Town test the patience of Saints


A pulsating, thoroughly entertaining encounter with a talented, if slightly underwhelming Southampton side, ended goalless as both sides missed out on very presentable opportunities in stifling conditions at the JSS.

The south coast club, who have graced the Premier League since their rise from League 1 with no little style, represented a significant step up in quality over Town’s previous two opponents, even if their early season form seems to have been affected by having to adapt to a new manager as they try to rediscover their customary flair.

A messy and very fortunate League cup win over Rotherham by the shadow squad – ultimately pushed over the line by the introduction of Billing – gave David Wagner few reasons to change the eleven who beat Newcastle, and with the two new arrivals still to be bedded in, there were no changes to the bench either.

A relatively mundane opening 10 minutes saw the two teams sizing each other up, but the tone of the match was set by the visitors after the initial sparring when the excellent Davis set Redmond away down the left behind a square Town defence playing him just onside. Perhaps aware of Lössl’s size and reach, the ex-Norwich man curled his shot past the far post, and Town were let off the hook.

Roared on by a raucous, almost hysterically excited home support, Town then largely took over with their trademark aggression and intensity.

Prompted by Mooy and Billing, Town took the game to the Saints down left and right and opportunities began to flow. Kachunga, hard working as ever, and Van La Parra, mercurial and occasionally frustrating as ever, stretched Southampton down the flanks and dangerous balls in to the box seemed certain to open the door.

A combination of excellent blocking by the stretched Saints’ defence, Forster’s enormous frame and slightly tentative finishing kept the visitors’ goal intact. In a single minute, first Kachunga and then Mounié were denied as Town’s crowd inspired intensity strained the resilience of Southampton without breaking it.

The best chance fell to Kachunga, however, when Forster weirdly spilled a routine cross in to his path. Sadly, the ball fell to his weaker left foot and the idiosyncratic England understudy was able to deflect his effort for a corner.

Tom Ince, slowly increasing his effectiveness game by game, brought another, rather odd, save from Forster as he cleverly hit a Smith assist first time and by the end of the half, the southerners had been comprehensively rattled and fortunate to be still in the game, Redmond’s miss notwithstanding.

Faced with a clear step up in class of opponent, Town had met the challenge with gusto if not goals. Defensively sound – the early scare aside – and thrillingly offensive, the Terriers harnessed the exceptional atmosphere to rattle a team who will, if their supporters give the new manager time and resolve their obvious scoring problem, challenge at the top of the Premier League’s unofficial second tier.

Pellegrino, who angered the visiting fans by withdrawing the ineffective Gabbiadini halfway through the second half, reacted positively to the problems Town were causing his team by reducing Mooy’s influence and his team were much improved after the break, causing Town problems with smart possession and better transition.

An injury to Van La Parra eventually forced him from the game, allowing Palmer to take over the number 10 role with Ince moving wide and the Chelsea loanee added more power in the centre in an encouragingly improved display.

Danny Williams replaced the fading Billing shortly afterwards – on the hour – and positively contributed to a game which had changed at the turn around as Southampton began to assert their quality more effectively.

A weak attempt by Gabbiadini, who shot straight at Lössl when in a good position, encouraged the visitors who began to control the game through possession.

Town were far from out of the contest, however, with Mounié heading over from a good Smith cross and shots from Ince and Mooy being blocked and wide respectively.

The visitors brought on Shane Long to try to add some guile up front, but Town defended well as the pressure increased – Zanka and Schindler’s partnership continues to flourish, even if the former’s longer attempts at distribution remain wasteful, and Löwe was, yet again, outstanding.

With the game ebbing and flowing between two determined sides intent on snatching victory, good build up play by the home side could not repeat the quality of their first half chances while the visitors’ menace was less than frightening until the final 10 minutes as home legs wilted in the heat.

First, Zanka stopped substitute Ward-Prowse in the area without appearing to touch the ball – penalty appeals were waived away by the excellent referee, Atwell, and subsequent viewings showed it to be a good decision.

