees with an off target shot his only contribution of note.

By this point, Russell’s vision and range of passing came to the fore. He regularly released his colleagues down right and left with perfectly weighted balls, some of which were things of beauty.

As the last 10 loomed, Corberán tried to make changes to win the game and replaced the excellent Ruffles with Sinani, but the adjacent decision to move O’Brien to left back, which had unwelcome echoes of last season’s campaign, took a while to be exposed and Toffolo, rather than the original choice of Rhodes, was chosen to replace Ward and get O’Brien back in midfield.

The confusion very nearly became a catastrophe when Toffolo made a complete hash of a routine clearance and presented the Blades with an opportunity they rather wasted.

Another penalty shout, this time from Pipa who went down under a double challenge, looked optimistic in real time but pretty conclusive on replay. At the other end, Pipa gave away a needless corner which nearly resulted in a late winner for the South Yorkshire men.

A practised routine found Fleck unmarked just outside the box and the Scotsman caught the ball very sweetly. Nicholls saw it through a crowd of players and finger tipped it on to the post and then off his leg for a corner. A wonderful save from possibly the player of the season so far. It preserved his 14th clean sheet, and it is testament to his abilities that those are all founded on his mastery of the basic goalkeeping skills which he carries out with supreme simplicity. Throughout this derby, his confident, calm collection of crosses, headers and any other threats was massively influential.

A Russell header, easily saved by Fotheringham was Town’s last attempt for a winner and an absorbing, entertaining encounter came to a close.

Both clubs remain in contention for a play off position and, from a Town perspective, it was gratifying to equal a very good Blades outfit. The return of Colwill, the intriguing arrival of Anjorin and the emergence of competition in midfield and at left back could prove crucial in the imminent run in. 

Maybe this squad can avoid ritual humiliation at Craven Cottage next week or even better. After all, they have got to 50 points before Valentine’s Day and secured Championship status far earlier than many, or any, of us believed in August.

Dreary night at Deepdale

A desperately poor game at Deepdale, venue of Huddersfield Town disappointment since 1969, saw the Terriers’ unbeaten run maintained but did nothing to enhance their play off credentials.

While a rare point in this corner of Lancashire was welcome and the defensive display admirable, the complete lack of threat to the Lilywhites throughout was disappointing for a team high in the table, and the final flurries of a game which had stalemate stamped all over it belonged to the home side who had a credible penalty shout in and amongst being thwarted by the excellent Nicholls.

Desperately poor performances by Sinani, who constantly made wrong decisions and lost possession on far too many occasions, and Holmes, for whom nothing went right on a frustrating evening, rather undermined Town’s efforts going forward and it was left far too late to replace one or both of them to try and create some change.

Ward’s hard work, touch and energy were entirely wasted through lack of support and his withdrawal in favour of Rhodes was a huge signal from Corberán that the point was to be preserved, rather than trying to win the game by putting two up front.

Rhodes is not an effective lone striker, which must be known to Town’s management, and losing Ward’s unselfish endeavour simply handed the initiative to Preston and the visitors ended up fortunate to gain a point which had looked reasonably comfortable until the last 10 minutes.

As an attacking force, Town were virtually non existent. Thomas managed a couple of runs and crosses but there were too few colleagues in the box as conservatism pervaded the team. While Sinani and Holmes’s ineffectiveness was key to a poor offensive performance, O’Brien’s surging was largely snuffed out too.

The attack and defence seemed unbalanced all evening, and cohesion suffered accordingly. To gain a point when playing poorly, because several defensive players came out of the game very positively, is not to be sniffed at but the spectacle did nothing to dispel the feeling that Town are a little, and possibly more, short of play off quality.

The return of Colwill after the weekend and the imminent arrival of his Chelsea colleague on loan may well change the dynamic and will certainly give Corberán better options for the final run in. The current squad battles on, and while the Deepdale showing was pretty dire, they are maintaining momentum.

Sheffield United present a stiff lunchtime test on Saturday, and Town can suffer with early kick offs following a midweek Wednesday game, and a big offensive improvement will be needed.

Earning your luck

The football gods have heaped more than a fair share of good fortune on Town this season, which continued in midweek as Wayne Rooney’s Derby County came looking for more points to aid their unlikely survival bid. 

If you hold your nose against the stench of over spending cheating going back to Frank Lampard’s Derby County and beyond, there is something rather heroic in their efforts to claw back the penalties imposed upon them and their support is clearly rallying around the flag in times of adversity. The visiting support was particularly vociferous all evening.

