Foggy thriller

A wet, dark and murky John Smith’s Stadium was illuminated by a thoroughly entertaining contest which ebbed and flowed before Town secured a deserved, if not entirely convincing, victory which went a long way towards banishing the memory of Tuesday’s turgid encounter in Buckinghamshire.

The hangover from the Wycombe stalemate was evident in a first half which began reasonably well for the home side but deteriorated alarmingly after the early skirmishes had seen a speculative effort by Campbell sail over the bar from distance, a Koroma effort blocked and a decent chance for Bacuna from a corner.

Middlesbrough soon shook off Town’s mild attempt to dominate and took a firm grip on the game, stretching the hosts all over the pitch and capitalising on the apparent disconnect between defence and midfield and subsequent disarray.

Town’s season long issue with sustaining intensity and precision, unsurprising as it is in a period of rebuilding and reinvention, offers opposition teams quite wide windows of opportunity to exploit often alarming vulnerabilities and Boro appeared ominously capable of overwhelming their error prone opponents.

Poor decision making, particularly by Bacuna at right back, excellent transition and the pace of the visitors opened up the home defence on several occasions in a game looking increasingly like a mismatch, but Boro’s profligacy in their period of domination was to haunt them in the end.

The most remarkable miss arrived just after 10 minutes with Assombolonga somehow contriving to fire over the bar from less than 2 yards following a move which carved Town apart down their right.

The reprieve didn’t last long. A high ball cannoned off Campbell under pressure and fell to Tavernier to set up Marvin Johnson to fire past Schofield, and a very long, difficult afternoon looked likely.

Unable to establish any rhythm, Town were fortunate not to concede again in a torrid 20 minutes when it seemed that only last gasp interventions by Stearman stood between them and a heavy defeat, and when the last of those rendered the veteran unable to carry on, that outcome seemed even more likely.

However, it turned in to a pivot as Boro’s threat evaporated and substitute Edmonds-Green slotted in to the role effortlessly and proved calm in possession and managed defensive space with noticeably more composure than the man he replaced. 

Last gasp interventions tend to be the forte of defenders not particularly proficient in other areas of their job. Though this is a little harsh on Stearman, who was perhaps the main reason Town’s chances of success were not already dead and buried, Edmonds-Green’s partnership with Sarr appeared more natural from the moment he came on, and his choices on the ball superior.

Finally, Town came in to the game. No chances of note were being created, but possession became more considered and progressive and at least forced the visitors on to the back foot and out of the comfort they had enjoyed for far too long.

Mbenza, carrying on from his notable performance at Wycombe, began to see more of the ball and Eiting and O’Brien were seeing more space in a previously uncontested midfield (though Hogg had manfully battled through the difficult opening 25).

It was, however, something of a surprise when Boro’s famously parsimonious rear guard was breached, particularly as the visitors had regained an element of control and forced a couple of corners as they tried to reestablish their grip on the game.

After a Toffolo shot was blocked, Hogg won a challenge and fed Koroma who worked some space in the box before feeding Eiting who swept in the equaliser past a poorly positioned keeper who will feel that having got a hand on the ball, he should have done better. The slick conditions, and the curl Eiting achieved with a perfect connection, played their part as the Dutchman replicated his goal at Stoke last Saturday and bagged his third in 4 games.

To go in at the break even in a game where they looked a long way from equals would have been a major plus for the Terriers, but it was to get better.

O’Brien robbed Saville on the halfway line with an exceptional challenge and broke forward at pace before laying the ball off to Campbell to his right, ignoring his other option of Mbenza to his left. Initially, the decision looked to be the wrong one as Campbell cut inside instead of shooting first time, but somehow the striker bundled the ball over Bettenelli with a scuffed shot which hit his other foot and squeezed in.

The lead was undeserved, to say the least, but both goals were so similar to previous ones – Campbell’s being reminiscent of O’Brien’s surge at Millwall – that it is comforting to believe that the methods being adopted are sticking.

After the break, Town dominated their dispirited opponents in much the same way that they had been put under the cosh earlier.

Mbenza and Koroma provided constant threat down the flanks, Hogg, Eiting and O’Brien finally clicked in the middle and though chances were few, the intent and control successfully subdued Middlesbrough whose threat diminished markedly.

Just as Town’s lead had been established significantly against the run of play, Boro were thrown a lifeline when an excellent ball from Howson played in Assombolonga and Sarr was caught wrong side. The tussle appeared to confirm the referee’s assumption that Sarr had brought down the striker and a penalty inevitable. Without the aid of another angle, which clearly showed Assombolonga’s simulation, it is hard to criticise the ref’s naked eye decision though the considerable gall of Warnock claiming another one in the dying stages of the game is less forgivable.

Assombolonga stepped up and achieved from 12 yards what he couldn’t from 2, and a creditable, if frustrating draw seemed the likely outcome.

Almost immediately, however, Town grabbed the win they deserved as Toffolo lifted a perfectly executed long ball to the impressive Koroma, who burst in to the area, utilised an excellent run by Eiting to his left by ignoring it, shifted to his right and curled a beauty in to the far corner for the winner.

It was due reward for a fine second half performance by the heir to Grant’s throne. One mazy run from the edge of his own box to being upended by Howson just outside the other area was eye catching and the perfect example of his increasing maturity. Wither Karlan, indeed?

Like most Town games this season, the win was far from perfect and the metamorphosis from dull to an exciting and effective style of play is still in progress and vulnerable to set backs but a recovery which neutered a normally highly effective Warnock side is not to be underestimated.

In the longer term, the emergence of Edmonds-Green may have a profound effect. Despite a rather worrying episode of cramp, which may indicate that he is not quite ready for the demands placed on players in this strange and ridiculous season, he must be more suited to Corberán’s style than the old stagers he has been compelled to use so far.

