Terriers turn dreams and vision in to reality

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As Christopher Schindler – surely the bargain of this and every other season – stepped up to write the final sentence of a dramatic, barely believable and eternally memorable 9 months with a penalty of supreme German confidence, Huddersfield Town (our Huddersfield Town) became the talk of the football world.

The cautious, often turgid, preceding 120 minutes, where adventurous football was stifled and ultimately strangled as the enormity of the prize bore down on the young men representing two unfashionable clubs, were forgotten as the (frankly ludicrous) script came to a climax.

Had Town taken one of two glorious chances in the first 15 minutes, the paralysis which eventually set in may never have happened; instead, Reading heeded the threat they faced and largely quelled Town’s vibrancy for the remainder of the increasingly dull spectacle.

The first of these chances – a free header for Hefele from an excellent free kick by Mooy in just the 4th minute – was rather over shadowed by the second when Izzy Brown contrived to miss from a yard with neither Al Habsi or any of his defenders anywhere to be seen.

Brown’s 10th minute miss ended a great start from Town, which rocked Reading and prompted Stam to tighten his team defensively and retreat to a less than progressive possession game.

One long range effort from Grabban shortly after Brown’s howler brought the Royals back in to a game which had threatened to get away from them, but Town’s late season profligacy in front of goal gave them a lifeline they could cling to with their defensive discipline, even if their own threat appeared lightweight.

A nasty challenge on the back of Smith’s legs brought a booking for Kermogant to add to an earlier one for van der Berg who felled Kachunga to stop a dangerous break. With two yellow cards brandished early and rightly, Town had a perceptible advantage after a bright start, but the statistic couldn’t begin to make up for the enormous value of an early goal.

Rigor mortis set in after 20 minutes and more flying challenges brought a booking for Hogg and too much disruption, rather playing in to Reading’s hands who were looking increasingly comfortable without ever threatening Town’s goal – a game which held promise after a lively start descended in to attrition.

Both sides’ weaknesses came to the fore in the first half – Reading’s ponderous progression towards their opponents’ goal betrayed a lack of imagination rather than admirable patience, while Town’s inability to convert chances from their thrusting merely reflected a season long armour chink.

Reading stepped up a little in the early stages of the second half and, for once, found a ball from midfield to attack which hadn’t passed amongst countless feet as Swift latched on to an Evans pass. Ward made a routine, if sharp, save from his shot.

Soft jabbing by both sides brought moments of mild concern, but the understandable tension continued to subdue natural talent as passing went astray, the foul count rose and an unedifying midfield melee ensued.

In an attempt to recreate a Hillsborough moment, Wagner pulled Kachunga (who had been reasonably effective) for Quaner, while Stam replaced the ineffective Grabban with McCleary, who would surely have started had it not been for recent injury.

Following good work down the right by Mooy, Quaner stumbled in to the Australian’s driven low cross when Wells was in a good position to pounce. The ball simply cannoned off the big German and well wide, rather summing up the lack of composure from the Terriers once the penalty area was reached.

At the back, Hefele and Schindler dealt with everything Reading could muster, with the latter cruising through the game with an elegance which will deservedly grace the higher division next season.

Scares for the Terriers were rare, but Reading may have made more of one or two late opportunities to complete their game plan of stifling and striking but, like their opponents, their penalty area composure evaporated.

More worrying for the Yorkshireman was the loss of Smith, a crucial part of the team’s astonishing success, to injury. He was to end his day on crutches following a fairly innocuous challenge to stop McCleary taking a shot, and was replaced by the dependable Cranie.

A tame effort from Wells was the last meaningful action of regulation time and a dour struggle was to be extended for 30 more, agonising, minutes.

A pedestrian first 15 minutes of extra time strongly suggested that the contest would be decided on penalties as neither side could fashion a clear cut chance between them, though McCleary had a decent attempt which he pulled wide. For Town, the highlight was the introduction of Palmer who secured a surprise place on the bench following his recovery from the hamstring injury he suffered against Leeds.

