Tentative steps in the right direction

Coping with and adapting to adversity have been qualities decidedly absent from Huddersfield Town’s recent past as ill fortune piled on to the shoulders of the Cowley brothers’ predecessors and pretty much crushed them.

Having built a revival on the foundations of a solid, consistent back four, the management team found themselves faced with three quarters of their defence ruled out with injury, including one for the season, and few obvious options to not only replace their preferred personnel but also to maintain the balance and standards which underpinned the improvement in results and league position.

The announced team seemed to suggest that switching to 3 centre backs may have been the answer they had devised with the 2 obvious full backs – Hadergjonaj and Kongolo – left on the bench, but few of us realised that O’Brien’s burgeoning talent extended to being a dynamic and quite excellent left back.

While the makeshift, and slightly more experienced, right back was not as successful overall, the defensive line largely achieved a good balance and, but for some late sloppiness, would have thwarted a decent Birmingham City side who fully contributed to a quite entertaining game under leaden West Yorkshire skies.

It was the visitors who made the brighter start as Town adapted to the enforced changes with Jutkiewicz predictably a handful but as the game developed, the hosts settled and had slightly the better of a first half with much enterprise but few chances.

A break by Kachunga, capitalising on a poor error in midfield ended with a rising, unthreatening effort and the German-Congolese had the best chance of the half as he met an excellent cross from Pritchard only to see his header well saved and Campbell’s follow up blocked.
Neither side, however, was able to sustain dominance and a hard fought contest swung to and fro.

For their part, Birmingham occasionally found the room for their more creative players, Daniel Crowley in particular, to operate but lacked the cutting edge some of their approach play deserved.

Bacuna was caught out once or twice down the visitors’ left but performed reasonably well in his adopted role for most of the first half while on the other side, O’Brien was outstanding in the face of not inconsiderable threat. 

Despite too many instances of sloppy distribution and occasional struggles against the physicality of Jutkiewicz, Stanković adapted reasonably well as Schindler’s new partner.

With very little playing time or opportunities for what seems to have been forever, the Slovenian’s time has now arrived; he deserves a little patience and will have to improve in possession but he must grab his chance.

The pre match problems surrounding who to play in the back four were alleviated to an extent by the return of Hogg who provided excellent cover in front of them (though this was at the expense of yet another booking). His copybook was blotted by his role in Birmingham’s equaliser later, but his energy and tackling thwarted and interrupted the visitors’ flow for long periods and his experience will be vital in the challenging period up to Christmas.

Trevoh Chalobah’s talent is evident but often tainted by his decision making and this game was no exception. However, his sumptuous ball behind Birmingham’s central defence for Campbell to open the scoring 10 minutes in to the second half was possibly the highlight of his Town career to date.

It was well taken by the veteran striker who calmly neutralised the recovering central defender with a side step before finishing clinically past Trueman.

Birmingham’s brief riposte after the goal was dealt with reasonably comfortably, but the insurance of a second goal always felt necessary if their excellent record in Huddersfield, dating back to the 90s, was to be broken, and it was Kachunga once more who was provided with a perfect chance to bury the Blues.

The busy Pritchard, who fizzed an excellent free kick in the first half which drew a routine but necessary save from Trueman, was the architect of a cross which should have been buried but, instead, a poor connection saw the ball loop in to Trueman’s hands and the missed opportunity seemed portentous.

Shortly after they should have been two down and out of the game, Pep Clotet made a change which would see a point returning to the West Midlands.

Already showing signs of strain at right back, Bacuna simply couldn’t handle Montero and wasn’t helped by the introduction of the defensively naive Diakhaby in front of him. For all Kachunga’s faults, his industry helps his full back and swapping wings left the temporary right back horribly exposed.

Montero’s threat was palpable and unchallenged; Bacuna’s positioning deteriorated and Birmingham’s threat increased to the point that an equaliser seemed inevitable.

Lunging in on the troublesome sub, Bacuna gave away a cheap free kick on the left. Rather than take it himself, Montero took up an unmarked position in front of the six yard box and despite some pointing out of the danger by Hogg and Kachunga, neither felt the need to mark him. An unexpectedly low ball in, given the number of big men in the box, was flicked on by Montero and finished at close range by Roberts.

Birmingham’s ascendancy, rather helped by Town’s substitution strategy, had been rewarded and it is difficult to argue that they didn’t deserve to share the spoils and it would have been worse but for a smart save by Grabara late on.

In keeping with the rest of the game, Town came back in to the contest towards the end but couldn’t find a winner. That opportunity had gone at one up and they were always unlikely to get decisions on two second half penalty appeals even if one challenge on Grant seemed a little reckless.

In the circumstances, a draw against decent opposition, all be it opponents who seem to struggle to convert, with the context of a cobbled together back four cannot be viewed as disappointing; under Siewert and late stage Wagner, the game would have been lost.

If there is a criticism to level at the Cowleys, it would be that their substitutions were ineffective at best and arguably too disruptive; particularly the introduction of a Diakhaby at a time when Bacuna’s frailties in an unfamiliar position were being exposed.

Hopefully, Simpson can return for the visit of Swansea on Tuesday; his experience was sorely missed in the last 20 minutes and it would also increase midfield options if O’Brien remains the solution at left back.
The home record continues to improve after such a long period of relentless vulnerability and there were quite a few positives to take away from the 90 minutes.

Pritchard’s previously buried talent may be ready to re-emerge, responding positively to the injury problems augurs well and there were glimpses of the side we could become with decent recruitment and the continuing improvements the Cowleys are bringing.

Our recovery remains a work in progress, but it is, at least, in progress.

50 years of hurt

Battered, bruised and beaten, Town never looked like ending their 50 year winless streak at Deepdale as the home side’s power pressing flattened the visitors for over an hour before quelling a late revival.

To cope with Preston’s superior physicality, Town needed the type of resilience on display at Griffin Park a week ago but countering a team who approach a game with surgical ambition is wholly different from one which applies relentless brute force with the occasional splash of skill and precision.

