Optimism quietly rises

Scoreless draws take a few forms. The one in Lancashire midweek was a poor example of the genre, while yesterday’s Yorkshire derby was a stalemate at it’s best.

This was despite only one save of note being made by the keepers and genuine chances being at a premium; it was the spectacle of two pretty decent teams going toe to toe for a win which created an edge of the seat drama right through to injury time.

With both teams in form – though the much nicer Sheffield club’s rise up the table has been built on wins while Town’s admirable unbeaten run has relied on resilience and draws – a tight contest was expected, in which the visitors began as favourites.

Carlos Corberán sprung some selection surprises with the inclusion of Russell in midfield and Ruffles at left back in place of Toffolo. The former had thrilled and intrigued supporters in the cup against Barnsley, though some remained sceptical about his pace and ability to compete against the better midfields in this division, while Ruffles’ elevation over a pretty subdued incumbent has possibly been too long coming.

Russell, whose languid style is at once thrilling and alarming, produced a first class, if not flawless, Championship debut and would have celebrated his arrival with a goal but for the incompetence of officials who incorrectly interpreted a tussle in the 6 yard box which should’ve been a penalty, not the cause of disallowing Russell’s excellent header.

Not long afterwards, United appeared to illegally prevent Russell meeting another corner. 

The referee, who had a very poor first half with both the big decisions and the more mundane ones, which included leaving unpunished a ridiculous number of niggly and cynical fouls by the Blades in the opening 15 minutes, managed to balance out the generous calls Town have had over the past few weeks.

It was unfortunate for Berge to collect the booking his team deserved, but the overdue caution settled things down and the game was all the better for it.

An excellent start by the hosts yielded too little threat with a tame Ward header from a difficult angle and a wild shot from Pipa being the meagre return for some otherwise enterprising play.

Once the Blades stopped infringing and started playing, their quality began to emerge and a dominant 10 minutes rather unsettled Town who found it difficult to gain possession and gave it away cheaply when they did. However, and like their hosts, United were unable to turn superiority in to genuine chances.

The pendulum swung back in Town’s favour once they got to grips with United’s surge and it was noticeable that this followed O’Brien giving Russell some forceful positioning advice as the debutant’s defensive inexperience had been a little exposed.

Getting back on the front foot, Town put together some decent combinations to create some shooting opportunities for Ward but the top scorer failed to connect with one effort and hit the other tamely wide.

Down the left, Ruffels was having an excellent Championship full debut, attacking with energy and defending well against Sheffield’s dangerous right side. Sadly, his left side partner, Koroma, was not up to speed and wasted good attacks with poor choices; a failure which was to recur badly in the second half.

It was Ruffels who won the corner from which Russell scored the disallowed effort. An excellent Thomas delivery was superbly met by the soaring debutant only for the nonsense on the line – Baldock wrestled Ward to the ground and Fotheringham fell over him – to be misinterpreted by the referee, linesman or fourth official (or a combination of the 3). The referee was clearly happy with the goal and allowed celebrations to go on longer than it usually takes to dawn.

Doubly annoying as it was, a goal for Russell would have capped a very good first half, Town haven’t much room to complain about referee decisions recently, though this looked entirely like a cop out for officials unsure what had happened on the line.

To their credit, Town didn’t collectively sulk and finished the half strongly with intent and a flurry of corners. They had been the better side and more than unfortunate to be going in level.

The second half proved to be much more even as the Blades’ quality came more to the fore. Berge, in particular, saw more of the ball though perhaps more could be expected of a clearly talented player than neat, tidy and very safe passing. 

It was Town, however, who should have made much more of an excellent break with United found short at the back. No fewer than 3 players gave Koroma options to left and right only for the out of form winger to lose the ball to an outnumbered defender.

A rare poor ball from Hogg, who is looking far more like the influence he is in the past two games, saw Russell robbed midway in his own half which allowed United to break. A rare opportunity for McBurnie saw him loop a header towards goal, but the attempt was comfortably gathered by Nicholls, who also saved a reasonable Berge effort minutes later.

For Town, Pipa and Thomas were combining well down the right to cause the visitors’ problems but the openings were always thwarted by good defending. The combination, however, augurs well for the final run in.

