Jaded Town succumb

Brighton’s relatively poor form last season always looked, from the outside, rather curious. With a very decent, and relatively wealthy, fan base operating from a superb, if somewhat isolated, facility, all the ingredients are there for a south coast powerhouse.

The momentum gained following their move from the horrible Withdean seems to have been reignited with the signing of Zamorra (an icon for the Seagulls), the loaning of Wilson from Manchester United, no doubt in the face of fierce Championship competition, and the addition very recently of the mercurial Knockaert.

A long unbeaten run has been interrupted by a minor slump as injuries and an inevitable loss of form in an unpredictable and tough division but their credentials for a top 6 finish remain intact and the game was always going to be a tough assignment for Town whose transformation remains experimental and whose recent schedule has been challenging and complicated by a midweek replay which could only create fatigue.

The visitors performed creditably but unspectacularly and were unable to overcome unfavourable odds in a game which rarely hit any heights.

Much of the fatigue looked mental rather than physical, particularly at the back where the concession of far too many free kicks around the penalty area could have lead to a far heavier defeat; up front, Town were unable to convert long periods of possession in to meaningful chances, particularly in the second half.

A rather card happy referee – who was otherwise competent and fair – had no choice but to book Hudson for a very early pulling back of Hemed which conceded the first of the aforementioned free kicks around the area wasted by the home team. The decision was correct but seemed to set a lower than normal bar for punishment in a game largely devoid of malice.

That vignette in the opening minutes set the tone for the whole game. Town lost possession in the middle of the park with Brighton fairly content to wait for the error, a slightly under par defender commits a foul and the home side spurn the opportunity.

Following the early scare, Town dominated possession and looked reasonably sharp without causing too many problems for the hosts’ back four, and Brighton had done their homework; they respected their opponents’ ability to keep and move the ball but waited patiently for their chance to break.

Before the opening goal, the home side gave plenty of warning of their speed on the break with Knockaert causing Davidson problems culminating in a fine ball for Zamorra to sweep in at the back post with an excellent finish.

That the goal came directly from a Town corner which was lofted in to the area without attracting a challenge from a yellow shirt will be of concern to Wagner on two scores. Firstly, the concession was the second such incident in a week from poor execution and, secondly, the vulnerability of his team when possession and control is lost – it is too easy for teams to exploit Town when things break down, and the goal was far from the only example at the Amex.

To their credit, Town responded well to the goal and should have equalised when the ball fell to Wells in the area. The Bermudian’s first touch was sublime, taking a defender out of play, but his second was ridiculous – slicing over the bar when he really should have scored. Hudson had done well to get the ball to the striker and it is the sort of chance Wells needs to be converting.

Though a little patchy at times – possession was given away too often – Town had their best spell of the game in the latter part of the first half which was rewarded with a late equaliser. The lively Paterson – the pick of the visitors throughout – hit a lovely cross field pass to the advancing Smith who delivered an inviting ball in to the area for Bunn to accept and plant in to the bottom corner with a powerful header following a well timed run.

The leveller was another indication of Town’s improving resilience under Wagner and, had the team been more refreshed, it was one which may have provided a good platform for the second half. Sadly, this proved not to be the case.

It didn’t help that Huws was withdrawn at the break – presumably for injury. Though not at his absolute best (he lost his footing on several occasions), he is a calming influence in the middle and can cruise through games with precise passing and the ability to read situations.

Matmour came on for an encouraging if unspectacular debut. He looks strong, willing and potentially dangerous but, like his colleagues, was unable to cause the home defence enough problems in a second half which drifted away from the visitors once they went behind.

An early corner found its way to Davidson on the edge of the box but the Australian blazed over and a Matmour effort was well blocked before it could trouble Stockdale in the Brighton goal as Town made a bright start to try and capitalise on the late first half equaliser.

Yet another dangerous free kick was conceded by Lynch, who was duly booked, and Knockaert’s effort hit the outside of the post – the closest the home side would go from their opportunities handed to them by the visitors.

Just after the hour, poor defending by Town, who really should have cleared up a less than threatening attack with an old fashioned hoof, presented the ever dangerous Knockaert with the opportunity to put in a simple cross for substitute Wilson to convert.