The loss of both Hogg and Brown proved fatal. Chalobah continues to flounder in the face of intensity and Kongolo’s passive presence at left back contributed to both first half concessions; the replacements simply weren’t up to it while the home side’s absentees, which were as potentially damaging, were shrugged off by a squad clearly of greater depth.

Though a home victory rarely looked in doubt – a second Town goal in their only encouraging spell late on may have produced an interesting finish – any semblance of a game plan was undone by a poor decision by a quite dreadful referee before 5 minutes had elapsed. Chalobah’s tackle on the edge of the box was fair and well timed but, it seems, the decision was predicated on Stockley’s dramatics. He gamely played on and was on hand to convert when Gallagher’s excellently struck free kick came back in to the area off the post.

The official was poor throughout with baffling decisions but had Kongolo made anything like a challenge immediately before the erroneous free kick award, Town wouldn’t have had to face a dangerous situation at all.

Town’s struggles persisted throughout a first half and their passivity all over the pitch was meat and drink to an Alex Neil side who were superior in every aspect of the game.

It didn’t help that an over the top tackle disrupted the visitors’ central defence with Elphick helped off the field with a serious injury which warranted more than a yellow card for Ledson.

Preston’s second always seemed likely as Town struggled to contain the Lilywhites’ persistent energy and greater commitment but, again, questions need to be asked of Kongolo who allowed acres of space for Barkhuizen to cross to the back post for Browne to squeeze his shot off Grabara in to the net.

It was the least the Lancastrians’ dominant display deserved and the score at the interval could have been significantly worse for the Terriers had the hosts made more of a seemingly never ending sequence of corners.

Overwhelmed and pretty obviously beaten, Town produced little of note before the interval going forward despite some probing by O’Brien who also had the only effort of the half with a blocked shot in a rare foray.

In contrast, Preston could feel slightly disappointed that their complete control garnered just 2 goals, particularly against a defence which could barely cope down one side and disrupted by Elphick’s injury. Stankovic and Schindler dealt with their aerial threat from the inordinate number of corners quite well but with colleagues’ inability to break out from a suffocating press, they rarely had time to recover from the constant home assaults.

Any hopes that Town could miraculously reverse the flow of a game in which they had been comprehensively battered were quickly extinguished 5 minutes in to the second half. Already visibly rocking under yet more home pressure, Kongolo’s arm got in the way of a cross in the area and a clear cut penalty was conceded. Gallagher’s idiosyncratic penalty taking style was employed and he smashed the ball centrally past Grabara.

At 3-0, Town were buried and a more severe battering was far more predictable than the slightly face saving result which would eventually transpire.

Right up to the 70th minute, the home side were by far more likely to extend their lead but the introduction of Pritchard and, to a lesser extent, Mounié, turned the tide and forced the home side on to the defensive for the first time.

Cowley’s tactical switch may have been a little too late in to the half, but replacing the isolated and frustrated Diakhaby with a central aerial presence in Mounié and sacrificing Simpson at right back for more creativity further forward with Pritchard produced a glimmer of hope for a comeback as the visitors finally got on the front foot.

Bacuna, who had slotted in on the right defensively, ran at Preston from deep and, largely unchallenged, got a shot off just inside the area and his poke took a deflection off a defender and past the previously untroubled Rudd.

Had a Pritchard header from a decent move beaten the defender near the line rather than being cleared, Preston’s resolve may have been tested a little more but, as it was, a reasonably encouraging last 20 minutes was to no avail.

Anything other than a comprehensive home victory would have been a travesty, however, and it should be said that Preston’s promotion aspirations look realistic and, given their budget, admirable. While there can be some misgivings at an approach which emphasises the physical, Neil has assembled a collection of low cost players in to a very effective unit who can overwhelm teams with a high octane energy and to see the last of the famous names taste the dubious pleasures of the Premier League would not be begrudged.

Perhaps the good people of Preston need to back their team a little better though; the large number of empty seats is scant reward or recognition for their achievements.

Town can now use two weeks to patch up the injured (though Elphick’s recovery is likely to take longer) and reflect on the strides they have made since the last international break; to take 3 points from two very tough assignments is at least 1 more than most would have predicted. The repairs to a severely damaged squad continue and setbacks are inevitable; losing to a very strong promotion contender who rarely fail at home was one of the most predictable.

Bees’ sting stifled

A final visit to Griffin Park, unless the FA cup throws up another meeting, saw Town extend their unlikely, hugely encouraging and faith restoring unbeaten run against a talented, in form Brentford who were squeezed and blunted for long periods.

The visitors’ suffocating tactics did not a great spectacle make but the quality of Grant’s winning strike illuminated a dank West London afternoon and the discipline and tenacity sustained throughout deservedly reaped a three point reward.

Disappointed home supporters will no doubt decry tactics which pushed towards the outer boundaries of gamesmanship at times, but their team looked and played like one rather too believing of the publicity accompanying recent, excellent, performances and the threat they undoubtedly possess rarely troubled a defensive master class from the Terriers.

Over the years at Brentford’s magnificently ramshackle home ground which is always a pleasure to visit despite a less than perfect view from the standing area of the away end, and going right back to Warnock’s days, Town win when they dig in and stifle and lose heavily if they opt for expansion.

Most remember the play off semi final in 1995 which kick started an unlikely long distance and intermittent rivalry but the final game of the 93/94 season which turned in to a ridiculously brutal game despite having no consequences for either team was just as relevant. 1-0 down and in danger of being bullied in to defeat, Warnock threw Jepson in to the mix for the final 20 minutes and carnage ensued. A 2-1 win set the tone for the next season and that dramatic evening and penalty shoot out.

Fortunes have ebbed and flowed ever since and the Griffin Park encounters have always been more interesting than those back in Huddersfield; the move away is very much to be regretted but may give the Bees the lift they need from admired also rans in to contenders. The area around will still have the same terrific pubs and friendly welcome but will never be quite the same.

Unsurprisingly, the home side were on top for the first half hour but fashioned little in the way of chances and solid defending prevented them from creating any at all in the box and a couple of wayward long range efforts were the sum total of attempts on goal.

Pressing from the front slowed the Bees’ progress and swallowed up space as vital seconds were gained to allow a defensive shape to form time and time again so that even on the rare occasion Brentford escaped the shackles, they were faced with a blue wall and a keeper in fine form.

