Unnoticed and unloved amid compelling drama elsewhere, Town completed their miserable season with a heavy loss at the New Den with a second half collapse which barely aroused a whimper of ire amongst their exhausted, grudgingly relieved and unconvinced support.
With several players rested, a late dental emergency and an entirely unsuccessful injection of youth, the Terriers, after a reasonable first half, were swept away by the nearly men of South London as defensive errors buried any ambition to finish with a flourish.
The only solace to be taken from a deader than dead rubber was that there were few conclusions to be drawn about the future which can only become clearer once the sacking of the Cowleys is explained beyond the bullshit bingo about different visions.
A game of funereal insignificance neither demands nor deserves much attention.
Millwall started strongly, exploited early weaknesses down Town’s right and in central defence and eased in to an early lead with a well taken but virtually unopposed stroll through the visitors’ rearguard.
To their credit, Town overcame their obvious structural problems to take the game to Millwall for the last 30 minutes of the half and equalised with a well constructed goal by Grant following a good through ball by the otherwise hugely unimpressive Pritchard (if his last act as a Town player was to blast a far post corner high and long to nobody, it will be a fitting epitaph).
Unfortunately, and rather than building on the momentum of the equaliser, Town yet again succumbed to a set piece goal shortly after the break. Coleman, who had a particularly poor evening on probably his final appearance, failed to connect with a decent corner delivery by some distance and Stearman was easily beaten in the air at the back post.
Town’s attempts to recover for a second time were sunk when a Stearman slip, perhaps distracted by Chalobah, who was head and shoulders above any player in the coral, was seized upon and despatched.
The Lions’ fourth goal was….Oh, God! What is the point? A game nobody cared about, ending a season everyone has hated with the architects of survival, however grim the methods, gone and with conspiracies, rumours and uncertainty swirling around a club in massive transition, what else is there to do but await events?
Thanks for reading this season. The next one can’t be any worse, can it?
A momentous tussle with huge implications at both ends of the table ended with Huddersfield Town realistically, if not mathematically, safe from relegation and opened the door for a much admired club to take their place in the top flight for the first time in many years.
Brentford will have to hold their nerve in a difficult looking fixture at Stoke to take advantage of West Brom’s rather surprising defeat against the struggling Terriers but an amazing run of wins combined with the nervousness and inconsistency of the Black Country outfit since the restart, bodes well.
For Town fans, the ridiculously labyrinthine calculations, complicated by actual and pending points deductions, can be put away for another season and it is to be hoped that the scramble for safety and avoiding what would’ve been a debilitating and hugely damaging relegation can be utilised as a catalyst for change.
Tellingly, Danny Cowley spoke of the recruitment of players suitable for the Championship after the game; a tacit acceptance that the current squad is lacking in some pretty fundamental attributes. For all the criticism he has had in recent weeks, Cowley, his brother and his management team have achieved survival for a club in astonishing and frightening decline and from what appeared to be a hopeless position after 8 games.
The artificiality of the conclusion to the season added to the challenges they faced. Meeting them hasn’t been entirely convincing at times and the lack of goals in far too many of the games has been a constant worry, but to win a tactical battle over the highly regarded Bilic is something to be celebrated. The regular hard knocks taken in a brutally difficult season after arriving to horrendous circumstances will surely hold the brothers in good stead for next season.
They will prepare for the next campaign with many problems swirling and some without obvious solutions. A squad packed out with loanees, young and old, a diaspora of expensive, unsuitable players still officially registered with the club and little chance of recouping the huge sums laid out for them and the likely departure of the leading scorer represent massive obstacles to success; they can take some comfort, however, in the fact that successful times for the club have usually arisen in adversity and never via the cheque book.
Celebrations of survival should be short and muted. An entirely forgettable season with few highlights needs to be consigned to history and a long, sober look at the future needs to be taken, with the hope that necessity will be the mother of invention.
