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.
Now to the rebuilding.