Cowley formula seeping in

Progress continues under the Cowleys despite a further 2 points being dropped against a peculiar Swansea side whose individual talents were apparent in possession but who seemed rather easily subdued by an aggressive approach which trod a somewhat fine line at times.

Town were helped by a paucity of ambition by their Welsh visitors who, while clearly adept at picking up away points – they remain unbeaten on the road as December approaches – defended as deeply as a relegation threatened side might, particularly in the second half, against opponents with glaringly obvious frailties at full back on both flanks. 

O’Brien and Bacuna coped admirably in their adopted roles, but apart from a worrying opening few minutes down Swansea’s left and occasional glimpses of Ayew’s ability on the right, the visitors barely exploited Town’s injury woes.

Perhaps taking an early lead, in fortuitous circumstances, influenced their mindset. 

An aggressive opening by the Terriers was a little lacking in discipline and the Swans were able to enjoy far too much space and freedom to play at times and their crisp passing and movement seemed ominous with the home side looking a little vulnerable.

However, it was against the run of play when the visitors took the lead.

Peterson, Swansea’s left winger, tormented Bacuna early on and a long night appeared in store for the stand in, but the inexperienced full back could not be blamed for both the linesman and referee ignoring pleas for a dead ball which was obvious from wherever you were in the stadium. 

Instead, a corner was conceded moments later which was defended but at the expense of another. A good delivery was won in the air before a Swansea foot touched the ball on ahead of Chalobah’s attempt to clear, leaving Fulton unmarked to convert from a difficult angle.

While Town should have dealt with both corners better than they did, the whole phase of play was predicated on officials missing the ball going out of play. Their performance did not improve from this point.

Rather than press home their advantage, Swansea became too passive, while Town stepped up their pressing to instil some doubt in to the Welshmen and curb their ability to play out from the back.

On the rare occasions that the press was beaten, Town continued to look a little vulnerable but the Swans were unable to muster a further effort on target.

Despite patient and accurate build up play, Town seemed incapable of creating chances of their own with just one cross early on by Bacuna causing the visitors any real discomfort; Grant was agonisingly close to connecting.

Poorly delivered corners came and went, a strong and fair challenge on the Swans’ keeper by Campbell following a slightly under hit back pass increased the temperature of the game and the striker’s next challenge provided further ignition as he clattered in to Van der Hoorn for a booking which perhaps warranted harsher sanction.

The bizarre sight of the linesman from the other side of the pitch running over to inject his own wisdom on events may have cooled any austere thoughts from the mind of the referee (who, like the rest of the stadium, must have wondered why the hell he had waddled over).

Unlike quite a few of his comrades, whose falls, leg clutching and moaning peppered and interrupted the game, Campbell’s victim was genuinely injured by the tackle – he didn’t appear for the second half – and for all the righteous anger towards a poor referee, the leniency shown to Campbell was generous.

If Swansea’s opener was predicated on poor officiating, Town’s leveller had more than an element of good fortune. However, the goal was the culmination of quite intensive pressure and the result of someone, in this case Pritchard, shooting from outside the area.

The diminutive play maker’s rather unconvincing effort took a deflection off Schindler in to the path of Grant who finished with his customary panache.

Pritchard, who seems to be dividing opinion upon his return to the side, had two other efforts on target from range, was involved in most of Town’s good work going forward and has the ability to create uncertainty in defenders and space for others. While not a perfect performance by any means, and he really needs to add goals in to the mix, there are enough signs that the talent shown in this division previously is finally appearing for his current employers.

The equaliser was timely and proved to be the foundation of possibly the best 40 minutes of the season in the second half with Town not only dominating proceedings but on the rare occasion their grip loosened they regained shape very quickly to deny the visitors the opportunity to counter.

Excellent combinations down both flanks kept the Swans pinned in to their own half, but the impressive approach play simply wasn’t matched once the ball arrived at the sharp end. Even Grant, an exquisite and natural finisher, felt the necessity of an additional touch.

The instinctive passing and movement was very encouraging, however.

Creating space against a side employing a defensive block to the extent that it pushed a highly competent opponent back on their heels is no mean feat; it was just a shame that hesitancy in front of goal and a pair of excellent opposing centre halves thwarted the pursuit of 3 points.

Mounié’s appearance from the bench didn’t particularly move the dial and his lack of pace rather detracted from Town’s energy when compared to Campbell’s work rate. He cannot complain about a lack of service; he dithered when presented with a shooting opportunity in full sight of goal and connected badly to a cross which created a difficult chance. Heading hopelessly wide rather summed up his contribution.