Leaving out the goals of Grant and the invention of Smith-Rowe signalled an acceptance, unsurprisingly and realistically, that an evening of attrition was in store. King, Hogg and a slightly advanced O’Brien were to be the fulcrum of a team designed to sacrifice possession for solidity with Bacuna and Willock out wide to hopefully add some flair on the counter.
In the early skirmishes, Willock’s running at the visitors’ rearguard provided some hope for the Terriers. Bacuna’s more esoteric contribution was to buy a cheap free kick on the left which he whipped in towards the keeper. Awkwardly pitching just in front of Johnstone, the ball squirted off his shin directly to Willock who finished instinctively.
The vital early lead was reward for a bright start which contrasted with the Baggies’ sluggishness and provided a platform for the strugglers against their technically superior opponent.
Mazy, if unproductive, runs by the Benfica loanee, late of the Hawthorns, were the defining feature of the first 15 minutes. While failing to produce chances, the intent introduced some doubt in the minds of the visiting team that the routine win many expected could prove a little more troublesome.
Eventually, the promotion chasing visitors gained control of the ball though much of their possession was unconvincing and lacked the edge needed to break down a solid Town defence. Unfortunately, this relatively comfortable state of affairs was not to last until the break and following a strong appeal for a penalty when Stearman clumsily bundled in to a well positioned Baggie, the linesman who failed to spot it also failed to raise his flag against 3 West Brom players at a free kick. Lössl could only parry the ball on to O’Shea’s head for the equaliser.
It was a disappointing end to a reasonably positive half for Town who would now have to regroup to gain the minimum reward of a point in their pursuit of survival.
On the whole, the threatened onslaught by Albion didn’t really materialise despite dominating possession and territory. With the excellent Stearman and Schindler in the centre, another fine right back performance from Chalobah and Toffolo back to his best, Town absorbed the visitors’ thrusts and only a fierce attempt by Pereira which was too close to Lössl provided heightened discomfort.
With 20 minutes to go, Town introduced threat with Grant and Smith-Rowe on to replace King and the spent Bacuna. It was a move which proved pivotal. Despite the appearance of the loathed Charlie Austin, his assault on Lössl as a Saint will not be forgotten any time soon, the Baggies failed to add enough flair or penetration in their efforts to throw off the threat from the Bees, and they were about to be stung.
Picking up the ball just inside West Brom’s half, the effervescent O’Brien, back to his battling best, shrugged off an attempted foul, stayed on his feet and drove menacingly towards the visitors’ retreating defence. Having drawn them towards him, he then slipped a lovely ball to Smith-Rowe whose first touch set up an inch perfect finish with his left.
With just minutes left, the goal was a hammer blow for Bilic and his men and there was no little pleasure in Austin committing a clumsy foul on the halfway line to run down the clock to, for him, a teary defeat.
The tension, anger and frustration which had built over the course of a mixed post lockdown season transformed in to a collective sigh of relief for a club still reeling from the ravages of 2 horrible seasons. Even the unintended consequences of victory over the 2nd placed club could be ignored, given that Barnsley’s loss on Thursday had already made that consequence nigh on inevitable.
Improved but utterly unconvincing, Town’s crawl to safety inched a little closer with a performance not lacking in effort but largely devoid of inspiration and entirely devoid of the currency desperately needed in a relegation battle.
A bright start predictably faded against a tame Wednesday side unable to replicate their excellent win in London on Saturday but who, nevertheless, created opportunities to pick up 3 points in a game of little quality.
Town have Lössl to thank for a point which, with other results mostly helping their cause, puts them in a slightly better position mathematically but with a nervous eye on St Andrews where Charlton face a Birmingham City side who, incredibly, managed to concede 3 goals to the Terriers in a result which looks less remarkable as the season bores on.
A very good save from Odubajo on the half hour was eclipsed by a quite outstanding one just before the break as Harris curled an excellent effort which was pushed around the post by the on loan Dane, reminiscent of his stop which won a game against Newcastle United in those early, heady Premier League days which are so very distant now.
