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.

Flickering hope follows Forest felling

Perusing Town’s opening fixtures was immediately accompanied by dread and a desperate search for some rational theory why we wouldn’t be stranded in the bottom 3 with Sheffield Wednesday whittling away their point deduction disadvantage.

A slightly unfortunate but wholly unconvincing defeat against Norwich was followed by an exceptionally poor, dispiriting defeat at Brentford’s new home destroying any lingering, preposterous hopes that a new coach and a new way of playing grafted on to the remnants of failed squads from miserable seasons past could defy reality.

And yet. 

Victory over a disappointing and often confused Forest garnered the 3 points which suddenly makes Town’s return from a daunting schedule, well, not too bad. 

Overall, the performance was encouraging, if uneven. The principal takeaway was the collective effort and energy which smothered Forest in the second half and led to multiple players appearing in the box – a phenomenon we have all but forgotten. This included 6 (six) when Frasier Campbell was left alone to strike a beautiful winner, which would have been far less likely had he been alone, as many of his predecessors have been.

All would have been different had Hogg’s reducer on Arter been spotted in the early minutes. Raking the ex-Cherry with a highly aggressive, probably heart felt, studs up challenge, Town’s veteran extracted revenge for the last meeting with the annoying nark. Hogg needs to ensure he doesn’t jeopardise the team’s chances in such a manner again, but many of us couldn’t help feeling a frisson of vengeful delight.

A progressive opening ten minutes saw Town pinning the visitors back without creating any chances and it was the visitors who shaded a scruffy first half and, but for two saves by Hamer, would’ve taken a lead in to the break. 

The first of these was outstanding. Ameobi drifted across Town’s back line, turned Crichlow and hit an excellent curling shot bound for the top corner. Arching his back, Hamer was equal to the effort and tipped the shot over the bar; perhaps he can use that moment to resuscitate his quite dreadful reputation amongst the support (which he acknowledged post match, to his credit)?

His second save was more routine but just as important as Mbe Soh was left alone at a corner to head towards goal. The poor set piece defending was more worrying than the actual effort, which was not powerful enough to beat Hamer but it was the last attempt Forest managed on goal as the tide turned.

A weak Koroma effort which was spilled by Samba nearly presented Frasier with a tap in but he couldn’t quite reach the ball before the keeper dragged it back and took a bang on the head for his efforts.

Town rather missed Hogg who went off injured after picking up a booking with his replacement, debutant Eiting, feeling his way in to the rough and tumble of English football and were the team more appreciative of the half time whistle.

The break allowed Town to regroup and a very acceptable second half performance subdued the visitors. At the back, Stearman and Crichlow became a much tighter unit and the youngster’s elegant display – ruffled just once by Grabban, who replaced the disappointing and ineffective Lyle Taylor – bodes well, even if Sarr’s arrival is likely to limit his chances in the immediate future.

Eiting settled in to his number 6 role and more than hinted at an ability to add some measured class to a midfield which has been sorely lacking quality to date. His impact promises to improve those around him with a far greater range of forward passing than the limited alternatives available to Corberán so far.

324 minutes in to the season came Town’s first goal and it was a tension relieving beauty. Mbenza, who showed some rehabilitating promise at times, found Toffolo, who was breaking in to the area at pace, with an excellently weighted pass and with plenty of home players in the box, the left back was able to pick out the unmarked Campbell, whose balletic volley flew past Samba.

It was reward for an energetic and, crucially, collective, start to the half which caught the visitors on their heels. Eager pressing, discipline and desire changed the dynamic from a relatively flat first half performance and Campbell’s busy front line work was rewarded with a highly attractive winner.

Forest had little in response. Grabban had a decent effort which just cleared the bar and, late on, he troubled Critchlow but couldn’t draw a penalty winning foul from either the youngster or Hamer which was a possibility.

Easily quelling the visitors’ increasingly desperate efforts to equalise, Town broke late on and should have put the game to bed as an Eitling ball released Koroma down the left. Eagerly pursued by 3 team mates in support, but only 2 Forest players, the winger fed substitute Diakhaby whose first touch was too heavy, allowing Samba to position himself well and block the shot. The danger wasn’t over, however and Pipa squared a disguised pass to Koroma who couldn’t quite get the ball past Samba, hitting his trailing leg and out for a corner.

Disappointing as the failure to convert 2 excellent opportunities was, the fact that Town were attacking in numbers so late in a game they had worked so hard to win was testament to their fitness and desire. The paucity of goals and the lack of a striker capable of approaching prolific remain problems, but if the style of play creates numbers in the box like this, there is hope.

