Reality check – Town 1-2 Derby

As Town’s mini revival came to a predictable end, the close score line may appear to reflect a tight, perhaps even unfortunate defeat. But it actually masks the fact that a talented Derby side should have left with a far more comprehensive victory; which they would have done but for the excellence of Steer, who made a succession of very good saves.

With only a single score separating the sides, despite a wide gulf in class, the keeper’s heroics may even have rescued an underserved point as time ran out and Derby felt comfortable enough to let Town come on to them more, possibly encouraged by the preceding evidence that a mismatched forward pair carried barely no threat.

In fact, disturbingly, the Rams played large parts of the game seemingly in second gear and while most of the home team worked hard, the ease of passing and moving of the visitors contrasted sharply with Town’s lack of fluency, propensity for launching long balls to the much maligned Miller and an absence of guile.

After a poor but winning performance in midweek, no changes were made to the starting eleven and this was Chris Powell’s big mistake. We were to be regularly overrun in midfield or forced in to allowing Derby space and time in front of us – fine against a limited MK Dons team but fundamentally flawed against one of the best squads in the division.

With the Miller/Wells combination showing no signs of working and, worse, Wells being asked to play in areas of the pitch where he is barely competent, the answer was surely to either bring Billings in to the middle – oh, how we could have done with Hogg – or replace Wells with Paterson who can be trusted in possession outside the area?

Of course, Powell would then have been taken to task for playing one up front at home (and these reports have done that in the past), but with limited options – Miller is, after all, supposed to be third choice – and a dearth of goals from the current incumbents, a chance for someone else to try and shine was missed on the altar of the adage about not changing a winning team.

The orthodoxy of 4-4-2 creates exponential problems, particularly with our personnel. At the risk of going all Lawrenson, the system needs to change quite regularly within a game to 4-4-1-1, and Wells is utterly incapable of fulfilling his part in this – he is a goalscorer, not an auxiliary midfield player. This, in turn, pushes us too far back and coping against a 3 man midfield with 2 central midfielders becomes extraordinarily difficult, no matter how much work Whitehead puts in to compensate.

Despite a couple of early corners, Town were soon on the back foot but the visitors were being fairly comfortably contained until a fortuitous opener rewarded them for being the more expansive team. A cross from the right was headed out to Russell whose mishit shot squirmed through to Martin and he slotted home with some ease. Town’s appeals for offside were, rightly, dismissed.

Shortly after going behind, Town lost the services of Scannell and his replacement Carayol started very brightly, delivering 3 decent crosses in a short space of time, the last of which created an unlikely equaliser as Miller’s effort was pushed on to the underside of the bar by Carson only for Bunn to clip in.

After a great save by Steer who acrobatically tipped over a close range Shackell header from a corner, Town finished the half quite strongly but weak shots from Huws, Wells and Davidson undermined some decent preceding play.

Although it was a little bit of a stretch to believe that Town deserved to be level at half time, the first half performance had been dogged if uninspiring and should have been the right platform to take more initiative in the second period.

Unfortunately, the second half started badly, and the problem of Wells came in to sharp focus as he lost the ball very easily a third of the way up the pitch leading to a Derby corner. While Butterfield’s delivery was cleared by Lynch, it fell to George Thorne who took one touch then smashed an unstoppable shot in to the top corner.

It was a high quality strike, though Huws may have done better to close down the space, and his slight hesitation rather summed up another fairly anonymous performance from the man who had transformed our season with his goals in his early games.

Town themselves had a good chance from a corner which found Cranie unmarked, but he could only head straight at the keeper.

With Derby playing within themselves, Town couldn’t take the initiative. Long balls became far too frequent, though they did get down the sides from time to time and Bunn, in particular, found some joy taking on the visitors’ defence without ever being able to create chances. On the other side, Carayol’s impact had faded badly and his languid style became increasingly frustrating (on the plus side, he did offer better defensive support than previously evident).

Jed Steer then came in to his own with good stops from Russell, Christie and Martin, with the last one being an excellent block from the Rams’ marauding centre forward made possible by a slightly poor touch giving him the opportunity to decisively smother the shot.

The save seemed to galvanise Town from their hitherto plodding performance and the introduction of Paterson – for Bunn; a pretty unfathomable decision given Wells’ travails – added more spark to their forward play.

