Fade out with the Blues

With safety assured – mathematics finally catching up with reality – an uninspiring fixture against Birmingham City, themselves disabused of slim play off ambitions many weeks ago, signalled the dog days of a season which began with despair and foreboding but ends with hope born of witnessing a fresh and very different approach turning an apparently poor squad in to a reasonably competitive outfit.

With at least 2 and possibly 3 huge clubs descending from above, the Championship will remain very challenging even with increased spending, but supporters could be forgiven for distracting themselves with thoughts of what Wagner can achieve with a full pre-season and a squad bolstered by his own selections.

To the unbridled delight of the visiting fans, who even carried out a mock funeral of their rivals, replete with claret and blue draping a home made coffin, one of those huge clubs is Villa where poor decisions and a remote ownership has relegated the bigger of the second city’s clubs with little sign that an immediate revival is likely.

It was, perhaps, inevitable, that the distracted moods of both set of fans would be mirrored by a game which was intermittently entertaining but lacking the intensity of more meaningful competition.

With Paterson and Huws restored to the starting line up, Wagner handed Dempsey another chance at right back while his team had an opportunity to improve what has been a disappointing home record over the season. It was also a chance to do the double over the Blues – the away victory in early December was Wagner’s first and signalled both a change in fortunes and, with the performance, vindicated his appointment even though their hosts had a severe striker crisis at the time and perfectly suited Town’s away style in their weakened and vulnerable state.

Gary Rowett, who has proven himself a very astute manager, has marshalled thin resources (compromised by yet another foreign ownership model) and kept Birmingham in the top 10 all season and, this time, could call upon Clayton Donaldson, Lafferty (who was rather oddly coveted by Championship clubs despite high wages and a poor scoring record in England) and Fabbrini, who was to prove a poor man’s Forestieri with less talent but all the drama.

It was hardly a surprise that the visitors proved rugged and resolute, in the image of their manager, but this was to be a day when Town’s failure to convert large expanses of possession in to enough chances and those that were made were largely wasted.

Kicking off, Town managed to maintain largely pointless possession for nearly 2 minutes before a misplaced Hudson pass let in Lafferty to blast over wastefully – the captain made several errors in the first half but, on the whole, the defence coped comfortably with the visitors until Steer had to save sharply from Davis mid half.

Before then, with Paterson lively and with Town playing some decent balls between the lines, Lolley fired an effort wide – despite several efforts throughout the game the Villa fan couldn’t add to his record against Brum or, indeed, trouble the keeper.

Many corners were wasted during the afternoon – Town had 15 – but an early one saw a Hudson flick elude defenders to allow Huws a headed effort only for the keeper to make a good one handed save while changing direction.

The best chance of all, though, fell to Wells when an incisive passing move set him clear of his marker. With too much time to think, however, the in form striker mishit his attempt and it screwed wide.

With Steer under employed and Town dominating possession, there were occasional passages of good play but they fell a little short in intensity – no matter how hard you try to guard against the dulling impact of games of little consequence, even the small blunting of sharpness is noticeable.

Huws, who Dean Hoyle confirmed was too expensive to buy before the game, and Paterson, who, it seems, possibly isn’t, pulled most of the midfield strings allowing Van La Parra, in particular, to provide decent if ultimately thwarted thrusts at the opposition. He was well supported by Davidson down the left, though the Australian’s well known flaws persist defensively.

Sometimes pleasing on the eye, Town found the visitors resolute in defence once the final third was reached until Wells’ chance just before the end, which would have changed the game and yet again emphasised the importance of scoring first.

More chances were created in the second half than the first, despite the slightly odd substitutions just on the hour with Van La Parra and Paterson making way for Mitmour and Bunn, a seemingly weakening of Town’s creativity. The Dutch winger had set Wells on his way only to be upended trying to support him – alone in the area, Wells shot wide from too an acute an angle.

Lolley, fed by the hard working Wells who had stolen the ball from a dilettante defender, had a shot deflected wide when he may have done better and then, when Wells was felled dangerously near the area, Lolley fired the free kick,over the bar.

Matmour’s half hour was, again, very encouraging. While his footballing intelligence and poise is sometimes let down by hesitancy, once free and in space, he looks dangerous and difficult to dispossess. His best run, starting with a dummy and continuing with tight control as he ran at Brum’s back four was followed by a sublime ball with the outside of his right foot which bent around the retreating defenders only for Bunn to just fail to connect.

