Hogg brings home the bacon

A mildly entertaining, robustly contested game appeared to be heading to a goalless draw, which neither side would have complained about, when a late Sorba Thomas corner was headed in by Jonathan Hogg, arriving at the near post with immaculate precision.

Following their chastening defeat on the south coast last weekend, all be it inflicted by an excellent Bournemouth side looking certain to run away with the league, it was important to react in front of their own fans. An in form and very awkward Millwall team, who had won 4 of their last 5 to join Town and a plethora of other clubs on 21 points, provided typically stiff Championship opposition.

A cagey opening 15 minutes handed the visitors the initiative and though they were unable to turn their superiority in to chances, they easily thwarted Town’s attempts to gain any momentum and a long, attritional afternoon beckoned.

The similarities to the stalemate with Birmingham were glaringly obvious yet, somehow, this encounter proved more entertaining despite neither side creating enough goal scoring opportunities nor troubling either keeper much.

When Town finally began to look forward with their passing and introduced an element of pace and movement, they engineered a chance for Ward in the box only for him to volley it high and wide. The busy Holmes had fed Thomas who picked out the striker from the right with a great ball in and Town should have taken the lead at that point.

Ward did make the Millwall keeper work with another effort which was struck well but straight at him and contributed well over all against a resilient Millwall back line.

Both teams moved the ball well at times but the lack of penetration where it matters blunted their efforts, and a goalless first half rather limped to its conclusion and Town’s drought stretched over the 3 and a half hour mark (though it should be said that the goal scored by Ward at Bournemouth was perfectly legitimate and not offside).

If Town were to win this one, the most likely source of a goal would be a set piece and within minutes of the restart Pearson latched on to a flick on at the back post only for his effort to be cleared off the line by the keeper’s legs.

After this brief flurry of excitement, the game settled back in to attrition with personal battles taking place all over the pitch and, to the credit of the participants, it rarely boiled over despite the physical intent.

Hogg, unsurprisingly revelling in this full blooded contest, set Holmes on his way after winning possession and the much improved midfielder set up Toffolo for a strike which was fairly close but not particularly troubling for Bialkowski.

O’Brien then made an excellent run past three attempted challenges through the middle before laying the ball off to Sinani who fed Holmes before Thomas fired wildly over from a decent position.

The defining moment of the game arrived immediately after Thomas’ effort as Millwall broke effectively and played in Tom Bradshaw behind the Town defence. Pearson recovered and put in a crucial tackle to stop the considerable danger and almost certainly prevented the visitors taking the lead.

Bradshaw was replaced by Benik Afobe shortly afterwards and Pearson was to thwart the ex Town man as well later on to cement his man of the match status.

Town also made a change with Koroma replacing Sinani. The Luxembourger seems to divide opinion with his performances, but he has undoubted ability which doesn’t come off quite enough during games despite useful contributions to the team effort. He is worth persevering with, however, and the extra couple of percent he needs to add will create a very useful creator, which the side rather lacks.

Koroma’s introduction added urgency and a more direct approach and Town’s ascendancy in the final quarter of an hour became pronounced. Corberán also switched things around with Turton replacing the excellent Colwill to form a back 4 and Campbell replacing Holmes and joining Ward in a rarely seen front 2.

The changes paid off with a period of pressure creating a series of set pieces, still the most likely source of goals for this side.

Ward had a fierce effort blocked following a free kick delivery and Millwall began to creak under the pressure.

Perhaps their growing discomfort allowed Jonathan Hogg to get in front of the South Londoners’ defence to divert yet another Thomas assist in to the far corner. The unlikely scorer was fantastically delighted with his winner and his performance fully deserved the accolades which would follow.

First, however, Town had just over 10 minutes to cling on to their lead and, perhaps understandably, retreated a little too deep for comfort. However, the defensive resilience of this team is well established now and despite one or two moments of concern, notably a strike by Afobe which a less lenient referee may have called handball by Toffolo, the 3 points were secured.

A typically tight Championship game, settled by fine margins, produced a decent level of entertainment by both sides with Town just about deserving the win on chances made.
5th in the table and miles away from the wrong end of the table, Town enter the winter in very good shape. 

The elevated league position feels a little flattering to the actual ability of the squad, but it is also encouraging that there is room for improvement in some areas, particularly creativity and conversion, and with a January window on the horizon, a good platform is in place.

Blinded by the light

The run of 1-1 draws between Huddersfield Town and Birmingham City in Yorkshire came to an end, at long last, at the 6th attempt.

Unfortunately, a goalless stalemate was not the sequence busting bonanza we were hoping for, but a largely uninspiring contest, refereed by another idiot, kept Town in the play off spots ahead of an exceptionally stiff challenge at the weekend.

A 3rd consecutive clean sheet strongly indicates why the Terriers continue to trouble the right end of the table, and yet another superb Lees performance, ably supported by Pearson and Colwill, not to mention Nicholls behind them, restricted Birmingham to one decent chance in the whole game. This was late on and Gardner should have scored, but headed wide from close range. 

