Reading the runes

Atmosphere pricked.

A third defeat in 8 days, two of them under his now almost certainly temporary tenure as manager, was a little harsh on Mark Hudson who has, at least, instigated some structural changes in a deeply flawed squad which has encouraged better performance for a little longer in games than his unlamented predecessor.

He has not, however, and thus far, been able to banish a losing mentality so entrenched that it is almost impossible to envisage from where salvation will emerge. Mentally and physically frail, with the former being perhaps understandable but the latter unforgivable, the players produced the best 30 minutes of the season from the kick off yet were unable to muster a shot on target and belief began to ebb as the flow was exhausted.

A game which must have been targeted as the one to turn around horrible early season form rather ignored Reading’s solid start to the season, though the Royals looked deceptively limited as the home side ratcheted up considerable pressure under a wilting August sun.

The visitors barely crossed the halfway line in the first 15 minutes and offered little but resilience in a one sided first half. They did, however, muster the only realistic attempt on the frame of the goal which Grabara saved well. The keeper, a positive bright spot amidst the gloom of our relegation hangover had earlier played the team in to trouble with a poor ball out and paid for it with a collision with Kongolo to prevent a disastrous concession in Reading’s first foray in to the final third after 15 minutes.

At the other end, Van La Parra’s trickery caused Reading concern on several occasions which quickly dissipated as the winger’s decision making was invariably poor.

His counterpart Diakhaby showed tantalising glimpses of whatever talent resides within the leggy French kid though rawness too often foils his intentions. 

Another youngster, however, lit up the game in the first half with a powerful performance which provides a glimmer of hope. Trevoh Chalobah couldn’t add to his midweek goal at Cardiff which should have earned an unlikely and undeserved point, but he possesses the power and intensity so absent from Huddersfield Town displays for the past 18 months.

Like the rest, he faded as the crushing despair weighed down in a desperate second half but he may be an asset a new manager can build upon amongst the general wreckage.

Jaden Brown at left back also produced an encouraging performance which was full of calm decision making as he replaced Kongolo who, too belatedly, was drafted in to a central defence finally relieved of Elphick.

Things may have been different had Pritchard made more of a good through ball by Grant but instead of taking on a shot, the diminutive and too often disappointing play maker allowed the ball to bounce up and the opportunity was gone; extinguished by hesitancy.

A Schindler header from a corner went narrowly wide and Chalobah saw a good effort have an identical result but the optimism generated by a much improved showing was severely tempered by the near immutable law that if you don’t convert dominance in to goals you will be bitten, hard, on the arse.

The second half saw a perceptible shift from the beginning with Reading finally showing intent further up the pitch, perhaps sensing the home side’s almost permanent mental fragility.

The first chance, however, fell to the Terriers as Grant latched on to a Reading error. Sprinting forward, the leading goal scorer had Diakhaby free to his right but decided to shoot and bring a good, but not particularly difficult, save from Cabral. It may have been a better decision to release his colleague but had that not worked, a strong possibility, he would have been criticised for not taking the shot (our first on target); damned if you do…..

Up the other end, and almost immediately after Grant’s effort, Reading were nearly rewarded for their more adventurous approach when Grabara had to keep out a rasping effort by Boye after Yiadom had crashed the ball against the bar.

A decent Pritchard effort was tipped over the bar, again routinely, before Diakhaby was found by Grant alone in the area but he couldn’t bring the ball under control quickly enough and his effort was deflected wide by a recovering defender.

By this point, the hosts were wilting and the visitors began to capitalise. Encouraged, Reading manager Jose Gomes brought on the ominously monikered Puscas (joining Pele who was already on) and within minutes, the Royals took the lead.

A simple one two in the middle of the park set Ejaria free and he waltzed through Town’s tiring rearguard and struck an excellent shot past Grabara.

The atmosphere, which had been remarkably buoyant in support of a team which so rarely delivers, subsided immediately; raw belief hasn’t materially impacted results for such a long time and it wasn’t going to change now.

Deflated, unquestionably defeated and staring at yet another failure, Town couldn’t and didn’t recover. Belief, as in all walks of life, simply isn’t enough and the players had nothing left with which to respond.