After going behind again, Town tried to recover but one or two promising situations – in particular one where Wells should have done better in the area by finding the unmarked Paterson rather than holding on to the ball – came to nothing and as a last throw of the dice, Wagner pushed both Hudson and Lynch forward which, naturally, left us exposed at the back and directly contributed to Tommy Smith’s second yellow card for upending Lua Lua who was bearing down on goal.

With both Hudson and Smith suspended for the next game (Hudson for 2), a major reorganisation will be necessary, complicated by Dempsey being injured, though Whitehead’s return should release Cranie from the holding midfielder role in which he is not entirely convincing.

Brighton dealt with Town’s huffing and puffing with little difficulty in a last half hour where our vulnerability to injury and suspension was laid bare, but not as bare as the lack of striking options available to the manager. Wells didn’t play badly at all, he is a willing worker for the team and his ability to link play has improved greatly under the German, but having to be supplemented by centre halves pushed forward for the second game running is a stark illumination of the issue.

A defeat then, bringing a decent run in the League to an end, but one which raises concerns rather than panic given the inherent disadvantages the team had to contend with against fresher and highly competent opposition.

Wagner will, rightly, stick to his philosophies and continue to grow and improve the resources available to him, but those assets need supplementing in this transfer window. In particular, Wells’ burden needs relieving – it is unrealistic to expect an addition as good as Brighton have achieved with Wilson, but the lack of options up front is a serious handicap to Wagner which needs resolution.

Hard work, spirit and a sprinkling of genuine talent (Lolley was largely quieted in this contest but still manages to elicit a frisson of excitement on the ball while Paterson continues to impress) will get you so far, but offensive ruthlessness is vital for the future.

After the game, the Brighton manager and some of their fans praised Town’s approach to the contest but it was telling that Houghton identified the vulnerability at the breakdown of possession and how they were better at exploiting turnovers, which told the story of the game quite succinctly.

Town have yet to prove their credentials against top half teams (other than at Birmingham when they were vulnerable through circumstances) and it is a given that Wagner will understand this and work towards the solutions; hopefully with judicial recruitment.

Inconsistent Cardiff are up next, but not for your correspondent who will now follow progress from the beauty of the San Juan mountains in Colorado. Many thanks for the kind words over the season – service will be resumed for the last few weeks and hopefully, safety will be achieved well before then.

Cruising to bruising

Town’s FA Cup adventure – already stalled by an appalling referee 10 days previously – came to a shuddering halt at the hands of another official who harshly, if not without reason, sent off Jonathan Hogg for a trip on the dangerous Vydra and Reading ruthlessly exploited their advantage in a painful second half.

Up to that point, it is no exaggeration to say that Town had destroyed the sluggish home team with pressing, incisive passing and high energy.

The whole team, from Murphy (who seems much more adept at the possession game than Steer) to a lively Wells up front put on a display which surpassed anything seen in Wagner’s reign to date and if there is anything to take from a hugely disappointing night, it is the fact that the players can be irresistible when everything clicks.

Lolley and Paterson tormented the Royals who mustered just one attack of note in this period which fizzled out with a poor final ball.

Finding space and time, the visitors soon took the lead though it was through the unlikely route of a long ball from Lynch being headed up in the air by Reading’s centre half. Wells latched on to the loose ball and Paterson took it off him to score and give Town an early and deserved lead.

In total control, dominating possession and completely outplaying their hosts, further goals were only a matter of time.

The second should have been Huws’ header against the bar following great interplay between Wells, Lolley and Paterson, but the rebound fell to Smith who shot against Al-Habsi and was then in position to take a pass at the edge of the area from Dempsey and drive the ball in to the far corner and off the post.

At 2-0, Town began to toy with Reading and their patient, accurate passing threatened to overwhelm them. This period culminated with Wells clean through on Al-Habsi and a third goal then would have killed the tie and emphasised Town’s total superiority, but instead of shooting, Nahki decided to try and take the ball round the keeper. This time, he was thwarted legally and the game was about to be turned on its head.