Despite their quality and superiority, Derby started to display some nervousness by trying to slow and see out the game with minor time wasting and Town responded by, finally, throwing caution to the wind. Paterson fired narrowly wide and looked disappointed at the effort while another chance fell for Davidson to spoon over.

Even Steer got in on the late flurry of action, going up for a corner and getting his head to it (in time honoured fashion, Derby then broke away and with Steer stranded took a shot from distance which didn’t have the power to get past the covering, no surprise here, Whitehead)

Of course, it was all too little, too late and the visitors (surely Premiership bound after several years of massive investment) deservedly took the points.

Defeat against a club who can assemble a side with Darren Bent on the bench, multi million pound players across the pitch and an injured roster which would grace any other team in the division is neither shameful nor indicative of the rest of the season, but it was difficult not to believe that a smarter team selection would have increased our competitiveness.

After a decent points haul in recent weeks, it doesn’t take much to stir underlying disquiet at how the club is dealing with the challenges of a difficult division. Some of this ignores the financial disparities which seem to widen every year, but there is little romance in survival and when the club hasn’t addressed the problem of an injury prone and occasionally brainless first choice striker, they bring unnecessary grief down on themselves.

It took Chris Powell too long to recognise that the consistently excellent Cranie was a far better right back option than Smith and he seems to be in denial over the Miller/Wells pairing – maybe the difficult looking trips to Burnley and Reading will finally break up the failed combination in favour of incorporating Paterson; we shall see.

It will also be interesting to see what Powell does with Huws. His form has dipped alarmingly – Whitehead is covering a lot of his sins – and it maybe that an extra man in midfield could free him up to play further forward.

With most fellow strugglers unable to win over the weekend (and Charlton fell to another heavy home defeat and sacked their manager), there was no immediate harm done but, again, it is not much consolation when we are constantly looking over our shoulders to get relief from poorer rivals.

Let’s look a gift horse in the mouth

With a daunting late October/November on the horizon (Derby, Reading, Burnley, Leeds, Wednesday and Middlesbrough), Town’s home game against likely fellow strugglers MK Dons assumed significant importance and it was essential that 3 points were secured.

The same 11 who had battled dourly at Portman Road for a well earned point took the field, but, on the bench, Vaughan, Dempsey and Carayol were replaced by Holmes, Bojaj and Boyle for varying reasons; while the changes were enforced, it was a fitting reward for 3 players instrumental to impressive u21 results of late.

Town’s offer of a £10 admittance was rewarded with another poor home crowd – it was slightly above average and probably made a difference of around 2,500, so it proved reasonably worthwhile without convincing that the townsfolk were suddenly enamoured of a team which tends to lack personality or an efficient but pragmatic manager who rarely encourages expansive football.

A bright start saw Scannell skin the veteran left back Lewington (we seem to have been playing against him forever), but his decent cross narrowly evaded Miller’s “leap”, brushing harmlessly off his head.

Miller’s next, and best, contribution was a shot smartly saved 25 minutes later as Town struggled to make any impact on the visitors whose possession stats were as impressive as they were pointless.

One low cross evaded a striker on the far post and an attempted lob following a lucky deflection was easily gathered by Steer – otherwise, Town’s back four were to have a relatively easy night with Lynch and Cranie barely putting a foot wrong.

Although Hudson generally did well, he looks a much better player away from home, which has been the case for all of his career with the Leeds Roaders so far. Davidson fared much better again, but still needs to truly recapture the early form he showed.

In the face of the over passing of their opponents, Town soon descended to launching balls up to Miller which were rarely won and sometimes not even competed – the constant looking for non existent fouls is reminiscent of our erstwhile non scoring centre forward, Alan Lee and he is not getting the crowd on his side with such antics.

It could be said that MK Dons simply played in to Town’s hands – their ineffectiveness was pretty to watch at times but they lacked the pace or guile to fashion opportunities as the home side did, at least, keep a good shape without the ball for all but a few fleeting, unpunished moments.

A spectacle, however, it did not make, and with the forward players wasteful – Bunn in particular but he was far from alone – no momentum was built and a drudge of a first half was epitomised by some terrible corners and free kicks by a well below par Huws.

