Flickering hope follows Forest felling

Perusing Town’s opening fixtures was immediately accompanied by dread and a desperate search for some rational theory why we wouldn’t be stranded in the bottom 3 with Sheffield Wednesday whittling away their point deduction disadvantage.

A slightly unfortunate but wholly unconvincing defeat against Norwich was followed by an exceptionally poor, dispiriting defeat at Brentford’s new home destroying any lingering, preposterous hopes that a new coach and a new way of playing grafted on to the remnants of failed squads from miserable seasons past could defy reality.

And yet. 

Victory over a disappointing and often confused Forest garnered the 3 points which suddenly makes Town’s return from a daunting schedule, well, not too bad. 

Overall, the performance was encouraging, if uneven. The principal takeaway was the collective effort and energy which smothered Forest in the second half and led to multiple players appearing in the box – a phenomenon we have all but forgotten. This included 6 (six) when Frasier Campbell was left alone to strike a beautiful winner, which would have been far less likely had he been alone, as many of his predecessors have been.

All would have been different had Hogg’s reducer on Arter been spotted in the early minutes. Raking the ex-Cherry with a highly aggressive, probably heart felt, studs up challenge, Town’s veteran extracted revenge for the last meeting with the annoying nark. Hogg needs to ensure he doesn’t jeopardise the team’s chances in such a manner again, but many of us couldn’t help feeling a frisson of vengeful delight.

A progressive opening ten minutes saw Town pinning the visitors back without creating any chances and it was the visitors who shaded a scruffy first half and, but for two saves by Hamer, would’ve taken a lead in to the break. 

The first of these was outstanding. Ameobi drifted across Town’s back line, turned Crichlow and hit an excellent curling shot bound for the top corner. Arching his back, Hamer was equal to the effort and tipped the shot over the bar; perhaps he can use that moment to resuscitate his quite dreadful reputation amongst the support (which he acknowledged post match, to his credit)?

His second save was more routine but just as important as Mbe Soh was left alone at a corner to head towards goal. The poor set piece defending was more worrying than the actual effort, which was not powerful enough to beat Hamer but it was the last attempt Forest managed on goal as the tide turned.

A weak Koroma effort which was spilled by Samba nearly presented Frasier with a tap in but he couldn’t quite reach the ball before the keeper dragged it back and took a bang on the head for his efforts.

Town rather missed Hogg who went off injured after picking up a booking with his replacement, debutant Eiting, feeling his way in to the rough and tumble of English football and were the team more appreciative of the half time whistle.

The break allowed Town to regroup and a very acceptable second half performance subdued the visitors. At the back, Stearman and Crichlow became a much tighter unit and the youngster’s elegant display – ruffled just once by Grabban, who replaced the disappointing and ineffective Lyle Taylor – bodes well, even if Sarr’s arrival is likely to limit his chances in the immediate future.

Eiting settled in to his number 6 role and more than hinted at an ability to add some measured class to a midfield which has been sorely lacking quality to date. His impact promises to improve those around him with a far greater range of forward passing than the limited alternatives available to Corberán so far.

324 minutes in to the season came Town’s first goal and it was a tension relieving beauty. Mbenza, who showed some rehabilitating promise at times, found Toffolo, who was breaking in to the area at pace, with an excellently weighted pass and with plenty of home players in the box, the left back was able to pick out the unmarked Campbell, whose balletic volley flew past Samba.

It was reward for an energetic and, crucially, collective, start to the half which caught the visitors on their heels. Eager pressing, discipline and desire changed the dynamic from a relatively flat first half performance and Campbell’s busy front line work was rewarded with a highly attractive winner.

Forest had little in response. Grabban had a decent effort which just cleared the bar and, late on, he troubled Critchlow but couldn’t draw a penalty winning foul from either the youngster or Hamer which was a possibility.

Easily quelling the visitors’ increasingly desperate efforts to equalise, Town broke late on and should have put the game to bed as an Eitling ball released Koroma down the left. Eagerly pursued by 3 team mates in support, but only 2 Forest players, the winger fed substitute Diakhaby whose first touch was too heavy, allowing Samba to position himself well and block the shot. The danger wasn’t over, however and Pipa squared a disguised pass to Koroma who couldn’t quite get the ball past Samba, hitting his trailing leg and out for a corner.

Disappointing as the failure to convert 2 excellent opportunities was, the fact that Town were attacking in numbers so late in a game they had worked so hard to win was testament to their fitness and desire. The paucity of goals and the lack of a striker capable of approaching prolific remain problems, but if the style of play creates numbers in the box like this, there is hope.

If Sarr is the marauding centre half Corberán desires, if Eiting can provide calm quality to deliver better transition and the collective can provide a team greater than the sum of its, to date, limited parts, early season fears may dissipate.

