Roared on by a noisy, enthusiastic and hostile home crowd both enraged by a sense of injustice and buoyed by their team overcoming all too familiar and deeply infuriating officiating, Town completed a victory over a clearly talented but disappointing opposition which perfectly replicated early season triumphs to give renewed hope for the season.
An impressive points haul from the first 10 games had provided a valuable cushion against the ravages of a slump in form to the extent that a long overdue win propelled the club in to 4th position, all be it in an increasingly crowded space behind Newcastle and Brighton which adds greater vulnerability to any future barren spells.
Preston and Fulham aside, many of the performances in that late Autumn spell of fallow fruitlessness were not dissimilar to those early successes, with the team falling the wrong side of preposterously thin Championship margins at times, as good fortune faded along with the form of some of the players.
As a spectacle, the game was theatrically entertaining, replete with heroes and villains, plot twists and a welcome return of the rousing encore of celebration.
Town’s leading man was the formidable Mooy. Free of debilitating journeys, the Australian delivered a masterclass of poise, intelligence and control which almost completely overshadowed City’s Tomlin; a nightmare inducing nemesis in the past.
Even his rare errors with the script – he misplaced two passes early on – were quickly recovered and his immense presence cajoled his enthusiastic team mates back to their true potential. The speed of thought, calmness of execution and an uncanny instinct for space will surely mark him out as one of the players of the Championship season.
An unerring feature of all of Town’s wins this season has been the scoring of the first goal. Quite remarkably, every win has been built on this foundation and only a single point has been recovered from a losing start, so it was no surprise that the home side’s intent was established very quickly.
After an early set piece was defended adequately, Town continued where they had left off at Ewood Park with a good tempo and were soon troubling the visitors. An early opportunity for Wells saw the out of sorts striker attempt a long distance lob when he should have taken the ball further, but his ambition was admirable if misplaced.
With Van La Parra tormenting his would be markers – he performed some fantastic turns to launch attacks – and domination of the ball, Town were rewarded with the early goal so crucial to this season’s success when the irrepressible Kachunga found Smith on the right with a perfectly weighted ball. Impressing on his return from suspension in place of the unfortunate Cranie, the stand in captain returned the favour with an inch perfect cross for the leading scorer to head home with some ease.
Smith could have added to his impressive assist statistics just 5 minutes later when another incisive sortie down the right allowed him to find Wells in the area, but the Bermudian rather fluffed his lines first by hitting a defender and then firing a tame shot from the rebound straight at Fielding. A second goal would have eased Town’s victory considerably, but such luxury is apparently to be denied us this season.
With a platform duly built, Town’s intensity muted the visitors who became over reliant on long balls to their tall forwards which were largely dealt with by the improved Schindler and Hefele, even if they didn’t always win the aerial battles.
City manager Johnson, of whom more later, had clearly paired the prodigious talent of Abrahams with the gnarled experience of Wilbraham with the intention of exploiting the perceived weakness at the heart of the home defence, but this seemed to be at the expense of Tomlin’s artistry and the portly ex-Posh man’s frustration lead to an astonishing spat with his manager in plain sight of all and hearing shot of many.
“Never <expletive deleted> talk to me like that again” was his reported line to his young boss; sadly, we shall probably never know the context of his outburst but it was heartening to witness disharmony in the opposition. Future ramifications remain to be seen.
Meanwhile, Van La Parra’s runs, Mooy’s probing and the eager running of Kachunga and Palmer continued to worry the Robins.
A good first half hour, with the lead and control established, was cruelly interrupted following a free kick awarded for a Schindler challenge on Tomlin. Throwing their numerous big men forward to prey on the home defences’ neuroses, it was central defender Flint (who had earlier headed wide from another set piece) whose harmless looking, mistimed header should have been cleared by Palmer but instead fell back to him to hook over towards the now unmarked Wilbraham who poked the ball past Ward for Abraham to finish. Both looked suspiciously offside but an admittedly well positioned linesman gave them the benefit of the doubt – which he should – and Town were undeservedly pegged back by a scruffy goal.
