Cut down to size

Town plodded to a disappointing defeat at the hands of a rejuvenated Nottingham Forest, who dealt with the extremely limited threat offered by their hosts with supreme comfort from the very first minute.

Results across the Championship in round 8 were in head scratching territory, “invincible” Fulham beaten at home by a side dismantled by Town a short time ago, crisis club Derby despatched Stoke and Blackpool went to Middlesbrough on the back of a heavy home defeat and won.

Perhaps it was the combination of an unshackled squad of professional footballers finding the freedom to achieve their potential against a complacent group who have had too much wind blown up their collective backside, but the mockery of the respective form of the contestants was bewildering.

Even before Forest’s excellent opener, Town looked sluggish and devoid of flair. Every player consistently took the safe option and soon dissolved in to a syrup of turgid possession which rarely survived contact with Forest’s defence who will struggle to have an easier 90 minutes all season.

In contrast, the East Midlanders were prepared to play on the edge of risk and none more so than Joe Lolley, restored to the starting line up by Stephen Reid, as the left side of Town’s defence succumbed far too easily.

It was no surprise when a dominant Forest took the lead with a goal of simple, direct quality. The highly regarded Brennan roasted Colwill for pace, having brushed aside attempts to stop him further up the pitch and delivered a fantastic cross met by Grabban who powered his header past a hopelessly exposed Nicholls.

Arguably, Town could point to a dubious advantage played by the referee after O’Brien was upended, they lost possession moments later allowing the counter, but that would be clutching.

The entirely deserved goal deepened the resolve of the visitors, who were able to control the game despite, and possibly because of, Town’s dominance of possession.

Keeping hold of the ball only served to bring a plethora of old problems to the surface. Allied to the numbing and desperately slow passing was a hesitancy which consistently closed up space, movement stagnated as deliberation overwhelmed instinct and intent became entirely predictable.

Ward, a surprise inclusion following his performance at Bloomfield Road (and pretty much every other one), was fortunate to see only yellow after a lunge precipitated by a typically awful first touch before the goal and again offered far too little but did, at least, have Town’s only attempt on target, a weak header straight at the keeper, of a desperately poor first half.

In an attempt to change the dynamics of a game in which they were clearly second best, Corberán opted to change to a back four, bringing on Turton for Pearson.

Theoretically, this would push Thomas up the pitch and provide better protection on the left, where Forest’s main threat emanated.

With Colwill having perhaps his least convincing performance and the proven threat of Pearson from set pieces, the personnel aspect of the change was questionable, though the tactical argument was fair enough.

Unfortunately for Carlos, the substitution proved immediately disastrous. Colwill, rather than leave a mundane ball in the box to Nicholls, chose to put the newly arrived Turton in trouble and he was promptly dispossessed. Nicholls made a decent save from the eventual shot by Yates, but Lolley was alert to possibility and capitalised on Turton’s lack of reaction to double Forest’s lead.

Within minutes of the restart, then, Corberán’s plans were in tatters, Forest’s confidence was confirmed and enhanced, and a team which had struggled to overcome a small hill in the first half were looking up at a steep mountain.

Belief, a commodity already scarce on an afternoon to forget, disappeared both on and off the pitch.

If anything, a third Forest goal looked more likely than a Town comeback but after a brief flurry the visitors sat back to comfortably soak up any pressure their hosts could muster, which proved minimal.

The much maligned Holmes came on at the hour mark and provided a little hope with an energetic performance. Sadly, his colleagues, including fellow sub Mipo, were impervious to his prompting and continued their safe and slow approach to a game clearly already lost.

Mipo is yet to make any impact whatsoever. His introduction in to the past 3 games haven’t been ideal, but he has barely touched the ball over about 50 minutes of game time. He should, of course, be given time and patience, but simply doesn’t look the answer to our central striker problems, which are deep, on the available evidence.

Towards the end of the one sided contest, Lees met a Thomas corner but put the chance wide when, it could be argued, Pearson would have converted. Turton also glanced another corner chance wide which the top scorer would have probably gobbled up.

It was unfortunate that Corberán’s decisions to try to change the game imploded almost immediately. Town have survived mundane first half performances before (indeed, this was the case just a few short days ago), but Forest’s second entirely undermined any hoped for transformation.

Mechanical, risk averse and lacking intensity, Town had a very poor afternoon but credit should be given to a thoroughly professional Forest who will surely recover from their terrible start played out under a manager who appears to have strangled them with his noted pragmatism.