For all their possession and efforts in an opening 15 minutes where they were dominant in possession and not unintelligent with it, Town mustered one genuine effort when Smith-Rowe, who had a good first half before fading alarmingly later, sent a decent chance wide. Still, the visitors showed more enterprise and positive intent than they had against Luton, though it was difficult to imagine how they could not.
Pinned back, the Owls’ couldn’t find any sort of rhythm in the first quarter but Town, parched by a long drought, rarely looked capable of scoring in their purple patch which, in any case, came to an end at the first water break.
Alarmingly wide spaces, notably on Town’s left flank, began to open up and the early grip they held on proceedings evaporated to the point that the half time whistle was a blessed relief.
In the second quarter – the mandated refreshments during each half is turning us in to the NFL without the dancing girls and product placement – Town lost their concentration and very nearly their way. Stilted forays forward, undermined by hesitancy and an unwelcome return to the safety first style which blighted the Luton fiasco, diminished the already barely perceptible threat we now haul around the pitch like an elderly donkey, with the highlight being a Grant shot which went for a throw.
With Lössl’s late, excellent save, parity was preserved and with a record of just one recovery from going a goal down in this putrid season (an affliction stretching way back to Wagner days) it may prove as important as his Stamford Bridge intervention though there is precious little evidence that salvation, should it come, will not pan out just as badly.
The game appeared to swing back in the visitors’ direction after the break for a short while and, finally, a chance was created for Grant in an area in which he has excelled during his brief Town career. Hogg was the unlikely source with an incisive ball forward which the leading scorer latched on to, beat a defender and instinctively struck a good effort just wide.
Shortly afterwards, Grant nearly turned provider with a cross which should have been a gift for Mounié but Lees managed to block the header and extend Town’s blight in front of goal.
Wednesday made two changes after the scares with Pelupessy and Da Cruz providing a more muscular approach to the home side’s faltering efforts. Both added energy and Town’s brief ascendence was subdued. Lössl was forced in to a smart save by Luongo and with Bannon threatening to influence the contest rather more than he had in the first half, nerves began to jangle.
Overall, however, neither set of players could truly exert sustained quality and attrition reasserted itself. Lees for Wednesday and Stearman for Town were the pick of the respective rear guard actions, but it was the visitors who spurned the best second half opportunity.
Toffolo, recovering some of the form which seemed to have deserted him post hiatus and perhaps adversely influenced by Grant’s woeful displays, burst down the left and played in a teasing and seemingly perfect ball in to the box, only for recently arrived substitute Campbell arriving a split second too soon or too late (it was difficult to distinguish) and blazing over. Only time will tell whether this miss or Lössl’s save(s) will be definitive.
Lössl was called in to action one last time before the end, inelegantly spilling a relatively tame effort before quite miraculously preventing Da Cruz converting the rebound for a goal which would have been disallowed for offside.
As ever, results elsewhere shone perspective light on a hard earned point. Luton conceded an equaliser which rather neutralised disappointment at the dropping of 2 points without alleviating the tension ahead of the final, difficult looking games.
Hull’s shellacking at the hands of Wigan, who will surely and admirably accumulate the points necessary to negate their punishment, pushed their goal difference to an extent that it acts as an extra point.
With Barnsley having a tougher run in even than Town’s and requiring extraordinary performances to catch up, it feels like a Charlton defeat at Birmingham (admittedly a stretch on current form) could determine whether 48 points will be enough to survive.
The anguish will endure until the final day unless Town can somehow raise themselves and gain a result against high flying West Brom. Optimistically, and verging on Panglossian, the absence of expectation, which weighed so heavily against Luton and Wigan, may help. Survival would not, and should not, be cause for celebration after a season which may yet turn from gravely disappointing and persistently worrying to disastrous, but it would be, at least, some sort of platform on which to build.
Huddersfield Town’s pursuit of back to back relegations received a timely boost on Friday evening with a gloriously inept and thoroughly deserved capitulation to the Championship’s bottom club, Luton.
Bereft of bravery, instinct or recognisable ambition, a persistently leaden first half display was followed by a calamitous nonsense of a second half which would be tragic if it were not so predictable.
