No Toffee and no ha’penny


Tom Ince’s winner in injury time following 90 minutes of threat free dirge against Watford provided a lifeline which may still prove to be the difference between survival and relegation, but with 3 huge challenges ahead – and, realistically, at least 2 of them are unlikely to garner the point needed and the final one could be played under enormous pressure – our fate rests predominantly with others.

Upon release of the fixtures, the last 4 games were identified as unlikely to yield a single point, a view which assumed that Everton’s spending would propel them in to the top six, or, at least, a challenge. Things haven’t quite worked out like that for the blue side of Liverpool, though under the much maligned and widely hated guidance of Allardyce their form under the old curmudgeon is top 6.

For Town to take a point or a win, as with most games during this relentlessly tough season, everything needed to go their way. Creating as few chances as they do – particularly in 2018 – the odds against them are stacked high and going behind almost invariably fatal with just 2 points rescued in the many games that this has happened.

For 40 minutes, Town matched the visitors and, arguably, were both the better side and in the ascendancy when the best chance of a cagey but reasonably entertaining first half fell to Van La Parra. Fed by the industrious and inventive Pritchard, the Dutchman was unable to control his first time shot which was powerfully hit but over the bar.

Growing in confidence, Town controlled possession for 10 minutes after the miss, though without causing much concern to Everton’s solid back four, and with excellent backing from the crowd, were providing hope that a valuable point, at least, was achievable.

Yet again, however, the wide players didn’t deliver, either in performance or service to the isolated Mounié – Ince’s injury forced Wagner’s hand to an extent but Quaner was barely a top end Championship player and useful, at best, only as an unorthodox attempt at change from the bench. Van La Parra’s obvious talent simply doesn’t get translated in to effectiveness anywhere near enough and it is a stark comparison when the visitors can not only play Walcott (the usually uber-confident Hadergjonaj looked terrified of his pace) but have Bolassie on the bench.

Town’s period of dominance was undone by an unforced error which was 75% Van La Parra playing a careless pass and 25% Zanka’s hesitancy, perhaps amplified by his own fear of Walcott’s pace and the realisation that the disciplined defensive structure employed to that point was extremely vulnerable behind him.

Grabbing his first opportunity of genuine freedom, Walcott burst forward and played an incisive ball behind Schindler for Cenk Tosun, whose early shot rather too easily evaded Lössl’s dive in to the corner.

From that moment on, Town rarely – never, in fact – looked capable of rescuing a point, never mind recovering for a win and an increasing gloom descended on the stadium as optimism evaporated.

Everton’s superiority was confirmed in a desperately poor second half for the Terriers and they should have doubled or trebled their lead in the opening 15 minutes which saw Town’s shape and discipline disappear with poor passing, stuttering attempts to get forward and desperate last gasp blocks and tackles.

Without Ince or Kachunga to offer something different to the ineffective Quaner or the over indulgent Van La Parra, Wagner’s options were limited – he had 3 full backs on a very thin bench – but the inability to recover from concession has been a feature of his whole tenure and what was manageable in the league below has become very damaging against significantly higher quality opposition.

The substitutions he did make – Billing for Quaner, Malone for Hogg and Depoitre for Van La Parra – failed to bring coherence to the mess, though Billing adds more forward momentum to a midfield which becomes far too bogged down and risk averse. Mooy’s lack of inspiration persists while Hogg, who started well, was prone to far too many passing errors.

There was an element of luck leading up to Everton’s second goal as Schindler and Kongolo’s attempt to close Niasse down conspired to deflect the ball perfectly in to his path but the cross and then lay off by Baines set up Gueye to finish very well.

It was no less than the visitors deserved and they had threatened to extend their lead throughout, including a bad miss by Coleman from a free kick where Town’s offside ploy failed.

Pritchard, who was the only positive of the afternoon, contrived to air kick an attempted shot following a rare incisive move but, on the whole, Town abstained from shooting after the break and with dead ball situations the only time they got bodies in the box yet another scoreless afternoon was pretty much guaranteed.

It is to be hoped that the toxicity surrounding Allardyce – which, given what he has achieved since appointment looks a tad ungrateful from the outside – does not affect Everton’s form next Saturday when they host Southampton. Without being anything like spectacular, they were very well organised and far too good for a Town side which worked hard but were catastrophically error strewn, confused and lacking in imagination or threat.