Had that chance been converted it would have completed a comeback following the concession of a lead the visitors barely deserved. Whitehead, booked yet again in the first half, halted the progress of a Birmingham attack with an unnecessary foul and the sloppiness continued with a badly constructed wall inviting Cotterill to fire through a gap; a slight deflection wrong footed Steer, but an attempt at a save would have been nice.

Scannell’s introduction offered a different approach and the winger, who has had a regularly interrupted and largely ineffective season, looked more like the rejuvenated player of last season. It was his typically clever run which lead to an equaliser the home team deserved when a rather weak shot fell to Lynch in the area. The impressive centre back pivoted and coolly slotted home.

Just before the end, yet another corner was poorly delivered and spun up in the air off Lynch. Matmour executed a good overhead kick which took a slight deflection and brought a good save from Kuszczak and the points were shared.

A patchy performance largely let down by a familiar lack of ruthlessness in the final third was a little disappointing, though there were some good performances.

Huws’ calm patrolling and passing through the lines, Wells’ work rate and movement and Paterson’s lively prompting was complimented by Matmour’s obvious class.

Dempsey’s apprenticeship at right back was moderately successful – his energy and willingness to get forward are tempered by his rawness but he offers a good alternative to the less fluid Smith and has plenty of time to mature and develop.

Perhaps more important than a game a little blighted by its dead rubber status was Dean Hoyle’s reported excitement at the prospects for next season; excitement predicated on the arrival of new players to a squad which will allow us to “go for it”.

Seasoned Town supporters may well counsel people to retain some cynicism given the regularity of disappointment, but there is nothing wrong with hope – indeed, it has often been all we have had, however forlorn they turned out to be; at least we seem to be creating our new future on sound principles.

Clash of cultures

Neil Warnock’s admirable and quite remarkable transformation of a club seemingly doomed to relegation when he arrived has provided one of the stories of the Championship season.

To the surprise of no one, he has done it with a style which owes far more to the philosophies of Charles Hughes than anything the 21st century has had to offer, but needs must and even route one football demands the discipline, organisation and fitness not usually found in abundance in a squad which looked to have accepted their fate by January.

With both clubs on the verge of mathematical safety before kick off, the game represented a new, interesting and difficult challenge in David Wagner’s English football education. Thankfully, aerial bombardment is a rarity in the Championship but as a test of resilience, countering the Millers style was an opportunity for the German.

It is one thing to prepare for a direct style of play, but quite another to experience it. In the first 15 minutes, Rotherham rattled Town regularly and with some force – the visitors struggled to cope and seemed determined to hand the initiative to their hungry hosts.

Free kicks and corners – bread and butter to Warnock’s game plan – were freely conceded and with long, spearing throw ins adding to the Millers’ artillery, it seemed we were all in for a long, neck stretching night.

Ugly as it is, the methodology is effective when done well and there was a sense of inevitability when the home side took the lead with a rare moment of beauty. Not really – a corner awarded by an extraordinarily inept linesman who looked as shell shocked as the visitors was won at the back post, the ball squirting to Halford who took credit for a goal which owed far more to a big deflection off Whitehead.

Having imposed their style, the home side continued to dominate and a long night seemed inevitable. Any attempt by Town to get the ball on the grass was easily and regularly thwarted and the next chance soon followed with Ward, (G) not (D), latching on to a long ball behind Davidson only to be thwarted by a decent Steer save.

Another corner caused more consternation, with 3 home players in contention to score on the back post when a partial clearance came back with interest, but a tame effort was easily gathered by Steer.

At this point, it was easy to see how and why Rotherham’s season has been turned around so dramatically – though not easy on the eye, the bombardment creates chances and defensive panic and confusion; the game can be put beyond you in double quick time.

Fortunately for Town, and quite significantly against the run of play, the otherwise rather disappointing Van La Parra won the ball back after initially losing possession, the ball fell to Bunn who then slipped in Wells to fire in under Camp (who should have done much better).

Goals change games, they say, and the cliche held firm as the home side visibly deflated at the blow. A torrid 20 minutes for the visitors was left behind as they took a grip of a game they were rarely to let go, even if fluency was at a premium for much of the time.

Wells, who played well all night against a typically robust defence, latched on to an excellent long ball from Lynch (you will notice that our long balls are described as the epitome of accuracy while theirs are a bombardment!), but could only fire against Camp from a tight angle.