Justifiable fears of a lack of fire power in the team following the departure of the leading scorer are now, surely, laid to rest. Not only are Town scoring regularly – remember that yesterday banished thoughts of Wycombe – the goals are coming from different players, often exquisitely constructed. Nobody would turn their noses up at an out and out striker in January, but the collective is doing the job right now.

This victory, imperfect as it was, represented a big step forward. Collecting points in this transition period to keep away from the pressures at the bottom while developing as a squad is essential and to do so against a highly competitive team such as Middlesbrough, who are likely to recover from this setback and mount a play off challenge, is highly commendable.

Battle of the bilge

It’s a point.

After the entertainment and thrills and spills of Stoke on Saturday, Town went toe to toe with a battling, awkward and rudimentary Wycombe side who play to their strengths and bridge the money gap with an ugly style for which they should never apologise.

Town rarely got to grips with the energetic, physical approach of the home side and simply failed to take any sort of control of a game which would have been derided in the nether regions of League 2.

It is difficult to imagine what Corberán learned on a night of unremitting drudgery other than it is high past time that Dhiakaby was put out of his misery, and ours. The languid French youngster barely put a foot right, looked entirely out of place in a contest only defined by rugged effort and has so little to offer that even the smallest glimpse of competence can be dismissed on the basis that the bar is so low for him it would defeat even his skinny frame.

In contrast, Mbenza should now be separated from his, previously reasonable, association with Dhiakaby as the embodiment of Town’s disastrous summer 2018 transfer market dealings.

Easily the most threatening and progressive of Town’s misfiring, confused and ineffective display, the Belgian is proving to be well suited to Corberán’s vision and was just about the only player to come out of this mess with some credit and the portmanteau Dhiabenza (and variants) so beloved of the fan base should now be retired.

Schofield’s performance between the sticks, bar one ill advised foray which nearly ended in disaster, was competent if not particularly busy, but the positives end here.

Nothing the hosts did was unpredictable. Long balls in the general direction of Akinfenwa and hoping to profit from the chaos the iconic and likeable striker creates pretty much covers the game plan. In and amongst this single strategy is hard work, disruption and denying space to the opposition; Town aren’t the first and won’t be the last to succumb to a system which jolts teams out of their fancy Dan complacency.

It is, however, impossible for Wycombe to sustain the plan over 90 minutes and the key is to take advantage when space appears and Town simply failed to execute their own style when opportunity knocked.

Possession was slow, often retrograde, and movement stilted. Neither O’Brien nor Eiting were able to spark creativity in to the middle which could have exploited space when it appeared; the latter was particularly disappointing and never got over the huge culture shock which this game must have represented.

An exceptionally poor first half, where only Mbenza looked like providing a breakthrough with good deliveries in to the box, was notable only for resilient, if frantic, defending and the departure of Schindler who came out much the worse for an aerial lunge above Akinfenwa resulting in a heavy fall.

For a short time in the second half, Town threatened to gain the ascendancy with more meaningful possession, Mbenza the main protagonist again, but were soon undone by some strategic injury breaks. Being thwarted by a cunning plan worthy of Baldrick really isn’t a reasonable excuse, however.

Although a visit to Wycombe is an outlier in a long season, and gaining a point is a better achievement than The Chairboys’ horrendous start to the season suggests, there are grounds for concern arising from the contest.

Persisting with Dhiakaby as the natural wide replacement despite all the evidence laid before our eyes time and time again defies rationality. 

Town continue to struggle against teams who refuse to accommodate the way they want to play and largely fail to find alternative solutions. The evolution may overcome this tendency, either through general improvement or recruitment, but for now, increasing their ability to impose our own style on games should be a priority. 

Overall, this game should be consigned to the dustbin of history (just a day later it is a struggle to recall anything of note)- never were iFollow’s interminable replays and lingering cut always from play more welcome.

Thrilling Ineptitude

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past”
– Thomas Jefferson

Stoke City and Huddersfield Town buried whatever memory lingered of their last meeting in the Potteries with a contest brimming with goals, excitement and commitment.

The visitors, excruciatingly frustrating and exuberantly fluent in equal proportion, were undone by sloppy, avoidable errors in a first half which should have seen the hosts out of sight despite conceding 2 very well worked goals.

Hampered by the withdrawal of the isolating Hamer and weakened by the loss of Pipa, Town faced a tough challenge at the gambling company sponsored home of the Potters, and met it with verve and no little panache. Some of the time. In possession but not out of it. Going forward but not when pressed.

Carlos Corberán is not about to advocate launching the ball in to row Z or fire long balls to a non existent big man up top. He surely knows the limitations of the players he has available for his style, which pretty exclusively occupy defensive positions but sticking to his beliefs and philosophy of his methodology is his only choice. Rightfully and righteously.

Some of the time, as disastrously on display in a torrid first half at the back, his plans will come unstuck and those limitations laid shockingly bare but, just as often, players will exceed their own limits and points will be gathered to continue to build the foundations of success.

None of this optimistic outlook excuses the, frankly, shambolic and careless mistakes which saw Stoke, a side with genuine play off ambitions, quickly fight back from the blow of conceding first.

A largely forgettable first 20 minutes, ironically featuring a lot of comfortable Town possession amongst the back 4, was interrupted by genuine quality when Toffolo wriggled free of attention and picked out Eiting at the edge of the box. Sweeping a perfectly timed strike past Stoke’s rookie keeper, who was meant to provide the visitors with advantage until the late drafting of our own, Eiting was rewarded for a bright start to the game which had begun to make Town tick.

The errors which were to blight the visitors’ day began almost immediately. Playing out from the back requires composure and judgement, confidence and a rapid transition to safe possession; the absence of any of these qualities encourages and facilitates far more effective pressing. 

