One for Owd Jim

For those who venture in to the bear pit of Down At The Mac, the gentle, meticulously researched and highly informative retrospectives of David P Gowing (Owd Jim) were a weekly delight.

Chronicling the history of an upcoming fixture, David took the old BBC maxim of informing and entertaining to produce effortless nostalgia from bald facts and evoked memories celebrating the legacies of both Town and their opponents, bringing to life matches from yesteryear which provided a context for the new battle ahead.

Sadly, after a short illness, David died last week in his Canadian home and a distinctive voice of our club was lost.

He would have loved an opponent like Wolves to write about – a great opponent over the years featuring fabulous teams and players on both sides and not a few extremes (Wolves have beaten Town 7-1 on 3 occasions).

The two clubs are taking very different paths in their pursuit of success these days, with heavy Chinese investment in the Black Country contrasting with the necessarily more judicious approach of Dean Hoyle, and over the 90 minutes, the game was a fascinating duel of philosophies.

For 35 minutes, the visitors were entirely outclassed by the spirit and unity of a team riding waves of confidence with verve and flowing excellence, but Wolves were able to deploy quality from the bench in a second half where the home side had to stretch every sinew to repel their resurgent opposition.

Inside the first ten minutes – a period of play where Wolves had barely touched the ball – Van La Parra was holding his finger to his lips to silence his tormentors in the away section of supporters after slotting home a rebound from the post and finishing a fine Town move involving Mooy, Palmer, Wells and a fatal error by Batth.

Dazzling possession football preceded and followed the goal, with any rare Wolves threat looking cumbersome in comparison, though there were glimpses of the trouble to come as Ward watched a couple of efforts clear his bar and Bodvarrson proving to be a handful, if insufficiently supported.

For the moment, though, the home support, who created a genuinely excellent atmosphere once again, could revel in perhaps the finest display from their team for many a year.

At the heart of it all was Mooy. Ably assisted by the hard working Hogg at his side and the movement of Wells, Kachunga and Palmer in front of him, the Aussie totally dominated Wolves with calm assurance, touch and a range of passing which regularly unleashed Van La Parra on the left and the vastly improved Smith on the right.

On his full League debut, Palmer showed his strength and ability, combining well in the flowing attacks generated by a team playing with great cohesion and unity, but should have doubled the lead when Hogg, Kachunga and Smith combined to set him up in the area only for him to slice his shot wide.

Another Palmer effort, following more fantastic build up play, was hit straight at the keeper but was a decent effort from outside the area.

Wells also wasted a good opportunity; his attempt to squeeze the ball past Ikeme having been released by Palmer was not the best option with Kachunga available in the box.

Perhaps feeling relieved at only being one down despite being comprehensively outplayed, Wolves began to stir as half time approached and the chalking off of an equaliser for a marginal offside decision at least gave them the motivation of perceived injustice to fire them up for the second half.

Wolves were a different proposition after the break. Their strangely passive performance in the first half which surrendered huge chunks of possession enabling Town to test an unconvincing looking defence was replaced with a dynamism which Town had to combat with increasing tenacity.

With the guile of Teixeira added to midfield, the visitors pushed the home side back and began creating chances by using the ball as intelligently as their hosts had done in the first half.

Conor Coady, who played well without having quite the impact of Van La Parra against a former club, had an early shot blocked, and Ward saved smartly from Doherty as the visitors’ probing became increasingly alarming.

There was little respite for Town, though Van La Parra was a willing and effective outlet down the left. A foul on the Dutchman lead to Town’s best chance of the half as Hudson headed over an excellent free kick delivery by Mooy, arriving slightly too early to control his header.

On the hour, the menacing Teixeira hit the post with an effort from distance and at this point, there seemed to be an inevitability about an equaliser and, possibly, worse.

Hogg and Mooy were unable to impose themselves as they had done previously and the former was guilty of a couple of loose passes which could have been disastrous. Behind them, however, the central defensive partnership of Hudson and Schindler came in to its own, with the veteran adding his experience to sheer Teutonic class.

At times living on the edge, Town replaced Palmer with Jack Payne and the hero of Newcastle provided a busy, effective performance which, at the very least, caused problems for the visiting defence without tangible reward. Van La Parra’s misjudged curling effort was also scant reward from some good approach play.

The moment of the match came as the clock ticked towards 70 minutes. A corner from the right was met with power by the impressive Bodvarrson from close range, only for Danny Ward to get down low to his left and produce an astonishing and game saving stop. It was to lead to David Wagner sprinting over to the Liverpool loanee at the final whistle, tacitly acknowledging that the Welshman had kept Town at the top of the table with one of the best saves anyone is likely to witness.

Later, Oniangue was to bicycle kick a good chance wide, but Ward’s save changed the temperature of the game as Town regained composure for the final 15 minutes, dealing with Wolves’ more desperate aerial route better than their earlier more intelligent approach play.

Bunn came on for Wells, allowing the hard working Kachunga to defend more effectively from the front and providing better cover for Smith against the threat of Wolves’ left full back, Doherty.

With Scannell coming on for Van La Parra, making the slowest exit from the field imaginable, Town headed for the corners and ate up big chunks of 5 minutes added time to secure a victory which was exceptionally hard won against an opposition who will be a powerful Championship force as the full impact of their chequebook is deployed.