If Sarr is the marauding centre half Corberán desires, if Eiting can provide calm quality to deliver better transition and the collective can provide a team greater than the sum of its, to date, limited parts, early season fears may dissipate.

Eiting, in particular, is an intriguing addition. Can he encourage more creativity in Pritchard (who worked hard but still regularly infuriated; his set piece deliveries being particularly woeful), more discipline from Bacuna and release the pace possessed by the squad?

Overall, the performance was far from perfect but the release of tension, the handful of positives and the possibilities provided by new blood shine some beams of light through the gloom.

There isn’t a bright side

Town began yet another new plan to fumigate the stench of now long term failure with a predictable and expected defeat against a Norwich side rather more modest than anticipated.

Whether the visitors, rightly installed in pre season as favourites, were largely functional rather than exhilarating through rustiness or lack of familiarity or were subdued by Town’s hard work and organisation was just one of a string of unanswered, possibly unanswerable, questions in a game that largely plodded.

Corberán’s ideas and philosophies were evident in a worthy yet unsatisfying performance and the patience of supporters, now stretched gossamer thin where it isn’t already snapped, is being called upon again while the Spaniard recruits players to fully instil his values.

Encouragingly, debutant Pipa slotted in immediately with an eye catching introduction to a dysfunctional unit and added quality on the right of defence which has long been a massive problem. Composed and technically proficient, the youngster looked comfortable from the start and combined well with his new team mates at the back and going forward.

This barely translated in to goal scoring opportunities, though one exchange with Bacuna should perhaps have done. 

With Grant at home, presumably trusting in the process which will release him from West Yorkshire, the funds which become available , hopefully, from his departure need to be invested in players able to fit just as effortlessly in to Corberán’s system. The fear is that the huge sums being offered by West Brom for an individual whose open play goals dried up along with his commitment after lockdown will evaporate if protracted negotiations end without movement.

With expectations extraordinarily low, people were expecting a battering; and their dark foreboding only heightened as the team was revealed even though the line up was arguably the strongest Corberán could name, give or take the odd wide man. That it didn’t transpire was barely a source of comfort but the effort and apparent collective spirit of a team perceived as hopelessly weak was mildly encouraging. Town continue to confuse and exasperate and with no effort being made to explain their plan, it is no wonder that the support is left befuddled.

A very early effort from far too far out by Diakhaby sailed way over the bar and, the Pipa/Bacuna interchange aside, constituted the greatest threat in a first half long on endeavour but short on real thrust. Norwich occasionally flattered to deceive but were mostly held in check and, to their credit, Town snuffed out a couple of dangerous looking breakaways with one in particular featuring some excellent defensive work by Diakhaby who tracked Pukki all the way back to nullify his presence.

A good first half from the universally maligned young Frenchman included a great tackle on the edge of Town’s box to thwart the Canaries and, overall, his touch was decent, he made himself available and played with responsibility. Now that the minimum bar has been set, let’s see if he can develop beyond the old joke about a dog walking on two legs.

At the back, Stearman was solid alongside Schindler while Toffolo shadowed man girl Cantwell to stifling effect. There were a few excellent cross field balls by the home side to release the lively Koroma but the midfield largely lacked creativity and failed to drive the team forward anywhere near enough. O’Brien should add that dimension when back from injury.

With Hamer having little to do as both sides struggled to penetrate, the best opportunity was hit straight at him by the otherwise impressive Hernandez while a free kick in a good position was woefully wasted by Pritchard, who disappointed yet again throughout. Late in the game, a darkly comic mix up between him and Bacuna wasted a corner opportunity; neither came out of the contest very well.

A stalemate became increasingly likely in a poor second half. Norwich were nearly gifted the opener when he failed to hold on to a less than challenging effort and was saved by Stearman clearing for a corner, while Koroma made space for himself with a decent piece of skill before firing wide. Little else occurred of note until late in the half when Stearman was clattered by Cantwell with his elbow.

The challenge was worthy of a red and left the veteran defender groggy. The referee, poor throughout and who had denied the visitors two good penalty shouts and missed a dangerous Hogg tackle which should also have seen red, waved a yellow to the Canary while Stearman received treatment off the pitch.

The Town coaching and medical staff will rue allowing him to return. Bacuna, lackadaisical for far too much of the game, played him in to a little trouble facing his own goal and a horribly under hit pass was seized upon by Pukki who evaded Schindler’s attempted block to feed Idah. Stearman had sprinted all the way back to try and prevent the goal but failed by a couple of feet.
It was cruel on the team and the distraught Stearman but when you are incapable of scoring, mistakes haunt you. 

An expected defeat produced few answers to the plethora of questions swirling around the club, yet there were some signs of hope. Unfortunately, few, if any, of these are going to be much use without a goal threat.