Now in the lap of the Gods, and a very possible Southampton resurgence, Town face the League champions on their day of celebration followed by a visit to Stamford Bridge with the home side still in with a chance of a top 4 finish. Daunting barely begins to describe these two games, and we can only expect an attempt to defend exceptionally deep to try to secure at least one, unlikely point.

Let us pray for another unlikely result – Arsenal at Athletico Madrid midweek.








Town widen the Gap



A risibly turgid and eminently forgettable encounter managed to find a remarkable, tension destroying climax which could well secure Town’s unlikely survival in a league which continues to present huge challenges.

A bright start to a game of huge importance couldn’t disguise the fact that the Terriers’ ability to create and convert chances remained severely limited as promising situations invariably floundered once exposed to Watford’s resilient and packed defence. Lacking pace and incisiveness, the home side’s desperate probing failed to trouble Karnezis in the visitors’ goal and having comfortably survived the early onslaught, the Hornets slowly took control of possession but, like their hosts, their attacking carried little menace.

The evergreen Deeney managed a decent effort which was deflected by a fine challenge but the Hornets’ prowess in the attacking third – which was an absolute joy in the early stages of the season – was more prosaically summed up by Pereyra comically putting two consecutive corner kicks out of play. His dive not long afterwards was just as comical, and he was rightly booked for it (for balance, Pritchard was punished for a similar offence).

A first half of limited quality but lots of effort from both sides ended with an insipid free kick following a Zanka foul, rather epitomising the fare on offer.

Watford improved in the second half, taking more control of possession but remained as unthreatening as the home side. The dynamic Hughes – the pick of the visitors along with the elegant Capoue – tried to unpick the home defence on his own before a combination of Schindler and the otherwise under employed Lössl stopped him a few yards out.

When Town did have possession, there was little fluency and getting down the sides of their opponents was proving ridiculously difficult – Watford were serenely navigating a game where avoiding defeat would be a good achievement in the context of their travelling woes.

Change was desperately needed and the ineffective Quaner was replaced by the much maligned Ince on the half hour. Any impact of the substitution must have been subtle, though it should be said that the ex-Derby man brings more orthodox skills than the idiosyncratic Quaner. The German can surprise at times, though this possibly unintentional quality had been wholly absent in this game.

His next changes built the foundations for the win. Depoitre replaced the isolated Mounié and, with time running out, Billing came on for the spent Van La Parra.

Having feebly probed Watford’s back 9 for 80 fruitless minutes, Depoitre’s more troubling presence up front provided a little more discomfort for them, while Billing’s long throw weapon (which has been eschewed for much of the season) was deployed with obvious intent.

As crude as it was, the tactic of launching the ball in to the box gave the visitors something different to think about and led directly to a long awaited shot on goal by the indefatigable Hogg. Sweetly struck, it narrowly missed the target but gave the raucous crowd a sliver of hope to which they would cling as they roared on their underdogs for a final effort.

Another Billing throw was propelled in to the box – the tactic also allowed Zanka and Schindler to add their height in the box – as the added time board was being raised showing 3 minutes. The ball was cleared up to substitute Gray but the ex-Burnley man carelessly lost it to Kongolo whose lob back in to the box finally turned Watford’s rearguard. Depoitre’s hustling prevented a central defender getting to the ball and Zanka neatly played a reverse pass through Janmatt’s legs for the arriving Ince to slot home and (surely) repay his transfer fee with one sweep.

The explosion of relief was something to hear. The team may have been fortunate to find a late winner, but the crowd deserved it. They didn’t give up despite the toil unfolding in front of them and proved, yet again, that David Wagner’s constant praise and encouragement is genuine belief, not cliche.

We have witnessed many late winners under this manager and many times when he seemingly laughs in the face of the finest of fine margins – however fortunate this victory may seem (and none the less satisfying for it), his substitutions made the difference; not just the individuals themselves but the shape and tactics of the whole team.

If this game proves to be the one which secures survival – though all of us would welcome a triumph over Allardyce’s Everton to confirm it – the manner of it couldn’t be more apposite.

A team of lesser talent than their opponents – and the Watford manager really does need to be questioned about his failure to harness their quality more effectively but probably less urgently than their board for sacking Silva after their blistering start – worked relentlessly to bridge the quality gap, never gave up and grasped their opportunity when it arrived.

Should we survive, they (and we know who “they” are) will continue to patronise, under estimate and look down their noses at us – they still do it to Burnley despite their remarkable achievements, for God’s sake! – but they will never understand the feeling which arrived on 90+1 at the John Smith’s Stadium yesterday.




