Rays of hope pierce the gloom

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.

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