A relentlessly dreary encounter with a Preston side in the last chance saloon for an unlikely play off place ended, thankfully, with a valuable point and a small step forward as Town’s rivals collapsed to heavy defeats.
Evidently fatigued in mind and body, Town met the physicality of their Lancastrian visitors but at the expense of creativity; one shot on target, which barely troubled the opposing keeper, was the damning statistic though it was one more than the Lilywhites managed despite being much the more threatening side.
The resolute defending which earned the point was nearly thrown away in the dying embers of an encounter whose passing nobody will either mourn or remember as 3 Preston attempts narrowly failed to provide a lifeline for their faint ambitions. A couple of efforts from substitute and veteran Scott Sinclair curled just wide while Maguire’s shank in to the side netting was a genuine let off for the hosts at the very end of injury time.
A point for both sides was generous reward for a spectacle of drab monotony. While Preston can point to a progressive first 20 minutes of domination which regularly troubled Town’s left flank, most of the deliveries in to the box were routinely cleared and the visitors were unable to make anything of a succession of corners and the odd free kick.
After the first water break, Town tightened up considerably, held a better shape and successfully doused Preston’s ambition. Sadly, it didn’t translate in to any improvement up front with O’Brien’s speculative and unremarkable effort straight at Rudd elevated to the major incident of the half.
Defensively, however, Town deserved some plaudits. After the sluggish performances against Wigan and Forest, Schindler and Stearman’s partnership has come under considerable scrutiny even though there isn’t much in the way of alternatives, but the last 2 games should restore some confidence in the duo who both had strong claims for man of the match. The German probably scrapes it with a wonderfully executed tackle in the second half which halted a Barkhuizen raid which may have turned ugly (everything else did!).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Town’s more combative players stood out in a hour and a half of attrition. Hogg and O’Brien worked tirelessly to halt Preston’s flow in the middle of the park, provided good cover in front of the central defenders and helped out the flanks when necessary. All at the expense of genuine offensive threat, however.
Even the introduction of Smith-Rowe, replacing the infuriatingly ineffective Pritchard failed to spark much forward momentum though he made one or two thrusting breaks which only lacked support.
Mounié also entered the fray from the bench and his aerial ability provided more respite than Campbell’s attempts at harassing. Had there been more support around him, some of Mounié’s well intentioned headers in to space may have produced some semblance of danger but they all went to waste.
Quaner arrived on to the pitch to deliver his usual idiosyncrasies which were ever so slightly more effective than Kachunga’s falling over and failure to control the ball.
As minutes turned in to seemingly endless hours, the beautiful game continued to take a savage beating and Alex Neil’s introduction of Stockley added an extra layer of brutality the abomination richly deserved, but to little effect.
The scares in the closing stages at least provided an opportunity for emotional response from what must have been a vastly diminished audience, but couldn’t extinguish the loathsome fare served up in normal time.
Clutching their valuable point, however, Town can see the finish line and with a two result advantage over the presumptive bottom three with Wigan in it and strong goal difference advantage over Barnsley and Luton, the chances of survival are much improved since last Sunday.
A desperately needed win on the road in this strangest of mini seasons coupled with the news that Wigan has been plunged right back in to relegation contention with a 12 point deduction boosts Town’s survival hopes but with still a lot more to do.
The inauspicious start to the ersatz conclusion of the season has lead to some deserved criticism of the club, though occasionally overblown amid plenty of straw men.
Comprehensively outclassed by Wigan, whose superiority over the whole of the bottom half has been evident throughout 2020 and who are probably capable of overcoming a 12 point penalty and a defeat to Forest which owed a little to circumstance as well as flaws, Town needed to take the flak and prove themselves to an exasperated support.
In Birmingham, and in direct contrast to the first game back, the beleaguered Terriers found the perfect opponent.
The Blues’ form and circumstances, with a manager running down the clock before returning to Spain and with seemingly little to play for, presented a good resuscitation opportunity for Town, and the manner of the victory provides a lift which shouldn’t necessarily be tempered by the quality or commitment of the opposition, but neither can the despair/joy pendulum swing too far, too soon.
Perhaps the most important redemptive feature of the game was the centre back pairing of Schindler and Stearman. Both of them were conspicuously poor in both of the previous reversals, appearing worryingly sluggish and bafflingly incompetent but put those performances behind them as they restricted Jutkiewicz, normally so effective against a team for whom he was distinctly ineffective, to one good opportunity early on which he headed well over.
Hogan, another persistent tormentor of the Yorkshiremen, was equally unproductive. Much of Birmingham’s intent was illusory, which may explain the predictability of their two forwards but the shackling imposed by Town’s central defenders was an encouraging sign of restored form which should engender greater confidence for the challenges ahead.
A very good start from the visitors, similar to but more cohesive than the early stages of the Wigan and Forest games, built early pressure and following several excellent attacks, invariably pivoting around Smith-Rowe, who was back to his best, and a couple of off target attempts on goal, Town were awarded a penalty for a lunge in the area which halted Grant’s run following a Smith-Rowe/Toffolo link up down the left.
The decision was an easier one to give than the barge on Pritchard at Forest, which could have provided the platform for a better result, and emphasises the importance of taking the lead in most Championship games.
Grant’s penalty was not as comprehensively despatched as most of his others, but gave Town a vital reward for their early enterprise denied them at the City Ground.
Grant, Toffolo and Smith-Rowe combined superbly at times, and though the leading scorer rather faded as the game went on, the early marauding unsettled the home side and engendered a fear in the Blues’ defence which never left them.