It isn’t a hard case to make that Wolves deserved a point for their second half performance, but as enjoyable as Town’s early dominance had been, their resilience in the face of serious probing was equally admirable.

Belief, spirit and togetherness delivered maximum points again; good fortune was earned, again, and Town’s bogey team status for Wolves was maintained by the class of 2016 as they remained at the summit of the division ahead of the international break.

Listening in the early hours far away, David would have loved this game, result and table topping reward – RIP Owd Jim.


Blowin’ in the wind

A rare Jonathan Hogg goal settled an error strewn, and consequently entertaining, derby encounter against a spirited and hard working Barnsley side who fell on the wrong side of the fine margins which seem to accompany most games in the Championship.

In difficult, unseasonal weather – swirling wind and squally, heavy showers intermittently interrupted by bright sunshine – Town faced a very different challenge to those presented by the leviathan beasts of the previous two games.

David Wagner had identified the Reds’ togetherness as their principal strength before the game and as this virtue is fundamental to his own philosophies, the South Yorkshire opponents were never going to be treated lightly; their remarkable campaign to achieve promotion is testament to a club who look to be a completely different proposition to the one which finally succumbed to the drop a couple of seasons ago.

Town’s own progress under Wagner – including, crucially, shedding their debilitating inferiority complex – has been clear for all to see but supporters of a certain experience can be forgiven for believing that expectations will soon be thwarted, particularly in a fixture more obviously favourable than the first 3.

A tentative opening period featuring a new defensive midfield partnership of Whitehead and Mooy with Hogg rested, lacked urgency as players got to grips with the blustery conditions but Town slowly established control.

With Mooy pulling the strings, even if his performance was less assured and fluid than in previous games, Town probed down both flanks and a nervous looking Barnsley back line were finding it difficult to quell the threats.

A sliced attempted clearance fell nicely to the unmarked Kachunga but he could only direct a slightly mishit volley straight at a relieved Davies.

Barnsley’s forays forward were rare at this stage, but a trademark jinxing run by Hammill saw him being challenged in the box only for the ball to squirt in to Ryan Kent’s path. The Liverpool loanee fired over under pressure.

After 25 minutes of increasing dominance, Town found a goal from an unlikely source as the excellent Lowe advanced with menace towards the area, interchanged passes with Kachunga and curled an unstoppable shot past Davies. The German left back took 2 games to find his feet, including the disappointment at Shrewsbury, but has now shown poise and class in all 3 games since and looks like a real find.

Town’s control probably deserved more than one goal but the visitors defended resolutely after the goal and towards the end of the half, their opponents’ propensity for giving away free kicks and throw ins in dangerous areas started to cause concern amongst the home support. Having largely subdued the skills of Hammill and Kent, the greatest danger to Town’s goal was the aerial threat posed by Barnsley and needless free kicks offered the visitors both respite and an increased chance to get back in the game.

While most of the gifts were wasted, Barnsley’s young and talismanic manager clearly noted the nervousness that accompanied dead ball assaults and replaced the ineffective Bradshaw with the raw but potent Stefan Payne – a battering ram of a forward astutely picked up from Dover Athletic.

For now, though, Town could be reasonably pleased with their first half efforts and a deserved if slender lead. While the pairing of Whitehead and Mooy had been unconvincing – the former is too much like the latter and the Australian didn’t quite emulate his previous performances even though he was still influential – the home team had been relatively comfortable and better than the visitors in all areas.

Perhaps complacency played its part, but within 2 minutes of the second half, and for the next 15 to 20, Town were not only pegged back but a resurgent Barnsley could and should have turned the game on its head.

The equaliser came from yet another long throw from the left. Town’s defenders weren’t helped by a rogue whistle blown in the crowd but, in truth, Ward’s attempt to claim the high ball was a long way from being accomplished and Mawson easily out jumped both Hudson and Schindler to level.

Shaken by their damagingly slow start to the second period, Town became increasingly sloppy and a reinvigorated Barnsley began to cause them more difficulties. Payne’s power and presence created different problems for the home defence and all the control of the first half faded along with Mooy who was replaced by Hogg within 10 minutes of the restart; possibly precipitated by an excellent Barnsley move which ripped through Town’s defences only for Kent to waste a very good opportunity with a weak shot easily saved by Ward.

Both keepers were called in to action in quick succession as, first, Wells met an excellent Lowe cross only to see his header clawed away by Davies while at the other end, the lively Kent had a long range effort turned round the post by Ward.

With the introduction of Hogg, Town regained some of their composure in a match which was now much more even. Continuing his excellent form, Hogg added energy and forward momentum and with Wells and Kachunga finding more space, half chances started to arrive again.

The biggest turning point – the very edge of the fine margin mentioned earlier – came when Whitehead casually misplaced a pass to Schindler which was latched upon by Payne. With the German beaten and, wisely, choosing not to take foul action, the big forward curled his attempt round the advancing Ward but agonisingly on to the post.

With just 10 minutes to go, Town would have found it hard to recover from the blow but, to their credit, they regrouped well and pressured the visitors hard as the final whistle loomed.