Towards the end of extra time, the Terriers, finishing a little stronger than their opponents, did fashion an opportunity for Wells. Palmer turned defence in to attack, guiding the ball forwards under pressure to Wells who looped a pass towards Quaner. Staying onside, Quaner fed Palmer, who had covered a lot of ground, and his pass to Wells evaded the desperately recovering defenders only for the Bermudian to shoot weakly.

A late free kick found Cranie and Hefele at the back post, unmarked, but the ball evaded both of them before the agony was ended by the referee’s whistle signalling even more agony to come.

Despite an exemplary penalty shoot out record and the knowledge that this one couldn’t be any more gut churning than 5 years ago, having to suffer the drama yet again – Town have played 360 minutes of play off final football without scoring a goal over 3 games and 3 divisions – was just as tortuous.

That it followed an incident light game which rarely rose above the level of insipid only served to increase the extreme anxiety. For all the talk of accepting a defeat following a great season before the match, that sentiment disappeared as the teams lined up on the halfway line in traditional fashion.

While winning the toss to stage the most valuable shoot out in history at the end populated by the Huddersfield hordes was something of a comfort, Reading had the statistically proven advantage of taking the first one, as we had done at Hillsborough.

Kermogant despatched the first kick with an assurance he memorably lacked for Leicester all those years ago before Lowe repeated his semi final penalty with another untouchable strike.

Reading went 2-1 up and it was the turn of Hefele, nurturing a wrist injury, to simply cement his cult hero status. Had things gone differently, the sight of the blonde German thumping the ground fire his weak effort was gathered by Al Habsi would have been an awful end to his fantastic season (and would have magnified Brown’s horrendous miss).

A superb top corner effort by Kelly gave an ominous glow to the Berkshire club’s confidence and Town were up against it at 3-1 down.

Wells, who has had penalty troubles before, swept home to keep Town alive but still needing an error or a save. Moore produced the former with a wild penalty which grazed the bar as it sailed in to the jubilant Town fans. Despair turned to hope.

With Mooy levelling things up with an excellent spot kick sending the Reading keeper the wrong way, pressure was suddenly transferred to young Jordan Obita. Heartbreakingly for the Reading academy product, that pressure told as Ward guessed the right way and easily saved a poor shot to hand responsibility to an unbelievably cool Christopher Schindler.

Lacking a little power, the German’s penalty was, nevertheless, very well placed and Town triumphed yet again in the cruellest of match deciding competitions.

The drama may have been a little more than the game deserved, but it was fitting that the end of Town’s fantastic story this season should be decided by the very last kick of it.

You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel for the distraught Reading players and their likeable supporters – the excellent Williams was probably the most affected – but the ending has been written in the stars since the arrival of an obscure, hugely charismatic German coach.

David Wagner and Dean Hoyle are a match made in heaven – their shared idealism only surpassed by their unrelenting hard work combined to create a modern miracle. Astute utilisation of resources – picking up the right characters on a tight budget, innovative fitness and training methods and intense motivation – have given the fans of Huddersfield Town a rare season of joy and success unimaginable since the early 70s.

Soon, we shall see how they intend to climb the next, even more daunting, mountain but, for now, the town can revel in the remarkable achievements of a united, vibrant club who have overcome massive odds. And we have.

(Thanks for reading throughout this season – bar my own, personal, winter break! – and have a great summer).

Epic schadenfreude

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The story of Huddersfield Town’s remarkable season has just one chapter left following a nerve jangling, thrilling and epoch making night at a febrile Hillsborough.

Like all good books, the tale has been stuffed with plot twists, massive characters and the occasional villain (Stuart Webber, for example) and the denouement will remain unknown until the very end.

Exactly 22 years to the day since Town beat Brentford on penalties to reach Wembley, the parallels with that evening were resonant; entering the game as underdogs after a home draw, upper tier seating, watching a shoot out taking place at the other end of the pitch and a raucous following, but the challenge for today’s squad was of even greater magnitude.

