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!