It’s deja vu all over again, Rodney

Despite being the beneficial recipient of two outrageously poor refereeing decisions in a first half they largely dominated and deservedly won, Town yet again paid the price for a hopelessly supine 2nd half allowing Stoke, who outplayed their hosts comprehensively, to equalise late on.

The first decision in Town’s favour was to leave a high, dangerous though probably not malicious tackle by Koroma completely unpunished. No red, and the no yellow and no free kick. Within 5 minutes, Koroma celebrated his remarkable reprieve with an opening goal which Town deserved after harassing the Potters for long periods. 

Just after the goal, Stoke had a huge appeal for a penalty as Lees took out Campbell in the box and it was difficult to imagine a more straightforward decision for the referee to make. Paradoxically, a Stoke equaliser at that point may have aided Town by preventing the nonsensical retreat back to the penalty area which occurred in the second half. 

Bright and full of intent, Town nearly took the lead early on as Koroma easily outstripped Stoke’s right back for pace before finding Ward at the near post who flashed a decent glancing header just over the bar.

With O’Brien dominating midfield and regularly surging forward, Town dominated from the off though actual chances on goal were rare and pretty tame. It took Stoke a long time to get in to the game but Pearson, who had a rare off night, made an error on the byline which allowed Fletcher to gain possession and a few seconds later Nicholls was having to make a smart, instinctive save.

Pearson himself was sold short by Hogg on the halfway line and a breakaway could have resulted in an equaliser but Lees did well to slow the pace of the attack and Nicholls was equal to the eventual shot.

Town finished the half strongly but, again, the quality of opportunities was poor and a second goal rarely looked like coming.

Stoke brought on Joe Allan after the break and when Powell replaced the injured Vrancic on the hour, their superior bench turned the tide of the game.

A quiet first 15 minutes saw Town slowly adopt the defensive mindset to cling on to a single goal lead until it became entrenched. Just as surely, they retreated as a unit and left the stage entirely free for the talented, if injury prone, Powell to dictate the tempo at will.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the strategy has collected points both home and away, but it is neither edifying nor enjoyable to watch and in 3 of the last 4 home games, unsuccessful.

Town’s cause was not helped by some fading legs. Sinani, Ward and Koroma, who had led the highly effective pressing in the first half seemed to lack energy and O’Brien’s probing ceased. Hogg, who was physically ill on the pitch during the second half, played far too deep and Pearson didn’t recover from a poor first half and gave a rare duff showing at centre back.

Stoke didn’t create a great deal for all their dominance but the pressure was increasingly intense and inexorable. Nicholls made a few routine saves and Pearson continued to make poor decisions on the ball and it seemed obvious that Town needed to make a change to their shape and personnel.

Although Corberán’s options were not particularly numerous, and a struggling Ward needed to be replaced, the like for like moves he made were unimaginative and simply didn’t move the dynamic. Rhodes is simply incapable of playing the role Ward has made his own; not just now, in his 30s, but in his entire career. Had he been brought on to play in a two, with someone pushed further forward, this may have worked but, as it was, the substitution was a waste.

Holmes for the anonymous Sinani was more acceptable and the American nearly scored a vital second following excellent work by the criminally under utilised Thomas but couldn’t adjust his body to take full advantage of the headed chance.

At the other end, Pearson finally made an error which was fully punished, trying a short pass out of an area flooded with Stoke players instead of aiming for the proverbial row Z. Baker smashed his shot against the post with Nicholls beaten, O’Brien made a fantastic block to prevent Campbell scoring but Brown, on for Fletcher, hit an unstoppable drive in to the top corner for a deserved leveller.

Rather irritatingly, Town stepped up a gear after the setback but a comfortably saved effort from High was the only notable attempt and another home draw was played out over 7 minutes injury time.

