A Mill Town tale


For some years now, our envious eyes have stared over the Pennines at a club built on spirit, togetherness and bloody minded grit under the guidance of a tough, honest manager and without the need to spend obscene amounts of money.

Burnley’s wholly admirable rise, which included a relegation which strengthened rather than weakened them, gave hope to smaller clubs and while Town’s path has been stylistically different, the core elements have been identical.

For several decades, a top flight clash between the Clarets and the Terriers was laughably fanciful. Both have spent time in the bottom division – Burnley nearly went further down than that – and the stench of failure hung around clubs built on distant glories.

The carefully packaged and sanitised Premier League and the global following it seduces may have shivered at the very thought of such a fixture, and the largely rudimentary contest which ensued will only increase their disdain, but people who understand and appreciate the history of the English game will applaud the gatecrashing it represents. If nothing else, football fans are iconoclastic in nature.

A tough, uncompromising battle was hugely predictable. Since the unusual opening day results for both teams, scoring has become more difficult and commendable and identical points tallies have been built principally on defence.

At Turf Moor, Burnley have coped with the loss of Keane to Everton relatively easily while in Christopher Schindler, Town have a central defender for whom hyperbole is becoming increasingly redundant.

With both sides keenly aware that the fixture represented an opportunity to gain advantage in a likely scrap towards the bottom of the division (even if this proves not to be the case, it would be ridiculous to ignore the strong possibility), free flowing football was necessarily at a premium and, too often, both sides resorted to inelegant clearing of danger and too many simple errors were made for a classic to ensue.

Two early bookings for Sabiri and Cork set the tone of the game, with no quarter asked or given. With Town hungry to wrestle the title of pluckiest team in the League from their Lancastrian neighbours and the home side jealously guarding it, the first quarter passed with little incident. Setting a standard which would be maintained throughout, Burnley were caught offside from the delivery of a free kick and both sides were awarded corners from which no danger was created.

On Town’s right, however, Wood was winning every duel with Zanka and the home side were targeting the weakness relentlessly without developing the play further. However, it was the right side of Town’s defence which was bypassed too easily by Scott Arfield combining with Ward to supply a great cross for Wood. Fortunately, the Kiwi – playing the useful role of pantomime villain for obvious reasons – mistimed his header when in front of goal. He really should have scored.

Without threatening the goal further, Burnley were on top in the first half and Town were grateful for a magnificent clearance from the imperious Schindler following another dismantling of Town’s right sided defenders.

Much of Burnley’s other offensive efforts floundered when confronted by the omnipresent Schindler. If there has been a finer central defensive performance by a Town centre half (going all the way back to Cherry) it is very difficult to recall. Magnificent both in the air and on the floor, Zanka could afford to have an indifferent 45 minutes – he was much better after the break – and the €1.8M paid to 1860 Munich has to be the most ridiculous under valuation in Town’s history.

A long range shot from Kachunga was all Town had to show for a first half when promising play invariably dissolved in the final third. Sabiri shows a lot of promise but his probing came to nought as Burnley defended threats with some comfort.

The intensity of the midfield battle muted Mooy and Ince made too many simple mistakes to exert any influence, though both were defensively sound, along with Kachunga.

Devoid of artistry or inspiration, the contest was nevertheless reasonably absorbing if only to see if the home side could lay a glove on the outstanding Schindler. They couldn’t.

A much better second half saw Burnley regress and Town find their attacking feet. Wood was largely anonymous, poor passing increased and they began to wobble a little defensively as Ince exerted more influence and Mooy found more space and time.

An early corner saw Smith shoot over before an excellent and penetrating run at the heart of Burnley’s defence saw Ince releasing Depoitre to his left only for the Belgian to hit a side footed shot too close to Pope who saved easily. Last week’s scorer could have taken another stride or two in to the box but, at least, the visitors had recorded the first attempt on target by either side.