Led by Schindler at the back and Hogg in the middle, Town laid a platform for a counter attacking style which was eventually to overcome the division’s form team.

Towards the end of a pretty dire first half, it was Town who nearly went in front. Good work by the indefatigable O’Brien, who is blossoming in to a major talent, led to a chance for Grant and the leading scorer brought out a very good save by Raya who pushed his sharp shot around the post.

O’Brien also supplied an excellent ball in to the box just before the break which narrowly eluded Campbell and Town had served warning to their hosts that their plan extended beyond stifling containment.

Following a similar pattern to the first, Brentford were on the front foot early in the second half but it was notable that the greatest moment of danger came as Town were temporarily down to 10 men; the prone Brown, who was to be replaced soon after by Hadergjonaj, was ignored firstly by the referee and then by Grabara who kept the ball in play rather than relieve pressure. 

He more than made up for the error, however, with a fantastic save from an inadvertent header under enormous pressure by Elphick, tipping the ball away to safety.

Elphick, it should be said after the pillorying he has had, not least in these columns, was excellent throughout and made several vital interceptions and was never tempted to over play.

Town then inflicted a crushing blow to Brentford, and one they possibly suspected was coming. A long ball from the impressive Simpson was held up well by the hard working Campbell who then laid it off to Grant. The striker now had the space in the box for which he yearns and hit a superb strike past Raya who had no chance this time.

With just under half an hour plus injury time undoubtedly boosted to compensate for some less than subtle time wasting from the visitors, an onslaught was to be expected but never really materialised and, if anything, Town looked more likely to add to their lead on the break and Grant provided a good opportunity for substitute Diakhaby to poke wide and combined excellently with O’Brien in a raid which ended with a wayward Chalobah effort.

There had been lingering doubts about the unbeaten run given the relative quality of opposition and a not unsubstantial quota of good fortune, but this win against a very talented opponent to extend it goes a great deal towards confirming the impression that the corner has truly been turned.

Disciplined, resilient and dangerous when allowed the Cowley brothers’ impact has been nothing short of miraculous; though they would rightly counter that miracles are fairy stories and hard work has transformed what can only be described as a bunch of losers in to an outfit which can compete with anyone in this division.

Farewell to Griffin Park, we’ll miss you.

Unnecessary tension but gloom lifting

A scrappy, occasionally feisty and sporadically entertaining derby saw Town escape from the bottom 3 with a victory which should’ve been far more comfortable than it ultimately became.

The visitors were marginally the better side in a first half where their hosts began poorly and on the back foot for much of the first 20 minutes as the hangover from the anaemic midweek performance persisted.

Barnsley’s lively but largely ineffective start pinned Town in to their own half for fully 15 minutes but, lead by a reinvigorated Hogg with a more than welcome return to form, the home team worked their way in to the game without causing too much consternation to the Reds’ defence.

On the half hour, an innocuous looking free kick just inside enemy territory was taken quickly by Simpson who found Grant down the right. Beating his man far too easily from the visitors’ perspective, the striker played an excellent ball across to Schindler who converted with ease.

Barely deserved, Town conspired to almost lose their lead within minutes. Making a complete hash of a free kick on the left and losing possession, the hosts presented Barnsley with their best opportunity of the game as McGeehan, taking advantage of good work by Woodrow, lifted his effort over the bar.

It was a totally needless and brainless error at a time when consolidation of a fortunate, if well executed, lead should have been established.

Rather than lifting the away side, however, it was the Terriers who regrouped more effectively and the rest of the half was navigated in relative comfort. 

In the second half, Town took a stranglehold over the game and, with O’Brien surging forward, became a much clearer threat to the South Yorkshire side who began to wilt under pressure.

It was the flame haired maestro’s determined run which lead to the second goal but it was Grant’s sublime finish which will be rightly remembered. Taking the ball in his stride, Town’s top scorer created a tiny amount of space for himself and curled a superb effort past Collins in an instant. 

5 minutes after doubling their lead, Town should have put the game to bed. It inevitably involved another O’Brien surge, who was put through by the ever impressive Brown, but Kachunga lacked the necessary composure and fired over with an unassailable lead beckoning.

The miss put a spring in the step of Barnsley and all the momentum built by the hosts began to fade.

First, a cheap free kick given away by Bacuna at the edge of the box – he was replaced by Chalobah immediately and before the kick was taken – was well struck by Dougall but flew over the bar.

Defending a 2 goal lead is notoriously precarious, as Barnsley had found at The Hawthorns just days previously, and the growing tension increased alarmingly when Town’s weak defending at a corner which, regrettably, largely featured the man who had spurned the opportunity to finish off the opposition, threw the visitors a lifeline.

Kachunga’s headed clearance of a poor corner at the near post was weak, but not half as weak as his attempt to close down Brown who skipped past both the Congolese and his name sake in Town’s defence before firing home.

Having to see out a game which had already been won for the final 10 minutes was far from ideal for a side with embedded fragility, and while Barnsley’s threat was somewhat superficial, the tension was palpable and not helped by the game being extended by 6 minutes.

Lead by the excellent Schindler, back to his elegant best, the defence held firm and injury time was actually more comfortable than could be expected; a far from flawless performance had garnered 3 more points and an extension of an unbeaten run which seemed unimaginable only a month ago.

As precarious as the run has been, bar the excellent second half against Hull, the instilling of basic standards which occasionally drop but largely persist have made the team competitive again and provides a solid foundation for a future which looks a little brighter.

The return to form of Schindler and now Hogg, coupled with the defensive discipline immeasurably improved by Simpson’s experience and know how on the right and Brown’s youthful calm and adventure on the left is hugely encouraging.

Despite his part in Barnsley’s potential escape from defeat, both up front and at the back, Kachunga’s support of his full back is currently more important than his lack of pace or threat going forward but you suspect that his presence will be threatened once the Cowleys get around to tackling the continuing balance problem in the middle of the park with neither Bacuna, despite his positive attributes, nor Chalobah convincing.