The winner came as a result of the hard work and persistence of both Hogg and Kerchunga. The midfield man found substitute Bunn with a piercing forward pass and it was then laid back to Kerchunga who battled past his marker before finding the surging Hogg in the area. Hogg’s finish belied his paltry goal scoring record as he planted it in to the top corner with aplomb.

As the stadium erupted, minus the poor souls who insist on leaving early, it began to dawn that the late strike had taken Town to the top of the Championship. While it is very early to take a great deal of notice of the table, it is sure a prettier sight looking down rather than up.

It was difficult not to feel sympathy for a hard working, genuine Barnsley side but, as both clubs know only too well, this is the cruellest of divisions and not taking advantage of the moments in which you are favoured is often fatal.

For Town, the overall performance, while too laboured at times and blighted by a very poor 20 minutes in the second half, probably just deserved the 3 points, though few would have complained had they been shared.

As with all games so far, there were lessons to be learned. In this one, the Whitehead/Mooy combination looked imbalanced with the two too similar in role and positioning; even though his gaffe occurred while in tandem with him, Whitehead was more effective alongside Hogg and the same has applied to Mooy in previous games.

On the plus side, Kachunga worked hard and long and improves all the time, Lowe has quickly acquired assurance and looks classy and, yet again, Wagner makes game changing substitutions with Hogg being the fourth sub to grab a winner in as many games (though he took his time about it!).

The home form had to improve from last year’s abysmal record, so it is so far, so good, though we still look more compact and effective on away soil. Wolves will present a very different and potent threat next week – but there are many reasons to remain cautiously optimistic with our squad depth and momentum.

Top of the bloody league (come on, Ipswich!)

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The making of a cult

When asked about Huddersfield Town’s player acquisition strategy, both Dean Hoyle and David Wagner have emphasised the importance of character in decision making; crucial when the easy option of spending large fortunes is simply not available (and for some of us, this is a positive).

In his first couple of months with the club, which has seen him actually on the pitch for less than 15 minutes, Michael Hefele has effortlessly embodied this philosophy. It isn’t just the giraffe kissing, the robe, the sunglasses in a convertible chic or even the two almost predictable highlights of his fledgling career – being booked before kicking a ball in anger and a deserved if bizarre equaliser at Aston Villa last night; it is his effervescent support of the team from the sidelines despite the disappointment at not being on the pitch, his instant rapport with supporters and his adoption of the club as if he had been with us from an early age.

Following a potentially disastrous first half when Town were outclassed and grimly hanging on against a strong Villa side with quality all over the pitch (particularly the excellent Awey), his teammates had to dig deep to keep the score down to one goal but, far too often they were the authors of their own misfortune as the home side swarmed forward with the backing of a loud and emotional home crowd.

The emotion arose from the desperately sad news that Dalian Atkinson had died in horrible circumstances just the day before and a minutes applause erupted in the tenth minute (10 being Dalian’s shirt number) which was sympathetically enjoined by visiting fans.

Having visited one football cathedral on Saturday, Town fans could enjoy another iconic venue just a few days later and, if anything, the experience was even better. The place reeks of history and if there is a finer sight than Villa’s majestic (and surely Listed) frontage in English football, this correspondent hasn’t seen it.

Inside, the stands – pleasingly symmetrical – carry banks of supporters and even the closure of the upper tier on one side failed to detract from a fantastic spectacle on a cracking summer evening.

The similarities to Saturday didn’t extend to the home fans. While the Geordies were quick to turn on their team even before they went behind, Villa fans were in good voice pretty much throughout and there is an air of optimism about the place after such a prolonged period of troubled campaigns.

That optimism seemed well founded as the home team dominated Town from the off with the visitors seemingly incapable of imposing their identity on the game. With a forward line of Gestede and McCormack, prompted by the strength and skill of Ayew and the trickery of Grealish, the home side were irresistible, though sloppy defending – including trying to be too clever by half – contributed.

Ward, who had an excellent game, was called in to action early, turning an Ayew strike round the post for a corner as the Villans probed Town’s weaknesses with relentless intent.

It was a complete mystery how the visitors held out for 25 minutes, during which time they barely ventured in to opposition territory, but a well deserved if somewhat fortuitous opener came from an entirely predictable source.

Bacuna was released by Ayew down the right – Van La Parra caught dozing – and his far post cross found Grealish unmarked and attempting a spectacular volley which, instead, turned in to a slight sliced cross eagerly put away by McCormack, beating a back pedalling Schindler in the air.

As waves of Villa attacks bore down on Town’s beleaguered back 4, Hogg and Mooy tried to stem the flow but were too often out muscled and any attempts to play higher up the pitch were far too easily rebuffed.

The Terriers’ fragile resilience was constantly tested and the monumental efforts of the weekend appeared to have taken their toll. Ward was frequently called upon for saves, though they were often routine and perhaps predictive of later events as Villa failed to add to their score despite their overwhelming superiority. In retrospect, Ayew’s rather weak effort towards the end of the half when Hudson had little difficulty clearing off the line with Ward beaten may have been the real turning point of the game.

At 2 down, the visitors would have been buried and Villa’s nervous and tired last half hour may never have happened.