Then Redmond spurned another shooting chance by curling his shot too close to Lössl who competently saved to his left, before the best chance of the half was thankfully spurned by the visitors.

Long, who had substituted Gabbiadini to the boos of the visiting supporters, got behind Town’s defence and picked out the raiding Bertrand, only for the full back’s poor header to be cleared off the line by Tommy Smith.

The full time whistle couldn’t come soon enough for the home side who, nevertheless, were entirely deserving of the point which took them, if only for a couple of hours, back to the top of the table.

The influence of the home support, which was astonishingly loud throughout, should not be underestimated – the energy emanating from the stands both in response to events on the pitch but also as encouragement when things (inevitably, given the quality of opposition) start to go awry, is an extra dimension we have rarely witnessed at the stadium and an essential factor of the Wagner revolution expertly harnessed by the man himself.

Southampton, despite being a little under par in this particular period, represented a huge challenge to a largely reconstructed Town side who have plenty of room for improvement themselves.

A relatively kind fixture list has helped Town to enter the international break in a Champions League spot (!), but the efforts of the management and players to take advantage have been phenomenal and barely believable.

With two new additions to bed in, the break has come at a good time and with the next opponents in some turmoil, the opportunity to take a further stride towards safety is immediately available.

These are the halcyon days.


Schindler reigns supreme




A fabulous Arron Mooy goal illuminated an otherwise scrappy game of few chances, giving Town a deserved and important victory over a resilient though largely mundane Newcastle side.

The Australian, who rarely seems short of time or space, added phenomenal work rate to his more obvious talents – at one point popping up in the right back position to thwart a Geordie thrust – and his surgical opening up of an efficient and solid visiting defence proved the difference.

As he moved forward with calculating menace, defenders became immobile waiting for him to unleash a long range effort which allowed him to feint, play the ball through to Kachunga then curl in the return ball past Elliot.

His imperious performance was matched by a sublime display by Schindler who dominated in the air while purring through a ground game which was near perfect. Always available, aware and commanding, his fellow defenders responded appropriately and while Newcastle had some half chances, a second consecutive clean sheet was fully deserved.

Lössl, who was only called upon sporadically, was faultless, and his magnificent save from Ritchie in a first half where the Magpies were the slightly more dangerous side, proved crucial – an easier save in the second half was smartly executed and his distribution continues to be an effective weapon, allowing Town to vary their style from playing the ball out from the back.

A full house contributed massively to Town’s win – even when the game became tense in the final 15 minutes as Newcastle searched in vain for an equaliser, the atmosphere didn’t dip with all four sides urging their Premier League fledglings to victory, and the unity between fans and the team was loudly emphasised.

Carrying on from their opening day triumph at Selhurst Park, Town again combined fierce aggression with high intensity to quell the natural talents in their opponents’ ranks. Dominating the first 25 minutes, Town’s possession was patient but occasionally laboured as the visitors – like last season – were content to allow the home side control in unthreatening areas, leaving numbers to defend any breakthrough.

A snapshot by Ince following a Geordie error flew straight at Elliot and despite having some success down the left with Van La Parra and the quite excellent Löwe, the end product was lacking with Mounié well shackled.

The dominance faded as the half went on though Newcastle’s increasing influence yielded no opportunities of note for the visitors as both defences remained firmly in command and the contest became increasingly physical.

Gayle, so regularly a scorer against Town, was easily subdued which may have provoked his attempt to win a penalty by theatrically going down under an excellent Schindler tackle – simulation which, arguably, should have been punished.

At the other end, Kachunga exchanged errors on the halfway line with a Newcastle player and found himself with a direct route to goal with Mounié and Van La Parra either side of him and a back pedalling defence outnumbered. Unfortunately, his pass to Mounié was fractionally too late and the danger cleared for a corner.

While the first half was devoid of much good play, the contest was absorbing with battles being fought hard all over the pitch in front of a raucous crowd eager for the home side to unpick the stubborn rearguard of the visitors.