Nevertheless, and not since Peter Jackson’s great escape season have we seen such a turnaround in fortunes. The next two games present the next level of challenge but a successful negotiation of the past 6 games against weaker opposition provides an excellent platform for continued revival.

Comfortably numb

Town earned a point they barely deserved in a relentlessly dull midweek encounter with fellow strugglers Middlesbrough.

Maintaining an unbeaten run,  now at 5 games but including 3 largely unsatisfying draws against fundamentally mediocre opposition, Town’s supporters are grateful for extremely small mercies and maybe comforted by the sheer normal banality of it all.

For 20 minutes Town tried, unsuccessfully, to take advantage of a nervous looking Boro but alarmingly ran out of steam in a first half of rising drudgery which neither team bothered to enlighten with spontaneity or flair. Before a well executed Diakhaby free kick flew just wide and provided a rare moment of excitement, both sides had headers over the bar with Boro’s being the more dangerous of the two and from which Ayala should really have converted.

Unlike the second half revival at Blackburn, the Terriers managed to perform even more sluggishly in a desperately poor second half as the visitors contrived to miss the two or three decent chances their improvement to slightly above mediocre presented and what should have been an away victory petered out to a numbingly banal scoreless draw.

On a night more noted for Town’s regression to toothless supplication, only the performance of O’Brien provided some light amongst the pervading gloom. Schofield’s clean sheet was also noteworthy but the negatives far outweighed these clutched straws.

Elphick again gave away possession trying to play out from the back and was only saved greater opprobrium by a combination of Schofield and Brown closing down an immensely dangerous situation. His near perfect impression of Mark Hudson’s end of days performances is becoming irritatingly predictable and change can’t be much further away than the January window.

In other news, Hogg continues to berate colleagues for errors in which his own part plays at least 50% of blame. It is an irritating feature of the season so far and rather than displaying the intended look of a will to win, it portrays a senior professional consistently passing the buck.

Some early menacing runs by Diakhaby promised to herald another display of threat and pace but he was effectively subdued early on by a resilient Boro defence whose early displays of nervousness were largely overcome as the realisation dawned that their opposition were barely capable of creating moments of genuine danger.

Given their form, Boro’s support was impressively large but they left the stadium with just as many frustrations as the home support. Their team was the one which looked far more capable of a breakthrough but even when presented with an open goal they were unable to convert. Schofield’s save from a deflection off Hogg was as outstanding as Fletcher’s miss was diabolical.

It was reasonable for the Cowleys to believe that introducing Bacuna to replace the continuing struggles of Chalobah, who simply cannot find the form to display the talent he so obviously possesses, but there was no redemption this time with Boro’s tight control of the game precluding the necessary team cohesion which allows Bacuna to flourish.

The anonymous Grant, starved of anything resembling service, was moved out left to accommodate Campbell when a more obvious substitute was Mounié who may have given Boro’s dominant centre halves a little more to worry about.

However, the slow tempo, lack of inspiration (bar O’Brien’s excellent but fruitless probings) and inability to create threat was so entrenched that affecting change was probably beyond anyone from the bench.

So a deeply unsatisfying evening ended with a point which should be considered a bonus given that Boro’s profligacy cost them a win they largely deserved.

The unbeaten run should be celebrated, of course, given the context of a season and a half of perpetual loss and failure, but – and the Cowleys will know this – it looks fragile and perhaps fortunate. There is undoubtedly a stiffened resolve and enough signs of a brighter future in and amongst but, not unsurprisingly, a long, long way to go to banish demons deeply entrenched.

So, Barnsley next. The sight of 2 home fixtures against fellow strugglers raised expectations against the backdrop of improved results but last night and our Yorkshire neighbours’ performance at the Hawthorns on Tuesday have surely brought us all back to earth.

Fragile momentum maintained

The Cowley brothers will have learned a great deal from an Ewood Park encounter which failed to convince that the neuroses which hang over this squad have been banished by recent good results despite earning a good point against a similarly enigmatic Rovers side.

Cruising for 20 minutes and easily containing hosts who looked toothless and disjointed while unleashing Diakhaby’s pace and trickery on a regular basis, Town carried an air of confidence which felt defining.

A debatable penalty on 11 minutes created by some quick, skilful Diakhaby feet presented the perfect platform to build upon the pre international break form and Grant’s clinical execution gave the visitors a lead which their early dominance deserved.

At this point, Rovers appeared fragile and were unable to muster the passing movements which appeared later in the half and a second goal in the period of dominance would surely have buried them. Promising positions, however, did not translate in to opportunities and disaster was just around the corner.

Not for the first time in his short career with the Terriers, an Elphick error handed the home team an initiative they had rarely looked capable of creating for themselves. Taking the ball from Grabara at a goal kick, the veteran defender completely misread the strength of Rovers’ press and tried a suicidal cross penalty area ball to the distant Schindler which was predictably intercepted and fed to Dack who had the simple task of squaring to Holtby to equalise.

The error was bad enough but, if anything, the response was worse.

Blackburn’s confidence soared, Town dropped further and further back and abandoned all of the things which had given them ascendancy in the first place. 

The home side, visibly invigorated, began to move the ball with purpose and accuracy and with better final balls, should have buried the Terriers in an overwhelmingly dominant 25 minutes when a lot of the old frailties came roaring back like a secondary infection.

Inevitably, Town cracked by failing to deal with a stationary ball on the edge of the box and the talented Dack took full advantage with a beautiful strike in to the bottom corner just after the half hour.

By this point, the visitors’ midfield had ceased functioning. Hogg, as he has done for much of the season, plays as if pining for the more talented colleagues he is used to while Chalobah continues to struggle. Finding a balance in the middle of the park has to be the Cowley brothers’ most pressing priority.

Fortunately, the alarming performance dip, inspired by Elphick, wasn’t fully capitalised upon by Blackburn but as all the old failings flooded back, the delicate psyche of a battered club was exposed.

The second half continued in similar vein. Town looked more resilient – it was difficult for them to look more fragile – but, even so, it was the home side constructing the moves and dictating play. Dack narrowly failed to connect with a wayward Armstrong effort; a third goal at that point would have surely spelled the end.