A poor aerial challenge by Lynch saw the ball falling to Vydra whose quick feet took him past Hudson and clear on goal, only for a clumsy Hogg challenge bringing him down. In Hogg’s defence, Vydra had cleverly shielded himself from such a challenge and a coming together was somewhat inevitable – though the shock red card that followed wasn’t.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the red card wasn’t correct. Many referees would have cautioned Hogg and it seems unlikely that such a decision would have caused any sort of uproar, but his interpretation of the law was, strictly, correct.

Instead of being 3-0 up and coasting, then, Piazon’s excellently placed free kick put Reading, undeservedly, back in the game, Town lost Lolley’s creativity as well as a man and though they played out the rest of the half reasonably comfortably, the momentum was now with the seemingly blessed hosts.

A disastrous second half followed. Town never got to grips with being a man short and, to their credit, Reading exploited the advantage with the ruthless efficiency of a bully.

Disjointed and lacking any cohesion, it was only a matter of time before the visitors succumbed, but it was ironic that the equaliser came following a Town corner. Having got out of their own half and winning a pressure relieving set piece, Paterson and Davidson managed to make a hash of it; despite eventually getting the ball in the box, it was being competed for by Lynch and Hudson and the eventual loss of possession left Town hopelessly exposed.

Vydra eventually finished off a fast break after Murphy had made a superb one handed save and the game was level.

The home team went ahead soon after with a passing move through the tiring visitors – again, Vydra was on hand to finish.

Town weren’t quite dead, and an excellent through ball by Huws – who had been magnificent until blunted by the loss of Hogg – found Wells whose lob hit the post with Al-Habsi beaten. This final jerk of the corpse summed up Town’s experience over both games – any fortune available had flowed to Reading.

Vydra’s hat trick goal had more than a touch of quality with a drag back easily beating Cranie, but by that time, Town had thrown both Hudson and Lynch forward in a desperate attempt to equalise.

Reading added a 5th in injury time but it barely mattered – the game had been won by them making the most of the many advantages they were given and they will no doubt now go on a magnificent cup run again.

In freezing conditions, the warmth generated by the opening spell was plunged in to cold despair at a shambolic second half performance which seemed to owe as much to psychology as numerical disadvantage. Reading appeared to have more than one man advantage for much of the half and as shoulders slumped amongst the visitors, gaps opened up with alarming regularity.

Being human, it is easy to sympathise with the Terriers who had, in both games, been thwarted again and again by a demonstrably inferior team, and the latest setbacks seemed to badly affect individuals and the team as a whole – it is to be hoped that the football Gods have dished out enough misfortune in these two cup ties to last for the rest of the season.

However, those opening 25 minutes showed just how good Town can be and Wagner, undoubtedly, will build on that aspect of the game.

When Reading visit in a few weeks time in the league, a good thrashing is in order.

Stuttering to a point

Following Tuesday’s demolition of crumbling Charlton Athletic – put to the sword even more emphatically at Hull this weekend – Fulham provided starkly contrasting opposition and the energetic Londoners proved to be equally as good at the pressing game as Town, and sometimes their superior.

It is something of a mystery how the visitors find themselves in an uncomfortable position in the Championship – though distinctly average at the back, which Town were largely unable to exploit, they have genuine quality further forward and they proved to be the more composed side in a contest which lacked thrills but not interest.

Town’s propensity for slow starts is a concern; a suicidally misplaced pass across his own area by Hogg to Fulham’s leading scorer in just the 2nd minute interrupted a passage of meaningless keep ball which had begun with the kick off. With his, and his team’s, first touch of the game, McCormack, a regular nemesis, swept in the opener to the dismay of the expectant home crowd.

The error – Hogg intended to clip the ball across field but mishit it badly – had the consolation of being very early and recoverable but self inflicted wounds are hugely unhelpful in an unforgiving division where such moments can be the difference between success and failure.

Fulham, who combined a similar pressing game to their hosts with crisp passing, were much the more coherent team in the first half and Town were grateful, for once, to McCormack for drifting offside in the lead up to a well constructed but disallowed goal, to the referee (again, for once) for ignoring a challenge by Hudson on the troublesome Scot which could have been punished with a penalty and a diving block by the captain from a McCormack drive.