Perhaps the switch to a back 4 has unsettled Town’s defence with neither Pearson or Lees as comfortable as they have been though it should be noted that Turton, at right back, was probably Town’s man of the match. With Stoke playing a lone striker in Fletcher, perhaps utilising Sarr as the central man of 3 would have been more sensible. But definitely not on the left!

Corberán insists that the steady retreats backwards when in front is not planned and arises as players tire, passes go astray and the opposition encouraged, but he needs a solution to the issue.

Still, unbeaten run continues even if it has a Lee Clark feel about it.

Madness at the Mad

Town’s unbeaten run stretched out to 9 after a chaotically entertaining encounter with troubled Reading with another double chalked up largely through Danny Ward’s first hat trick since 2014, which he registered for Town at Watford in a dead rubber. That was also Town’s last hat trick in the League by any player, but this one was far more valuable than the one at Vicarage Road.

Still without Holmes and Colwill, Town’s trip to Berkshire was considerably more tricky than assumed by too many against a Reading side admittedly in indifferent form but who had players returning from injury, including regular Town nemesis Joao, and from the AFCON tournament. They only succumbed to defeat in the final minutes at Middlesbrough last time out and in their last home game, they should’ve seen out a routine win against Derby but imploded late on.
Not that the Royals looked much of a threat in the first five minutes as Town hit their straps early and flew at their hosts in a terrific opening spell which forced a couple of promising situations only to be thwarted by timely blocks.

Unfortunately, the flaw in Corberán’s bold strategy to get on the front foot and have two marauding full backs but only two central defenders was immediately exposed in Reading’s first venture in to the visitors’ half.

With players isolated and out of position, neither Hogg nor Pearson could affect any influence on the momentum of the attack and wide spaces opened up leaving Lees wholly exposed. Toffolo’s whereabouts can only be speculated upon though he did make a very late appearance in the box as Joao tucked away the simple opportunity for a 1-0 lead.

Town responded with a devastating spell of attacking football with Pipa surging down the right, excellent centre forward play by Ward and intelligent support from Sinani who injected creativity in to an impressive period which turned the game on it’s head.

Sinani was found by Pipa after the Spaniard drove at the Reading defence and the Luxembourger, who had already tried his luck on a couple of occasions, took a couple of steps inside before hitting a defender’s chest which took the ball past the flat footed keeper.

If there was an element of fortune about the equaliser, it needs to be set in the context of Town’s total domination of possession and territory. Reading’s opener felt like a minor setback, particularly with our recent history of games turning sour on the scorer of the first goal, and the Berkshire outfit looked extremely vulnerable at the back.

Town took the lead after 15 minutes with a decent run by Koroma down the left being poorly dealt with in the box allowing Thomas to shoot against a defender and then shoot again only for the ball to fall in to Ward’s path, who instinctively turned it past Southwood.

It was no less than Town deserved and their ambition wasn’t diminished by taking the lead with Reading still only creating sporadic and relatively tame threat, despite having a goal ruled out for offside, but Koroma, who had a poor game overall, carelessly lost possession, and less than a minute later Town conceded an equaliser.

For the near 1,000 visiting supporters, the concession was disturbing and annoying. Corberán’s teams had shown tremendous guts at the City Ground and Ewood Park to earn deserved clean sheets and now the discipline, shape and resilience had somehow been replaced by a rabble without a cause.

In a near carbon copy of their first goal, Reading moved the ball quickly and simply through the spaces an over committed opponent laid out for them and Puskas slotted home with little resistance.

Within minutes, Town regained the lead. Thomas was pulled back near the touchline and delivered a teasing ball from the free kick but one which was easy for a keeper to take, and Southwood duly did. Unfortunately for the custodian, as he fell to the floor he let go of the ball which fell to Ward who buried it past the myriad defenders in front of him. 

By this point, Corberán had abandoned the back four, pushing Toffolo inside to form his usual 3 centre backs. Thomas switched to the left with Koroma on the right, though the latter’s display didn’t discernibly improve and he messed up a great opportunity to forge a two goal advantage which would have represented a chasm for a team struggling at the wrong end of the table with 6 punishment points to make up.