They didn’t have to wait long for Mooy’s moment of inspiration before the second half reverted to the prosaic pattern of the first as Town worked hard to maintain their lead. Rafa Benitez made changes to try to revert his conservative approach and, in fairness, new signing Joselu was a little more effective than the replaced Gayle. Unfortunately for the Magpies, Town’s central defensive partnership (Zanka improved markedly after a nervous first half undermined by poor distribution forward) remained dominant.

Joselu brought a routine save from Lössl in a rare moment of freedom but as the game entered its closing stages, the visitors became more and more rudimentary in their approach which, combined with Town’s natural aggression, saw bookings mount up though some of them – on both sides – were harsh.

A feature of last year’s success was Town’s ability to see out single goal victories, and that experience in a game which bore a lot of resemblance to a Championship fixture was invaluable.

Tension built among the crowd willing on the Terriers to a second Premier League win, but Newcastle’s desperation rarely translated in to guile with their best chance being thwarted by a great block by Löwe to crown a fantastic afternoon for the full back.

While the achievement was more thrilling than the execution, back to back wins give Wagner and the team an excellent foundation for a tough season. The fixture list has been kind to throw up two opponents with inherent problems but Town have taken full advantage and imposed their unity and strength on likely bottom half rivals to boost confidence for greater challenges to come.

If one thing is certain, Wagner’s men will be no pushovers for any team and, home or away, the enormous goodwill earned from supporters can continue to be leveraged – the crowd played a full part in the defeat of Newcastle and is now rewarded with the sight of Town in second place in the nascent league table.

A more expansive Southampton are up next which should produce better entertainment, but few left the ground complaining about quality in this one, we were too busy feeling the width.

Town shatter Glaziers



Pundit defying Huddersfield Town opened their first Premier League season with a performance of aggression, tenacity and spirit to record an excellent, if not entirely flawless, win over a largely incoherent Crystal Palace, roared on by an insanely excited following who couldn’t have wished for a better day.

The symmetry of playing at Selhurst Park 45 years on from their last top flight appearance had been well noted in the frantic lead up to the big day. Understandably, given that it’s relevance was only apparent after the event, the fact that Town’s last 3 goal haul amongst the elite was at the same venue in March 1971 was overlooked.

Betraying no sign of nerves, Town always looked far better prepared than their individually talented but collectively confused hosts – an echo of last season’s early games – and should have been in front after just 2 minutes when a sweeping move down the right was worked in to the box but Tom Ince’s effort was easily saved.

Hunting in packs, as they did for the entire duration, Town gave away too many free kicks in the opening period. Some of the decisions by Moss were a little soft, but produced unnecessary pressure and, inevitably, a booking for Smith on the half hour which would have repercussions later in the game.

By the time Town’s aggressive challenges had finally exasperated the referee, however, they were two goals up and largely in control.

With Billing and Mooy controlling the middle of the park in possession and the defence handling Palace’s not inconsiderable attacking threats with calm authority, Town began to assert themselves on their hosts.

Palmer and Billing had unthreatening attempts easily saved by the otherwise vulnerable Hennessey, but space was being found – particularly on the left where the Palace wingback Ward was being increasingly isolated. Ineffective going forward – despite having the potent threat of Benteke to aim at, his crossing was woeful – and defensively suspect, the Eagles’ stalwart appears unsuited to the role De Boer’s system has imposed, and he was remorselessly targeted as the weak point.

The breakthrough came with a well worked corner routine. Mooy, looking every inch a top flight player, hit the near post and Schindler met it perfectly to flick on and induce panic. With Kachunga’s lunge eluding contact, Zanka was on hand to connect – despite tongue in cheek claims of scoring after the game, the Dane’s intervention ricocheted in off the hapless Ward.

Minutes later, Billing, Löwe and Mooy combined to free the Australian down the left and his inch perfect cross was met by the hugely impressive Mounié who planted a perfect centre forward header past Hennessey.