The Championship though? Weird.

Tangerine Dream

A pleasant late Summer evening on the west coast, directly contrasting with a grey, wet and miserable day over the Pennines, was almost as welcome as a gritty, cohesive and unified performance, enhanced by moments of genuine quality.

A highly competitive first half provided few clues to the eventual outcome, as Town doggedly matched their high octane hosts but were rarely able to impose their own personality on a game bogged down by attrition, though not short on entertainment; full blooded commitment has its own delights.

For all the considerable efforts of blue and white and tangerine shirted participants, and what a rare treat it was to see traditional kits battling it out as they did in the days of Jimmies McGill and Armfield, neither side created nearly enough to trouble the scorers. 

Following their shock victory over Fulham, Blackpool started the game with high confidence and energy with a press which caused discomfort to Town’s back 3 and beyond, notably an uncharacteristic error in possession by the returning Colwill. The home side were unable to capitalise on the mistake, and were just as unsuccessful with some hesitancy on Town’s right where a rather harshly booked Pearson was naturally tentative.

The visitors’ resilience in the face of Blackpool’s energetic pursuit of slip ups curtailed much of their attacking aspirations, particularly as, in Ward, they have a central striker largely incapable of holding up the ball. It has been noted that the proximity of colleagues doesn’t help his cause, but it is difficult to ignore his continuing lack of real impact on games, to the point that any small differences he does achieve are ridiculously magnified.

Town’s cautious play meant that 20 minutes passed before they even hinted at causing a problem for the Seasiders, with Thomas finally being released from his own half to deliver a far post cross of predictable quality, only for Toffolo to appear to be in several minds what to do with it and ended up clearing the bar with ease.

Blackpool themselves failed to create opportunities from a couple of free kicks in dangerous areas, while any aerial threat was easily dealt with, particularly by the impressive Lees, though a header in to the side netting caused a modicum of alarm and Nicholls was forced in to an instinctive save from Dougall, who latched on to a rare loose ball.

There were glimpses of creativity in Town’s attempts to probe the home defence, but these were blighted by over elaboration. With Blackpool largely crumbling in the final third too, a goalless half came to a natural conclusion though, perhaps ominously for the hosts, the last action was an effort by Sinani, growing in influence, which resulted in an awarded but not taken corner as time ran out.

While an explanation for Town’s transformation is better sought elsewhere (Cf. Chicken and Hartrick), it was clear that Koroma needed to be far more effective, Thomas needed to be utilised more offensively and opening up space more prioritised, and the reward for Corberán’s tweaks was soon in coming.

Sinani, who had grown in to the game as the first half went on, surged in to space before feeding Koroma, via O’Brien, on the edge of the box, in his favourite position. His trademark curling shot followed, beyond the despairing hands of the previously untroubled Maxwell.

After a poor display at Stoke and an underwhelming first half by the beach, it was a confidence boosting moment from last season’s most notable player and top scorer.

The rest of his performance seemed to confirm this, including a blistering run past a floundering Keogh which made for a rather stark comparison with last season. 

Keogh was rather unkindly booed by sections of the away support; while most, probably all, are relieved that he is no longer plying his trade at the heart of Town’s defence, to its considerable improvement, he couldn’t be accused of lack of effort in some quite challenging circumstances. 

Having taken the lead, Town needed to ensure they didn’t sacrifice it as easily as they did at the weekend, but promptly contrived to nearly succumb to not only the same fate, but in a similar manner by failing to pick up a man at a corner. Lavery, who was that man, thankfully got a little underneath the corner delivery and his effort landed on the top of the net.

It was a pivotal moment, not least for Sorba Thomas, who received a vicious lambasting from his captain which presumably conveyed the message that the game is not just the glory bits. In Sorba’s defence, this was a rare lapse (not picking up his man) from an inexperienced player who works hard without the ball, but a sharp reminder from a seasoned campaigner won’t go amiss.

It was a brief interruption to an increasingly dominant away performance, which was quickly followed by a second, nerve calming goal from another familiar source.

Pearson, who recovered from a nervy first half hour to fully contribute to an excellent defensive performance, met a Sinani corner to double Town’s advantage. 
That the delivery came from the Luxembourger rather than Thomas emphasised the variety now possessed by a squad which looks exponentially more equipped over last season.

The home crowd had rallied their team to a response following the opener, and their team had responded, but the second goal deflated both.

