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.