Defensively, Town began to comfortably cope with Rotherham, Lynch and Hudson easily dealing with long balls and, crucially, now finding the time and space to get the ball to their midfield to build.

Other than the Wells effort following the goal, however, chances were at a premium for both sides and an interesting half, short on sustained quality but not incident, ended all square.

Town dominated the rest of the game with just a little more composure in possession. While the aerial route still caused minor difficulties at times, it was the visitors’ style which largely prevailed, helped by the early introduction of Paterson and Matmour.

Many supporters are undecided on the latter, but they should be patient – he added a touch of class to proceedings with good movement and intelligent passing; though he still needs further acclimatisation to the rigours of 2nd tier English football, he is beginning to look more at home and he is unlikely to face much more of a culture shock than the New York stadium experience against a Warnock team.

A Joe Lolley dribble and shot brought a good save from Camp – tellingly, he was named man of the match by the home team despite his weak attempt for Wells’ goal – with Paterson just unable to pick out a colleague from the rebound.

Matmour set up Wells for a decent long range effort which went just wide as Town’s grip on midfield tightened, and the two combined again only for Camp to keep out the Bermudian.

A Lynch effort from distance drew some oohs and ahs, but it wasn’t troubling Camp who let it drift wide before Town’s final effort ended up in the net but ruled out by an offside flag. Wells had retrieved a ball to the corner with a deft, first time ball back to Paterson but the on loan man’s clever return ball found Wells just beyond the last man.

A creditable draw against in form opposition, mathematical safety achieved and a new learning experience for Wagner added up to a reasonably satisfying night for the Terriers who can now turn their thoughts towards an important and potentially exciting pre season.

For Rotherham, safety is yet to be entirely secured but their transformation under Warnock has been one of the stories of the Championship season. At the risk of patronising them, it is good that they will remain in the division – their compact ground can generate a decent atmosphere, their fans aren’t delusional like many in the division and beating the budget odds is always an attractive narrative.

Wagner now has the luxury of experimentation time having achieved his number one objective – and supporters can finally stop bloody worrying about a relegation which was never going to happen!

4,001 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire

Following a run of tough games against top 6 sides with, last weekend and at last, the collection of a single point from one of them, Town began their season run in against teams that are, for the time being, considered their peers.

Much was made pre match of Town’s record at Ewood Park, where they haven’t won in 30 years. Hardly ever playing there until recently rather dilutes the already pretty pointless statistic and our record since returning to the Championship has been a narrow defeat and 2 turgid goalless draws.

There is also the unmistakeable stench of decay about the famous old Lancastrians. Absentee Indian owners appear to be losing interest and Lambert’s lightly veiled ultimatums over transfer funds look likely to be ignored and it is far from inconceivable that the, ahem, chickens are coming home to roost for a club never far from FFP sanctions scrutiny.

Rovers’ team to face Town contained little to fear; the departures of Gestede and Rhodes and the arrival of the ageing and never prolific Danny Graham has significantly weakened a club who have never really convinced as potential promotion challengers since their demotion.

With the increasingly remote possibility of relegation receding to theoretical mathematics following last week’s results, all of the apparently invincible top 6 having been played and a better, if far from perfect display in the last game, Town could go in to this game with reasonable confidence.

A dire first half was intermittently brightened up by the skills of Van La Parra who tormented Blackburn’s defenders and midfielders without being able to penetrate what appeared to be a solid home back line. While Town took control of possession, their progress up the field was either too laboured or they were forced in to trying long balls to be comfortably dealt with by Hanley.

The best move of the half was the home team’s. A short corner was cleverly worked between Gomez and Marshall with the former being freed by the latter’s back heel to the byline, but the resilience Town’s defenders showed regularly against Hull came to the fore as Graham’s shot was charged down before the ensuing melee was cleared.

A free kick was also well blocked by the wall but the rest of Rovers’ attacks, which became increasingly sporadic, were easily dealt with.

For their part, Town created little of note and yet another foray forward appeared to fizzle out as a cross from Bunn was intercepted by Marshall only for the hapless Duffy to attempt a headed back pass to his keeper. Wells, creditably alert, latched on to the ill advised and slightly loopy attempt and cleverly diverted past Steele with an instinctive finish.

Duffy was also to provide a comedy moment beloved of all football followers when he was slammed from close range in the nuts in the second half. Horrible when it happens to you (ladies, you are just going to have to take our word for it), but a rare joy as a witness.