Stearman, who has generally adapted well to the Corberán style but prone to error when attempting passes beyond the mundane and a predilection for playing team mates in to trouble, had instigated the descent with a gift to Nick Powell who hit a shot directly at Periera prior to Eiting’s opener. 

Having escaped that aberration, grabbing the lead and playing with confidence in possession, Town looked well set, but they then succumbed to an equaliser eerily reminiscent of the goal conceded against Luton with Stearman beaten in the air at the back post and the ball dropping in to undefended space for Campbell to smash home off Sarr. 

Clucas’s delivery had been excellent but the situation, just as it was 2 weeks ago, was eminently defendable. Falling for the same routine is a worry.
At least the equaliser could be attributed to Stoke’s qualities rather than the ineptitude which was to follow.

Hogg, who had a first half to forget, was caught in possession after failing to take an admittedly sharp pass from Eiting, and the ball was quickly switched to Campbell in space. Town’s tormentor from the home game in January drove the ball powerfully at Town’s stand in custodian who had failed to close his legs and Stoke took a lead they didn’t particularly deserve but took full advantage of Town’s wobbles.

Periera partially atoned for his error by blocking a shot from Campbell after the lively striker had been put through by a superb Fletcher back heel, though there was more than a hint of fortune that the ball didn’t sneak under him.

Despite their travails at the back, Town continued to look impressive in possession with Eiting and Mbenza, in particular, looking capable of hurting the hosts and these two combined to craft an equaliser which should have earned half time parity. Turning effortlessly in the middle of the park leaving a bemused opponent behind him and space in front of him, Eiting glided forward and pushed a sumptuous pass in to Mbenza’s stride who instinctively finished.

Having displayed all the positive aspects of Corberán’s impact alongside the flaws which plague the project in an incident packed first half, Town were exposed again as injury time began.

While Periera’s final error, giving the ball away under pressure, led to Stoke retaking the lead, it was the culmination of an unfolding disaster between Stearman and Duhaney putting each other in increasingly difficult positions.
Stoke, already encouraged by the uncertainty which had crept in to their opposition, strangled the space available and profited accordingly, with Stearman capping his involvement in the mess by putting through his own net.

It seems inconceivable that Corberán would have chosen purity over pragmatism in the situation the goalkeeper found himself, particularly as any hope of a good ending to the sequence which had unfurled had entirely disappeared.

The speed, accuracy and appropriateness of building from the back improved markedly in the second half, though Stoke’s pressing reduced as the context of the game changed.

Buoyed by their late retaking of the lead before the break, the Potters began the second half confidently and their dominance saw them stretch their lead. While questions should be asked, yet again, of Town’s defending – Eiting was too easily beaten to a header on the edge of the box and the closing down was weak as the ball broke to Clucas, this shouldn’t diminish the quality of the mazy run which put him in to a shooting position. It was a shot, however, which a better keeper could have saved.

Within minutes, Town reduced Stoke’s lead as Sarr met an excellent Mbenza delivery from a free kick for his first Town goal and the dynamics of the contest shifted again.

Stoke voluntarily gave up space and possession to sit deeper, and Town took full advantage. For most of the last half hour, the visitors probed and tested their resilient opponents with Bacuna adding flair to Eiting’s orchestration and O’Brien’s energy. Toffolo was excellent down the left and Mbenza continued his rehabilitation well before being, inexplicably, replaced by Diakhaby.

The blunders which lead to this defeat may over shadow much of the very good play, and perhaps should, but you have to believe that the flaws are fixable even in the pain of defeat. Ultimately, they will be overcome by changes in personnel more suited to Corberán’s wishes, but for now he has to find ways to gain points; nervously looking over their shoulders at the bottom 3 places will not suit this squad.

At least it is far from boring.

Lean forward!

The Terriers finally limped over the line before a much needed 2 week break with a creditable, in parts, draw against a tough, disciplined Luton side who presented a stern, unremitting test which was not short on entertainment.

Fatigue, mental and physical, should not be under estimated and the ravages of a merciless schedule perhaps mitigates against the instinctive Corberán game plan a little more than Luton’s admirably robust style, though it should be said that the extra 24 hours recovery afforded to the hosts levelled things up.

14 points from 10 games, which would extrapolate to mid 60s over the season, is a respectable and arguably slightly above par return and a good foundation for a stabilising season as Town reverse the tailspin of the last couple of years.

It should be a comfort to both Towns that the game and eventual stalemate was the epitome of a mid table clash; a big improvement from last season’s travails and with the promise of better things to come.

Patience is a hard sell to Huddersfield fans. The rapid collapse following a rare period of remarkable success has required saintly forbearance, with a virtually complete absence of joy and few, if any, rays of hope. 

Corberán, however, deserves our patience. Watching his teams is an odd mixture of frustration and fascination; his ideas bring passages of genuinely exciting and incisive play but also clumsiness which betrays the fact that the squad is not fully capable, by a distance, of delivering the relentlessness which provides the tipping point to genuine domination of the opposition. 

It is a little like watching someone learning to ski. Acquiring bravery without recklessness, confidence but not bravado and leaning forward when your very instinct is to go backwards. Corberán will also need the right equipment; in certain instances, players are attempting to go down the slopes in jeans.

A case in point is the hapless Dhiakaby. At some point, he and us have to be put out of our misery because trying to wring some value out of one of the biggest errors of judgement in Huddersfield Town’s history may only cause more damage than they are trying to mitigate.

The young Frenchman failed to perform an elementary defensive duty which lead to Luton’s opener after a generally turgid opening 20 minutes. A soft free kick awarded against Sarr was well delivered to the far post where Bradley easily beat Stearman to plant the ball in to a dangerous area in the box. Dhiakaby failed to react and his designated man, Moncur, pounced to bury the chance.