Instead, and with particular bad timing, Town conceded another equaliser when Morrison was allowed to attack a corner unchallenged, nay, unnoticed, and his header deflected in to even up the score on good fortune. 

So came to an end a half of dreadful defending by both sides, 6 goals and the certainty that the second half would almost certainly not yield the same number of scores; indeed, a goalless second half could feasibly be expected.

As it happens, the game needed just one more goal to determine the destination of the 3 points and it was a strike which brought Danny Ward a hat trick and the match ball.

Toffolo had been fouled near the touch line after releasing the ball from about half way in his own half. The decision, made by a linesman pretty close to the action, brought more outraged howls from the scattered home support which spent much of the afternoon decrying a pretty competent referee, though they may have had a point that the free kick was taken from the wrong place.

Pearson lifted the ball forward and Ward won an excellent flick on which Koroma fought well for and either he, the defender or a combination of both managed to get it in to Ward’s path as the striker followed up his own aerial victory. His stride was perfect and he struck an unstoppable shot past the keeper with his weaker foot.

At this point, Ward deserves yet another eulogy. His poor season, when it really did feel that Town were trying to reheat a soufflé which wasn’t that great the first time around, can be forgotten now, with his contributions since late Autumn being exceptional.

Looking fitter than ever, Ward expends masses of energy leading the line, his ability to hold up the ball and, crucially, move it on with threat and precision is now a feature of his game rather than the frustration it once was and, of course, his scoring record is now very acceptable. A real asset and a major reason behind Town’s unlikely challenge for the play offs, which is looking less and less ludicrous as the weeks go by. 

Reestablishing the lead before the hour mark, Town were significantly more conservative in their approach to defending it in this half and low blocked their hosts with relative ease in retrospect. Despite lots of possession, Reading simply weren’t good enough to break down a Town side which had closed the spaces so freely surrendered in the first half.

Nicholls, booked for time wasting yet again, had to scramble a bagatelle ball following a corner which could have fallen kindly for the home side but didn’t have a real save to make as Reading ran out of ideas and, as the game wore on, energy.

Sorba Thomas, slowly getting back to his best over the past few games, and playing with the naive enthusiasm so effective earlier in the season, had the best chance of the half after the goal but shot too near to the keeper when Ward was an option in the middle.

There were far too many errors in possession as Reading tried to increase the pressure as time slipped away, but the back line and Hogg held firm. O’Brien, who made some decent forays forward, was rather wasteful at times and was responsible for a couple of half breaks which Reading failed to exploit.

Rhodes replaced Ward, who looked to have taken a knock, and was very good running down the clock in 5 minutes of injury time and the whole team rather comfortably saw out the last quarter without a real scare to earn the 3 points.

Scoring 4 goals away from home should always mean winning, but the outcome was a little too close for comfort at times though the defensive organisation in the second half was much more like the Huddersfield Town we have come to know this season.

With a schedule much more straightforward than most, who will be crowbarring postponed fixtures in for some time to come, a squad with greater options than in recent seasons and a healthy points total in the bag, Town’s season continues to hold promise. Most will temper optimism with the lingering feeling that this group of players are over achieving, but we have seen that scenario before.

An intriguing couple of months awaits.

Passive Town pay penalty

It is some consolation that despite being overwhelmingly outplayed in a disappointing 2nd half, Town’s unbeaten run continues as does their unlikely challenge for a play off place.

Swansea’s hunger for possession was known and predictable as were the recent failures they have suffered despite quite astonishingly high numbers in control of the ball and had the second 45 followed a similar pattern to the first half, Town would still be in the top 6.

Unfortunately, an enforced change of personnel at half time, with goal scorer Sinani being replaced by Scott High, seemed to unhinge the hosts’ dynamics and they were simply incapable of escaping the stranglehold Swansea created with a higher quality of possession than their first half efforts.