With 5 minutes to go, and Town still pressing hard for a winner their performance deserved, Chalobah’s youthful naïveté burst in to the open. 

Despite one or two blips, including an errant cross field ball which nearly set Swansea free from the pressure built against them, this was comfortably his best performance of the season, linking well with others, putting in some good challenges and even having a shot from outside the area which was tipped, possibly unnecessarily, over the bar.

Town were still threatening the visitors’ stolid back four, had largely subdued any threat from them and, while time wasn’t on their side, looked the only possible winners. At this point, Swansea’s Byers made a late challenge on Chalobah which provoked the young man’s ire. Moving towards his opponent, his head jerked forward collapsing Byers to the ground. A red was the only possible outcome even if subsequent replays uncovered a complete over reaction by the (dying) Swan.

With ten minutes remaining, including the copious amount of time added on for the serious injury to Byers’ fringe, it should have been expected that the air would be sucked out of Town’s pursuit of a winner. But it wasn’t.

Coping with relative ease, Town’s depleted contingent continued to take the game to the visitors, though Swansea came closest to a winner with a back post header over which the vast majority of the crowd held their collective breath.

To only get one point for the second half dominance of a strong, confident opponent was disappointing but the positives shone through the late November gloom.

Alongside Schindler, Stankovic was excellent and his performance was not marred by the errors which accompanied his game against Birmingham. Commanding in the air, comfortable receiving and distributing the ball and rapidly forming a good relationship with his captain, the Slovenian has alleviated the worry of the central defensive disruption following Elphick’s sad absence.

In addition to getting to know each other, the central defenders have the extra responsibility of looking out for the juvenile full backs either side of them. So far, in 2 games, they have allowed three attempts on target. Sadly, two of those were goals, but the sheer mathematical probabilities will eventually work in your favour if that standard can be maintained.

Hogg’s early season travails are over. Despite yet another booking, a senseless foul on the halfway line, his energy, positioning and drive was key to a team display which augurs well. A raking, perfectly executed pass in to the path of a marauding O’Brien in the second half was a highlight; particularly as he is not supposed to be able to move the ball beyond 5 yards.

Perhaps the biggest positives as a team were the noticeably high levels of fitness of most of the side which allowed them to regain shape very quickly if possession was lost. This was more the case in the second half than the first but evidence of the real impact made by the Cowleys.

It was unfortunate that some of the intricate passing movements and genuine quality in the second half did not translate in to goals, but it did demonstrate much higher confidence levels both individually and as a team. Hopefully, the reappearance of genuine entertainment and enterprise indicates a much tighter squad with growing faith in each other. Hogg rarely has to shout at anyone these days.

Though spoiled by a routinely incompetent referee, who was no friend to either side, the stadium witnessed another entertaining game along with some genuinely encouraging performances by individuals working within a discernible team structure.

3 difficult tests now follow and there could well be setbacks, but supporters can have faith that the trajectory is upward even if it will still pan out over months, not weeks.

And, of course, we would have lost that one under……

Tentative steps in the right direction

Coping with and adapting to adversity have been qualities decidedly absent from Huddersfield Town’s recent past as ill fortune piled on to the shoulders of the Cowley brothers’ predecessors and pretty much crushed them.

Having built a revival on the foundations of a solid, consistent back four, the management team found themselves faced with three quarters of their defence ruled out with injury, including one for the season, and few obvious options to not only replace their preferred personnel but also to maintain the balance and standards which underpinned the improvement in results and league position.

The announced team seemed to suggest that switching to 3 centre backs may have been the answer they had devised with the 2 obvious full backs – Hadergjonaj and Kongolo – left on the bench, but few of us realised that O’Brien’s burgeoning talent extended to being a dynamic and quite excellent left back.

While the makeshift, and slightly more experienced, right back was not as successful overall, the defensive line largely achieved a good balance and, but for some late sloppiness, would have thwarted a decent Birmingham City side who fully contributed to a quite entertaining game under leaden West Yorkshire skies.

It was the visitors who made the brighter start as Town adapted to the enforced changes with Jutkiewicz predictably a handful but as the game developed, the hosts settled and had slightly the better of a first half with much enterprise but few chances.