Eiting, in particular, is an intriguing addition. Can he encourage more creativity in Pritchard (who worked hard but still regularly infuriated; his set piece deliveries being particularly woeful), more discipline from Bacuna and release the pace possessed by the squad?

Overall, the performance was far from perfect but the release of tension, the handful of positives and the possibilities provided by new blood shine some beams of light through the gloom.

There isn’t a bright side

Town began yet another new plan to fumigate the stench of now long term failure with a predictable and expected defeat against a Norwich side rather more modest than anticipated.

Whether the visitors, rightly installed in pre season as favourites, were largely functional rather than exhilarating through rustiness or lack of familiarity or were subdued by Town’s hard work and organisation was just one of a string of unanswered, possibly unanswerable, questions in a game that largely plodded.

Corberán’s ideas and philosophies were evident in a worthy yet unsatisfying performance and the patience of supporters, now stretched gossamer thin where it isn’t already snapped, is being called upon again while the Spaniard recruits players to fully instil his values.

Encouragingly, debutant Pipa slotted in immediately with an eye catching introduction to a dysfunctional unit and added quality on the right of defence which has long been a massive problem. Composed and technically proficient, the youngster looked comfortable from the start and combined well with his new team mates at the back and going forward.

This barely translated in to goal scoring opportunities, though one exchange with Bacuna should perhaps have done. 

With Grant at home, presumably trusting in the process which will release him from West Yorkshire, the funds which become available , hopefully, from his departure need to be invested in players able to fit just as effortlessly in to Corberán’s system. The fear is that the huge sums being offered by West Brom for an individual whose open play goals dried up along with his commitment after lockdown will evaporate if protracted negotiations end without movement.

With expectations extraordinarily low, people were expecting a battering; and their dark foreboding only heightened as the team was revealed even though the line up was arguably the strongest Corberán could name, give or take the odd wide man. That it didn’t transpire was barely a source of comfort but the effort and apparent collective spirit of a team perceived as hopelessly weak was mildly encouraging. Town continue to confuse and exasperate and with no effort being made to explain their plan, it is no wonder that the support is left befuddled.

A very early effort from far too far out by Diakhaby sailed way over the bar and, the Pipa/Bacuna interchange aside, constituted the greatest threat in a first half long on endeavour but short on real thrust. Norwich occasionally flattered to deceive but were mostly held in check and, to their credit, Town snuffed out a couple of dangerous looking breakaways with one in particular featuring some excellent defensive work by Diakhaby who tracked Pukki all the way back to nullify his presence.

A good first half from the universally maligned young Frenchman included a great tackle on the edge of Town’s box to thwart the Canaries and, overall, his touch was decent, he made himself available and played with responsibility. Now that the minimum bar has been set, let’s see if he can develop beyond the old joke about a dog walking on two legs.

At the back, Stearman was solid alongside Schindler while Toffolo shadowed man girl Cantwell to stifling effect. There were a few excellent cross field balls by the home side to release the lively Koroma but the midfield largely lacked creativity and failed to drive the team forward anywhere near enough. O’Brien should add that dimension when back from injury.

With Hamer having little to do as both sides struggled to penetrate, the best opportunity was hit straight at him by the otherwise impressive Hernandez while a free kick in a good position was woefully wasted by Pritchard, who disappointed yet again throughout. Late in the game, a darkly comic mix up between him and Bacuna wasted a corner opportunity; neither came out of the contest very well.

A stalemate became increasingly likely in a poor second half. Norwich were nearly gifted the opener when he failed to hold on to a less than challenging effort and was saved by Stearman clearing for a corner, while Koroma made space for himself with a decent piece of skill before firing wide. Little else occurred of note until late in the half when Stearman was clattered by Cantwell with his elbow.

The challenge was worthy of a red and left the veteran defender groggy. The referee, poor throughout and who had denied the visitors two good penalty shouts and missed a dangerous Hogg tackle which should also have seen red, waved a yellow to the Canary while Stearman received treatment off the pitch.

The Town coaching and medical staff will rue allowing him to return. Bacuna, lackadaisical for far too much of the game, played him in to a little trouble facing his own goal and a horribly under hit pass was seized upon by Pukki who evaded Schindler’s attempted block to feed Idah. Stearman had sprinted all the way back to try and prevent the goal but failed by a couple of feet.
It was cruel on the team and the distraught Stearman but when you are incapable of scoring, mistakes haunt you. 

An expected defeat produced few answers to the plethora of questions swirling around the club, yet there were some signs of hope. Unfortunately, few, if any, of these are going to be much use without a goal threat.