With 7 minutes left, a corner to Reading was converted rather too easily by Morrison. This was the cue for a mass exodus as supporters left to enjoy the rest of the day’s sunshine and, apparently, little of note occurred in the remainder of the game.

Hudson deserves some sympathy. He made the right changes for his second game in charge, had clearly motivated and organised the team to produce an encouraging, if flawed, first half performance and can hardly be blamed for the lack of confidence which envelops at least half of the team no matter how hard they try to put it right.

Basic fitness levels appear deficient to say the least, exacerbated by the burden of persistent individual and collective failure weighing down on shoulders.

Sacking Siewert was necessary but was never going to solve the deep, systemic problems plaguing a club in steep, possibly irreversible, decline. Hodgkinson now has to make a difficult choice of new manager; the values which brought success to the club have all but crumbled over two disastrous transfer windows and the new direction and shake up which should have happened in January but didn’t, leaves him in a classic zugzwang.

Disciplinarian or innovator? Experienced or hungry? English or foreign? Whomever gets the job deserves our sympathy and patience, but the latter is in very short supply.

It always seemed a little odd just how sanguine Reading fans were after the play off defeat. A little more understandable now, perhaps, but is there any excuse for a club not to capitalise on the huge injection of revenues two seasons in the top league has brung?

The ironic chant about going to Luton is not so funny now, is it?

1973 and all that

Glum faces all round

Jan Siewert’s painfully inept, if somewhat unfortunate, tenure as manager of Huddersfield Town came to a predictable end with a defeat against a Fulham side who finally woke from a first half torpor to dominate a horrible second half for the team and their walking the plank boss.

With the club suffering from seemingly intractable problems which had built inexorably since around January 2018 under Wagner who, despite the miracle of survival which had largely been secured in the first 3 months of the season, was unable to replicate his remarkable achievements in the rarefied air of the Premier League, Jan’s job was as unenviable a task as the trials of Hercules.

Unfortunately, and from his first days to his last, he was unable to move the dial and rarely looked capable of doing so. 

The automatic goodwill and sympathy afforded to a coach taking over control of a vessel battered by the storms of debilitating stretches of defeat, the loss of leadership caused by Dean Hoyle’s traumatic illness and the sheer impossibility of a league where weakness is ruthlessly and incessantly punished was rather wasted by attacking his vulnerable players after defeats and never really connecting with a support which had demonstrated endless patience.

With no bounce, not even of the dead cat variety, there was little for supporters to become excited about. Perhaps unfairly, Siewert’s personality contrasted rather poorly with the man he replaced; when compared with many of his predecessors this would not have been an issue but Wagner, for all his failings towards the end, will cast a long shadow. He needed a signature victory but the only one he got was a fairly streaky three points against an opponent seemingly mesmerised by the words Huddersfield and Town.

Having accepted that there was little the man could do with a team largely incapable of competing in the top league, most were able to muster patience largely based on the belief that the step down would be an opportunity for him to shape his squad, get rid of the alleged bad apples and impose his own style for a difficult but more egalitarian league. 

That patience, however, was not underpinned with a great deal of belief as Siewert hadn’t demonstrated much in the way of innovation and even a successful, if relatively soft, pre season only served to slightly increase expectation that the team could quickly find their feet; not necessarily with a barnstorming march to the top of the early table but with a clear style and decent performances. Neither happened. Glimpses of decent play in isolated spells in the first two league games simply didn’t convince.

A relatively difficult start didn’t help him, but it was his job to overcome the challenges in front of him and he has pretty consistently failed to rise to them. There were some moments of ill fortune, but even a peremptory examination of them reveals individual failings; Elphick’s horrible debut including a ludicrous error, Kachunga’s blazing of an equaliser opportunity over the bar, Quaner ducking under across at QPR. The latter, however, was not just the error of the player – he shouldn’t have been on the pitch and epitomised Jan’s persistently bad substitution decisions.

The circumstances surrounding the home defeat by League 1 Lincoln were also ill starred but in a tough world, they were of the type you have to overcome. He didn’t. Again.

Overall, Siewert had little good fortune throughout his occupancy of the hot seat but neither did he ever give the impression he would create strategies to overcome them. It wasn’t just bad luck and circumstances which caused his downfall, it was his lack of discernible reaction to them.