A break by Kachunga, capitalising on a poor error in midfield ended with a rising, unthreatening effort and the German-Congolese had the best chance of the half as he met an excellent cross from Pritchard only to see his header well saved and Campbell’s follow up blocked.
Neither side, however, was able to sustain dominance and a hard fought contest swung to and fro.

For their part, Birmingham occasionally found the room for their more creative players, Daniel Crowley in particular, to operate but lacked the cutting edge some of their approach play deserved.

Bacuna was caught out once or twice down the visitors’ left but performed reasonably well in his adopted role for most of the first half while on the other side, O’Brien was outstanding in the face of not inconsiderable threat. 

Despite too many instances of sloppy distribution and occasional struggles against the physicality of Jutkiewicz, Stanković adapted reasonably well as Schindler’s new partner.

With very little playing time or opportunities for what seems to have been forever, the Slovenian’s time has now arrived; he deserves a little patience and will have to improve in possession but he must grab his chance.

The pre match problems surrounding who to play in the back four were alleviated to an extent by the return of Hogg who provided excellent cover in front of them (though this was at the expense of yet another booking). His copybook was blotted by his role in Birmingham’s equaliser later, but his energy and tackling thwarted and interrupted the visitors’ flow for long periods and his experience will be vital in the challenging period up to Christmas.

Trevoh Chalobah’s talent is evident but often tainted by his decision making and this game was no exception. However, his sumptuous ball behind Birmingham’s central defence for Campbell to open the scoring 10 minutes in to the second half was possibly the highlight of his Town career to date.

It was well taken by the veteran striker who calmly neutralised the recovering central defender with a side step before finishing clinically past Trueman.

Birmingham’s brief riposte after the goal was dealt with reasonably comfortably, but the insurance of a second goal always felt necessary if their excellent record in Huddersfield, dating back to the 90s, was to be broken, and it was Kachunga once more who was provided with a perfect chance to bury the Blues.

The busy Pritchard, who fizzed an excellent free kick in the first half which drew a routine but necessary save from Trueman, was the architect of a cross which should have been buried but, instead, a poor connection saw the ball loop in to Trueman’s hands and the missed opportunity seemed portentous.

Shortly after they should have been two down and out of the game, Pep Clotet made a change which would see a point returning to the West Midlands.

Already showing signs of strain at right back, Bacuna simply couldn’t handle Montero and wasn’t helped by the introduction of the defensively naive Diakhaby in front of him. For all Kachunga’s faults, his industry helps his full back and swapping wings left the temporary right back horribly exposed.

Montero’s threat was palpable and unchallenged; Bacuna’s positioning deteriorated and Birmingham’s threat increased to the point that an equaliser seemed inevitable.

Lunging in on the troublesome sub, Bacuna gave away a cheap free kick on the left. Rather than take it himself, Montero took up an unmarked position in front of the six yard box and despite some pointing out of the danger by Hogg and Kachunga, neither felt the need to mark him. An unexpectedly low ball in, given the number of big men in the box, was flicked on by Montero and finished at close range by Roberts.

Birmingham’s ascendancy, rather helped by Town’s substitution strategy, had been rewarded and it is difficult to argue that they didn’t deserve to share the spoils and it would have been worse but for a smart save by Grabara late on.

In keeping with the rest of the game, Town came back in to the contest towards the end but couldn’t find a winner. That opportunity had gone at one up and they were always unlikely to get decisions on two second half penalty appeals even if one challenge on Grant seemed a little reckless.

In the circumstances, a draw against decent opposition, all be it opponents who seem to struggle to convert, with the context of a cobbled together back four cannot be viewed as disappointing; under Siewert and late stage Wagner, the game would have been lost.

If there is a criticism to level at the Cowleys, it would be that their substitutions were ineffective at best and arguably too disruptive; particularly the introduction of a Diakhaby at a time when Bacuna’s frailties in an unfamiliar position were being exposed.

Hopefully, Simpson can return for the visit of Swansea on Tuesday; his experience was sorely missed in the last 20 minutes and it would also increase midfield options if O’Brien remains the solution at left back.
The home record continues to improve after such a long period of relentless vulnerability and there were quite a few positives to take away from the 90 minutes.

Pritchard’s previously buried talent may be ready to re-emerge, responding positively to the injury problems augurs well and there were glimpses of the side we could become with decent recruitment and the continuing improvements the Cowleys are bringing.

Our recovery remains a work in progress, but it is, at least, in progress.

50 years of hurt

Battered, bruised and beaten, Town never looked like ending their 50 year winless streak at Deepdale as the home side’s power pressing flattened the visitors for over an hour before quelling a late revival.