Wednesday, who frustrated Town with effective but stultifying tactics in the first leg could be forgiven for feeling the job was almost complete. A sold out home crowd – which rarely lived up to its pre match billing as a cauldron – had the potential to freeze the visiting team in terror and the Owls undoubtedly contain individual talents of greater renown than their opponents; if only Carvalhal could, finally, provide them with the freedom of expression so evidently lacking in the first act.

Though more expansive – they could hardly be anything else – the early stages of a tense and tight drama suggested a long night in store as the visitors responded to Wednesday’s elevated intent with good possession and control, though a couple of high balls to Fletcher at the back post created moments of danger for the Owls, thwarted by Ward.

As in the first leg, promising possession largely evaporated once Town approached danger areas, but the confidence and calmness of the players was comforting to the hugely outnumbered but constantly noisy visiting fans.

Just short of the half hour, however, Mooy’s sublime ball to Van La Parra allowed the Dutchman to play in Wells behind the Wednesday defence to feed Brown. The Chelsea youngster could only steer his instinctive finish on to the post (it is possible that Westwood’s finger tips helped) but the move was greatly encouraging.

Wednesday came straight back and only Fletcher’s lack of pace when put through by the impressive Bannon diluted a moment of genuine danger to the Terriers – his dismal attempted ball to Forestieri was less forgivable and Town survived, only to be tested minutes later when an unmarked Hutchinson fired a volley way over following a free kick.

Somewhat wobbly at this stage, Town responded with a good move down the right. Smith’s slightly overhit cross was brilliantly taken down by Van La Parra who flicked the ball towards Wells. As the Bermudian touched the ball beyond Westwood, the Owls’ custodian appeared to make contact but the strong penalty appeals were turned down.

A nervy but compelling first half ended with the magnificent Hogg being booked for a crude foul on Forestieri, and the combative midfielder would spend the remainder of the game on something of a knife edge.

With neither side being able to assert dominance, despite the imperious efforts of Mooy for Town and Bannon for Wednesday, a stalemate looked increasingly likely to continue. Van La Parra’s pace and trickery had the home side constantly on their toes and he was involved in both of Town’s best moments, while Wednesday’s best option was probing a back post vulnerability which also created two chances.

Unfortunately for Town, the second half began badly as, after just 5 minutes, that back post vulnerability was finally exposed. An excellent cross from deep by Bannon fell perfectly for Fletcher who outjumped Schindler to head Wednesday in to the lead.

Hillsborough erupted as the hitherto tense Owls fans sensed the enormity of the goal; surely, now, their torture of 12 months ago was about to be erased.

Town had different ideas and, with some considerable character, began to boss the game with prolonged passages of possession creating presentable chances for Wells and Kachunga. The season long conversion problem could have weighed heavily in an intensely pressurised situation but driven by Hogg’s energy and the class of Mooy and Brown, hope was not lost.

Kachunga, who had looked a little tired following his Herculean efforts in the home leg, was replaced by Quaner and in less than a minute of his arrival, Town were level.

Picking the ball up in space, Brown played a sublime ball past Pudil and in to the path of the big substitute whose considered square ball was turned in (agonisingly slowly) by a combination of Wells and desperately defending legs.

It had been a long time coming but, at last, Town were rewarded for their superior possession based football which doesn’t create enough chances or, indeed, telling pressure, but has its own beauty.

Until the end of the 90 minutes, Town were clearly in the ascendant – even when Hogg was off the field being treated for a head injury – and the impressive Quaner fed Wells again only for Westwood to foil him this time. Right at the death, Wells may have done better when put through by Mooy but hesitated rather than shooting, allowing the busy Westwood the time to smother the attempt.

With that chance gone – and it was a genuinely good one – extra time proved much tighter as tired legs strived not to make the fatal error which could decide these seemingly inseparable teams.