In his final game, Siewert faced one of the favourites for promotion (serendipity seems to entirely evade the German) and chose a team which entirely ignored Van La Parra’s angry, message sending, cameo against Lincoln and Bacuna’s poor performance in the same game.

Predictable, lacking innovation or bravery even when you know the sack is just 90 minutes away is either remarkable chutzpah or unwisely and doggedly clinging to failed beliefs to the very end.
It didn’t turn out well and an uneventful, dull first half with neither side convincing or forcing either keeper in to meaningful action, though Grabara was the busier of the two, failed to offer much solace. A decent first 15 minutes for the home side faded away and were never to return and created little of note in any case.

Despite what looks like a very strong Championship squad, including the little nark, Arter, Fulham had a first half to forget and both sides produced distinctly average displays, littered with errors. For Town, Bacuna’s woeful start to the season persisted and was about to get immeasurably worse.

There was a significant case to be made for Siewert to replace the Dutch youngster at half time but, indecisively and predictably, he didn’t; a decision he would rue just 5 minutes in to a second half which had already seen Fulham improve considerably with purposeful possession.

A fairly benign attack down the right was transformed in to a dangerous one as Bacuna’s attempted clearance sliced high in to his own penalty area and perfectly placed for Mitrović to head home from close range. Elphick could possibly have done better too but the situation was completely unpredictable and a gift for the Fulham centre forward.

To their credit, and to the general surprise of a home crowd now fully expecting defeat, Town equalised when Hadgerjonaj finally delivered a decent cross which found Grant unmarked. Town’s single bright spot and cause for hope headed powerfully to the keeper’s left whose attempt to claw the ball out was marginally too late and goal line technology showed it crossed the line for Grant’s third goal in 3 games.

This should have signalled an assault on the visitors and the introduction of an attacking alternative to pile on the pressure. It didn’t, of course, and Fulham shrugged off the disappointment and simply picked up where they left off, dominating possession, moving easily and looking very comfortable.

Grabara, who had made several good stops before the equaliser became increasingly busy as Fulham resumed their superiority but had no chance whatsoever when Cavaleiro curled an excellent winner past the Pole after creating space in the area with the help of a dummy run to his left by Bryan.

With that, the final nail for the manager had been driven home and Town never looked like recovering. Van La Parra appeared with 5 minutes to go as Siewert’s Achilles heel was demonstrated for the final time and boos cascaded down the stands at yet another defeat.

Hudson, who, along with Whitehead, should have been given the job to guide Town out of the Premier League, will take charge at Cardiff and maybe until the international break if the club are wise and consider the options very carefully.

Whoever takes over will have the very difficult job of ensuring the great drop of the 1970s is avoided. There is organisable talent in this squad, but the relentless defeats have left an atrophied club spiralling in a descent reminiscent of those exceptionally dark days.

Good luck in the future, Jan, it just wasn’t to be.

Pressure mounts

It was good to see a well organised, committed and resilient team compete to as high a standard as their talent allows and beyond, securing a well earned victory with purpose and identifiable intent at the stadium last night.

Each and every player seemed to understand their roles and responsibilities, worked hard to counter the threats intermittently faced and played with freedom and movement when the opportunities arose.

That Lincoln we’re not at least two goals to the good by the break was down to debutant Ryan Schofield in goal who made some excellent saves to prevent even more embarrassment than that which finally befell a team which spluttered with uncertainty, hesitancy and lack of direction for most of the evening. One save, in particular, stood out as Schofield turned an excellent effort by the lively Jack Payne round the post. 

In what is now a feature of Huddersfield Town’s games against opposition ranging from the very top of the game to lower league strivers, there were brief flurries of intent and intensity (in this game, the 10 minutes before half time and, with desperation screaming from the effort, the final 15 minutes of the match).

The majority of the encounter, however, was dominated by a clearly well managed Lincoln City side who knew when to move the ball, when to swamp the opposition out of possession and how to keep their shape and discipline throughout. It didn’t take any insight in to tactical theory to recognise teamwork underpinned by motivated individuals taking personal responsibility to achieve a collective goal.

Those in red and white who took the deceptively long journey to Huddersfield could be mightily proud of their team, even if the margin of victory should have been greater – they fluffed a ridiculously easy chance to double a lead secured by a tidy move which unhinged Town’s back four before being sweetly finished at the back post. 