We can only wait and see what solutions to the deep and ingrained problems will be applied by the club in the next few weeks. Until then, this team doesn’t look capable of winning games even against the most mundane of opposition, simply because of a lack of goals and opportunities.

Despite the pedigree of yesterday’s opponents, and the reasonable effort against them, yet another relegation battle seems inevitable and the few positives that can be taken from the game seem a little irrelevant right now. It was probably a good time to play Norwich, who will not be as one dimensional as the season matures, and what would’ve been a useful point disappeared.

Up hill and down Dale

The evaporation of optimism arrived early in 2020 with a regulation League Cup defeat to lower division opposition preceding the start of the season rather than providing an alarming exclamation point to fears and worries on the second Tuesday under lights in front of the most committed faithful.

As often as commentators rue the lack of an audience as desperately sad, the depressing familiarity was best viewed through a laptop lacking the visceral battering inflicted in attendance.

Rochdale arrived with a relatively simple and ultimately effective plan carried out with diligence and admirable intensity made easier by facing an opponent with a vague style of play notion applied to a game seen as an additional, experimental, friendly. This is not to excuse the defeat but rather to damn the apparent shambles of a club now seemingly in permanent transition.

The difficulties being faced are complex and important with the necessity to adapt to financial realities both self imposed and mandated by circumstances external, but communication is desperately poor and creating that most dangerous of atmospheres; apathy.

It is absurd to suggest that the Lancastrians’ challenges are somehow lesser than Town’s; they hadn’t played a competitive fixture in 6 months, their playing staff has been trimmed and overhauled and they even had to forfeit home advantage to add to their disadvantage.

Leaving out 2 players about to depart from the club for an estimated £20M starkly illustrates the real gap between a Championship struggler and a League 1 struggler. That gap was easily bridged by Dale and the exposé of the Terriers’ systemic muddles was alarming yet so, so familiar.

A moderately entertaining first half saw Town mainly on the front foot but too often blunted by Rochdale’s disciplined and resilient defending. With just two clear cut chances created – Toffolo made a good run on to a corner delivery but couldn’t keep his header down and Bacuna skied a very presentable chance late in the half – the hosts were unable to capitalise on errors occasionally forced by a decent pressing game and looked vulnerable to the visitors’ breaks.

Hesitancy and confusion when balls were delivered in to the box culminated in a disallowed goal for Dale which may not have survived a VAR check and the lack of defensive assurance, particularly centrally with the inexperience of Critchlow and the rustiness (and possible decline) of Schindler hardly aiding the cause, gave Town an air of fragility they couldn’t shake off.

There were glimpses of Corberán’s assumed philosophy, particularly a rigorous press in the first half hour, but fluency was at a premium and never approached the levels achieved in the two friendlies, all be it these were against modest opposition. 

Unfamiliarity may have played a part, but with 7 days to go before the league season starts, supporters’ patience, already stretched thin by poor communication, impenetrable financial arrangements and the dread which can only accompany the real possibility that Hamer will be the last line of defence, has widely snapped.

A decent second half showing may have soothed the worry and discontent, but a dozy opening 5 minutes, with possession conceded without a whimper encouraged Dale forward. A free kick on the right was delivered in to an area which could easily be described as goalkeeper territory was forsaken by the hapless Hamer, Schindler lost his man far too easily and O’Connell powered in the winner.

The reaction was largely pathetic and the failure to remotely test Bazunu until Mbenza nearly caught him out with a good effort with one minute left was both a testament to the good organisation of the visitors and damning of a side showing all the flaws we have become accustomed to for over 2 years. 

Rochdale wasted several break aways as Town committed men forward, to little effect, but they remained composed and professional to see out a win rather more comfortable than a single goal suggests.

A late chance for Toffolo was headed clear and Town’s hopes of an undeserved penalty shootout out disappeared.

Perhaps the only positive to be taken from a rotten afternoon was the performance of Mbenza, who was given 20 minutes on the right. Direct and powerful, he only lacked the movement of colleagues to make a more meaningful impact. On the other side, his partner in waste, Dhiakaby, did nothing to suggest any sort of revival is in the offing.

Everything now rests on Town’s market activity, in and out. Bar O’Brien, the squad put out yesterday is fundamentally what we have to tackle an extremely tough looking opening month. The departures of Grant, Mounié, Hadergjonaj and Sobhi, possibly joined by Bacuna, should create the space to bring in strengthening options but little time for integration ahead of the opener.

The silence of the hierarchy may be defended on the grounds of sensitivity in an unusually difficult transfer market place, but the acceptance of the rumours and suspicions multiplying in the vacuum created seems an odd calculation to make when the support has grown weary and increasingly uninterested.