The first 15 minutes were edged by Wednesday – Ward had to make a sharp if straightforward save from the hugely disappointing Rhodes (it remains a genuine mystery why Carvalhal believed replacing Fletcher’s aerial ability was a good idea) and Hefele made a tremendous block to prevent Forestieri scoring, yet again, against the Terriers. In response, a long range effort by Wells was easily gathered by Westwood.

Fewer of the Town players were wilting, however, and they came back strongly in the second period with Wells forcing another save from Westwood (inexplicably no corner ensued) and Holmes- Dennis, who had replaced an exhausted Van La Parra, and the excellent Lowe caused problems for the home side down the left as the visitors finished the stronger, but to no avail.

On to the agonies of penalties then, though Town had a Teutonic record in shoot outs before any of the current Germans had arrived and while most of the visiting support were dismayed at the competition being decided at the opposite end of the ground, those of us with Brentford memories from the top tier of the Griffin Park stand had the fleeting pleasure of deja vu.

Stepping up first, Lowe slammed a perfect penalty past Westwood’s dive and the advantage of going first, if you score, was sealed.

Hutchinson, who, like Hogg was slightly fortunate not to have received a second yellow card, stepped up next only to see his penalty slapped away by the overly maligned Ward (who had also made several good saves during the game and was much more commanding than normal).

At 2-0, Town were in the box seat. Hefele, Wells and Mooy kept up the pressure before the diminutive figure of Jack Payne strolled up with the chance to put Town through to the play off final. Unfortunately for the man from Essex, his well struck penalty was excellently saved by Westwood and sudden death loomed as our Argentinian nemesis strode forward.

Forestieri has become something of an obsession with Town fans from the day he dived for a dubious penalty to win a game late for Watford through his remarkable record of scoring against the Terriers in and amongst more theatrical diving.

Karma dictated that the pantomime villain would add a plot twist to the Huddersfield Town story and, sure enough, and to uncontrollable delight in the visiting stand, his poor penalty – comfortably saved by Ward who guessed the right way – ended the tightest of tight play off semi finals.

Unsure for a second or two that his save had prolonged the story, Ward’s realisation was followed by a sprint towards the away fans which will, surely, become iconic. He was chased all the way by team mates and staff as the final full stop was put on the penultimate chapter.

Town had taken 210 minutes and the drama of a penalty shoot out to get past a hugely difficult opponent. Their ambition always exceeded Wednesday’s on the pitch and they deserved their huge reward in the face of considerable odds, but that is the way they have rolled all season.

With Dean Hoyle’s inspirational leadership – not just this season but ever since he took over – and Wagner’s genius (many doubted his philosophy of preparing for this separate competition), the wait for the final chapter could be unbearable but you know that the script is going to be remarkable, whatever the outcome.

Reading, the final hurdle, will be tough, well organised and dangerous opponents and two close encounters during the season points to yet more attritional and exhausting watching. Both teams have achieved against the odds with innovative managers and remarkable numbers of single goal victories and the game is incredibly difficult to call.

Whatever the result, an already fantastic season has been elevated to legendary status as we await the final instalment with frenzied anticipation.

See you all at Wembley.

Toothless Terriers stifled by anti-football

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In the end, an entirely predictable first leg stalemate perfectly exemplified the home team’s entertaining way of scoring too few goals and the away team’s dreadful methods of keeping them out.

Backed by a raucous home crowd – which is far from a given with a noon kick off which generally mitigates very badly against atmosphere – Town probed the Owls’ impressive defences for virtually the whole game but were unable to create enough chances to turn their dominance in to a first leg lead.

Neither did their overwhelming possession create the type of intensive pressure under which teams can crumble, but their superiority with the ball did completely nullify the visitors’ major players and substitute keeper Coleman had an easy and less than eventful afternoon; he put in a couple of dives as he watched two long range efforts from Reach and Bannon veer off target.

The only other moment of danger Wednesday created was a decent cross which the excellent Kachunga headed over before Reach could pounce.