In an eminently forgettable first half for Town, a weak Van La Parra effort and one or two touches from Jack Payne were all they could muster. Villa fan Joe Lolley, on what was obviously a big night for him, was injured follow wing a decent run but both wide men struggled to make any impact on a Villa defence which barely had to break sweat to contain Town’s predictable and ponderous play.

Clutching the consolation of being only one goal in deficit, the half time break couldn’t come quickly enough for the dysfunctional visitors and reassessment was inevitable and essential for a clearly annoyed Wagner.

With Scannell replacing the injured Lolley, the first ten minutes of the second half continued in the same vein. Villa remained in the ascendancy and worked an opening for Ayew who fired wildly over and their confidence had, seemingly, not been dimmed in the dressing room.

On 56 minutes, Wells replaced Payne and the tide began to turn. Seemingly from nowhere, Town rediscovered their ability to keep possession, Scannell added much needed strength – both attacking and defending – to the right hand side and, crucially, Hogg and Mooy were finding time and space to lock down a previously overrun midfield.

Wells made a big difference and was denied almost immediately when he couldn’t quite control and turn quickly enough and was swamped by Gollini. Inexplicably, it became clear that Villa had peaked and in their frustration, their minds must have turned to how they wasted their first half dominance and their edginess began to grow.

An audacious Kerchunga overhead kick was well saved by Gollini and Town’s resurgence was becoming as increasingly evident as Villa’s brittle nerves.

With the threat mainly coming from the right – the excellent Smith providing fine support to Scannell – the demons of the first half were being exorcised with pulsating regularity and (largely disappointing) corners were being won as the pressure grew.

Villa were not an entirely busted flush, however, and Ward had to make a smart save from Gestede which Hudson cleared up at the expense of a painful knock, meaning he was missing for the resulting corner, but back for the one then immediately conceded which came to nought.

Scannell, Hogg and Wells had opportunities in a particular purple patch for the visitors before a foul following a partially cleared corner gave the Bermudian a chance from a free kick just outside the box which he curled on to the post with Gollini rooted to the spot.

With time running out, it seemed that we would be tackling the horrendous Birmingham traffic with just the consolation of a brave, entertaining but futile fight back to reflect upon. But then the Hef was introduced as a makeshift striker cum nuisance.

As befits his status as a non playing legend in the making, his impact was immediate. Last Tuesday, and through no fault of his own, his first competitive action was preceded by a booking; this Tuesday, he scored with his first touch as he chased down a back pass which should have been cleared straightforwardly. Instead, Gollini crashed the ball on to the Babarian’s big frame and an unusual, but deserved, equaliser sent the visiting support in to raptures.

Hefele’s incredible intervention was followed by a marvellous, exuberant and typically strange celebration as he formed claws with his hands towards the Town fans (he likes lions as well as giraffes, apparently!) and the bond between supporters and club took another leap forward.

Easily playing out 4 minutes of injury time, the team celebrated with the fans as if they had won the game. From the outside, this will have looked odd and, perhaps, betraying of a small minded syndrome, but for those of us who feel the growing sense of how special this squad and this season could be, we understand why the team felt the need to do it.

Playing a grand old, storied club in a magnificent stadium and recovering from a debilitating first half display which we know would have overwhelmed many previous incarnations of our team (particularly of the recent past) are the reasons behind exuberant celebrations of a draw – it is truly a great time to be a Town fan.

Like Newcastle, Villa will be a major force in the Championship this season and despite their faded second half performance they have very talented players, a surprisingly positive and huge fan base (despite the recent horrors) and a hard fought point felt just as, if not more, special than the 3 garnered at St James Park.

Witnessing the emerging, Kindon like, cult hero status of Hefele – readers are urged to seek out his interview with HTTV – was worth all of the traffic tribulations which awaited.

On to Barnsley at the weekend – a club who have had a knack of pricking Town’s bubble in the past. But this is a very different Town.

A Wagner masterclass

“All 24 teams can challenge in this division. We don’t have any reason to dream. We have every reason to work and this is what we do.

“I was never a dreamer and I was always a worker which is why I am here at this club, this is a working club. We start again tomorrow.”

David Wagner 13th August 2016.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why there is so much hope and optimism around Huddersfield Town.

Wagner enjoys the moments of triumph, which are hopefully to become more regular now that his squad is both his own and, crucially, prepared in his way, but it isn’t enough for him to produce a relatively large shock against the Championship favourites on their own turf, sit back and bask – he wants much, much more.

He also alluded to the fact that, no matter how rightfully ecstatic we all were with the win, there were elements of luck in victory – Gayle should have done better with a chance just 3 minutes in, there was an extended period when the excellent Ritchie threatened to take charge of the game single handedly and Town’s winner was preceded by more than a suspicion of a push by Palmer.

None of this will matter to the 3,200 Town fans – a number which will undoubtedly inflate as the years pass – as their team put Wagner’s master plan in to operation with possibly as much certainty as they could muster in the chaos of real time games.

Rightfully and thankfully, bemoaning the resources of other clubs and the inherent unfairness of it all which, in turn, became preemptive excuses for defeat is now a thing of the past. However, it remains hugely pertinent to compare the chasm in scale of our opponents yesterday; a little fewer than 50,000 Geordies turned out to see a second tier game with their team boasting expensive players of no little quality lead by a world famous, Champions League winning manager.