Shortly after Town’s opener, Steele presented the ball to Van La Parra when trying to find Marshall. The opportunity came to naught but betrayed a fragility in the home team which was to be exploited in a marginally better second half.

Having scored with their only attempt on target shortly before half time, Town’s recent Ewood Park drought had finally come to an end and a vital platform had been established. Somewhat fortuitous and a little more than a tepid first half had deserved, it was, never the less, a welcome advantage which had the added virtue of being well timed as the break loomed.

It had been a half where Town’s ability to keep possession better than their hosts became quickly apparent, even if there was virtually no potency in the final third. Whitehead – very fortunate not to be booked for a late challenge – and Huws dominated midfield and provided an effective shield for a largely comfortable defence ably marshalled by Hudson and Lynch.

Moving the ball more quickly must have been on the agenda for Wagner’s half time talk as Town took control of the early stages of the second period, and they were rewarded by a second goal before the hour.

Bunn swung in a near post corner which was met by Hudson and diverted in to his own goal by Killgallon. A welcome but scruffy goal, in keeping with a very ordinary game, gave Town a solid basis for victory but it preceded Rovers best spell of the game.

Sparked in to some sort of life, the home side finally began to add some crispness to their passing and exerted what should have been game changing pressure.

Ben Marshall, a quality player who had been quelled far too easily in the first half, put in a great ball after skipping past Davidson only for Graham to miscue his straightforward headed opportunity badly wide. It was difficult not to imagine what Rhodes would have done with the chance.

The same player was thwarted by a Tommy Smith block soon afterwards but alarm bells were ringing for the visitors – a goal at that stage could have drastically changed the nature of the game.

The temporarily lively Marshall then found the byline in the box and his cross was headed out by Davidson in to the path of Gomez whose goal bound strike hit Hudson and cannoned off him for a corner. Desperate appeals for a penalty were easily turned away – Hudson had no alternative but to let the ball hit him, made no movement to suggest an attempt to keep out the ball illegally and it had struck him from fairly short range.

A routine save down near his right hand post by Steer – the only save of note he had to make – signalled the end of the home side’s brief revival and they were never to look like getting a foothold in the contest again.

Re establishing control, Town kept the ball comfortably and looked more likely to add to their score, particularly with the lively Van La Parra drawing several fouls as he threatened to break, but they were largely content to run down the clock with a calm collectiveness which thwarted and frustrated their lethargic and unimaginative hosts.

The uncertain glory of an April day saw sunshine turn to dark clouds, winds and a little snow to add meteorological drama to a game largely bereft of excitement – a late penalty appeal when Wells was shoulder charged was rightly turned down, but the win had rarely been in doubt.

A good, if not particularly inspiring, win against opponents you suspect are in dangerous decline gives Town some impetus to finish the season strongly and further persuade Dean Hoyle – if such persuasion was needed – to back Wagner with summer signings to improve a side which has a decent philosophy in the making, if not enough quality to translate it in to significant movement up the table yet.

In case you were wondering, the additional hole to those noted by Lennon appeared in Blackburn’s back four, which leads us to the promised quiz;

There are 4 UK towns and cities named in Lennon/McCartney lyrics. Blackburn is the obvious one – what are the other two? No googling now! Answers below – need to scroll down a bit.


Southampton and London – The Ballad of John and Yoko (thanks to Pete Watson for pointing out that London appears late on)

Kirkcaldy – Cry Baby Cry.

A point well made

Following an entertaining, hard fought and interesting (on several levels, both positive and negative), David Wagner commented that Town are not only a long way from providing any sort of sustained challenge to the top 6 of the Championship, the next step is to compete with the middle of the road clubs.

While sensible expectation management must also have informed his thinking, the experiences of the last 7 days, not to mention the previous absence of any success against the top end of the division, provides the stark realities of the task he is taking on with enthusiasm, intelligence and determination.

It is unlikely that he will be carried away by a useful point against a Hull side whose quality was obvious but rather patchy. The timing of the fixture – not an inconsiderable factor in the Championship – favoured Town, as Hull have suffered a slump in form only temporarily relieved by their easy home win against a weak Charlton side before a thrashing at Derby.

A frantic first half began with Town spurning a good opportunity created by good counter attacking through Lolley but a poor touch let him down when bearing down on goal allowing defenders to recover and block his attempted cross to Wells.

Early on, Hull found space down Town’s left and the ever dangerous Elmohamaday skinned Husband to find Hernandez free in the box only for the Uruguayan to head in to Steer’s arms.