Town recovered their composure and a fine effort by Van La Parra appeared to strike a defender’s arm before Fielding made a good stop. Following up, Wells’ attempt to play the ball back in to the area also appeared to be blocked by a limb – his appeals were, predictably, turned away and the two incidents, in quick succession, brought to mind penalties awarded against us at Newcastle and at home versus Wednesday and the reluctance of any referee to rule in our favour continues to bewilder and frustrate.
Towards the end of a first half he had officiated reasonably well, the referee then took centre stage. First, he allowed the already booked Freeman to get away with considerable dissent, railing against a free kick award against him. A brief lecture must have left Van La Parra baffled at the inconsistency – his rant at Reading bringing a second yellow card earlier in the season.
Mr Stroud then incurred the wrath of the visitors with a decision against Abraham which halted the Chelsea loanees’ charge in to open space following a challenge on Hefele which looked fair. Ward may well have mopped up the danger, but such is the youngster’s pace this was far from an inevitable outcome and Town had been let off the hook. Fine margins.
If his marginal decisions in the first half had, at least, a semblance of rationality, the next one was inexplicable. Early in the second half, Wells (much livelier than his sluggish performance at Blackburn) chased down a slightly underhit headed backpass which didn’t quite reach the area. Instead of clearing, Fielding went to pick it up, handling it before Wells had chance to nick it past him and, almost certainly, create a clear scoring opportunity.
Despite Johnson’s feeble mitigation that his team had cover (they most certainly did not), a red card looked inevitable. Instead of reaching for his pocket, however, Mr Stroud prevaricated and allowed ridiculous doubt to cloud his judgement before producing a yellow card.
Once the free kick had come to nought, the home crowd galvanised against the man in the middle. It is probably no exaggeration to suggest that Stroud was also taking the cumulative heat of weeks’ worth of infuriating decisions which have gone against the Terriers, but this is not to excuse his lily livered decision.
The home support, already heavily invested in a pulsating game, increased the decibels and hostility and the parallels with all those early John Smith stadium wins were building.
Feeding off the support, Town’s sense of injustice spurred them on with raids from right and left beginning to trouble the visitors who had little respite from the intensity of their opponents. Van La Parra and Lowe were combining to better effect than in previous home games and Mooy’s impeccable passing and vision allowing Town to overwhelm their stretched opponents.
The winner came just short of the hour. With delicious karma, Fielding miscontrolled a firm back pass (he knew not to pick this one up) and the vigilant Wells swooped to score.
Further chances came and went – Town were scintillating at times – but the comfort of a third goal was not to be and they almost paid the price when a lovely Tomlin flick and interchange with Wilbraham set Abraham free only for the youngster to fire high and wide under pressure from Hefele.
A visibly fading Van La Parra lost possession three times to allow Bristol to attack. Fortunately, little came of them and the Dutchman was replaced to a deserved standing ovation.
An injury to Hefele saw Lowe tap the ball in to touch only for Johnson to petulantly kick it back, with some venom, at the defender, prompting an angry reaction from the German. His ire paled, however, compared to his boss and compatriot’s when City shaped to give the ball back in sporting fashion only for them to use it as an opportunity to attack.
Given their frailty at set pieces, Town defended well against some late corners and professionally ate up the last 10 minutes in the style we became accustomed to earlier in the season.
A thoroughly entertaining encounter came to an end and, at last, 3 points has been won for the first time in 8 attempts. It had been clear in the previous two games that the mojo had returned, even if a single point had been the scant reward.
To their credit, the home support has never given up on the team, the manager or the project he wants to complete. Spurred on by anger at yet another poor referee, the noise – finely orchestrated in the south stand throughout – gave the team heart and momentum against awkward opponents.
Bristol’s comeuppance was well deserved and their manager’s antics provided further satisfaction at the win.
Two awkward away games in the space of 4 days now await, but they can be faced with the confidence of a team near to getting back to its best. Old frailties lurk – chances need to be created and taken more often and the vulnerability to high balls is improving but not eradicated – but the control of games has returned and they have nothing to fear.