Unnecessary tension but gloom lifting

A scrappy, occasionally feisty and sporadically entertaining derby saw Town escape from the bottom 3 with a victory which should’ve been far more comfortable than it ultimately became.

The visitors were marginally the better side in a first half where their hosts began poorly and on the back foot for much of the first 20 minutes as the hangover from the anaemic midweek performance persisted.

Barnsley’s lively but largely ineffective start pinned Town in to their own half for fully 15 minutes but, lead by a reinvigorated Hogg with a more than welcome return to form, the home team worked their way in to the game without causing too much consternation to the Reds’ defence.

On the half hour, an innocuous looking free kick just inside enemy territory was taken quickly by Simpson who found Grant down the right. Beating his man far too easily from the visitors’ perspective, the striker played an excellent ball across to Schindler who converted with ease.

Barely deserved, Town conspired to almost lose their lead within minutes. Making a complete hash of a free kick on the left and losing possession, the hosts presented Barnsley with their best opportunity of the game as McGeehan, taking advantage of good work by Woodrow, lifted his effort over the bar.

It was a totally needless and brainless error at a time when consolidation of a fortunate, if well executed, lead should have been established.

Rather than lifting the away side, however, it was the Terriers who regrouped more effectively and the rest of the half was navigated in relative comfort. 

In the second half, Town took a stranglehold over the game and, with O’Brien surging forward, became a much clearer threat to the South Yorkshire side who began to wilt under pressure.

It was the flame haired maestro’s determined run which lead to the second goal but it was Grant’s sublime finish which will be rightly remembered. Taking the ball in his stride, Town’s top scorer created a tiny amount of space for himself and curled a superb effort past Collins in an instant. 

5 minutes after doubling their lead, Town should have put the game to bed. It inevitably involved another O’Brien surge, who was put through by the ever impressive Brown, but Kachunga lacked the necessary composure and fired over with an unassailable lead beckoning.

The miss put a spring in the step of Barnsley and all the momentum built by the hosts began to fade.

First, a cheap free kick given away by Bacuna at the edge of the box – he was replaced by Chalobah immediately and before the kick was taken – was well struck by Dougall but flew over the bar.

Defending a 2 goal lead is notoriously precarious, as Barnsley had found at The Hawthorns just days previously, and the growing tension increased alarmingly when Town’s weak defending at a corner which, regrettably, largely featured the man who had spurned the opportunity to finish off the opposition, threw the visitors a lifeline.

Kachunga’s headed clearance of a poor corner at the near post was weak, but not half as weak as his attempt to close down Brown who skipped past both the Congolese and his name sake in Town’s defence before firing home.

Having to see out a game which had already been won for the final 10 minutes was far from ideal for a side with embedded fragility, and while Barnsley’s threat was somewhat superficial, the tension was palpable and not helped by the game being extended by 6 minutes.

Lead by the excellent Schindler, back to his elegant best, the defence held firm and injury time was actually more comfortable than could be expected; a far from flawless performance had garnered 3 more points and an extension of an unbeaten run which seemed unimaginable only a month ago.

As precarious as the run has been, bar the excellent second half against Hull, the instilling of basic standards which occasionally drop but largely persist have made the team competitive again and provides a solid foundation for a future which looks a little brighter.

The return to form of Schindler and now Hogg, coupled with the defensive discipline immeasurably improved by Simpson’s experience and know how on the right and Brown’s youthful calm and adventure on the left is hugely encouraging.

Despite his part in Barnsley’s potential escape from defeat, both up front and at the back, Kachunga’s support of his full back is currently more important than his lack of pace or threat going forward but you suspect that his presence will be threatened once the Cowleys get around to tackling the continuing balance problem in the middle of the park with neither Bacuna, despite his positive attributes, nor Chalobah convincing.

Nevertheless, and not since Peter Jackson’s great escape season have we seen such a turnaround in fortunes. The next two games present the next level of challenge but a successful negotiation of the past 6 games against weaker opposition provides an excellent platform for continued revival.

Comfortably numb

Town earned a point they barely deserved in a relentlessly dull midweek encounter with fellow strugglers Middlesbrough.

Maintaining an unbeaten run,  now at 5 games but including 3 largely unsatisfying draws against fundamentally mediocre opposition, Town’s supporters are grateful for extremely small mercies and maybe comforted by the sheer normal banality of it all.