Lincoln were also grateful for a particularly generous interpretation of the hand ball rule towards the end which should have seen Town’s third penalty award in a row but they deserved the break and the home side decidedly did not.

The introduction of Van La Parra, who appeared to bristle with angry intent, turned the tide and the snubbed Dutchman nearly created an equaliser twice. First, he had a good effort well saved, then he put a cross on to the head of fellow substitute Mounié. To little surprise in the disgruntled, seething crowd, he put it over the bar.

The non penalty, the save and the miss spared us all 30 more minutes of misery and Lincoln deservedly progressed in to the next round of a cup which Town seem incapable of taking even remotely seriously. David Wagner earned the right to treat cup competitions with disdain; the current incumbent had a responsibility to lift the spirits of a club in a deep spiral.

Seeking positives from this dismal scenario is difficult and probably futile, but Challobah  looks to have a drive which even the least effective manager since John Haselden will struggle to subdue. That is not to say he won’t.

Another performance lacking in intensity, spontaneity and organisation brings Siewert perilously close to the exit door and the relationship, never great, with supporters is now beyond poisonous. If he lasts up to the Fulham game, it is going to take something exceptional on Friday night to save his skin.

Patience wears paper thin

As toxic levels rise inexorably, with both poison chalice holders, manager and chairman, coming under pressure from a frustrated support increasingly questioning of a club seemingly in search of a direction, Town scraped a point in a dire contest thanks to another Grant penalty.

In most circumstances, a draw at Loftus Road, now touchingly renamed The Kian Prince Foundation stadium, would be rightly viewed as creditable given QPR’s standing in the game, but neither the opposition nor the location was relevant.

After a painful second half of last season, for which no blame could attach to the new manager, slightly alleviated by 2 final games of relative competence against less than fully competitive opposition, and a full pre-season to prepare, supporters are still searching for signs of renaissance, some semblance of a new identity and, perhaps above all, evidence of managerial competence.

Siewert deserves a little sympathy as he took over from a man whose consideration of his fast disappearing reputation outweighed his responsibility to a club already suffering  an enforced crisis of leadership and there appeared no solution to the spiral of failure. Having accepted the challenge, however, Jan inherited the responsibility and has been given time to impose himself on the job.

He will know that the support’s patience has been stretched to it’s limits with, it seems, a majority yearning for a discernible upturn in fortunes from the very start of the season. This may or may not be an unfair demand, but it is his reality. Goodwill, which extended in to the pre-season, is now spent.

An opening day defeat against a competent Derby County piled on the pressure for a game which could hardly be considered a knocking bet, but the long awaited improvement in fortune failed to arrive, again, in a messy encounter not helped by strong winds and early downpours.

A pacy run by Diakhaby promised a very early boost for the visitors but ended with a tumble deemed a dive by referee Whitestone who booked the young Frenchman.

Rangers’ dangerous youngster Eze, who had scored a well publicised and fantastic goal against Stoke in the R’s opener, brought an excellent save from Grabara and looked a lively handful for the first 20 minutes before rather fading from prominence as the game wore on.

Bright Samuel forced the impressive Grabara in to another stop as the home side dominated the opening 10 minutes.

Weathering both a figurative and actual storm, Town came in to the game and a great through ball by the debutant O’Brien fed Karlan Grant on goal but an unnecessary first touch allowed Lumley to narrow the angles and block. The attack wasn’t over, however, and the combative O’Brien won the ball back and fed Bacuna who brought a spectacular but routine save from the home custodian.

With both sides enjoying brief flurries of pressure, an entertaining battle seemed likely but soon descended in to a scrap of low quality punctuated by poor tackles, misplaced passing and little shape from either side.

Pritchard had an effort from outside the box which troubled Lumley rather more than it should have, but the half descended in quality as it went on and boiled over following a sequence of events featuring Bacuna. 

First, he was felled from behind rather crudely by Cameron, who should have been booked, and was refused entry back on to the field of play with the ball deep in Rangers’ territory. Stupidly, the young midfielder took out his frustration on Manning with a high, late challenge which had the home fans near the incident howling for a red card. Replays suggest their ire was not simply partisan.