Hogg and O’Brien, and the latter in particular, produced significantly improved performances to back up the forwards and the team which had looked so good when defeating Bristol City and Charlton finally re-emerged.
The dominance of the first 20 minutes rather faded after the drinks break and City should have equalised when a good cross found Jutkiewicz unmarked only for his header to fly safely over the bar. This motivated the home side but, to Town’s credit, they repelled what would be an exaggeration to call an assault and saw the game through to half time with a precious lead.
Regrouped, the visitors reestablished superiority after the break and an early spell of pressure resulted in a corner and a second penalty award. The referee, who was excellent throughout, spotted a clear takedown of Schindler in the area and, remarkably, Town were awarded their 3rd spot kick in just under an hour of football.
There have been times when a penalty decision has been as likely as Lineker leaving Twitter for Parler, so it was regrettable that Grant, usually ultra reliable, was denied by Camp and unable to follow up on the rebound.
Instead, the ball went out to the left where Toffolo was fouled for a free kick which seemed shrouded in disappointment. Instead, the ex-Lincoln man, whose performance was much nearer his best, delivered a great ball in to the corridor of uncertainty and Campbell’s unstinting hard work was rewarded with a poacher’s goal expertly executed.
Coming so soon after the potentially damaging penalty miss demonstrated how games can turn on such incidents. Birmingham’s elation and any thoughts of turning the tide evaporated in less than 2 minutes and Town’s despair was similarly reversed.
Other than a far post header – Jutkiewicz, who else? – Birmingham’s threat was snuffed out by the well disciplined visitors with resilience and fortitude, and on the break, Town always looked the more likely to embellish their victory further.
The 3rd goal, turning a good victory in to a commanding one, highlighted the importance of Mounié as an option up front. While it seems unlikely he could have made much difference in the abject Wigan performance, his physical presence would’ve been welcome at Forest.
Toffolo was involved in all 3 goals after his assist for the first penalty, the excellent delivery for the second and, now, a free kick to the back post which Mounié headed down perfectly for Kachunga to convert from a foot or two. It was a simple but beautifully constructed goal which calmed the nerves of thousands watching on their televisions and laptops.
Town should have put their bedraggled and beaten hosts to the sword thereafter with the excellent O’Brien allowing Camp to smother after his own determination in the tackle had won the ball before running on to a piercing Kachunga pass.
Pritchard decided to take an extra touch when freed in the area and his options reduced dramatically in that split second. A first time shot would have troubled Camp to a far greater extent and Grant was similarly guilty of poor judgement earlier when he should have played a simple pass to Smith-Rowe rather than try to take on a defender before shooting ineffectively.
The chances illuminated Town’s superiority, however, and though future opponents are likely to be far more difficult to overcome than yesterday evening’s disappointing opponents, the confidence the Terriers can take from a thoroughly deserved and convincing victory could prove as priceless as Wigan’s travails (possibly to be followed, rather more deservingly, by Sheffield Wednesday?).
Preston are up next and their faltering play off aspirations will surely make them a completely different proposition on Saturday. Their muscular style will be a greater challenge than Birmingham’s and Town need to be better at staunching the supply of balls in to the box they allowed the West Midlands outfit.
The contagion of gloom has not been entirely banished by one good display but a win has relieved a lot of the pressure which has built since the restart. With jangled nerves less frayed, a win on Saturday, far from guaranteed against a strong side, may just turn the corner for an increasingly embattled club.
No one is supposed to know what goes on behind closed doors, yet thousands navigated the perils and pitfalls of the quite dreadful iFollow completely ignoring the clear warning of Mr Rich. We were all going to regret it.
In form prior to the imposition of a spring break, Wigan effortlessly revived a level of performance which overwhelmed an astonishingly poor home side.
The first ten minutes aside, the Terriers display was error strewn, tired and uninspired with barely one player producing levels above mediocre. Alarmingly, every single player considered central to the club’s relegation fight, from Schindler to Grant, appeared listless. It is rare to apply the epithet to O’Brien and Hogg but neither of them displayed the drive and aggression so crucial to the team.
Even more baffling was Toffolo’s contribution. By a distance his worst performance since joining, and possibly affected by Rowe-Smith’s total anonymity, a late effort on goal (Town’s first in the 84th minute) could not atone for what we can only hope was an aberration.
Simpson’s plodding lethargy on the right of the defence was arguably worse and the least said of Stearman, the better.
Brief flashes of skill from Bacuna invariably broke down, though he did produce a rare moment of excitement in the first half with an excellent free kick delivery which narrowly evaded Schindler and brought a decent save from Marshall in the Wigan goal.
In stark contrast, the visitors, once they shook off the cobwebs, dominated their hosts with a disciplined, physical and professional 90 minutes. Aggressively pressing their too hesitant opposition, they imposed a stranglehold on them which was rarely slackened allowing them to launch increasingly dangerous attacks which should have yielded more than the scruffy, preventable goal of the first half.
With 5 substitutions allowed, Paul Cook could risk players burning out with the intensity his team applied; a lesson the Cowleys may want to take on board given that their charges seemed content to amble, pass responsibility and provide insufficient support for players in possession.
Perhaps things would have panned out differently if Grant had been able to make more of a break by O’Brien from midfield in the first 15 minutes but the ball in to him was not the best and allowed a recovering defender to block. The ex-Charlton, and probably soon to be ex-Town, man also looked a little unfortunate to be called offside when released by Lössl’s quick distribution early on.
By half time, however, it was clear that a massive improvement was needed to unsettle the visitors. It didn’t materialise; instead, Rowe-Smith capped his dreadful performance with an attempted cross field ball which simply set Wigan on the road to their second, hope smothering, goal. The ball eventually reached Pilkington who, despite the attendance of 3 defenders, managed to squirm a shot away which deflected off O’Brien and past Lössl.