For the most part, Wednesday were content to stifle Town’s threat and rarely wobbled in their dull but tactically astute endeavours. On the one occasion Town got a lucky bounce in the area, Westwood pulled off an excellent save from Wells (he also tipped over an imaginatively unthreatening lob from the same player earlier).

An off balance Brown diverted a Wells flick on on to the bar in the first half, but Westwood was to be relatively untroubled as his 10 colleagues largely nullified their far more expansive hosts once the ball got to the final third.

On the positive side, Town looked much more like the team which has over achieved significantly over the season than it had towards the end of the campaign when genuine fears of burn out were regularly levelled at some desperately poor displays.

Fielding by far their strongest 11, the Terriers were boosted by the return of Kachunga who worked tirelessly before being substituted. He made life very difficult for Wednesday’s otherwise very composed defenders and Smith (who had gone off the boil perhaps more than any other player) returned to much better form with his regular partner in front of him.

Mooy and Hogg’s partnership flourished again, with Hogg’s energy superbly dovetailing with the Australian’s return to form, and, in front of them, Brown showed flashes of the quality which may yet fire Town to Wembley; particularly if Carvalhal’s stifling tactics are loosened at Hillsborough.

Though rarely stretched, Town’s defending – from back to front – was unrecognisable from the messy, mistake strewn ill discipline at the back end of the season with Hefele and Schindler easily containing a strangely quiet Forestieri who looked like he has been restored too early following injury problems. Fletcher’s aerial threat was almost entirely neutered and once those two made way for Rhodes and Winnall (oh for Wednesday’s bench!) the visitors had given up any pretence of wanting to establish a first leg lead.

With the game being refereed reasonably well, Wednesday were unable to call upon the outrageous fortune which lead to their regular season double over Town – close encounters which should have yielded 2 points a piece – though Jack Hunt got away with a fair amount for only one yellow card and the farcical handling of a situation where a Wednesday player handled the ball in the wall at a free kick before feigning facial injury was pretty questionable.

Collin Quaner provided a comedy moment with his first touch, which saw an attempt at control deflect off both of his uncoordinated legs in to touch, and little else which rather exposes Town’s main problem – beyond the 11 on duty from the start, there is little game changing ability on the bench; success, if it is to come, and much like the rest of the season will be down to very thin resources. Thankfully, no injuries were sustained threatening our main team – the excellent Lowe was suffering cramp rather than a hamstring problem.

There is a hope that Wednesday will have to be more expansive at home allowing us more space, though anyone who saw the Hillsborough fixture during the season knows that there is little chance that Carvalhal will suddenly turn gung ho – he is, probably rightly given our failure to score against his team after 3 tries, going to remain happy with us dominating possession in non threatening areas because he trusts, again rightly, the quality of his defence.

Having spent significantly over the past two years, including the addition of Rhodes and Winnall in January, the entertainment free zone they present on the pitch is not particularly edifying but they start the second leg as clear favourites to reach Wembley. However, it is possible that genuinely progressive football – all be it too lacking in cutting edge – can defeat the anti- football preoccupation of the Portuguese, and Town will not enter the game with fear or without hope.

On to Hillsborough…..

Town lull rivals in to false sense of security. Or something.

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A powerful, aggressive, Warnock inspired Cardiff overwhelmed a cautious and mistake riddled Town side with bigger things on their minds on an afternoon to forget for the hosts.

Reverting to a near full strength side, fear of injury or suspension pervaded a dreadful performance from the Terriers who gave the clear impression they wanted to get the game out of the way and probably hoped that their opponents were similarly unmotivated. Predictably, given their manager, that hope was cruelly dashed.

From the very beginning, sluggish and careless passing handed every initiative to the Welsh side who should have been 3 up within the first 15 minutes. Had Hoillett not drifted offside when played through by Pilkington following a poor ball out by Ward, the visitors would have capitalised on their hosts’ nonchalance within the first minute and the errors piled up in a woefully inept first half.