We can only wait and see what solutions to the deep and ingrained problems will be applied by the club in the next few weeks. Until then, this team doesn’t look capable of winning games even against the most mundane of opposition, simply because of a lack of goals and opportunities.

Despite the pedigree of yesterday’s opponents, and the reasonable effort against them, yet another relegation battle seems inevitable and the few positives that can be taken from the game seem a little irrelevant right now. It was probably a good time to play Norwich, who will not be as one dimensional as the season matures, and what would’ve been a useful point disappeared.

Up hill and down Dale

The evaporation of optimism arrived early in 2020 with a regulation League Cup defeat to lower division opposition preceding the start of the season rather than providing an alarming exclamation point to fears and worries on the second Tuesday under lights in front of the most committed faithful.

As often as commentators rue the lack of an audience as desperately sad, the depressing familiarity was best viewed through a laptop lacking the visceral battering inflicted in attendance.

Rochdale arrived with a relatively simple and ultimately effective plan carried out with diligence and admirable intensity made easier by facing an opponent with a vague style of play notion applied to a game seen as an additional, experimental, friendly. This is not to excuse the defeat but rather to damn the apparent shambles of a club now seemingly in permanent transition.

The difficulties being faced are complex and important with the necessity to adapt to financial realities both self imposed and mandated by circumstances external, but communication is desperately poor and creating that most dangerous of atmospheres; apathy.

It is absurd to suggest that the Lancastrians’ challenges are somehow lesser than Town’s; they hadn’t played a competitive fixture in 6 months, their playing staff has been trimmed and overhauled and they even had to forfeit home advantage to add to their disadvantage.

Leaving out 2 players about to depart from the club for an estimated £20M starkly illustrates the real gap between a Championship struggler and a League 1 struggler. That gap was easily bridged by Dale and the exposé of the Terriers’ systemic muddles was alarming yet so, so familiar.

A moderately entertaining first half saw Town mainly on the front foot but too often blunted by Rochdale’s disciplined and resilient defending. With just two clear cut chances created – Toffolo made a good run on to a corner delivery but couldn’t keep his header down and Bacuna skied a very presentable chance late in the half – the hosts were unable to capitalise on errors occasionally forced by a decent pressing game and looked vulnerable to the visitors’ breaks.

Hesitancy and confusion when balls were delivered in to the box culminated in a disallowed goal for Dale which may not have survived a VAR check and the lack of defensive assurance, particularly centrally with the inexperience of Critchlow and the rustiness (and possible decline) of Schindler hardly aiding the cause, gave Town an air of fragility they couldn’t shake off.

There were glimpses of Corberán’s assumed philosophy, particularly a rigorous press in the first half hour, but fluency was at a premium and never approached the levels achieved in the two friendlies, all be it these were against modest opposition. 

Unfamiliarity may have played a part, but with 7 days to go before the league season starts, supporters’ patience, already stretched thin by poor communication, impenetrable financial arrangements and the dread which can only accompany the real possibility that Hamer will be the last line of defence, has widely snapped.

A decent second half showing may have soothed the worry and discontent, but a dozy opening 5 minutes, with possession conceded without a whimper encouraged Dale forward. A free kick on the right was delivered in to an area which could easily be described as goalkeeper territory was forsaken by the hapless Hamer, Schindler lost his man far too easily and O’Connell powered in the winner.

The reaction was largely pathetic and the failure to remotely test Bazunu until Mbenza nearly caught him out with a good effort with one minute left was both a testament to the good organisation of the visitors and damning of a side showing all the flaws we have become accustomed to for over 2 years. 

Rochdale wasted several break aways as Town committed men forward, to little effect, but they remained composed and professional to see out a win rather more comfortable than a single goal suggests.

A late chance for Toffolo was headed clear and Town’s hopes of an undeserved penalty shootout out disappeared.

Perhaps the only positive to be taken from a rotten afternoon was the performance of Mbenza, who was given 20 minutes on the right. Direct and powerful, he only lacked the movement of colleagues to make a more meaningful impact. On the other side, his partner in waste, Dhiakaby, did nothing to suggest any sort of revival is in the offing.

Everything now rests on Town’s market activity, in and out. Bar O’Brien, the squad put out yesterday is fundamentally what we have to tackle an extremely tough looking opening month. The departures of Grant, Mounié, Hadergjonaj and Sobhi, possibly joined by Bacuna, should create the space to bring in strengthening options but little time for integration ahead of the opener.

The silence of the hierarchy may be defended on the grounds of sensitivity in an unusually difficult transfer market place, but the acceptance of the rumours and suspicions multiplying in the vacuum created seems an odd calculation to make when the support has grown weary and increasingly uninterested.

Happy new season, everyone!