As they had done in the first half, but with even more comfort having doubled the lead, Wigan were largely content to allow Town to attempt pretty patterns in front of them (even under little pressure, misplaced passes were alarmingly regular) and attack with menace when the opportunities arose.
Pritchard’s introduction for Smith-Rowe failed to improve the hosts’ performance, though his industry provided a little contrast to preceding events. It seems unlikely, however, that we will ever get to see the talent of yesteryear and his days are surely numbered.
It didn’t help that without Mounié or Campbell there was no viable alternative up front but it is far too optimistic to believe either would have made much difference with the dysfunction all over the pitch.
In the first half, Town at least put in one or two decent crosses; by the time a quite appalling second half had unfolded, the entirely ineffective Willock wasted one crossing opportunity which would have been the worst attempt of the day until Duhaney managed to hit his standing foot with the ball, fall over and watch on as his incompetence unfolded.
To be fair to the youngster, he at least added some athleticism to the right side when he replaced the visibly exhausted Simpson.
It only remains to discuss the whole concept of playing games without fans In order to preserve the television money of a bloated league looking increasingly redundant in a changed world and in desperate need of reform once the Unpleasantness finally passes.
Perhaps the horror of the crisis demands the solace of bread and circuses but reality intervenes all too quickly and it is unclear whether this mini season will damage the integrity of English football. The winners and losers in what is a campaign with a fundamentally different end to what preceded it will have to live with the asterisk indelibly attached to it.
Conversely, null and voiding would have been accompanied by decades of victimhood for the two teams least equipped to deal with disappointment so perhaps the immense efforts to complete this strangest of seasons will not be in total vain. Most will forget the legitimate complaints of Peterborough, Tranmere and others pretty quickly and expect them to adopt the level of stoicism their lowly status “deserves”.
There are small consolations. Fans of football league teams will have learned new IT skills as they anxiously grapple with iFollow; from going to settings to resolve some issue about cross channels to finally getting the no doubt wholesome content of their laptops and tablets on to their TV screens.
Catering is likely to be significantly improved, too. Queuing for a pint of ale/lager dredged up from a barrel of despair and the mouth burning agony of a pastry encased animal welfare crime can be replaced by the wonders of the latest click and collect panoply (substitutions may occur).
So, and with maybe a few of us holding our noses, and barring a resurgence of the virus, Town have 8 games to confirm their Championship status.
It is comforting to an extent that empty stadiums appear to favour away sides, though that counter intuitive barely explains Town’s horrible capitulation, and that there are a couple of clubs in free fall.
It came as a big surprise that the Cowleys, who had clearly embraced the challenges of a crisis now inevitably labelled as unprecedented, were unable to motivate their squad to anything like the necessary levels.
An opportunity for a pre-season denied by the circumstances of joining a club, enfeebled and atrophied by defeat, and needing an upturn in fortune after an Autumn reaping a solitary point, was widely welcomed and this clunking failure at the first asking more the baffling for it.
With two difficult away days ahead, and assuming that Town, typically, will miss out on the new apparent advantages on the road, the danger signs are blaring.
Premier League bound Leeds United overwhelmed an occasionally game but ultimately outclassed Huddersfield Town in front of the largest Elland Road crowd of the season (now a standard feature when both clubs are in the same division despite it apparently being of more consequence to the away side).
While their supporters will only accept that promotion, and probably the title, is heading their way when the mathematics confirm it, the inevitable wobble has already passed, potential usurpers look thoroughly unconvincing and the culmination of 2 years under the stewardship of a high quality, if flawed, manager was on full display in a one sided derby.
Resisting the temptation to play defensive wing backs in favour of the same line up which has delivered 2 crucial and impressive home wins, Danny Cowley rather signalled that he considered, along with much of the support, that the game was of less importance than next week’s encounter with Wigan.
The decision was soon exposed as potentially reckless as Leeds took the lead with a goal of no little beauty. Breaking up play in the middle, a swift break down the left allowed Harrison to float an inch perfect ball for the marauding Ayling to smash past Lössl. Grant’s non intervention was a factor, but takes nothing away from a quality delivery and finish which immediately rendered Town’s already mountainous task positively vertiginous.
To their credit, and in an increasingly testy confrontation, Town valiantly attempted to gain a foothold in midfield and had spells of possession which suggested hopes were not entirely forlorn. However, a single attempt by Chalobah which almost sneaked through the legs of Leeds’ young keeper was the sum result of Town’s period of parity and the hosts were able to overcome the absence of Phillips, the fulcrum of their midfield, with an exceptionally solid back four who easily snuffed out the visitors’ intent.
Towards the end of a quite entertaining first half, Leeds should have doubled their lead as they established a grip on the game they were never to relinquish. Ayling, a massive beneficiary of Bielsa and a far better player than the one Town faced in our own promotion year, repaid his debt to Harrison with an excellent cross which was met perfectly by the Manchester City loanee on the volley but his strike curled just side of the far post. Bamford also had a decent chance which he screwed wide.
Town managed to hold on until half time, but the turning of the screw seemed ominous, despite a reasonable effort against a considerably more coherent unit.
Sadly, the second half confirmed the foreboding. With a natural ability to squeeze space without the ball and expand it in possession, the confidence of the home side in the inevitability of a win underpinned an impressive display which left Town grasping for air on too many occasions.
