Hope jacked up

Town finally secured a win in 2021 with a remarkable 7 minute period just after half time which entirely confounded the form of both teams going in to the game.


A fairly even first half, during which Town mixed encouraging forward play with their usual failings when deep in possession, ended with a Swansea equaliser so heavy with foreboding that defeat seemed inevitable.

Blessed with talent, which has carried them towards the top of the table since their only home reversal all those long months ago, and a consistently parsimonious defence, the Welshmen would surely follow in the footsteps of Wycombe Wanderers and trample all over their hosts’ fragility?


Instead, a bright start to the second half, not unlike the previous week but with end product, delivered three, high quality, goals to the eye rubbing disbelief of the audience.


While incompetence has underpinned a disastrous 2021, there have been periods in some games which suggested that the inadequacies were not immutable and that the squad, all be it depleted, could elevate itself back to mid table stagnation given a few breaks.


Any such happy talk seemed ridiculous, however, as Hourihane lifted a free kick over a wall which was less barrier and more an aid to the ex-Barnsley man’s trajectory, and past a hopelessly out of position Schofield for an equaliser on the stroke of half time.


The leveller was the culmination of the only brief period of the game in which Swansea looked remotely superior to their struggling opponents and owed as much to Town’s predilection for hesitancy and error playing out from the back than their own ability.


Though the award of the free kick was dubious at best, the Terriers had only themselves to blame for the lack of care preceding it and all the good work of a half in which they took the lead, threatened regularly and subdued the Swans for long periods was wasted.


Shrugging off a nervous opening few minutes, Town played with a purpose and energy which may have taken the visitors by surprise judging by the absence of guile in a team flying high and the number of lofted balls they resorted to, and deservedly took the lead midway through the half. 


Rowe, continuing the encouraging form from the second half in midweek, either over hit his cross following good work down the left or picked out Pipa in lots of space beyond Swansea’s defence, which allowed the Spaniard to advance to the byline before picking out Campbell in the area, whose slightly scuffed shot went in off the post for a deserved lead.


Campbell had already had the ball in the net earlier but the linesman interpreted that O’Brien, who set up the striker, was offside when coming back on to the pitch despite the last touch being from a visiting defender. Or it had gone out of play.


Minutes after the opener, Bacuna found half a yard of space after bamboozling Hourihane and struck an excellent effort from distance against the post with Woodman comprehensively beaten.


Establishing control and unfortunate not to be further ahead, Town’s unexpected but welcome levels of comfort began to evaporate as half time neared and they were grateful for a goal line clearance by Sarr, a save from Ayew by Schofield and two efforts from range being slightly off target.


Swansea’s brief but hugely threatening period of dominance began with Keogh dallying in the absence of options in front of him as he carried the ball forward and spread alarmingly through the team as persistent failings threatened to undo all of their previous good work. We had been here before and, sure enough, the pressure eventually told with Hourihane’s free kick.


Remarkably, within 10 minutes of the restart, Town put the game to bed, completed a double over one of the best sides in the division and dismantled the meanest defence of that division to record a confidence boosting win against any expectation.


O’Brien, producing his best performance of the season by some distance, restored the lead following excellent work by Bacuna who played a great ball in to Campbell who, in turn setup the midfielder for a strike which took a slight but very helpful deflection on its way past Woodman. He deserved the fortune having driven forward to begin the move in the first place.

Bacuna was involved again as Town turned the screw with a third goal minutes later as his chipped ball forward to Campbell was knocked down for Rowe to feed Holmes in to the area to finish well.


Not satisfied with a two goal advantage, Holmes then produced the goal of the season to date and one unlikely to be bettered. Taking the ball off Rowe and moving right to left, the diminutive Anglo-American took advantage of a nice bobble off the pitch to find the top corner from distance.


The devastating spell, as welcome as it was astonishing, sealed the first 3 points of the year even if beleaguered and weary supporters could still be forgiven for harbouring doubt.