Town’s good fortune continued as a reckless challenge on O’Brien by his erstwhile colleague Stearman, following an excellent early press which forced a big error, had the referee producing a fairly straightforward red card. It was just as reckless, and probably more so, as Koroma’s on Friday night but this time the referee was competent.

It has been a regular feature down the years that Town are often comically inept when facing 10 men, though they did take advantage when Blackpool were reduced a few weeks ago; even so, Stearman’s departure was not quite the gift outsiders would assume.

Naturally, the Rams were limited by the decision and what promised to be an open and exciting game became a frustrating and attritional affair with the visitors, not unnaturally, digging in for a point and Town struggling to make their numerical supremacy count for long periods.

The initial euphoria of seeing an opposition player dismissed usually wanes fairly quickly as it dawns that the advantage is more marginal than assumed and frustration, on and off the pitch, follows on behind. Town didn’t deserve the boos of a small amount of supporters, but their attempts to pick their way through a deep defensive wall were not particularly inspiring and creating good chances proved difficult.

Not that the home side lacked energy and, if anything, it was over elaboration which saw them falter as they sighted goal. One intricate move involving Sinani, Toffolo and O’Brien opened up the visitors at last only for Holmes’ effort from a fairly tight angle to be well saved by Allsop (a dead ball was mistakenly awarded).

Overall, though, Town were restricted to half chances and thwarted by a very good defensive performance by the visitors.

Unsurprisingly, Corberán’s half time change saw Pearson replaced by Eiting who finally saw a peopled stadium as his second Town career begins. With Hogg moving to defence, Corberán was signalling good intent, but Eiting’s stumbling introduction to the game with 3 consecutive poor passes failed to provide the desired momentum.

In fact, the first chance of note fell to Derby and Town only escaped considerable embarrassment because Sibley just failed to bring the ball under control when he was heading for a one on one with Nicholls.

The scare did prompt a reaction from Town, though they still failed to threaten as the final 20 minutes approached. They should have been further aided by another sending off when Ebosele, who impressively snuffed out Thomas’s threat pretty much entirely, fouled O’Brien to stop a break having already been booked for kicking the ball away.

Rather belatedly, after nearly half an hour of insignificant threat from the home side, Corberán replaced Hogg with Rhodes and gave the Rams something different to think about. By this point, Pipa had revitalised the right flank having replaced the dependable Turton and he helped Thomas find more space with his surging runs.

On the three quarter mark, good fortune shone on the hosts again as a move involving simple passing by Sinani, O’Brien and Eiting found Holmes on the edge of the box. At the point of taking the shot, Bielik threw himself at the ball which diverted it in a loop over the beaten keeper. 

The relief of the home contingent contrasted sharply with Derby’s despair as they saw all their hard work undone by a deflection. Cruel.

With nothing to lose, the visitors pushed forward and were always vulnerable to the counter, with their defensive shape necessarily abandoned and, sure enough, an incisive Town attack freed Ward to shoot at Allsop who parried in to the path of Rhodes to register his first goal of the season and his 74th for the club.

Rhodes could have added a third late on but inexplicably got his legs tangled up and the chance was gone.

So another 3 points gained, the unbeaten run extended and a strengthened squad with 2 Chelsea loanees to be added over the next few weeks. It wasn’t particularly pretty, often frustrating and far from straightforward against a valiant opponent but Town maintain their challenge with momentum and promise.

An excellent transfer window gives Town a very good platform for the rest of the season; carpe diem.

It’s deja vu all over again, Rodney

Despite being the beneficial recipient of two outrageously poor refereeing decisions in a first half they largely dominated and deservedly won, Town yet again paid the price for a hopelessly supine 2nd half allowing Stoke, who outplayed their hosts comprehensively, to equalise late on.

The first decision in Town’s favour was to leave a high, dangerous though probably not malicious tackle by Koroma completely unpunished. No red, and the no yellow and no free kick. Within 5 minutes, Koroma celebrated his remarkable reprieve with an opening goal which Town deserved after harassing the Potters for long periods. 

Just after the goal, Stoke had a huge appeal for a penalty as Lees took out Campbell in the box and it was difficult to imagine a more straightforward decision for the referee to make. Paradoxically, a Stoke equaliser at that point may have aided Town by preventing the nonsensical retreat back to the penalty area which occurred in the second half. 

Bright and full of intent, Town nearly took the lead early on as Koroma easily outstripped Stoke’s right back for pace before finding Ward at the near post who flashed a decent glancing header just over the bar.

With O’Brien dominating midfield and regularly surging forward, Town dominated from the off though actual chances on goal were rare and pretty tame. It took Stoke a long time to get in to the game but Pearson, who had a rare off night, made an error on the byline which allowed Fletcher to gain possession and a few seconds later Nicholls was having to make a smart, instinctive save.