O’Brien and Chalobah could not be faulted for effort in the middle, but with Smith-Rowe’s talents almost entirely blunted by the relentless pressure applied by combinations of home players, a back four under immense pressure for much of the half and the sheer range of attacking variation, the visitors barely had chance to venture forward.
Just over 5 minutes in, Leeds doubled their lead. Bamford, a constant menace to Town’s over worked central defenders, drew a desperate foul by Schindler with Hernandez delivering the subsequent free kick on to the head of Ben White. Lössl, who came to Town’s aid several times, saved the attempt but could only push the ball out to Bamford for a chance even he couldn’t spurn.
2 down, in the face of a hugely confident team and a raucous, jubilant crowd, Town rarely suggested that a comeback was possible. A Smith-Rowe effort which was more collected than saved, shortly before his frustrating afternoon ended in substitution and a decent but easily saved effort by O’Brien was all the visitors could muster. A late penalty appeal, inexplicably turned down, could have potentially added an undeserved gloss to a disappointing afternoon, but there were few consolations to be taken from a comprehensive defeat.
That the gulf between the sides was not really reflected in the final score was down to some dogged defending under seige and Leeds’ familiar Achilles Heel. Their pulsating attacking play tended to suffer from hesitant finishing at times but there were more than enough near misses – a superb run and shot from Harrison which hit the post was a particular highlight – to suggest that their potency is never far away which will see them through, avoiding a repeat of last year’s implosion.
For Town, the game always felt like an unwelcome distraction before far more important games. It was even possible to admire, perhaps through clenched teeth, some excellent football by arch rivals knowing that the improbability of gaining points rendered the contest, if not meaningless, less than vital.
Huddersfield Town’s new found attacking intent, predicated on being able to field and organise a group of players infinitely more talented and hungrier than those on show before the January activity, belatedly crushed an occasionally pretty Charlton Athletic side with the softest of underbellies.
6 points in the space of a few days has not banished the threat of relegation, and sterner tests are on the horizon, but the despair following the poor display in South Wales has been swiftly vanquished.
The performance wasn’t perfect and it seemed odd to be walking away from a 4-0 win with the unnerving feeling that a 10 minute spell early in the second half when Charlton’s possession appeared to have developed some purpose could, and perhaps should, have seen the Addicks level.
A dominant first half had yielded just one goal, Grant pouncing on a defensive error which Charlton’s glaring hubris signalled was coming long before it did, as excellent approach play down both flanks was largely wasted by players not taking the opportunity to shoot often enough. Willock, who displayed raw talent with inevitable naivety in equal measure, ballooned and sliced one while a sublime touch to bring down a dropping ball by Smith-Rowe saw the Arsenal loanee shot well saved with Grant hitting the post from a very tight angle.
Simpson, who had a very solid game both offensively and defensively, delivered a sumptuous cross for Grant who couldn’t connect properly with his head; possibly distracted by the defender jumping in front of him.
Charlton occasionally tried to gain some control through possession but Lössl was troubled just once and made a fairly routine save at his near post. On the whole, the indefatigable O’Brien and excellent Chalobah pulled the strings in the middle and with multiple options ahead of them and to the sides, Town just lacked the precision and incisiveness in dangerous areas to put the Londoners away before the break. A knock to Smith-Rowe reduced his effectiveness though his class was barely concealed.
The half had been satisfying if unfulfilled. On the front foot for the vast majority of the time, the interplay down each flank was striking with Toffolo’s surges forward creating constant overloads and threat. On the other side, Willock and Simpson were a little less potent but nevertheless the necessary pragmatism of the Cowleys tenure to date seems to be being replaced with a sense of adventure which bodes well for the future if the unthinkable is avoided.
A two goal cushion would not have been unjust but the newly dynamic formation will surely add a lethal edge in time.
Town started the second half still the more likely to add to their lead and Smith-Rowe’s final notable contribution before succumbing to injury was a goal bound effort bravely blocked by a Charlton defender in the opening exchanges. Chalobah also saw a good effort cannon off a red shirt and victory looked assured.
However, the Addicks, with the added energy provided by substitute Williams, began to claw themselves back in to a game in which they had looked doomed. Playing with more menace and pushing the home side back for the first time, a 10 minute spell produced 2 very presentable chances and several scares for the hosts.
Toffolo, otherwise excellent, was completely bamboozled down the right and Oshilaja picked out Pearce in the box who waste fully fired over. It was a warning against complacency and O’Brien and Chalobah stepped up to regain control and release the tension.
It may be a little unfair to reflect on the absence of Hogg and Kachunga but it is hardly deniable that Chalobah’s mature and pretty flawless display provides greater thrust than the more prosaic veteran and Willock’s pace and ability to beat an opponent replacing the German stalwart’s admirable but largely stultifying work rate. A threshold appears to have been crossed with players passing and moving forward with intent rather than sitting fearfully. They no longer appear to be waiting permission from opponents to attack.
The January recruitment has also transformed the bench, providing the Cowleys with options, ability and experience. Pritchard, missing for months, may not have given much since his arrival but his talent is unquestionable. Coming on for Smith-Rowe, the diminutive play maker was instrumental to the second, killer, goal, releasing Toffolo with a superb ball down the left after clever passing with O’Brien. The ex-Lincoln man delivered a perfect cross on to the chest of Mounié, another one of the bench, to score with his first touch. Charlton were finished and with a revitalised Bacuna replacing the fading Willock, their troubles were far from over. As the game drifted towards an inevitable home victory, the final substitute added much needed gloss to the score line and goal difference.
Playing a wall pass off Mounié, the erratic but hugely talented youngster sat a Charlton defender on the floor with the slightest of feints then fed Grant in behind for his brace.