Town took a stranglehold on proceedings for sustained periods but still struggled to trouble the home defence often enough. Burnley, hardly irresistibly progressive in the first half, mustered a couple of weak efforts towards the under employed Lössl, and a goal seemed as far away as ever.

On the hour, Town replaced Sabiri with Van La Parra who brought an extra dimension to the attack, particularly for Mooy who used him both directly and as a decoy. Feigning to progress an attack down the left, Mooy switched inside to find the increasingly influential Ince, who had been moved to the number 10 role, and his shot went narrowly wide having beaten Pope.

Minutes later, Van La Parra broke in to the area, skipped past Lowton and inexplicably and unforgivably fell over when barely touched, to provide the pundits with a talking point for the post match deliberations (and in the absence of much else).

Having righteously poured down opprobrium on Forestieri over the years for his antics, it was enormously disheartening for Town fans to be confronted with the cheating by one of their own. It was impossible to disagree with Sean Dyche’s angry assessment of the act (as opposed to the player himself) after the game and it was far from lost on the visiting fans that Van La Parra could easily have set up a goal had he stayed on his feet with both Depoitre and Kachunga in the box.

That an act of dishonesty sullied an otherwise hard but fair contest between two teams who make a virtue of their humble status was sadly ironic. Wagner is a man of transparent values and will deal with the situation internally. Hopefully, we will not see a repeat.

Van La Parra made the last meaningful contribution to the game with a run and shot – inevitably, he was supplied by a great cross field ball by Mooy – which Pope made a meal of and nearly spilled to Kachunga.

With Burnley shut down by Schindler and his defensive colleagues – in the second half, we also saw the quiet, strong efficiency of Hogg mopping up all over the back line which augurs well for when he gets back to full fitness – Town should have made more of the opportunities they created and the lack of goals is a worry in light of the formidable opposition lying in wait.

However, and for all the mockery the game will attract, there were moments to admire in and amongst a dour battle even if the dive left a sour taste.

But most of all, the game will be remembered for the sublime Schindler. Rarely hurried, the German tackled and blocked with effortless efficiency, snuffed out Burnley’s aerial threat and commanded the back four with supreme authority. Add his intelligence on the ball and the fear that predators may well be watching starts to grow – ridiculous prices have been paid for centre halves in recent times (Stones, Keane and the aborted bids for Van Dirk) – and for a newly promoted club to keep clean sheets in two thirds of their games will increase curiosity and scrutiny.

With Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester United on the horizon, Town face a daunting task to maintain their elevated position in the League but a point at Turf Moor could prove vital in the longer run and the so called “purists” can sod off.




Debutants have a ball



2016 Premier League champions Leicester City provided the latest challenge to a Town side which emerged a little chastened from their clash with West Ham having failed to match David Wagner’s high standards though, on reflection, the performance perhaps didn’t merit as much vitriol as it received.

Of the 3 changes made for the visit of the Foxes, Depoitre’s debut was enforced by the injury to Mounié while Van La Parra’s relegation to the bench was tactical, allowing Sabiri to take his bow in the 10 role and Ince move out to the left.

In the least surprising change, Billing made way for the more industrious and powerful Williams to add greater urgency against a side noted for their tenacity.

The debuts ranged from very good to excellent. Sabiri has great potential – while not everything he tried came to full fruition, he looks elegant, quick and skilful and looks very capable of filling the hole left by Palmer’s hopefully short term injury.

Depoitre bullied Leicester’s central defenders from the off, particularly Harry Maguire, scored an excellent goal and bustled around like a latter day Kindon before fading a little towards the end.

The laurels, however, belonged to Williams. Covering huge acreage, his tackling and aerial challenges contributed significantly to subduing the visitors’ obvious threats while, on the ball, his carrying in to opposition territory was often incisive and allowed the excellent Mooy more freedom to dictate play.

Town started brightly and a good move, instigated by Depoitre’s tenacity just inside Leicester’s half ended with the Belgian heading in to Schmeichel’s hands.