Perhaps a little belatedly, the struggling Chalobah was replaced by Bacuna who provided an instant injection of forward momentum and had a decent effort just past the post which seemed to stir the visitors.

A further blocked effort was quickly followed by an equaliser. The otherwise poor Kachunga assisted a clumsy looking one two with Bacuna who created crucial space before firing in the leveller.

It was the home side’s turn to deflate following a setback and for 15 minutes, the visitors took control with some bursting runs by O’Brien and Bacuna creating problems for the home defence. Several corners suggested that the Cowleys’ famed set piece innovations were being introduced to the squad even if the execution was poor.

Bacuna had the best chance to heap misery on a home side who were visibly wilting under pressure, but his effort took a deflection over the bar.

Town’s newly found dominance, however, left them open to counter attack and perhaps two cynical and punished fouls by Hogg and Kachunga to prevent danger persuaded the visitors that a point was a good return from a curate’s egg performance.

For their part, Rovers brought on Sam Gallagher for Holtby in a move which rather abandoned their attractive approach play in favour of the aerial route.

Despite enjoying most of the pressure for the last 10 minutes, the ploy played in to Town’s hands as both Schindler and Elphick were more comfortable with the ball in the air and, to their credit, Town dealt with the late assault pretty well.

Town replaced Grant with Frazier Campbell who proceeded to put in a performance reminiscent of Alan Lee; he charged around committing foul after foul despite an early booking and dangerously skirted the margins of the referee’s patience.

Campbell’s uncharacteristically rage fuelled cameo was almost over shadowed by the surprise appearance of Hadergjonaj who replaced the faded Diakhaby. 

The Kosovan, who is surely on his way in the January window, managed to avoid putting in a single tackle and in one bizarre sequence was fooled by the same dummy three times and taken out of the play. It was like watching Charlie Brown refusing to believe that Lucy would snatch away the football before he kicked it, for the umpteenth time in a row.

While the home side finished the stronger, Town’s failure to turn their 15 minutes of second half dominance in to a win made this somewhat inevitable.

Both sides demonstrated why they are destined for mid table; periods of decent play replaced by anxiety and deflation with dashes of resilience thrown in should elevate both above danger but there was nothing to suggest either can catapult in to any sort of contention.

The Cowleys still have a lot of work to do, as they readily acknowledge, not least on the players’ mentality and finding answers to the midfield’s propensity for dysfunction but momentum was maintained, just.

No codding this time

1,393 days since the last win on a Saturday with a traditional kick off time, and just 4 days after a first win in over 20 months (statistics are not a feature of these reports and may need fact checking), a performance of discipline, identifiable strategy and, ultimately, emancipated flair gave Town a thoroughly deserved 3 points and the bruised and battered support some genuine hope.

The improvements under the Cowley brothers have been evident, if unsurprisingly imperfect, reflecting their philosophy of tackling problems individually and steadily building towards a preferred style. The difficulties they faced inheriting a deeply flawed and damaged squad were entrenched and labyrinthine; a veritable mockery of the concept of football being a simple game.

Months of demoralising defeats plunged players in to collective and individual crises of confidence and the club in to seemingly irreversible decline, and for the inchoate reign of this management team to have already transformed fortunes is quite remarkable.

An ugly win in a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke was just perfect for these two. If the performance didn’t thrill, the cliche most emphatically did.

It is no coincidence that the full back positions have held the key to an upturn in fortunes. Simpson brings a seasoned pro’s nous to the right side in place of Flo’s chaotic mixture of inappropriate positioning, weak tackling and ineffective attacking while Brown’s youthful athleticism is far better suited to the left than a central defender being shoe horned in the position on the strength of his obvious footballing talent.

No longer distracted by the fallibilities either side of them, Schindler and Elphick can now concentrate on their traditional duties and begin to look like the partnership they can be.

One goal conceded in 3 games, and that one a goalkeeping howler which had nothing to do with the defenders, provides a base for the rest of the team and in the second half of a game against a competent if not particularly convincing Hull City, the confidence emanating from solidity at the back seemed to finally inspire the team as an attacking force.

Town’s midfield remains imperfect (and, presumably, the next focus for improvement) with a rotating cast of characters, but the effervescent O’Brien is now being trusted for a full 90 minutes and will surely be the fulcrum around whom the engine room will be constructed. Finding the right balance remains unresolved, but a stronger back 4 requires less protection while playing higher will release the potential of front players whose instincts have been blunted for far too long.

The victory was built on a solid, rather unspectacular first half where Hull’s threat down the flanks was largely, if not totally, subdued. Those full back positions again.

In a half of few chances, the better ones fell to the visitors and just before half time, Grabara foiled Eaves with a good save at his near post as the big Tiger was found with a decent lobbed pass to unleash a fierce volley at the young Pole.

Grabara was called upon for more routine saves a couple of times and saw a well struck free kick fly just over the bar but, overall, Town were defensively solid and only lost their way a little in the aftermath of a head injury to Schindler which left the German groggy for a while.

At the other end, Town’s slick passing freed Grant for an effort from outside the box which took a deflection causing slight discomfort for Long who, nevertheless, made a routine save to concede a corner.

An intelligent ball inside by Simpson to O’Brien when a pass down the line seemed more obvious, allowed the flame haired midfielder the opportunity to advance in to space and feed a marauding Brown on the left but the youngster’s effort was straight at the keeper. 

Mildly entertaining to the break, neither side had done enough to warrant a lead, but for the hosts, mere competence has been a standard seemingly out of reach for months on end and with the buds of renaissance beginning to sprout over the past week, a base had been established.

The second half was following a similar pattern of deadlock. The visitors started better and had two early shots blocked during a rare period of dominance, but the home team responded well and gradually imposed themselves.

The turning point was the introduction of Bacuna for the hard working if unprogressive Hogg. Within a minute, the frustratingly talented but inconsistent Dutch youngster created the first goal by attempting a one two with Grant which resulted in Town’s leading scorer miscontrolling but then turning the looped up touch in to an excellent strike on the turn which beat Long comprehensively. It was an instinctive finish which seemed to release all of the tension on and off the pitch.