Lacking personality, responsibility and even a trace of character the seemingly ironically named Terriers were comprehensively swept aside by the Hatters who topped their hosts all over the pitch with a disdain belying their own likely demotion.
If and when the Bedfordshire club drops from the division, they will, at least, have a sound basis to rebuild on decent foundations which have maybe been a little too fragile for this hugely difficult division following a renaissance from their banishment from the Football League in 2009.
The appalling state of Town’s expensive malfunctioning squad, a parade of charlatans robotically going through the motions, holds no such promise as the ghosts of the mid 70s collapse echo through the decades.
Though impossible to prove and perhaps fanciful, the club seems incapable of functioning without the support of a crowd which has been monumentally patient, absurdly forgiving and hopelessly optimistic.
Playing in an empty home stadium (away performances have been reasonably tolerable) has exposed the lack of collective spine the support, built up in better times, has inserted to keep heads, barely, above water. Beyond inevitable falling support, the most corrosive legacy of post 2018 squads is that those who remain will feel that they have been taken for chumps by the club. Useful idiots.
The pervasive stench of failure clogs the attempts at a revival which seems further away than ever. Though undoubtedly culpable along with the players, it is beginning to look like a task beyond the Cowleys, but eliciting coherent, professional efforts from this squad is like nailing a blancmange to a wall.
Despite their insistence that they have belief and trust in the squad, the evidence before our eyes is that this is either disingenuous or simply naive. With the exception of Smith-Rowe and Chalobah, this was another defeat where players regularly abdicated personal responsibility; passing the buck is now a feature of a side in desperate trouble.
With courage notably absent, the necessary aggression in a relegation battle is fatally diminished. The strategy to avoid defeat appears to hinge more upon futile possession than domination of the opponent. Luton barely needed to break sweat to contain their timid hosts and could simply keep their shape and watch Town pass unthreateningly in front of them.
A team beaten by 5 at home by Town’s latest bore a draw victims Reading and who conceded a late, damaging equaliser to their closest relegation rival should have represented a psychologically damaged opponent, ripe for exploitation. Town played two holding midfielders.
One of those, the subdued O’Brien, had the only effort of any note in a thrill free first half, shooting tamely from range straight in to the arms of the visitors’ unperturbed keeper.
Unable to inject pace or incision, the home side’s predictable and timid forward play was blunted by the ineffectual Grant and Willock on the flanks. The former, whose post lockdown contributions have smacked of a player protecting his own future, was almost entirely inept. Slow, unaware and lacking commitment the leading scorer was easily blotted out of the game and despite the dangerous over reliance on his goals his removal from the team is surely imminent and necessary.
With neither defence unduly troubled in a first half of inexorable tedium, the opportunity to arse kick at half time should have been irresistible for the Cowleys and while it is impossible to know what was said, the demeanour of the team as they strolled out several minutes after their opponents who were waiting and prepared didn’t indicate that much would change.
In contrast, Nathan Jones must have relished the break. Any trepidation or fear of defeat which existed before the game had evaporated and all that need be added to his team was a little ambition and belief.
Within minutes, Town’s lethargy was exposed and punished. A crunching tackle on Chalobah who, to his credit, did not pull out of the encounter and played with at least some energy throughout, lead to a corner and the Hatters took their opportunity and converted their height, strength and aggression in to a lead they never looked like relinquishing.
With Lössl deciding not to come for a decent delivery, Schindler was bullied out of position allowing Bradley to head home from short distance.
With a whole half in which to recover, Town’s response could be described as insipid but this adjective hardly scrapes the surface of the ensuing debacle.
Lacking guile, speed of thought and any semblance of cohesion, Town could not shake themselves out of the shackles of the safety first approach adopted from the beginning and no amount of substitutions could alter the rigid blueprint.
Rather than making any difference, 2 of the substitutions proved culpable for the 2nd Luton goal. Bacuna, whose talent seems to be unleashed at the whim of Bacuna, slipped while trying to execute a cross field ball and the loss of possession put Town on the back foot.