It wasn’t just an error, rather, it was a dereliction of responsibility. His day didn’t get much better and ended when he lost the ball in the second half with Eiting in acres of space 10 yards away. Occasional, sometimes accidental, contributions to the cause simply aren’t enough.

Town improved after surrendering the lead and should have gone in to the break level with chances falling to Koroma and O’Brien but neither could apply the necessary technique when in good positions. Koroma’s attempt, set up by Eiting, was far too weak while O’Brien was foiled by a bobble as he surged in to the area, lifting his effort high over the bar.

Koroma was denied a goal by the offside flag when again played in by the increasingly influential Eiting. His effort was as unconvincing as his first but looped up off the keeper and in.

The avoidable goal against soured a reasonably competent first half performance against a resilient and sporadically dangerous opponent, but fluency evaded the home side too often and their threat was rather unconvincing.

As always, however, with Corberán’s influence, Town are capable of moments of liquid football and the second half equaliser provided yet another tantalising glimpse of what the future may bring.

Working the ball from back to front with instinctive pace and precision, Toffolo found himself in his familiar position beyond the back four and floated a cross on to the head of Eiting (tellingly, he was one of several targets with Town having 6 players in the box). The Ajax loanee had a lot to do to put enough pace on the ball to place it precisely beyond the keeper and executed it to perfection.

It was a just reward for a more dynamic display which began to reap chances. A wayward Dhiakaby effort which looped off a defender presented a far post headed chance for Koroma who was unfortunate to see his header deflect off his marker for a dead ball.

Koroma had a mixed afternoon. Perhaps fortunate not to pick up a second yellow card in the space of a few minutes in the first half, he followed up his weak effort described earlier with an ill advised attempt when better options were available to the side of him, leaving more than one colleague furious at his decision, yet played a small but critical role in the lead up to the goal with a nice feed to Toffolo. A well executed curling effort just past the post after the leveller was another decent contribution and his potential remains intriguing.

In and amongst the Terriers’ dominance, Luton caused some scares and were never out of the search for a winner. There seems to be a problem with hesitancy in the box when defending, which lost us the Bristol City and Preston games, and Luton could have similarly capitalised upon the weakness on one occasion but survived.

Though far from entirely satisfying, the potential remains. When they click with bravery, confidence and instinctive teamwork, Town look very, very good but they can be rather too easily prevented, largely by themselves, from displaying those qualities. These two weeks, and the addition of Ward and Vallejo, will help with the progress they need.

Witnessing the development, even through the badly directed and infuriating iFollow coverage, will be exciting and worthwhile if we can accept the inevitable ups and downs of the experiment.

(And remember, folks, it’s only a game. On this memorial weekend, let’s remember those whose sacrifice allows us the freedom to enjoy it).

Faltering Town let in the Robins

This is what mid table looks like.

Competitive in games, prone to careless defeat but always capable of picking up points against most opponents.

Another frustrating defeat, which was basically settled from the bench with Bristol’s options transforming their previously underwhelming attack in to one which created panic along Town’s back line, and the inability of the hosts to convert their superiority in the first half in to a more comfortable lead.

A disjointed and tired second half contrasted with the more vibrant first but, even then, the team didn’t carry enough threat against a City side which dug in and only lost the lead from a single lapse which released Mbenza to put in a fantastic ball for Koroma, emerging (slowly) as something of a Grant replacement, to smash in to the roof of the net.

Dean Holden’s substitutions will have left him an extremely happy man on the journey back to the West Country. Semenyo was excellent and single handedly changed the whole dynamic of a game which had begun to trundle along as the home side ran out of ideas and their fluency deserted them. Old boy Jamie Paterson widened his manager’s smile with the winner from the bench as Town’s rearguard, so reliable at Millwall, melted away despite having enough numbers and more to snuff out danger. 

There was a hint of hand ball in the lead up to the equaliser but with calm having left the building, the visitors’ momentum had already been established as they took control of a game they had not looked like winning from the moment they missed a convertible chance from a corner, which followed Wells hitting the bar from an unchallenged position early on. Nahki rather disappeared from the contest thereafter.

As witnessed in previous games, Town’s intensity can drop alarmingly; likely a natural propensity born of adjusting to a style which is yet to be fully absorbed. It was one thing coping with Millwall’s crude and agricultural switch around but another thing altogether dealing with the injection of dynamism from the Robins’ bench.

A late flurry failed to deliver an equaliser as the team faltered while trying to change gear and sloppy passing, particularly but not solely, by O’Brien, reduced the Terriers’ potential threat, which had been too light in any case.

The first half saw a reasonable performance topped with a very good goal, but the second was a painful reminder that Corberán still has an enormous amount of work to do with a squad which can deliver, but let’s itself down in games with spells where the style collapses alarmingly.

Luton, a different proposition from last season, up next. A win would get Town back on track but we may be witnessing a team running on fumes towards the useful sanctuary of the international break.

Keep on movin’

With a symmetrical record over the first 9 games, achieved along an eminently predictable bumpy path as a new coach attempts to impose a new and very different style of play, Town are looking like the epitome of a mid table side. Hurrah!

The big fat zero in the goal difference column also feels rather comforting.

The question now is not whether to look up or down, but how far forward? With the prospect of a stable season played out in highly unusual circumstances, and one which promises entertainment rather than sterility, there should be the luxury of time available to both Corberán and the Town hierarchy to build the foundations for a bright future.

A dynamic, defensively superb and ultimately dominant win over in form Millwall provided a huge boost after the disappointment of the previous two games where Town were unable to overcome the ultra pragmatism of Preston and the dismal functionality of Birmingham City. They got what they deserved in the former but left St Andrews rueing the naïveté of admirably chasing a winner after seemingly securing a point.

It was a major and eye brow raising surprise to see Corberán naming Diakhaby in the team to meet the Lions considering his deeply inept display on Wednesday night, though perhaps it was felt he had conserved enough energy not to be rotated.