To cope with Preston’s superior physicality, Town needed the type of resilience on display at Griffin Park a week ago but countering a team who approach a game with surgical ambition is wholly different from one which applies relentless brute force with the occasional splash of skill and precision.

The loss of both Hogg and Brown proved fatal. Chalobah continues to flounder in the face of intensity and Kongolo’s passive presence at left back contributed to both first half concessions; the replacements simply weren’t up to it while the home side’s absentees, which were as potentially damaging, were shrugged off by a squad clearly of greater depth.

Though a home victory rarely looked in doubt – a second Town goal in their only encouraging spell late on may have produced an interesting finish – any semblance of a game plan was undone by a poor decision by a quite dreadful referee before 5 minutes had elapsed. Chalobah’s tackle on the edge of the box was fair and well timed but, it seems, the decision was predicated on Stockley’s dramatics. He gamely played on and was on hand to convert when Gallagher’s excellently struck free kick came back in to the area off the post.

The official was poor throughout with baffling decisions but had Kongolo made anything like a challenge immediately before the erroneous free kick award, Town wouldn’t have had to face a dangerous situation at all.

Town’s struggles persisted throughout a first half and their passivity all over the pitch was meat and drink to an Alex Neil side who were superior in every aspect of the game.

It didn’t help that an over the top tackle disrupted the visitors’ central defence with Elphick helped off the field with a serious injury which warranted more than a yellow card for Ledson.

Preston’s second always seemed likely as Town struggled to contain the Lilywhites’ persistent energy and greater commitment but, again, questions need to be asked of Kongolo who allowed acres of space for Barkhuizen to cross to the back post for Browne to squeeze his shot off Grabara in to the net.

It was the least the Lancastrians’ dominant display deserved and the score at the interval could have been significantly worse for the Terriers had the hosts made more of a seemingly never ending sequence of corners.

Overwhelmed and pretty obviously beaten, Town produced little of note before the interval going forward despite some probing by O’Brien who also had the only effort of the half with a blocked shot in a rare foray.

In contrast, Preston could feel slightly disappointed that their complete control garnered just 2 goals, particularly against a defence which could barely cope down one side and disrupted by Elphick’s injury. Stankovic and Schindler dealt with their aerial threat from the inordinate number of corners quite well but with colleagues’ inability to break out from a suffocating press, they rarely had time to recover from the constant home assaults.

Any hopes that Town could miraculously reverse the flow of a game in which they had been comprehensively battered were quickly extinguished 5 minutes in to the second half. Already visibly rocking under yet more home pressure, Kongolo’s arm got in the way of a cross in the area and a clear cut penalty was conceded. Gallagher’s idiosyncratic penalty taking style was employed and he smashed the ball centrally past Grabara.

At 3-0, Town were buried and a more severe battering was far more predictable than the slightly face saving result which would eventually transpire.

Right up to the 70th minute, the home side were by far more likely to extend their lead but the introduction of Pritchard and, to a lesser extent, Mounié, turned the tide and forced the home side on to the defensive for the first time.

Cowley’s tactical switch may have been a little too late in to the half, but replacing the isolated and frustrated Diakhaby with a central aerial presence in Mounié and sacrificing Simpson at right back for more creativity further forward with Pritchard produced a glimmer of hope for a comeback as the visitors finally got on the front foot.

Bacuna, who had slotted in on the right defensively, ran at Preston from deep and, largely unchallenged, got a shot off just inside the area and his poke took a deflection off a defender and past the previously untroubled Rudd.

Had a Pritchard header from a decent move beaten the defender near the line rather than being cleared, Preston’s resolve may have been tested a little more but, as it was, a reasonably encouraging last 20 minutes was to no avail.

Anything other than a comprehensive home victory would have been a travesty, however, and it should be said that Preston’s promotion aspirations look realistic and, given their budget, admirable. While there can be some misgivings at an approach which emphasises the physical, Neil has assembled a collection of low cost players in to a very effective unit who can overwhelm teams with a high octane energy and to see the last of the famous names taste the dubious pleasures of the Premier League would not be begrudged.

Perhaps the good people of Preston need to back their team a little better though; the large number of empty seats is scant reward or recognition for their achievements.

Town can now use two weeks to patch up the injured (though Elphick’s recovery is likely to take longer) and reflect on the strides they have made since the last international break; to take 3 points from two very tough assignments is at least 1 more than most would have predicted. The repairs to a severely damaged squad continue and setbacks are inevitable; losing to a very strong promotion contender who rarely fail at home was one of the most predictable.