Schindler, who seems to be more affected by the lack of a home crowd than anyone, was easily outpaced by Collins whose fierce shot cannoned off the post and back in to danger. King, a straight swap for Hogg 5 minutes earlier, failed to react and Lee smashed home to seal a win which was already in the bag barring Damascene level conversion of the hosts’ form and attitude.
At no point did a turnaround look remotely possible as Luton performed the simple task of allowing their opponents to find different ways of presenting opportunities for their central defenders to easily clear from what we could laughably call danger.
The management have to take their fair share of responsibility for the costly debacle. Post match claims that the players were nervous is damning. Lavishly remunerated professional footballers shouldn’t need reassurance to play in an empty stadium in a game which could have virtually ensured survival. The formulaic, rigid game plan they were asked to carry out, and until the end given that the only change was to hit the ineffective Mounié, mitigated against flair, individuality and enterprise.
The defeat leaves us nervously eyeing the results of others, including in the court of financial imprudence which may doom Sheffield Wednesday, which is a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs and doesn’t move the Club one iota forward.
“Typical Town” was the post match refrain. It would also be typical of them to go and win at Wednesday on Tuesday but a huge amount of soul searching is needed in the interim.
Reading FC will always be a part of Huddersfield Town’s history, as the vanquished play off finalist at the end of the remarkable 2016/17 season.
Their supporters, on the whole, took the defeat in good grace perhaps with a knowing smile as they looked kindly upon our excitement to be joining the Premier League circus they had recently experienced.
As the novelty of global media exposure turned in to annoying, patronising blather, not always delivered with respect, and finally to sneering derision at a club struggling to compete at the top level (self inflicted wounds aside, it was a massive step up requiring two consecutive miracles), the Royals’ fans’ stoical reaction became increasingly understandable.
5 years ago, and rather less memorably, The Madjeski Stadium saw Chris Powell’s thrill laden tenure come to an abrupt end following a creditable 2-2 draw, making way for the Wagner era which will eventually be remembered for its glory rather than the sad denouement still haunting the club long after his departure.
Powell was co-commentating with Paul Ogden for Radio Leeds and the iFollow service; a likeable and respected man whose apparent belief that Huddersfield Town had its limits was thoroughly demolished by his successor but who could be forgiven for thinking that, ultimately, he was just being realistic.
Town are now back in the same position Chris left us in, scrabbling around at the ugly end of a perennially difficult league hoping against hope that the incompetence of others, on and off the field, will provide the gap which will allow another season in a crazy division staring down the barrels of massive financial difficulties which could poison the very basis of the competition.
Still, the future will look after itself and, meanwhile, Town needed to build on the 4 points, garnered in contrasting style, from the past 2 games. The charmless point earned at home against Preston was, at least, a small step forward as others faltered; now for a tough looking fixture at Reading.
A much improved and far more convincing performance earned another point and another clean sheet. Spells of dominance which invariably fizzled out in front of goal should have resulted in a win, though the disappointment of failing to overcome a largely sterile Berkshire outfit unable to replicate their demolition of Luton was tempered, again, by favourable results elsewhere.
Comfortably quelling the early control of the home side which lacked any real threat, Town slowly began to worry their rather lethargic hosts with strong running, decent passing movements and the piercing thrusts of Smith-Rowe who looked of conspicuously higher class than anyone on the field.
Willock had a reasonably influential first half with incisive running but his crossing was invariably wayward. Promising build up play, particular in the first quarter before the drinks break and after an uneventful first 10 minutes, established a semblance of control for the visitors who looked hungrier than the hosts, but hesitancy and poor decision making thwarted the Terriers.
The otherwise excellent Smith-Rowe could have squared to Hogg after an excellent run on to a through ball by Stankovic but chose to shoot weakly at Barbosa who gathered easily.
Town’s offensive play was massively improved on the pallid fare served up against Preston but, frustratingly, entirely lacked the ruthlessness necessary to win games on the road. At least the play was leading to attempts on goal but, sadly, they were either wayward or weak and towards the end of the half, the visitors’ grip loosened.
