Owls of anguish


Events conspired against Town in a tense, occasionally entertaining contest to end an impressive string of results.

Derby’s loss at Elland Road on Friday night meant that the defeat was only marginally damaging, with the gap to 7th remaining at a comfortable 6 points, but Wednesday closed the gap on their Yorkshire neighbours by taking full advantage of dubious refereeing decisions as they recovered from a poor first half display.

Familiar failings in the final third – over playing, wrong decisions and plain bad finishing – meant that Town’s domination and control of the first half was all for nought and though David Wagner, rightly, defends both his squad and his Chairman, it is such a blindingly obvious issue that steps are surely being made to resolve it.

As early as the second minute, Town could have taken the lead when a raid down the right saw Smith curl a great cross to the unmarked Wells who could only head directly in to the arms of the well positioned Westwood. It is the type of chance the Bermudian has been converting lately, but he wasn’t able to generate enough power and an early lead – which has been a common prerequisite of victories this season – was not to be.

As the game settled after scrappy early exchanges, Mooy and Billing tightened their grip on midfield and a strangely passive Wednesday were reduced to punting long to Fletcher in an attempt to link with Forestieri, a ploy which rarely succeeded.

With Izzy Brown too careless too often in possession, Town’s main source of threat was down the right side with Smith and Kachunga, though the German’s form hasn’t fully returned, and with the visitors in the ascendancy the next chance fell to an unmarked Hefele from a corner only for him to head narrowly wide when he should have at least forced a save.

Opportunities to create chances floundered through over complication though one or two moves only narrowly failed at crucial moments and the movement consistently caused Wednesday problems.

After half an hour of control and superiority, Town became over indulgent in possession, as they are wont to do at times, the passing lost purpose amongst the back four and the probing which promised results faded badly.

Just before half time, and following a clever piece of trickery, Kachunga was brought down by Pudil inches short of the area – Town have now gone over 300 days since last being awarded a penalty – and Westwood was forced in to a good save by Lowe’s curling, dipping effort from an acute angle.

Clearly the better side but looking increasingly unlikely to break the deadlock, Town had frustrated their hosts and the home crowd to build a platform for the possibility of points in a tough fixture and the interruption of half time seemed unwelcome, offering as it did the opportunity for Carvalhal to make changes to his misfiring charges.

Being largely on the front foot meant the Terriers had not missed Hogg to any great extent, though Palmer’s effortless guile and Van LaParra’s unpredictability may have added the dimension missing as Town became bogged down in the latter stages of the half with thrust being replaced by possession of the dull variety.

It was no surprise that Carvahal would respond to his side’s lethargy with changes and new recruit Sam Winnall replaced the largely irrelevant Fletcher. It proved to be an important move as Winnall added competitiveness to the yawning gap between midfield and attack which had allowed Town to stroll through the first half, and in contrast to Fletcher, he began to make things happen.

Now much closer to their counterparts, the Owls began strongly and unsettled the visitors whose attempts at regaining control were thwarted by better pressing and the tenor of the game became decidedly different.

It was crucial for Town to adapt and weather an early storm, but they were to be dealt a blow when referee Graham Scott ignored a clear foul on Wells in the middle of the park – a Wednesday defender had hold of a clump of his shirt and got nowhere near the ball as he pulled his opponent down.

The ball broke to Wallace who advanced in to far too much space – suddenly, Hogg’s absence was keenly felt – and unleashed an unstoppable drive past the flailing Ward.

Wallace’s excellent strike cannot be diminished by the referee’s incompetence – it deserves to be featured as one of the goals of the season, perhaps with its provenance edited out – but Town were rightly aggrieved that the home side were handed a plainly incorrect advantage.

The goal smashed Town’s already frail attempts to regain their first half control and provided a very early reward for Carvahal’s move to inject more energy in to his side – the clearance Wells was illegally prevented from controlling was forced by Wednesday’s new found dynamism – and they were never to regain the upper hand.

Rocked back, the visitors rather grimly held on as Wednesday’s confidence grew – though Ward was rarely tested, the home side finally brought their big guns in to proceedings and an equaliser seemed a distant prospect.

Wagner responded by withdrawing the increasingly peripheral Brown for Lolley, yet another injury to Billing saw the introduction of Whitehead and the listing ship was partially righted without swinging the game back in the visitors’ direction.