5 minutes later, Bacuna added to his excellent midweek goal at Stoke by sweeping home a cross from Diakhaby who had also had a hand in the first goal. The raw, unfairly maligned Frenchman picked out his team mate with the same precision he had displayed on Tuesday night and the combination effectively put paid to any ambitions of recovery by the East coast outfit.

Bacuna was not done yet and he threaded an excellent ball through to man of the match O’Brien who found Kachunga at the far post to force home the third. Whatever one thinks of Kachunga’s value to the side or his performances, he rarely lacks effort and his emotional reaction to the goal betrayed his sense of responsibility for a quite awful miss at Stoke. It was very touching.

At the death, Brown made a block on the talented Bowen when he looked like ruining Town’s clean sheet. It was an example of the enormous strides the brothers have made in restoring spirit amongst the squad and just as telling as the 3 excellent goals converted.

For the final 20 minutes, Town looked a top half team and the escape from the bottom 3 in time for a potentially transformative international break which the Cowleys can use to impart more improvement should have a huge psychological boost.

While only a fool would describe any Championship game as anything other than a difficult challenge, the post break fixtures present good opportunities against fellow strugglers which could provide a momentum not seen since Wagner’s days.

Reconnecting to a support which has never deserted an imploding club has been a stated objective of the new men and, yesterday, they made huge strides towards achieving it as smiles returned to faces.

Happy international break everybody.

Our sweetest songs are those of saddest thought

As far as it is sensible to try to deconstruct a chant sung by supporters and ascribe deeper meaning to a small reworking of Paul Heaton’s easy on the ear tune, Luton Town away became an anthem with levels of sub conscious and conscious meaning from which the marketing department of Huddersfield Town should have stayed well away.

It is important to emphasise that it was never a disparagement of the Hatters. Their club’s name, first and foremost, easily scanned. They are, like us, unglamorous to the point of parody and have taken relatable, and actually more serious, journeys from pride to desolation; in the Championship it is difficult to find a more suitable contrast to Old Trafford, the Emirates or Anfield (which also scans). 

The point of the song was self deprecation, self awareness and a wry acceptance of a fate expected since the play off promotion and known by the time it emerged.

It was also increasingly sung with bitterness. Not at the inevitable demotion from a league which found us irritating after the condescension had subsided, but the utter failure to transition back to the Championship despite the considerable financial advantages the club now has over their rivals, which should have provided a prudent platform to compete.

1 win in 2019, 4 wins in 57 games and a refusal to win a traditional Saturday game for over 500 days are statistics to boil the piss of the most easy to please of supporters. The patience shown has been extraordinary; the adoption of a fatalistic chant about the prospect of a visit to Kenilworth Road iterated their continued support and acceptance of difficult circumstances but contained a subliminal message that the direction of travel needed to be addressed.

Perhaps inevitably, the long anticipated match ended in yet another defeat and it is now clear that the warning succinctly expressed has not been heeded. Acceptable and necessary prudence looks far closer to parsimony, the transfer of power from Dean Hoyle to Phil Hodgkinson looks contrived and potentially dubious (a much more convincing explanation is imperative) and no one seems capable of reversing a catastrophic decline reminiscent of the 1970s implosion.

On the pitch, the performance was fairly typical of the past 20 months. Unconvincing, lacking resilience and purpose, and ultimately weak. It wasn’t disastrously bad – as ever, we get little periods of play which show promise, but even a referee influenced defeat is still another L to add to the chain.

A forgettable first half was littered with errors, largely free of invention and determinedly mundane. A good run by Diakhaby, who should surely be given time to develop as he shows tantalising glimpses of quality, which ended with Grant poking the ball just wide under pressure was the rare exception to a final third ineptitude which has plagued the club now for as far back as you care to remember. Diakhaby also produced another run which narrowly evaded Campbell who was making his debut as Hudson reverted to two up front though to little effect.

Van La Parra, bizarrely transferred to Red Star Belgrade DURING the game, was a constant thorn in the side of Town’s attacking intent; everything he did either slowed down play, stopped attacks as he was dispossessed cutting inside (which was telegraphed every time) or ended with misplaced attempted passes going dead. His signature lack of heed to overlapping left backs was on full display. Thanks for the memories, Rajiv.

At the back, and from the off, Town seemed intent on inviting the easiest press Luton will come across in a lifetime. Trouble was never far away from some absurdly casual attempts to portray competence and confidence with Hogg’s miscontrol of a simple pass the most egregious and potentially costly; fortunately Grabara, no innocent in the shambles, wasn’t called upon to save.

When common sense finally dawned, Grabara’s kicking was generally straight down the middle and on to the welcoming heads of Luton’s imposing centre halves, who were excellent throughout.

Luton played with markedly more cohesion and unity than the visitors but were nearly as lacking in the final third and rarely troubled Grabara, while Town’s other chance was a rushed header back to his keeper by a Luton defender which needed to be turned away for a corner. Grabara did make one sharp save from Collins, the best effort of the half by either side.

The Terriers began the second half with a little more vigour and found themselves one up within minutes with a goal born more of poor execution than sizzling play. 

A typically lacklustre free kick was headed out to Hogg who found Van La Parra out wide. The Dutchman’s last meaningful contribution to Huddersfield Town was to deliver a cross behind the forwards which Grant somehow managed to get an ankle too which deflected over to Diakhaby who played a one two with Schindler and fired the ball across for Grant to connect via a defender for the lead.

For a time, it looked like a turning point as Town applied pressure to try to get a second and hopes, oh! cursed hope, rose in an away end still willing to back a team which rarely fails to dash them.
Unfortunately, a referee who had barely been noticed in the first half, which is a compliment, strode purposefully to centre stage.

Luton had regained their composure in response to the opener and began to increase pressure on the visitors and were having some joy down their left. A ball was played in rather innocuously towards Schindler. As the captain shaped to clear, Collins nipped in front of his half cocked leg and was knocked over. The collision was entirely accidental but deemed a penalty which was expertly converted by Collins himself.

Less than ten minutes later, Luton took the lead while playing on, as was their absolute right, with Hogg down in the middle having taken an arm or an elbow to the face. Having stopped play earlier in the game for a similar circumstance, the referee neither gave an obvious free kick nor halted proceedings.