For 20 minutes Town tried, unsuccessfully, to take advantage of a nervous looking Boro but alarmingly ran out of steam in a first half of rising drudgery which neither team bothered to enlighten with spontaneity or flair. Before a well executed Diakhaby free kick flew just wide and provided a rare moment of excitement, both sides had headers over the bar with Boro’s being the more dangerous of the two and from which Ayala should really have converted.

Unlike the second half revival at Blackburn, the Terriers managed to perform even more sluggishly in a desperately poor second half as the visitors contrived to miss the two or three decent chances their improvement to slightly above mediocre presented and what should have been an away victory petered out to a numbingly banal scoreless draw.

On a night more noted for Town’s regression to toothless supplication, only the performance of O’Brien provided some light amongst the pervading gloom. Schofield’s clean sheet was also noteworthy but the negatives far outweighed these clutched straws.

Elphick again gave away possession trying to play out from the back and was only saved greater opprobrium by a combination of Schofield and Brown closing down an immensely dangerous situation. His near perfect impression of Mark Hudson’s end of days performances is becoming irritatingly predictable and change can’t be much further away than the January window.

In other news, Hogg continues to berate colleagues for errors in which his own part plays at least 50% of blame. It is an irritating feature of the season so far and rather than displaying the intended look of a will to win, it portrays a senior professional consistently passing the buck.

Some early menacing runs by Diakhaby promised to herald another display of threat and pace but he was effectively subdued early on by a resilient Boro defence whose early displays of nervousness were largely overcome as the realisation dawned that their opposition were barely capable of creating moments of genuine danger.

Given their form, Boro’s support was impressively large but they left the stadium with just as many frustrations as the home support. Their team was the one which looked far more capable of a breakthrough but even when presented with an open goal they were unable to convert. Schofield’s save from a deflection off Hogg was as outstanding as Fletcher’s miss was diabolical.

It was reasonable for the Cowleys to believe that introducing Bacuna to replace the continuing struggles of Chalobah, who simply cannot find the form to display the talent he so obviously possesses, but there was no redemption this time with Boro’s tight control of the game precluding the necessary team cohesion which allows Bacuna to flourish.

The anonymous Grant, starved of anything resembling service, was moved out left to accommodate Campbell when a more obvious substitute was Mounié who may have given Boro’s dominant centre halves a little more to worry about.

However, the slow tempo, lack of inspiration (bar O’Brien’s excellent but fruitless probings) and inability to create threat was so entrenched that affecting change was probably beyond anyone from the bench.

So a deeply unsatisfying evening ended with a point which should be considered a bonus given that Boro’s profligacy cost them a win they largely deserved.

The unbeaten run should be celebrated, of course, given the context of a season and a half of perpetual loss and failure, but – and the Cowleys will know this – it looks fragile and perhaps fortunate. There is undoubtedly a stiffened resolve and enough signs of a brighter future in and amongst but, not unsurprisingly, a long, long way to go to banish demons deeply entrenched.

So, Barnsley next. The sight of 2 home fixtures against fellow strugglers raised expectations against the backdrop of improved results but last night and our Yorkshire neighbours’ performance at the Hawthorns on Tuesday have surely brought us all back to earth.

Fragile momentum maintained

The Cowley brothers will have learned a great deal from an Ewood Park encounter which failed to convince that the neuroses which hang over this squad have been banished by recent good results despite earning a good point against a similarly enigmatic Rovers side.

Cruising for 20 minutes and easily containing hosts who looked toothless and disjointed while unleashing Diakhaby’s pace and trickery on a regular basis, Town carried an air of confidence which felt defining.

A debatable penalty on 11 minutes created by some quick, skilful Diakhaby feet presented the perfect platform to build upon the pre international break form and Grant’s clinical execution gave the visitors a lead which their early dominance deserved.

At this point, Rovers appeared fragile and were unable to muster the passing movements which appeared later in the half and a second goal in the period of dominance would surely have buried them. Promising positions, however, did not translate in to opportunities and disaster was just around the corner.

Not for the first time in his short career with the Terriers, an Elphick error handed the home team an initiative they had rarely looked capable of creating for themselves. Taking the ball from Grabara at a goal kick, the veteran defender completely misread the strength of Rovers’ press and tried a suicidal cross penalty area ball to the distant Schindler which was predictably intercepted and fed to Dack who had the simple task of squaring to Holtby to equalise.