Happy new season, everyone!

We don’t like us, no one cares

Milwall v Huddersfield Town SkyBet Championship, The Den, 22 July 2020

Unnoticed and unloved amid compelling drama elsewhere, Town completed their miserable season with a heavy loss at the New Den with a second half collapse which barely aroused a whimper of ire amongst their exhausted, grudgingly relieved and unconvinced support.

With several players rested, a late dental emergency and an entirely unsuccessful injection of youth, the Terriers, after a reasonable first half, were swept away by the nearly men of South London as defensive errors buried any ambition to finish with a flourish.

The only solace to be taken from a deader than dead rubber was that there were few conclusions to be drawn about the future which can only become clearer once the sacking of the Cowleys is explained beyond the bullshit bingo about different visions.

A game of funereal insignificance neither demands nor deserves much attention.

Millwall started strongly, exploited early weaknesses down Town’s right and in central defence and eased in to an early lead with a well taken but virtually unopposed stroll through the visitors’ rearguard.

To their credit, Town overcame their obvious structural problems to take the game to Millwall for the last 30 minutes of the half and equalised with a well constructed goal by Grant following a good through ball by the otherwise hugely unimpressive Pritchard (if his last act as a Town player was to blast a far post corner high and long to nobody, it will be a fitting epitaph).

Unfortunately, and rather than building on the momentum of the equaliser, Town yet again succumbed to a set piece goal shortly after the break. Coleman, who had a particularly poor evening on probably his final appearance, failed to connect with a decent corner delivery by some distance and Stearman was easily beaten in the air at the back post.

Town’s attempts to recover for a second time were sunk when a Stearman slip, perhaps distracted by Chalobah, who was head and shoulders above any player in the coral, was seized upon and despatched. 

The Lions’ fourth goal was….Oh, God! What is the point? A game nobody cared about, ending a season everyone has hated with the architects of survival, however grim the methods, gone and with conspiracies, rumours and uncertainty swirling around a club in massive transition, what else is there to do but await events?

Thanks for reading this season. The next one can’t be any worse, can it? 


A momentous tussle with huge implications at both ends of the table ended with Huddersfield Town realistically, if not mathematically, safe from relegation and opened the door for a much admired club to take their place in the top flight for the first time in many years.

Brentford will have to hold their nerve in a difficult looking fixture at Stoke to take advantage of West Brom’s rather surprising defeat against the struggling Terriers but an amazing run of wins combined with the nervousness and inconsistency of the Black Country outfit since the restart, bodes well.

For Town fans, the ridiculously labyrinthine calculations, complicated by actual and pending points deductions, can be put away for another season and it is to be hoped that the scramble for safety and avoiding what would’ve been a debilitating and hugely damaging relegation can be utilised as a catalyst for change.

Tellingly, Danny Cowley spoke of the recruitment of players suitable for the Championship after the game; a tacit acceptance that the current squad is lacking in some pretty fundamental attributes. For all the criticism he has had in recent weeks, Cowley, his brother and his management team have achieved survival for a club in astonishing and frightening decline and from what appeared to be a hopeless position after 8 games. 

The artificiality of the conclusion to the season added to the challenges they faced. Meeting them hasn’t been entirely convincing at times and the lack of goals in far too many of the games has been a constant worry, but to win a tactical battle over the highly regarded Bilic is something to be celebrated. The regular hard knocks taken in a brutally difficult season after arriving to horrendous circumstances will surely hold the brothers in good stead for next season.

They will prepare for the next campaign with many problems swirling and some without obvious solutions. A squad packed out with loanees, young and old, a diaspora of expensive, unsuitable players still officially registered with the club and little chance of recouping the huge sums laid out for them and the likely departure of the leading scorer represent massive obstacles to success; they can take some comfort, however, in the fact that successful times for the club have usually arisen in adversity and never via the cheque book.

Celebrations of survival should be short and muted. An entirely forgettable season with few highlights needs to be consigned to history and a long, sober look at the future needs to be taken, with the hope that necessity will be the mother of invention.

Leaving out the goals of Grant and the invention of Smith-Rowe signalled an acceptance, unsurprisingly and realistically, that an evening of attrition was in store. King, Hogg and a slightly advanced O’Brien were to be the fulcrum of a team designed to sacrifice possession for solidity with Bacuna and Willock out wide to hopefully add some flair on the counter.

In the early skirmishes, Willock’s running at the visitors’ rearguard provided some hope for the Terriers. Bacuna’s more esoteric contribution was to buy a cheap free kick on the left which he whipped in towards the keeper. Awkwardly pitching just in front of Johnstone, the ball squirted off his shin directly to Willock who finished instinctively. 