Pearson himself was sold short by Hogg on the halfway line and a breakaway could have resulted in an equaliser but Lees did well to slow the pace of the attack and Nicholls was equal to the eventual shot.

Town finished the half strongly but, again, the quality of opportunities was poor and a second goal rarely looked like coming.

Stoke brought on Joe Allan after the break and when Powell replaced the injured Vrancic on the hour, their superior bench turned the tide of the game.

A quiet first 15 minutes saw Town slowly adopt the defensive mindset to cling on to a single goal lead until it became entrenched. Just as surely, they retreated as a unit and left the stage entirely free for the talented, if injury prone, Powell to dictate the tempo at will.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the strategy has collected points both home and away, but it is neither edifying nor enjoyable to watch and in 3 of the last 4 home games, unsuccessful.

Town’s cause was not helped by some fading legs. Sinani, Ward and Koroma, who had led the highly effective pressing in the first half seemed to lack energy and O’Brien’s probing ceased. Hogg, who was physically ill on the pitch during the second half, played far too deep and Pearson didn’t recover from a poor first half and gave a rare duff showing at centre back.

Stoke didn’t create a great deal for all their dominance but the pressure was increasingly intense and inexorable. Nicholls made a few routine saves and Pearson continued to make poor decisions on the ball and it seemed obvious that Town needed to make a change to their shape and personnel.

Although Corberán’s options were not particularly numerous, and a struggling Ward needed to be replaced, the like for like moves he made were unimaginative and simply didn’t move the dynamic. Rhodes is simply incapable of playing the role Ward has made his own; not just now, in his 30s, but in his entire career. Had he been brought on to play in a two, with someone pushed further forward, this may have worked but, as it was, the substitution was a waste.

Holmes for the anonymous Sinani was more acceptable and the American nearly scored a vital second following excellent work by the criminally under utilised Thomas but couldn’t adjust his body to take full advantage of the headed chance.

At the other end, Pearson finally made an error which was fully punished, trying a short pass out of an area flooded with Stoke players instead of aiming for the proverbial row Z. Baker smashed his shot against the post with Nicholls beaten, O’Brien made a fantastic block to prevent Campbell scoring but Brown, on for Fletcher, hit an unstoppable drive in to the top corner for a deserved leveller.

Rather irritatingly, Town stepped up a gear after the setback but a comfortably saved effort from High was the only notable attempt and another home draw was played out over 7 minutes injury time.

Perhaps the switch to a back 4 has unsettled Town’s defence with neither Pearson or Lees as comfortable as they have been though it should be noted that Turton, at right back, was probably Town’s man of the match. With Stoke playing a lone striker in Fletcher, perhaps utilising Sarr as the central man of 3 would have been more sensible. But definitely not on the left!

Corberán insists that the steady retreats backwards when in front is not planned and arises as players tire, passes go astray and the opposition encouraged, but he needs a solution to the issue.

Still, unbeaten run continues even if it has a Lee Clark feel about it.

Madness at the Mad

Town’s unbeaten run stretched out to 9 after a chaotically entertaining encounter with troubled Reading with another double chalked up largely through Danny Ward’s first hat trick since 2014, which he registered for Town at Watford in a dead rubber. That was also Town’s last hat trick in the League by any player, but this one was far more valuable than the one at Vicarage Road.

Still without Holmes and Colwill, Town’s trip to Berkshire was considerably more tricky than assumed by too many against a Reading side admittedly in indifferent form but who had players returning from injury, including regular Town nemesis Joao, and from the AFCON tournament. They only succumbed to defeat in the final minutes at Middlesbrough last time out and in their last home game, they should’ve seen out a routine win against Derby but imploded late on.
Not that the Royals looked much of a threat in the first five minutes as Town hit their straps early and flew at their hosts in a terrific opening spell which forced a couple of promising situations only to be thwarted by timely blocks.

Unfortunately, the flaw in Corberán’s bold strategy to get on the front foot and have two marauding full backs but only two central defenders was immediately exposed in Reading’s first venture in to the visitors’ half.

With players isolated and out of position, neither Hogg nor Pearson could affect any influence on the momentum of the attack and wide spaces opened up leaving Lees wholly exposed. Toffolo’s whereabouts can only be speculated upon though he did make a very late appearance in the box as Joao tucked away the simple opportunity for a 1-0 lead.

Town responded with a devastating spell of attacking football with Pipa surging down the right, excellent centre forward play by Ward and intelligent support from Sinani who injected creativity in to an impressive period which turned the game on it’s head.