There was an air of possession for possession’s sake about the men from South Wales in that first 45 and most of it fizzled out on contact with Town’s solid back four. Nicholls had to make one very good save following an effort by Manning which was the result of a fortunate run of the ball rather than the conclusion of a 35 pass move from back to front.

Town’s patience and discipline allowed them to easily cope and despite their own forays forward being relatively limited, they looked far more likely to score than the visitors and duly did on 15 minutes.

It was just reward for an energetic start which pushed the visitors backwards and a high press which panicked them in to errors. O’Brien rushed his former colleague Hamer in to a wild clearance, and then brought an excellent save from him with an effort which looked destined for the top corner.

The subsequent corner was put in to the net by Koroma but he was offside after Pearson had won the aerial battle.

The Terriers’ superiority in the opening 15 minutes was rewarded with the lead when Pearson’s excellent ball forward to Ward was expertly taken by the striker and, in one movement, he released Koroma down the left and carried on to the penalty area to receive the ball back. Ward’s effort was blocked and Hamer denied O’Brien again with the follow up only for the ball to deflect to Sinani who couldn’t miss.

The reversal prompted an improvement in the Swans and the aforementioned Nicholls save was made soon after the goal, but the home team appeared very comfortable with defending the visitors rather rambling possession.

Soaking up the pressure, such as it was, with ease it was only a matter of time before the home side broke forward again and an excellent move just before the half hour should have seen a doubling of the lead and a completely different game would have ensued.

Ward was at the heart of the move again with a superb take and turn followed by an inch perfect ball to Thomas who fed the rampaging O’Brien in the box only for Hamer to thwart his former team mate with a remarkable save which was undoubtedly a turning point for his team’s fortunes.

An entertaining half with Town deservedly in the lead seemed to augur well for the hosts but Sinani’’s injury, and the absence of Holmes to provide a like for like solution, derailed the team to such an extent that escaping with a point became cause for relief.

For their part, Swansea became far more potent in possession and, since they had the ball almost uninterrupted, it was always likely that Town’s increasingly desperate resilience would break.

The visitors’ intensity also improved substantially with their assaults on Town’s defence having far greater purpose than their efforts before the break. Town had no answers to their opponents’ movement and precise passing to the consternation of a large crowd enticed by the offer to watch for a fiver.

That Town lasted until the final quarter was far more to do with the heroics of Nicholls, who had to make many saves and interventions, and the rugged determination of Pearson who blocked and tackled throughout to pull his colleagues out of self inflicted trouble.

Poor Scott High, who was sent on to do a role which looked like duplication, suffered a torrid half which included giving the ball away twice in ludicrously dangerous areas, one of which led indirectly, but indisputably, to Swansea’s deserved and overdue equaliser.

Town were simply unable to escape out of their own half. Ward, excellent in the first half, was isolated and superfluous, the midfield chased shadows as their superior opposition passed them in to oblivion and having been starved of the ball for such long periods, brief moments of possession seemed to come as a surprise to too many and given away with startled regularity.

As he admitted post match, Corberán made the wrong call at half time but there was more than a hint of too much hindsight and insufficient action taken to rectify the error. Hogg, who will need time to get fully back up to speed, should’ve been replaced for a more progressive option. On at least 3 occasions, the returning skipper halted rare moments of promise with a backwards pass. 

Not that he was alone. Only O’Brien, with some scintillating breaks, played with bravery and risk. The introduction of Pipa produced better things on the right at times, though it moved Thomas over to the left in place of the disappointing Koroma and minutes after the switch, the Welsh international missed a tackle which allowed his opponent to feed Downes for an excellent finish to equalise.

Corberán then went two up front after the equaliser but not before Swansea nearly took the lead with an effort which Nicholls did well to keep out. Rhodes arrival, for the last 5 minutes and injury time did result in some long overdue pressure from the home side and they proceeded to ask decent questions of Swansea’s under worked keeper and defence.

