A right Royal demolition

A lot more evidence will be required for many to be convinced that Town have turned the corner and can deliver a season free of desperate struggle, soul sapping defeats and barely deserved survival, but an encouraging start to the season was confirmed by an emphatic home victory.

Amongst a clutch of very good performances, notably the back 3, Hogg, Sinani and Koroma, the impossibly exciting Sorba Thomas, with 2 assists and his first senior goal, stood out, yet again, on an afternoon which couldn’t have gone much better for the Terriers.

Completing a third win on the trot, Town overwhelmed a desperately poor Reading side who could barely cope with the plethora of threats carried by the hosts as Corberán could leave the early season Covid issues well and truly behind, naming a strong squad with options all across the bench.

The opening half hour saw plenty of intent from the confident Terriers, which was slightly let down in execution too often, particularly by a surprisingly unsure O’Brien, and only an excellent free kick by Sinani, which slammed against the far post caused genuine consternation for the visitors, but pressure was building.

A marvellous cross field ball by Colwill found Thomas on the right. The youngster executed a precocious flick over Yiadom, leaving the Reading right back on the floor, controlled the dropping ball with his chest before hitting a first time ball in to the area which eluded Ward and two defenders before reaching O’Brien. The sought after midfielder slotted home from close range for a deserved lead.

The promise of the first half blossomed in a second period brimming with hope as Town dismantled their hapless opponents.

Within 5 minutes, victory was all but assured as Thomas curled yet another superb free kick delivery behind the Royals’ defence for Pearson to tap in. The defender was one of a clutch of players who could have converted, such was the quality of the ball in.

Reading responded with their best spell of the game, forcing a couple of corners and free kicks but couldn’t translate it in to anything even vaguely alarming for Town’s dominant defence and assured goalkeeper.

As they pushed forward in the hope of a nerve inducing goal, the Berkshire outfit simply exposed themselves to counter attacks in to the spaces necessarily vacated and were punished twice in quick succession just after the hour mark.

First, Thomas carried the ball from just inside his own half with pace and purpose, received a little luck from an attempted challenge just outside the box, which his adventure deserved, and found a yard of space before steering his shot across the keeper for his first Town goal.

Minutes later, Koroma collected the ball in a tight spot on the left, pushed it past Reading’s right back and roasted him for pace before supplying Ward, unmarked, in the box. The rightly maligned striker neatly side stepped the exposed keeper and slotted home a much needed goal.

Ward, who upped his game to adequate levels of competency was substituted immediately but could reflect on a much improved performance. Doubts, sewn over many, many months, remain but it would be unfair not to acknowledge his contribution to a hugely satisfying team display.

The problems Corberán faced last season as injuries ravaged a thin squad, forcing him in to fielding an inexperienced and panic inducing goalkeeper, relying on ageing central defenders prone to error and an attacking force of minimal threat seem to have been largely resolved.

Nicholls provides the much improved back line with a level of assuredness and certainty, the flair on both flanks is unrecognisable from last season’s tepid efforts and while creativity in the middle and a genuine cutting edge at centre forward remains elusive, the positive improvements throughout the side overcomes those issues just enough.

Sinani offers something a little different too. He needs time to adjust to the rigours of the Championship, but the potential is real.

Much sterner tests await. A depleted and, frankly, terrible Reading offered little and their ridiculous spending seems ready to bite them badly this term but the confidence and momentum Town can take from a thoroughly entertaining and encouraging afternoon augurs well.

If, as seems more likely than not, O’Brien stays now that a sickening move down the A62 appears off, and if Mbenza can be taken off the payroll opening up the possibility of recruiting a striker or creator, Corberán should be able to guide Town to a season with far less trauma. 

And maybe better.

Levi lifts spirits

Bramall Lane erupted in relieved delight as Billy Sharp finally got the better of a resilient rearguard action by Huddersfield Town, scoring the Blades’ first League goal of the season and surely earning a deserved point for his side? The veteran had already given notice that his obligatory strike against the visitors was on its way with a snap volley straight at Nicholls.

Most of the Yorkshire crowd would have accepted a draw following a largely dour struggle, though the West riding contingent felt more deflated that an injury time leveller apparently prevented a second, dogged, victory of the week.

It is greatly to the Terriers’ credit that, rather than clamming up to protect their reduced reward, they won a corner and decided to deliver it rather than take all the sting out of the game with some time consuming tippy-tappy (which invariably results in a dead ball and a final assault).

Thomas’s delivery, which had been a little below par on the few opportunities he had, was far more dangerous this time and needed to be cleared. Picking up the ball, Sarr laid it sideways to Vallejo, whose pass was intended for O’Brien but landed at Toffolo’s feet. The much missed full back superbly turned his marker and laid the ball square for Colwill to convert his first professional goal and Town’s winner.

Two minutes of an otherwise forgettable game may, and perhaps should, provide the catalyst for an upturn in fortune for Town. Though still lacking much of a spark, and heavily reliant on Thomas for moments of entertainment, the shambles witnessed against Fulham has been replaced by unspectacular (to say the least) discipline.

Neither of the subsequent opponents have the quality of the favourites for the league, but the Blades can call upon 4 strikers of variety who were largely subdued as they took turns to try and break down their Yorkshire neighbours. Sarr, in particular, stood firm and, so far, is only eclipsed by Thomas as Town’s most effective individual.

Town started quite well, taking the game to their nervous hosts, fresh from a midweek battering, but the early promise fizzled out quickly and United began to dominate possession. Pushed back, the Terriers were disciplined, restricting their hosts to a spectacular but fairly harmless overhead attempt by McBurnie which Nicholls pushed away with relative ease and a free kick by Norwood straight at the well positioned keeper.

Norwood’s opportunity arose from Turton and Hogg over passing on the halfway line allowing McBurnie space to run at the defence. Turton, who needs to step up in the absence of Pipa and is too prone to error, fouled the Scottish international on the edge of the box.