Emyr Huws also produced an overdue performance of no little quality, prompting several attacks in the first half, finding his range of passing and adding a sense of calm too often lacking in one or two around him.

While half chances fell to Wells – who worked hard and effectively without getting another sniff of goal – Lolley and Paterson, it was Hull who looked most dangerous and the rather last ditch nature of Town’s defending, while often brave, was disconcerting. Cranie, Hudson, Smith and Steer were all called upon to foil dangerous situations, some of which were self inflicted in the first place.

Admirable as the blocks and saving tackles were, the desperation was palpable at times and illustrated that Wagner’s new embryonic tactics for better opposition requires work. The plan has echoes of Powell but with added flair when counter attacking was allowed, and as he learns the realities of Championship life – not least the disparities of wealth – without the luxury of his own squad prepared through a pre-season, the German is showing a pragmatic approach to the challenges.

Having survived scares and slowly getting to grips with the multiple threats of Robertson, Elmohamaday and the rather disappointing Snodgrass, Town took the lead with an impressive counter attack prompted by a superb ball by Huws to Husband. That the Welshman had extricated himself from a tight situation to deliver the pass made it more impressive and, in his last game on loan, Husband made maximum use of the space and opportunity before him, squaring to the unmarked Paterson to steer home.

The lead was valuable if not entirely deserved and was nearly doubled when Van La Parra spun around a defender and lofted a ball to the onrushing Lolley. Unfortunately, his volley hit Maguire and diverted wide – a 2-0 deficit at that stage may well have shattered the Tigers’ fragile confidence.

As it was, Hull should have equalised in the 5th minute of 3 minutes injury time – courtesy of refereeing liability Mr Deadman – when a soft free kick appeared to be floating out harmlessly before Snodgrass managed to hook the ball back in to Bruce’s path only for him to blast well over under some pressure from Steer.

With a half time lead and a much improved, if far from perfect, performance behind them, all eyes were on the elusive prize of a top 6 scalp; an understandable objective but one which has seemed a tad overblown in recent weeks and perhaps the source of a little too much anxiety which has perhaps stifled the exuberance Wagner has brought.

Town started the second half with apparently increased confidence and calmer defending before a sequence of events over the space of two minutes began to change the game’s dynamics just before the hour.

Another mazy run by Van La Parra, who by now was bringing out a range of tricks, took him to the edge of the area before he slipped in Wells whose first time effort was well saved by McGregor. From the ensuing corner, a clearance was picked up by Lolley who played in the overlapping Paterson to deliver a great cross for the unmarked Huws. McGregor was at his best to tip over, but it was a glorious chance which, again, would have tested Hull’s mental state.

The next turning point was the withdrawal of Van La Parra with 20 minutes (plus Deadman’s potentially arbitrary additional time) to go. The winger had produced the best home debut in some considerable time which completely banished memories of his forgettable actual debut, but was clearly viewed as tiring by the management despite, or perhaps because of, a sprint back to commit a foul on Snodgrass minutes earlier.

We can dream that Van La Parra can become our Arfield – a player who couldn’t fulfil his potential at one club only to blossom at another – but, more prosaically, his departure freed up Elmohamaday from fully committed defensive duties and, once Aluko replaced the ineffective Snodgrass, Town’s left side became a potent source of supply again having been largely shut down since midway through the first half.

It was a clever and immediate response by Bruce, no doubt relieved that a potent threat had disappeared and delighted to be able to turn the tables. It also spoke, again, of the depth of the wealthier clubs’ benches.

From that point, Town began to atrophy alarmingly. Tired legs were not helped by two injuries to Hudson, both the result of a return to increasingly desperate defending. The veteran’s reduced mobility was an obvious concern and it was surprising that with Lynch on the bench his number wasn’t called.

Shortly after Hernandez had hit the bar and with desperation levels rising, Hudson couldn’t make a second tackle having initially won the ball on the left and Aluko skipped away down the wing. By the time the Nigerian had negotiated his way past Husband and Bunn, the captain was on his way back in to the area and inadvertently flicked the ball up perfectly for Hernandez to volley home.

The equaliser had been coming and to add injury to insult, Cranie’s vain attempt at a block resulted in a muscle pull and Town’s central defence was now seriously compromised.