With 20 minutes to go, an already difficult task was made severely unlikely when Payne, whose attempted burst past two players had seen him fouled, instinctively reacted to losing the ball by fouling his opponent. The referee saw malice in a routine challenge and showed the diminutive number 10 a red card.

While subsequent viewings of the offence suggested leniency should have been shown but not left unpunished, the referee’s decision was instantaneous and honest – if he saw violent intent, a sending off was inevitable and it will be interesting to see if Town appeal.

Ironically, going down to 10 seemed to galvanise the away side and in the final 20 minutes they began to exploit Wednesday’s weak left side again with Lolley and Smith and the former burst in to the area to shoot straight at Westwood when Hefele was in a better position square.

Hefele had a header easily saved from a Lowe cross and despite the numerical disadvantage, an equaliser began to look at least as possible as the Owls’ profiting from dangerous breaks (Lowe had to deny Forestieri twice with excellent last ditch tackles).

With time running out, Whitehead suffered the ignominy of being a substitute substituted. It was clearly tactical rather than a slight on his performance, but the veteran didn’t look too pleased when coming off to make way for Wagner’s much disparaged tactic of using two centre halves to try and rescue a game.

For once, the ploy was relatively successful as both Hefele and Hudson had good chances to equalise but brought their central defenders’ skills to the attempts. Hefele fired just wide when in a good amount of space before teeing up Hudson to fire high when, again, in a good position.

With 2 of the 6 added minutes gone, Wednesday settled the contest again with the help of the officials who failed to spot Forestieri in an offside position as he turned home MacManaman’s effort.

Annoying as a further decision favouring Wednesday was – the same referee had given them a late and borderline penalty in the home game – the second goal was hardly pivotal and Town had escaped several scares as their purposefully depleted defence held out against breakaway attacks.

Having made Wednesday look decidedly ordinary in a dominant first half, Town’s failure to capitalise was the primary reason for this defeat, though Carvahal’s decisive half time change energised his team to make things happen, irrespective of refereeing blunders.

The defeat is not a massive blow to Town’s play off chances – it just brought one of the existing top 6 closer, while potential challengers largely failed to make up ground – and positives can still be drawn from a day when they fell on the other side of the margins for once.

Not unnaturally, supporters’ expectations have been raised substantially- however unfair, not achieving a play off place will be seen as disappointing rather than being in contention being seen as the enormous achievement it is, and the hunger for a striker to strengthen the principal weakness has grown in to a clamour.

The absence of key players, particularly Hogg, told in the end but there is no disgrace to a referee assisted defeat at Hillsborough and the setback should be viewed as relatively minor – this squad will regroup and bounce back.


This is the final report for about 9 weeks as I venture in to Trump’s America to live and ski (badly) in Colorado.

Big thanks to my brother Howard for the excellent views from Box 16 of the Riverside (for 20 years!) and the numerous invites flowing therefrom, including the generous hospitality of Howarth Lynch, Nigel and Adrian yesterday which afforded me another great view of events.

Many thanks to all who read these reports and for all the great feedback (it works – poncy, obscure words are now at a premium!), the retweets and encouragement.

I may put some thoughts on the 4 live games (a luxury not afforded in previous years) but for now, this is where I am headed;


Town sweep not so Valiants


Relying largely on understudies, an exciting newcomer and the return of an important, if still rusty, wide man, Town swept aside a feeble Port Vale to advance to the 4th round of a competition they have seemed barely interested in since returning to the second tier.

Ignoring, for the moment, the weakness of the opposition and the consummate ease of victory, it was gratifying that Wagner was able to field a very competitive alternative eleven from back to front who were comfortable in their roles and the familiar style of play.

New loanee Izzy Brown was drafted in to the team immediately – a departure from the usual gradual introduction of new players – to form a genuinely exciting front four with Palmer, Payne and Lolley; even without a recognised striker the cumulative talent distinguished Wagner’s selections from the defensive formation adopted at Wigan which had singularly failed to deliver entertainment.

FA Cup 3rd round day rarely recaptures the days before the competition was eclipsed by the pressing need for league success or survival – a time gone forever which no amount of yearning will bring back – and mundane draws are usually accompanied by low crowds and a poor atmosphere. The interest and enthusiasm generated by a season of optimism, however, drew an engaged and enlarged audience helped in no small part by a strong away following (whose motivation remains a mystery after witnessing their team).