Lössl atones as Town creep forward


Town returned from the south coast with a point from a performance which was equal parts encouraging and frustrating.

With both sides struggling in front of goal in recent times – and for the visitors, over a much longer period – it was heart warming for them to gift each other a confidence boost apiece, though Brighton’s failure to profit from poor Town defending after just 30 seconds when Pröpper failed to hit the target when clean through rather set the tone for a lacklustre display by the Seagulls and the day wasn’t going to get any better for the Dutchman.

The miss did set the tone of the game for a while though, with the home side exerting a lot of pressure on the rattled visitors, without Lössl being drawn in to the action. At the other end, a decent Mounié volley was routinely saved by Ryan as the visitors slowly got to grips with Brighton’s initial momentum, and showing significantly more ambition than they had at St James’ Park.

Crucially, Town largely subdued Brighton’s dangerous flanks. Kongolo marshalled Solly March well with help from the hard working Van La Parra who combined his defensive duties with his ability to take the ball up the pitch while on the other side, the returning Hadergjonaj and Ince were defensively disciplined but largely at the expense of genuine attacking threat.

Other than his shift as an auxiliary defender, Ince was almost entirely anonymous and spent most of the afternoon playing backwards. However, Brighton’s left side, with Izquierdo and Bong, always carried greater pace and threat and quelling them was a significant contribution to the eventual point.

Having survived the Seagulls’ initial flurry, Town assumed a level of control which saw them raid with more intent than most games on the road this season which brought Pritchard in to play. The ex-Spurs man, pilloried by the home support for having the temerity to turn them down in the summer, had his most effective game for the Terriers to date – he buzzed around with energy, a great touch and incision for most of the contest.

With Mooy finally finding something of a return to form, the visitors exerted a level of control over the middle of the park not seen for some time and it was a little against the run of play when Brighton opened the scoring. A well struck if somewhat speculative strike by March took a slight deflection which seemed to catch Lössl out and the Dane could only palm the ball feebly against the post only for it to rebound on to his head and in. The blunder possibly looked worse than it was given the deflection, and the keeper redeemed himself on several occasions later in the game, but conceding first usually ends in defeat for the Terriers and going behind was ominous.

Brighton, however, charitably handed Steve Mounié an equaliser within a few minutes. Duffy was pressed by Pritchard in to a horrendous error and his attempted backpass found the Beninese in front of goal and with Ryan flat footed, he took the ball around the keeper to score Town’s first goal for over 7 hours.

Though Brighton were to have much the better chances after parity had been restored – even when down to 10 men – Town played with greater authority in the final hour than they have achieved for much of 2018 yet the same old, probably unsolvable, problems with creating and scoring chances persist.

A couple of fairly weak efforts barely reflected Town’s dominance of the ball, while a lack of awareness following a decent near post flick on from a corner and a lack of composure at the death by Quaner meant there was to be no stealing of the 3 points from a home side which didn’t deserve to lose (the point snatched from Burnley at home when a late penalty should have been awarded remains the only truly undeserved reward for Town from the whole season).

The bigger chances fell to the otherwise spluttering hosts, with Lössl making two excellent blocks (one in each half) and a couple of good, if routine saves from long distance shots. A combination of Mooy and Lössl denied Dunk from a corner while Duffy failed to atone for his error with a free header from another corner with his effort going just wide. Thankfully, Murray had a poor game up front for the hosts and expended most of his effort trying to gain free kicks.

A tasty midfield battle ended with the sending off of Pröpper who clattered clumsily and dangerously in to Hogg, who struggled on before being replaced by Billing. The lunge didn’t appear to be malicious but the Brighton midfielder’s attempt at a challenge was too high and lacking in control to escape the sanction of dismissal.

It didn’t make a great deal of difference, however – if anything, Town played better against a full complement and their extra man seemed to inhibit movement rather than encourage it and the vulnerability to Brighton’s pace increased as they pushed further up the pitch. Lössl’s intervention to prevent Izquierdo’s offside beating run – he had intervened in a similar fashion in the first half – elevated him from villain to point saving hero.

Billing replaced the stricken Hogg and while he can’t provide the aggression the Teeside man brings, he contributes elegance, height and a range of passing which could be useful if his colleague’s injury proves to be as bad as suspected.