In the face of Town’s energy, Leicester struggled to make an impact on the game for long periods though the home side had to be ever wary of Mahrez’s sublime artistry (once he looks interested) and Iheanacho’s awareness of space.

In and amongst Town’s domination of an exciting and breathless first half, Vardy’s only contribution of note was an attempted lob late on which went wide while a free kick from a dangerous position following a Schindler transgression was wasted by Mahrez.

For the majority of the half, Leicester had to defend with increasing desperation though Town couldn’t find another attempt on target after Depoitre’s early header despite some eye catching build up play orchestrated by Mooy, who was everywhere around the pitch.

Yet again, the atmosphere was superb. For all the chagrin about clappers, all four sides of the stadium join in the beat of enthusiasm and add hugely to the enjoyment of the spectacle. The visitors were clappered to their 2016 triumph, and will probably empathise with Town’s initiative.

Town had rediscovered their pressing mojo and lesser sides than Leicester – and there will be quite a few – will buckle under the intensity the Terriers can create. More and better chances need to be fashioned when on top, which was also the case against Southampton, but if there were legitimate concerns that the usual qualities of Wagner’s sides were largely missing on Monday, the first half swiftly dispelled them.

The second half was less frantic though no less enthralling. Leicester kicked off but were soon pressed out of possession with the ball reaching Sabidi, who hooked the ball forwards towards Depoitre. It wasn’t his most subtle intervention during the game but proved his most effective as the Belgian let the ball run down the side of him, shrugged off the attentions of Maguire and swept an excellent finish past Schmeichel’s despairing dive.

After all the huffing and puffing of the first half, compelling as it was, the direct route unlocked the visitors’ defence with some ease and Depoitre’s run and finish were executed with precision and strength.

The relief at the goal turned to despair minutes later, however. Imbibed by a new sense of urgency, Leicester responded straight from the restart and Town’s focus seemed momentarily lost. A ball reached Andy King who pushed it past a slightly mistimed Löwe tackle which he willingly fell over, just inside the box. It was a massive shame for the much improved German who had put the tribulations of the Olympic stadium behind him, but there was no argument about the decision.

Vardy, who had been well shackled by the ever excellent Schindler and Zanka, blasted the penalty past Lössl for an ill deserved equaliser. Rather oddly, and in the place of celebration, the England centre forward got hold of the ball and smacked it skyward, earning some boos from an unimpressed home support.

To their credit, Town quickly regained composure. A good run by the much improved Kachunga, another under performer against the Hammers, lead to a snap shot from Zanka which Schmeichel turned over the bar, before the provider was denied a goal by a desperately marginal decision by the linesman.

It was Zanka again who had shot goal ward following a weaving run in the box by Ince which Kachunga nudged in from close range. Video evidence suggested that Kachunga was level and should have been given the striker’s benefit of the doubt, but in real time and with the naked eye, the linesman’s spontaneous reaction was wholly understandable, if hugely disappointing.

Leicester got back in to the game after their close call and Vardy was guilty of a shocking miss when in front of goal, alone but unable to connect with a low cross from the increasingly influential Mahrez.

The Algerian is a joy to watch when he decides to play. A magician with the ball at his feet, he regularly eluded Town challenges with feints and movement that are mesmerising.

His growing presence may have influenced Wagner’s substitutions with Quaner replacing Kachunga and the welcome sight of a Hogg return to replace the highly promising Sabiri adding some steel.

Despite a more conservative line up – Mooy was pushed further forward – Town had two further chances to take all 3 points. A great cross by the Australian maestro found the space between defenders and goalkeeper only for Quaner to contrive not to connect by trying to let it run on to his right foot rather than strike with his left.

A curling Ince effort had his childhood friend in the Leicester goal scrambling, but a winner was not to be.