The Terriers’ ability to hold on to their large lead was not to be tested, however, as a freak and horrible injury befell Morris as the Seattle Sounder loanee stumbled awkwardly while attempting to trap the ball. The seriousness of the injury was immediately and instinctively understood by Pipa, who knocked the ball out of play before urgently beckoning help.


Unfortunately for Swansea, they had already used up all their substitutes with Cooper rather obviously conceding defeat on the hour and their trip home to South Wales was further depressed by a cruel injury.


As often happens, the incident sucked the air of competition from the game with the last half hour rarely developing beyond a stroll. Swansea’s resignation, coupled with the deflation of the injury, and Town taking advantage of the rare opportunity to provide rest to some key players by using all 5 permitted changes reduced the contest to a pragmatic exercise of damage control for both parties.


Only a fool would declare Town’s problems over following an unusual if exhilarating victory. The closing minutes of the first half demonstrated how easily they can crumble under pressure to which they make a significant contribution and the score line was somewhat more convincing than the balance of play in the first hour warranted.


However, the vanquishing of as good a side as Swansea should not be under estimated.

Other than more concerns over Schofield, each and every player contributed to a fine victory, with Holmes and O’Brien finding excellent form, Bacuna channelling his talent in a more disciplined manner, Rowe constantly threatening a previously excellent defence and Vallejo providing calm and cultured possession, there were many positives to add to the relief.


Now for Derby, as much a graveyard for Town teams as Middlesbrough, and a different proposition to the poor team which barely turned up to the John Smith’s stadium early in the season. To restore our place in the boring middle of the Championship, the Terriers need to consolidate this unexpected victory with a couple or more points by the end of February.

Desperation intensifies

Interpreted generously, 35 minutes of competent , occasionally penetrative play bookended a seriously poor mid section to constitute the type of sandwich it is unnecessary to elucidate and exposed Huddersfield Town’s failings as they continue to plunge inexorably towards the bottom of a distinctly average division.

A very bright opening saw Town move the ball quickly and purposefully against a lethargic Middlesbrough side suffering their own injury and form problems. 

Typically incisive in the early stage of a match in which the Terriers desperately needed a reaction to Saturday’s disastrous and hugely damaging defeat, it is far from uncommon for Corberán’s charges to set the tempo with great promise, but seasoned observers know that the superiority is almost inevitably illusory.

Rewarded for their enterprise in an encouraging 10 minutes by another excellent free kick conversion by Mbenza following a foul on Pipa, followed by a break minutes later when Mbenza failed to find the unmarked Holmes in the box, the visitors didn’t appear to have been crushed by the weekend’s events. Until Middlesbrough woke up.

With the simple application of greater intensity, the home side, possibly fearful of wily old Warnock’s wrath come the break, broke the visitors down with disconcerting, though hardly surprising, ease.

The shape of the side disintegrated, control was entirely abandoned and a horror show ensued for a full half hour culminating in a deserved half time lead for Boro which deserved to be greater than just one goal.

Pinned in their own half, the folly of drafting O’Brien as a temporary left back and starting the perpetually ineffective Pritchard in his midfield place was ruthlessly exploited by the hosts. Town weren’t helped by a literal lack of sure footedness as several in yellow slipped over at crucial moments, including in the lead up to the equaliser, which had been coming.

Panicky defending kept Boro at bay for 15 minutes, though the obligatory comedy moment arrived soon enough with Sarr and Schofield creating havoc for themselves and allowing Watmore to poke the ball through the keeper’s legs in to the open penalty area. Fortunately, Mbenza was on hand to clear. Unfortunately, the Belgian pulled his groin making the clearance and left the pitch a few minutes later to join the teeming throng of injured.

Middlesbrough equalised on the half hour with a good quality strike by Watmore who should never have been allowed to get in a position to shoot. O’Brien, temporarily delayed in to position by the aforementioned slip, waved an apologetic right leg as an excuse for a challenge as Watmore cut inside, bypassed Sarr with consummate ease and fired past Schofield. Sarr, in fact, had been beaten easily twice in the space of seconds.