Lynch replaced him but even the presence of our most accomplished and calm defender could not quell the anxiety of having to survive another quarter hour against a buoyant team and, in particular, the excellent Huddleston who had taken a firm grip of proceedings. Though quiet in the first half, the strangely unfit looking ex Spurs man was dominant in the second, linking play effortlessly and cruising through the chaos around him.

Scares came thick and fast and all semblance of control was lost as clearances simply invited the away side back on to the attack. The best chance fell to Aluko who was found by Huddleston, naturally, but fired over when he should have at least hit the target.

Somehow, Town survived and, implausibly, took the lead which should have earned the first top 6 scalp, even if it would have been more than fortuitous.

Harry Bunn, who had spent most of his time as an auxiliary full back, was released by Huws and he surged in to the area to put in a dangerous cross which Maguire turned in to his own net.

To their credit, Hull didn’t slump at what must have seemed a horrible injustice (and in their position, they couldn’t afford to sulk) and resumed their dominance in injury time to snatch a deserved equaliser.

Town’s defending was questionable at best, allowing too much space for a cross which flicked off Whitehead and arced towards Diomande to head past Steer, who may feel he should have done better.

The main concern for Town reverted to preserving their point as they retreated again with exhaustion, but Hull could only muster a wild shot as they pursued a win to cement their play off place. As it happened, results elsewhere went their way, particularly Wednesday’s thrashing at Bristol, and an extended season looks guaranteed.

For Town, the point slightly extended the gap to the doomed looking MK Dons and Charlton with Bolton finally being put out of their misery with a fully deserved relegation.

Referee Deadman failed in his attempts to ruin an entertaining game with inconsistent and often plain wrong decisions against both sides but added a touch of comedy by indulging two boot fittings by Hull players having kept Lolley off the pitch for an eternity for similar shodding.

Much improved for 70 minutes against good quality opposition, Town regained the steel absent in midweek at the Riverside, but the form of Whitehead, who works hard but remains slightly off, the troublesome left back slot where the rather average Husband will be replaced by the erratic Davidson and a creaking central defence remain worrisome until the mathematics render them redundant.

But it was a thoroughly enjoyable encounter from the home fans’ perspective, even if this is a sentiment unlikely to be shared on the east coast, where a return to the Premier League may well be essential to prevent potential stagnation and decline.

A long, long way to go

With Town’s abysmal record against the high flyers and spenders of the Championship, a heavy defeat was probably not unexpected, but the manner of the loss was dispiriting for reasons which were apparent under Powell and don’t simply disappear with a refreshing change of manager.

Three of the back four playing against an impressive Middlesbrough – who were in control despite allowing Town lots of largely unproductive possession – are either too old, too slow or simply not good enough for the progress Wagner hopes to make over the next year or so.

The defensive shields – Whitehead and Huws – have an air of stopgap about them, with one coming to the end of a career which has proved useful to Town before his injury but less so since and the other strolling about with the reduced conviction of a player whose future lays away from the club.

A surfeit of wide men found it beyond them to create threat against a classy, solid defence and top scorer Wells was again left to feed off scraps against a club stingy with goal concessions at home all season.

After controlling the first 20 minutes without causing the home team any problems whatsoever – the theme of the game was Town looking pretty at times but all of it in front of a resolute home team who just had to pick their moments to unleash pace and skill in abundance – Middlesbrough got closer to the player on the ball and forced error after error in possession, knocking Town off their stride before delivering killer blows.

Steer had already made one good save from the otherwise quiet Jordan Rhodes when a poor clearance by Lynch (who chose to head a ball he maybe should have volleyed away) was picked up by Clayton, played inside to Leadbitter and moved on to the impressive Ramirez – he had set up Rhodes’ chance – who drew a clumsy foul by Lynch for a penalty. Leadbitter rarely misses and didn’t.

The speed of the move had caught Town flat footed and a defence already beginning to be undermined by the pace on the left of Adomah and his supporting full back was to be breached again following a bad error by Whitehead just minutes later.

Ramirez accepted the gift that his pressing had earned and his progress was unimpeded as he rounded Steer and finished expertly.

Town’s admirable but largely ineffectual ball retention in the early stages had at least established some sort of foothold in what was always going to be a pretty daunting game, but 2 errors destroyed those endeavours with cold, cruel efficiency. That the wounds were self inflicted shouldn’t detract from Ramirez’s quality which lit up the game all night.

