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.