A new era begins to take shape

Boosted by new recruits, with 3 on the pitch and one on the bench, Town’s resilience prevented a technically superior Brentford from scoring for the second time this season and secured a very well earned point as the Cowleys recalibrated their squad in ways which may only become clear over the next few months.

A flawless debut by Stearman, a very promising introduction for Toffolo to the rigours of the Championship and glimpses of Smith Rome’s youthful talent, despite a totally anonymous first half, were encouraging and an early reassurance that the disastrously wasteful recruitment which has all but destroyed any lasting Premier League legacy will not be repeated.

Bar a very late scare as the team rather wilted as they clung on to their reward, Brentford’s rightfully lauded front 3 were largely frustrated by a dogged home side who have been shipping far too many goals of late.

A relentlessly dull first half suited the struggling Terriers and provided an ugly but necessary platform against high flying visitors who will be hungrily looking above them at a team who, pre-Christmas, were nailed on automatic promotion winners seemingly imploding. 

Easy on the eye but rather ponderous in the final third, the visitors caused few problems before the break despite having the lion’s share of possession and a predictable defensive block from the hosts worked well. With 2 debutants in the back four, up against a seriously talented attack, the turgid fare can be forgiven and particularly if it translates in to a solid foundation for survival.

While Brentford’s lack of penetration was a little surprising, Town’s inability to muster any sort of threat was frustrating and the hard working Campbell cut a forlorn figure unsupported up front. Needs must, however.

Smith Rowe, starved of the ball but too often unavailable to receive it, looked on as the game completely bypassed him; he improved in the second half but it was probably the wrong game for his introduction as Town focused almost entirely on quelling their opponent’s flair, sacrificing commitment to attack.

It was something of a surprise, possibly not least to the Bees, that Town started the second half on the front foot and enjoyed a 15 minute period which should have seen them take the lead.

A bright start brought an early corner and encouraged the somnolent crowd for the first time. An excellent ball from Chalobah nearly released Grant but the somewhat out of form leading scorer couldn’t quite control and the opportunity passed.

It wasn’t long before his next one which proved to be something of a turning point. Smith Rowe, now a little more prominent, was set free down the right and his low, well hit cross evaded a dozing centre half and fell to the feet of Grant, 6 yards out. The pre-Christmas Grant would have buried the chance but he blasted over instead. Perhaps the reported interest in the striker died in that moment.

Smith Rowe had a reasonable effort comfortably saved and the wind in Town’s sails dwindled thereafter.

Sensing the moment for the home side had passed, Brentford reasserted control and began to dominate the ball again. Still over elaborate and lacking crispness once higher up the pitch, they were subdued by a defence marshalled by the experienced centre back pairing and a disciplined shape.

Mental and physical tiredness started to take their toll, however, and an under hit pass by Grabara to Schindler created avoidable danger. The visitors were unable to take advantage but were encouraged that cracks were appearing.

Schindler stopped a Brentford break on the halfway line to earn a booking and was a little fortunate not to be shown a second with a clumsy foul just minutes later and a visibly wilting Town were now clinging on in some desperation.

With just minutes left, Brentford’s big opportunity arrived. Clever, quick passing freed Dasilva on the right but the youngster’s well struck shot hit the upright and away to safety with Grabara beaten.

A defeat would have been hard on Town who fought valiantly and particularly hard on Stearman who simply didn’t put a foot or head wrong in a debut which will rank among the best ever for the Terriers. Remembering how early mistakes tarnished the unfortunate Elphick, the ex-Blade’s consummate display carries genuine hope and his vast experience can only help the bid for survival.

A game which attracted just one booking and a paltry 2 minutes added time in the second half pointed to an absence of the gamesmanship the Cowleys have found necessary to employ for their entire tenure (not least down at Griffin Park), and possibly reflected a greater trust in a team with, finally, their own choice of player integrated.

It is no mean feat to blank a clearly talented, if somewhat underwhelming on the day, Brentford team twice in a season where they may finally, and hopefully, be rewarded with a shot at the top league their unique approach deserves. Doubly so if elevation thwarts the ambition of our neighbours.