Having recently lost their manager and having sold their top scorer just days previously, Vale had little cause for optimism against high flying opposition, even with most of the home side’s principle actors rested and a first half dominated by the Terriers emphasised a gulf in class which remained a chasm throughout.

Quickly adapting to the new formation and faces, Town dominated possession and space with scant opposition but wayward shooting, a brave and magnificent save by the unfortunate Alnwick and over elaboration restricted the hosts to a single goal advantage at half time.

Brown and Palmer, Chelsea youngsters with similar styles and blossoming talent, caused the visitors regular problems with intelligent running, Payne was his usual busy self and, while never operating at pre-injury effectiveness, Lolley showed encouraging signs of adding much missed craft down the right, even if his shooting was wayward.

Until taking a knock, Billing glided through proceedings with smooth passing to keep the four in front of him supplied and Whitehead’s trademark combative style largely snuffed out Vale’s puny threat before it reached a solid back four.

Guilty of over elaboration at times, Town’s best early chance came when Hudson met a perfectly delivered Payne corner (sadly, many of the rest were as poor as Mooy’s) only for his downward header to be superbly tipped over. In the process, however, Alnwick collided sickeningly with his post and required lengthy treatment as a result.

The visitors were grateful to their keeper once again when he made a sharp save from Lolley, turning the ball round his post as the home side turned up the heat.

With Vale looking increasingly fragile, Town took the lead. A marvellous turn by Brown in midfield stranded 2 bewildered Vale players and opened up space for him to feed Lolley who, in turn, flicked the ball on to Payne who scored with a finish reminiscent of St James’ Park in August.

Stankovic, assured on the ball throughout, then found Palmer with a delightful ball. A deft header took the youngster past his opponent but with Alnwick narrowing the angle he fired over the bar rather than condemning the Valiants to almost certain defeat before the game was halfway through.

Even against limited opposition, Town’s inability to punish teams with goals their play deserves came back to the fore. Though Vale did not appear to have the wherewithal to take advantage of the failing, any side can throw balls in to the box and see what happens. Even in an almost entirely one sided first half, Town gave away careless free kicks to test this theory – Coleman, who looks every bit as good as Ward, collected and punched away the couple which were not more easily cleared, but the vulnerability of a narrow lead was to remain for some time in to the second half.

Overall, however, the front quartet’s movement and interplay was excellent, ably supported by colleagues and the addition of Brown to the creative hub of an ever improving squad bodes well for the rest of the season.

Vale’s resilience continued to hold after the break with Town taking a while to reestablish the authority they had exerted in the first half. Cranie had the ball in the net following a good move down the left but Palmer had drifted offside before his ball across and, in the process, he collided with Alnwick who was to leave the field a short time later.

With a succession of substitutions, the game stalled for a time and Town nearly paid the price of holding a ridiculously slender lead when a knock down from a long ball saw Thomas blast over from a decent position.

By this time, Mooy had replaced Billing – who was nursing a knock – and it was the Australian who was to orchestrate a late flurry of goals as he imposed his class on an already beleaguered Vale.

The Burslem outfit began to wilt badly as they visibly tired and the loss of the reassuring presence of Alnwick can’t have helped.

Galvanised by Vale’s miss, Town put the game to bed in the space of 10 minutes as the visitors finally succumbed to the home side’s superior skills and fitness.

Jack Payne had already seen a chance spectacularly turned off the line when a misplaced pass by Holmes-Dennis rebounded off an opponent to Palmer, whose instinctive shot took a fortuitous deflection past the substitute goalkeeper.

With the contest over, though there had been little doubt who would be progressing from fairly early on, Town turned the screw on their dispirited, hapless opponents and finally managed to score more than 2 goals in a game for the first time this season.

Mooy, who breezed through his cameo without breaking sweat or getting beyond second gear, found Bunn on the right with a raking pass which exposed the visitors’ beleaguered defence. Running in to the area, Bunn gave his opponent the illusion of a chance to rob him before sidestepping him and planting a left foot shot in to the corner.