The error was bad enough but, if anything, the response was worse.

Blackburn’s confidence soared, Town dropped further and further back and abandoned all of the things which had given them ascendancy in the first place. 

The home side, visibly invigorated, began to move the ball with purpose and accuracy and with better final balls, should have buried the Terriers in an overwhelmingly dominant 25 minutes when a lot of the old frailties came roaring back like a secondary infection.

Inevitably, Town cracked by failing to deal with a stationary ball on the edge of the box and the talented Dack took full advantage with a beautiful strike in to the bottom corner just after the half hour.

By this point, the visitors’ midfield had ceased functioning. Hogg, as he has done for much of the season, plays as if pining for the more talented colleagues he is used to while Chalobah continues to struggle. Finding a balance in the middle of the park has to be the Cowley brothers’ most pressing priority.

Fortunately, the alarming performance dip, inspired by Elphick, wasn’t fully capitalised upon by Blackburn but as all the old failings flooded back, the delicate psyche of a battered club was exposed.

The second half continued in similar vein. Town looked more resilient – it was difficult for them to look more fragile – but, even so, it was the home side constructing the moves and dictating play. Dack narrowly failed to connect with a wayward Armstrong effort; a third goal at that point would have surely spelled the end.

Perhaps a little belatedly, the struggling Chalobah was replaced by Bacuna who provided an instant injection of forward momentum and had a decent effort just past the post which seemed to stir the visitors.

A further blocked effort was quickly followed by an equaliser. The otherwise poor Kachunga assisted a clumsy looking one two with Bacuna who created crucial space before firing in the leveller.

It was the home side’s turn to deflate following a setback and for 15 minutes, the visitors took control with some bursting runs by O’Brien and Bacuna creating problems for the home defence. Several corners suggested that the Cowleys’ famed set piece innovations were being introduced to the squad even if the execution was poor.

Bacuna had the best chance to heap misery on a home side who were visibly wilting under pressure, but his effort took a deflection over the bar.

Town’s newly found dominance, however, left them open to counter attack and perhaps two cynical and punished fouls by Hogg and Kachunga to prevent danger persuaded the visitors that a point was a good return from a curate’s egg performance.

For their part, Rovers brought on Sam Gallagher for Holtby in a move which rather abandoned their attractive approach play in favour of the aerial route.

Despite enjoying most of the pressure for the last 10 minutes, the ploy played in to Town’s hands as both Schindler and Elphick were more comfortable with the ball in the air and, to their credit, Town dealt with the late assault pretty well.

Town replaced Grant with Frazier Campbell who proceeded to put in a performance reminiscent of Alan Lee; he charged around committing foul after foul despite an early booking and dangerously skirted the margins of the referee’s patience.

Campbell’s uncharacteristically rage fuelled cameo was almost over shadowed by the surprise appearance of Hadergjonaj who replaced the faded Diakhaby. 

The Kosovan, who is surely on his way in the January window, managed to avoid putting in a single tackle and in one bizarre sequence was fooled by the same dummy three times and taken out of the play. It was like watching Charlie Brown refusing to believe that Lucy would snatch away the football before he kicked it, for the umpteenth time in a row.

While the home side finished the stronger, Town’s failure to turn their 15 minutes of second half dominance in to a win made this somewhat inevitable.

Both sides demonstrated why they are destined for mid table; periods of decent play replaced by anxiety and deflation with dashes of resilience thrown in should elevate both above danger but there was nothing to suggest either can catapult in to any sort of contention.

The Cowleys still have a lot of work to do, as they readily acknowledge, not least on the players’ mentality and finding answers to the midfield’s propensity for dysfunction but momentum was maintained, just.

No codding this time

1,393 days since the last win on a Saturday with a traditional kick off time, and just 4 days after a first win in over 20 months (statistics are not a feature of these reports and may need fact checking), a performance of discipline, identifiable strategy and, ultimately, emancipated flair gave Town a thoroughly deserved 3 points and the bruised and battered support some genuine hope.

The improvements under the Cowley brothers have been evident, if unsurprisingly imperfect, reflecting their philosophy of tackling problems individually and steadily building towards a preferred style. The difficulties they faced inheriting a deeply flawed and damaged squad were entrenched and labyrinthine; a veritable mockery of the concept of football being a simple game.

Months of demoralising defeats plunged players in to collective and individual crises of confidence and the club in to seemingly irreversible decline, and for the inchoate reign of this management team to have already transformed fortunes is quite remarkable.