Two pretty terrible pieces of refereeing had undone Town who, true to form, were not going to come back from going behind despite some frantic attempts which never culminated in Sluga having to make a save other than thwarting substitute Mounié in a one on one. That chance came as a result of the referee appearing to waive play on after fellow substitute Kachunga was dragged back in the area.

Grant headed a reasonable chance over the bar and Town dominated the latter stages in a performance which, overall, wasn’t too bad in the second half but this is to damn with faint praise.

Another defeat simply piles on the pressure to a new hierarchy already under deep, possibly unfounded, suspicion.

The transfer of power at the end of last season was opaque, puzzling and inadequately explained. The exodus of players, ranging from the unwisely outspoken Billing to the hugely respected Löwe and Smith, was only partially explicable while the recruitment was baffling.

In the next two weeks, Phil Hodgkinson, somehow, has to make an appointment which will restore some faith, answer questions which he has largely created himself by seemingly not following up his Summer statements with action and transform a deeply troubled club with visible and convincing leadership.

Let us never sing Luton Town away ever again.

Reading the runes

Atmosphere pricked.

A third defeat in 8 days, two of them under his now almost certainly temporary tenure as manager, was a little harsh on Mark Hudson who has, at least, instigated some structural changes in a deeply flawed squad which has encouraged better performance for a little longer in games than his unlamented predecessor.

He has not, however, and thus far, been able to banish a losing mentality so entrenched that it is almost impossible to envisage from where salvation will emerge. Mentally and physically frail, with the former being perhaps understandable but the latter unforgivable, the players produced the best 30 minutes of the season from the kick off yet were unable to muster a shot on target and belief began to ebb as the flow was exhausted.

A game which must have been targeted as the one to turn around horrible early season form rather ignored Reading’s solid start to the season, though the Royals looked deceptively limited as the home side ratcheted up considerable pressure under a wilting August sun.

The visitors barely crossed the halfway line in the first 15 minutes and offered little but resilience in a one sided first half. They did, however, muster the only realistic attempt on the frame of the goal which Grabara saved well. The keeper, a positive bright spot amidst the gloom of our relegation hangover had earlier played the team in to trouble with a poor ball out and paid for it with a collision with Kongolo to prevent a disastrous concession in Reading’s first foray in to the final third after 15 minutes.

At the other end, Van La Parra’s trickery caused Reading concern on several occasions which quickly dissipated as the winger’s decision making was invariably poor.

His counterpart Diakhaby showed tantalising glimpses of whatever talent resides within the leggy French kid though rawness too often foils his intentions. 

Another youngster, however, lit up the game in the first half with a powerful performance which provides a glimmer of hope. Trevoh Chalobah couldn’t add to his midweek goal at Cardiff which should have earned an unlikely and undeserved point, but he possesses the power and intensity so absent from Huddersfield Town displays for the past 18 months.

Like the rest, he faded as the crushing despair weighed down in a desperate second half but he may be an asset a new manager can build upon amongst the general wreckage.

Jaden Brown at left back also produced an encouraging performance which was full of calm decision making as he replaced Kongolo who, too belatedly, was drafted in to a central defence finally relieved of Elphick.

Things may have been different had Pritchard made more of a good through ball by Grant but instead of taking on a shot, the diminutive and too often disappointing play maker allowed the ball to bounce up and the opportunity was gone; extinguished by hesitancy.

A Schindler header from a corner went narrowly wide and Chalobah saw a good effort have an identical result but the optimism generated by a much improved showing was severely tempered by the near immutable law that if you don’t convert dominance in to goals you will be bitten, hard, on the arse.

The second half saw a perceptible shift from the beginning with Reading finally showing intent further up the pitch, perhaps sensing the home side’s almost permanent mental fragility.

The first chance, however, fell to the Terriers as Grant latched on to a Reading error. Sprinting forward, the leading goal scorer had Diakhaby free to his right but decided to shoot and bring a good, but not particularly difficult, save from Cabral. It may have been a better decision to release his colleague but had that not worked, a strong possibility, he would have been criticised for not taking the shot (our first on target); damned if you do…..

Up the other end, and almost immediately after Grant’s effort, Reading were nearly rewarded for their more adventurous approach when Grabara had to keep out a rasping effort by Boye after Yiadom had crashed the ball against the bar.

A decent Pritchard effort was tipped over the bar, again routinely, before Diakhaby was found by Grant alone in the area but he couldn’t bring the ball under control quickly enough and his effort was deflected wide by a recovering defender.

By this point, the hosts were wilting and the visitors began to capitalise. Encouraged, Reading manager Jose Gomes brought on the ominously monikered Puscas (joining Pele who was already on) and within minutes, the Royals took the lead.

A simple one two in the middle of the park set Ejaria free and he waltzed through Town’s tiring rearguard and struck an excellent shot past Grabara.

The atmosphere, which had been remarkably buoyant in support of a team which so rarely delivers, subsided immediately; raw belief hasn’t materially impacted results for such a long time and it wasn’t going to change now.

Deflated, unquestionably defeated and staring at yet another failure, Town couldn’t and didn’t recover. Belief, as in all walks of life, simply isn’t enough and the players had nothing left with which to respond.

With 7 minutes left, a corner to Reading was converted rather too easily by Morrison. This was the cue for a mass exodus as supporters left to enjoy the rest of the day’s sunshine and, apparently, little of note occurred in the remainder of the game.

Hudson deserves some sympathy. He made the right changes for his second game in charge, had clearly motivated and organised the team to produce an encouraging, if flawed, first half performance and can hardly be blamed for the lack of confidence which envelops at least half of the team no matter how hard they try to put it right.

Basic fitness levels appear deficient to say the least, exacerbated by the burden of persistent individual and collective failure weighing down on shoulders.

Sacking Siewert was necessary but was never going to solve the deep, systemic problems plaguing a club in steep, possibly irreversible, decline. Hodgkinson now has to make a difficult choice of new manager; the values which brought success to the club have all but crumbled over two disastrous transfer windows and the new direction and shake up which should have happened in January but didn’t, leaves him in a classic zugzwang.