It didn’t take long for the Bluebirds’ overwhelming early dominance to bring reward. The impressive Zohore latching on to an excellent Pilkington through ball to easily outpace Hefele and slot past Ward.

With his only positive contribution to the day, Ward launched an excellent upfield punt for the unmarked Brown, only for the loanee to be caught just before pulling the trigger, but this was rare respite from Cardiff’s superiority and further chances fell their way with alarming regularity.

The disastrous early stages were capped by the dismissal of Ward. It is a toss up between Mooy’s terrible back pass and Ward pointing to his shoulder after clearly handling outside his area for laughable moment of the day and there were many contenders. There may be some mitigation of Mooy’s error, however – it is possible that the over watering of the pitch is interfering with our game, whether that be the players slipping against Fulham or affecting the judgement of pace when passing (such an error by Mooy is so rare as to be remarkable).

Without Ward’s ill advised and indecisive charge from his line (he pondered for a second or two first, as his wont at times), Zohore would have added a second that Cardiff’s fluency and energy would have deserved, but the Dane didn’t have to wait long before he set up Joe Bennett for an excellent strike past Coleman; neither did he have to work very hard to circumvent Town’s stagnant defence to get in to position with Mooy and Hefele easily bypassed.

Down to 10 men – Scannell being sacrificed when, ideally, the injury hit Londoner needed game time – and trailing to a massively superior side, damage limitation became the priority. While a much heavier deficit would have been little more than Cardiff deserved, a Smith/Brown combination created a great chance for Quaner to halve the deficit just before the break but the German, who worked hard on the scraps thrown at him, brought an excellent save from Murphy.

Town offered little else in a first half where they were far too easily bullied and the folly of playing at less than full tilt against any Championship side had been painfully exposed. It could also be argued that injury avoidance strategies can easily turn to disaster – playing at full tilt, quite rightly, one or two Cardiff challenges shook the recipients far harder than they normally would; being under par both physically and mentally arguably leaving every player more exposed to damage.

An entertaining opening to the second period saw Cardiff cut through Town’s rearguard yet again only for Pilkington to finish weakly and a decent interchange between Brown – who, encouragingly, shone from time to time – and Quaner allowed the former to release Van La Parra. The otherwise dreadful winger nearly reduced the arrears with a clever chip but was just off target.

Cardiff remained vastly superior, however, and were helped in particular by the sluggish and under cooked Hefele who delivered his worst display of the season by a distance – slow to react, poor positioning and half hearted tackling were so out of character that there was some comfort that, perhaps, it was a mind set rather than an ability issue.

Further chances eluded the visitors until Zohore – who would be perfect in this Town squad – turned Lowe inside out before feeding Bennett for his second and Cardiff’s third.

In truth, few cared by this point other than the celebrating Cardiff fans who clearly enjoyed their last day of the season, and other than a decent Town move which saw Quaner miss the target following a Mooy cross, the game petered out as even Warnock seemed to lose interest, telling his players to calm down at one point.

The inconvenience of having to play the final game of the season was palpable, and a mainly flat atmosphere (common for noon kick offs, worryingly) seemed to signal impatience at the damp squib of the final few games when a play off place was already obvious even before confirmation at Wolves.

Time will tell if David Wagner’s transparent strategy of replicating a pre season before the play offs, and on the face of it such a plan seems not only reasonable but eminently sensible, is successful but playing at less than full pace, intensity and discipline brought predictable results.

The loss of Ward for one game is not a disaster unless his perfectly adequate replacement succumbs to injury, the hugely important Brown came through the game unscathed (though squaring up to Morrison after a robust challenge could have resulted in disaster had it escalated) and the focus can now be turned fully on a very difficult play off semi final.

It is a shame that we have been unable, maybe even unwilling, to build momentum in to the post season competition but history shows that form doesn’t necessarily have to be good to succeed.

And so to the joys and agonies which await.
Marti