An indifferent Boxing Day performance at Middlesbrough, according to witnesses, would have been as bearable as similar efforts at Stoke, Charlton and Wigan (which garnered 7 points) had 2 easy chances been converted.
A few days later, the miscreants of the Riverside both scored to beat a decent and in form Blackburn Rovers side and end a traumatic 2019 with a hugely important victory which provides significant hope for the new year and beyond.
Coming from behind to win for the first time in over 2 and a half years after a dozy, incompetent start to the game emphasised the Cowley effect on a squad of players with inherent flaws but a growing spirit and immensely improved resilience. Culled of disruptive or disinterested members, a club immersed in a losing mentality and headed for certain relegation is being transformed before our eyes with an intriguing January window about to open.
After an error strewn and shapeless opening 15 minutes which handed the visitors a lead which felt ominous, Town changed shape to bring Mounié in to the game; if flowing football was beyond a team desperately missing the disruptive force of the injured Hogg, knocking it longer provided some desperately needed impetus.
With all the confidence of a team enjoying a good run of form under an astute manager, Rovers strolled past their opponents’ lethargy with some ease and an uncontested cross from deep found an uncontested Danny Graham who headed home past a static Grabara from 10 yards after just 7 minutes.
It was a deeply disappointing concession but a direct result of a passive opening which thoroughly invited disaster.
Inured to the fact that their team simply isn’t capable of reversing setbacks, assuming damaging defeat or, at best, a fairly useless draw was the natural conclusion amongst supporters numbed, if not defeated, by the events of the past 2 years.
With Gallagher causing multiple problems up front and Rovers shrugging off the unfortunate serious injury to Dack, along with Holtby’s absence, a bleak afternoon (even one blessed with a spectacular sunset) seemed inevitable.
Town finally emerged from their languor as the quarter hour approached with Grant forcing a good save after being fed by O’Brien. The leading scorer’s control appeared to involve his arm before the strike, but the effort stirred the crowd and the team finally responded.
A mishit cross by Grant hit the bar and while it was far from one way traffic with Blackburn still capable of causing consternation at times, it had become a contest.
It was Grant, yet again, who should have earned himself a penalty to equalise but a largely out of his depth referee waved away what should have been a straightforward appeal.
Fortunately, the incompetence was rendered irrelevant just a few minutes later. Bacuna, effervescent after the horrendous start, was brought down on the left and got to his feet to deliver a superb free kick in to the corridor of uncertainty for defenders and the keeper alike. Piling in to the area with exquisite timing, Stanković headed past Walton to atone for his Boxing Day miss.
The rest of the half largely belonged to the home side and a little more composure in good situations may have established an interval lead; momentum had swung to the home side though this was occasionally threatened by a Rovers side who still looked dangerous when given the chance.
A good effort by Grant which narrowly missed the far post brought the meaningful action to an end and parity was just about fair in a reasonably entertaining contest. At the back, Schindler and the excellent Stanković had finally got to grips with Gallagher’s aerial threat, O’Brien had begun to fizz in the middle, Grant was threatening, and while far from perfect, the team as a whole had recovered from the worryingly poor start.
Perhaps half time came at a bad time but Town started the 2nd half poorly though some credit should be given to the visitors who took the initiative and one excellent move was only ruined by Buckley firing high and wide.
However, Town were individually and collectively switched on in the face of Blackburn’s improvement and they didn’t allow the visitors to translate their confidence in to another lead.
Scrappy at times, the game lulled until the hour mark when a great ball in to the area by Bacuna was met by an equally good run by Grant. The leading scorer’s attempt flicked off a defender for a corner which was wasted as a practised routine broke down with Brown on the edge of the box unable to get a first time shot away and too engulfed to get the ball back in to the danger area.
Give me lucky generals, as Napoleon never said, and the Cowleys had an enormous slice of luck when an injury to Kachunga forced them to change their plan to replace Mounié with Campbell. Almost immediately, a press by the ever alert O’Brien pinched possession and fell for Town’s ill starred striker who took a couple of strides forward before unleashing a curling masterpiece in to the top corner from distance.
Mounié was the second Town player to atone for his Middlesbrough sin and with a memorable, possibly parting, shot.
The Beninese is regularly lauded in song by the Town faithful despite his many ineffective displays; there is a residual affection for a lad who is clearly a well liked character in the squad (evidenced by the Cowleys including him while others have been unceremoniously and rightly jettisoned) and there is an argument to keep him as an option. That argument may not be the strongest ever mounted and certainly not universally accepted, but the Cowleys have earned the right to make the decision and this should be respected, either way.
Meanwhile, Campbell introduced himself to proceedings with two fouls in quick succession including a late tackle which earned a merited booking. It is not the first time he has rampaged about opposing defenders like a latter day James Vaughan and he needs to calm down.
Rovers’ final chance to grab a point arrived with minutes of normal time remaining. A corner swung in by Downing was met well by Adarabioyo but Grabara was equal to it and made an excellent save to preserve Town’s lead.
A mesmerising run by Grant nearly put the game to bed, and he possibly should have passed to better placed colleagues rather than trying to squeeze the ball in at the near post but, with his record, his selfishness is entirely forgivable.
Less forgivable was the addition of 9 minutes injury time with the suggestion that the 4th official held up the board upside down and really meant 6.
As it happened, Rovers struggled to trouble a deep set home defence and another step towards safety was achieved.
While Town missed Hogg and the midfield looks weaker without him, O’Brien had a very good return and Bacuna’s contributions were often telling. Chalobah however remains promising on the front foot at times but fundamentally naive. His decision making baffles on too many occasions and his development needs to show a breakthrough soon.
All problems aside, and many challenges remain, the Cowleys have been remarkably successful with a broken club on a downward spiral reaching peak velocity. The future looks very promising.
Happy New Year to all.