Disciplinarian or innovator? Experienced or hungry? English or foreign? Whomever gets the job deserves our sympathy and patience, but the latter is in very short supply.

It always seemed a little odd just how sanguine Reading fans were after the play off defeat. A little more understandable now, perhaps, but is there any excuse for a club not to capitalise on the huge injection of revenues two seasons in the top league has brung?

The ironic chant about going to Luton is not so funny now, is it?

1973 and all that

Glum faces all round

Jan Siewert’s painfully inept, if somewhat unfortunate, tenure as manager of Huddersfield Town came to a predictable end with a defeat against a Fulham side who finally woke from a first half torpor to dominate a horrible second half for the team and their walking the plank boss.

With the club suffering from seemingly intractable problems which had built inexorably since around January 2018 under Wagner who, despite the miracle of survival which had largely been secured in the first 3 months of the season, was unable to replicate his remarkable achievements in the rarefied air of the Premier League, Jan’s job was as unenviable a task as the trials of Hercules.

Unfortunately, and from his first days to his last, he was unable to move the dial and rarely looked capable of doing so. 

The automatic goodwill and sympathy afforded to a coach taking over control of a vessel battered by the storms of debilitating stretches of defeat, the loss of leadership caused by Dean Hoyle’s traumatic illness and the sheer impossibility of a league where weakness is ruthlessly and incessantly punished was rather wasted by attacking his vulnerable players after defeats and never really connecting with a support which had demonstrated endless patience.

With no bounce, not even of the dead cat variety, there was little for supporters to become excited about. Perhaps unfairly, Siewert’s personality contrasted rather poorly with the man he replaced; when compared with many of his predecessors this would not have been an issue but Wagner, for all his failings towards the end, will cast a long shadow. He needed a signature victory but the only one he got was a fairly streaky three points against an opponent seemingly mesmerised by the words Huddersfield and Town.

Having accepted that there was little the man could do with a team largely incapable of competing in the top league, most were able to muster patience largely based on the belief that the step down would be an opportunity for him to shape his squad, get rid of the alleged bad apples and impose his own style for a difficult but more egalitarian league. 

That patience, however, was not underpinned with a great deal of belief as Siewert hadn’t demonstrated much in the way of innovation and even a successful, if relatively soft, pre season only served to slightly increase expectation that the team could quickly find their feet; not necessarily with a barnstorming march to the top of the early table but with a clear style and decent performances. Neither happened. Glimpses of decent play in isolated spells in the first two league games simply didn’t convince.

A relatively difficult start didn’t help him, but it was his job to overcome the challenges in front of him and he has pretty consistently failed to rise to them. There were some moments of ill fortune, but even a peremptory examination of them reveals individual failings; Elphick’s horrible debut including a ludicrous error, Kachunga’s blazing of an equaliser opportunity over the bar, Quaner ducking under across at QPR. The latter, however, was not just the error of the player – he shouldn’t have been on the pitch and epitomised Jan’s persistently bad substitution decisions.

The circumstances surrounding the home defeat by League 1 Lincoln were also ill starred but in a tough world, they were of the type you have to overcome. He didn’t. Again.

Overall, Siewert had little good fortune throughout his occupancy of the hot seat but neither did he ever give the impression he would create strategies to overcome them. It wasn’t just bad luck and circumstances which caused his downfall, it was his lack of discernible reaction to them.

In his final game, Siewert faced one of the favourites for promotion (serendipity seems to entirely evade the German) and chose a team which entirely ignored Van La Parra’s angry, message sending, cameo against Lincoln and Bacuna’s poor performance in the same game.

Predictable, lacking innovation or bravery even when you know the sack is just 90 minutes away is either remarkable chutzpah or unwisely and doggedly clinging to failed beliefs to the very end.
It didn’t turn out well and an uneventful, dull first half with neither side convincing or forcing either keeper in to meaningful action, though Grabara was the busier of the two, failed to offer much solace. A decent first 15 minutes for the home side faded away and were never to return and created little of note in any case.

Despite what looks like a very strong Championship squad, including the little nark, Arter, Fulham had a first half to forget and both sides produced distinctly average displays, littered with errors. For Town, Bacuna’s woeful start to the season persisted and was about to get immeasurably worse.

There was a significant case to be made for Siewert to replace the Dutch youngster at half time but, indecisively and predictably, he didn’t; a decision he would rue just 5 minutes in to a second half which had already seen Fulham improve considerably with purposeful possession.

A fairly benign attack down the right was transformed in to a dangerous one as Bacuna’s attempted clearance sliced high in to his own penalty area and perfectly placed for Mitrović to head home from close range. Elphick could possibly have done better too but the situation was completely unpredictable and a gift for the Fulham centre forward.

To their credit, and to the general surprise of a home crowd now fully expecting defeat, Town equalised when Hadgerjonaj finally delivered a decent cross which found Grant unmarked. Town’s single bright spot and cause for hope headed powerfully to the keeper’s left whose attempt to claw the ball out was marginally too late and goal line technology showed it crossed the line for Grant’s third goal in 3 games.

This should have signalled an assault on the visitors and the introduction of an attacking alternative to pile on the pressure. It didn’t, of course, and Fulham shrugged off the disappointment and simply picked up where they left off, dominating possession, moving easily and looking very comfortable.

Grabara, who had made several good stops before the equaliser became increasingly busy as Fulham resumed their superiority but had no chance whatsoever when Cavaleiro curled an excellent winner past the Pole after creating space in the area with the help of a dummy run to his left by Bryan.

With that, the final nail for the manager had been driven home and Town never looked like recovering. Van La Parra appeared with 5 minutes to go as Siewert’s Achilles heel was demonstrated for the final time and boos cascaded down the stands at yet another defeat.

Hudson, who, along with Whitehead, should have been given the job to guide Town out of the Premier League, will take charge at Cardiff and maybe until the international break if the club are wise and consider the options very carefully.

Whoever takes over will have the very difficult job of ensuring the great drop of the 1970s is avoided. There is organisable talent in this squad, but the relentless defeats have left an atrophied club spiralling in a descent reminiscent of those exceptionally dark days.

Good luck in the future, Jan, it just wasn’t to be.