A pleasant late Summer evening on the west coast, directly contrasting with a grey, wet and miserable day over the Pennines, was almost as welcome as a gritty, cohesive and unified performance, enhanced by moments of genuine quality.
A highly competitive first half provided few clues to the eventual outcome, as Town doggedly matched their high octane hosts but were rarely able to impose their own personality on a game bogged down by attrition, though not short on entertainment; full blooded commitment has its own delights.
For all the considerable efforts of blue and white and tangerine shirted participants, and what a rare treat it was to see traditional kits battling it out as they did in the days of Jimmies McGill and Armfield, neither side created nearly enough to trouble the scorers.
Following their shock victory over Fulham, Blackpool started the game with high confidence and energy with a press which caused discomfort to Town’s back 3 and beyond, notably an uncharacteristic error in possession by the returning Colwill. The home side were unable to capitalise on the mistake, and were just as unsuccessful with some hesitancy on Town’s right where a rather harshly booked Pearson was naturally tentative.
The visitors’ resilience in the face of Blackpool’s energetic pursuit of slip ups curtailed much of their attacking aspirations, particularly as, in Ward, they have a central striker largely incapable of holding up the ball. It has been noted that the proximity of colleagues doesn’t help his cause, but it is difficult to ignore his continuing lack of real impact on games, to the point that any small differences he does achieve are ridiculously magnified.
Town’s cautious play meant that 20 minutes passed before they even hinted at causing a problem for the Seasiders, with Thomas finally being released from his own half to deliver a far post cross of predictable quality, only for Toffolo to appear to be in several minds what to do with it and ended up clearing the bar with ease.
Blackpool themselves failed to create opportunities from a couple of free kicks in dangerous areas, while any aerial threat was easily dealt with, particularly by the impressive Lees, though a header in to the side netting caused a modicum of alarm and Nicholls was forced in to an instinctive save from Dougall, who latched on to a rare loose ball.
There were glimpses of creativity in Town’s attempts to probe the home defence, but these were blighted by over elaboration. With Blackpool largely crumbling in the final third too, a goalless half came to a natural conclusion though, perhaps ominously for the hosts, the last action was an effort by Sinani, growing in influence, which resulted in an awarded but not taken corner as time ran out.
While an explanation for Town’s transformation is better sought elsewhere (Cf. Chicken and Hartrick), it was clear that Koroma needed to be far more effective, Thomas needed to be utilised more offensively and opening up space more prioritised, and the reward for Corberán’s tweaks was soon in coming.
Sinani, who had grown in to the game as the first half went on, surged in to space before feeding Koroma, via O’Brien, on the edge of the box, in his favourite position. His trademark curling shot followed, beyond the despairing hands of the previously untroubled Maxwell.
After a poor display at Stoke and an underwhelming first half by the beach, it was a confidence boosting moment from last season’s most notable player and top scorer.
The rest of his performance seemed to confirm this, including a blistering run past a floundering Keogh which made for a rather stark comparison with last season.
Keogh was rather unkindly booed by sections of the away support; while most, probably all, are relieved that he is no longer plying his trade at the heart of Town’s defence, to its considerable improvement, he couldn’t be accused of lack of effort in some quite challenging circumstances.
Having taken the lead, Town needed to ensure they didn’t sacrifice it as easily as they did at the weekend, but promptly contrived to nearly succumb to not only the same fate, but in a similar manner by failing to pick up a man at a corner. Lavery, who was that man, thankfully got a little underneath the corner delivery and his effort landed on the top of the net.
It was a pivotal moment, not least for Sorba Thomas, who received a vicious lambasting from his captain which presumably conveyed the message that the game is not just the glory bits. In Sorba’s defence, this was a rare lapse (not picking up his man) from an inexperienced player who works hard without the ball, but a sharp reminder from a seasoned campaigner won’t go amiss.
It was a brief interruption to an increasingly dominant away performance, which was quickly followed by a second, nerve calming goal from another familiar source.
Pearson, who recovered from a nervy first half hour to fully contribute to an excellent defensive performance, met a Sinani corner to double Town’s advantage.
That the delivery came from the Luxembourger rather than Thomas emphasised the variety now possessed by a squad which looks exponentially more equipped over last season.
The home crowd had rallied their team to a response following the opener, and their team had responded, but the second goal deflated both.
Taking control of possession, Town were increasingly sharper than their slumping opponents, who had perhaps blown themselves out with their first half intensity, and the pressing tables were turned.
On the hour, O’Brien, who was much sharper and productive throughout, pinned Blackpool’s central defender to the corner flag. In hindsight, Ekpiteta should’ve cleared earlier but instead, his clearance bounced off O’Brien in to Koroma’s path whose shot was blocked only to sit up nicely for Jonathan Hogg to finish with style.
At 3-0, the game was finished and Town easily coped with Blackpool’s increasingly tired attempts to salvage something from the game, though the hat should be tipped to Josh Bowler who created problems down the right but failed to deliver quality in to the box.
Comfortable in possession, Town could have added to their score as Blackpool’s defensive frailties emerged in the face of a far more effective attack in the second half.
Nicholls, whose presence has been a hugely significant factor in Town’s vastly improved defence, was called upon to stop a late tangerine thrust and the aforementioned Bowler hit an excellent strike tantalisingly wide, but Blackpool were well beaten in an excellent second half display by the Terriers.
It was an exceptionally hard fought win against an aggressive, well organised side who lacked the quality Town eventually brought to the contest. The lack of an effective centre forward remains an issue for the Terriers and Mipo doesn’t appear quite ready to start yet, but this squad look an entirely different proposition to the struggling group of last year.
So does their coach.
Expectations should continue to be tempered, but this was a very satisfying away win from a side with plenty of room for improvement and growth.
Book your Wembley hotel (tongue firmly in cheek).