Foggy thriller

A wet, dark and murky John Smith’s Stadium was illuminated by a thoroughly entertaining contest which ebbed and flowed before Town secured a deserved, if not entirely convincing, victory which went a long way towards banishing the memory of Tuesday’s turgid encounter in Buckinghamshire.

The hangover from the Wycombe stalemate was evident in a first half which began reasonably well for the home side but deteriorated alarmingly after the early skirmishes had seen a speculative effort by Campbell sail over the bar from distance, a Koroma effort blocked and a decent chance for Bacuna from a corner.

Middlesbrough soon shook off Town’s mild attempt to dominate and took a firm grip on the game, stretching the hosts all over the pitch and capitalising on the apparent disconnect between defence and midfield and subsequent disarray.

Town’s season long issue with sustaining intensity and precision, unsurprising as it is in a period of rebuilding and reinvention, offers opposition teams quite wide windows of opportunity to exploit often alarming vulnerabilities and Boro appeared ominously capable of overwhelming their error prone opponents.

Poor decision making, particularly by Bacuna at right back, excellent transition and the pace of the visitors opened up the home defence on several occasions in a game looking increasingly like a mismatch, but Boro’s profligacy in their period of domination was to haunt them in the end.

The most remarkable miss arrived just after 10 minutes with Assombolonga somehow contriving to fire over the bar from less than 2 yards following a move which carved Town apart down their right.

The reprieve didn’t last long. A high ball cannoned off Campbell under pressure and fell to Tavernier to set up Marvin Johnson to fire past Schofield, and a very long, difficult afternoon looked likely.

Unable to establish any rhythm, Town were fortunate not to concede again in a torrid 20 minutes when it seemed that only last gasp interventions by Stearman stood between them and a heavy defeat, and when the last of those rendered the veteran unable to carry on, that outcome seemed even more likely.

However, it turned in to a pivot as Boro’s threat evaporated and substitute Edmonds-Green slotted in to the role effortlessly and proved calm in possession and managed defensive space with noticeably more composure than the man he replaced. 

Last gasp interventions tend to be the forte of defenders not particularly proficient in other areas of their job. Though this is a little harsh on Stearman, who was perhaps the main reason Town’s chances of success were not already dead and buried, Edmonds-Green’s partnership with Sarr appeared more natural from the moment he came on, and his choices on the ball superior.

Finally, Town came in to the game. No chances of note were being created, but possession became more considered and progressive and at least forced the visitors on to the back foot and out of the comfort they had enjoyed for far too long.

Mbenza, carrying on from his notable performance at Wycombe, began to see more of the ball and Eiting and O’Brien were seeing more space in a previously uncontested midfield (though Hogg had manfully battled through the difficult opening 25).

It was, however, something of a surprise when Boro’s famously parsimonious rear guard was breached, particularly as the visitors had regained an element of control and forced a couple of corners as they tried to reestablish their grip on the game.

After a Toffolo shot was blocked, Hogg won a challenge and fed Koroma who worked some space in the box before feeding Eiting who swept in the equaliser past a poorly positioned keeper who will feel that having got a hand on the ball, he should have done better. The slick conditions, and the curl Eiting achieved with a perfect connection, played their part as the Dutchman replicated his goal at Stoke last Saturday and bagged his third in 4 games.

To go in at the break even in a game where they looked a long way from equals would have been a major plus for the Terriers, but it was to get better.

O’Brien robbed Saville on the halfway line with an exceptional challenge and broke forward at pace before laying the ball off to Campbell to his right, ignoring his other option of Mbenza to his left. Initially, the decision looked to be the wrong one as Campbell cut inside instead of shooting first time, but somehow the striker bundled the ball over Bettenelli with a scuffed shot which hit his other foot and squeezed in.

The lead was undeserved, to say the least, but both goals were so similar to previous ones – Campbell’s being reminiscent of O’Brien’s surge at Millwall – that it is comforting to believe that the methods being adopted are sticking.

After the break, Town dominated their dispirited opponents in much the same way that they had been put under the cosh earlier.

Mbenza and Koroma provided constant threat down the flanks, Hogg, Eiting and O’Brien finally clicked in the middle and though chances were few, the intent and control successfully subdued Middlesbrough whose threat diminished markedly.

Just as Town’s lead had been established significantly against the run of play, Boro were thrown a lifeline when an excellent ball from Howson played in Assombolonga and Sarr was caught wrong side. The tussle appeared to confirm the referee’s assumption that Sarr had brought down the striker and a penalty inevitable. Without the aid of another angle, which clearly showed Assombolonga’s simulation, it is hard to criticise the ref’s naked eye decision though the considerable gall of Warnock claiming another one in the dying stages of the game is less forgivable.

Assombolonga stepped up and achieved from 12 yards what he couldn’t from 2, and a creditable, if frustrating draw seemed the likely outcome.

Almost immediately, however, Town grabbed the win they deserved as Toffolo lifted a perfectly executed long ball to the impressive Koroma, who burst in to the area, utilised an excellent run by Eiting to his left by ignoring it, shifted to his right and curled a beauty in to the far corner for the winner.

It was due reward for a fine second half performance by the heir to Grant’s throne. One mazy run from the edge of his own box to being upended by Howson just outside the other area was eye catching and the perfect example of his increasing maturity. Wither Karlan, indeed?

Like most Town games this season, the win was far from perfect and the metamorphosis from dull to an exciting and effective style of play is still in progress and vulnerable to set backs but a recovery which neutered a normally highly effective Warnock side is not to be underestimated.

In the longer term, the emergence of Edmonds-Green may have a profound effect. Despite a rather worrying episode of cramp, which may indicate that he is not quite ready for the demands placed on players in this strange and ridiculous season, he must be more suited to Corberán’s style than the old stagers he has been compelled to use so far.

Justifiable fears of a lack of fire power in the team following the departure of the leading scorer are now, surely, laid to rest. Not only are Town scoring regularly – remember that yesterday banished thoughts of Wycombe – the goals are coming from different players, often exquisitely constructed. Nobody would turn their noses up at an out and out striker in January, but the collective is doing the job right now.

This victory, imperfect as it was, represented a big step forward. Collecting points in this transition period to keep away from the pressures at the bottom while developing as a squad is essential and to do so against a highly competitive team such as Middlesbrough, who are likely to recover from this setback and mount a play off challenge, is highly commendable.

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