With injury time almost up, Bacuna then carried the ball upfield. With little company to pass to, he created a pocket of space and then lashed a tremendous 30 yard shot beyond Charlton’s keeper for a 4th.
It was possibly a winning margin more befitting of Tuesday night than this particular game, but the confidence and joy which was palpable at the end as the old salute was revived in front of the south stand should stand the squad in good stead for the challenges ahead; not least next Saturday on enemy territory. While throwing caution to the wind at Elland Road is unlikely to end well, Town simply cannot entirely abandon the style which has brought 6 hugely valuable points.
Boosted by new recruits, with 3 on the pitch and one on the bench, Town’s resilience prevented a technically superior Brentford from scoring for the second time this season and secured a very well earned point as the Cowleys recalibrated their squad in ways which may only become clear over the next few months.
A flawless debut by Stearman, a very promising introduction for Toffolo to the rigours of the Championship and glimpses of Smith Rome’s youthful talent, despite a totally anonymous first half, were encouraging and an early reassurance that the disastrously wasteful recruitment which has all but destroyed any lasting Premier League legacy will not be repeated.
Bar a very late scare as the team rather wilted as they clung on to their reward, Brentford’s rightfully lauded front 3 were largely frustrated by a dogged home side who have been shipping far too many goals of late.
A relentlessly dull first half suited the struggling Terriers and provided an ugly but necessary platform against high flying visitors who will be hungrily looking above them at a team who, pre-Christmas, were nailed on automatic promotion winners seemingly imploding.
Easy on the eye but rather ponderous in the final third, the visitors caused few problems before the break despite having the lion’s share of possession and a predictable defensive block from the hosts worked well. With 2 debutants in the back four, up against a seriously talented attack, the turgid fare can be forgiven and particularly if it translates in to a solid foundation for survival.
While Brentford’s lack of penetration was a little surprising, Town’s inability to muster any sort of threat was frustrating and the hard working Campbell cut a forlorn figure unsupported up front. Needs must, however.
Smith Rowe, starved of the ball but too often unavailable to receive it, looked on as the game completely bypassed him; he improved in the second half but it was probably the wrong game for his introduction as Town focused almost entirely on quelling their opponent’s flair, sacrificing commitment to attack.
It was something of a surprise, possibly not least to the Bees, that Town started the second half on the front foot and enjoyed a 15 minute period which should have seen them take the lead.
A bright start brought an early corner and encouraged the somnolent crowd for the first time. An excellent ball from Chalobah nearly released Grant but the somewhat out of form leading scorer couldn’t quite control and the opportunity passed.
It wasn’t long before his next one which proved to be something of a turning point. Smith Rowe, now a little more prominent, was set free down the right and his low, well hit cross evaded a dozing centre half and fell to the feet of Grant, 6 yards out. The pre-Christmas Grant would have buried the chance but he blasted over instead. Perhaps the reported interest in the striker died in that moment.
Smith Rowe had a reasonable effort comfortably saved and the wind in Town’s sails dwindled thereafter.
Sensing the moment for the home side had passed, Brentford reasserted control and began to dominate the ball again. Still over elaborate and lacking crispness once higher up the pitch, they were subdued by a defence marshalled by the experienced centre back pairing and a disciplined shape.
Mental and physical tiredness started to take their toll, however, and an under hit pass by Grabara to Schindler created avoidable danger. The visitors were unable to take advantage but were encouraged that cracks were appearing.
Schindler stopped a Brentford break on the halfway line to earn a booking and was a little fortunate not to be shown a second with a clumsy foul just minutes later and a visibly wilting Town were now clinging on in some desperation.
With just minutes left, Brentford’s big opportunity arrived. Clever, quick passing freed Dasilva on the right but the youngster’s well struck shot hit the upright and away to safety with Grabara beaten.
A defeat would have been hard on Town who fought valiantly and particularly hard on Stearman who simply didn’t put a foot or head wrong in a debut which will rank among the best ever for the Terriers. Remembering how early mistakes tarnished the unfortunate Elphick, the ex-Blade’s consummate display carries genuine hope and his vast experience can only help the bid for survival.
A game which attracted just one booking and a paltry 2 minutes added time in the second half pointed to an absence of the gamesmanship the Cowleys have found necessary to employ for their entire tenure (not least down at Griffin Park), and possibly reflected a greater trust in a team with, finally, their own choice of player integrated.
It is no mean feat to blank a clearly talented, if somewhat underwhelming on the day, Brentford team twice in a season where they may finally, and hopefully, be rewarded with a shot at the top league their unique approach deserves. Doubly so if elevation thwarts the ambition of our neighbours.
If the wastrels can be offloaded and maybe another new face introduced in the 10 days of useful preparation time ahead, the pervading gloom attending the dismal Stoke and Barnsley performances could be vanquished and a brighter future secured.
We live in hope.
(And that’s it from me until 29/2. 60 today and heading off to this place for a few weeks)
An already hugely challenging season took another nosedive at Oakwell with a completely unacceptable first half performance only slightly redeemed in the second period as Town took to the air in a failed attempt to force a result.
After a relatively bright opening, the visitors’ sluggish, disjointed and shapeless efforts shocked their large away following in to an angry and justified reaction as they sloped off sheepishly towards them.
Until Barnsley’s opener after 14 minutes, which should have been stopped either by better defending by Brown on Brown or better goalkeeping by Grabara who should have stopped the cross, the game had reflected the lowly positions of the protagonists; poor final balls from the hosts undermined occasionally competent approach play while the visitors carried no threat.