Leicester, whose performance was largely lacklustre in the face of Town’s persistent pressing, were much improved after the break but will feel that the point they took back down the M1 is a good one. A late penalty appeal when Gray fell over when nudged by Zanka caused some momentary consternation, but Jon Moss waived it away.

Mooy and Mahrez apart, the contest lacked genuinely high quality but engrossed to the end as Town, once again, showed that they can compete against established Premier League sides – entertaining as it was, the day was also tinged with a little regret that the home side didn’t get the 3 points they probably deserved.

However, there were big positives to be taken. The team had bounced back from their London travails, the debutants were all effective performers who can be fully trusted to play their part during the season and a capacity crowd left happy with the endeavour, entertainment and energy of their team.

A bruising, tough and important Turf Moor date is on the horizon; a game which presents an entirely different set of challenges to work upon but Town can go in to the game with confidence (as Burnley will after their excellent Anfield point).






Hammers burst Town’s bubble



The Olympic, or London stadium is a magnificent sports arena. Filled with people cheering on athletes running, jumping and throwing in 2012, and since, the hairs at the back of the neck quotient is off the scale.

Set in a magnificent East London space – the walk up is genuinely impressive – the possibilities of it as a Premier League stage must have been enticing to the owners of West Ham United, irrespective of the controversy surrounding the public’s benevolence, but it simply doesn’t work.

Other than some PA inspired chanting, the home supporters – probably sensing the discordance of their new amphitheatre – were largely subdued despite a rugged and committed display by their under pressure heroes.

What makes it easy to tie the venue to the lack of atmosphere is the well earned reputation of the Hammers’ fans who are undoubtedly passionate, rowdy and proud; who can forget their performance when 5-0 down to Forest in a FA Cup semi final all those years ago?

The visiting support did its very best to create noise, relentlessly cheering on their misfiring team despite the shortcomings and defeat. It should be said that these are extraordinary times for Huddersfield Town – if we can’t be excited in current circumstances, it’s hard to know when we would be. Nevertheless, under Wagner, the connection between club, players and supporters is exceptional, even when things don’t go our way.

Despite West Ham’s problems, and this game may, and only may, be the beginning of resolving them, they retain significant talent in their squad and some pre match musings by pundits and fans alike seemed way over the top and ignorant of the fact that Town’s unexpected early success included more than a few slices of good fortune.

One of these was playing opponents in varying states of distress. While this also applied to Monday night’s opposition, the context of the Hammers having to play their first 3 matches away from home – that damned stadium being the cause of the problem – was too often lost in the anticipation. The result in the North East was, admittedly, a little alarming for East Enders, but many teams will suffer as badly at the hands of Manchester United and the Southampton reverse was more than a little unlucky.

A disappointing first half saw Town fortunate to still be level. With the aerial threat of Carroll – often performed with unpunished over physicality – the pace and power of Antonio and the poaching threat of Hernandez, the hosts tested the Terriers defence to near destruction but failed to capitalise on their overwhelming control.

Löwe, so impressive in Town’s early season success, was tormented by Antonio who stripped the German with alarming ease at times and posed a recurrent and potent threat which kept the visitors under huge pressure for much of the first 45 minutes.

Zanka and Schindler, at least as dependable as Löwe in the opening three games, strained to control Carroll’s menace. Unimpeded by a hugely tolerant and laughably one sided referee, the Geordie front man provided a massive focus point for the Londoners, while his counterpart Mounié was starved of service and isolated to the point of anonymity.

In rare periods when the hosts’ pressure eased, Town’s possession was laboured and often inaccurate. Mooy provided some moments of customary elegance but was largely subdued and Billing, while providing decent defensive support never found his passing range and was hounded far too often – while the Dane has shown he can add a touch of quality when Town control a game, the visitors needed more steel in the face of West Ham’s energy.