If the wastrels can be offloaded and maybe another new face introduced in the 10 days of useful preparation time ahead, the pervading gloom attending the dismal Stoke and Barnsley performances could be vanquished and a brighter future secured. 

We live in hope.

(And that’s it from me until 29/2. 60 today and heading off to this place for a few weeks)

Sucked back in

An already hugely challenging season took another nosedive at Oakwell with a completely unacceptable first half performance only slightly redeemed in the second period as Town took to the air in a failed attempt to force a result.

After a relatively bright opening, the visitors’ sluggish, disjointed and shapeless efforts shocked their large away following in to an angry and justified reaction as they sloped off sheepishly towards them.

Until Barnsley’s opener after 14 minutes, which should have been stopped either by better defending by Brown on Brown or better goalkeeping by Grabara who should have stopped the cross, the game had reflected the lowly positions of the protagonists; poor final balls from the hosts undermined occasionally competent approach play while the visitors carried no threat.

Once they conceded, however, Town deteriorated alarmingly. Second to every ball, panicked in and out of possession and devoid of ideas or intent, only Barnsley’s inability to translate overwhelming superiority in to chances saved the visitors from the ignominy their display deserved.

Home supporters could at least see what their team was attempting to do and what little guile was evident came from the men in red. Jacob Brown gave his namesake Jaden a torrid time but the youngster, who has struggled to find form after his return from injury, wasn’t helped by a less than committed Grant in front of him. The leading scorer is rarely effective when playing with his back to goal but provided no discernible contribution down the left and was rightly hauled off at the break.

In the middle, Chalobah’s endless desire for time on the ball which simply isn’t available in the Championship had predictable results, though he wasn’t helped by static team mates. As he occasionally showed in the second half, there is a powerful presence in there somewhere but Town surely don’t have the time to allow him to develop in to what he may become.

Aside from Stankovic, who demonstrated calm whilst many around and in front of him were consumed by inertia, and O’Brien, who was not, the performance had no redeeming features and had all the hallmarks of failure and doom.

Being only one behind, however, offered some hope. It was barely conceivable that Town could be anything other than better in the second half, and so it proved if only to a limited extent.

Brown was hooked at half time along with Grant though the Cowleys had quite a few choices over who should pay the price for the woeful display. Given their histories, the role of saviours thrust upon Mounié and Hadergjonaj was ironic but both made a difference in a second half where Town were, at least, competitive.

The improvement from dreadful to mundane hardly lifted the spirits but at least there seemed to be a semblance of purpose which had been entirely absent before the break. Still, no attempt on goal emerged from the basic competence suddenly acquired and after 20 minutes of futility, Barnsley extended their lead with a rare moment of quality in a humdrum derby.

Kachunga was easily beaten by a piece of trickery by Oduor on the half way line and after side stepping O’Brien lifted an excellent ball to Brown on the left. The winger double his assists with a fine first time pass to Chaplin who finished coolly.

What appeared to be a fatal blow was rendered irrelevant one minute later when a poor Bacuna cross was dealt with inadequately by a home defence which appeared increasingly vulnerable. The ball fell invitingly to O’Brien who lashed a first time half volley in to the top corner to put the game back in to the same position.

Desperation set in for both teams as the game descended in to an unsightly tussle befitting two relegation threatened rivals.

Town, largely on the front foot, launched high balls forwards for Mounié at every opportunity with any pretence of gaining midfield control long abandoned. Hadergjonaj made a difference on the left and the introduction of Koroma added a threat completely absent with Kachunga. In hindsight, he should have been the third half time substitute but it was telling that both full backs failed to finish the game. Kachunga’s ineffectiveness was simply switched to the right as Bacuna filled in at right back.

Mounié had a good effort smartly saved following an uncharacteristically deft turn in the area while Campbell’s flying volley which just cleared the bar would have been an excellent equaliser.

For the most part, however, the Terriers toiled and struggled to overcome Barnsley’s play halting tactics and time wasting; ploys which no Town supporter can complain about given our antics under the Cowleys.