Striking a small note of discord on a good afternoon for the team, Bunn cupped his ear in a suspiciously disrespectful way to the largely mild mannered occupants of the Riverside lower tier. A disappointing season and, perhaps, over sensitivity to criticism may have prompted his actions, but it did appear completely contrary to Wagner’s ethos of togetherness.

Payne added a deserved second to cap an effervescent performance following great work by Palmer in the middle of the park and a good ball from Holmes-Dennis and the score line finally reflected Town’s dominance.

It wasn’t difficult to feel sympathy for Vale who look to be a club with significant problems. We have been where they are now, and we have certainly witnessed similarly anaemic displays, including against them, but their lack of fight and ambition and tame acceptance of their fate was illustrated by no yellow cards being shown throughout the game.

For Town, brushing aside mediocre opposition in second gear is hardly a pointer for the future though scoring four could be cathartic and Izzy Brown’s debut was very encouraging. After several years of tame capitulation in cup competitions, it would be good to go on an eye catching run though the dangers of distraction would have to be managed. This cannot be beyond the charismatic, smart and thoughtful Wagner.

With the necessary resting of key players, including Wells, the option of a dynamic front four may well have emerged from the game – even allowing for the opposition, the movement and fluency was a joy to behold at times and could perhaps be deployed in the future; not least where Wagner wants to surprise the opposition.

Here’s hoping for a good draw on Monday.

Wagner’s revenge




To describe this narrow victory as scruffy would be to put far too much gloss on a hugely forgettable affair where one goalkeeping error finally settled the encounter in favour of the slightly less poor side.

With the home capitulation firmly in his mind and concerns about player fatigue, David Wagner made wholesale changes both to personnel and philosophy to pull off an important, momentum maintaining win.

In the soulless bowl Dave Whelan built for his hometown team and on a hard, unreliable surface, Town’s much changed team squeezed all the space out of the game and, with a very poor opposition unable to figure out any way past a solid defence, all semblance of entertainment was strangled at birth.

Until the late winner, it was a truly joyless experience for a huge travelling support who, nevertheless, tried to lift the atmosphere despite the thin gruel offered to them on the pitch. Many in attendance were dubious about the decision to make so many changes, though we are learning to trust in Wagner even if it means enduring a contest as grim as this one.

That a poor second half surpassed the first by some distance speaks volumes about the unrelenting dreariness endured until half time.

Slow paced and without significant movement or ambition, both sides stunk the place out with poor passing, low energy and lack of invention as the 45 minutes stretched interminably in to the cold afternoon.

Both defences coped easily with sporadic attempts at attacking play; on one occasion, Holmes-Dennis had to tug back Jacobs (whose decision making never matched his pace) and was lucky not to be booked as the referee played a dubious advantage, while Bunn fired an attempt on goal well wide.

Despite the ceaseless tedium, Town could at least take heart that the lack of space behind them and the lack of talent in front of them rendered their erstwhile tormentor Wildschutt completely anonymous, while former golden boy Nick Powell (remember when he was one of the most sought after players in the country?) was similarly ineffectual.

A packed stand behind the goal defended by the visitors tried to stir in to life and add some zest to a lacklustre fixture which barely deserved to be called a contest, but the gloom permeated even the most enthusiastic as the languor deepened with every soul sapping minute.

An early booking for Billing, playing in the Hogg role, added an unnecessary and unwelcome layer of tension to proceedings – his long legs and occasionally ungainly gait can render him susceptible to clumsy challenges – but he did his job reasonably well, even if it was wholly utilitarian rather than dynamic and not a little hesitant at times.

With 3 off target shots (2 from the visitors) barely warranting the description of attempts on goal, the sweet mercy of the referee’s whistle finally arrived and put everyone out of their misery.

The bar for the second half had been set ludicrously low, and despite a slow start, Town began to dominate possession without looking threatening. Bunn, in particular, was infuriatingly wasteful when in advanced positions though his defensive work helping Holmes Dennis quell Jacobs’ pace was important.

On the hour, Town looked vaguely dangerous from a corner only for a clearance upfield to catch Holmes-Dennis slightly flat footed and only able to prevent Wildschut breaking in to oceans of space by wrestling him to the ground. Though a long, long way from goal, the Dutch striker could have repeated his exploits of a few weeks ago and Town’s young, understudy full back’s cynical, necessary foul proved pivotal.