Sinani was found by Pipa after the Spaniard drove at the Reading defence and the Luxembourger, who had already tried his luck on a couple of occasions, took a couple of steps inside before hitting a defender’s chest which took the ball past the flat footed keeper.

If there was an element of fortune about the equaliser, it needs to be set in the context of Town’s total domination of possession and territory. Reading’s opener felt like a minor setback, particularly with our recent history of games turning sour on the scorer of the first goal, and the Berkshire outfit looked extremely vulnerable at the back.

Town took the lead after 15 minutes with a decent run by Koroma down the left being poorly dealt with in the box allowing Thomas to shoot against a defender and then shoot again only for the ball to fall in to Ward’s path, who instinctively turned it past Southwood.

It was no less than Town deserved and their ambition wasn’t diminished by taking the lead with Reading still only creating sporadic and relatively tame threat, despite having a goal ruled out for offside, but Koroma, who had a poor game overall, carelessly lost possession, and less than a minute later Town conceded an equaliser.

For the near 1,000 visiting supporters, the concession was disturbing and annoying. Corberán’s teams had shown tremendous guts at the City Ground and Ewood Park to earn deserved clean sheets and now the discipline, shape and resilience had somehow been replaced by a rabble without a cause.

In a near carbon copy of their first goal, Reading moved the ball quickly and simply through the spaces an over committed opponent laid out for them and Puskas slotted home with little resistance.

Within minutes, Town regained the lead. Thomas was pulled back near the touchline and delivered a teasing ball from the free kick but one which was easy for a keeper to take, and Southwood duly did. Unfortunately for the custodian, as he fell to the floor he let go of the ball which fell to Ward who buried it past the myriad defenders in front of him. 

By this point, Corberán had abandoned the back four, pushing Toffolo inside to form his usual 3 centre backs. Thomas switched to the left with Koroma on the right, though the latter’s display didn’t discernibly improve and he messed up a great opportunity to forge a two goal advantage which would have represented a chasm for a team struggling at the wrong end of the table with 6 punishment points to make up.

Instead, and with particular bad timing, Town conceded another equaliser when Morrison was allowed to attack a corner unchallenged, nay, unnoticed, and his header deflected in to even up the score on good fortune. 

So came to an end a half of dreadful defending by both sides, 6 goals and the certainty that the second half would almost certainly not yield the same number of scores; indeed, a goalless second half could feasibly be expected.

As it happens, the game needed just one more goal to determine the destination of the 3 points and it was a strike which brought Danny Ward a hat trick and the match ball.

Toffolo had been fouled near the touch line after releasing the ball from about half way in his own half. The decision, made by a linesman pretty close to the action, brought more outraged howls from the scattered home support which spent much of the afternoon decrying a pretty competent referee, though they may have had a point that the free kick was taken from the wrong place.

Pearson lifted the ball forward and Ward won an excellent flick on which Koroma fought well for and either he, the defender or a combination of both managed to get it in to Ward’s path as the striker followed up his own aerial victory. His stride was perfect and he struck an unstoppable shot past the keeper with his weaker foot.

At this point, Ward deserves yet another eulogy. His poor season, when it really did feel that Town were trying to reheat a soufflé which wasn’t that great the first time around, can be forgotten now, with his contributions since late Autumn being exceptional.

Looking fitter than ever, Ward expends masses of energy leading the line, his ability to hold up the ball and, crucially, move it on with threat and precision is now a feature of his game rather than the frustration it once was and, of course, his scoring record is now very acceptable. A real asset and a major reason behind Town’s unlikely challenge for the play offs, which is looking less and less ludicrous as the weeks go by. 

Reestablishing the lead before the hour mark, Town were significantly more conservative in their approach to defending it in this half and low blocked their hosts with relative ease in retrospect. Despite lots of possession, Reading simply weren’t good enough to break down a Town side which had closed the spaces so freely surrendered in the first half.

Nicholls, booked for time wasting yet again, had to scramble a bagatelle ball following a corner which could have fallen kindly for the home side but didn’t have a real save to make as Reading ran out of ideas and, as the game wore on, energy.

Sorba Thomas, slowly getting back to his best over the past few games, and playing with the naive enthusiasm so effective earlier in the season, had the best chance of the half after the goal but shot too near to the keeper when Ward was an option in the middle.

There were far too many errors in possession as Reading tried to increase the pressure as time slipped away, but the back line and Hogg held firm. O’Brien, who made some decent forays forward, was rather wasteful at times and was responsible for a couple of half breaks which Reading failed to exploit.

Rhodes replaced Ward, who looked to have taken a knock, and was very good running down the clock in 5 minutes of injury time and the whole team rather comfortably saw out the last quarter without a real scare to earn the 3 points.