Diaby was very fortunate to only be booked for a rash, dangerous challenge on O’Brien but the referee was simply awful in the second half and failed to spot a clear push on Mounié late in the game which should have lead to a penalty. Such a decision would have been soft but the offence was committed. The players’ infuriation with the referee was growing and several dissent bookings were deserved but so were a few home indiscretions which went unpunished. 

The equaliser didn’t come, Barnsley squandered a couple of breakaway opportunities and a low quality derby came to an end with the hosts taking 3 deserved points and the visitors in no doubt that their efforts were unacceptable to the packed away end.

The extended bounce gained by the appointment of the Cowleys is undoubtedly at an end but they surely deserve some patience. So far, they have been able to add one free agent to a hugely damaged squad, lifted the team out of the relegation zone and overcome significant handicaps on the way. Hopefully, they will be able to add to the two signings illegible for yesterday’s game, a left back is urgently needed, and rediscover a winning formula.

The stains of the last few weeks need washing away quickly.

All stoked up

A barely functioning Huddersfield Town side began the 20s with not so much a roar as a whimper against an organised, physical Stoke City who deservedly put their feeble relegation rivals to the sword.

As if being hauled back in to an increasingly tight battle at the bottom was not bad enough, any lingering hopes of capturing the Family Club of the year award disappeared when sections of the home support responded to arch provocateur James McClean with chants relating to a disbanded terrorist organisation as if the peace negotiated at the end of the last century hadn’t happened. 400 years of tragic Irish history distilled in to 3 words. But nobody should expect nuance from a crowd.

Illiterate politics and history aside, New Year’s Day proved to be a bleak return to the shapeless, incoherent early season performances thought to be long gone under the new management regime. The fragility of the revival under the Cowleys was comprehensively exposed; a limited, unbalanced squad succumbed to the ravages of a bruising festive period and, individually and collectively, mustered a display brimming with error, weakness and torpor.

Mental and physical fatigue should apply equally to both sides but while Stoke, who did have the luxury of rotation, appeared unaffected and impressively strong, Town visibly wilted from the off with a notable drowsiness in possession and a startling lack of awareness out of it. 

The resilience evident, even in defeat, in the Cowley brothers’ previous outings evaporated and while it is difficult to excuse a performance littered with ineptitude, it was so out of character that the hope is that a combination of a resurgent opposition and overwhelming strain produced a one off capitulation which can be fixed.

Clutching at any passing straw, a case can be made that all of the progress made under new management was derailed by a deadly combination of factors which rendered defeat inevitable.

Individuals, notably Simpson, Hogg, Stanković and Grabara, made a succession of unfathomable errors in the space of just 90 minutes and others contributed to those in at least two of them. 

Stoke are now, finally, managed by someone with the ability to organise and motivate a squad with significantly more talent than their league position would suggest and the new influences are taking effect.

Despite acknowledging that our principal goal threat operates far more effectively from the left, Grant was played in a front 2 and constantly lost possession in probably his worst performance in a Town shirt. The persistence with 4 4 2 until late in the game was a glaringly obvious error; without Kachunga’s defensive work disruption to the team was inevitable, but the Cowleys took the wrong option.

At crucial points in the game, a quite dreadful referee and his assistants failed to give the home side two clear penalties or punish a foul on Mounié with a second yellow card. 

None of these negate the fact that a single goal separated the sides at half time, yet the visitors should have buried their hosts before the break. Without a single effort on goal, a feeble response to Stoke’s physical superiority and an inability to impose any semblance of authority, being down by just one self inflicted concession was a massive relief.

From the avoidable concession of a corner in the first minute until the Potters hit the bar in first half injury time, Town looked abject, disjointed and lacking players prepared to take individual responsibility, with the possible exception of O’Brien whose energy was utterly wasted on the left of a tragically inadequate, insipid and slow midfield.

On the right, Bacuna occasionally rose above his sulking display with flashes of skill but his confusion with Simpson which contributed to the veteran slicing an attempted clearance straight to Powell to set up Vokes for an easy opener was his main impact on a day when he seemed impervious to instruction from the dug out. Bordering on insolent, don’t be surprised if he is rewarded with a lengthy spell staring at Danny Cowley’s back.