With the home side failing to convert superiority in to a deserved lead – an early Carroll cross, all be it possible after a clear push on Schindler, narrowly evaded both defenders and attackers when just a touch was needed, Hernandez crashed a shot against the bar after being found by Antonio who had cruised past Löwe and a miscue by Kouyaté – Town extended their perfect defensive record beyond 300 minutes.

While the block outs have been occasionally charmed, it is, nevertheless, a huge achievement and towards the end of a torrid first half, Town began to twitch in to life with Ince being freed to shoot only for an additional, unnecessary, touch allowing a defender to block his effort.

The visitors improved in the second half, spending a little more time on the front foot, but were unable to sustain any sort of intensity. West Ham looked less dangerous and hope flickered that under increasing psychological pressure they may buckle enough for the Terriers to take advantage.

It wasn’t to be as fluency largely deserted the Yorkshiremen, and the previously redundant home defence barely looked troubled.

Löwe’s night of torment was cut short when he was replaced by the more progressive Malone, but not before he made a hugely important tackle on the halfway line to halt a dangerous counter attack. It should also be noted that the left back departed the field when the game was goalless.

Malone did, however, add impetus to attack and by the time the home side took the lead with a huge slice of fortune, he had helped Town look slightly more threatening. As we have seen in the past, if a Wagner team stay in the game they can be very dangerous as time goes on and there was a perceptible shift in the balance of power after the hour mark.

The admittedly mild resurgence came to a halt on 72 minutes. Obiang found himself in a little more space than the visitors had generally allowed in the second half and swung a boot for a shot that was either going wide or relatively routine for Lössl only for it hit Zanka’s back, take a huge and wrong footing deflection and turn in to a perfectly placed strike beyond Lössl’s fingertips.

After over five and a half hours of Premier League football, the Dane was finally beaten and by a huge slice of misfortune. 5 minutes later, substitute Ayew (who had replaced Hernandez to the loud disapproval of the home support) doubled the lead when Town failed to clear yet another corner.

Town’s largely unconvincing second half revival was halted before it could, perhaps, have gained momentum though a snapshot from Ince following good work by Mooy rattled the bar late on.

With the game in the bag, the home support, bizarrely, started to disappear. Swathes of empty seats perhaps pointed to the problems of getting home from the stadium, but those who had much longer journeys in front of them stayed to applaud the efforts of a team suffering its first top flight setback.

In contrast to previous regimes, Wagner refused to hide behind excuses for his team’s display. He could have followed the anodyne reactions of his predecessors with talk of a brave battle or point to a very home friendly referee who indulged Carroll while punishing every minor Town transgression to aid the home team’s momentum, but concentrated on his own team’s evident shortcomings. Even had Town’s insipid resurgence in a better second half resulted in a point or, less realistically, a narrow win, his message would have been similar. The man doesn’t suffer fools or allow his charges off the hook when the occasion merits.

Vulnerable down the flanks, particularly against the stand out home performer Antonio, Town were indebted to their central defenders – Schindler in particular who compensated for Carroll’s aerial superiority after the first quarter of an hour – for a fortune laden clean sheet in the first half.

Up front, Mounié was isolated and entirely ineffective, though he had precious little service. It is becoming worrying that since his opening day brace, the record signing has barely had a chance to add to his tally.

In midfield, Town needed a more physical presence than Billing. It was a little surprising that Williams stayed on the bench, and the return of Hogg can’t come soon enough to revive his partnership with Mooy.

West Ham thoroughly deserved their win, as Wagner acknowledged, and while drastic surgery isn’t necessary just yet, changes to the team at the weekend seem likely as Town face recent fairy tale champions Leicester in another tough assignment.

With Palmer injured, it wouldn’t be surprising if Sabiri gets a run out, while Tommy Smith hasn’t recaptured last year’s form and may be vulnerable to a debut from Hadergjonaj.

Whatever the line up, Wagner will demand a significant improvement and a return to the level which made his team competitive – if this is achieved, a scrappy midweek defeat will soon be forgotten.