Through the middle, the obvious class of Berge rather shone out despite the youngster failing to unlock Town’s defensive wall. Scares were few for the visitors but with them carrying no threat themselves, the contest rarely nudged above the mundane.

Ten years ago, the last Blades v Terriers league meeting in Sheffield featured Danny Ward. It was patently absurd that he featured again (but for his injury, Jordan Rhodes, a sub that day, would also be back on the away bench), made all the more ludicrous by his supreme ineffectiveness in the previous 2 games.

On the hour, Town made the changes which would ultimately decide the game. The invisible Ward made way for Campbell, while Toffolo replaced High. The appearance of the first choice left back allowed Town to change shape and dynamic; Ward’s anaemic display was replaced by Campbell’s energy, which may not bring the veteran many goals but causes far more difficulties for the opposition.

Suddenly, the visitors, who had survived a spell of sustained but chance free pressure, began to threaten. Koroma shot wide from a decent position and Campbell spurned 2 opportunities to shoot before being robbed of possession. But the Terriers had disrupted the one way traffic and exploited United’s nerves as a first goal continued to elude them.

It seemed inevitable that Town would score after soaking up so much pressure, and an excellent through ball by Thomas to Koroma opened up the Blades’ defence. Koroma got a shot away which was blocked by Foderingham but calmly side footed the rebound to register his first goal of the season.

Sharp’s equaliser, a goal created by his strength and instinct, and Colwill’s late winner embellished a game low on quality if high on endeavour. 

The similarities between Sheffield United’s first season back in the Championship following an awful 2nd Premier League campaign and that endured by Town are pretty obvious. Blades fans should look at our plight over the past few seasons and worry.

For the Terriers, this week may or may not prove pivotal to their fortunes. Other than brief spells towards the end of each game, performances have been poor, if determined, but the return of Toffolo augurs well for the options Corberán now has for his team.

No doubt this cautious optimism will come crashing down at some point, sooner rather than later perhaps, but to take 7 points from a quartet of fixtures where we have played well for just short periods, and this is being charitable, is encouraging.

It’s an ill wind…..

Low on confidence, bereft of quality and hit by illness in the squad which forced a late change at the back as well as a blessed substitution at half time, Huddersfield Town snaffled 3 welcome but thoroughly undeserved points on a night of relentlessly turgid football.

Preston, early prime candidates for relegation alongside their woeful hosts, spurned two reasonable chances in a first half as rancid as any seen over the past few years of interminable struggle, while Town’s inability to cause even a modicum of threat put an intermittently restless crowd in to a stupor.

Fear of losing hung heavy in the air throughout the opening half, with transition seemingly beyond the Terriers. Up front, Koroma was pushed forward to make a two with the wretched Ward, though he spent most of his time occupying Thomas’s space and blunting the almost non existent threat the team carried so ponderously. 

Turton, presumably, was supposed to be the right sided wing back, yet forays forward were rare and invariably fruitless.

In midfield, glimpses of O’Brien’s ability to surge forward belied the price Leeds are reportedly ready to pay for him while the dynamism shown on Saturday by Scott High was entirely absent as the youngster drifted in to deep, unthreatening positions on the right far too often.

Hogg’s worryingly pedestrian start to the season continued, with his efforts subdued by a, perhaps forgivable, emphasis on protecting his defenders.

Ward, who was withdrawn at half time with illness, managed to match his now infamous lack of contribution against Fulham with an appearance of staggering pointlessness.

Guilty of giving away possession, wandering without intent and barely competing in the air, if he has transmitted any infection it will be the first time he has passed anything to a team mate in two halves of football.

On the positive side, it was a relief to welcome some competence in between the posts as Nicholls made his league debut, though he didn’t have a huge workload in the first half, while Sarr made an important block on the line to prevent Evans converting the best chance of the game and dominated in the air in the box.

Sarr also came to the rescue when his young colleague, Colwill, lost the ball in a dangerous area with a slip.

Other than the occasional foray down the left by Thomas, when his path wasn’t blocked by Koroma, Town’s impotence didn’t even extend to shooting blanks. It wasn’t just that they failed to register a shot on target, they barely mustered an effort worthy of note.

Ward’s ineptitude may charitably be attributed to his reported illness and his withdrawal at half time handed his manager something of an undeserved gift as Campbell’s energy and sometimes misplaced enthusiasm gave Preston far more to think about.

Not that his colleagues took the cue. Leaden footed, slow to pass and with far too many desperately mundane performances, Town struggled to find any cohesion and a goalless evening beckoned. 

Their opponents, who displayed more competence and basic technique, were nevertheless rather predictable and rarely tested the home defence beyond the occasional panic redolent of the Terriers for so long.

O’Brien’s possibly final appearance for Town ended with his substitution by Holmes. Tame as the likely final hurrah had been, he leaves with good wishes, even if the promotion to a Premier League bench seems rather premature. 

Putting aside his shambolic display on Saturday, Holmes offered something a little different to the plodding efforts up to his arrival, and, for the first time, Town offered a little more going forward (though showing less would have been impossible). He was, at least, willing to try to join up with the isolated attackers and his run forward which resulted in the winning goal was to be applauded, if not the attempt at execution.

Fed by Koroma, the American’s first touch in the box eluded him but not the sliding feet of Van Den Berg who pushed the ball past the previously unemployed Iversen.

It was entirely fitting that this entertainment free game was settled in such a manner.

To be fair to Town, the lead seemed to spark some life and confidence in to them and the exciting Thomas, the one offensive bright spark, nearly killed the contest with a curling shot against the post following another incisive run.

Koroma should have buried North End late on when freed by the hard working Campbell but screwed his shot wide, preserving Town’s proud record of no shots on target despite collecting maximum points.