The defensive disarray and inability to keep possession encouraged the hosts to swarm all over the Terriers and force a series of corners and dangerous open play situations. They thought they had taken the lead from a free kick on the right when Schofield’s inexplicable rush from his line allowed Hall to head home from, to the relief of the young keeper, an offside position.

With all confidence squeezed out of them by the relentlessness of Boro, the sanctity of half time while still level was just about the only hope for the battered visitors; an objective they could not achieve.

Yet another cheap loss of possession on the left allowed a cross in to the area and Fisher arrived to meet it just before O’Brien whose tardy challenge felled the attacker to concede a clear and unequivocal penalty. 

Benevolent as ever, Schofield’s lame attempt to save Fletcher’s rather insipid penalty allowed the ex-Barnsley man to end his goal drought which stretched back to September (though 4 months out with injury didn’t help).


Another late goal changed the game’s dynamic, even if that dynamic was flowing entirely in one direction in any case, and it was almost impossible to imagine a Town recovery in the second half.


Just before the break, a rare Town foray in to opposition territory brought a free kick in Mbenza range. In his absence, Bacuna drew a routine save from Bettenelli.


To his credit, Corberán made the necessary, and obvious, changes at half time. O’Brien was relieved of his full back duties in favour of Rowe who at least had the credentials of having played in the position more than twice, all be it on the other side of the pitch, and Pritchard’s typically feeble contribution was terminated to get O’Brien back to where he is comfortable.


Middlesbrough’s need to press forward was less urgent than in the first half and while they dominated the opening of the second half, there wasn’t quite the intensity which had crumbled Town before the break. Nevertheless, the visitors remained on the back foot and Sarr proved to be more adept at clearing danger coming in to the box than tackling out wide.


With 20 minutes to go, and with Phillips replacing the anonymous and disappointing Holmes, Town finally began to assert some control over the game and began to look capable of an equaliser. A fast break saw the visitors with a four on one advantage which they managed to mess up through a poor attempted pass by Pipa, but the situation seemed to give Town more belief.


A raid by the lively Rowe saw his cross spooning up off a defender and Phillips, who had shown a lot of purpose since coming on, flicked his header from short range only for Bettellini to touch away.


An excellent chance for Campbell following some good work by Bacuna was lashed wildly over the bar when more composure was needed.


Town were provided with a numerical advantage with 10 minutes to go when McNair brought down Bacuna on the edge of the box and was, perhaps harshly, sent off for his rash challenge. Sarr took the Mbenza territory free kick but put it over the bar.


Pushing Boro backwards in desperate search of a point, the best chance fell to the lively Phillips who took a pass from Campbell, made space and hit the inside of the post with the keeper beaten. 


Despite maintaining the pressure in the dying minutes, Town couldn’t fashion another chance of equal danger and another defeat left them still winless in 2021 and facing a strong Swansea side at the weekend.


A desperately poor half hour in the first half cost them dearly, as did the team selection. Playing O’Brien at left back was a poor decision exacerbated by handing Pritchard a start. It is becoming clear that Schofield needs a break and is adding to an increasingly spooked defence, and while Phillips and Rowe may also succumb to the same type of breakdown through inexperience, they surely earned a start in the next game.


Though not on the same scale as the Wycombe debacle, the seemingly endless throwing away of advantage persists. An inability to maintain performance levels over 90 minutes plagues a team crying out for calming presence and leadership. Hogg cannot deliver this on his own.


With a tough February schedule ahead, it now seems certain that Town’s situation will deteriorate and reliance on the failings of others the only preventative strategy. Mbenza’s injury adds another worry to Corberán’s pile. The revelation that he has been playing on the edge of breakdown for the past few weeks goes a long way to explain his subdued performances and shines a harsh light on the management of players’ fitness.


The agony persists.

Collapsing in to crisis

Momentous games arrive from time to time. Some are celebrated and some are so utterly ignominious that they not only live long in memory but are held up for future generations as defining moments in the club’s history.