Bees’ sting stifled

A final visit to Griffin Park, unless the FA cup throws up another meeting, saw Town extend their unlikely, hugely encouraging and faith restoring unbeaten run against a talented, in form Brentford who were squeezed and blunted for long periods.

The visitors’ suffocating tactics did not a great spectacle make but the quality of Grant’s winning strike illuminated a dank West London afternoon and the discipline and tenacity sustained throughout deservedly reaped a three point reward.

Disappointed home supporters will no doubt decry tactics which pushed towards the outer boundaries of gamesmanship at times, but their team looked and played like one rather too believing of the publicity accompanying recent, excellent, performances and the threat they undoubtedly possess rarely troubled a defensive master class from the Terriers.

Over the years at Brentford’s magnificently ramshackle home ground which is always a pleasure to visit despite a less than perfect view from the standing area of the away end, and going right back to Warnock’s days, Town win when they dig in and stifle and lose heavily if they opt for expansion.

Most remember the play off semi final in 1995 which kick started an unlikely long distance and intermittent rivalry but the final game of the 93/94 season which turned in to a ridiculously brutal game despite having no consequences for either team was just as relevant. 1-0 down and in danger of being bullied in to defeat, Warnock threw Jepson in to the mix for the final 20 minutes and carnage ensued. A 2-1 win set the tone for the next season and that dramatic evening and penalty shoot out.

Fortunes have ebbed and flowed ever since and the Griffin Park encounters have always been more interesting than those back in Huddersfield; the move away is very much to be regretted but may give the Bees the lift they need from admired also rans in to contenders. The area around will still have the same terrific pubs and friendly welcome but will never be quite the same.

Unsurprisingly, the home side were on top for the first half hour but fashioned little in the way of chances and solid defending prevented them from creating any at all in the box and a couple of wayward long range efforts were the sum total of attempts on goal.

Pressing from the front slowed the Bees’ progress and swallowed up space as vital seconds were gained to allow a defensive shape to form time and time again so that even on the rare occasion Brentford escaped the shackles, they were faced with a blue wall and a keeper in fine form.

Led by Schindler at the back and Hogg in the middle, Town laid a platform for a counter attacking style which was eventually to overcome the division’s form team.

Towards the end of a pretty dire first half, it was Town who nearly went in front. Good work by the indefatigable O’Brien, who is blossoming in to a major talent, led to a chance for Grant and the leading scorer brought out a very good save by Raya who pushed his sharp shot around the post.

O’Brien also supplied an excellent ball in to the box just before the break which narrowly eluded Campbell and Town had served warning to their hosts that their plan extended beyond stifling containment.

Following a similar pattern to the first, Brentford were on the front foot early in the second half but it was notable that the greatest moment of danger came as Town were temporarily down to 10 men; the prone Brown, who was to be replaced soon after by Hadergjonaj, was ignored firstly by the referee and then by Grabara who kept the ball in play rather than relieve pressure. 

He more than made up for the error, however, with a fantastic save from an inadvertent header under enormous pressure by Elphick, tipping the ball away to safety.

Elphick, it should be said after the pillorying he has had, not least in these columns, was excellent throughout and made several vital interceptions and was never tempted to over play.

Town then inflicted a crushing blow to Brentford, and one they possibly suspected was coming. A long ball from the impressive Simpson was held up well by the hard working Campbell who then laid it off to Grant. The striker now had the space in the box for which he yearns and hit a superb strike past Raya who had no chance this time.

With just under half an hour plus injury time undoubtedly boosted to compensate for some less than subtle time wasting from the visitors, an onslaught was to be expected but never really materialised and, if anything, Town looked more likely to add to their lead on the break and Grant provided a good opportunity for substitute Diakhaby to poke wide and combined excellently with O’Brien in a raid which ended with a wayward Chalobah effort.

There had been lingering doubts about the unbeaten run given the relative quality of opposition and a not unsubstantial quota of good fortune, but this win against a very talented opponent to extend it goes a great deal towards confirming the impression that the corner has truly been turned.

Disciplined, resilient and dangerous when allowed the Cowley brothers’ impact has been nothing short of miraculous; though they would rightly counter that miracles are fairy stories and hard work has transformed what can only be described as a bunch of losers in to an outfit which can compete with anyone in this division.

Farewell to Griffin Park, we’ll miss you.