Koroma was finally, and mercifully, replaced by Holmes just after the hour and the Anglo-American made a big difference with a performance brimming with energy and intent, in stark contrast to his midweek efforts.

The awkward McBurnie’s elbow found the face of his captor, Matt Pearson. Town’s central defenders, augmented out of possession by Hogg, were excellent throughout and Sharp was similarly subdued by Lees with an off target shot his only contribution of note.

By this point, Russell’s vision and range of passing came to the fore. He regularly released his colleagues down right and left with perfectly weighted balls, some of which were things of beauty.

As the last 10 loomed, Corberán tried to make changes to win the game and replaced the excellent Ruffles with Sinani, but the adjacent decision to move O’Brien to left back, which had unwelcome echoes of last season’s campaign, took a while to be exposed and Toffolo, rather than the original choice of Rhodes, was chosen to replace Ward and get O’Brien back in midfield.

The confusion very nearly became a catastrophe when Toffolo made a complete hash of a routine clearance and presented the Blades with an opportunity they rather wasted.

Another penalty shout, this time from Pipa who went down under a double challenge, looked optimistic in real time but pretty conclusive on replay. At the other end, Pipa gave away a needless corner which nearly resulted in a late winner for the South Yorkshire men.

A practised routine found Fleck unmarked just outside the box and the Scotsman caught the ball very sweetly. Nicholls saw it through a crowd of players and finger tipped it on to the post and then off his leg for a corner. A wonderful save from possibly the player of the season so far. It preserved his 14th clean sheet, and it is testament to his abilities that those are all founded on his mastery of the basic goalkeeping skills which he carries out with supreme simplicity. Throughout this derby, his confident, calm collection of crosses, headers and any other threats was massively influential.

A Russell header, easily saved by Fotheringham was Town’s last attempt for a winner and an absorbing, entertaining encounter came to a close.

Both clubs remain in contention for a play off position and, from a Town perspective, it was gratifying to equal a very good Blades outfit. The return of Colwill, the intriguing arrival of Anjorin and the emergence of competition in midfield and at left back could prove crucial in the imminent run in. 

Maybe this squad can avoid ritual humiliation at Craven Cottage next week or even better. After all, they have got to 50 points before Valentine’s Day and secured Championship status far earlier than many, or any, of us believed in August.

Dreary night at Deepdale

A desperately poor game at Deepdale, venue of Huddersfield Town disappointment since 1969, saw the Terriers’ unbeaten run maintained but did nothing to enhance their play off credentials.

While a rare point in this corner of Lancashire was welcome and the defensive display admirable, the complete lack of threat to the Lilywhites throughout was disappointing for a team high in the table, and the final flurries of a game which had stalemate stamped all over it belonged to the home side who had a credible penalty shout in and amongst being thwarted by the excellent Nicholls.

Desperately poor performances by Sinani, who constantly made wrong decisions and lost possession on far too many occasions, and Holmes, for whom nothing went right on a frustrating evening, rather undermined Town’s efforts going forward and it was left far too late to replace one or both of them to try and create some change.

Ward’s hard work, touch and energy were entirely wasted through lack of support and his withdrawal in favour of Rhodes was a huge signal from Corberán that the point was to be preserved, rather than trying to win the game by putting two up front.

Rhodes is not an effective lone striker, which must be known to Town’s management, and losing Ward’s unselfish endeavour simply handed the initiative to Preston and the visitors ended up fortunate to gain a point which had looked reasonably comfortable until the last 10 minutes.

As an attacking force, Town were virtually non existent. Thomas managed a couple of runs and crosses but there were too few colleagues in the box as conservatism pervaded the team. While Sinani and Holmes’s ineffectiveness was key to a poor offensive performance, O’Brien’s surging was largely snuffed out too.

The attack and defence seemed unbalanced all evening, and cohesion suffered accordingly. To gain a point when playing poorly, because several defensive players came out of the game very positively, is not to be sniffed at but the spectacle did nothing to dispel the feeling that Town are a little, and possibly more, short of play off quality.

The return of Colwill after the weekend and the imminent arrival of his Chelsea colleague on loan may well change the dynamic and will certainly give Corberán better options for the final run in. The current squad battles on, and while the Deepdale showing was pretty dire, they are maintaining momentum.