The introduction of Lolley shortly afterwards – Kerchunga moved left as the ineffective Bunn departed – seemed to lift Town a little and they slowly exerted control over their still enfeebled opponents. The tempo increased marginally but perceptibly, as did accuracy – though this didn’t translate in to direct threat, the team were now at least giving a passable impression of previous performances.

Replacing Billing with Whitehead also helped. His experience helped enormously and the nervousness surrounding Billing was lifted. A shot, Wigan’s second, by Wildschut which went narrowly wide minutes earlier may have decided the switch.

The breakthrough came following a good run across the front of Wigan’s defence by Kachunga, who unleashed a reasonably hard and slightly swerving shot which seemed to bamboozle the veteran Jaaskelainen, who spilled the ball in to the path of the predatory Wells.

As welcome as it was unlikely – Wells’ finish was Town’s second attempt on target as he followed up on the first – the goal sparked something resembling entertainment as the home side’s desperation left their fitter opponents with more space when they weren’t comfortably thwarting attacks.

Payne – who at least added energy at times – latched on to a weak back header to beat Jaaskelainen to the ball and head it cleverly over him, only to be halted by a covering defender.

Another break involving Lolley and Payne saw Wells in a good position to square to the unmarked Kachunga, only for the goal scorer to woefully underhit his pass and the danger was cleared.

Seeing out the game in relative comfort, Town could celebrate a streaky but important away win – the third in a row – and a hugely productive Christmas period was complete.

Successful teams grind out ugly results. It would be a considerable stretch to suggest that the woeful first half display was tactical genius, but there was no way Wagner’s charges were going to be mugged in the same fashion that they had been at home and, overall, the defensive display was reasonably admirable. Both Hudson, who demonstrated leadership and experience throughout, and Stankovic, provided the foundation for the win, ably assisted by Cranie and Holmes-Dennis.

Mooy had a much better second half than an error strewn first without hitting the heights normally associated with him and Payne’s lively contribution was a thin shaft of light in a forgettable team display.

Securing points for the second game running, Wells had suffered from severe isolation and was largely ineffective until striking, but took his chance when it came. His goals have been fewer in number this season, but most have directly earned points, particularly during this recent unbeaten run.

The return of Lolley is most welcome. Along with Van La Parra, he can offer a different threat and is more useful to the side than the one dimensional Bunn (rumoured to be on his way in any case).

Perhaps the only question mark over the manager’s selections is the nagging feeling that Whitehead and Billing started the wrong fixtures over the New Year period – Blackburn’s predictable lack of ambition did not need the over protection of a deep lying central midfielder, while a tricky away fixture was unnecessarily complicated by a naturally more progressive player in the role.

With key players rested and another 3 points in the bag, a break for the FA cup, which will surely see further utilisation of fringe squad assets, comes at a good time, before a major test at Hillsborough in two weeks, by which time, new faces may have been added.

Toil and struggle rescues point


The exertions of an excellent winning run finally caught up with a visibly jaded Town in the second half of a game which should have been put to bed before half time.

While never being at their best against an ultra defensive Blackburn who seemed entirely uninterested in possessing the ball in an attempt to stifle their opponents’ eagerness to attack, Town created enough to take an essential first half lead over their dour opposition.

The loss through injury of Hogg saw Whitehead take on a role which, in hindsight, seemed overly cautious and arguably superfluous. Unable to provide a cohesive partnership with Mooy, booked for a rash challenge after 17 minutes and lacking Hogg’s fluency, the more progressive Billing seemed a more obvious choice. The veteran has been a good servant of the club and is a useful player to have in certain situations, but this wasn’t one of them.

Town nearly wrote a very different script in the very first minute when a blocked Van La Parra effort ballooned up for Palmer to execute an excellent bicycle kick to bring a good, if routine, save from Steele.

With an insatiable appetite for possession – helped by their opponents’ apparent distaste for it – the good start should have been the foundation for overwhelming force but while opportunities arose in a decent first half performance, the play was too often stilted and staccato as the problems of playing against an obdurate, largely disciplined defence began to mount.

