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.