When Town did manage to fashion promising opportunities – on the few occasions that their movement was clever enough to get beyond Middlesbrough’s disciplined lines – hesitancy filled them, with both Huws and Paterson guilty of dallying or needing an extra touch when a shot may have brought reward. Paterson, perhaps the stand out, along with Steer, of a poor field, missed the opportunity to shoot in injury time when a goal at that stage may have fostered some doubt in the minds of the confident, classy home side.

Space had becoming increasingly difficult to find against Boro’s disciplined midfield and any bright moments on the break crashed against an even stronger back line than they had faced on Saturday, and possession was largely maintained negatively, sometimes perilously, along the back four.

The alternative, however, was even worse, with any forced long ball (and there were far too many) resulting in Wells bouncing off big defenders.

With hopes pretty much extinguished by half time and results elsewhere looking as if unnecessary pressure was on the cards for the weekend and beyond, a gloom descended on the away contingent which, sadly, in the second half saw some turn against the admittedly hapless Davidson with booing.

However bad the Australian was – and he looked significantly further out of his depth than any other Town player – jeering him was indefensible. When he slung over a couple of good but futile crosses, the one reliable aspect of his game shut them up to an extent, but his future looks increasingly uncertain.

A huffing, puffing beginning to the second half rather flattered to deceive with no chances of any note resulting from play which looked competent and even pleasing on the eye at times, until it broke down with a misplaced ball, a start again back pass or lazy shots from improbable distances or angles.

The hosts simply had to sit back and be patient as they knew that the devastating pace of Adomah, the guile of Ramirez or the marauding of George Friend (oh for a left back of his quality!) would be brought in to play soon enough.

There were glimpses of the style of play Wagner is trying to introduce, but the frustration of moves breaking down far too easily was difficult to watch.

With Boro coasting, soaking up the light pressure with consummate ease and not having to expend much energy, a 3rd goal was always likely. A fast break was ended with a foul just outside the area and Ramirez stepped up to place an unstoppable free kick past Steer. The quality of the strike emphasised just how much work and recruitment Wagner will have to do to get Town competing in the right half of the table; a top 6 finish looks a generation away.

It is barely a secret that Rhodes and Downing are Boro’s highest paid players – very possibly amassing £100,000 per week between them – yet, rather frighteningly, these 2 were probably the poorest performers for the home side on the night, particularly Downing who wouldn’t have looked out of place in our team.

However, the same problems which faced Powell, and other managers of the relatively impoverished clubs in the division, haven’t gone away – Town are not going to go on a suicidal spending spree, quite rightly, and the patience Hoyle and Wagner have asked for is arguably more important to respect and follow on the bad nights when natural limitations are exposed.

There is no alternative to trying to break the mould in a different, sustainable manner. While Boro’s spending is likely to be rewarded with automatic promotion (their run in looks straightforward with lots of home games), there are others where the gamble will not pay off and those clubs could emulate the financial basket cases of Bolton, Forest, Leeds, Blackburn and QPR.

After a poor night, and one which you suspect will spur Wagner in to some action, it was something of a relief that the gap to the 3rd bottom place was exactly the same and with one less game to play. More manageable games are on the horizon and the shadow of relegation, already faint, should lift entirely quite soon. It is then that the revolution can begin in earnest; but no miracles can or are being promised.

Wagner tries the Powell approach

Temporary exile – since the defeat at Brighton – has reduced my experience of the Wagner revolution to anxious 90 minutes staring at a live scores website (radio commentary is just too nerve wracking, with even the fine skills of Paul Ogden unable to alleviate the anxiety of seeing the game through the eyes of a third party), catching up with highlights and viewing the Burnley game via a dodgy, buffering stream.

A mixed bag of results, culminating in the demolition of Leeds United has kept Town far enough away from the more persistently struggling clubs to create too much worry about relegation but safety still needs to be confirmed by another win and a run of 3 games against clubs challenging for promotion followed by a trip to surging Rotherham is not conducive to total comfort.

First up in the top 6 trilogy came high spending Sheffield Wednesday. Slightly more likeable than Leeds, the Owls are a club which has struggled for many years to recapture former glories and its impressive fan base, considering there are 2 clubs in the city, has been unable to provide the necessary finances to be anything more than Championship plodders until the arrival of a tuna magnate.

On the whole, David Wagner’s influence has been very positive but when confronted by opposition with the depth of quality Wednesday can field, the realities of a tough, uneven competition tend to sweep away the undoubted improvements he has made to a relatively mediocre squad.

