In an entirely predictable and eminently sensible move, David Wagner began his preparation for the play off campaign with a full on rotate which saw 10 changes to the side that secured the season extension on Tuesday.
Of all the 16 players picked for the match day squad against struggling Birmingham, all but one (Regan Booty) have contributed to the club’s success this season, and many of them provided the club with a rare cup run including holding a Manchester City side of obscene talent to a goalless draw. It should also be said that one of the changes, bringing Smith back, restored a first choice to the team.
While others still had work to do to secure play off positions, Town’s perfect use of their game in hand provided an advantage that they, as significant underdogs for the upcoming competition, would have been both stupid and negligent to foresake.
An injury to Billing at the hands of a fired up Blues player (the challenge was entirely legal but robust), was further justification for keeping key players out of the fray and the only real disappointment was the performance of players who should have been trying to force themselves in to contention for the important games to come.
Town started relatively brightly with lots of control and possession against a tense looking home side who brought physicality to a game they had to win but little finesse, other than their pacy right winger.
In fact, overall, Town were much the better team for most of the first half and good efforts from Holmes-Dennis and Billing as well as decent marauding by both full backs deserved goals but all of this was undone by a poor mistake by Hudson, who endured a pretty terrible first half.
First, he brought down Adams when little threat was apparent and at a stage where Birmingham had rarely escaped from the control Town were exerting over the game. Fortunately for the veteran – surely moving to his coaching role (which he will be very good at) next season – young Coleman was able to easily save Jutkiewicz’s tame attempt.
Just before the half time break, though, he was not so lucky. Birmingham had been winning too many cheap free kicks to throw in to the box to little effect when a back post ball which should have been easy to deal with was headed back across his own goal by the hapless Hudson and Grounds hungrily accepted the gift.
At this point, Birmingham had been reduced, harshly, to ten men when Adams fouled Cranie. It was a foul and a booking but Mike Jones is firmly in the look at me strain of referees and brandished a completely unnecessary red card.
Until the goal, Town had played reasonably well and Smith set up both Payne (who missed the ball completely in front of goal) and Bunn (whose chance was more difficult as he was wider) and coped more than adequately with whatever Birmingham could throw at them, which wasn’t a great deal.
One man was, however, completely anonymous. Lolley contributed very little to events and still looks a long way from being the exciting winger that may be in there somewhere. You suspect that the end of the season can’t come quickly enough for him and only major problems in the play offs will result in his appearance.
The second half was hugely disappointing. Despite dominating possession – which was to be expected against ten men – transition was painfully slow, Quaner, who had a decent first half, suddenly became a clumsy pastiche and the visitors became vulnerable to the break.
Coleman had to make an excellent save – he was one of the few positives to come from an ultimately grim afternoon – to deny the home side after one breakaway and as they became increasingly comfortable defending against monumentally slow build ups, the noisy home crowd could sense a victory quite a while before another raid saw Smith only half tackle on the edge of the area and Whitehead tripping Maghoma for the Blues’ second penalty which, this time, was converted.
Wagner’s change of shape in the second half – reverting to 3 centre halves – robbed his team of the forward play of Smith and Holmes-Dennis which had so nearly paid dividends on 3 occasions in the first half. With Lolley ineffectual and Bunn regressing after a reasonable first half, Birmingham comfortably dealt with Town’s attacks and the visitors rarely looked like scoring.
Seeing out the game with some ease, Birmingham collected 3 vital points while Town opened themselves up to an ill informed and sensationalist media and lost Billing for the play offs. Not a massively successful day, then, but in the long run the rest afforded to the players who will compete in May was far more important.
Billings injury was further confirmation of Wagner’s wise choice (this is after reflection and didn’t seem so admirable when navigating horrendous Birmingham traffic afterwards) – the triumvirate of Mooy, Hogg and Brown in particular will be essential if Town are to further defy the odds post season, and though the Australian played a small (largely ineffective) part at St Andrews, his style of play is far less susceptible to injury than the other two.
Forest and Blackburn – both of whom have cheated by falling foul of FFP in the past – will no doubt continue to bleat, but their plight is nothing to do with the ambitions of Huddersfield Town and Wagner has earned the right to plan for the next few weeks in the best interests of his employers. He will, rightly, pick a team with least possibility of harming the play off chances against Cardiff and he will be right to do so.