With time running out, Town showed a degree of urgency to grab a winner and a final free kick on the left gave Wagner the opportunity to throw Depoitre in to the mix. Unfortunately, the resultant chance from an excellent Pritchard delivery, flicked on by Zanka, fell awkwardly to Quaner (who really doesn’t need much help in the awkward stakes). It looked a bad miss at the time, though the angle wasn’t great and a desperate defending lunge was a major distraction. It was, however, the type of opportunity which could make all the difference at season’s end.

Overall, Town’s display was much improved over last week’s anaemic effort though they were grateful for Brighton’s wasteful efforts on big chances. The point gained after going behind – even if the equaliser was gifted – was unusual for this team and should be savoured ahead of two huge home games which, if others stop doing us favours week after week, will decide our fate.




Time to change the Toon




When the highlight of an afternoon’s football is mocking 50,000 Geordies’ failure to understand the back pass rule, you know it has been pretty desperate fare.

A poor game, with two distinctly average teams, was settled by a scrappy, preventable goal saw Newcastle deservedly taking the points and likely survival. The home side were largely pedestrian but showed significantly more intent than their relegation rivals and really should have wrapped the game up by half time, only for their failure to convert chances at St James’ Park coming back to haunt them.

Town rarely threatened despite one or two promising situations until the final few minutes when their ultra caution was cast to the wind following Perez’s winner.

With the fragile plan of gaining a point and maybe sneaking a winner on the break in tatters, Wagner threw Mounié in to the mix and reverted to a 3-5-2 formation which, with the return of the impressive Kongolo, was surely a decent option from the start.

Depoitre battled well up front and was a constant thorn to the home side, but he can’t be in two places at once. In a game few expected to return 3 points, it is difficult to see the downside of an experimental formation – though Newcastle’s natural conservatism once in the lead was undoubtedly a factor, Town looked infinitely more adventurous in the new shape but it was far too little and undoubtedly too late.

Having survived the Toon’s first half assault, which featured at least two glaring misses, putting two up front would have been a brave move which may have unsettled the home side’s plans, though it should be said that the visitors improved in a second half where Newcastle were restricted to one decent chance. Unfortunately, they converted it.

A mess in the middle of the park finally allowed space for the home side to exploit and the stranglehold was fatally loosened. A cross should have been dealt with more assertively by Lössl (he had made a very good save in the first half to deny Ritchie) and his flap fell to the feet of Kenedy who found Perez to convert from close range.

Without a goal in four games now, the containment plan is completely over shadowing any attacking intent. Pritchard’s struggles, particularly away from home, continue but it is difficult to blame the diminutive number 10 when the ball is launched towards his head on so many occasions, though he did fail to provide much invention when allowed the opportunity.

So much of Town’s forward play ended with a poor pass or momentum stopping hesitation, and before the setback of Newcastle’s winner, they had one, wide, attempt on goal from the ever willing Depoitre. A promising, surprisingly incisive move in the first half freed Smith down the right but, predictably, he had few options to hit in the area and the moment passed.

The late change in formation provided a frustrating glimpse of what could be achieved with the impressive Kongolo in the team. His ability to recover – he made one fantastic challenge on the pacy Atsu to prevent danger – and his composure should allow Wagner flexibility which he could utilise without it being a reaction to adversity. Both Schindler and Zanka, after a nervous first 20 minutes, were solid and impressive – with a back 3 composed of our better personnel, a hard working 5 in the middle and the combination of Depoitre’s and Mounié’s contrasting qualities, Wagner’s in game options multiply.

Brighton offers another opportunity to try something different. It is another game with, realistically, a low percentage chance of points ahead of 2 home games which, along with the ineptitude of Southampton and Stoke, are likely to be the rope we will hopefully be grasping for survival.

The desperation formation created more opportunities in the final ten minutes than in the preceding 80 combined – while game circumstances contributed to this, it looked significantly more dynamic than the stifling strategy and caused Newcastle problems. Zanka and Malone had chances and only a fortunate defensive deflection prevented the ball finding Quaner at the far post as time ran out.

Through no fault of their own, one or two players are clearly out of their depth in this league – it isn’t a surprise, just a fact – but the rigidity of the current tactics and formation are exposing them more than necessary, while at the same time the better players are subdued.

Given a run of one point and no goals from 4 games, being outside the bottom 3 is a huge bonus, but we desperately need to show some bravery rather than relying on others. The final 10 minutes gave a glimpse of what could be.