With the second half following a similar pattern, goals seemed unlikely and neither keeper was unduly troubled as both teams struggled to exert meaningful pressure and whatever atmosphere had existed in the ground fell flat once more. Even the dedicated North Stand found it hard to muster much enthusiasm for what had become an ugly pastiche of a game.

The visitors insistence on trying to play their way out of every situation while never looking quite good enough to achieve anything was to bite them very hard on the arse. Under relatively mild pressure from Miller, McFadzean mishit an intended back pass in to the path of Wells who finished his chance very well.

The gift was undeserved if welcome and may provide a boost to Wells’ confidence on a night where he had struggled to make much contribution. Just two minutes later, Wells was found by a good first time ball from Scannell and the striker’s turn and thrust towards goal opened up space for a ball through to Miller. Characteristically, the subsequent shot (hit after taking one too many touches) sailed over the bar when composure would have sealed the points.

With a lead, Town could rely on the ineffectiveness of their opponents, though the rearguard action became increasingly nervy and possession was conceded far too often. As ever, the driving force – and pretty much the only one – was Whitehead, who got through mountains of work up and down the pitch. He is proving to be a shrewd and massively valuable signing and easily took the man of the match plaudits, again.

While it won’t get the crowds flooding back, Town can at least be commended for swamping their opponents in the last half hour, forcing most of the passing to be in front of them and the visitors’ ineffectiveness was bordering on tedious.

Jake Forster-Caskey tried to liven proceedings up by aiming a head butt at Davidson and, remarkably, stayed on the field with a yellow card. If Vaughan was at the game, no doubt his head was in his hands at the inconsistency of referees.

Town made some forays forward down both flanks but decent approach work by Scannell and Bunn was let down by poor delivery and though another goal didn’t seem vital given the limitations of the opposition, and the game had barely deserved one goal never mind two, a second would have eased nerves considerably.

We were treated to a rare glimpse of loanee Paterson (on for Wells rather than the increasingly comical Miller), and he showed one or two signs of flair without altering the pattern of the game as the visitors tried to break through without the luxury of anything resembling a plan B.

Powell’s next two substitutions were transparently time eating – Scannell wandered from the far side of the pitch with all the urgency of molasses to be replaced by Smith and Miller made way for young Bojaj, illustrating the manager’s faith in youth (!).

The Albanian’s first and only 2 minutes of senior football were quite eventful. He was immediately in the action and managed to extricate himself from trouble under pressure on the right wing with a back pass before latching on to a poor pass from the Dons’ keeper intended for the wretched McFadzean and feeding Paterson to seal the points with a flattering second goal.

Consecutive clean sheets, two gifted goals and 3 important points made it a good night for Town, though the entertainment starved crowd had little else to cheer from a game devoid of excitement and lacking incident. Nevertheless, and regardless of the manner, this was an important win with the significantly more difficult challenges laying ahead.

After a worrying first 6 games garnering just 2 points (somewhat harshly), the next 6 have seen one defeat and 11 points – we can always hope that Town’s recent tendency to play well against more illustrious opposition is maintained; they will play much better than this and come away with nothing.

A price to pay

It’s easier to get to Ipswich these days. The last 30 miles or so used to involve inevitable queues behind lorries, tractors and other slow moving vehicles to such an extent that you had to add an hour on to estimated journey times.

This ease of travel appears to have inspired the town’s football club to add a convenience charge to their ticket prices, unless there are other reasons for them to hike up the cost of entry to an eye watering £35. Perhaps the promise of the sparkling football invariably served up by Mick McCarthy lead teams adds a premium?

In a week when the BBC released a study of football match ticket pricing that Goebbels himself may have balked at releasing, swathes of empty seats at Portman Road suggested that clubs have some way to go before they get their message (pay up and be grateful) across.

Yet another intrusive and disruptive international break meant that Town’s horrible performance at Wolves festered much longer than would normally be the case and another difficult assignment, a long way from home, had to be negotiated against an Ipswich side not quite living up to last season’s play off campaign.

Town were boosted by the news that their highly paid and oft injured striker would be finally fit enough to make the squad as a substitute.

When James Vaughan finally appeared from the bench to replace the infuriating Miller, it was a full 20 minutes later than many amongst the fleeced away support thought appropriate.