Before his goal saving intervention, Hudson had levelled the game when he latched on to an excellent Huws delivery from a free kick, stretching to divert past Lonergan as the Londoners’defence was caught flat footed.

Earlier, a rare flowing move from the home side involving debutant Husband, Wells and Lolley freed Paterson to send a superb curling shot past the visiting keeper only to hit the post. Lolley was unable to control his follow up shot.

Wagner had warned before the game that Fulham’s style was similar to his own and their high pressing severely disrupted the hosts with possession and poise at a premium. It made for a somewhat dull spectacle and many of the hallmarks of previous displays were missing from Town’s game with reduced time on the ball.

Going in to the break level felt like something of a bonus – Fulham had been the more effective team for the most part with Town unable to achieve fluency or control in a tough encounter.

While the home side adapted to their mirror image better in the second half and looked far less vulnerable to the crisp passing of their opponents, they were forced in to playing too many long balls, and Wagner will have to find different ways to counter teams who adopt the same energetic approach.

With the evergreen Scott Parker adding a further touch of class to Fulham’s passing game, Town did well to restrict their opponents to a few wayward shots and one clear opening – substitute Dembele should have done much better with an unopposed header he steered over the bar.

Despite their labours, Town did fashion the best chance of a winner when Wells wriggled clear in the box only for Lonegran to be equal to his shot and, more impressively, he was back in position to save smartly low down from Bunn after the ensuing melee.

The second period had seen Town dispossess Fulham more regularly than the first but their failure to capitalise on that possession was epitomised when Wells eschewed the opportunity to set Paterson free on the right – his hesitation summing up a largely ineffective performance by the striker and exposing Wagner’s lack of options up front which remains a big hole in his armoury.

At the death, an over hit pass from Bojaj failed to find fellow substitute Holmes when a tiring Fulham back four were exposed, but a winner from either side by that point would have been harsh on the victim.

Both of these teams will finish in lower mid table positions but for different reasons. Fulham’s quality is undermined by inelegance at the back and, despite Town’s inability to cause them enough problems, the Achilles heel was evident. For Town, another striking option is clearly needed with too much responsibility resting on Wells’ shoulders.

While the official man of the match award went to Paterson (who was certainly the pick of the offensive players), it should have gone to Hudson who lead his team by example and seemed to stop every threat that Fulham posed as well as grabbing the equaliser.

Debutant Husband was quiet going forward but defensively sound against his erstwhile employers and needs to be judged in a better team performance than this one.

Importantly, Town’s unbeaten run continues and a similar challenge to the one they faced against Brentford was far more successfully negotiated.

The flat track bullying of woeful Charlton may have inflated expectations beyond the current squad’s abilities but this was a point gained against good opponents who are likely to improve quickly under their own new manager and though it wasn’t much of a spectacle, a solid second half performance demonstrated tactical adaptability on which to build.

Town go nap

Huddersfield Town and Charlton Athletic are two clubs on on diametrically opposed trajectories, and after just a few minutes of a game which was to prove to be a very, very long night for the South Londoners it was clear that a home win was guaranteed.

Charlton’s off field disharmony has been bubbling away for some time – largely surrounding an unusual and, to Addicks fans, unacceptable form of ownership which has resulted in a succession of unfathomable decisions – and the disarray has clearly spread on to the pitch.

If there is any consolation for the clutch of hardy souls who witnessed a gutless, occasionally nasty capitulation from their team, it is that they couldn’t have picked a worse time to play a resurgent Town side who, without ever reaching the heights of recent performances, oozed confidence and determination. It may also be the case that the result may be the final straw which provokes change for a club it is pretty hard to dislike (apart from when they insist on being drawn against us in cup competitions time after time).

Chasing shadows for almost all of the first 20 minutes, the visitors offered nothing but a grim determination to defend in depth which was never going to end well. If any thought did go in to adopting a passive and prone formation, it may have been the hope that as their opponents have tended to convert a relatively low percentage of chances created from long periods of possession, frustration would bring reward.