The desperate visitors were unable to conjure any guile against a now deep defensive wall, though their one dimensional play did force an error from Nicholls who came out too far to flap at a ball which would’ve been dealt with. The subsequent mêlée saw the otherwise peerless Sarr smash an attempted clearance against Turton. Thankfully, the ball looped in to Nicholls’ arms.

To the disappointment of few, all Lancastrian, the referee called time on a contest between two clubs more than likely to be struggling throughout the season.

As it is, however, Town’s good fortune saw them climb to 16th in the table, out of the play off positions on goal difference. On this performance, this will be the closest they ever get to such a position and nobody leaving the ground was fooled.

Nicholls, Sarr and Thomas produced acceptable performances amidst the crud and the introduction of a fit Pipa and Toffolo in to the side could make a huge difference but the confusing tactics, the ever present threat of comedy goals against and the inevitability of far superior opposition than Preston remain foreboding.

Recruitment with the O’Brien money, if allowed, is key. At least 5 of the team put out should be the nucleus of a reasonable bench, which will only be possible if higher quality and proven players arrive, and quickly.

Bramall Lane will be a test of much higher magnitude; it is to be hoped that this inglorious victory will inspire some confidence to meet that challenge.

Fragile Town blown away

There are mitigations, but it is an enormously charitable stretch to believe that a catastrophic home defeat is anything other than portentous for another season of dire struggle.

Missing 4 senior players takes its toll, though one, possibly two, of them will be sold in this window anyway and the shallowness of the squad being exposed so early is desperately worrying. 

The enforced absence of Nicholls once again threw Schofield to the lions. Nervous and shredded of confidence, it is now borderline cruelty to play him and with the first choice almost certainly out of Tuesday’s game, Bilokapic should step up. This is a depressing solution which may harm another youngster, but the constant refusal to accept that Ryan Schofield simply isn’t close to being Championship standard has delivered yet another avoidable crisis.

Fulham will undoubtedly challenge for the Championship title this season, but the level of comfort they enjoyed for large swathes of a ludicrously one sided contest was a tactical embarrassment for Corberán, whose position is surely under severe scrutiny. Home supporters were treated to the young coach’s frantic touchline extortions for the first time in the flesh and, coupled with his Bielsa tribute act, which seems to consist entirely of aping his seating arrangement, few could have been impressed.

A crazy first ten minutes sealed Town’s fate. After an early chance for the visitors was saved by Schofield, the Terriers were denied the lead by a linesman’s flag which was baffling to everyone but the official. The corner had been won by Holmes who forced a save following a lay back by Thomas. 

Ward shot in to the side netting following a promising move, but amateur hour was just around the corner.

Thomas, who had delivered an excellent corner for the disallowed Pearson effort, inexplicably volleyed a back pass from the half way line towards Schofield. The ball appeared to be well over the dead ball line as the much maligned keeper tried to control it on his chest and then saw his, frankly ridiculous, attempt at a clearance hit Mitrovic and in to the net.

The outlandish comedy of errors surrounding the opener seemed to paralyse the home team and Fulham dominated all areas of the pitch and imposed their obvious superiority. A full half hour of struggle followed as Fulham pushed past their opponents with alarming ease. Hogg, Holmes and Vallejo were reduced to rubble as their ponderous attempts to gain even a tiny amount of control utterly failed.

A routine save from Mitrovic, who should have buried the chance, was followed by the same player heading past Schofield only to be called offside. Wilson missed a sitter as the visitors’ grip on the game became overwhelming.

For the second week in a row, Town were finally breached on the back post following a corner. It was the least the Londoners deserved and there looked no way back for the demoralised hosts.

Out of the blue, however, and with just 5 minutes until the sanctuary of half time, Town halved the deficit as Pearson met another Thomas corner delivery. If the Terriers could professionally see out the rest of the half, a glimmer of hope could be embraced.

It was extinguished within 2 minutes when Holmes lost possession following a throw in and Fulham burst forward. Turton and Koroma allowed Decordova-Reid to advance in to the area and provide Carvalho with an easy chance and the two goal cushion was restored.

Town had thrown away a barely deserved foothold in the game with rank amateurism and left the pitch to understandable jeers of a crowd seeing their return to the stadium ruined by the ineptitude so familiar from home viewing.

Campbell replaced the ineffective Ward at half time while Vallejo was chosen, presumably by lots, to be sacrificed and High came on. Corberán could have hooked any of the 3 midfielders, and it was a little surprising that Holmes and Hogg, both of whom had shockers, were left on.

High added some energy to the docile Terriers, and for a time a level of competency threatened to break out. It was short lived and while Koroma finally made Gazzaniga in the Fulham goal make an easy save, it wasn’t long before the visitors regained control, with Wilson hitting the bar after Schofield parried the ball in the Welsh international’s path.

Wilson was sent off for a retaliatory kick on Colwill after the Chelsea loanee had fouled him.

Seasoned Town supporters know that the opposition going down to ten men is rarely a cause for optimism, and it proved to be entirely meaningless again. Trying to push forward, Town were caught square by a superbly weighted pass for Cavaleiro, who had the easy chance to beat Schofield for Fulham’s 4th after destroying Pearson for pace.

The final humiliation came just before the curtain came down on yet another heavy, punishing defeat under Corberán, with Cavaleiro easily avoiding the attention of Pearson to give the score line an entirely accurate representation of the game.

With the exception of Colwill, whose ease on the ball puts his massively more experienced colleagues to shame, the summer recruitment programme, which aimed to add depth to Town’s elderly and creaking defence of 2019/20, lay shattered and broken by the end. 

Ripped asunder by a vastly superior opponent, it may prove to be a simple mismatch of resources, but the nature of the defeat was deeply demoralising, and witnessing it live brought the club’s travails stretching back to early 2018 in to bleak focus.

Poor recruitment, a coach who tries to impose a style of play well beyond the resources at his disposal and a hierarchy grappling with the problems left behind by the former benefactor add up to yet another season of struggle. 