Hamer produced yet another save to deny O’Brien, who must have been heartily sick of him, and the final flourish in search of an unlikely and undeserved winner did, at last, provide some entertainment for a restless home crowd.

The final act, however, saw Swansea come close to taking the 3 points which few would have begrudged as Pirhoe headed just wide with Nicholls scrambling.

One point closer to survival and likely safe before the Spring is not to be sniffed at, but it wasn’t a day upon which that Corberán will look back fondly. Far too late in reacting to a game in which his team were barely competing, hopefully it is a lesson learned.

Soaking it up

Town concluded their Festive season fixtures with a dogged goalless draw at a sodden Ewood Park and enhanced their credibility as a play off contender by thwarting the form team of the division in a ruggedly entertaining encounter.

A larger than anticipated away following, no doubt enticed by a too rare pay on the day opportunity and Town’s recent form, caused difficulties which resulted in a 15 minute delay to the kick off, which also allowed a little more time for the pitch to drain of excess water.

That additional drainage didn’t entirely resolve the problem of parts of the pitch being too waterlogged to allow for free flow of the ball and the visitors put themselves under pressure as a result of the ground problems on a few occasions in a frenzied opening 20 minutes completely dominated by Rovers.

For all their possession, thrust and aggression, clearly built on high levels of confidence, only an excellent break and shot by Khadra, which crashed off the bar, caused great concern as an individual moment, but the pressure was intense and unrelenting.

Unable to advance out of their own half and simply not coping with conditions as well as their hosts, Town squandered a glorious chance to break when Holmes fell over his own feet, presumably in a puddle, with lots of options opening up in front of him.

It was just the type of break they would have been hoping for, knowing that Blackburn would be on the front foot early but Town had to wait until midway through the half before getting anywhere near the home goal.

Sinani supplied a very presentable chance for Holmes who was unable to match his finish at the City Ground with a diving header which was well stopped.

It would be inaccurate to say that this brought a massive change in the rhythm of the game and a big, if incorrect, penalty shout on the half hour had been precipitated by a poor loss of possession by Holmes on the halfway line allowing Blackburn a rare opportunity to attack with Town’s defence on their heels. Brereton, who was rarely as effective as he had been at the John Smith’s stadium, was probably correct that Lees had fouled him outside the box but his dramatic fall several seconds later as Pearson muscled him off the ball fooled no one.

Town continued to grow in to the game and having weathered the best Rovers had thrown at them with all 3 central defenders contributing to a fine rearguard performance, along with the highly dependable Nicholls, the evident gap between the two sides began to narrow quite quickly.

Still, the sanctuary of half time was more welcome for the visitors who had worked exceptionally hard as a team to thwart a highly dangerous attack. The pitch condition improved as time went on, which probably helped as Town simply didn’t handle the going as well as their hosts.

There was a final scare for Town before the break as Rovers had another penalty appeal waved away as the final act. An attempted cross hit O’Brien from short range and the referee rightly and immediately dismissed the claim.

The second half was far more comfortable as Rovers ran out of ideas and were consistently guilty of making basic errors; the number of poor passes which left the field of play was quite staggering for a team which would finish the day 2nd in the table.

Not that life was comfortable for Town’s defence, but it seemed a lot easier for them to manoeuvre Blackburn’s forwards where they wanted them to be and the threat they posed was noticeably diminished. 

Pearson, Lees and, particularly, Colwill were immense at the back, rarely putting a foot wrong, intercepting with aplomb and keeping Blackburn at arm’s length for long periods. 

The youngster on loan from Chelsea was outstanding. Poised, elegant and supremely confident, he breezed through a game against one of the most potent attacks in the division. Time and space are his currency, rarely needlessly rushing in to tackles and not once on this afternoon. At 18, his future looks assured at the very top level and it is a pleasure to witness the beginning of what could be a glittering career.