Once they conceded, however, Town deteriorated alarmingly. Second to every ball, panicked in and out of possession and devoid of ideas or intent, only Barnsley’s inability to translate overwhelming superiority in to chances saved the visitors from the ignominy their display deserved.
Home supporters could at least see what their team was attempting to do and what little guile was evident came from the men in red. Jacob Brown gave his namesake Jaden a torrid time but the youngster, who has struggled to find form after his return from injury, wasn’t helped by a less than committed Grant in front of him. The leading scorer is rarely effective when playing with his back to goal but provided no discernible contribution down the left and was rightly hauled off at the break.
In the middle, Chalobah’s endless desire for time on the ball which simply isn’t available in the Championship had predictable results, though he wasn’t helped by static team mates. As he occasionally showed in the second half, there is a powerful presence in there somewhere but Town surely don’t have the time to allow him to develop in to what he may become.
Aside from Stankovic, who demonstrated calm whilst many around and in front of him were consumed by inertia, and O’Brien, who was not, the performance had no redeeming features and had all the hallmarks of failure and doom.
Being only one behind, however, offered some hope. It was barely conceivable that Town could be anything other than better in the second half, and so it proved if only to a limited extent.
Brown was hooked at half time along with Grant though the Cowleys had quite a few choices over who should pay the price for the woeful display. Given their histories, the role of saviours thrust upon Mounié and Hadergjonaj was ironic but both made a difference in a second half where Town were, at least, competitive.
The improvement from dreadful to mundane hardly lifted the spirits but at least there seemed to be a semblance of purpose which had been entirely absent before the break. Still, no attempt on goal emerged from the basic competence suddenly acquired and after 20 minutes of futility, Barnsley extended their lead with a rare moment of quality in a humdrum derby.
Kachunga was easily beaten by a piece of trickery by Oduor on the half way line and after side stepping O’Brien lifted an excellent ball to Brown on the left. The winger double his assists with a fine first time pass to Chaplin who finished coolly.
What appeared to be a fatal blow was rendered irrelevant one minute later when a poor Bacuna cross was dealt with inadequately by a home defence which appeared increasingly vulnerable. The ball fell invitingly to O’Brien who lashed a first time half volley in to the top corner to put the game back in to the same position.
Desperation set in for both teams as the game descended in to an unsightly tussle befitting two relegation threatened rivals.
Town, largely on the front foot, launched high balls forwards for Mounié at every opportunity with any pretence of gaining midfield control long abandoned. Hadergjonaj made a difference on the left and the introduction of Koroma added a threat completely absent with Kachunga. In hindsight, he should have been the third half time substitute but it was telling that both full backs failed to finish the game. Kachunga’s ineffectiveness was simply switched to the right as Bacuna filled in at right back.
Mounié had a good effort smartly saved following an uncharacteristically deft turn in the area while Campbell’s flying volley which just cleared the bar would have been an excellent equaliser.
For the most part, however, the Terriers toiled and struggled to overcome Barnsley’s play halting tactics and time wasting; ploys which no Town supporter can complain about given our antics under the Cowleys.
Diaby was very fortunate to only be booked for a rash, dangerous challenge on O’Brien but the referee was simply awful in the second half and failed to spot a clear push on Mounié late in the game which should have lead to a penalty. Such a decision would have been soft but the offence was committed. The players’ infuriation with the referee was growing and several dissent bookings were deserved but so were a few home indiscretions which went unpunished.
The equaliser didn’t come, Barnsley squandered a couple of breakaway opportunities and a low quality derby came to an end with the hosts taking 3 deserved points and the visitors in no doubt that their efforts were unacceptable to the packed away end.
The extended bounce gained by the appointment of the Cowleys is undoubtedly at an end but they surely deserve some patience. So far, they have been able to add one free agent to a hugely damaged squad, lifted the team out of the relegation zone and overcome significant handicaps on the way. Hopefully, they will be able to add to the two signings illegible for yesterday’s game, a left back is urgently needed, and rediscover a winning formula.
The stains of the last few weeks need washing away quickly.
A barely functioning Huddersfield Town side began the 20s with not so much a roar as a whimper against an organised, physical Stoke City who deservedly put their feeble relegation rivals to the sword.
As if being hauled back in to an increasingly tight battle at the bottom was not bad enough, any lingering hopes of capturing the Family Club of the year award disappeared when sections of the home support responded to arch provocateur James McClean with chants relating to a disbanded terrorist organisation as if the peace negotiated at the end of the last century hadn’t happened. 400 years of tragic Irish history distilled in to 3 words. But nobody should expect nuance from a crowd.
Illiterate politics and history aside, New Year’s Day proved to be a bleak return to the shapeless, incoherent early season performances thought to be long gone under the new management regime. The fragility of the revival under the Cowleys was comprehensively exposed; a limited, unbalanced squad succumbed to the ravages of a bruising festive period and, individually and collectively, mustered a display brimming with error, weakness and torpor.
Mental and physical fatigue should apply equally to both sides but while Stoke, who did have the luxury of rotation, appeared unaffected and impressively strong, Town visibly wilted from the off with a notable drowsiness in possession and a startling lack of awareness out of it.
The resilience evident, even in defeat, in the Cowley brothers’ previous outings evaporated and while it is difficult to excuse a performance littered with ineptitude, it was so out of character that the hope is that a combination of a resurgent opposition and overwhelming strain produced a one off capitulation which can be fixed.
Clutching at any passing straw, a case can be made that all of the progress made under new management was derailed by a deadly combination of factors which rendered defeat inevitable.
Individuals, notably Simpson, Hogg, Stanković and Grabara, made a succession of unfathomable errors in the space of just 90 minutes and others contributed to those in at least two of them.