Over the past 4 years, we have pitted our wits against some pretty big clubs – Wednesday, Leeds, Derby, Forest etc – but walking up to St James Park was to experience a different level all together. People revel in mocking the lack of success at this North Eastern giant, with regular accusations of delusion, yet Newcastle United dominates the city with its imposing, monolithic presence. The stadium dominates the skyline, hulking over a city centre whose citizens formally and casually wear black and white in huge numbers. If only they could find their own Dean Hoyle.

Given the context, Town’s victory was easily the most impressive since promotion to the Championship and entirely founded on a game plan which confounded pre match musings, including those of David Wagner. The scamp.

The first surprise was the pairing of Wells and Kachunga. As a firm believer in playing one out and out striker, seeing these two on the same team sheet and in the first eleven was an indication that the normal game plan was to be adjusted for the circumstances.

As the game unfolded, it became clear that the trademark high press had been abandoned in favour of a rope a dope strategy which allows the opposition lots of possession but precious little space. As a formation to neutralise the pace of the Magpies and the passing range of Shelvey, it worked for most of the game, though Town needed to hold their nerve following a third minute breach of the system when Janmaat’s ball over the top should really have been converted by Gayle.

For the rest of the half, however, open play was largely under Town’s control despite them having significantly less possession than their hosts. Newcastle’s attempts to find their front man were thwarted time and again to the growing consternation of their supporters – a day which started with an atmosphere building display of large flags quietened down markedly and quickly as Wagner’s game plan became more and more effective.

Shelvey largely came out the loser in his bald head to bald head clash with the excellent Mooy but when he was unshackled from the Aussie for free kicks and the home side’s solitary first half corner, his threat was real.

He put in a dangerous cross from a free kick, only for Ward to be equal to Mbemba’s powerful header and from the subsequent corner, Hayden headed just over. Finally, Ward was forced in to a decent save from his free kick, but that was pretty much the last significant contribution Shelvey made.

Despite deliberately starving themselves of the ball, Town also created chances. In contrast to United’s rather ponderous build up play, the visitors counter thrusts were pacy and direct. An early Wells shot only just cleared the bar and the returning striker then assisted Kachunga to hit the post. Lolley and Van La Parra wasted reasonable chances by firing way over the bar on each occasion but there was little doubt that the visitors posed a threat.

After Shelvey’s free kick, Town sucked the enthusiasm from the crowd with calm authority. Rarely hustled out of possession when they had it and easily frustrating the Magpies forays forward, the home side resorted to speculative balls forward which, more often than not, sailed over heads to safety or were easily cut out by an increasingly comfortable back four.

As the first half entered injury time, the noisy Town fans – sweltering at altitude under a Perspex roof which concentrates rather than diffuses sunlight – could be satisfied with a very solid performance from their team, but it was about to get much, much better.

Picking the ball up inside Newcastle’s half, Van La Parra went on one of his runs which often peter out with lost possession. To the audible annoyance of the baking fans, the Dutchman ignored a good run by Lowe on his left and turned in to what should have been a crunching tackle by Shelvey. The ex- Swansea man was, to be kind, half hearted in response and allowed Town’s winger to squeeze a ball through to Wells who coolly curled a low shot home.

The frustration around St James’ Park was palpable and boos inevitably followed as half time came. Somewhat higher up in the stands, a good half had been turned in to a great one and a raucous following roared their delight – there was a sense that this was going to be one of those good days righteously earned through years of largely uninterrupted disappointment.

The exuberance of some of us with a memory was slightly tempered by the sight of Matt Ritchie readying himself on the touchline as a replacement for the ineffectual Aarons (though he had been better than the woeful Anita). It seemed that Benitez had woken up to the fact that he had spent a lot of money on a very, very good player and perhaps it would be an idea to, you know, involve him (in fairness to Rafa, it emerged that Ritchie wasn’t fully fit though his performance didn’t suggest it).

Town’s first half assurance began to creak a little as the threat from Newcastle’s right increased with Ritchie and Janmaat proving a handful for the over worked Lowe and Van La Parra (eventually, Wagner swapped the more defensively adept Lolley for his Dutch team mate to good effect until Joe’s cramps overcame him).

Inevitably, the home side’s new found impetus on the right lead to an equaliser. Janmatt’s cross eluded Hudson, who may have been impeded and the ball struck his hand in the ensuing melee. It would have been a brave referee who would have denied a penalty in front of the Gallowgate End but, in truth, the offence, while unfortunate, was clear.

With hopes pinned on Ward, the Welsh keeper didn’t have to do much more than guess the right way to dive to stop a pretty awful penalty by Gayle; unfortunately, the ball looped up for the ex Palace man to head home his first Toon goal.

In the following 15 minutes, Town’s play became less and less of a game plan and a more desperate rearguard action.

Sitting a little too deep by now and with legs tiring in the middle, the home team had the opportunity to go for the jugular but, again to the consternation of the black and white hordes, lacked any real guile to trouble Town’s last line of defence.

In and amongst the ineffectiveness, however, a rare attack involving passing and moving found Dummett who put in an excellent far post cross which the otherwise excellent Ritchie should have buried.