2 midfield errors in quick succession created chances for the home side. Meite, whose goals had destroyed Luton but who didn’t carry the same threat in this game, failed to connect with a good ball over the top, while Lössl did well to close down Puscas who had got behind a defence exposed by another midfield error.
A relatively entertaining first half was perhaps enhanced by the comparison to Saturday’s attritional eyesore and Town’s serial failures when in threatening positions tainted the decent standard of general play they produced.
An early chase by Smith-Rowe early in the second half forced the unusually quiet Swift in to an under hit back pass to his keeper which Grant, perhaps a little less committed to a challenge than he should have been, nearly reached ahead of Barbosa. Overall, the leading scorer had a poor night and his trademark cutting in from the left was easily dealt with by the home defence.
Halfway through the second half, Town’s principle threat, Smith-Rowe, was replaced by Pritchard. The Cowleys clearly feel that the prodigious talent is unable to safely complete 90 minutes at the moment, or his young legs are being saved for the massive Luton game on Friday, but he looked disgruntled to be replaced and not without cause.
His replacement can produce decent link up play but simply doesn’t trouble defenders enough and lacks thrust. One cross shot which deflected off a defender and forced a routine, if a little uncomfortable, save was the sum total of his threat and a signing which promised much continues to disappoint.
On both flanks, Toffolo and the excellent Chalobah, got forward with conviction but were unable to provide the spark for a goal, while at the back, Stankovic produced a display which was tinged with the regret that an under utilised talent will be departing at the end of the season. There are various reasons for him appearing so few times and for his departure, but there remains an overwhelming sense of waste.
Town were unable to reproduce the purple patch of the first half despite some lengthy spells of possession. The disruption of substitutions didn’t help and, in particular, the midfield base of Hogg and King while unspectacular, had provided the visitors with a good level of control from which to build attacks and subdue the hosts. It was always the plan to share the Hogg role with O’Brien, but it took the youngster quite a while to find the pace of the game. King took a knock late on with Chalobah’s fine full back display interrupted to shore up the midfield.
Losing Smith-Rowe automatically degraded thrust and creativity while Mounié’s aerial ability, admittedly not put to much use, was replaced by Kachunga’s hassling. Perhaps taking a small risk with Smith-Rowe was one worth taking; he looked far from spent.
The replacements were rational in the context of utilising the full resources of the squad in a brutal schedule and with a massive encounter just days away, but the final stages of the game drifted away from the Terriers and, alarmingly, Reading found a very late gear which threatened to ruin Town’s night.
Suddenly on the front foot, the hosts made life a little too uncomfortable and Lössl was forced in to action for the first time since his first half block. Routine as it was, it echoed Preston’s late flurry and suggests a vulnerability which needs addressing.
Late goals for Brentford and Barnsley produced more helpful results elsewhere which put a gloss on a mundane away point. They now need to complete the job on Friday to get to the 50 point mark which should secure Championship status.
A relentlessly dreary encounter with a Preston side in the last chance saloon for an unlikely play off place ended, thankfully, with a valuable point and a small step forward as Town’s rivals collapsed to heavy defeats.
Evidently fatigued in mind and body, Town met the physicality of their Lancastrian visitors but at the expense of creativity; one shot on target, which barely troubled the opposing keeper, was the damning statistic though it was one more than the Lilywhites managed despite being much the more threatening side.
The resolute defending which earned the point was nearly thrown away in the dying embers of an encounter whose passing nobody will either mourn or remember as 3 Preston attempts narrowly failed to provide a lifeline for their faint ambitions. A couple of efforts from substitute and veteran Scott Sinclair curled just wide while Maguire’s shank in to the side netting was a genuine let off for the hosts at the very end of injury time.
A point for both sides was generous reward for a spectacle of drab monotony. While Preston can point to a progressive first 20 minutes of domination which regularly troubled Town’s left flank, most of the deliveries in to the box were routinely cleared and the visitors were unable to make anything of a succession of corners and the odd free kick.