As is often the case, combating an opponent bereft of ambition proved a little frustrating with space at a premium, and Town had to show patience as they probed their deep lying opponents with long spells of possession gradually building up pressure until the impressive Paterson combined with Lolley at a short corner and twisted Fox inside out to get to the byline. Having created the space, he picked out Hudson to head home from 6 yards.

The opener didn’t signal an onslaught, however, and Town lost their way for a period with their previous fluency deserting them and possession was surrendered too cheaply too often.

With very little to concern them coming from their opponents, some were guilty of over elaboration and the ball wasn’t being moved quickly or accurately enough to reestablish rhythm and coupled with a succession of free kicks gained and conceded, the game descended in to a scrappy affair with little quality.

In this slightly difficult period, Hogg came in to his own and was to be found all over the pitch snuffing out the limited danger Charlton could muster, and trying to get his team mates flowing again. Even at their least effective, however, Town worked hard to subdue their already dispirited opponents ensuring an entirely comfortable half for Steer who didn’t have a save to make.

Shortly before half time, the inevitable victory was sealed with a second goal from a corner. Despite Town’s poor return from such set pieces, Charlton came in to the game with a dismal record of conceding from them, starkly illustrated by Henderson flapping at Lolley’s whipped delivery. The ball fell to Smith at the far post whose goal bound shot was diverted past a man on the line by Wells. Glances towards the linesman suggested that Town players feared an offside decision, but the flag stayed down.

The goal was timely and due reward for the home team who had battled to elevate their game when they had become bogged down, and the visitors must have been filled with foreboding for the second half – they had utterly failed to take advantage of the dip in Town’s fluency with any of their own and were comfortably the worst side seen at the stadium so far this season.

With the game already seemingly won, Town improved in the second half as Charlton disintegrated all over the pitch, though they finally had an attempt on goal soon after the restart which Steer collected rather than saved.

While still some way from irresistible, Town slowly recovered their cohesion and a delicious cross from the much improved Davidson, building on his performance on Saturday, was volleyed by Wells straight at the keeper. Coming early in the half, what would have been a spectacular goal could have opened the floodgates sooner, but that was to come.

Huws was replaced before the hour, making way for Holmes which, in turn, moved the lively Paterson further back in the midfield. The Welsh international had played with his usual assurance but the after effects of the virus which had prevented him playing on Saturday had taken it’s inevitable toll.

The injection of the diminutive American’s pace and direct approach signalled the start of the eventual crushing of Town’s hapless opponents. While his decision making can be suspect – Wagner was furious with him for spurning the opportunity to take on a nice ball from Wells and shoot early in his appearance – there is a dynamism to his runs which will, surely, finally turn promise in to achievement.

Lolley, who worked hard without replicating his marvellous display at the weekend, was replaced by Dempsey on the right side of midfield and the combative Cumbrian added a different but effective dimension to the play.

Encouragingly, the two substitutions, far from disrupting the team changed the dynamic of the home side and for relatively inexperienced players to slot in so seamlessly is testament to Wagner and his staff’s work.

At around the same time, Charlton made two substitutions of their own – including Scrabble dream Reza-Ghoochannejhad who was to have an unhappy, possibly deliberately self inflicted, end to the game – to precisely no noticeable effect.

With fresh legs, Town’s pressing intensified to the point that Charlton were harassed to exhaustion. Hogg, who had already been the pick of the team in the first half, was superb in the second – his energy, composure and impeccable positioning demoralised a visibly shattered Charlton and the home team finally went in for the kill.

First Paterson, a creative spark all evening, drifted between and past less than committed red shirts and planted a powerful shot beyond the flailing Henderson – the goal was no more than his effervescent play deserved and his growing artistry is a massive asset enhancing the hard work going on all over the pitch.

Soon afterwards, the battling Dempsey poked a ball square to fellow sub Holmes whose shot took a deflection past an increasingly distraught Henderson (later to be sent to face the press in place of Charlton’s manager – a move which smacked of cowardice and further grist to the mill for the beleaguered Valiants fans). Holmes delight at scoring his first senior goal was a delight itself and it is to be hoped that he can now push on, mature and establish himself in the squad.