By then, Wagner had rung the changes. Wells, just back from a long lay off and increasingly superfluous as Town defended deep, was replaced by Palmer with Kachunga moved forward.

Between half time and the equaliser, Town’s counter attacks were rare – Lolley forced Sels in to a routine save early on in the half – and though the impressive Hogg and Mooy continued to frustrate their opponents, phases of possession were few and far between.

Van La Parra, anonymous as an attacking force and already replaced as defensive cover and exiled to the right was taken off for Scannell.

The substitutions seemed to settle Town in to a better shape; while desperation was never far from the surface, Kachunga was a more visible outlet for pressure than Wells and Palmer added a little more guile.

Newcastle were restricted to shooting from range, badly, and the intensity from their right started to ebb.

In these slowly changing circumstances, Wagner was forced in to his final substitution as Lolley succumbed to a second bout of cramp (reflecting just how difficult it had been to contain Ritchie) and Kachunga was pressed in to a more defensive role as Palmer moved forward. Jack Payne, a rather unfortunate victim of Wagner’s revised game plan, came on to take the number 10 role.

The little Essex lad was about to burn his name on the memories of the Town faithful just one minute after his introduction.

A clearance was fought for by Palmer on the left, with a hint of illegality, and the Chelsea loanee wriggled away before playing a perfect ball to the scampering Payne. Slowing his advance slightly, he bought himself vital seconds before striking an unstoppable shot in to the far corner past the hapless Sels. It was the only way.

Pandemonium in the Gods ensued as a famous victory loomed and, probably anticipating backlash, a demoralised home team couldn’t muster much of a response before a rapidly depleting crowd.

A generous – to us – 4 minutes were added on but the story was written. That narrative, of course, was Newcastle’s defeat rather than Town’s win (stop moaning, that IS the story) but their opprobrium was of little concern to the delirious Yorkshire men loudly celebrating in the far flung corner.

Wagner, delighted at the way his charges had carried out his plan (even if they rode their luck a little at times), joined in the celebrations by standing back to allow then to take the acclaim.

It would, of course, be far cooler to just take the win as if it was routine, but we all know it was actually pretty momentous and, in any case, the importance of the connection between supporters and the team has been extensively stated since the German takeover and there is a genuine hope that this season may well turn out to be a special one.

After a performance where each and every player contributed, it is a little unfair to pick out individuals, but the Hogg/Mooy axis was hugely responsible for the win. Hogg was everywhere protecting his colleagues and Mooy’s class is unmistakable.

With another fallen giant to face on Tuesday, recovery time – emotional as well as physical – is short, but we can rely on Wagner to make the right decisions for a game where the pressure is off following a perfect start to the season.

Newcastle will click, and probably sooner rather than later, but Saturday provided a welcome example of how organisation, innovation and belief can overcome huge financial disadvantage – Dean Hoyle’s plan is starting to bear fruit, even if it is very early to make any assumptions in this enormously challenging division.

For now, let’s enjoy the result and performance and remember “I was there!”

A taming by the Shrews

Having broken their opening day demons on Saturday, a strangely disjointed Town successfully maintained their cup run avoidance strategy last night with a poor second half display against League 1 giants Shrewsbury Town.

Sometimes in defeat, sunlight shines on the inevitable conundrums facing managers over the course of the season. In this case, the seemingly odd decision to continue selecting a slowing and ageing centre half and captain began to make much more sense. His potential replacements are not ready, his leadership was sorely missed and his organising ability and footballing intelligence is perhaps under valued (including by this correspondent).

The League Cup first round is becoming an annual and reliable graveyard for Championship clubs; the regularity of so called shocks (6 fell last night) is debasing the romance of it all and is seen as an easy opportunity for rotation and experimentation.

This is not to excuse a shambolic second half performance by Wagner’s men who should have settled the tie by half time but couldn’t translate almost complete dominance in to the goals which would have rendered the goal they conceded after less than a minute a mere aberration.

The dozy start, featuring weak attempted clearances, a pathetic attempt to tackle and some good movement from Shrewsbury shocked the visitors in to a decent, occasionally vibrant, first half display with Town pinning their hosts in to their own half for prolonged periods.

While the Salopians defended stoutly for much of the half, they struggled to contain the lively Payne and Van La Parra, while Kachunga continued his hard working role up top.

Twice, Jack Payne skipped past defenders with his quick feet and turn of pace, but he should have done much better than putting one chance wide with only the keeper to beat and firing another straight at the custodian when again clear. A late header was also a half chance, though you suspect aerial ability isn’t his forte.

Putting aside his finishing, however, the manner in which he created the two one on one chances provided more evidence of a growing talent which will deliver more positive results over the season.

With temporary captain Hogg protecting a largely untroubled defence, Town finally equalised with Mooy latching on to a clever ball from Van La Parra, turning past a defender and hanging up a perfect cross for Kachunga to score his second in two games.

And that was where the good news stopped.

Hogg collected a booking and, sensibly, he was replaced at half time by Paurevic – a chance for the big German Croat to shine which, sadly, he didn’t take.