After the first water break, Town tightened up considerably, held a better shape and successfully doused Preston’s ambition. Sadly, it didn’t translate in to any improvement up front with O’Brien’s speculative and unremarkable effort straight at Rudd elevated to the major incident of the half.
Defensively, however, Town deserved some plaudits. After the sluggish performances against Wigan and Forest, Schindler and Stearman’s partnership has come under considerable scrutiny even though there isn’t much in the way of alternatives, but the last 2 games should restore some confidence in the duo who both had strong claims for man of the match. The German probably scrapes it with a wonderfully executed tackle in the second half which halted a Barkhuizen raid which may have turned ugly (everything else did!).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Town’s more combative players stood out in a hour and a half of attrition. Hogg and O’Brien worked tirelessly to halt Preston’s flow in the middle of the park, provided good cover in front of the central defenders and helped out the flanks when necessary. All at the expense of genuine offensive threat, however.
Even the introduction of Smith-Rowe, replacing the infuriatingly ineffective Pritchard failed to spark much forward momentum though he made one or two thrusting breaks which only lacked support.
Mounié also entered the fray from the bench and his aerial ability provided more respite than Campbell’s attempts at harassing. Had there been more support around him, some of Mounié’s well intentioned headers in to space may have produced some semblance of danger but they all went to waste.
Quaner arrived on to the pitch to deliver his usual idiosyncrasies which were ever so slightly more effective than Kachunga’s falling over and failure to control the ball.
As minutes turned in to seemingly endless hours, the beautiful game continued to take a savage beating and Alex Neil’s introduction of Stockley added an extra layer of brutality the abomination richly deserved, but to little effect.
The scares in the closing stages at least provided an opportunity for emotional response from what must have been a vastly diminished audience, but couldn’t extinguish the loathsome fare served up in normal time.
Clutching their valuable point, however, Town can see the finish line and with a two result advantage over the presumptive bottom three with Wigan in it and strong goal difference advantage over Barnsley and Luton, the chances of survival are much improved since last Sunday.
A desperately needed win on the road in this strangest of mini seasons coupled with the news that Wigan has been plunged right back in to relegation contention with a 12 point deduction boosts Town’s survival hopes but with still a lot more to do.
The inauspicious start to the ersatz conclusion of the season has lead to some deserved criticism of the club, though occasionally overblown amid plenty of straw men.
Comprehensively outclassed by Wigan, whose superiority over the whole of the bottom half has been evident throughout 2020 and who are probably capable of overcoming a 12 point penalty and a defeat to Forest which owed a little to circumstance as well as flaws, Town needed to take the flak and prove themselves to an exasperated support.
In Birmingham, and in direct contrast to the first game back, the beleaguered Terriers found the perfect opponent.
The Blues’ form and circumstances, with a manager running down the clock before returning to Spain and with seemingly little to play for, presented a good resuscitation opportunity for Town, and the manner of the victory provides a lift which shouldn’t necessarily be tempered by the quality or commitment of the opposition, but neither can the despair/joy pendulum swing too far, too soon.
Perhaps the most important redemptive feature of the game was the centre back pairing of Schindler and Stearman. Both of them were conspicuously poor in both of the previous reversals, appearing worryingly sluggish and bafflingly incompetent but put those performances behind them as they restricted Jutkiewicz, normally so effective against a team for whom he was distinctly ineffective, to one good opportunity early on which he headed well over.
Hogan, another persistent tormentor of the Yorkshiremen, was equally unproductive. Much of Birmingham’s intent was illusory, which may explain the predictability of their two forwards but the shackling imposed by Town’s central defenders was an encouraging sign of restored form which should engender greater confidence for the challenges ahead.
A very good start from the visitors, similar to but more cohesive than the early stages of the Wigan and Forest games, built early pressure and following several excellent attacks, invariably pivoting around Smith-Rowe, who was back to his best, and a couple of off target attempts on goal, Town were awarded a penalty for a lunge in the area which halted Grant’s run following a Smith-Rowe/Toffolo link up down the left.