As if Charlton’s problems weren’t grave enough, Reza-Ghoochannejhad – thank you, Lord, for copy and paste – was first booked for a crude foul on Davidson and swiftly followed up with an unprovoked assault on Bunn to earn a second booking. It looked premeditated, allowing him an early bath and sparing him the ignominy his team mates were soon to face. Those same team mates looked furious and the disintegration was nearly complete.

In injury time, Bunn easily beat his full back and delivered a low cross to the near post. That our left back was waiting to bundle the ball home was something of a surprise (what was he doing on the opposite side of the pitch and up front?!); Charlton’s pathetic attempt at defending certainly wasn’t.

The threat of being dragged in to a relegation fight is rapidly receding, and another home win on Saturday against Fulham will surely convince all but the most sceptical, but Wagner is far from satisfied, demanding more from his squad after the game.

In truth, the performance was a little patchy against opponents whose mediocrity made them strangely awkward, but the team stuck to their principles in the face of some crude tackling – the game was very well refereed, thankfully – and a ramshackle, troubled opponent was eventually given the beating their display deserved.

Hopefully, the people of Huddersfield will begin to show up in greater numbers to witness a transformation of a scale not seen since Buxton – if we can keep hold of him, Wagner is taking us to exciting places.

Thrills, incompetence and relief

(Apologies for delay – I wrote a report in full, tried to copy it and deleted it in error. It was a belter too – but you’ll have to make do with this second effort!)

The feeling that David Wagner’s transformation of Huddersfield Town continues apace can’t be extinguished by a game determined by some outlandish officiating by a referee and assistant who should (but won’t) be hauled over hot coals for staggering incompetence.

While having to replay a game which should have been won comfortably is disappointing and threatens to elongate Town’s terrible record in the cup, most supporters will be more than assuaged by a performance of verve and energy which built upon the massive improvements Wagner has instilled over a few short months.

If last year’s tie against the same opponents was symptomatic of Chris Powell’s sclerotic management, a feisty and always intriguing game further burnished the credentials of a coach with dynamic ideas and the ability to coerce previously seemingly rather limited players to implement them.

It took less than 3 minutes for last year’s shots on target to be matched, though Wells’ effort was tame and easily gathered by Al Habsi. Though Lolley was to stretch the Omani a little more later in the half, much of Town’s inventive and often intricate play rather floundered once the goal was in sight – one particularly thrilling move which culminated in a drag back and back heel to free Wells was rewarded with a weak finish.

Despite being dominated for long periods – and, you suspect, forced in to playing an unnatural game by Town pressing like opponents before them – Reading created the best chance of the game when the impressive McCleary fed Vydra in the box. The Czech, on loan from Watford for an outrageous fee, tried to feed Robson-Kanu but Davidson cleared from near the line.

The visitors – garishly outfitted in a kit which may have seemed a good idea on a designer’s drawing board in Summer but entirely inappropriate to a dank and grey West Yorkshire winter – were unable to build on that one attack of note and became increasingly starved of possession as Town grew in to the game.

For all their superiority, Town’s possession never carried genuine threat to the Reading goal, though the visitors will have been relieved to go in to the break level having been pegged back for long periods.

Town upped the intensity in the second half, and for 20 minutes were nigh on irresistible with Lolley – revelling in the freedom Wagner has given him – tearing at an increasingly frustrated opposition who began to resort to hacking at the burgeoning talent. Paterson buzzed around the play, linking the midfield with the lively Wells and it was only a matter of time before the Berkshire outfit crumbled.

Davidson, largely impressive in the rather thankless role of replacing Chilwell, received a magnificent cross field ball from Lolley, took one touch and delivered a great cross with pace which Paterson only had to meet with his head to redirect the power past the rooted Al Habsi.

A thoroughly deserved lead was followed by a period of complete dominance as Town outplayed the visitors with purposeful possession, aggression and movement. This should have been rewarded by a penalty when Wells took the ball round the keeper after Lolley’s inch perfect pass and was felled.

As the referee was positioned blind side of the contact, he stared intently for help from his assistant and got nothing. Using this as evidence, Wells was indicted for a dive and out came the yellow card. Even if Al Habsi had got to the ball first – and few in the ground thought he had – his attempt would also have brought Wells down; neither scenario could be construed as simulation and the injustice was needlessly compounded.