Scoring 4 goals away from home should always mean winning, but the outcome was a little too close for comfort at times though the defensive organisation in the second half was much more like the Huddersfield Town we have come to know this season.

With a schedule much more straightforward than most, who will be crowbarring postponed fixtures in for some time to come, a squad with greater options than in recent seasons and a healthy points total in the bag, Town’s season continues to hold promise. Most will temper optimism with the lingering feeling that this group of players are over achieving, but we have seen that scenario before.

An intriguing couple of months awaits.

Passive Town pay penalty

It is some consolation that despite being overwhelmingly outplayed in a disappointing 2nd half, Town’s unbeaten run continues as does their unlikely challenge for a play off place.

Swansea’s hunger for possession was known and predictable as were the recent failures they have suffered despite quite astonishingly high numbers in control of the ball and had the second 45 followed a similar pattern to the first half, Town would still be in the top 6.

Unfortunately, an enforced change of personnel at half time, with goal scorer Sinani being replaced by Scott High, seemed to unhinge the hosts’ dynamics and they were simply incapable of escaping the stranglehold Swansea created with a higher quality of possession than their first half efforts.

There was an air of possession for possession’s sake about the men from South Wales in that first 45 and most of it fizzled out on contact with Town’s solid back four. Nicholls had to make one very good save following an effort by Manning which was the result of a fortunate run of the ball rather than the conclusion of a 35 pass move from back to front.

Town’s patience and discipline allowed them to easily cope and despite their own forays forward being relatively limited, they looked far more likely to score than the visitors and duly did on 15 minutes.

It was just reward for an energetic start which pushed the visitors backwards and a high press which panicked them in to errors. O’Brien rushed his former colleague Hamer in to a wild clearance, and then brought an excellent save from him with an effort which looked destined for the top corner.

The subsequent corner was put in to the net by Koroma but he was offside after Pearson had won the aerial battle.

The Terriers’ superiority in the opening 15 minutes was rewarded with the lead when Pearson’s excellent ball forward to Ward was expertly taken by the striker and, in one movement, he released Koroma down the left and carried on to the penalty area to receive the ball back. Ward’s effort was blocked and Hamer denied O’Brien again with the follow up only for the ball to deflect to Sinani who couldn’t miss.

The reversal prompted an improvement in the Swans and the aforementioned Nicholls save was made soon after the goal, but the home team appeared very comfortable with defending the visitors rather rambling possession.

Soaking up the pressure, such as it was, with ease it was only a matter of time before the home side broke forward again and an excellent move just before the half hour should have seen a doubling of the lead and a completely different game would have ensued.

Ward was at the heart of the move again with a superb take and turn followed by an inch perfect ball to Thomas who fed the rampaging O’Brien in the box only for Hamer to thwart his former team mate with a remarkable save which was undoubtedly a turning point for his team’s fortunes.

An entertaining half with Town deservedly in the lead seemed to augur well for the hosts but Sinani’’s injury, and the absence of Holmes to provide a like for like solution, derailed the team to such an extent that escaping with a point became cause for relief.

For their part, Swansea became far more potent in possession and, since they had the ball almost uninterrupted, it was always likely that Town’s increasingly desperate resilience would break.

The visitors’ intensity also improved substantially with their assaults on Town’s defence having far greater purpose than their efforts before the break. Town had no answers to their opponents’ movement and precise passing to the consternation of a large crowd enticed by the offer to watch for a fiver.

That Town lasted until the final quarter was far more to do with the heroics of Nicholls, who had to make many saves and interventions, and the rugged determination of Pearson who blocked and tackled throughout to pull his colleagues out of self inflicted trouble.

Poor Scott High, who was sent on to do a role which looked like duplication, suffered a torrid half which included giving the ball away twice in ludicrously dangerous areas, one of which led indirectly, but indisputably, to Swansea’s deserved and overdue equaliser.

Town were simply unable to escape out of their own half. Ward, excellent in the first half, was isolated and superfluous, the midfield chased shadows as their superior opposition passed them in to oblivion and having been starved of the ball for such long periods, brief moments of possession seemed to come as a surprise to too many and given away with startled regularity.

As he admitted post match, Corberán made the wrong call at half time but there was more than a hint of too much hindsight and insufficient action taken to rectify the error. Hogg, who will need time to get fully back up to speed, should’ve been replaced for a more progressive option. On at least 3 occasions, the returning skipper halted rare moments of promise with a backwards pass. 

Not that he was alone. Only O’Brien, with some scintillating breaks, played with bravery and risk. The introduction of Pipa produced better things on the right at times, though it moved Thomas over to the left in place of the disappointing Koroma and minutes after the switch, the Welsh international missed a tackle which allowed his opponent to feed Downes for an excellent finish to equalise.