Less surprising was Bacuna’s relegation to the bench, from whence many believe he will contribute far more effectively, as Corberán searches for a midfield blend which can apply his philosophies with greater consistency.

A torrid first 10 minutes saw Town pinned back and facing a series of corners. A free kick delivered from deep could have seen not one but two penalties awarded against the visitors with Schindler grappling dangerously with Cooper and, less convincingly, the ball striking Toffolo’s arm in the mêlée. 

Once they settled, however, Town looked far more composed on the ball than Millwall and gradually imposed a control they regularly but too intermittently maintain in games.

The control started to bring threat, too. Koroma, lively throughout, had one decent effort routinely saved and then was unfortunate to see a goal bound effort brilliantly blocked after excellent build up play.

Town, and Koroma, were not to be denied for long, though. Starting with Hamer, who had another excellent outing, Town kept the ball for over a minute with every player involved in a 27 pass move which finally arrived at Diakhaby’s head on the edge of the box. Perhaps meant for Mbenza, the much maligned winger’s knock back fell for Koroma who didn’t strike it perfectly but well enough to tuck the ball in to the bottom corner.

The expected response from the home side eventually arrived for the final 10 minutes of the half, but other than a decent save from Hamer low down to his left just before half time, Millwall’s ascendancy never seemed particularly threatening. In between, Hogg and O’Brien, still rusty at times but getting there, controlled the middle third and Pritchard provided the spark which kept the Lions on the back foot.

A mostly solid first half ended on a sour note with an ankle injury to Pritchard, who had put in perhaps his best performance for Town for a long time and possibly ever. He was replaced by Bacuna at the break.

The return of Sarr from suspension proved to be significant. The ex-Charlton giant had a solid first half and nullified Millwall’s aerial threat while contributing to the possession which established control. He was to be even better in the second half.

For their part, the home side, under instruction from the isolated Rowett watching on iFollow, sent on Town’s old nemesis Matt Smith, so often a scourge of Terriers’ defenders since his days at Leeds.

A more direct route to goal was clearly signalled, perhaps recognising that their play maker Wallace had been pushed further and further back in the midfield battle, and Sarr and Schindler proved up to the task. Smith was not helped by a reluctance of his colleagues to anticipate any duels he did win, while service to him from the flanks was perfunctory at best. 

Town soaked up Millwall’s threat with some ease and, once on the ball, probed and tested the home defence and should have wrapped up the game far earlier than they did.

Diakhaby nearly capped a much improved performance with a shot which went just wide, Koroma couldn’t exert enough power to convert after excellent work on the right by Mbenza whose shot was well saved but picked up by Duhaney to feed Koroma’s attempt.

The visitors looked far the more likely to score, had the greater composure in possession and defence and, crucially, were maintaining their superiority for longer than in recent games.

Pipa, who had played every minute of every other fixture, replaced Diakhaby to join Toffolo on the left in a successful attempt to quell Romeo and prevent balls in to the box from the hosts’ right flank. Jazzie B’s son never really threatened to bring Millwall back to life, but his pace was occasionally troubling.

The Spaniard, released by Bacuna who had created space with some excellent skill, burst forward in the final minutes and hit a hard shot at Bialkowski in the Millwall goal. Parrying the ball upwards, the Pole was unable to clear the bar and while to the naked eye it didn’t appear to cross the line as it looked behind him, the referee’s watch buzzed to signal that it had. 

With the game all but over, a slightly over hit pass by Schindler saw Hogg stretch to propel it forward towards the half way line. Substitute Campbell nicked the ball just before it reached Cooper to set Bacuna driving towards Millwall’s depleted rear guard. With Koroma and O’Brien as company, Bacuna laid the ball to his right for the latter to slot past Bialkowski to put a gloss on a fine away performance.

Thoroughly deserved and featuring some fine individual displays, the 3 points dispelled the gloom of a week featuring 2 weeks and a video of some buildings on Leeds Road. With two tricky but winnable home games on the horizon, Town have the opportunity to cement their newly found mid table status before the next international break; time which Corberán will undoubtedly utilise to drive improvement in to a team with plenty of room to grow.

Reality restored but no panic necessary

Preston North End’s impressive away form, which includes points gained at Norwich and Brentford, continued at the John Smith’s Stadium and ended an encouraging unbeaten few weeks for Town.

Robust, well organised and cynical, the visitors were everything they were expected to be and despite being outplayed for the first quarter of the game, their tried and tested methods eventually overcame the emerging Corberán style, which was too often exposed and particularly in the middle of the park where O’Brien’s rustiness and lack of game time combined with Bacuna’s carelessness rather handed the initiative to the Lancastrians.

Despite the defeat, which was fully deserved, and the rather obvious conclusion that the quality in the squad remains far too thin, if the lessons from the game are learned the trajectory continues to be positive and to be still in contention for a point with 10 men deep in to injury time was commendable.

The 24 hour advantage Town had over their opponents following the midweek round of matches looked decisive in an opening 10 minutes of total dominance, and the lead taken was just reward.

Mbenza won an aerial duel with 2 Preston players and as the ball fell kindly to O’Brien, the returning midfielder played in Campbell with an instinctive and perfectly weighted pass.

Holding off a challenge with good strength, the striker followed up his £5,000 donation to Stephen Chicken’s appeal with a strike past the otherwise impressive Rudd and Town appeared to be in a very good place.
Minutes later, Campbell should perhaps have doubled his tally when he connected with a Toffolo cross but his overly deft attempt to steer the ball in to the far corner let the visitors off the hook. It was a lifeline they were to take for most of the rest of the half as they imposed their physicality and began to dominate.