The decision was an easier one to give than the barge on Pritchard at Forest, which could have provided the platform for a better result, and emphasises the importance of taking the lead in most Championship games.
Grant’s penalty was not as comprehensively despatched as most of his others, but gave Town a vital reward for their early enterprise denied them at the City Ground.
Grant, Toffolo and Smith-Rowe combined superbly at times, and though the leading scorer rather faded as the game went on, the early marauding unsettled the home side and engendered a fear in the Blues’ defence which never left them.
Hogg and O’Brien, and the latter in particular, produced significantly improved performances to back up the forwards and the team which had looked so good when defeating Bristol City and Charlton finally re-emerged.
The dominance of the first 20 minutes rather faded after the drinks break and City should have equalised when a good cross found Jutkiewicz unmarked only for his header to fly safely over the bar. This motivated the home side but, to Town’s credit, they repelled what would be an exaggeration to call an assault and saw the game through to half time with a precious lead.
Regrouped, the visitors reestablished superiority after the break and an early spell of pressure resulted in a corner and a second penalty award. The referee, who was excellent throughout, spotted a clear takedown of Schindler in the area and, remarkably, Town were awarded their 3rd spot kick in just under an hour of football.
There have been times when a penalty decision has been as likely as Lineker leaving Twitter for Parler, so it was regrettable that Grant, usually ultra reliable, was denied by Camp and unable to follow up on the rebound.
Instead, the ball went out to the left where Toffolo was fouled for a free kick which seemed shrouded in disappointment. Instead, the ex-Lincoln man, whose performance was much nearer his best, delivered a great ball in to the corridor of uncertainty and Campbell’s unstinting hard work was rewarded with a poacher’s goal expertly executed.
Coming so soon after the potentially damaging penalty miss demonstrated how games can turn on such incidents. Birmingham’s elation and any thoughts of turning the tide evaporated in less than 2 minutes and Town’s despair was similarly reversed.
Other than a far post header – Jutkiewicz, who else? – Birmingham’s threat was snuffed out by the well disciplined visitors with resilience and fortitude, and on the break, Town always looked the more likely to embellish their victory further.
The 3rd goal, turning a good victory in to a commanding one, highlighted the importance of Mounié as an option up front. While it seems unlikely he could have made much difference in the abject Wigan performance, his physical presence would’ve been welcome at Forest.
Toffolo was involved in all 3 goals after his assist for the first penalty, the excellent delivery for the second and, now, a free kick to the back post which Mounié headed down perfectly for Kachunga to convert from a foot or two. It was a simple but beautifully constructed goal which calmed the nerves of thousands watching on their televisions and laptops.
Town should have put their bedraggled and beaten hosts to the sword thereafter with the excellent O’Brien allowing Camp to smother after his own determination in the tackle had won the ball before running on to a piercing Kachunga pass.
Pritchard decided to take an extra touch when freed in the area and his options reduced dramatically in that split second. A first time shot would have troubled Camp to a far greater extent and Grant was similarly guilty of poor judgement earlier when he should have played a simple pass to Smith-Rowe rather than try to take on a defender before shooting ineffectively.
The chances illuminated Town’s superiority, however, and though future opponents are likely to be far more difficult to overcome than yesterday evening’s disappointing opponents, the confidence the Terriers can take from a thoroughly deserved and convincing victory could prove as priceless as Wigan’s travails (possibly to be followed, rather more deservingly, by Sheffield Wednesday?).
Preston are up next and their faltering play off aspirations will surely make them a completely different proposition on Saturday. Their muscular style will be a greater challenge than Birmingham’s and Town need to be better at staunching the supply of balls in to the box they allowed the West Midlands outfit.
The contagion of gloom has not been entirely banished by one good display but a win has relieved a lot of the pressure which has built since the restart. With jangled nerves less frayed, a win on Saturday, far from guaranteed against a strong side, may just turn the corner for an increasingly embattled club.