Corberán then went two up front after the equaliser but not before Swansea nearly took the lead with an effort which Nicholls did well to keep out. Rhodes arrival, for the last 5 minutes and injury time did result in some long overdue pressure from the home side and they proceeded to ask decent questions of Swansea’s under worked keeper and defence.

Hamer produced yet another save to deny O’Brien, who must have been heartily sick of him, and the final flourish in search of an unlikely and undeserved winner did, at last, provide some entertainment for a restless home crowd.

The final act, however, saw Swansea come close to taking the 3 points which few would have begrudged as Pirhoe headed just wide with Nicholls scrambling.

One point closer to survival and likely safe before the Spring is not to be sniffed at, but it wasn’t a day upon which that Corberán will look back fondly. Far too late in reacting to a game in which his team were barely competing, hopefully it is a lesson learned.

Soaking it up

Town concluded their Festive season fixtures with a dogged goalless draw at a sodden Ewood Park and enhanced their credibility as a play off contender by thwarting the form team of the division in a ruggedly entertaining encounter.

A larger than anticipated away following, no doubt enticed by a too rare pay on the day opportunity and Town’s recent form, caused difficulties which resulted in a 15 minute delay to the kick off, which also allowed a little more time for the pitch to drain of excess water.

That additional drainage didn’t entirely resolve the problem of parts of the pitch being too waterlogged to allow for free flow of the ball and the visitors put themselves under pressure as a result of the ground problems on a few occasions in a frenzied opening 20 minutes completely dominated by Rovers.

For all their possession, thrust and aggression, clearly built on high levels of confidence, only an excellent break and shot by Khadra, which crashed off the bar, caused great concern as an individual moment, but the pressure was intense and unrelenting.

Unable to advance out of their own half and simply not coping with conditions as well as their hosts, Town squandered a glorious chance to break when Holmes fell over his own feet, presumably in a puddle, with lots of options opening up in front of him.

It was just the type of break they would have been hoping for, knowing that Blackburn would be on the front foot early but Town had to wait until midway through the half before getting anywhere near the home goal.

Sinani supplied a very presentable chance for Holmes who was unable to match his finish at the City Ground with a diving header which was well stopped.

It would be inaccurate to say that this brought a massive change in the rhythm of the game and a big, if incorrect, penalty shout on the half hour had been precipitated by a poor loss of possession by Holmes on the halfway line allowing Blackburn a rare opportunity to attack with Town’s defence on their heels. Brereton, who was rarely as effective as he had been at the John Smith’s stadium, was probably correct that Lees had fouled him outside the box but his dramatic fall several seconds later as Pearson muscled him off the ball fooled no one.

Town continued to grow in to the game and having weathered the best Rovers had thrown at them with all 3 central defenders contributing to a fine rearguard performance, along with the highly dependable Nicholls, the evident gap between the two sides began to narrow quite quickly.

Still, the sanctuary of half time was more welcome for the visitors who had worked exceptionally hard as a team to thwart a highly dangerous attack. The pitch condition improved as time went on, which probably helped as Town simply didn’t handle the going as well as their hosts.

There was a final scare for Town before the break as Rovers had another penalty appeal waved away as the final act. An attempted cross hit O’Brien from short range and the referee rightly and immediately dismissed the claim.

The second half was far more comfortable as Rovers ran out of ideas and were consistently guilty of making basic errors; the number of poor passes which left the field of play was quite staggering for a team which would finish the day 2nd in the table.

Not that life was comfortable for Town’s defence, but it seemed a lot easier for them to manoeuvre Blackburn’s forwards where they wanted them to be and the threat they posed was noticeably diminished. 

Pearson, Lees and, particularly, Colwill were immense at the back, rarely putting a foot wrong, intercepting with aplomb and keeping Blackburn at arm’s length for long periods. 

The youngster on loan from Chelsea was outstanding. Poised, elegant and supremely confident, he breezed through a game against one of the most potent attacks in the division. Time and space are his currency, rarely needlessly rushing in to tackles and not once on this afternoon. At 18, his future looks assured at the very top level and it is a pleasure to witness the beginning of what could be a glittering career.

Levi’s effortless quality was matched by his fellow defenders more basic qualities and, behind them, Nicholls had another flawless game exuding confidence from the last line.

Town flattered to deceive a little going forward when they had the chance, but a lovely ball through to Holmes should have seen the diminutive midfielder test the keeper at the very least but one touch too many meant the angles disappeared and his shot hit the side netting.