Serving up a supine, error ridden display with virtually no redeeming qualities in front of their first live home crowd was disastrous; the suspicions of those not already convinced that a desolate future seems inevitable were starkly brought to the fore, making redemption even more difficult to achieve.

It was unfortunate to have to play a weakened team against a relegated Premier League squad likely to bounce back, but Town were incapable of meeting any of the challenges such a fixture brings and the reasons for that failure are far more complex and deep seated than economic disparity.

Fulham, cheered on by a disappointing number of followers, effortlessly negotiated an easy game and though they would be wise not to over estimate the value of this victory given the shambolic opponent, look well equipped to go straight back up again.

By the time they drop back down, the chances of them making another trip to Huddersfield look slim.

Thomas erases doubts

In the end, Wayne Rooney was able to name an experienced first eleven after a week of drama as his boss tried to navigate around the sanctions he himself has brought upon the Rams, and the delusional predictions of an easy task for the Terriers predictably evaporated.

Town’s own, more short term, difficulties arose in the run up to the game and stripped them of a goalkeeper, two left backs and their most valuable asset (also a sometime, if misjudged, left back). With Corberán also isolating, the disruption was complete.

Defensively, Town look far more capable of overcoming injury and suspension this season, though that is a particularly low bar to clear, and the adoption of a back 3 in some games had been predicted, if not for the opener. With Turton on the right being significantly more defensive minded than Pipa, risks were reduced somewhat but at the expense of threat.

An ill prepared but experienced home side was pitched against a well prepared but disrupted visiting team and the eventual sharing of points was a fair outcome in a game lacking quality in most areas, but not effort. 

The fact that Derby didn’t visibly tire as the game wore on was admirable given their horrible circumstances and, indeed, they could have claimed all 3 points had Schofield not made up for a poor decision parrying a low cross in to a dangerous area with a good save from Sibley.

Minutes before that heart in mouth moment, substitute Campbell fired an excellent chance too close to Roos with Town looking increasingly more likely to grab a win.

The introduction of Campbell and Koroma introduced a better dynamic than the partnership of Ward and Rhodes. Neither of the original front two played badly but they lacked chemistry and produced little in the way of threat.

A disappointing first half, as the sides weighed each other up, was only brightened by Sorba Thomas’s vibrant and fearless efforts. None of his substitute appearances last season suggested the vertiginous raising of his levels he is showing, despite the obvious enthusiasm he displayed.

Somehow, Corberán needs to find a way of accommodating both Thomas and Koroma – the latter looked nearer to his own high standards when he came on than in his disappointing display at Hillsborough last Sunday.

Derby opened the scoring rather out of the blue, though an uncharacteristic error by Pearson had nearly let the home side in just before the half hour with Schofield doing well to close down the threat and the Rams had a brief period of ascendancy before their opener.

Giving away a corner following good work from Lawrence, the ball should either have been headed away by Holmes defending the near post or left to Schofield who came to claim it only to be thwarted by the ex-Derby man’s unintended flick on which flew to the back post. A combination of Curtis Davies and Levi Colwill bundled the ball over the line.

Encouragingly, Town were level by the break as the impressive Thomas delivered a superb ball in to the box from a free kick (he had delivered another to Rhodes minutes before which the striker didn’t quite connect with and the glance went wide). This one was met, unchallenged, by the towering Sarr and momentum switched back to the visitors for the second half.

Even before the half time whistle blew, High drew a good save from Roos and the subsequent corner should have caused more danger following another Rhodes flick.

A more interesting second half followed, with Town largely on the front foot but Derby looking dangerous on the break. The visitors played too slowly on the whole, though the penetration provided by Thomas was enhanced by the arrival of Koroma who carried threat down the right and Town began to look the more potent.

A corner resulting from another passage of attacking play found Pearson unmarked and the defender should have buried the chance rather than head over. Thomas, of course, had put the opportunity on Pearson’s head.

The outstanding player of the game then set Campbell free for another gilt edged opportunity but his shot was too close to Roos and, at that moment, it felt that the visitors’ chances of a winning start to the campaign had gone.

That final lapse and redemption by Schofield ensured that a positive, if slightly disappointing, result was achieved.

Playing their first competitive game ahead of the new season was sensible preparation, only to be ruined by the COVID problems, while the circumstances of their opponents, which will bite later in the season, added up to a game where conclusions are difficult to draw. 

The anticipointment (yes, this is a word!) which usually accompanies the first game was absent, though the joy of both sets of fans to be present was not.

Stiffer challenges await, particularly in the next 5 games, but the emergence of Thomas as a talent of great potential will be fascinating to witness. Goals look as scarce as ever, but a Thomas/Koroma combination may provide the ammunition up front to keep Town clear of trouble, if the former can maintain his progress and the latter can adapt to playing down the right.

Defensively, Town look more secure, though they need a calmer influence behind them than Schofield. Nicholls needs to be restored against Fulham, if his circumstances permit.

A strange opening day, then, but life apparently returning back to normal is to be celebrated. It felt good.

Shiny, happy people

The sights and sounds of a ritual paused for 513 days unfurled as, at last, a crowd descended on Hillsborough for a Yorkshire derby in a cup disrespected and abused for so long by the visitors. Not today.

Cars seeking out parking spaces around the venerable, yet haunted, South Yorkshire stadium, a waft of fried onions from a van from the outer edges of the street food fad, the anticipation on faces young and old with the latter wearied by experience but still clinging to hope, programme sellers doing brisk trade, lines clutching tickets for a game which would normally just attract the obsessed. Even concourse culture seemed acceptable (for now).

The welcome, if endlessly frustrating, distraction provided by iFollow through the long months of crisis was replaced by the real thing. 

Around 2,000 Town fans packed the upper tier of the Leppings Lane end and proceeded to be as loud, crude and (occasionally) funny as ever. 