To counter the visitors’ superior technicians, Wagner chose to adopt a far more defensive approach which could, and perhaps should, have yielded a welcome point, but the much lauded identity of the team was largely missing on a day when too many passes went astray, movement was stilted and the isolation of Wells reminiscent of the dullest performances under Powell.

A thoroughly boring first half, with both teams playing far too slowly, saw neither keeper troubled and the only relief for the home crowd was to bray at the over theatrical but highly talented Forestieri, who was the best player on the pitch by a distance. It should also be said that Town did, in fact, foul him quite regularly and while he reacted to each one as if suffering a career ending injury, his touch, speed of thought and hard work can be a joy to watch.

The returning Jack Hunt was also regularly booed following his boorish comments after the game at Hillsborough; while his threat was largely snuffed out by a combination of Smith and Bunn, his pantomime villain image should have been further enhanced in the second half when he blazed a chance over the bar when he should have at least hit the target.

A weak Smith effort and one or two blocked shots were the sum total of Town’s disappointing offensive efforts in the first half and a routine save by Steer from a Wednesday free kick and a couple of blocked shots of their own emphasised the dominance of defences in a fixture where goals have been scarce in recent years (in fact, this was the fifth successive blank for Town).

Hooper had been well marshalled but a potent Wednesday bench loomed over proceedings. While Wagner has no obvious replacement for the overwhelmed Wells who was entirely and predictably dominated by the visitors’ impressive and imposing defenders, Carvalhal could call upon the huge Nuhui, the pacy Jaoa or £3M Matias who is just returning from a long lay off.

Just before half time, a crude challenge by Hudson – who had played well to that point – on Forestieri earned the Town captain a booking, which could and perhaps should have been followed by another for another ill advised lunge at the Italian when the ball was going out of play. Hudson protested that he had won the ball but the tackle looked dangerous – it is always difficult to know how badly Forestieri is injured given his play acting and maybe that doubt played on the referee’s mind as he delivered a lecture rather than a red card.

Sensibly, Hudson was replaced by Cranie to ensure 11 players were kept on the pitch.

Early in the second half, Paterson, who replaced the ineffective Matmour at half time, added some much needed zest to Town’s attacking play but even his probing couldn’t trouble the visitors’ solid defence and Wells remained very difficult to find amongst the giants.

In the middle of the park, it was a difficult day for Phil Billing. His inexperience was exposed against the Owls’ wise heads and he gave away possession far too regularly, his timing of headers was strangely off on a few occasions and his confidence seemed to dip as the game progressed. To his credit, he didn’t hide and did hit a magnificent cross field ball late on though this followed several rather poorer attempts to find a winger. He was also to be the closest to scoring, of which more later.

As with Paterson (and, perhaps, to an extent, Matmour), Billing wasn’t helped by the stagnation of a team focused on containing the not inconsiderable threat of Wednesday. Whitehead rarely left his defensive screening role, Lolley and Bunn were also overly distracted by the need to stem the threat of Wednesday’s full backs and it was rare for Town to inject anything like the pace and movement that troubles lesser opposition.

After the hour, Wednesday slowly but surely started to turn the screw and the predictable introduction of Nuhiu and Jaoa presented Town’s defence, which performed well, with new and very different problems. Lynch, the obvious choice for man of the match for the home side, had to clear off the line from a corner, Jack Hunt skied a decent chance and a precious point was looking precarious.

The winner arrived when, for once, Town’s defensive solidity was compromised by Smith losing the ball high up the pitch and allowing Wednesday to release Joao in to acres of space – with his pace, recovery was unlikely and he curled a great ball behind the retreating defenders for Forestieri to convert.

A late corner was met by Billing and his powerful header was chested off the line – penalty appeals seemed optimistic and, in truth, Town’s offensive impotence hadn’t deserved reward, even if the defeat was, arguably, a little harsh.

As seems to be often the case with Wagner, there was an air of experimentation about the team selection and set up as he tries to solve the conundrum of competing against the better sides. That he reached for a Chris Powell like solution was something of a surprise and the lack of bravery he talks about often was a little disappointing, if understandable.

While Wednesday were pretty dull, they have some real quality throughout their side and were the better of the two dour teams – both defences played very well, but while Town seemed to strain every sinew to try to contain the better players facing them, the Owls were more comfortable on the ball and able to make significant change from the bench.

Worryingly, the home record is starting to look pretty abysmal – another issue for Wagner to resolve along with the long wait for a result against a top side.