Town’s midfield diminished alarmingly with only Hogg holding things together as O’Brien’s long lay off began to show and Bacuna’s inability to add discipline to his undoubted talent came once again to the fore.

Preston’s best chance fell to Sinclair who took advantage of Stearman’s failure to heed the age old advice not to let the ball bounce, but the veteran fired wide when he should really have levelled the scores.

Sarr made an excellent block when the visitors looked certain to score and the home side we’re looking increasingly ragged in the face of the controlled aggression overwhelming attempts to inject flow in to their game.

A decent effort from the impressive Pipa was all that Town had to show as their performance deteriorated, but the visitors were grateful for an inexperienced referee’s failure to dismiss Potts for a high challenge on Campbell. Though subsequent replays cast some doubt on the level of punishment appropriate for the lunge, the naked eye, upon which the referee had to rely, more than suggested that dismissal was justified.

The referee compounded his error in the second half with unpunished challenges leading to both goals in Preston’s devastating start to the second half. However, it would be mealy mouthed to blame the visitors for his failings; unlike Hogg, who stopped with his hand in the air claiming offside rather than attempting to block a cross, they played to the whistle and got their rewards.

The equaliser was very well taken by Browne who took advantage of defensive hesitancy to curl a shot which gave Hamer no chance.

The keeper, despite a good performance, needs to take his share of the blame with Sarr for Browne’s second just a minute later. A far post cross didn’t look particularly threatening until they collided and rendered Hamer’s punch weak, falling very nicely for Browne who, nevertheless, had to adjust to finish.

The Lilywhites’ ascendancy of the first half translated in to a lead which they rarely looked like relinquishing and, indeed, continued to be the more dangerous, though the final stages saw something of a renaissance by the home side reduced to ten men when Sarr capped an uncertain afternoon grappling the impressive Riis Jakobsen to the ground with nothing behind him other than another Preston player.

By this point, Corberán had abandoned 3 at the back with Schindler withdrawn along with O’Brien for Diakhaby and Eiting. The changes added some urgency to the home side’s play but not enough threat.

Counter intuitively, Sarr’s dismissal heralded the best patch of play since the opening 15 minutes, though Preston were, by this time, comfortable with their lead, comfortable out of possession and dangerous on the break.

Bacuna came in to the game late and was incensed to be dragged back by Bauer when he had broken through Preston’s lines. The German was roundly congratulated for his cynicism; in fairness, Schindler was also booked for a similar transgression, though his team mates didn’t share the joy.

A late Pipa effort following an excellent move which finally carved open the visitors hit the outside of the post and those Championship fine margins reared their head yet again. The impressive Spaniard, who could be one of the finds of the season, had also brought a decent save out of Rudd earlier and the keeper finger tipped a Koroma effort round the post to deny the substitute a second in 2 games.

Preston could easily have added to their lead but for some last ditch defending and one or two decent saves by Hamer and the last action of an entertaining game saw Jakobsen hit the bar after bamboozling Town’s exhausted defenders.

This defeat could easily have happened in games we have drawn or won. Had Forest not been thwarted by that Hamer save, had Swansea not been so profligate, or Rotherham not succumb to something of a fluke, our position would be substantially worse. Which is to say, most Championship games are close, attritional affairs and being on the right side of moments essential.

Yesterday, Preston’s established style, professionalism and strength overcame a still developing Huddersfield Town and they deserved their 3 points. Time will tell if they can translate their status as perennial dark horses in to a promotion which would complete the list of former League winners experiencing the dubious delights of the Premier League.

For their part, Town showed that Corberán’s project has a long way to go but it will be far more interesting and entertaining than grinding out draws to keep our heads above the relegation waters. Frustrating as it is that the squad is too thin to meet all the demands of 3 games in a week, and oh! how we could do with a centre forward presence like Riis Jakobsen, a mid table finish is well within reach.

On to Brum. 

Ram on

Following Town’s win in South Wales on Saturday, Paul Merson, survivor of Sky Soccer Saturday’s dinosaur purge several years ago (or, in old time, September) opined that the play offs could be on.

The last time Paul connected his brain to his mouth over Huddersfield Town, he ended up dressed as a muppet so he will forgive us our skepticism about drawing conclusions from a welcome yet streaky win.

Neither should we get carried away by another victory over a gloriously inept Derby County side whose inability to deliver a set piece must have had the isolating Rooney tearing his manufactured hair out. Mel Morris, creative accountant extraordinaire, can only look on in horror at all the money spent to restore Premier League football coming to this.

A scruffy game, though not without entertaining moments, will be remembered for a cracking team goal finished by Bacuna but encapsulating the sheer promise of Corberán and his football philosophies, as well as the undoubtedly exciting prospect of just how much improvement, with these players and additions, he can achieve.

Not that much of the first half provided salivation. 2 brief, interesting spells, culminating in a couple of decent Pipa efforts were overshadowed by a largely jaded display with some alarmingly sloppy passing which an even slightly better team than Derby would have punished.

As it was, Hamer had one routine save to make while the plethora of free kicks, which were awarded rather too easily at times, and corner kicks created little if any threat for the visitors.

The Rams, however, had much the better of the first half and largely controlled possession and territory. Their undoing was a total absence of completion in the final third; Town’s rare attacks looked significantly more threatening.

As they had on Saturday, Town improved in the second half and after taking the lead with a goal which started with Hamer and involved an excellent contribution from Campbell on the halfway line to link with Bacuna who fed the marauding Toffolo. The full back, excellent all night, laid the ball perfectly in to the path of Bacuna, who had sprinted hard to follow up his incisive ball.

Earlier, another Toffolo surge nearly set up Campbell and the hosts were looking a different proposition to the team seemingly puzzled by the opposition’s set up in the first.