Almost unbelievably, Town started the half as sloppily as they had the first and a Shrewsbury chance duly arrived before the half time tea was drained.

Unlike the first half, however, Town’s response was unstructured and messy. Attacks broke down in front of a newly resilient Shrewsbury who played much better as a unit, disrupted Town’s attempts for fluency and were well served by their new loan signing from Newcastle, Toney, who provided a much improved focal point for their counter attacks.

Without the busy Hogg, Town’s midfield became increasingly slow and static and far too many forward thrusts ended up in front of an increasingly dominant home back four.

Other than one decent run and pull back (intercepted by a defender), Scannell’s influence on the game receded and while Crainie is trying to get forward in the full back role Wagner clearly demands, his efforts look unnatural in comparison to Smith and attacks down the right were rendered ineffective.

Paurevic was weak in the tackle at times, too immobile and a poor fit with Mooy and Payne. His indecisive display exposed his central defenders and Stankovic in particular who became uncomfortable on the ball – it also exposed the reason why retaining and playing Hudson is not a blind spot of Wagner’s, which has been suggested, but a necessity until the understudy is ready.

Playing a little higher up the pitch and reducing the swathes of space they had allowed Town in the first half, Shrewsbury grew in to the game with increasing confidence and were able to restrict the visitors with a rugged and more dynamic style while creating the opportunities they could not before the break.

In between a decent effort from eventual match winner Dodds and a spurned opportunity for Sarcevic, where he should have done better, Paurevic fired a long range shot just wide.

On the hour, Palmer came on for Payne who hadn’t been able to replicate his first half display. The Chelsea youngster had a busy half hour, including a decent free kick which was, none the less, routinely saved, but even his skills were always eventually thwarted by the hosts’ solid defending. His strength in possession is, however, going to be a real asset on bigger stages than the Greenhaus Stadium.

Too many attempts to play in Kachunga were easily thwarted and Shrewsbury’s fast breaks were becoming naggingly worrying.

Eventually, the home side got the reward their efforts deserved as further midfield weakness allowed substitute Jones to feed the ball in to Toner who showed good strength to feed Dodds who fired a shot at Ward who may have done better than the Joe Hart impression he actually performed.

Increasingly desperate and unable to find a way through in normal style, Town turned to Hefele to add height up front. Incredibly, but totally in keeping with his status as a would be legend despite never kicking a ball in anger for the team, he was booked for entering the field without permission.

Let that sink in. Booked before he had actually started his debut.

The new agricultural tactics bore little fruit – Kachunga latched on to a flick on from a defender and his volley was saved but, otherwise, disappointment that we reverted to blatant panic was probably matched by relief from a Shrewsbury defence well equipped to deal with it.

The home side saw out 4 minutes of injury time with relative ease (indeed, they could and probably should have sealed the victory earlier as they broke with threat against a depleted Town defence missing Stankovic and Schindler who were pushed forward) and fully deserved their victory.

In time honoured fashion, Town are now out of a cup. More seriously, several squad members were not only unable to stake a claim for a league start, some of them looked worryingly inadequate. Paurevic in particular was brittle, belying his size, and Stankovic unconvincing.

It will be interesting to see how Wagner responds as his team swap the rural idyll of Shropshire for a St James’ Park cauldron – what a contrast for players and supporters alike – but perhaps the somewhat overblown conclusions from a decent opening day win will be reassessed more in line with realism.

It is, however, increasingly tedious trying to avoid crowbarring the phrase “cup of woe” in to reports, season after season.

First steps

Opening day defeats have become a staple diet for Town fans since promotion to the Championship – the first, at Cardiff, was more than a little unlucky and presaged a good start to the season, while the Bournemouth disaster 2 years ago predicated a season of struggle ultimately overcome.

It isn’t a new phenomena either; wins are rare over the past 30 years, even in the lower divisions, and can have the effect of pricking any balloon of optimism and the deflation can be debilitating.

The admirable marketing of the “Wagner Revolution” may be a little overblown to us cynical and gnarly Town fans of a certain age, but the galvanisation of the club is indisputable – an intelligent and strategic coach, a rightly revered owner and a revitalised and growing fan base are providing the foundations of a project to overcome financial disadvantage which seems to grow every year.

The philosophies behind Wagner’s identity idea, coupled with an ethos of transparent hard work, appear theoretically unimpeachable, but many acid tests await.

Thankfully, and in front of an engaged and sizeable audience, the first of many hurdles was negotiated successfully with a deserved but never straightforward victory over a talented Brentford side who had ran amok against a thoroughly unprofessional Town just 3 months earlier.

Only three Town men survived from that debacle and two of them, Smith and Van La Parra had huge impact on the contest. The other, captain Hudson, was rather fortunate not to influence events in a far less positive manner and it seems inevitable that his place in the side, with other options available, will come under severe scrutiny as the weeks go by.

Overall, Town’s performance was good but contained flat spots betraying a little ring rustiness, though it should be said that their opponents, some way below what you would imagine will be their peak, have some very talented players who will cause most teams problems.

In the first 15 minutes, little of this talent was allowed to shine through as Town went forward at will and pressured the Bees in to regular error. Van La Parra, in particular, created mayhem with his dribbling and strong running.