Whether this appallingly abject defeat to a far superior Wycombe side will resonate down the years, as it should, depends on the reaction to the disgrace which should be cleaving to the consciences of all involved, from boardroom to coaching staff to players.

The most optimistic of us, who could rationalise a disastrous January by pointing to a catalogue of injuries which disrupted an idealistic coach’s plan to transform a club from functional relegation battlers in to contenders, have been made to look utterly foolish by a performance which plumbed subterranean depths.

In summary, a bright opening half hour brought a 2 goal lead and missed opportunities to bury the visitors, only for the tables to be turned like the plot of a terrible B movie, beginning with an injury time concession which felt ominous and proved to be much, much worse.

Two stretches of the first half saw Town’s energy and intensity drop alarmingly; a feature throughout a season where even the good wins have been accompanied by perilous and inexplicable periods when the opposition is allowed to profit from mini self implosions.

The first of these followed the opening goal, which was well crafted by Vallejo and Campbell to set up a simple headed finish by Bacuna, as Town’s control and prominence simply disappeared. When on the ball, the Terriers were reasonably effective and comfortable; without it they looked nervous and fragile. 

Sensing vulnerability, Wycombe began to expose the usual frailties. Much was made of the different styles of the two teams before the game, citing Town’s high pass completion against the visitors’ necessarily rudimentary approach given their circumstances, but the statistics belie the Terriers’ discomfort without the ball and susceptibility to physicality and pressure.

Losing shape, errors were forced by the visitors and Town were grateful to Sarr’s interceptions on more than one occasion, including two clearances off the line as Wycombe, with little to lose, reacted to going behind with commendable spirit.

With half time approaching, Town doubled their lead through Mbenza who struck a decent shot across Allsop, who was beaten a little too easily and had a great opportunity to finish off the League’s whipping boys only for Bacuna to make a mess of a simple ball in to the box for the unmarked Holmes.

Off the hook, Wycombe staged a late assault on Town’s faltering rearguard and got their reward in injury time when the impressive Mehmeti strolled past Vallejo and Bacuna to strike a good shot past Schofield. The goal followed a scare just a minute earlier when Knight hit the bar and the goal was just reward for the visitors’ endeavour.

It was also the defining moment of the game. Instead of being down by 3, the Buckinghamshire stragglers had given themselves hope and a huge lift at a crucial time, simultaneously casting fear, uncertainty and doubt in to their hosts.

What followed in the second half was entirely unacceptable. Unprofessional, lacking inspiration of any kind and disastrously sloppy in and out of possession, Town were completely dominated, on their own patch by demonstrably the poorest side in the division.

Not that Wycombe looked anything like the worst Championship side in recent memory. That sobriquet belonged to their opponents who, after a reasonably promising opening 10 minutes of the second half, proceeded to collapse in to a profoundly disturbing and ramshackle paltriness.

Bullied all over the pitch, entirely incapable of winning a second ball, rarely completing a pass, hesitant and in some cases hiding, lacking spirit, bereft of cohesion, defensively inept, offensively impotent, thoroughly unprofessional; even this litany of sins barely conveys one of the worst displays witnessed in many a year. The many failures in the Premier League at least had the consolation of being committed against opposition of quality.

This is not to diminish Wycombe’s efforts, which entirely debilitated the hosts and may well have condemned them to inevitable further deterioration. Their domination was as complete as it was astonishing and laid bare the uncomfortable fact that for all the flair Town can show from time to time, as they did in the first half, it counts for nothing if half the team aren’t prepared to sully their talent with the fundamentals of the game. 

This was no smash and grab; if anything, the visitors should have won by a bigger margin. A Schofield save from point blank range, a remarkable miss from close in scrambled away from the line, a good chance put wide following an ill advised Schofield rush from his line and a McLeary effort which just cleared the bar, illustrated Wycombe’s superiority. Allsop, at the other end, was entirely untroubled.