Poor Miller manages to combine undoubted strength with clownish ineptitude; he rarely makes the right decision on the ball, has little apparent football intelligence and there are few signs that a goal is going to arrive any time soon.

It’s not lack of effort and there are even glimpses of ability from time to time, but a battering ram is crude when effective and can be damaging to a team when not.

Sadly, it has been a long, long time since Vaughan has offered anything a great deal better in the increasingly rare times when he is available for selection, though we can generally rely on him to exhibit flashes of stupidity and ill discipline to add to his impressive record of bookings and sendings off. It’s little wonder that the owner’s patience was already exhausted with a player who collects a significant wage while nursing a string of injuries and allegedly plays little or no part in extra curricular club activities (important when immersion in to the community is pretty crucial).

By the time Vaughan had stupidly, if gently, bounced the ball in to the face of an Ipswich player, a decent point had nearly been secured. A point which could and probably should have been 3 points after a first half of excellent containment ruined by a wasteful attack who had plenty of opportunity to further antagonise a disgruntled home crowd.

With loanee Ward returning to Bournemouth for an injury to be assessed, captain Mark Hudson returned to the defence and Carayol made way for Wells to join Miller up front.

Hudson had an excellent game and lead a solid back line – Davidson, who appears to have dispensed with his top knot in a surprise move, wasn’t flawless but his Molineux nightmare wasn’t repeated. The impressive Cranie continued his good form and with Lynch working well with the returning captain, a mundane home side were comfortably contained in a decent first half display.

With little to worry about at the back – Steer was hardly involved – Town were able to break quickly on several occasions only to falter, yet again, in the final third.

7 or 8 promising attacks lead to opportunities which floundered on poor decision making and slow execution. It wasn’t just Miller who lacked composure up front – Bunn had a great opportunity to shoot inside the box but decided he needed to beat one more man and Scannell broke clear but rather than drive in to the box tried to pick out Wells with a lofted lob in to the keeper’s arms.

The best chance fell to Wells. A flick on by Miller bounced a little high for the Bermudian to get much purchase on the ball under pressure from the keeper and Berra cleared from off the line – another opportunity spurned.

Of all the attacking players, Nahki was the pick. He worked hard and tried manfully to link with Miller and at least resembled the player he can be. Scannell’s form continues to frustrate. The ability is still there but his final ball isn’t.

A lead at half time would have been deserved. The home side were lethargic and toothless, and catching them on the break was quite easy; if only we were able to capitalise.

The second half was a different story. While the Tractor Boys were still labouring, they did at least quell Town’s ability to get forward regularly and a dour 45 minutes ensued.

Steer was called in to action more frequently, mainly dealing with less than threatening shots but towards the end the previously composed defence started to become more ragged. A scrappy passage of penalty box play allowed an Ipswich player to turn on the byline and deliver a dangerous low ball which was turned over the bar when it looked easier to score.

While Vaughan’s eventual dismissal would over shadow it, a piece of gamesmanship from the home side also created danger. Steer had put the ball out of play for an injury to Lynch only for Chambers to throw it to Maitland-Niles to put in a cross which was headed over. Remarkably little fuss was made of this on the pitch, though the away support was furious.

Town came back in to the game towards the end and created their only real chance (though Lynch had headed wide from an earlier corner) when Huws – again effective – found space for a shot which the keeper parried to Wells. A mishit attempt by the striker fell sharply to Lynch who could only fire over.

The home side then had their best chance when the ball fell to McGoldrick only for Steer to instinctively turn his shot round the post with his leg.

A defeat would have been harsh on Town, but the attacking failures (10 goals in 11 games is somewhat flattered by 4 against a desperately poor Bolton) are becoming a crisis and lack of firepower is going to keep us towards the relegation zone unless something is done, either through reorganisation of existing resources – which seems unlikely to be successful – or the loan market now that there is another loan space available.

Vaughan is clearly not the answer if he manages to curtail an already hugely interrupted career with stupidity as he did in injury time. Some, perhaps many, have clung to the hope that he would come back to resolve our problems up front (based on little evidence over the past 18 months) and while the sending off was, on review, a little harsh, the petulance was the last thing we needed from him.