The vital early lead was reward for a bright start which contrasted with the Baggies’ sluggishness and provided a platform for the strugglers against their technically superior opponent.

Mazy, if unproductive, runs by the Benfica loanee, late of the Hawthorns, were the defining feature of the first 15 minutes. While failing to produce chances, the intent introduced some doubt in the minds of the visiting team that the routine win many expected could prove a little more troublesome.

Eventually, the promotion chasing visitors gained control of the ball though much of their possession was unconvincing and lacked the edge needed to break down a solid Town defence. Unfortunately, this relatively comfortable state of affairs was not to last until the break and following a strong appeal for a penalty when Stearman clumsily bundled in to a well positioned Baggie, the linesman who failed to spot it also failed to raise his flag against 3 West Brom players at a free kick. Lössl could only parry the ball on to O’Shea’s head for the equaliser.

It was a disappointing end to a reasonably positive half for Town who would now have to regroup to gain the minimum reward of a point in their pursuit of survival.

On the whole, the threatened onslaught by Albion didn’t really materialise despite dominating possession and territory. With the excellent Stearman and Schindler in the centre, another fine right back performance from Chalobah and Toffolo back to his best, Town absorbed the visitors’ thrusts and only a fierce attempt by Pereira which was too close to Lössl provided heightened discomfort.

With 20 minutes to go, Town introduced threat with Grant and Smith-Rowe on to replace King and the spent Bacuna. It was a move which proved pivotal.
Despite the appearance of the loathed Charlie Austin, his assault on Lössl as a Saint will not be forgotten any time soon, the Baggies failed to add enough flair or penetration in their efforts to throw off the threat from the Bees, and they were about to be stung.

Picking up the ball just inside West Brom’s half, the effervescent O’Brien, back to his battling best, shrugged off an attempted foul, stayed on his feet and drove menacingly towards the visitors’ retreating defence. Having drawn them towards him, he then slipped a lovely ball to Smith-Rowe whose first touch set up an inch perfect finish with his left.

With just minutes left, the goal was a hammer blow for Bilic and his men and there was no little pleasure in Austin committing a clumsy foul on the halfway line to run down the clock to, for him, a teary defeat.

The tension, anger and frustration which had built over the course of a mixed post lockdown season transformed in to a collective sigh of relief for a club still reeling from the ravages of 2 horrible seasons. Even the unintended consequences of victory over the 2nd placed club could be ignored, given that Barnsley’s loss on Thursday had already made that consequence nigh on inevitable.

Now to the rebuilding.

Owls of anguish

Improved but utterly unconvincing, Town’s crawl to safety inched a little closer with a performance not lacking in effort but largely devoid of inspiration and entirely devoid of the currency desperately needed in a relegation battle.

A bright start predictably faded against a tame Wednesday side unable to replicate their excellent win in London on Saturday but who, nevertheless, created opportunities to pick up 3 points in a game of little quality.

Town have Lössl to thank for a point which, with other results mostly helping their cause, puts them in a slightly better position mathematically but with a nervous eye on St Andrews where Charlton face a Birmingham City side who, incredibly, managed to concede 3 goals to the Terriers in a result which looks less remarkable as the season bores on.

A very good save from Odubajo on the half hour was eclipsed by a quite outstanding one just before the break as Harris curled an excellent effort which was pushed around the post by the on loan Dane, reminiscent of his stop which won a game against Newcastle United in those early, heady Premier League days which are so very distant now.

For all their possession and efforts in an opening 15 minutes where they were dominant in possession and not unintelligent with it, Town mustered one genuine effort when Smith-Rowe, who had a good first half before fading alarmingly later, sent a decent chance wide. Still, the visitors showed more enterprise and positive intent than they had against Luton, though it was difficult to imagine how they could not.

Pinned back, the Owls’ couldn’t find any sort of rhythm in the first quarter but Town, parched by a long drought, rarely looked capable of scoring in their purple patch which, in any case, came to an end at the first water break.

Alarmingly wide spaces, notably on Town’s left flank, began to open up and the early grip they held on proceedings evaporated to the point that the half time whistle was a blessed relief. 

In the second quarter – the mandated refreshments during each half is turning us in to the NFL without the dancing girls and product placement – Town lost their concentration and very nearly their way. Stilted forays forward, undermined by hesitancy and an unwelcome return to the safety first style which blighted the Luton fiasco, diminished the already barely perceptible threat we now haul around the pitch like an elderly donkey, with the highlight being a Grant shot which went for a throw. 