Perhaps the late let off affected Nicholls. Minutes afterwards, he was caught by Deeney as he gathered a loose ball and then spent an age putting his boot back on, composing himself and finally taking the free kick. Around 2 or 3 minutes elapsed in this pantomime, which rather inflamed the frustrations of the home support, and when a free kick in injury time was passed backwards, this translated in to some final whistle booing which appeared harsh without context.

The Blues, struggling after a bright start to the season, defended deep and robustly, much like Hull had tried to do at the weekend, and largely kept Town at arm’s length until the appearance of Campbell threatened to deliver a win for the hosts.

Ward, despite the usual struggle with hold up play, had been competent before being replaced, but Campbell brought aggression which unsettled Birmingham and injected some momentum in to the home side. He had only been on the pitch for a minute before hitting the post with a shot on the turn from a low Thomas cross.

A speculative effort by Campbell hit the other post in injury time, but a breakthrough was not to come.

O’Brien shot narrowly wide earlier in the half, which rather disguised the fact that Ward had been flattened in the area attempting to reach a cross, though expecting this latest abysmal official to spot an offence in the area would be going too far.

If ever a game needed a goal, it was this one. Town threatened sporadically in a first half which was fragmented but far from completely unentertaining. Faced with an opponent deploying almost their whole team defensively, the home side worked some decent openings and Sinani forced another good save from an opposition keeper while Ward, in the very first minute, flicked over the bar from a marginally offside position.

Holmes’ good form continued, providing most of the energy produced by the Terriers, but both Thomas and Sinani looked mentally and physically weary and will surely be rested at Dean Court, along with the enforced absence of Colwill who picked up another rather silly booking.

A disappointing evening would have been much more palatable had one of the near misses been converted, as the previous home game showed. As it was, the only bright spot was the retina scorching advertising displays at either end of the ground which were inexplicably fired up towards the end of the game.

Still, nearly 50% of games have seen Town achieve a clean sheet, which would have been laughably unlikely in the past few seasons. These shut outs are the reason Town are not, and will not be, struggling down at the wrong end again. 

Toothless Tigers tamed

After easily his best performance since returning to Town, Duane Holmes latched on to an over cooked Thomas corner, slid past two Hull players on the edge of the box then unleashed an excellent shot in to the top corner to seal a deserved, but not entirely comfortable, win for the Terriers.

Limited but awkward, the Tigers enjoyed the majority of possession in a game more notable for inconsistent officiating than the quality of play, but came up against a resolute host deliberately drawing their opponents on to a solid defence and looking to hurt them on the break.

The adoption of a low block was possible because Town scored their earliest goal in a game this season from a rather eventful corner, which arguably shouldn’t even have occurred as the referee failed to penalise a strong challenge on a Hull player in the passage of play immediately preceding.

With Town’s artillery massed beyond the far post, an unusual ploy appeared in the offing though the chaotic events which followed had less to do with a planned set piece and more as a result of a powerfully whipped in swinger from Sinani proving too difficult for Hull’s keeper to handle. Under pressure from Ward, which looked marginal for legality, Ingram punched the ball upwards and behind him, allowing Lees to attempt to force it home from inches away, only for a block to hit him on the back of the leg and over.

Town’s game plan changed after the goal, allowing the visitors to come in to the game but while the impressive Nicholls had to make one smart save and also cut out a potentially dangerous cross, Hull’s threats were fairly limited.

Sinani, who really needs that first goal in Town’s colours, forced a very good save from Ingram as the half time whistle loomed and there were a few decent counter attacks to cheer but it was all a little mundane.

A plodding second half saw Town relinquish possession in favour of defensive shape against opposition which struggled to break down their block. The superiority of the hosts’ back 3, backed up by the confidence instilling competence of Nicholls, kept the visitors at bay, though the counter attacking which was meant to accompany the solidity was too rarely seen.

O’Brien, with his best display of the season, constantly carried the ball from the danger area and was regularly dumped to the floor by unpunished challenges. Despite giving out an early card to Colwill, rightly, for a high foot the inconsistent and regularly bewildered referee allowed far too much leeway (just minutes after Colwill’s booking, O’Brien was chopped down while breaking and a yellow card was obvious but not produced).

As the second half wore on, Town’s devotion to defending began to look a little extreme and rather tedious. While there has been a marked and welcome improvement in game management this season, such a deep block against fairly limited opposition appeared too over cautious and the prospect of a calming second goal remote.

Thankfully, Holmes capped his energetic performance with a lovely strike, unaided by a bobble this time, to put the result beyond reasonable doubt.

A professional, competent display and a sprinkling of excellent individual performances, garnered 3 welcome points without providing many thrills. Over the past few seasons, such games have invariably ended in defeat so it would be churlish to critique the win too deeply.

The keeper and back 3 performed with exemplary calm and executed a defensive strategy with aplomb. Pearson, who went off ill, was back to his best after something of a form dip in recent weeks, while Lees continues to excel. Pearson’s replacement, Naby Sarr, had a very Naby Sarr moment when he kicked fresh air and let in a Hull forward only to recover with an excellent block. 