It should perhaps have been no surprise that the assistant palpably failed to assist. In the first half, a Reading player pushed his hands in to the face of Davidson and while the Aussie’s reaction was theatrical, the act was a sending off offence. The assistant clearly didn’t think so and, astonishingly, the referee not only failed to book him, he lectured Davidson as well!

Minutes after denying Wells a penalty, the same pair managed to change the course of the game when a clear foul on Wells on the halfway line was waived away and the breaking ball was played up to Vydra. With a clever control, Hudson was left grounded and the on loan striker turned Dempsey in the box before a slight deflection off the full back looped over Murphy.

With an improbable, ill deserved and fortuitous equaliser – well taken but play should have been called back – Reading smelled blood.

Town’s previous composure at the back began to unfold and though Wells had a header tipped over from another excellent Davidson cross, it was the visitors who began to look the more likely to force their way in to the 4th round.

As the clock ticked down, Piazon and McCleary combined down the right and a weary attempt at a tackle from the otherwise excellent Lynch allowed the substitute to feed Robson-Kanu to bury what looked like being the winner.

Minutes before, the hapless referee had denied Reading a clear penalty when Vydra was bundled over in the box – whether this was an evening up or more incompetence only the referee can answer, but the former is the most likely explanation.

With 5 minutes injury time about to be added, Wagner turned to Miller, perhaps in desperation, and redemption seemed highly unlikely.

It was the substitute who fed Harry Bunn for one final, weaving run at defenders. With 4 around him, Bunn could have tried to feed the ball in to the area but, instead, he turned and ran at them. Beating one man, he turned inside and on to a rash challenge from Norwood, just inside the area.

Though there must have been some doubt, in real time, that the offence was in the area, the referee pointed to the spot at last. Wells stepped up and fired low and hard beneath Al Habsi to gain a little revenge. The penalty wasn’t the best – a little too close to the keeper for comfort – but Wells good display was rewarded and the team were delivered of a little justice.

Events had conspired against a sparkling home performance, slightly marred by a negative if forgivable reaction to setbacks beyond their control, but the growing confidence in putting their boss’s inspired game plans in to effect augurs very well for the future.

The replay will be tough – Reading have some good quality up front as witnessed intermittently in this game – and Monday’s draw will determine just how tantalising the reward for success may be.

Before then, there is a real possibility that a team is going to be completely dismantled.

A year of promise ahead

An imperfect but intermittently impressive performance saw Town overcome an increasingly demoralised and troubled Bolton; riding their luck at times but fully deserving to complete an encouraging and rewarding Christmas period with 7 points from 9.

The stricken home side, reportedly on the brink of administration which would inevitably be just the start of their problems, had been buoyed by a rare victory in their last game against Blackburn and started strongly against a strangely hesitant and error strewn Town whose occasional penchant for poor starts is a trait Herr Wagner will surely be looking to correct.

Misplacing passes, losing possession and shape and lacking an adequate response to the threats of Feeney and Clough, the visitors should have found themselves behind early in the game – an often fatal state in this unforgiving division.

An early Town foray forward was broken up easily and Pratley’s pump forward was headed on by Madine – beating Lynch a little too easily – which found Feeney and a completely exposed visiting defence. Outpacing Chilwell, the winger shot early, beating Steer but not the left hand post.

Town were slightly fortunate not to be punished by the ensuing play and the uncertainty which had pervaded the opening 10 minutes – including a near miss from Madine’s header following a great cross by Feeney – was followed by intense pressure by the Trotters with a couple of good efforts foiled by blocks by Hudson, who had one of his much better days.

Bolton, like Bristol City before them, had clearly set out to meet fire with fire to counter Town’s new style and harried a strangely lethargic opposition in to errors and disorganisation. Bunn and Scannell, in particular, were well below par and, while he improved, Hogg was guilty of giving away possession too many times in a mixed performance. His midfield partner, Huws, was better but not immune to the early malaise, and it seemed like an age before composure finally returned to the visitors’ play.