It wasn’t difficult for either set of fans to single out a villain, with Jack Hunt’s parentage regularly questioned by the visiting support (much to the amusement of his former team mate, Ward, at one point), while Rhodes taking the first penalty of the shoot out which decided the affair rightly infuriated Owls’ fans who remember him conspicuously ducking out of the rather more important one in 2017.

The individual targeting Barry Bannan, for reasons known only to himself, provided more idiosyncratic amusement.

Who knows what disruptions lay ahead but, for now, let’s rejoice that, however disconcerting the return to old norms was for some, perhaps many, the long awaited event actually took place. Town reached the 2nd round of the League Cup.

Despite their travails, Wednesday provided tough opposition, literally and figuratively, though their threat was largely absent as Town controlled and dominated an entertaining first half long on the visitors’ possession but rather short on end product.

Scott High, who impressed again, forced a decent save from Bailey-Peacock and two other chances were created by effective pressing to force less demanding stops.

Defensively, Town coped comfortably with Wednesday. 

Colwill’s clash with Paterson was excellent experience for a young player with undoubted class in possession but still developing to meet the demands of facing aggressive centre forwards. Alongside him, and one unpunished error aside, Pearson provided strength and know how. 

A better team than Wednesday would have exploited Toffolo’s high position far more effectively as Town left too much space behind him at times, though Turton concentrated more on defence on the other side, providing a third central defensive presence when Toffolo was bypassed.

O’Brien, watched by Bielsa’s from the stands, was outstanding throughout. Last season’s poor preparation through injury and enforced positional changes diminished his obvious ability but, sadly, it looks likely that Leeds will benefit from the stable pre season he has enjoyed, if they are prepared to meet Town’s high price.

Up front, Ward looked sharper and fitter than at any time during his return and had some lovely touches but only one half chance late on when a shot on the turn was never going to bypass the number of bodies between him and goal. Encouraging though.

In contrast, Koroma was a little flat and not quite up to speed and his replacement, Thomas, continued his good form in pre-season with an eye catching cameo only slightly tainted by missing a good opportunity when put clear by High, though Bannon’s recovery and tackle was excellent.

Holmes provided some good balls through to front positions though carelessness in passing at times could’ve been costly.

Other than a ten minute spell in the second half, which brought one decent save from Nicholls, Town were largely on the front foot and regularly tested the Owls’ resilience. It will have encouraged Moore to see his side stand up to the pressure, though Rhodes, on as a substitute in place of Ward, found space in the area twice and should have won the tie for the Terriers.

His first header would have been routinely saved, but Hutchinson intervened unnecessarily and was relieved to see his sliced clearance loop over the bar. The second, however, was a golden opportunity provided by Thomas with an excellent cross. Rhodes’ disappointment was clearly evident, though this didn’t affect his composure in the shoot out.

It barely needs stating that Town won the penalty competition; the success over the years is nothing short of remarkable and this one was achieved with no German influence (unless Hefele’s presence inspired).

Every penalty was a good one with Wednesday’s keeper standing no chance with any of them. In contrast, Nicholls saved two meaning that the full complement of spot kicks were unnecessary. The chanting of a certain Argentinian’s name, which will surely accompany every Owls/Terriers clash down the decades, twisted the knife.

Despite failing to score, rather emphasising the fear that the defensive strengthening may be undermined by the lack of goals in the squad, the performance provided some hope for the season ahead and bringing  the tie forward a very useful innovation for both clubs.

For the many who have waited so long to witness professional football in a stadium again, the event was always going to be bigger than the result. Let’s hope the recovery doesn’t stall; the near normalcy was hugely welcome and refreshing.

Now on to the season proper….

Here comes the summer

3 years ago, Town players’ celebrations of a 1-1 draw down South were so epic, they made the pages of the Daily Mail. The hangover persists.

There are very few straws to be clutched after a hugely disappointing season which ended with a typically bloodless exercise in completion, but at least the point gained by a very late Edmonds-Green equaliser at Reading meant the campaign wrapped up with Town avoiding defeat.

The game itself featured a fine free kick by Koroma which gave Town the lead, a very promising full league debut by Scott High, a soft penalty given against the visitors and one denied Vallejo who had run half the pitch before being clipped then, ludicrously, booked, some poor defending for Reading’s second, a mixed bag of performances and Lewis O’Brien, yet again, at bloody left back.

It wasn’t the worst dead rubber game ever played, but the drama elsewhere was an easy distraction. Relief that Town were not involved in the nerve jangling horror as 3 sides jostled for the one survival place on offer was tinged with the fear and, for many, expectation, that it was simply being postponed for 12 months.

Occasional injections of energy by both sides provided some lift, but the lack of tension or peril was never far beneath the surface and tedious stretches of slow, unadventurous play were a regular reminder of the game’s fundamental banality.

Recently crowned player of the year, Jonathan Hogg, put in a curious performance with errors which led to the penalty and Schofield bailing him out with two good saves. In contrast, Vallejo played with a calm authority and signing him should be a priority in a summer crammed with priorities.

Koroma’s happy knack of scoring regularly is also key if Town are to progress away from flirting with relegation year after year. His free kick, which he curled in to the top corner to give Town the lead was a thing of beauty. High had hit the post moments before and was later to press very successfully, robbing a dawdling defender, before skying over the bar.

As ever, Town’s main problems were defensive. Hogg’s indiscretions were the main issue, though the penalty he conceded was harsh and coming just a few minutes after the opener, prevented the visitors gaining momentum and control.

Just before the half hour, Town were behind. Schofield made a good save to spare his captain’s blushes but the subsequent corner resulted in a deep cross which was met, unchallenged, by Meite who looped his header over Schofield and in at the far post. 

If the first 30 minutes had been relatively bright in the circumstances, the final hour of the season rarely bothered to pretend to be little more than an exhausted stroll to a finishing line yearned for by both clubs. Reading, whose stellar start to the season seemed certain to see them in the top 6, have collapsed in the past few months despite some genuine talent in their ranks and a pretty eye watering wages to turnover ratio.