Stoke’s goal scorer terrorised Town’s defence with a display which mixed aggression, anticipation and know how; Schindler and Stankovic battled gamely on the whole but were comprehensively dominated.
Everywhere you looked, problems were evident and each compounded the other.

Grant was playing with his back to goal as a co-striker and anything fed up to him bounced off him at a variety of angles and invariably conceded possession. In the middle, Chalobah was slow to react, hesitant to challenge and largely uncomfortable in possession. Alongside him, Hogg’s work rate was undeniable but his effectiveness was almost entirely lacking. As a pairing they were horribly out classed by Joe Allen who buzzed around with purpose and intent.

With O’Brien and Bacuna exiled to the sides, creativity was largely absent and the visitors constantly succeeded in playing between the flat lines of our midfield and defence. Lacking Kachunga in front of him, Simpson had an afternoon to forget while young Brown tried to subdue the powerful Campbell on the left; he was successful to an extent but became more ragged as the game progressed.

The formation was clearly flawed from a very early stage of the game, evidently unable to cope with Stoke’s superior physicality and energy and hugely contributed to a first half almost entirely devoid of threat from the home side. Other than a couple of free kicks from deep, the only move of any note came down the right and resulted in Grant being clearly pushed in the area as he went for Simpson’s cross. 

After such a wretched first half, the events of the first 5 minutes of the second were bewildering. Grant, finally in a position facing the goal, brought a save from Butland which translated in to a corner he lifted high in to the area for Mounié to climb for and head home. 

Minutes later, Mounié was tripped by Lindsay. Having already been booked, the defender was extremely fortunate not to be dismissed but the lenience of the referee towards the men from the Potteries was a particularly baffling feature of an altogether bizarre afternoon.

Bacuna delivered a reasonable but not particularly threatening free kick which Butland decided to fist away rather than gather and the ball ricocheted off Batth who had no chance of avoiding conceding an own goal.

It was barely comprehensible that after an abject first half when they should have been already well beaten, Town found themselves in the lead. The Germans probably have a word for the mixture of joy and bewilderment which engulfed three and a half sides of the stadium. Fortunately, English provides the noun for what it turned out to be; a chimera.

Within minutes, Stoke were level. While Hogg was fouled in the build up, his hesitation invited a challenge and set Campbell away down the right and he had the simple task of picking out Powell in the area to finish smartly.

Normal service was resumed and Stoke had shrugged off set backs which would surely have overwhelmed them not too long ago and Town were about to hand them a lead they would not be relinquishing again.

A relatively innocuous free kick towards the edge of the area was eminently defendable until Grabara decided to intervene by rushing to the edge of his box and attempt a punched clearance which flopped on to the welcoming foot of Campbell who lobbed smartly in to the vacated net.

Following the examples set by Simpson, Hogg and Grabara, the hitherto reliable Stankovic then allowed a high punt forward to bounce with Vokes ready to pounce on his lack of decisiveness. The big forward nodded the ball in to the path of Campbell who, again, finished with lethal composure.

To rub copious amounts of salt in to the wounds, McClean strolled smiling to a last minute corner in front of his goaded abusers, played a short corner to Lee Gregory, received the ball back and then played in the ex-Halifax striker in behind a sleeping Grant to curl in the fifth.

After the early, out of context, flurry at the beginning of the half to establish their fragile, unlikely and undeserved lead, Town had collapsed and offered little resistance other than a decent Grant free kick which was well saved by Butland.

An exceptionally bad day with barely a redeeming feature (a single high point earned Mounié a man of the match award which the rest of the team were probably pleased to avoid) emphasised and illuminated both the structural weaknesses of a club trying to recover from at least 2 years of decay and misjudgement and the huge task in front of the Cowleys. Perverse comfort may be drawn from the fact that so many errors, dismal performances and rank decisions resulted in the loss of one game, rather than spread over a month.

There wasn’t even a decent bloody sunset.