As ugly as they were, Rovers clearly knew where the threats were going to come from and targeted Mooy for special attention forcing the Aussie in to uncharacteristic errors and smothering his magic. With Whitehead playing too deep and width difficult to find, the visitors largely foiled the home side’s probing and, in their only attack of note in the first half, could have taken an implausible lead when Graham was only just too late to latch on to some good work from Gallagher.

The best chance of the half, and the turning point of a game where just one goal would have changed it’s complexion entirely, fell to Wells. Hefele threaded a fantastic ball through to the marauding Smith whose low, hard cross was met perfectly by the Bermudian only for the well positioned Steele to scramble a good block and preserve his net at a crucial juncture.

The fluency of Town’s recent performances was largely absent but the unremitting possession should have proven overpowering against clearly inferior, if dogged, opposition and it seemed likely that Blackburn’s resistance would be broken with a further 45 minutes of battering in prospect.

If anything, however, the visitors had the better of the opening exchanges and even opened up a little to try to grab at least some of the possession, without sacrificing their defensive discipline.

Town became increasingly ragged as key performers, Mooy, Kachunga and Smith in particular, failed to provide any spark to a pedestrian display which deteriorated as the minutes passed.

Even Wagner’s usually astute substitutions flopped. Bunn replaced the ineffective Van La Parra and proceeded to offer even less than the Dutchman and though Payne added his trademark energy, it failed to wake his teammates from their torpor with even simple passes going astray, a lack of spontaneity reducing attacks to plodding uncertainty and a smattering of set piece opportunities completely wasted by poor delivery.

With the game petering out to a forgettable 0-0 draw, Blackburn took the lead. With typical lack of ambition, they had few players in the box and a routine high ball should have been cleared by the otherwise excellent Hefele only for his sliced attempt to hit Schindler at close range. Lowe was pushed by Gallagher as he attempted to clear but this was not spotted by the referee and the big forward laid the ball to Feeney to loft the ball to Danny Graham’s head.

As sickening as it was predictable, Town had only themselves to blame as a tired second half display had invited the calumny. Blackburn never rose above the level of mediocre but had too easily thwarted their hosts with a relatively simple tactical plan and after the break had extinguished Town’s previous threat in a similar manner to the way they had done at Ewood a few short weeks ago, by restricting space.

In the absence of attacking options on the bench – a situation hopefully to be addressed very soon – Wagner threw Hudson in to the fray and the returning captain was sent up front with Hefele; a familiar and despairing tactic which would have some credibility if either of them had ever won an attacking header in previous deployments.

Short at the back, only a poorly placed ball by Feeney to Gallagher following a break prevented Town going 2 down and the let off was to prove crucial.

With the majority of 5 minutes injury time elapsed – ludicrously, given his team’s persistent time wasting including a veritable pantomime involving shin pads, Coyle was apoplectic when the board went up – Payne was felled just outside the box to give Town their last chance to salvage something from a disappointing afternoon.

The much maligned Wells – who again played well outside the area – stepped up and curled his shot expertly over the wall and past Steele to save a point.

Despite a scruffy, error strewn second half, Town did not deserve to lose against a horribly defensive and increasingly desperate Blackburn, and could even have nicked a win in the dying seconds when presented with a free kick and the opportunity to load the box. Smith – whose attacking play disintegrated in the second half – rightly called for Mooy to give him the ball as he had a better angle for delivery, but then, inexplicably, he passed the ball to Kachunga who was easily swamped.

It is far from unusual that a dogged, relegation battling team can gain a result at a high flying venue – we have done it ourselves in the past and Wigan were to thwart Derby in similar fashion later in the afternoon – and hardly realistic not to expect dips in form from individual players following an intense round of matches, and the salvaging of a point should be viewed positively.

With 13 points from 5 games since we last played Blackburn, Town’s hugely promising season – where they are far ahead of what seemed realistic in August – it would be churlish to over criticise a below par performance which was, thankfully, not punished by rivals later on, and the remarkable progress of a club brimming with energy and ideas will continue in to the New Year.

Another tough task follows quickly against another battling side in Wigan. Wagner’s selections for that game will be interesting as they look to avenge the recent defeat; with little recovery time (for both teams) and the continued absence of the influential Hogg, maybe the time is ripe for both Billing and a cameo from Lolley?

Whatever our fate, a Happy New Year to all Town fans, players and management. Let’s make it a great one.