An ugly win in a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke was just perfect for these two. If the performance didn’t thrill, the cliche most emphatically did.

It is no coincidence that the full back positions have held the key to an upturn in fortunes. Simpson brings a seasoned pro’s nous to the right side in place of Flo’s chaotic mixture of inappropriate positioning, weak tackling and ineffective attacking while Brown’s youthful athleticism is far better suited to the left than a central defender being shoe horned in the position on the strength of his obvious footballing talent.

No longer distracted by the fallibilities either side of them, Schindler and Elphick can now concentrate on their traditional duties and begin to look like the partnership they can be.

One goal conceded in 3 games, and that one a goalkeeping howler which had nothing to do with the defenders, provides a base for the rest of the team and in the second half of a game against a competent if not particularly convincing Hull City, the confidence emanating from solidity at the back seemed to finally inspire the team as an attacking force.

Town’s midfield remains imperfect (and, presumably, the next focus for improvement) with a rotating cast of characters, but the effervescent O’Brien is now being trusted for a full 90 minutes and will surely be the fulcrum around whom the engine room will be constructed. Finding the right balance remains unresolved, but a stronger back 4 requires less protection while playing higher will release the potential of front players whose instincts have been blunted for far too long.

The victory was built on a solid, rather unspectacular first half where Hull’s threat down the flanks was largely, if not totally, subdued. Those full back positions again.

In a half of few chances, the better ones fell to the visitors and just before half time, Grabara foiled Eaves with a good save at his near post as the big Tiger was found with a decent lobbed pass to unleash a fierce volley at the young Pole.

Grabara was called upon for more routine saves a couple of times and saw a well struck free kick fly just over the bar but, overall, Town were defensively solid and only lost their way a little in the aftermath of a head injury to Schindler which left the German groggy for a while.

At the other end, Town’s slick passing freed Grant for an effort from outside the box which took a deflection causing slight discomfort for Long who, nevertheless, made a routine save to concede a corner.

An intelligent ball inside by Simpson to O’Brien when a pass down the line seemed more obvious, allowed the flame haired midfielder the opportunity to advance in to space and feed a marauding Brown on the left but the youngster’s effort was straight at the keeper. 

Mildly entertaining to the break, neither side had done enough to warrant a lead, but for the hosts, mere competence has been a standard seemingly out of reach for months on end and with the buds of renaissance beginning to sprout over the past week, a base had been established.

The second half was following a similar pattern of deadlock. The visitors started better and had two early shots blocked during a rare period of dominance, but the home team responded well and gradually imposed themselves.

The turning point was the introduction of Bacuna for the hard working if unprogressive Hogg. Within a minute, the frustratingly talented but inconsistent Dutch youngster created the first goal by attempting a one two with Grant which resulted in Town’s leading scorer miscontrolling but then turning the looped up touch in to an excellent strike on the turn which beat Long comprehensively. It was an instinctive finish which seemed to release all of the tension on and off the pitch.

5 minutes later, Bacuna added to his excellent midweek goal at Stoke by sweeping home a cross from Diakhaby who had also had a hand in the first goal. The raw, unfairly maligned Frenchman picked out his team mate with the same precision he had displayed on Tuesday night and the combination effectively put paid to any ambitions of recovery by the East coast outfit.

Bacuna was not done yet and he threaded an excellent ball through to man of the match O’Brien who found Kachunga at the far post to force home the third. Whatever one thinks of Kachunga’s value to the side or his performances, he rarely lacks effort and his emotional reaction to the goal betrayed his sense of responsibility for a quite awful miss at Stoke. It was very touching.

At the death, Brown made a block on the talented Bowen when he looked like ruining Town’s clean sheet. It was an example of the enormous strides the brothers have made in restoring spirit amongst the squad and just as telling as the 3 excellent goals converted.

For the final 20 minutes, Town looked a top half team and the escape from the bottom 3 in time for a potentially transformative international break which the Cowleys can use to impart more improvement should have a huge psychological boost.

While only a fool would describe any Championship game as anything other than a difficult challenge, the post break fixtures present good opportunities against fellow strugglers which could provide a momentum not seen since Wagner’s days.

Reconnecting to a support which has never deserted an imploding club has been a stated objective of the new men and, yesterday, they made huge strides towards achieving it as smiles returned to faces.

Happy international break everybody.