Sheffield United present a stiff lunchtime test on Saturday, and Town can suffer with early kick offs following a midweek Wednesday game, and a big offensive improvement will be needed.

Earning your luck

The football gods have heaped more than a fair share of good fortune on Town this season, which continued in midweek as Wayne Rooney’s Derby County came looking for more points to aid their unlikely survival bid. 

If you hold your nose against the stench of over spending cheating going back to Frank Lampard’s Derby County and beyond, there is something rather heroic in their efforts to claw back the penalties imposed upon them and their support is clearly rallying around the flag in times of adversity. The visiting support was particularly vociferous all evening.

Town’s good fortune continued as a reckless challenge on O’Brien by his erstwhile colleague Stearman, following an excellent early press which forced a big error, had the referee producing a fairly straightforward red card. It was just as reckless, and probably more so, as Koroma’s on Friday night but this time the referee was competent.

It has been a regular feature down the years that Town are often comically inept when facing 10 men, though they did take advantage when Blackpool were reduced a few weeks ago; even so, Stearman’s departure was not quite the gift outsiders would assume.

Naturally, the Rams were limited by the decision and what promised to be an open and exciting game became a frustrating and attritional affair with the visitors, not unnaturally, digging in for a point and Town struggling to make their numerical supremacy count for long periods.

The initial euphoria of seeing an opposition player dismissed usually wanes fairly quickly as it dawns that the advantage is more marginal than assumed and frustration, on and off the pitch, follows on behind. Town didn’t deserve the boos of a small amount of supporters, but their attempts to pick their way through a deep defensive wall were not particularly inspiring and creating good chances proved difficult.

Not that the home side lacked energy and, if anything, it was over elaboration which saw them falter as they sighted goal. One intricate move involving Sinani, Toffolo and O’Brien opened up the visitors at last only for Holmes’ effort from a fairly tight angle to be well saved by Allsop (a dead ball was mistakenly awarded).

Overall, though, Town were restricted to half chances and thwarted by a very good defensive performance by the visitors.

Unsurprisingly, Corberán’s half time change saw Pearson replaced by Eiting who finally saw a peopled stadium as his second Town career begins. With Hogg moving to defence, Corberán was signalling good intent, but Eiting’s stumbling introduction to the game with 3 consecutive poor passes failed to provide the desired momentum.

In fact, the first chance of note fell to Derby and Town only escaped considerable embarrassment because Sibley just failed to bring the ball under control when he was heading for a one on one with Nicholls.

The scare did prompt a reaction from Town, though they still failed to threaten as the final 20 minutes approached. They should have been further aided by another sending off when Ebosele, who impressively snuffed out Thomas’s threat pretty much entirely, fouled O’Brien to stop a break having already been booked for kicking the ball away.

Rather belatedly, after nearly half an hour of insignificant threat from the home side, Corberán replaced Hogg with Rhodes and gave the Rams something different to think about. By this point, Pipa had revitalised the right flank having replaced the dependable Turton and he helped Thomas find more space with his surging runs.

On the three quarter mark, good fortune shone on the hosts again as a move involving simple passing by Sinani, O’Brien and Eiting found Holmes on the edge of the box. At the point of taking the shot, Bielik threw himself at the ball which diverted it in a loop over the beaten keeper. 

The relief of the home contingent contrasted sharply with Derby’s despair as they saw all their hard work undone by a deflection. Cruel.

With nothing to lose, the visitors pushed forward and were always vulnerable to the counter, with their defensive shape necessarily abandoned and, sure enough, an incisive Town attack freed Ward to shoot at Allsop who parried in to the path of Rhodes to register his first goal of the season and his 74th for the club.

Rhodes could have added a third late on but inexplicably got his legs tangled up and the chance was gone.

So another 3 points gained, the unbeaten run extended and a strengthened squad with 2 Chelsea loanees to be added over the next few weeks. It wasn’t particularly pretty, often frustrating and far from straightforward against a valiant opponent but Town maintain their challenge with momentum and promise.

An excellent transfer window gives Town a very good platform for the rest of the season; carpe diem.