With Lössl’s late, excellent save, parity was preserved and with a record of just one recovery from going a goal down in this putrid season (an affliction stretching way back to Wagner days) it may prove as important as his Stamford Bridge intervention though there is precious little evidence that salvation, should it come, will not pan out just as badly.

The game appeared to swing back in the visitors’ direction after the break for a short while and, finally, a chance was created for Grant in an area in which he has excelled during his brief Town career. Hogg was the unlikely source with an incisive ball forward which the leading scorer latched on to, beat a defender and instinctively struck a good effort just wide.

Shortly afterwards, Grant nearly turned provider with a cross which should have been a gift for Mounié but Lees managed to block the header and extend Town’s blight in front of goal.

Wednesday made two changes after the scares with Pelupessy and Da Cruz providing a more muscular approach to the home side’s faltering efforts. Both added energy and Town’s brief ascendence was subdued. Lössl was forced in to a smart save by Luongo and with Bannon threatening to influence the contest rather more than he had in the first half, nerves began to jangle.

Overall, however, neither set of players could truly exert sustained quality and attrition reasserted itself. Lees for Wednesday and Stearman for Town were the pick of the respective rear guard actions, but it was the visitors who spurned the best second half opportunity.

Toffolo, recovering some of the form which seemed to have deserted him post hiatus and perhaps adversely influenced by Grant’s woeful displays, burst down the left and played in a teasing and seemingly perfect ball in to the box, only for recently arrived substitute Campbell arriving a split second too soon or too late (it was difficult to distinguish) and blazing over. Only time will tell whether this miss or Lössl’s save(s) will be definitive.

Lössl was called in to action one last time before the end, inelegantly spilling a relatively tame effort before quite miraculously preventing Da Cruz converting the rebound for a goal which would have been disallowed for offside.

As ever, results elsewhere shone perspective light on a hard earned point. Luton conceded an equaliser which rather neutralised disappointment at the dropping of 2 points without alleviating the tension ahead of the final, difficult looking games. 

Hull’s shellacking at the hands of Wigan, who will surely and admirably accumulate the points necessary to negate their punishment, pushed their goal difference to an extent that it acts as an extra point.

With Barnsley having a tougher run in even than Town’s and requiring extraordinary performances to catch up, it feels like a Charlton defeat at Birmingham (admittedly a stretch on current form) could determine whether 48 points will be enough to survive.

The anguish will endure until the final day unless Town can somehow raise themselves and gain a result against high flying West Brom. Optimistically, and verging on Panglossian, the absence of expectation, which weighed so heavily against Luton and Wigan, may help.
Survival would not, and should not, be cause for celebration after a season which may yet turn from gravely disappointing and persistently worrying to disastrous, but it would be, at least, some sort of platform on which to build.

Town doff their cap to Hatters

Huddersfield Town’s pursuit of back to back relegations received a timely boost on Friday evening with a gloriously inept and thoroughly deserved capitulation to the Championship’s bottom club, Luton.

Bereft of bravery, instinct or recognisable ambition, a persistently leaden first half display was followed by a calamitous nonsense of a second half which would be tragic if it were not so predictable.

Lacking personality, responsibility and even a trace of character the seemingly ironically named Terriers were comprehensively swept aside by the Hatters who topped their hosts all over the pitch with a disdain belying their own likely demotion. 

If and when the Bedfordshire club drops from the division, they will, at least, have a sound basis to rebuild on decent foundations which have maybe been a little too fragile for this hugely difficult division following a renaissance from their banishment from the Football League in 2009.

The appalling state of Town’s expensive malfunctioning squad, a parade of charlatans robotically going through the motions, holds no such promise as the ghosts of the mid 70s collapse echo through the decades.

Though impossible to prove and perhaps fanciful, the club seems incapable of functioning without the support of a crowd which has been monumentally patient, absurdly forgiving and hopelessly optimistic. 

Playing in an empty home stadium (away performances have been reasonably tolerable) has exposed the lack of collective spine the support, built up in better times, has inserted to keep heads, barely, above water. Beyond inevitable falling support, the most corrosive legacy of post 2018 squads is that those who remain will feel that they have been taken for chumps by the club. Useful idiots.

The pervasive stench of failure clogs the attempts at a revival which seems further away than ever. Though undoubtedly culpable along with the players, it is beginning to look like a task beyond the Cowleys, but eliciting coherent, professional efforts from this squad is like nailing a blancmange to a wall. 

Despite their insistence that they have belief and trust in the squad, the evidence before our eyes is that this is either disingenuous or simply naive. With the exception of Smith-Rowe and Chalobah, this was another defeat where players regularly abdicated personal responsibility; passing the buck is now a feature of a side in desperate trouble.