The goal allowed Town to stifle Derby with relative ease, though not without a couple of scares. Duane Holmes added a little urgency, and something a little different, when he came on and had a good effort which was neatly turned around the post down low. This thwarted any thought of Holmes under the Hamer puns*.

Late on, a snap header by Clarke clipped the post to deny the visitors a flattering point while Town wasted some good opportunities to punish Derby on the break; O’Brien with a few games under his belt would not have let them off the hook with poor execution when a team mate was free.

It was a very good time to play Derby, particularly without Rooney who would have relished so many set piece opportunities, and, brief flurries aside, a none too convincing performance but back to back wins will give the squad great belief to take in to the tough schedule before the next break. 

They now have to consolidate with progress and results; there is a long, long way to go before we can even consider them anything other than a bottom half team with realistic relegation troubles, but the excitement will be them proving to us that this is a ridiculous assessment.

However, there is a spirit and resilience about the team combined with a decent amount of genuine talent which holds great promise.

* copyright @PopPopChris on Twitter who came up with this to produce the tweet of the night (possibly the season)

Taking a Liberty

Sweeping aside the crushing disappointment of failing to secure David Nugent’s signature, with all the promise of goals which that held, or adding to the list of loans on Rolando Aarons’ CV, Town secured 3 points in South Wales against a very good, if under par, Swansea side with resilience, no small amount of bravery and a swathe of good fortune.

Biting satire aside, the fact that our left back opened the scoring and could quite easily have scored a hat trick should not be lost. Scoring goals is a team effort and rather relies upon players being in a position to do so. For all Grant’s achievements with Town, and scoring at the rate he did in teams seemingly constructed not to was admirable, it is surely better to increase the possibilities for multiple contributors rather than be heavily dependent on one.

As Corberán’s philosophies emerge, and they are appearing as quickly as Wagner’s did, there should be genuine excitement for the future. In the absence of anything resembling effective communication from a hierarchy grappling with admittedly huge external issues, let us turn our gaze upon the transformation a young coach is implementing on the pitch.

When Josh Koroma struck the winner, there were 7 Town players in and around the box. At the home of one of the best sides in the division. Let that, as the tiresome saying goes, sink in.

That winner seemed inconceivable after a torrid opening 20 minutes when the visitors looked sure to succumb to the Swans’ unrelenting pressure. Within a minute, Hamer was having to make a save, all be it routine, and the home side exerted stifling control of the game with an aggressive and highly effective press which pinned Town in to their own half with little, if any, respite.

Hamer’s performance, which included 2 excellent saves, was blighted by some quite awful distribution which not only gifted possession but also momentum as eager Welsh midfielders fielded his miserable punts facing forwards and in acres of space.

With 3 central defenders in a formation we should get used to when facing twin strikers, Sarr struggled to adapt and was caught out of position too often and nearly presented a goal with a careless touch intended for Hamer. He improved immeasurably once he settled and played his part in repelling the increasingly desperate opposition towards the end.

A succession of excellently delivered corners threatened to overwhelm the besieged visitors but the hosts were guilty of over aggression at too many of them while the returning Schindler seemed to relish the aerial challenges.

When Town finally escaped Swansea’s stranglehold, Koroma was freed to run at the home defence to force a corner. It may have been complacency born of their superiority which allowed Bacuna to stroll in to the area unchallenged following the short corner and hit a not particularly threatening shot, but Toffolo’s instinctive flick turned it in to a lead as undeserved as it was surprising.

Rueing their failure to convert possession and pressure in to goals, Swansea were never quite the same force though they were handed an equaliser by a baffling penalty decision just after the half hour. Hamer, who had already kept his side in the game with a one on one save from Lowe, came to meet Smith whose attempt to convert was already sailing over as they came together.

The harsh award gave Swansea a reward they fully deserved and Ayew stepped up, via a dubious run up and with encroachment clearly occurring behind him, and scored his inevitable goal against the Terriers.

Equally inevitable was Swansea’s resumption of control, though the threat they carried seemed to lack the potency of the opening 20 minutes; Sarr’s restored discipline of position and tighter defending contributed to soothing the nerves of onlookers of blue and white persuasion, and the sanctity of half time was reached without what would have proven to be fatal concession.

Whatever Corberán said during the break saw the visitors transform from a team seemingly reliant on the failure of their opponents to translate superiority in to goals to one which finally achieved cohesion.

Moving the ball more quickly and confidently between players finding space and time and with the conviction that they could trouble the Welshmen, Town produced their best 15 minutes of the season. Eiting’s promise began to shine, while the excellent Pipa and Toffolo added their support to the hard working Mbenza and Koroma and Swansea’s previous dominance evaporated.

Chances were created with an excellent effort by Mbenza agonisingly evading Toffolo – again, note that our highest placed forward was our left back – as it crashed off the far post. Toffolo then missed two very presentable chances.

Swansea responded eventually and Ayew should have buried a close range header following a superb free kick delivery. Town’s relief at surviving that chance was followed by a terrible ball from Koroma which set Lowe free. As the ex-Wigan man bore down on goal, Hamer positioned himself well to parry his powerful shot. The rebound was sliced well wide by the same player, who seemed affected by his collision with a post in the first half after a very lively start to the game.

Town’s emergence as a team to be reckoned with created a very entertaining second half as the procession of home superiority became a more equal contest, and following the scares, Koroma made up with for his error with an excellent strike following incisive build up play down the Terriers’ right.

Having missed a few chances in previous games, the confidence his goal will bring should not be under estimated. Picking up the ball at the left edge of the area, the youngster found space among the panicking defence and swept the ball past Woodman in to the far corner with a strike for which Grant would have been rightly hailed.

Inevitably, Town faced a frantic last quarter yet Swansea’s potency and thrust seemed marginally less threatening as the minutes ticked by.