He was nearly freed again later in the half but Dolan, a fresh substitute, never looked like losing the foot race. Inexplicably, Holmes then launched a challenge from behind which should have been punished with dismissal. The only thing which saved him was a slight push by another Rovers’ player which the referee, incorrectly but understandably, may have interpreted as the cause of the lunge.

At the other end, Thomas made a routine clearance from the line having been well positioned to deal with a rather unthreatening header, and right at the death, a horrid Lees’ back pass nearly sold Nicholls short but the custodian dealt with probably his most concerning moment of the day with a good clearance.

A very creditable end to the holiday games, then, including shutting out two form teams away from home, and collecting 10 points from 12. Things could have turned out differently in 3 of these games, but managing to win or not lose games is key to success in the Championship, and it is perhaps time to acknowledge that luck is earned and that this team has created the momentum which delivers such results.

2022 is looking very promising. 

Riding the storm

Despite an unforgiving onslaught by Nottingham Forest which began on the half hour and remained pretty relentless until the final whistle, Town made it 3 wins in a row and ended the year in the play off positions and in damn good shape.

The character shown in an exceptionally tough away game was impressive with bodies being thrown on the line to keep the win intact.

A combination of excellent goalkeeping, intensely determined defending and some Forest profligacy delivered the unlikely win, though it should be said that Samba had to make just as many excellent saves (one) as Nicholls when he tipped a rasping O’Brien effort over, both sides hit the bar with Thomas doing so from long range in the very first minute and both missed one easy chance each.

This is not to suggest that Forest were anything other than dominant, particularly in the second half, but the sum total of their efforts resulted, roughly, in to the same important metrics as Town, other than the most important one.

An entertaining first half was more evenly contested until Town took the lead on the half hour. The impressive Colwill set Holmes free with a nice forward pass and the ex-Ram played a neat exchange with Toffolo before firing home at Samba’s near post.

With Ward off injured or ill after just 15 minutes, Town were weakened early on but not put off their stride and easily matched their in form opponents across the pitch from the moment the pipes and drums of Mull of Kintyre faded in to a bizarre Forest ritual before kick off. What is that all about?

Holmes’ opener heralded a siege of Town’s goal for the rest of the first half and the visitors were clinging on by their finger tips and unable to relieve the pressure in any meaningful way. There was an air of the hosts not being able to see the wood for the trees, and perhaps a more guileful approach would have served them better than bludgeon, but it was a huge relief when the half time whistle blew.

Town showed great strength of character and resilience in an extremely difficult second half of unabating pressure though, again, there wasn’t much finesse on display as Forest looked to pummel their way through.

Their best chance fell to the impressive Brennan, who will surely be playing at a higher level very soon, but he was unable to convert a straightforward opportunity after Nicholls could only parry.

O’Brien’s effort which was well saved by Samba and Sinani’s poor miss meant that Town were not entirely swamped but it was a win rather gifted by the opponent who had one of those nights which all clubs suffer from time to time.

Despite riding their considerable luck, Town did compete with personality and are beginning to become likeable as a squad again. Overcoming the early loss of Ward, dealing with the cynical targeting of O’Brien, which was never tackled by an otherwise decent referee, and coping with a furious onslaught made this a fantastic win in the circumstances.

Though Pipa’s reappearance was notable more for his first two poor touches, his availability provides Corberán with more options and the imminent return of Hogg in the New Year will provide much needed relief for the over used High who, not unnaturally, is starting to fade a little.

Blackburn may well prove too stiff a challenge coming soon after this bruising contest, but 2022 looks a hell of a lot brighter than a lot of 2021.

Happy New Year to all.

Imperfect perfection

There simply isn’t an argument to be made against the fact that winning 3-2 after twice being behind is the most satisfying result possible in football.

In recent years, Town’s ability to salvage anything from losing positions has been virtually non existent until it was achieved at Bristol last week and their default reaction when an opponent goes down to 10 men is to reject any calm, tactical approach to the advantage and attempt to batter down defences which have automatically tightened up. 

The comeback at Ashton Gate was more than welcome, finally bringing a dismal spell on the road to an end, but a Boxing Day encounter with an old, traditional foe with lots of incident, controversy and entertainment comfortably topped it.

With Colwill out with illness, Corberán made the puzzling decision to yet again utilise Naby Sarr on the left side of 3 centre backs. And, yet again, it proved to be ill judged. When Naby has played centrally, he has looked just fine in an enormously improved defence when he has been needed. 

It was a Tom Lees ball which failed to reach its target in the first minute, however, which saw Town concede stupidly early for the second week running with Yates producing a nice finish after a simple ball forward played him in.