Stoke are now, finally, managed by someone with the ability to organise and motivate a squad with significantly more talent than their league position would suggest and the new influences are taking effect.
Despite acknowledging that our principal goal threat operates far more effectively from the left, Grant was played in a front 2 and constantly lost possession in probably his worst performance in a Town shirt. The persistence with 4 4 2 until late in the game was a glaringly obvious error; without Kachunga’s defensive work disruption to the team was inevitable, but the Cowleys took the wrong option.
At crucial points in the game, a quite dreadful referee and his assistants failed to give the home side two clear penalties or punish a foul on Mounié with a second yellow card.
None of these negate the fact that a single goal separated the sides at half time, yet the visitors should have buried their hosts before the break. Without a single effort on goal, a feeble response to Stoke’s physical superiority and an inability to impose any semblance of authority, being down by just one self inflicted concession was a massive relief.
From the avoidable concession of a corner in the first minute until the Potters hit the bar in first half injury time, Town looked abject, disjointed and lacking players prepared to take individual responsibility, with the possible exception of O’Brien whose energy was utterly wasted on the left of a tragically inadequate, insipid and slow midfield.
On the right, Bacuna occasionally rose above his sulking display with flashes of skill but his confusion with Simpson which contributed to the veteran slicing an attempted clearance straight to Powell to set up Vokes for an easy opener was his main impact on a day when he seemed impervious to instruction from the dug out. Bordering on insolent, don’t be surprised if he is rewarded with a lengthy spell staring at Danny Cowley’s back.
Stoke’s goal scorer terrorised Town’s defence with a display which mixed aggression, anticipation and know how; Schindler and Stankovic battled gamely on the whole but were comprehensively dominated. Everywhere you looked, problems were evident and each compounded the other.
Grant was playing with his back to goal as a co-striker and anything fed up to him bounced off him at a variety of angles and invariably conceded possession. In the middle, Chalobah was slow to react, hesitant to challenge and largely uncomfortable in possession. Alongside him, Hogg’s work rate was undeniable but his effectiveness was almost entirely lacking. As a pairing they were horribly out classed by Joe Allen who buzzed around with purpose and intent.
With O’Brien and Bacuna exiled to the sides, creativity was largely absent and the visitors constantly succeeded in playing between the flat lines of our midfield and defence. Lacking Kachunga in front of him, Simpson had an afternoon to forget while young Brown tried to subdue the powerful Campbell on the left; he was successful to an extent but became more ragged as the game progressed.
The formation was clearly flawed from a very early stage of the game, evidently unable to cope with Stoke’s superior physicality and energy and hugely contributed to a first half almost entirely devoid of threat from the home side. Other than a couple of free kicks from deep, the only move of any note came down the right and resulted in Grant being clearly pushed in the area as he went for Simpson’s cross.
After such a wretched first half, the events of the first 5 minutes of the second were bewildering. Grant, finally in a position facing the goal, brought a save from Butland which translated in to a corner he lifted high in to the area for Mounié to climb for and head home.
Minutes later, Mounié was tripped by Lindsay. Having already been booked, the defender was extremely fortunate not to be dismissed but the lenience of the referee towards the men from the Potteries was a particularly baffling feature of an altogether bizarre afternoon.
Bacuna delivered a reasonable but not particularly threatening free kick which Butland decided to fist away rather than gather and the ball ricocheted off Batth who had no chance of avoiding conceding an own goal.
It was barely comprehensible that after an abject first half when they should have been already well beaten, Town found themselves in the lead. The Germans probably have a word for the mixture of joy and bewilderment which engulfed three and a half sides of the stadium. Fortunately, English provides the noun for what it turned out to be; a chimera.
Within minutes, Stoke were level. While Hogg was fouled in the build up, his hesitation invited a challenge and set Campbell away down the right and he had the simple task of picking out Powell in the area to finish smartly.
Normal service was resumed and Stoke had shrugged off set backs which would surely have overwhelmed them not too long ago and Town were about to hand them a lead they would not be relinquishing again.
A relatively innocuous free kick towards the edge of the area was eminently defendable until Grabara decided to intervene by rushing to the edge of his box and attempt a punched clearance which flopped on to the welcoming foot of Campbell who lobbed smartly in to the vacated net.
Following the examples set by Simpson, Hogg and Grabara, the hitherto reliable Stankovic then allowed a high punt forward to bounce with Vokes ready to pounce on his lack of decisiveness. The big forward nodded the ball in to the path of Campbell who, again, finished with lethal composure.
To rub copious amounts of salt in to the wounds, McClean strolled smiling to a last minute corner in front of his goaded abusers, played a short corner to Lee Gregory, received the ball back and then played in the ex-Halifax striker in behind a sleeping Grant to curl in the fifth.
After the early, out of context, flurry at the beginning of the half to establish their fragile, unlikely and undeserved lead, Town had collapsed and offered little resistance other than a decent Grant free kick which was well saved by Butland.
An exceptionally bad day with barely a redeeming feature (a single high point earned Mounié a man of the match award which the rest of the team were probably pleased to avoid) emphasised and illuminated both the structural weaknesses of a club trying to recover from at least 2 years of decay and misjudgement and the huge task in front of the Cowleys. Perverse comfort may be drawn from the fact that so many errors, dismal performances and rank decisions resulted in the loss of one game, rather than spread over a month.
An indifferent Boxing Day performance at Middlesbrough, according to witnesses, would have been as bearable as similar efforts at Stoke, Charlton and Wigan (which garnered 7 points) had 2 easy chances been converted.