The stunned home side rallied after the goals, knowing that a response their attacking talent could well create would bring them back in to the game and Zaha very nearly provided it. A rare Löwe error – stumbling while trying to intercept a Benteke flick on – let in the pacy winger and only a deflection off the foot of the alert Lössl who narrowed the gap effectively, prevented a timely and potentially game changing goal for the home side. To add insult to injury, a goal kick was awarded.

Despite carrying latent menace, this was the only real clear opportunity for Palace as Town defended stoutly and vigorously. The Schindler/ Zanka partnership held firm, aided and abetted by energetic covering of the team mates in front and at the side of them.

Mounié provided a massive contribution with his defending at corners; heading out several and volleying away another, while Lössl commanded his box authoritatively.

At the other end, Town’s corners were often dangerous and Zanka could have trebled the lead on the half hour but his header from Moody’s cross drifted just wide (though there were probably enough defenders on the line to clear had it been on target).

The final few minutes of the half dragged a little as Town came under some pressure with Benteke heading wide, Zaha drawing a routine save and Puncheon firing well over the bar after a half cleared corner, but as proceedings drew to a close the visitors stood strong and maintained their advantage.

Townsend, surprisingly on the bench, was introduced by De Boer after the break, emphasising the offensive talent at his disposal, but Town started the half strongly and a Löwe drive nearly caught Hennessey napping and Mounié was unable to capitalise on the rebound as his first touch drove him too wide. A third goal at that point would have demoralised the most resilient of teams, but the home side were still in it.

With the impressive Loftus-Cheek dictating play, Palace began to exert some control for the first time. While Town kept their shape and aggression, possession was conceded a little more easily and pressure was building, not helped by more infractions leading to free kicks.

Lössl produced a fine save to his right to deny Benteke’s header from a corner – the first of several potential turning points as Palace began to resemble a team with a semblance of a plan rather than simply relying on individual talent.

The most dangerous moment came from a Town corner. Billing, otherwise excellent until slightly fading at the end, sliced a nothing ball from the edge of the area instead of taking the obvious option to shoot and Palace moved the ball quickly to Zaha. With oceans of space available in front of him, a clearly alarmed Smith impeded his inevitable progress with a half grab of his shoulders before remembering that yellow card from the first half. The attempt proved decisive (and, arguably, should have resulted in a retrospective 2nd yellow after advantage had been played) as it gave Löwe just enough time to cover with a magnificent tackle which stopped Zaha in his tracks.

Sensibly, Smith was replaced almost immediately by Williams who, after a shaky few minutes, settled well in to the unfamiliar role (a back up right back is a priority with Cranie injured and the deal for Yiadom thwarted).

Palace were largely unable to capitalise on their greater share of possession, but this hardly relieved the tension in the away support – we instinctively knew that a home goal would rewrite the script and that the Eagles had the players who could instigate the change.

Still, however, the defence stood firm with blocks, interceptions and covering. Lössl was not to be troubled unduly again, though he would have had little chance with a Scott Dann effort following a corner. Left unmarked, the defender’s first time shot sailed over the bar when he really should have halved the deficit.

To double the home crowd’s misery, Town immediately went up the field to score the decisive third.

Quaner, on for Kasey Palmer, latched on to a long clearance from Lössl and strode forward with some menace. Mounié made a smart move to his right to leave his potential marker marginally stranded and an inch perfect pass from Quaner was swept home to seal the points.

Delirium ensued as the travelling support knew that not only had the game been won, scores from elsewhere meant Town would be at the top of the top table; we could suspend our cynicism of ludicrously early listings just this once!

The delight at a comprehensive win on the first day – a rarity for Town in any league, never mind in the top one – was sensibly prevented from becoming euphoria by Wagner after the game.

Palace proved to be the perfect opponent. Their confused and unfamiliar tactics suppressed rather than aided the talent they possess and, even then, the spurning of the two golden opportunities they had, along with Lössl’s fine debut, were as decisive as Town’s own energetic and coordinated performance.

The win was thoroughly deserved however, and every player contributed significantly to the achievement, so Wagner’s humility in victory was not churlish but realistic. For the moment, he and his charges passed the first test in some style to give us confidence and hope.

A grand day out.