With courage notably absent, the necessary aggression in a relegation battle is fatally diminished. The strategy to avoid defeat appears to hinge more upon futile possession than domination of the opponent. Luton barely needed to break sweat to contain their timid hosts and could simply keep their shape and watch Town pass unthreateningly in front of them.

A team beaten by 5 at home by Town’s latest bore a draw victims Reading and who conceded a late, damaging equaliser to their closest relegation rival should have represented a psychologically damaged opponent, ripe for exploitation. Town played two holding midfielders.

One of those, the subdued O’Brien, had the only effort of any note in a thrill free first half, shooting tamely from range straight in to the arms of the visitors’ unperturbed keeper.

Unable to inject pace or incision, the home side’s predictable and timid forward play was blunted by the ineffectual Grant and Willock on the flanks. The former, whose post lockdown contributions have smacked of a player protecting his own future, was almost entirely inept. Slow, unaware and lacking commitment the leading scorer was easily blotted out of the game and despite the dangerous over reliance on his goals his removal from the team is surely imminent and necessary.

With neither defence unduly troubled in a first half of inexorable tedium, the opportunity to arse kick at half time should have been irresistible for the Cowleys and while it is impossible to know what was said, the demeanour of the team as they strolled out several minutes after their opponents who were waiting and prepared didn’t indicate that much would change.

In contrast, Nathan Jones must have relished the break. Any trepidation or fear of defeat which existed before the game had evaporated and all that need be added to his team was a little ambition and belief.

Within minutes, Town’s lethargy was exposed and punished. A crunching tackle on Chalobah who, to his credit, did not pull out of the encounter and played with at least some energy throughout, lead to a corner and the Hatters took their opportunity and converted their height, strength and aggression in to a lead they never looked like relinquishing.

With Lössl deciding not to come for a decent delivery, Schindler was bullied out of position allowing Bradley to head home from short distance.

With a whole half in which to recover, Town’s response could be described as insipid but this adjective hardly scrapes the surface of the ensuing debacle.

Lacking guile, speed of thought and any semblance of cohesion, Town could not shake themselves out of the shackles of the safety first approach adopted from the beginning and no amount of substitutions could alter the rigid blueprint.

Rather than making any difference, 2 of the substitutions proved culpable for the 2nd Luton goal. Bacuna, whose talent seems to be unleashed at the whim of Bacuna, slipped while trying to execute a cross field ball and the loss of possession put Town on the back foot. 

Schindler, who seems to be more affected by the lack of a home crowd than anyone, was easily outpaced by Collins whose fierce shot cannoned off the post and back in to danger. King, a straight swap for Hogg 5 minutes earlier, failed to react and Lee smashed home to seal a win which was already in the bag barring Damascene level conversion of the hosts’ form and attitude.

At no point did a turnaround look remotely possible as Luton performed the simple task of allowing their opponents to find different ways of presenting opportunities for their central defenders to easily clear from what we could laughably call danger.

The management have to take their fair share of responsibility for the costly debacle. Post match claims that the players were nervous is damning. Lavishly remunerated professional footballers shouldn’t need reassurance to play in an empty stadium in a game which could have virtually ensured survival. The formulaic, rigid game plan they were asked to carry out, and until the end given that the only change was to hit the ineffective Mounié, mitigated against flair, individuality and enterprise.

The defeat leaves us nervously eyeing the results of others, including in the court of financial imprudence which may doom Sheffield Wednesday, which is a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs and doesn’t move the Club one iota forward.

“Typical Town” was the post match refrain. It would also be typical of them to go and win at Wednesday on Tuesday but a huge amount of soul searching is needed in the interim.

Edging towards safety

Reading FC will always be a part of Huddersfield Town’s history, as the vanquished play off finalist at the end of the remarkable 2016/17 season.

Their supporters, on the whole, took the defeat in good grace perhaps with a knowing smile as they looked kindly upon our excitement to be joining the Premier League circus they had recently experienced.

As the novelty of global media exposure turned in to annoying, patronising blather, not always delivered with respect, and finally to sneering derision at a club struggling to compete at the top level (self inflicted wounds aside, it was a massive step up requiring two consecutive miracles), the Royals’ fans’ stoical reaction became increasingly understandable.

5 years ago, and rather less memorably, The Madjeski Stadium saw Chris Powell’s thrill laden tenure come to an abrupt end following a creditable 2-2 draw, making way for the Wagner era which will eventually be remembered for its glory rather than the sad denouement still haunting the club long after his departure.

Powell was co-commentating with Paul Ogden for Radio Leeds and the iFollow service; a likeable and respected man whose apparent belief that Huddersfield Town had its limits was thoroughly demolished by his successor but who could be forgiven for thinking that, ultimately, he was just being realistic.