Taking control of possession, Town were increasingly sharper than their slumping opponents, who had perhaps blown themselves out with their first half intensity, and the pressing tables were turned.

On the hour, O’Brien, who was much sharper and productive throughout, pinned Blackpool’s central defender to the corner flag. In hindsight, Ekpiteta should’ve cleared earlier but instead, his clearance bounced off O’Brien in to Koroma’s path whose shot was blocked only to sit up nicely for Jonathan Hogg to finish with style.

At 3-0, the game was finished and Town easily coped with Blackpool’s increasingly tired attempts to salvage something from the game, though the hat should be tipped to Josh Bowler who created problems down the right but failed to deliver quality in to the box.

Comfortable in possession, Town could have added to their score as Blackpool’s defensive frailties emerged in the face of a far more effective attack in the second half.

Nicholls, whose presence has been a hugely significant factor in Town’s vastly improved defence, was called upon to stop a late tangerine thrust and the aforementioned Bowler hit an excellent strike tantalisingly wide, but Blackpool were well beaten in an excellent second half display by the Terriers.

It was an exceptionally hard fought win against an aggressive, well organised side who lacked the quality Town eventually brought to the contest. The lack of an effective centre forward remains an issue for the Terriers and Mipo doesn’t appear quite ready to start yet, but this squad look an entirely different proposition to the struggling group of last year.

So does their coach.

Expectations should continue to be tempered, but this was a very satisfying away win from a side with plenty of room for improvement and growth. 

Book your Wembley hotel (tongue firmly in cheek).

Back down to earth

It may be that the international break undercut the momentum of 3 successive league wins. It certainly robbed Town of Colwill and Sinani, both deemed too fragile to appear, as Corberán left them on the bench and opted for Holmes and Sarr in their place.

Long on endeavour and short on quality or inspiration, both sides worked hard to cancel each other out for long periods with the first half bogged down with mediocrity and defensive dominance. The second 45 delivered a few moments for both but overall the contest will not live long in the memory.

With Thomas shackled and Koroma suffering a poor afternoon, Town’s threat was too predictable and sporadic, not helped by a lack of midfield thrust. To their credit, Stoke stifled the visitors’ threats to the level of futility slightly more effectively than Town did to theirs, resulting in a narrow home victory.

A bright start by the Terriers soon faded and neither side could produce a decent effort on goal. The flow of the game wasn’t helped by Town’s time wasting at dead balls, set pieces and throw ins, an unattractive trait which has a big propensity for blowback; having to chase an equaliser late on, for example.

Stoke themselves were not averse to a tactical foul or two to disrupt their opponent, and a better referee would have punished both sides earlier which may have elevated the game above the desperately mundane.

The first half may have been fascinating for tactical purists, but an extended yawn for the rest of us.

An early goal for Town in the second half promised to open up proceedings. In keeping with the overall tenor of the fixture, it was a scruffy affair with Toffolo taking advantage of a loose ball following a decent Thomas free kick delivery and, at last, a shot on target saved by the keeper’s legs.

Having broken through, the fate of the points rested on Town clinging to their lead with defensive solidity, discipline and, inevitably, more of that time wasting (which would, at least, have more of a point than in the opening twenty minutes).

Such ambition was crushed within minutes as an excellent corner found a Potter’s head, without challenge, and the home side were level.

To Town’s credit, they always strived to get on the front foot but had neither the guile or the physicality to break down the hosts’ solid organisation and looked increasingly vulnerable to the counter.

As attacks fizzled out at the business end, a rare Stoke counter saw the impressive Vrancic turn Sarr far too easily on the edge of the box and fire a ball across the danger area. Pearson, under no discernible pressure, got everything wrong and fumbled the ball in to the net to give the home side the lead.

Perhaps the own goal was karma for the Preston game, and left the visitors with a huge task to salvage a point from the encounter.

One decent effort from Thomas aside, which was just wide, they never looked like coming back. 

It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort, but Stoke were defensively excellent, epitomised by a sequence when 3 successive shots were blocked by committed home players.

The introduction of Sinani and Mipo were too late to change the course of events. The youngster barely got a touch in his ten minute cameo, though Sinani and Turton (on for Lees as Town went to a back four) created more space for Thomas on the right. When personnel allows, Thomas will surely be pushed further up the pitch.

A routine defeat away to a well organised and physical side is not a cause for concern, and few have got carried away by a short spell of good results which demanded contextual scrutiny, but it was a day to quickly forget.

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.