It made for a bad tempered end to a half from which neither side really deserved to take anything.

While far from exhilarating, the visitors had performed competently, bar Bacuna’s stupidity, with O’Brien enjoying a good debut and Elphick restoring his reputation alongside Schindler with a solid display.

Sensibly withdrawing Bacuna who was one poor decision away from dismissal, Siewert switched Pritchard to the middle and brought on Kachunga to play wide.

Within minutes of the restart, it seemed that the manager had been dealt a winning hand for once as the German was released by an excellent flick by Grant behind the home defence (and possibly a tad in front of it). Driving forward, Kachunga was bundled over in the box and neither the linesman nor the referee were in much doubt as the latter pointed to the spot.

Lumley’s antics; complaining to the linesman and, illegally, banging the crossbar as Grant lined up failed to distract Town’s main goal threat and the penalty was despatched nicely.

This was as good as it got for the visitors who failed to register a single shot on target for the rest of the game, and barely threatened at all from the hour mark.

The hosts enjoyed the majority of the possession for long periods yet rarely looked threatening until the closing stages. Town seemed to be on their way to a scratchy and barely deserved 3 points largely through the inadequacies of the opposition who could only point to easily blocked shots as evidence of territorial dominance.

Elphick was again proving solid and stopped one powerful Eze shot with his head when a goal looked certain and despite one or two scrambles, a decent save by Grabara and a shot which just flew over from Samuel, the hosts seemed destined to draw a blank.

At this point, Siewert decided to replace Diakhaby with Quaner; a decision he will surely now rue as the erratic German managed to give away a dangerous free kick, get booked and lose his man at the free kick which brought Rangers a deserved equaliser in a disastrous cameo.

Difficult as it is to guess which Quaner you will get either as a starter or a substitute, you can always be certain that his aerial ability, despite his size, is virtually non existent. To have him mark an opposition central defender on the back post was grossly negligent and as Grant Hall met an admittedly well delivered free kick which Collin had ducked under, the elusive 3 points were lost.

A second half which had started so brightly descended as it went on. Seemingly playing by instinct (and, sadly, not the instincts which bring inspiration), there seemed little in the way of a plan other than to smother the game. Forays forward were rare and mostly snuffed out with ease. Grant nearly drew a foul for a second penalty following a ball from the hard working but limited Kachunga and a lovely move down the left found Diakhaby released in to space but otherwise the home side took control.

As time wore on, Town visibly tired and while the equaliser was down to an individual’s defensive error, the free kick given away by Hogg was avoidable in the first place.

The visitors held on for a point which was barely celebrated by a following deeply sceptical of the performance of the manager. Lincoln and Fulham represent the thinnest of ice for a coach haemorrhaging support from the fans and increasingly in the hands of a Chairman holding his own poisoned chalice.

An interesting week ahead.

Reality rammed home

Within 25 minutes of the season opener, Town had been dismantled by a Tom Lawrence inspired Derby County and the balloon of optimism inflated by two relatively competent final Premier League performances and a positive pre-season was brutally popped.

Disjointed, sloppy in thought and deed and with little discernible commitment to a plan, the Terriers allowed Lawrence to dictate the whole game and his appreciation of space, timely passing and eagerness to be involved in everything the Rams were attempting contrasted starkly with the home midfield who appeared disinterested out of possession.

Lawrence earned two free kicks with bursts in to space, fired one just wide and one in to the wall, and revelled in the freedom given to him as no home player took responsibility to stem his glaringly obvious threat.

A good run by Diakhaby which ended with him taking an ill advised shot rather than find a better placed colleague and some decent work down the right by Hadergjonaj which invariably saw the Kosovan find the first defender with aimless crossing was the extent of Town’s threat. 

As early as the first minute, Lawrence had a shot which appeared to strike Elphick on the hand, but Town’s new central defender was to hand the Welshman the opening goal with a weird attempt to direct the ball back to Grabara which hit his shoulder, then his head and forced the Liverpool loanee out of his area to try to clear with his head. 

The attempt gained little purchase and fell to Lawrence who still had plenty to do to score the opener with a deft lob. Elphick’s lack of awareness of the danger his fluff had caused meant that he didn’t get back on the line quickly enough where he could have affected a simple clearance. 