To their credit, Town levelled quickly with a quite fabulous goal. Toffolo advanced down the left, took one touch after receiving the ball and whipped in a magnificent cross for Ward to meet perfectly to head home. A thoroughly enjoyable goal which looked nailed on as the ball entered the area.

Town dominated possession from the equaliser but decent approach play rather crumbled in the final third, while Blackpool’s power up front and their ability to break with menace slowly came to the fore, culminating in them taking the lead again.

Sarr didn’t do enough to prevent a rather lobbed cross to the far post which allowed Madine a run on Pearson. The well travelled striker climbed high and headed past Nicholls to establish a lead the Tangerines just about deserved at that point.

The Lancastrians grew in confidence and were by far the more dangerous and likely team. Town’s best chance fell to Holmes who was fed by Thomas only for the American to blaze over following a bobble. Blackpool had an even easier chance on the half hour with a nicely worked move which Anderson contrived to head wide.

A 3rd for the visitors at that stage would likely have ended the contest, particularly as there would have been no need for any of the men in tangerine to commit reckless challenges.

Shortly after the missed chance, Madine elbowed and then swung an arm in to the head of Tom Lees just yards away from the referee who was looking straight at the incident. Ignoring the serious foul play, which warranted at least a booking and probably more, Blackpool were allowed to attack and very nearly scored while Town’s central defender lay prone.

Jeremy Simpson’s performances when refereeing Huddersfield Town games are rarely anything other than underwhelming, and often dreadful, but the level of incompetence he showed in this incident must surely be investigated, given the complete lack of care he took over player safety. 
Lees spent over 10 minutes on the floor and then being treated; this was a serious concussion event and Simpson’s ridiculous lack of action renders his fitness to officiate in considerable doubt. It is to be hoped that Town make a formal complaint.

Madine should face retrospective enquiry too.

The incident rather altered the direction of the game with Blackpool not looking as dangerous after it and Town, now with a back four with Sarr central and Turton at right back, seemingly more comfortable defensively.

Nicholls had to make a smart save from a shot which was moving in the air but it was mostly the hosts who spent the ten minutes added on for the injury on the front foot.

A fairly tame opening to the second half saw Town with territorial superiority but the more potent attacks were coming from the visitors. Scott High made an excellent block after some incisive Blackpool approach play and a third goal seemed a little more likely than an equaliser at that point. High made way for Rhodes on the hour to cement the change of formation to 4 4 2, with Sinani dropping in to midfield.

The change was an unusually bold one from Corberán, and within a couple of minutes the fundamental nature of the game was upended by the sending off of Gabriel. Already on a booking for a crude challenge on Holmes, the promising youngster clattered O’Brien on the touchline to collect another yellow and one which could have been red. His manager’s post match protestations about the bookings were bizarrely ridiculous. Gabriel was no angel.

Within minutes, Rhodes had the ball in the net following a Thomas cross only for it to be ruled, marginally but correctly, offside.
Though disappointing for the returning striker, the incident spooked Critchley in to making two overly defensive substitutions. Goal scorer Yates and persistent menace Bowler were sacrificed and the visitors were emasculated from that point.

Madine stayed on for a further ten minutes but even cursory knowledge of Town’s performances against ten men should have persuaded Critchley not to withdraw all of their threat.

As it was, Thomas, who had played reasonably well in the first half, started to impose himself on the game and proceeded to give Husband a torrid time, assisted in no short measure by the much maligned Turton who had an excellent outing against his former club.

Rhodes’ nous was also welcome as the tangerines wobbled without an outlet following their substitutions. In contrast, Corberán followed up his initial bold move with the introduction of Koroma and Rowe to force the pace in the final ten minutes.

The equaliser was a quite lovely goal. Thomas played a wall pass with Sinani and then another with Rhodes in the box before keeping his composure to finish. Brilliantly constructed and finished by Sorba, who’s dip in form appears to be over.

Minutes later, the ex-Borehamwood man snatched victory for the Terriers as he latched on to a half clearance and threaded a volley through a sea of legs.

Blackpool, who looked a much improved outfit from the one at Bloomfield Road earlier in the season, were pretty much done at this point and they had little left to worry the home side and couldn’t muster much to try to force an equaliser.

The visitors will rue the missed opportunities to take a 3-1 lead, which would have completely altered the path of the game, as much as the stupidity of Gabriel, but game management comes in many forms and for all Critchley’s moans afterwards, he and his team simply didn’t manage this one at all well.

Town now have two tough away games to navigate, assuming Covid doesn’t intervene, but with 36 points on the board there is a little less pressure on them. With Lees absence, Corberán will need to make some decisions about the defence; let’s hope one of those is to resist playing Sarr on the left at all costs.