The inevitable crack of Town’s puny resistance came when Keogh decided to run alongside Ikpeazu, who browbeat the home defence, rather than execute a tackle. Handing over responsibility to Hogg, Town’s captain bundled him to the floor to concede a penalty converted by Jacobson.

The thoroughly deserved winner arrived with 5 minutes to go. A free kick glanced off the head of substitute Scott High and fell to the feet of Knight. Easily evading feeble attempts to block, he took one touch before beating Schofield and condemning Town to humiliation.

So, now what? The first game of the shortest month was supposed to deliver a confidence boosting 3 points in advance of the considerably harder challenges ahead. Instead, Town have reached a watershed. The glimmer of hope represented by picking up 2 points at the end of a losing streak has been extinguished and without the, admittedly, minor redemption on offer against Wycombe, all excuses have now expired.

Corberán, whose nascent head coaching career is now firmly on the line, has to deliver a team on Tuesday which can rectify the damage inflicted on a dark day for the club. It is more likely that he cannot, as the psychological damage looks far too severe and his inexperience too exposed but he should be allowed the opportunity. It is his choice whether to stick to his principles or introduce, somehow, a level of pragmatism to a squad seemingly incapable of performing to the standards he clearly desires but pursues against increasingly flimsy evidence of likelihood.


The fine line between principle, including training methods which may be contributing to seemingly endless injury problems, and obstinance is now being severely tested. Can Corberán innovate to affect change? The season long ineffectiveness of in game adaptability suggests not but perhaps necessity will prove the mother of invention.

He isn’t helped by an increasingly poisonous and hostile opposition to the Chairman, CEO and head of recruitment. The only blessing is that he and his players are spared the wrath of the support. By the time we get back in to stadiums, the haemorrhaging of that support may be severe and all of the damage inflicted.

Patience has snapped with a club which insisted upon searching for a new identity without paying enough attention to it’s personality. Rather than becoming the Brentford of the North, built on shrewd investment and fuelled by the development of raw talent, which needs supporters to understand the plan, they are left baffled by it and unconvinced that it even exists.
All we can do is now watch the rest of the season unfurl, or unravel, through our fingers. Over to you, Carlos.

A joyless point

Scraping a fortunate draw, which could have turned in to a thoroughly undeserved victory, Town extended their unbeaten run to two. More pertinently, their winless streak in 2021 goes on and anything other than an end to their joyless New Year against collapsing Wycombe will trigger significantly increased levels of opprobrium amongst a support fast losing faith.

In dreadful conditions against aggressive, relentless opponents, a point at Kenilworth Road would ordinarily be taken as a marginal gain, but in the context of what appeared, from the outside, as an inept final day in the transfer market and no evidence that failings at both end of the pitch are close to being addressed, Town’s equaliser, welcome as it was, provided minimal comfort.

The promise of a bright, if typically less than incisive, opening was punctured by yet another Naby Sarr transgression which gifted Luton possession and left the visitors naked and exposed. The Hatters gleefully accepted the gift, as so many have done before them.

It would be far too kind to call this a glitch, given the propensity of Town’s defenders in general and Naby in particular for undermining the efforts in front of them, and, indeed, Sarr played a similarly risky ball in to the middle later in the half which directly led to an O’Brien booking. For balance, he also played a couple of decent balls in to the middle during the half, but a success rate of 50/50 rather suggests that the risk and reward ratio simply isn’t favouring the Frenchman.

As ever with this team, they excelled when allowed to be in their comfort zone, particularly down the left. Regrettably, that zone doesn’t include the business ends of the pitch rendering their strengths approaching, appropriately, pointless. Ignis fatuus.

All of the effort expended to get in to threatening positions flounder through poor execution, bad decision making and not enough commitment to get in the box. The last of these is particularly disappointing as it was a feature earlier in the season and rightly acknowledged as a massive improvement.

That all the unfulfilled promise came down the left, featuring 8 unsuccessful balls in to the box, was not surprising with Mbenza’s inexorable descent to pre Corberán form and, worryingly, attitude. Listlessly uninterested, he contributed little and was rightly substituted at half time.

