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;