Levi’s effortless quality was matched by his fellow defenders more basic qualities and, behind them, Nicholls had another flawless game exuding confidence from the last line.

Town flattered to deceive a little going forward when they had the chance, but a lovely ball through to Holmes should have seen the diminutive midfielder test the keeper at the very least but one touch too many meant the angles disappeared and his shot hit the side netting.

He was nearly freed again later in the half but Dolan, a fresh substitute, never looked like losing the foot race. Inexplicably, Holmes then launched a challenge from behind which should have been punished with dismissal. The only thing which saved him was a slight push by another Rovers’ player which the referee, incorrectly but understandably, may have interpreted as the cause of the lunge.

At the other end, Thomas made a routine clearance from the line having been well positioned to deal with a rather unthreatening header, and right at the death, a horrid Lees’ back pass nearly sold Nicholls short but the custodian dealt with probably his most concerning moment of the day with a good clearance.

A very creditable end to the holiday games, then, including shutting out two form teams away from home, and collecting 10 points from 12. Things could have turned out differently in 3 of these games, but managing to win or not lose games is key to success in the Championship, and it is perhaps time to acknowledge that luck is earned and that this team has created the momentum which delivers such results.

2022 is looking very promising. 

Riding the storm

Despite an unforgiving onslaught by Nottingham Forest which began on the half hour and remained pretty relentless until the final whistle, Town made it 3 wins in a row and ended the year in the play off positions and in damn good shape.

The character shown in an exceptionally tough away game was impressive with bodies being thrown on the line to keep the win intact.

A combination of excellent goalkeeping, intensely determined defending and some Forest profligacy delivered the unlikely win, though it should be said that Samba had to make just as many excellent saves (one) as Nicholls when he tipped a rasping O’Brien effort over, both sides hit the bar with Thomas doing so from long range in the very first minute and both missed one easy chance each.

This is not to suggest that Forest were anything other than dominant, particularly in the second half, but the sum total of their efforts resulted, roughly, in to the same important metrics as Town, other than the most important one.

An entertaining first half was more evenly contested until Town took the lead on the half hour. The impressive Colwill set Holmes free with a nice forward pass and the ex-Ram played a neat exchange with Toffolo before firing home at Samba’s near post.

With Ward off injured or ill after just 15 minutes, Town were weakened early on but not put off their stride and easily matched their in form opponents across the pitch from the moment the pipes and drums of Mull of Kintyre faded in to a bizarre Forest ritual before kick off. What is that all about?

Holmes’ opener heralded a siege of Town’s goal for the rest of the first half and the visitors were clinging on by their finger tips and unable to relieve the pressure in any meaningful way. There was an air of the hosts not being able to see the wood for the trees, and perhaps a more guileful approach would have served them better than bludgeon, but it was a huge relief when the half time whistle blew.

Town showed great strength of character and resilience in an extremely difficult second half of unabating pressure though, again, there wasn’t much finesse on display as Forest looked to pummel their way through.

Their best chance fell to the impressive Brennan, who will surely be playing at a higher level very soon, but he was unable to convert a straightforward opportunity after Nicholls could only parry.

O’Brien’s effort which was well saved by Samba and Sinani’s poor miss meant that Town were not entirely swamped but it was a win rather gifted by the opponent who had one of those nights which all clubs suffer from time to time.

Despite riding their considerable luck, Town did compete with personality and are beginning to become likeable as a squad again. Overcoming the early loss of Ward, dealing with the cynical targeting of O’Brien, which was never tackled by an otherwise decent referee, and coping with a furious onslaught made this a fantastic win in the circumstances.

Though Pipa’s reappearance was notable more for his first two poor touches, his availability provides Corberán with more options and the imminent return of Hogg in the New Year will provide much needed relief for the over used High who, not unnaturally, is starting to fade a little.

Blackburn may well prove too stiff a challenge coming soon after this bruising contest, but 2022 looks a hell of a lot brighter than a lot of 2021.

Happy New Year to all.