For long periods of a dull second half, the hosts enjoyed swathes of possession while Town sat back and soaked up largely ineffective pressure. The appearance of Joao, who had destroyed them in the home game, was ominous but the Portuguese’s impact was restricted to a glancing header from a corner which flashed wide.

As the game drearily trundled on, Town began to show some flickering signs of life and finally ventured in to the final third with a faint, but noticeable, sense of purpose. It was no coincidence that Eiting had come on to the pitch, adding some desperately needed guile. Another substitute, Thomas, added some much needed purpose down the right which had been entirely barren while Aarons, who was woeful, had been there.

Vallejo’s long run from the halfway line to the box ended with the Spaniard being clipped, felled and then booked for non existent simulation. Town’s record from the measly 3 penalties awarded to them through the season suggested that even with an award, an equaliser was far from guaranteed.

The new found enthusiasm to chase a point included the appearance of Schofield in the area for a corner. Would that the club had shown as much urgency in 2021 rather than leave it until the final moments.

In the end, Town levelled through a clever ball played by yet another substitute, Bacuna, to yet another substitute, Edmonds-Green whose shot rather went through the Reading keeper. The influence of all these replacements cast something of a shadow over the team picked to start; Hogg owes nothing to the club and can be forgiven a dip in performance but Aarons and Holmes have a lot to prove. At least the latter works hard and energetically.

Falling short of the hastily adjusted target of 50 points, and miles away from the mid table progression which preceded the new objective, it is difficult to over state the size of the challenges ahead of the club. 

Patience and goodwill has all but expired, the promising first 4 or 5 months of Corberán’s tenure is buried beneath persistently puzzling tactics and repeated errors and there is little trust that recruitment will deliver the necessary transformation of a club steeped in disappointment and defeat.

With many departures expected, some tinged with sadness and many others with complete indifference, the opportunity is to rebuild, regain trust and create a new mentality. We can only sit back and see if the club is up to the job. If they are not, and the evidence doesn’t favour optimism, a much tougher Championship next season looks daunting.

There has been precious little to enjoy since Christmas and while it would be churlish not to acknowledge the injury difficulties which stripped an inexperienced coach of very important players, the worst defensive record in the division cannot simply be shrugged off. Horrendous capitulations at Norwich, Bournemouth and Blackburn did not have common causes; deliberately weakening the side on the south coast, overwhelmed by quality with little fight in Norfolk and a tactical disaster at Ewood Park suggest far deeper issues.

Yet another reset beckons, then, and the success of that will determine wether this horrible slog of a season can be consigned to history or be seen as a continuation of a long term and vertiginous decline. 

Have a great summer, and thanks for reading.

Safe, not sound

The collective paranoia surrounding that day in 2001 which condemned Town to relegation as an improbable series of results improbably happened casts a pall which refuses to clear 20 years later.

The victory at Forest a couple of weeks ago effectively confirmed Town’s championship status, logically if not mathematically, but the refusal to cement their position with supine performances since has simply added significant, perhaps immutable, pressure on a coach who fails to convince and a hierarchy labouring under a cloud of distrust.

It was fitting that the final point needed to scramble over the line was undeserved. The fundamental issues which have afflicted the club since the turn of the year were on full display, not least self inflicted defensive frailty which Coventry failed to translate in to a handsome victory.

From day one, with Stearman’s back pass handing Norwich victory, this season has been defined by defensive negligence leading to a shameful goals against record; more boobs than Razzle.

Yesterday’s culprit was Toffolo, who, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, decided that he could escape the attentions of 3 Sky Blues players without exposing the rest of the defence. His options were, admittedly, limited though one of them included clearing the ball away from danger which seemed the obvious choice to make.

In fairness to the left back, his poor decision making was punished, unlike the multiple attempts made by his colleagues to hand Mark Robins a victorious return to the scene of possibly the worst day of his managerial career. Town’s defending probably gave him flashbacks to that opening day drubbing by Bournemouth.

An evenly dull first half featuring two weak efforts by the home team and a fairly obvious penalty denied to the visitors when Keogh stopped a shot with his arm, was categorised as acceptable by Corberán post match, presumably on the basis that his team enjoyed decent levels of largely unproductive and painfully slow possession.

To be fair to Carlos, there wasn’t a great deal wrong with the left hand side of his team, the defence managed to navigate 40 odd minutes without handing chances on a plate to the opposition and Sanago proved once again that he isn’t a bad target man at times. Sadly, and remember that this was the coach’s choice, he completely exposed Rowe on the right hand side and received a quite dreadful performance in return. 

Compounding the decision to play him out of position, something of a Corberán feature, he paired him with Bacuna whose rare moments of brilliance never balance his lack of care, appalling decision making and staggering self indulgence.

The much maligned Holmes, who really needs to be taken off dead ball duties, including the increasingly ludicrous long throw which invariably falls short and never creates threat, did his best to spark life down the right but it was a losing battle.

Koroma, put through by O’Brien, should have produced a much better effort than the one easily saved and Keogh managed to completely miss the ball when presented with the best chance of the half, but Town’s lack of penetration on the rare occasion their approach play looked threatening epitomised a largely unremarkable first half. Comfort could be taken from the referee’s poor decision on the hand ball claim; at least they went to the break level.

Perhaps news that our hapless relegation rivals were again struggling to start to put together a sequence of wins which would have defied all logic, injected the carefree and apathetic attitude to fairly basic disciplines which allowed the visitors to dominate the first 20 minutes after the break.

Presented with a succession of chances as a more intensive press elicited all the usual errors, misjudgements and carelessness which has dogged this collection of players since Christmas, Coventry contrived to make hard work of putting their opponents to the sword.