The finishing, however, didn’t match the intent and several attempts by the Dutchman sailed high and wide along with a weak effort which was collected, rather than saved, by Bentley in the visitors’ goal.

Jack Payne, who was to grow in stature as the game went on, also missed an opportunity but despite these failings, Town carried the game to the Londoners with no little intensity.

Mooy, a calm and influential presence in midfield, Hogg and Payne dominated their opponents and it seemed certain that the abject display in May would be put firmly in to history.

Hogan, our nemesis that day, was largely isolated in the first half but still managed a (weak) shot straight at Ward and then created trouble for the two central defenders only to see the ball across he had fought hard to deliver going to waste as no colleague had taken a chance to get in to the box.

While play drifted in to sloppiness at times, the runs of Lolley and, especially, Payne were added to Van La Parra’s, creating excitement and opportunities, all spurned (the hard working Kachunga didn’t so much fire wide his only first half chance as slice it weakly wayward).

Sluggish Brentford occasionally sparked in to life but Town had largely controlled the first half. However, the twin concerns over Hudson’s lack of pace and careless distribution which provided the visitors with their best moments and doubts over where goals were to come from without the injured and possibly departing Wells cast something of a pall over the more encouraging aspects of the home display.

The latter concern was partially dispelled early in the second half. A bright and inventive start put Town decisively on the front foot and after a spell of territorial dominance, the excellent Tommy Smith – a stand out in an occasionally jittery defence – delivered a fantastic cross from the right which curled away from Bentley and allowed Kachunga to head home at the back post for his debut goal.

The lead was a deserved one and with Mooy’s calm prompting and the trickery of Lolley and Payne again to the fore, Town threatened to overwhelm the disjointed Bees. The irresistible Payne jinked past despairing tackles to fire in a great effort which was turned away by Bentley, his erstwhile Southend colleague.

Dean Smith made a double substitution in an attempt to change the fortunes of his charges – Saunders and Yennaris coming on for the ineffective Kerschbaumer and McEachran (who had actually shown a fair amount of quality in the first half when given the opportunity), and the visitors slowly came back in to the game.

MacLeod and Hogan had half chances they were unable to convert and Town’s back line were once again harried in to error and panic at times.

The game defining minutes arrived at the three quarter mark with a very good chance inside the box for Van La Parra, who was denied by the excellent Bentley at close range. Immediately afterwards, a soft free kick was conceded just inside Town’s half and, for once, midfield cover went missing as Brentford restarted play quickly. A mixture of good movement from MacLeod latching on to an incisive pass forward and his intelligent flick to Yennaris freed the substitute to fire through Ward’s legs for an eye catching if rather undeserved equaliser.

Wagner immediately withdrew Payne – who received a very well deserved ovation – and introduced Chelsea prodigy Palmer to a team in danger of crumbling with the setback.

A traditional Town capitulation didn’t follow, however. A promising attack which ended with a weak Van La Parra effort was the immediate response and following a mix up at a Brentford throw in on the half way line, Joe Lolley released Van La Parra with a great ball. His teammate surged at an alarmed visiting defence and made his way (rather too easily from the Bees’ perspective) past two defenders before firing a shot too close to Bentley. With commendable alertness having been on the pitch for just two minutes, Palmer snapped up the rebound with his first touch taking him away from the keeper and defenders and his second restoring the lead.

It was no less than Town’s display deserved and a pivotal moment for a young man making his first steps (literally!) in the adult game.

In the last 15 minutes, including 5 minutes injury time, Town largely controlled events with good possession but conceded a free kick late on which was fired over. Before the kick was taken, 3 Brentford players deliberately obstructed Ward’s attempts to line up the wall – something they had also done earlier to the crowd’s displeasure – prompting discussions about the legality of the tactic which appeared to be in contravention of the game’s spirit and, arguably, ungentlemanly conduct deserving of bookings.

A late half chance put over the bar by Yenarris was the only other moment of concern, and, at last, Town had collected 3 points on opening day.

With two considerable challenges away from home on the horizon, the early collection of points relieves some pressure from Wagner’s team, though they are undoubtedly going to have to be better defensively in those games.

A decent display was flawed at times but several players produced very encouraging performances. Van La Parra, though sometimes erratic, caused Brentford many problems with strong runs, the best of which lead to the winner and Lolley was lively and less profligate than he can be.

Jack Payne provided sparkling effervescence with his turns and direct thrusts. He adds a dynamism which should allow us to forget Paterson and looks destined for crowd favouritism.

In his short and, for the opponents, devastating cameo, Palmer looks ready for the fray even at a tender age – Wagner will, no doubt, manage him sensibly, but the potential is exciting.

Mooy’s composure and passing ability should be a huge asset, even if he was wayward at times – a calm and creative presence is another positive for a team with potential to be quite a lot better than this opening display.

Ward was confident and competent and looks a step up from Steer in the Wagner system.

Finally, the unflappable Tommy Smith produced his best performance in a Town shirt. His cross for the opener was the highlight, but his contribution was significant throughout and hopefully he can sustain the level and dispel the nagging doubts which persisted last season.

Cautious optimism can be derived from the day. The flaws at both ends of the pitch are solvable and Wagner has a good sized squad from which to choose options.

Up and running.