So, two uninspiring teams fought out a largely drab goalless draw but, thankfully, at least the cost of witnessing it hasn’t risen since last season. Other than the £10 extra it did cost which, I guess, will be explained as being on the wrong side of the averages.

Back to square one

I’m cheating this week. Thankfully, I decided some time ago that a lunch time kick off in the Black Country was an absurd waste of time and effort with the game being on TV. It looked like the players agreed with me.

As pleasing as a 7 point haul from the last 3 games has been, we rode our luck at Charlton, beat a poor and crumbling relegation candidate and should have been 2 down before rescuing a point against Forest – it was far from being the foundation of an assault on the top half of the table and, deep down, most Town fans knew it.

Still, we had hope dangled before us in the first 20 minutes of this game and had we possessed anything like a cutting edge, a flat and unconvincing Wolves could have been under great pressure from a quiet, grumbling crowd who were audibly displeased at their team’s poor passing and hoofing.

In contrast, Town played with confidence and some fluidity but the familiar and unresolved problems in the last third saw good work peter out in tame shots (other than one half decent effort by Carayol) and a wilting threat.

In the opening period of hope, at least the front men pressured Wolves in to long punts forward easily defended and turnover of possession was regular, and with more composure, Bunn could have given the visitors what would have been a deserved lead.

Then it all fell apart. Cranie, who was otherwise one of very few of the side who came out with any credit, tried a strange lofted ball inside catching Huws static (sadly, this became a feature) and MacDonald drew Whitehead in to a missed challenge, played a one-two with Henry which took Lynch out of the game, strolled forward and hit a shot past Steer from 25 yards for a shock lead.

Other than a good run by Huws – pretty much the only time he got ahead of the forwards – which fizzled out with a tame shot when both Bunn and Miller were better placed, neither side looked threatening and a largely dull game was played out until half time.

The second half was worryingly poor from Town. Miller disappeared and while he had only offered nuisance value on the whole in the first half, he couldn’t make his presence felt at all in the second.

But of all the poor performances in a desperate second half, none were as inept or damaging as Davidson’s. From being nutmegged early on which should have lead to a goal from a near post header, to a suicidal back pass which 99 times out of a hundred would have resulted in a penalty and a sending off to losing the ball for Wolves’ icing on the cake 3rd, the Australian was simply awful and a massive liability.

While his unconvincing first half could have been excused by Carayol’s reluctance to help out, the presence of Bunn as auxiliary after the break removed that excuse, and it is to be hoped that this will prove to be temporary incompetence.

By the time Davison had played in Le Fondre, Wolves were already 2 up – guess who was playing Le Fondre onside to set up our old friend Afobe for a tap in?

Afobe, who had a terrible first half, outpaced Ward for the final goal and an abject display was rightly punished by the worst defeat of the season.

There were few, if any, straws to clutch at in the performance. An increasingly frustrated Whitehead worked hard alongside the languid Huws, who should have been replaced earlier than he was and Cranie did little wrong, but after that it is hard to point to any Town player who remotely performed to an acceptable standard.

Had Town scored in their dominant first 20 minutes, things may have been different – a sparse looking Molineux seemed pretty grumpy until the goal – but that failure in itself exposes the limitations of a team reliant on Huws for goals in the mini revival.

In a contest between two distinctly average sides (and this is showering Town with hyperbole), Wolves only had to increase their intensity to sweep their opponents aside, and by the end they looked a mile ahead of us as they forced their way in to the top 6 for at least an hour or two.

A late effort by Wells was the only trouble caused to the home keeper throughout the second half and it was all summed up by a dreadful corner delivery by Patterson (on for one trick pony Bunn – his turns are telegraphed before the ball even reaches him).

I’m as thankful for the international break as I was for not having to trail down to Wolverhampton – but another tough trip to Ipswich follows, and there seems little likelihood that the striker problem will be resolved by then, especially if the answer to the question is Leon Best.

Maybe Vaughan’s clearly strained relationship with the club will be eased, but even he isn’t much of an answer if his form last year is anything to go by, and Scannell’s regression continues to be another worry to heap on Powell’s shoulders.

I’m now preparing for more TV disappointment with the England rugby team, but it won’t hurt anything like this display.