Schofield, who endured a horror show at Ewood, made two excellent saves to keep Town in the game only for his colleagues to completely fail to sharpen up. 

Rowe’s nightmare afternoon came to an end after yet another error – how he re-emerged from the dressing room was puzzling unless he was going to be switched out left – only for Pipa, his replacement, to put Coventry through on goal with an errant pass shortly after his arrival.

Coventry were finally rewarded for their dominance when Toffolo’s ill advised slalom in to a brick wall released Shipley whose deflected shot wrong footed Schofield.

It would have been fitting for Town’s survival to be further tainted by a predictably ignominious home defeat, but Coventry managed to deliver a thoroughly undeserved equaliser for their hosts. 

An Eiting corner was fumbled by the keeper and half cleared by a defender to Ward who finally notched a goal after a quite horrible return to the club which has been blighted by injury and ineffectiveness. It was well taken.

In the end, the 47 points gained following the Forest victory was enough and the halcyon days of Autumn 2020 had delivered the points needed to slightly out perform two low budget opponents and two clubs clearly in financial crisis. It is no cause whatsoever for even the slightest celebration.

Support for Carlos’s continued employment is sketchy and perhaps founded on mistrust that Phil and Mark could make the right decision on a successor. The promise shown in the early months is also to his credit, though his tactics, selections and in game changes since have been puzzling to say the least.

It is difficult to view Town’s current trajectory as anything but downward (few would express any confidence that next season will be anything other than another grim relegation battle) and it demands a huge stretch of credulity to believe a turnaround in fortunes is just one summer away.

With just the festival of schadenfreude represented by the Derby/Wednesday death match to look forward to, a miserable season can be put to bed and not spoken of again. It seems unlikely that many will be tuning in to the meagre offering on show in Reading next Saturday, though it is the type of game Ward revels in so witnessing another pointless hat trick may be a draw.

Let’s see if Carlos survives the week (likely).

Bilge Hour

Despite a seismically disastrous performance at Ewood Park, which should, but probably won’t, send shockwaves through the club, Huddersfield Town’s survival chances were boosted, yet again, by results elsewhere.

Few care. The assumption, and one which is far more believable than the opposite, is that another relegation battle looms next season and relying on others’ failings to cover your own is just skating on paper thin ice.

A thoroughly unprofessional display, riven with basic individual errors and a total absence of collective spirit handed Blackburn a victory which should have challenged the Norwich debacle in severity. Even the most partisan Rovers supporter would not claim they are anywhere near the level of the Champions elect, rendering this result even worse than that horrible night in Norfolk.

The victory at Forest last week created the gap which will likely secure Championship status but had the home side in that game capitalised on Town’s nervous first 20 minutes, as they surely should have, defeat was extremely likely. Blackburn showed no such mercy.

With Toffolo, Pipa, Eiting and Koroma in the starting line up, Town were, on paper, at their strongest for months. Proper full backs, invention in the middle and increased threat up front, the scene was set for the collection of at least a point with 3 not far from the minds of the optimists among us.

The opening minutes held no clue to the disgrace to follow as Town saw two shots blocked in a reasonably bright start. Jonathan Hogg, of all people, began the rapid descent to farce just minutes later, losing possession in a dangerous area.

Schofield was called in to action early to repel Brereton effort after the big forward had been played in far too easily down Blackburn’s right. The subsequent corner was aimed at the young keeper who inexplicably flapped at the ball with an attempted punch which, even with the benefit of replays, remains entirely inexplicable. Adam Armstrong had the easy task of reacting more quickly than the dozing Bacuna and headed the hosts in to the lead.

Professionalism, composure and even the most basic levels of skill deserted the visitors and calamities ensued.

Naby Sarr seemed congenitally unable to make simple passes forward, Keogh suddenly imagined himself as a combination of Beckenbaur and Berasi and Bacuna played the role of, well, Bacuna.

There were other culprits; neither Toffolo nor Pipa seemed comfortable, Hogg’s influence was limited and often wayward while O’Brien failed to drive forward effectively.

Keogh’s faux pas, an attempt to cleverly extricate himself from a poor situation entirely of his own dithering making, was as comical as it was hugely negligent. Blackburn failed to capitalise, letting the veteran off the hook. 

Minutes later, and with Pipa missing in action, Keogh barely reacted to a wide open right flank and Sam Gallagher strode forward, picked out Brereton, Toffolo slipped and Rovers were 2 up.

Armstrong should have put the game to bed when played in following another raid down Town’s exposed right but fell over the ball. The visitors were collapsing and oozing mistakes all over the pitch.

Incredibly, after 45 minutes of an execrable, shapeless and error strewn clown show, Town, or more accurately, Koroma, grasped a lifeline. Somehow, Eiting turned a rushed and typically poor ball forward by Hogg in to threat by feeding the wide man who twisted opponents in the box before delivering a dangerous cross. Nyambe beat O’Brien to the ball and turned it in to his own net.

Entirely undeserved, a late goal before half time was a gift for the hitherto pitiable visitors and, as they have found to their own cost this season (hello, Wycombe), provides momentum and hope for the second half.

A period of decent possession, entirely devoid of penetration, offered a glimmer of hope that, for once, a Corberán team could show the character to come from behind.

A glimmer which was extinguished at the feet of the truly woeful Sarr who squandered possession as he dithered, managed to concede a throw in and then entirely ignored the fact that  Brereton was on the move behind him in to yet another vast expanse of space. A quick ball inside to Armstrong finished the weakest revival since Cats, the movie.

The collapse over the next 7 minutes was both remarkable and entirely predictable as Town’s weakness and lack of character was ruthlessly exposed by a Rovers side barely believing their luck at facing an opponent who persisted in playing to the strengths of their opposition.

Yet another attempt to play out from the back ended in disaster for the fourth goal. Keogh’s under hit ball found Armstrong who had the simple task of squaring to Gallagher who beat Schofield far too easily. The young keeper’s afternoon, already a disaster, was capped by pushing the ball in to the top of his own net.