Within minutes, Lawrence struck again but in contrast to the freakish if well taken opener, his second was sublime. The initial danger was caused by a rushed Hadergjonaj attempted clearance, executed for no apparent reason, which was picked up by Derby to launch another attack on the fraying home side. Working the ball across the face of the penalty area, Bogle shaped to shoot but found Lawrence in a pocket of space. With quick feet, the game’s stand out player bamboozled a combination of Elphick and Hadergjonaj before hitting a superb finish past Grabara.

Derby fully deserved their lead and despite Town grabbing a life line before the break with an excellently taken Grant penalty – awarded for a foul on Bacuna, whose turn in the box was just about his only meaningful, positive contribution in the first half before going off injured in the second – their superiority should have seen them restore their 2 goal advantage only to be thwarted by a good save by Grabara and, to his credit, a significant block by Elphick and a similarly effective intervention by Kongolo. The last of these also injured Lawrence and rather muted his contribution for the remainder of the game.

With the midfield trio barely functioning during a first half which was both sobering and worrying, Town were fortunate to still be in a game dominated by a team of genuine threat and tight discipline.
A decent Pritchard effort which cleared the bar, an excellent couple of pacy bursts by Diakhaby and the Bacuna turn which brought the penalty were over shadowed by a dysfunctional overall performance directly contrasting with Derby’s shape, purpose and discipline. 

The main threat was Hadergjonaj’s probing down the right, including one excellent turn to set himself free, but the threat disappeared with woeful final balls which hit the first defender with laser like precision. This was not about to improve in a better team performance in the second half.

After the break, Town had their best spell with an intense 15 minutes which brought chances and significantly more cohesion.
A Bacuna effort resulted in a corner which found its way to the back post and an unmarked Schindler. The captain’s shot was saved at close range by Roos to maintain the visitors’ lead.

A wild Pritchard effort following good work by Grant confirmed Town’s temporary dominance which ended with a fantastic half volley by Mooy which fizzed just wide. The Australian’s influence grew after a below par first half as Town established a tighter grip in the middle, perhaps as a result of Lawrence’s diminished threat.

An injury to Bacuna disrupted Town’s rhythm and energy; aside from one woeful attempted pass straight to a black shirt, he had looked better after the break and the game in general became scrappy following his departure.

Rarely emerging from their defensive shell, Derby were content for Town to have the ball, but launched one or two dangerous looking counter attacks including one which resulted in a painful collision between Kongolo and Grabara. On the whole, however, from the hour mark, niggly fouls and over officious refereeing blighted the flow of the game to the home team’s disadvantage.

All would have been forgotten, however, had Kachunga buried a glorious chance with 10 minutes to go. An otherwise rather out of sorts, and out of position, Kongolo swung a good cross in which fell to the second half substitute in space. His shot was snatched and quite horrible, sailing way over the bar.

The chance of rescuing a probably undeserved point vanished with the woeful effort.

Kongolo on the left had seen less of the ball than the over employed Hadergjonaj who covered lots of ground but remained cluelessly inaccurate with his deliveries, including one in to an area entirely bereft of colleagues.

Derby defended very well on the whole but their comfort was built on Town’s ponderous  attacking, predictability and poor decision making in the final third; deficiencies which pre date Siewert but show little sign of improvement.

The big moments were overwhelmingly in the Rams’ favour but they had earned the three points with good organisation, a clearly identifiable plan and a first half hour dominated by Lawrence, supported by good movement around him.

Town have talent in the squad but aside from the 15 minutes after the break, they were unable to develop momentum and were telegraphing virtually every move to a comfortable opponent. That talent, which included a good but frustratingly unproductive performance from Pritchard, must be harnessed by Siewert in to a far more potent unit that was on display last night; Grant’s isolation cannot be allowed to persist and the over use of Hadergjonaj until he learns how to deliver in to the area must cease.

Elphick’s debut to forget – he improved after the break but couldn’t really decline – is unlikely to see him replaced but Siewert should make some brave choices for the next game, including moving Kongolo to centre half.

It is far, far too early to panic – Derby look a good, competent outfit – but the patience afforded to the team and the management last season is unlikely to last long. The next few weeks could be very challenging for Siewert and the games look far from straightforward.