A scrappy first half on an uneven surface which certainly didn’t help the tippy tappy stylings of the visitors, saw precious few opportunities for either side but the hosts should have wrapped the game up shortly before the break. Pipa rather over sold himself when chasing a clearance from a corner and was easily bypassed by Mpanzu whose cross was headed against the post from close range by Potts. 

Town’s two, off target, attempts on goal summed up a pretty dreadful first half showing. O’Brien found good space just outside the box but fired hopelessly wide while a very good run by Bacuna should have ended with a lay off to the much better placed O’Brien but, instead, he used his normal decision making processes and rolled a weak effort wide.

To their credit, Town were a better, if far from perfect, proposition in the second half and the introduction of Aarons was key. Operating on the right, perhaps the miserable performance of Mbenza has inadvertently pointed the way towards a more effective formation and the right flank can begin to relieve the left of the burden they have increasingly carried during this dismal run.

Despite one or two scares, including a wild effort by Mpanzu after being freed in to a position he really should have scored from, the visitors largely matched Luton’s energy with errors reduced if not eradicated. Hogg’s return added some very necessary steel and defensive know how and if Holmes can shake off the rustiness which saw him lose possession too easily at times, he should prove an asset.

The first sign of improvement was a good effort by Pipa which fizzed just wide from distance after good work from Holmes.

Though the game reverted to an attritional battle for long periods, Town dug in and defended their box with greater discipline and frustrated the Hatters with well timed blocks. They were a little fortunate when the influential Mpanzu decided not to go down in the area when clearly knocked in preference to stumbling in to a poor effort from a difficult angle.

At the other end, Luton were to be grateful for Bacuna’s curious decision making. Set free in to the area by Aarons, he fired a hopelessly ambitious shot in to the side netting when others were far better placed. Like Sarr, it was just a repeat of a previous lack of judgement and doing the same things over and over with the same result is difficult to forgive.

To his credit, Sarr was able to atone for his error with the equaliser. Pritchard, on for Pipa, bought a foul just outside the box with a dramatic fall from an innocuous challenge, which Bacuna delivered rather well in to the area. A dummy by Toffolo ensured Sluga had to make a save (his first) but he could only parry the ball in to Sarr’s path. Town’s third highest scorer wasn’t going to miss from a couple of yards.

The equaliser forced the game in to a period of mild entertainment, fuelled by frenzy rather than dazzling play and Town created the best chance to take all 3 points when Campbell was freed down the right on a break. His well directed ball in to the box was met by Holmes but the long throw specialist couldn’t quite control his effort to meet a cross which was knee height for him rather than on the floor.

With a precious point within their grasp, Town managed to create a sting in the tail when Toffolo miscontrolled when attempting to play out rather than taking the obvious option to launch the ball to safety. His attempted recovery saw him slip and clatter unceremoniously in to an opponent and the instant response of the referee was to assume dangerous play and show the red card. Replays show that the left back was unfortunate but as he was the author of his own misfortune, sympathy is a little reduced. The referee, who had a generally poor game, was right to dismiss but mitigation may result in an appeal.

The resulting free kick was the last action of the game and very nearly completely ruined an already very average afternoon, when a decent header inside the area struck a post and the stalemate was preserved.

Frustrating and unsatisfying as it was, the point away from home at a tough venue is welcome. The value of it will be increased by a home win next Saturday, but the performance didn’t enhance hopes, even against the worst side in the division; they can show resilience, a quality Town struggle to deal with.


Finding ways to unlock Wycombe’s defence must be the priority during this week, even though they have shipped 10 in their last two games. Presumably, those teams have effective strikers.


Had this point accompanied a couple of wins from January, it would have been seen as a dogged one. The multiple failures in January, however, meant it was the minimum required to begin to soothe nerves and it barely achieves that. A dozy deadline day, lack of meaningful communications and the bizarre introduction of West Vale Squash Club in to an over heating debate overwhelm any small positives it represents.