On the hour, demoralised and bereft of ideas or fight, Town conceded a fifth in a typically lazy and disorganised manner as Armstrong was presented with an easy chance to complete his hat trick.

And there, dear reader, the report on this shambles ends. Unable to stomach another half hour, sun and ale called.

Corberán’s position is now looking increasingly untenable. The persistence with a style of play clearly beyond the ability of his players, particularly in central defence, while still uncertain of survival, was bad enough. To attempt a high defensive line against Rovers’ counter attacking ability – the single reason for their good start to the season and the denial of which by any coach with eyes and football intelligence their demise – was negligent. 

Sacking the coach would barely raise a protest from a support now thoroughly disenchanted support, but begs the question who would be willing or able to work at a club which simply cannot reverse the dire fortunes of the past 3 years.

The Pyrrhic victory of survival now has little, if any, value. Hoping for at least three clubs to be more catastrophic than our own is a malignancy we hoped was banished in the brief, brilliant period of success. The fact that it is back with a vengeance, last season and this, is a damning indictment of the whole management and structure of the club.

The descent appears inevitable.

Tarn tear Town new one

Barnsley’s barnstorming assault on the play offs, which suffered a pause at Coventry at the weekend, was back on track with an emphatic victory over a Huddersfield Town side which failed to resist the Tykes’ relentlessness. Though only a single goal separated the sides at the end, there were stark differences in application, organisation and tactical nous. 

Town’s own victory at Forest coupled with the failings of rivals leaves just enough breathing space to avoid the drop barring remarkable transformation in form by 2 of those below them. This may have influenced the decision to rest both full backs, Pipa and Toffolo, which fatally weakened the home side facing an ultra aggressive opponent well equipped to exploit any fragilities. 

With Campbell unavailable through injury and Vallejo still suffering the affects of concussion, Corberán adopted a 3-5-2 formation with Sanogo paired with the returning Koroma, making a very welcome return to action. Eiting also returned on the bench and a very different line up is to be expected at Ewood Park which was clearly seen as a better prospect for points than this Yorkshire derby.

A fairly even first half of low quality but high endeavour resulted in few opportunities for either side. Barnsley contained Town’s attempted attacks with some comfort and, up to injury time, mustered a couple of weak efforts easily saved by Schofield.

However, as the extended time began, Mowatt wasted an excellent chance following good work down the left which opened Town up for the first time.

For Town, a bright start by Sanogo, who used his physical presence well, brought Rowe and Koroma in to play but his influence faded after the first 15 minutes and the home side’s already sporadic threat disappeared.

If the first half stalemate had raised hopes that Town could contain Barnsley’s intensity and will to win, allowing them to collect a valuable if completely uninspiring point, they were quickly disabused in a second half dominated by the visitors.

The Tykes’ demands of their opponents are severe. Concentration, physical resistance and matching their drive add up to a formidable conundrum and while Town’s efforts to meet those demands held up in the first half, it didn’t take a great deal of imagination to foresee them cracking under the strain in the second. Which they duly did.

The match was played almost entirely on Barnsley’s terms; their threats, their physicality and their intensity. Town never looked like turning the tables as they clung on to the hope of a point and there was an inevitability about the breakthrough which owed as much to disorganised defending as the undoubtedly excellent improvisation by Barnsley’s American forward.

Dike has been a revelation since his arrival in South Yorkshire. While Town scrambled to locate out of contract strikers and ended up with a non scoring one and a non playing one, Barnsley recruited a young talent to immediately fit in to their style of play.

The goal arrived shortly after Town made a complete mess of a breakaway as the ball was lost cheaply with Koroma unmarked and ready to pounce. Barnsley’s counter saw Morris attack the left side of the box and attract several defensive Town players toward him for some reason known only to themselves. The disorganisation this created left a big hole in the box and the deflected delivery bypassed a poor attempt to intercept by Bacuna and bounced awkwardly for Dikes, who bicycle kicked the ball past Schofield. 

Inexplicably, Duane Holmes wandered away from the post where the ball entered. 

It was little more than Barnsley deserved as they had subjected Town to torrid pressure as they strived for the win to cement their play off spot. The belief and determination of the visitors threatened to overwhelm their timid hosts who could barely get out of their own half and had yet to register a shot on target.

Having softened up the Terriers in a forgettable first half, Barnsley’s turning of the screw illustrated and explained their success, which has seen them rise in direct contrast to Town’s fall since the Boxing Day meeting at Oakwell when both were on the same points total.

One up and turning the screw, the visitors let Town off the hook a couple of times as they searched for a second before Sarr made an excellent goal line clearance for the umpteenth time this season only for the ball to be headed back on to the bar.

Creaking like an outhouse door, the appearance of Eiting for the disappointing Holmes introduced desperately needed class to Town’s midfield and his cameo, which included a couple of good balls forward, provided a modicum of solace if not much hope for this game.

Bacuna was replaced by Aarons at the same time and it was the substitute who set up O’Brien for Town’s only worthwhile attempt of the evening which flew tamely in to the midriff of Barnsley’s under employed keeper.

The offensive output throughout was pathetic and a Barnsley second always seemed significantly more likely than an equaliser.

The return of Koroma and Eiting provided a shaft of light in a depressingly familiar evening when defeat always seemed inevitable and acceptance of it suspected.
For Barnsley, surely the story of the Championship season, exciting times lay ahead and it will be fun to watch them take their unique, if not entirely loveable, style to the other play off contenders. Swansea, in particular, will be hoping to avoid them but none of them will relish the challenge. Good luck to them.

After the past few seasons and the calendar year of 2021, Town owe a debt to supporters as this interminable season finally comes to an end. They can start by finally putting relegation fears to bed at Blackburn. Perhaps the commercial team can provide details of who we can turn to for the rest of the debt collection next season?