In the middle, Hogg and O’Brien put in monumental shifts to thwart and frustrate Hull. The latter was rewarded with several unpunished clatterings to go along with his concussion in the first half when trying to finish off a Ward cross.

Holmes, operating out wide where he is significantly more effective than in the middle, was busy all afternoon and fully deserved his excellent goal.

Up front, Ward contributed a lot to forward movement though his ability to hold the ball with his back to goal remains poor. For the first half hour, he was dominated by central defenders getting to the ball before him, though when he did free himself of their attention, he showed that he can link up play to good effect.

A game to swiftly move on from, but the very welcome points pushed Town in to the play off positions, cementing a very encouraging opening quarter of the season.

Waving, not drowning

A hard earned point, played against the backdrop of a biblical deluge, sees Town enter the latest international break in pretty rude health.

Desperately poor in a first half where they were bereft of craft or inspiration, Town nevertheless managed to limit a relentlessly aggressive Luton side, buoyed by their nap hand victory over Coventry in midweek, to one gold plated chance just before the much needed break.

As Bell crashed his effort against the woodwork, following excellent work by Cornick to set up the chance, it felt like a pivotal moment in a game where Town appeared to be just waiting to concede.

Despite the Hatters’ dominance, and their intensity couldn’t be criticised, their decision making largely let them down in the final act and Nicholls, who was excellent throughout, was rarely extended. In front of him, Lees put in another peerless performance and cruised through a game others found extremely challenging.

Town undoubtedly missed Hogg in a first half where they rarely advanced in to their opponents’ half with anything resembling purpose. O’Brien battled hard but was unable to exert any real influence, while Scott High looked lost in the face of Luton’s remorseless hunger for possession.

Occasionally, Town tried to loosen Luton’s grip with long balls down the channels, with virtually no success. The one time Thomas was found, he delivered a very good ball in to the isolated and anonymous Ward but the danger was mopped up quite easily by home defenders.

It was a scrap of encouragement for the sodden Town following, but did nothing to dispel the fear that their team was hanging by a few threads and massively more likely to concede than strike on the break.

In dreadful conditions, in a desperately poor arena and against an opponent high in confidence, reaching half time still level was commendable, though Bell’s miss was a huge slice of fortune, and a slender lead would have been the least Luton deserved for their unremitting superiority.

A good towelling down, possibly including a verbal one, at the break seemed to have had the desired effect as Town produced a much improved performance in the second half.

Far more composed and confident in possession, Town began to cause problems for their hitherto unperturbed hosts, particularly down the left.

O’Brien began to surge forward with far more purpose, High was far more effective and the previously anonymous Sinani began finding pockets of space for the first time.

The shift in the balance of power was evident from the kick off, with Town imposing themselves on a tiring opponent who seemed unable to maintain the intensity which had threatened to overwhelm the visitors in the first half (and would’ve undoubtedly swamped last season’s defence).

The first 15 minutes was largely played with Town on the front foot, with corners and a free kick allowing Thomas the opportunity to deliver danger in to the box. Unfortunately, his deliveries failed to trouble the Luton defence, but it was encouraging to see Town shrug off the inadequacies of the first half and operating much further up the pitch.

A curling Sinani effort whistled past the far post, and represented the Terriers’ best effort just over an hour in to the contest. A later strike had power but was straight at the keeper, and it was Sinani who was instrumental to a move which should have opened up the Hatters.

Breaking from a now fairly rare Luton attack, Sinani manufactured a position on the right with Koroma in the clear to his left. Unfortunately, the Luxembourger slightly under hit his pass and the opportunity was, frustratingly, lost.

Luton briefly reasserted themselves with a couple of corners and were handed a free kick on the edge of the box following a clumsy Sarr challenge, which they duly wasted. The hosts’ increasingly rare threats were effectively dealt with by Nicholls and the men in front of him.

Late on, Town created their best chance of the game down the left as a combination between Koroma and Holmes, on for Sinani, freed Toffolo in the box. The full back chose to shoot over the bar rather than lay the ball off to the options in the box; a poor decision.

A winner would have been more than a little harsh on Luton, but the second half turnaround would’ve been sufficient vindication had Town grabbed the 3 points.

7th place going in to the second international break, Town’s progress over the ridiculously poor standards set last season has been moderately pleasing. 

Vulnerability in the first halves of away games is a significant and problematic feature of the campaign so far (and only a slice of good fortune prevented them going behind and likely suffering defeat at Kenilworth Road), and demands resolution.

A much stronger and reliable defence should allow Corberán to build and improve upon a good start, and with notable absences likely to be fit again for a home double header which looks potentially fruitful, a strong start after England have disposed of a team of farmers is eminently achievable.

Thankfully, the delights of Luton’s barely adequate ground, which were several levels of misery worse in a relentless downpour, are behind us for another season.