A few days later, the miscreants of the Riverside both scored to beat a decent and in form Blackburn Rovers side and end a traumatic 2019 with a hugely important victory which provides significant hope for the new year and beyond.
Coming from behind to win for the first time in over 2 and a half years after a dozy, incompetent start to the game emphasised the Cowley effect on a squad of players with inherent flaws but a growing spirit and immensely improved resilience. Culled of disruptive or disinterested members, a club immersed in a losing mentality and headed for certain relegation is being transformed before our eyes with an intriguing January window about to open.
After an error strewn and shapeless opening 15 minutes which handed the visitors a lead which felt ominous, Town changed shape to bring Mounié in to the game; if flowing football was beyond a team desperately missing the disruptive force of the injured Hogg, knocking it longer provided some desperately needed impetus.
With all the confidence of a team enjoying a good run of form under an astute manager, Rovers strolled past their opponents’ lethargy with some ease and an uncontested cross from deep found an uncontested Danny Graham who headed home past a static Grabara from 10 yards after just 7 minutes.
It was a deeply disappointing concession but a direct result of a passive opening which thoroughly invited disaster.
Inured to the fact that their team simply isn’t capable of reversing setbacks, assuming damaging defeat or, at best, a fairly useless draw was the natural conclusion amongst supporters numbed, if not defeated, by the events of the past 2 years.
With Gallagher causing multiple problems up front and Rovers shrugging off the unfortunate serious injury to Dack, along with Holtby’s absence, a bleak afternoon (even one blessed with a spectacular sunset) seemed inevitable.
Town finally emerged from their languor as the quarter hour approached with Grant forcing a good save after being fed by O’Brien. The leading scorer’s control appeared to involve his arm before the strike, but the effort stirred the crowd and the team finally responded. A mishit cross by Grant hit the bar and while it was far from one way traffic with Blackburn still capable of causing consternation at times, it had become a contest.
It was Grant, yet again, who should have earned himself a penalty to equalise but a largely out of his depth referee waved away what should have been a straightforward appeal.
Fortunately, the incompetence was rendered irrelevant just a few minutes later. Bacuna, effervescent after the horrendous start, was brought down on the left and got to his feet to deliver a superb free kick in to the corridor of uncertainty for defenders and the keeper alike. Piling in to the area with exquisite timing, Stanković headed past Walton to atone for his Boxing Day miss.
The rest of the half largely belonged to the home side and a little more composure in good situations may have established an interval lead; momentum had swung to the home side though this was occasionally threatened by a Rovers side who still looked dangerous when given the chance.
A good effort by Grant which narrowly missed the far post brought the meaningful action to an end and parity was just about fair in a reasonably entertaining contest. At the back, Schindler and the excellent Stanković had finally got to grips with Gallagher’s aerial threat, O’Brien had begun to fizz in the middle, Grant was threatening, and while far from perfect, the team as a whole had recovered from the worryingly poor start.
Perhaps half time came at a bad time but Town started the 2nd half poorly though some credit should be given to the visitors who took the initiative and one excellent move was only ruined by Buckley firing high and wide.
However, Town were individually and collectively switched on in the face of Blackburn’s improvement and they didn’t allow the visitors to translate their confidence in to another lead.
Scrappy at times, the game lulled until the hour mark when a great ball in to the area by Bacuna was met by an equally good run by Grant. The leading scorer’s attempt flicked off a defender for a corner which was wasted as a practised routine broke down with Brown on the edge of the box unable to get a first time shot away and too engulfed to get the ball back in to the danger area.
Give me lucky generals, as Napoleon never said, and the Cowleys had an enormous slice of luck when an injury to Kachunga forced them to change their plan to replace Mounié with Campbell. Almost immediately, a press by the ever alert O’Brien pinched possession and fell for Town’s ill starred striker who took a couple of strides forward before unleashing a curling masterpiece in to the top corner from distance.
Mounié was the second Town player to atone for his Middlesbrough sin and with a memorable, possibly parting, shot.
The Beninese is regularly lauded in song by the Town faithful despite his many ineffective displays; there is a residual affection for a lad who is clearly a well liked character in the squad (evidenced by the Cowleys including him while others have been unceremoniously and rightly jettisoned) and there is an argument to keep him as an option. That argument may not be the strongest ever mounted and certainly not universally accepted, but the Cowleys have earned the right to make the decision and this should be respected, either way.
Meanwhile, Campbell introduced himself to proceedings with two fouls in quick succession including a late tackle which earned a merited booking. It is not the first time he has rampaged about opposing defenders like a latter day James Vaughan and he needs to calm down.
Rovers’ final chance to grab a point arrived with minutes of normal time remaining. A corner swung in by Downing was met well by Adarabioyo but Grabara was equal to it and made an excellent save to preserve Town’s lead.
A mesmerising run by Grant nearly put the game to bed, and he possibly should have passed to better placed colleagues rather than trying to squeeze the ball in at the near post but, with his record, his selfishness is entirely forgivable.
Less forgivable was the addition of 9 minutes injury time with the suggestion that the 4th official held up the board upside down and really meant 6.
As it happened, Rovers struggled to trouble a deep set home defence and another step towards safety was achieved.
While Town missed Hogg and the midfield looks weaker without him, O’Brien had a very good return and Bacuna’s contributions were often telling. Chalobah however remains promising on the front foot at times but fundamentally naive. His decision making baffles on too many occasions and his development needs to show a breakthrough soon.
All problems aside, and many challenges remain, the Cowleys have been remarkably successful with a broken club on a downward spiral reaching peak velocity. The future looks very promising.