Town are now back in the same position Chris left us in, scrabbling around at the ugly end of a perennially difficult league hoping against hope that the incompetence of others, on and off the field, will provide the gap which will allow another season in a crazy division staring down the barrels of massive financial difficulties which could poison the very basis of the competition.

Still, the future will look after itself and, meanwhile, Town needed to build on the 4 points, garnered in contrasting style, from the past 2 games. The charmless point earned at home against Preston was, at least, a small step forward as others faltered; now for a tough looking fixture at Reading.

A much improved and far more convincing performance earned another point and another clean sheet. Spells of dominance which invariably fizzled out in front of goal should have resulted in a win, though the disappointment of failing to overcome a largely sterile Berkshire outfit unable to replicate their demolition of Luton was tempered, again, by favourable results elsewhere.

Comfortably quelling the early control of the home side which lacked any real threat, Town slowly began to worry their rather lethargic hosts with strong running, decent passing movements and the piercing thrusts of Smith-Rowe who looked of conspicuously higher class than anyone on the field.

Willock had a reasonably influential first half with incisive running but his crossing was invariably wayward. Promising build up play, particular in the first quarter before the drinks break and after an uneventful first 10 minutes, established a semblance of control for the visitors who looked hungrier than the hosts, but hesitancy and poor decision making thwarted the Terriers.

The otherwise excellent Smith-Rowe could have squared to Hogg after an excellent run on to a through ball by Stankovic but chose to shoot weakly at Barbosa who gathered easily.

Town’s offensive play was massively improved on the pallid fare served up against Preston but, frustratingly, entirely lacked the ruthlessness necessary to win games on the road. At least the play was leading to attempts on goal but, sadly, they were either wayward or weak and towards the end of the half, the visitors’ grip loosened.

2 midfield errors in quick succession created chances for the home side. Meite, whose goals had destroyed Luton but who didn’t carry the same threat in this game, failed to connect with a good ball over the top, while Lössl did well to close down Puscas who had got behind a defence exposed by another midfield error.

A relatively entertaining first half was perhaps enhanced by the comparison to Saturday’s attritional eyesore and Town’s serial failures when in threatening positions tainted the decent standard of general play they produced. 

An early chase by Smith-Rowe early in the second half forced the unusually quiet Swift in to an under hit back pass to his keeper which Grant, perhaps a little less committed to a challenge than he should have been, nearly reached ahead of Barbosa. Overall, the leading scorer had a poor night and his trademark cutting in from the left was easily dealt with by the home defence.

Halfway through the second half, Town’s principle threat, Smith-Rowe, was replaced by Pritchard. The Cowleys clearly feel that the prodigious talent is unable to safely complete 90 minutes at the moment, or his young legs are being saved for the massive Luton game on Friday, but he looked disgruntled to be replaced and not without cause.

His replacement can produce decent link up play but simply doesn’t trouble defenders enough and lacks thrust. One cross shot which deflected off a defender and forced a routine, if a little uncomfortable, save was the sum total of his threat and a signing which promised much continues to disappoint.

On both flanks, Toffolo and the excellent Chalobah, got forward with conviction but were unable to provide the spark for a goal, while at the back, Stankovic produced a display which was tinged with the regret that an under utilised talent will be departing at the end of the season. There are various reasons for him appearing so few times and for his departure, but there remains an overwhelming sense of waste.

Town were unable to reproduce the purple patch of the first half despite some lengthy spells of possession. The disruption of substitutions didn’t help and, in particular, the midfield base of Hogg and King while unspectacular, had provided the visitors with a good level of control from which to build attacks and subdue the hosts. It was always the plan to share the Hogg role with O’Brien, but it took the youngster quite a while to find the pace of the game. King took a knock late on with Chalobah’s fine full back display interrupted to shore up the midfield.

Losing Smith-Rowe automatically degraded thrust and creativity while Mounié’s aerial ability, admittedly not put to much use, was replaced by Kachunga’s hassling. Perhaps taking a small risk with Smith-Rowe was one worth taking; he looked far from spent.

The replacements were rational in the context of utilising the full resources of the squad in a brutal schedule and with a massive encounter just days away, but the final stages of the game drifted away from the Terriers and, alarmingly, Reading found a very late gear which threatened to ruin Town’s night.

Suddenly on the front foot, the hosts made life a little too uncomfortable and Lössl was forced in to action for the first time since his first half block. Routine as it was, it echoed Preston’s late flurry and suggests a vulnerability which needs addressing.

Late goals for Brentford and Barnsley produced more helpful results elsewhere which put a gloss on a mundane away point. They now need to complete the job on Friday to get to the 50 point mark which should secure Championship status.