As Bolton eventually found out, maintaining the intensity required to keep Town in disarray is difficult and the tide turned following a strong penalty shout when Wells was taken down in the area following an excellent ball from Lolley. Apparently insulted by a poor refereeing decision – Guano’s challenge was laughably eponymous – the Terriers gained control and while poor final balls and the stuttering displays of Bunn and Scannell mitigated against many chances being created, a platform had been built for a much improved second half performance.

Wagner made a trademark and bold substitution, replacing the lethargy of Scannell with Paterson’s effervescence, and Bolton’s early energy was swamped, their cohesion dismantled and swathes of possession forced the hosts in to employing a crude, largely ineffective long ball game to Madine, who was marshalled relatively easily by Hudson and Lynch (though not always legally).

From the kick off, a flowing move involving Paterson and Huws set Wells free in the area, but the Bermudian’s good effort was very well saved and the pattern for the half was set.

Bolton couldn’t cope with Town’s pressing out of possession and time after time, the visitors were swarming towards goal – though poor decision making let them down too often.

Finally, the goal which Town’s enterprise deserved arrived. After breaking up play, the ever impressive Lolley was set free to run at Bolton’s retreating and increasingly traumatised defenders. His first attempt pole axed the unfortunately monikered Guano only to bounce straight back to Lolley to finish with admirable control.

Dominating possession and with their opponents’ confidence visibly deflating, Town attacked with pace and numbers only to over elaborate in the final third too often and the lead looked a little flimsy despite the hosts’ increasingly laboured and one dimensional attempts to level.

Hudson was hurt making a block in the area and when Town’s attempt to play out from the back floundered, Madine was free for once and he played in Clough to curl a shot wide. If the let off was deserved, it emphasised those pesky fine margins which can overturn superiority in an instant.

It was to be Bolton’s final chance of redemption though there was still to be a long wait before Town could seal victory – the marauding Chilwell could have capped another fine display with a goal on two occasions but composure deserted him. Sadly, his exhilarating loan spell is now over and the chance of extending it remote – Town fans will follow what could be a sparkling career with no little affection.

Huws had a good effort deflected wide for yet another predictably unproductive corner and other promising attacks floundered for want of the right decisions but Town had their foot on their ragged opponents’ neck.

Bunn, who had been largely out of sorts, was replaced by Carayol and Wagner’s growing reputation for inspired substitutions was further enhanced when less than 2 minutes later the Middlesbrough loanee finally put the game to bed.

Picking up the ball just inside Bolton’s half, Carayol ran in to the ever inviting space between the home side’s defence and midfield (it was a yawning chasm by this stage), and played in Wells who was clearly fouled by the wretched Guano, as he shot against the keeper. The miserable referee played a good advantage as the ball fell back to Carayol to hammer the final nail in Bolton’s coffin.

With victory sealed, the impressive Huws was replaced by Cranie and a large stride towards survival had been taken.

It had been a far from flawless performance.

Even slightly better sides than Bolton would have punished a painfully slow start – indeed, the slightly better Bristol City already have done, as have the much superior Brentford. While most teams in this division will find it difficult to maintain the high tempo required to subdue Wagner’s philosophies, the increased susceptibility to conceding early is a problem which needs addressing.

There is also a lack of ruthlessness at the other end – Town regularly swarmed forward in the second half with both pace and numbers and should have buried Bolton far sooner than they eventually did.

Looking past the flaws, however, the transformation of the team from a timid outfit seemingly waiting to be beaten by opponents perceived to be too superior, wealthy or powerful to challenge remains quite remarkable. The potentially debilitating loss of Whitehead’s experience and leadership has been largely overcome and it is not a coincidence that the swagger and attacking intent is now being rewarded by a much fairer share of luck, even if decent refereeing continues to elude us.

The unity of purpose is palpable and, importantly, spreading to the supporters who hailed Wagner loudly after the game.

There will be setbacks ahead – a shallow squad now stripped of a high quality left back needs reinforcement – but the direction of travel is assuredly upward and there is huge scope for further improvement.

On to the cup now – a repeat of last season’s disgusting capitulation seems impossible under this management – followed by 2 eminently winnable home league games which could well be a launch pad for a memorable 2016.

Happy New Year.