Stearman, Schindler and Sarr held firm and largely subdued the increasingly desperate Swans until a succession of corners late on and some flapping by Hamer threatened to undo the hard work. Kasey Palmer, who came on and injected some energy in to the home side, missed a very presentable chance at the far post as injury time loomed which let his former colleagues off the hook and ready to celebrate a win which entailed a fair amount of luck but, equally, a lot of promise.

Few will leave South Wales with maximum points, particularly when important players return and they resolve their issues with converting superiority in to goals, but it is the excitement of potential which should be taken from the afternoon’s efforts.

The potential of expanding periods of excellence beyond the 15 minutes on show here, the development of Eiting’s excellence, creating more and more opportunities as an attacking unit which may engulf teams far inferior to Swansea and the possibilities of a coach who has taken an unpromising and diminished group and imposed an expansive system which is emerging game by game.

Despite the failure to recruit before the deadline, and the suspicion that bungling was a factor, it is difficult not to be excited at the prospect of watching Pipa and Toffolo terrorising Championship rivals, the emergence of a genuinely creative midfield and the possibility of Mbenza’s redemption.

It may be wise to keep our eyes on the grass and let the back room shenanigans take care of themselves. 

In a New York minute

When the otherwise excellent MacDonald diverted a Pipa effort to gift Town a deserved but strangely unsatisfying point, the task of dissecting 96 minutes of football containing a reasonable amount of promise for the visitors yet embedded with many of the same problems became even more complicated.

Corberán’s overly enthusiastic post match assessment, which inexplicably included the epithet “fantastic”, perhaps reflected his pleasure at seeing the identity he wants to create take a few tentative steps forward in no small part due to the contributions of the new faces he has introduced. Or a linguistic misstep.

There was more than a little truth in the coach’s impression but rather glossed over some familiar issues, not least the inability to turn progressive possession in to goals. It should be recognised that Town were facing a tough opponent whose resilience was well known before the encounter and confirmed until the very last seconds of an interesting clash.

It was MacDonald who prevented Campbell opening the scoring in the 2nd minute with a last gasp block; had that chance been converted, the game would have panned out very differently. For all their physicality and excellent organisation, the Millers were rarely particularly threatening and the comfort of an early lead would have settled the visitors rather than frustrated them.

Quick out of the blocks, the Terriers established control early and moved the ball well at times but failed to create enough problems for the hosts’ resilient defence. One move which flowed from back to front ended with Campbell slipping on the greasy surface at the wrong moment and there was a perceptible gap in quality between the teams on the ball.

Halfway through the half, however, Town lost their grip. Not helped by a fussy referee, the game became fragmented, Town’s previous fluency disappeared and Rotherham exploited the shift with their most, and perhaps only, effective spell culminating in a quite excellent goal.

Sloppy passing and giving away too many niggly free kicks broke Town’s rhythm and when a cleared corner was not followed out quickly enough, Ben Wiles was left in far too much space. The midfielder unhesitatingly stroked an arrow straight, powerful and accurate shot past the helpless Hamer who may have asked a little more from Campbell who simply failed to close it down.

The Millers threatened to take further advantage of their opponents’ dip in performance with Hamer saving well from Ladapo following a swift break after breaking up a promising Town attack.

A second would have buried the visitors and the break came at a good time for them as Rotherham’s momentum after the goal had turned the match on its head.

In the context of the first half implosion and a normally fatal concession, the second half was moderately encouraging, if very frustrating.
The dominance of the ball and the progressiveness was badly let down by final passes and finishing, though the home side’s rearguard should be complimented for their excellent defending. 

Koroma was the main culprit for the profligacy. He failed to control a superb ball from Eiting, and missed an easy chance following more excellent build up down the left, where Toffolo roamed freely and menacingly throughout the half. To be fair to him, Town’s best effort of the half was his curling shot from outside the area which went just wide.

With virtually nothing to worry about at the back as the Millers sat deep and resolute, Hogg, Stearman and Sarrs, who had a quietly impressive debut, were able to stroll forwards at will to begin attacks. Though they had some success moving the hosts around to create space, Rotherham rather abandoned the flanks in favour of relying on their ability to stop crosses; a faith which appeared wholly justified until the injury time calamity.

While Eiting is clearly a high quality player who will prove influential as the season matures, Town’s best performer was the excellent Pipa. Accomplished in possession, always available and a threat down the right, it was fitting that the Spaniard forced the error which gained a point (not that his shot was going anywhere). 

On the left, Toffolo was menacing and delivered one particularly good cross on to substitute Dhiakaby’s head just a couple of minutes before the equaliser, but too many of his deliveries were easily cut out.

It was unfortunate for the home side to concede as they did, and must have been utterly galling for MacDonald who had done so much to thwart the visitors, but a share of the points, as Paul Warne acknowledged, was fair, even if Town had got out of jail not through their own abundance of threat, but as a result of an instinctive opposition error.

Overall, it had been a confusing afternoon. The shape and style of the team for the majority of it was pleasing on the eye at times and the new recruits look to be genuinely promising, but the lack of potency persists.

It is always dangerous to believe that missing players, and O’Brien in particular, may change the dynamic but a driving force alongside Eiting’s quality could be the key. With Grant unwelcome and sidelined by unfulfilled speculation, it seems unlikely that Town will conjure a 20 goal a season striker from somewhere.

Corberán’s conundrum remains the final third; supply is improving, though far from perfect, but conversion remains elusive.

It would also be remiss to overlook Rotherham’s excellent defending, organisation and resolve. Many teams will find them difficult to break down; as their 4 opponents to date already have.

Town haven’t lost in S66 for nearly thirty years, yet it is never an easy venue, even for the best Championship side we’ve ever had.

Hopefully, the international break will see more players becoming available to Corberán before a very difficult trip to South Wales. Sarr’s promising debut was helped by the lack of necessary defensive work; Swansea will be a much greater test.