Swamped and humiliated

It would be remiss to excoriate a Huddersfield Town team which capitulated so thoroughly in a first half when all the issues which have infested the club since the summer of 2018 came back with a vengeance, without first acknowledging the excellent performance of Bristol City who comprehensively dismantled an admittedly supine opposition.

Attacking with verve, aggression and precision it was only a question of how many they would rack up against feeble resistance who abandoned the midfield battle, left huge spaces for the Robins to ruthlessly exploit and singularly failed to adhere to any semblance of discipline or unity.

On home soil, the mounting problems of injury to three quarters of the defence can be papered over to an extent as away teams are less inclined to exploit obvious weaknesses. The worry was always the impact on the road and the answer was almost immediately provided.

Starting with Hadergjonaj and releasing Bacuna in to the middle to replace the unfit Pritchard, pairing Kongolo with Schindler so that Stankovic provided the defensive cover vacated by the suspended Chalobah seemed rational in the circumstances but the plan was immediately upended when Campbell was injured fouling a Bristol defender in the first minute. 

This brought Diakhaby on to the pitch and the whole left flank was horribly exposed to Bristol raiding. Danny Cowley’s barely contained post match anger was entirely justified but that exposure was not difficult to predict; Diakhaby cannot provide defensive cover and the problem is compounded a few times over when the full back exposed is desperately inexperienced or, in the case of Kongolo, unsuited.

Reshaping an already depleted, unbalanced team after one minute was bound to be a prelude for difficulties, and they came thick and fast in an opening half which saw 5 goals and chances for more.
Despite the disasters unfolding, and this was true of the whole game after the first quarter, Town were actually reasonably good when they had the ball but largely inept without it.

However, Bacuna and Hogg lost possession and position at least five times in a torrid opening twenty minutes, our old friend Jack Hunt was rampaging down the right and exposing O’Brien and the central defensive partnership of Kongolo and Schindler (who had a very poor afternoon) looked hopelessly vulnerable.

There was an element of good fortune about some of the Bristol goals – a wicked deflection off Brownhill for the first, for example – but when you force the pace as impressively and consistently as the home side did, the breaks are going to go your way.

Orchestrated by the excellent Massengo, City were irresistible going forward and had a second ruled out for offside, for which Grabara should be extremely grateful, though he did make a very good save later in the half as a cricket score threatened.

The inevitable doubling of the lead arrived when Eliasson received the ball from a corner on the edge of the area, skipped round Grant and floated a cross to the far post which Kongolo bundled in to his own net under pressure.

Such was Bristol’s potency, the only surprise was that they had taken so long to punish the bedraggled visitors and their failure to do so could have been costly. Grant missed a very presentable headed chance provided by Hadergjonaj and had an excellent effort on the turn from distance very well saved and despite the omnishambles at the back, there was some flickering hope at times.

That hope burned a little more brightly when an excellent Bacuna through ball found Grant in the area. The leading scorer turned Ashley Williams with some ease before finding the far corner with a slightly deflected shot.

With just ten minutes to go before half time, this was the visitors’ chance to consolidate, apply some pressure on a clearly superior home side disappointed not to be out of sight already and hope for a turn around in the second half.

One minute later, Brownhill and Hunt eased their way past a combination of Diakhaby and Kongolo (O’Brien having been relieved of left back duties after the second goal), Hogg was beaten ridiculously easily as he tried to cover and a deep cross was headed in by Eliasson. Revival over before it started.

4 minutes later, the scorer turned provider with a cross which found an unmarked Williams who headed powerfully past Grabara. Naturally, the goal originated down our left; Hunt and Brownhill combined to embarrass Kongolo and Diakhaby, the latter fouled Hunt, a free kick was cleared for a corner and that lead to the cross which hammered in the final nail of a first half of epic incompetence.

Diakhaby had the well deserved ignominy of becoming a substitute substituted, though saved from being replaced as the game was in progress. His replacement, Koroma, proved significantly more effective though Cowley could possibly have picked someone from the travelling support and achieved the same result.

It wasn’t long, however, before the home side went nap. An attempted through ball deflected off Schindler, who had partially caused the problem in the first place with a poor clearing header and was aided and abetted by a weak challenge by Bacuna in the middle, allowing Weimann to round Grabara and slot home from a quite difficult angle.

To their credit, Town didn’t capitulate further, and added a decent Bacuna goal to slightly assuage their embarrassment but City rarely had to get out of second or third gear for their guaranteed three points.

Drawing the second half cannot be used as a positive, though they continued to be reasonably good in possession and Koroma added some energy down the left totally absent in the first half.

The circumstances surrounding this heavy, potentially debilitating defeat perhaps lessen the worry for the future a little and it should be one which focuses the Cowleys’ minds if they weren’t already made up. Bar Grant, who will surely be the subject of intense scrutiny once the transfer window opens, none of the players can absolve themselves of blame for such an abject defeat; this includes Hogg and Schindler, senior players who contributed to the first half disaster as well as those clearly wanting to leave.

Cowley’s decisions on formation and personnel where obviously profoundly influenced by events both recent and historic but he may reflect that he also got things wrong, particularly the introduction of Diakhaby, though Campbell’s early departure proved to be far too damaging to the shape of the team and whatever game plan was to be implemented. 

After the very real and encouraging progress of the past couple of months, a painful setback isn’t a harbinger of future despair but the potential solutions don’t look particularly numerous as we await a hopefully extensive shake up of the squad in January. 
However, the characters of the new men in the dug out will surely relish the challenge of a local derby against an ascendant Leeds United; hopefully, the players chosen will understand what it means.

Cowley formula seeping in

Progress continues under the Cowleys despite a further 2 points being dropped against a peculiar Swansea side whose individual talents were apparent in possession but who seemed rather easily subdued by an aggressive approach which trod a somewhat fine line at times.

Town were helped by a paucity of ambition by their Welsh visitors who, while clearly adept at picking up away points – they remain unbeaten on the road as December approaches – defended as deeply as a relegation threatened side might, particularly in the second half, against opponents with glaringly obvious frailties at full back on both flanks. 

O’Brien and Bacuna coped admirably in their adopted roles, but apart from a worrying opening few minutes down Swansea’s left and occasional glimpses of Ayew’s ability on the right, the visitors barely exploited Town’s injury woes.

Perhaps taking an early lead, in fortuitous circumstances, influenced their mindset. 

An aggressive opening by the Terriers was a little lacking in discipline and the Swans were able to enjoy far too much space and freedom to play at times and their crisp passing and movement seemed ominous with the home side looking a little vulnerable.

However, it was against the run of play when the visitors took the lead.

Peterson, Swansea’s left winger, tormented Bacuna early on and a long night appeared in store for the stand in, but the inexperienced full back could not be blamed for both the linesman and referee ignoring pleas for a dead ball which was obvious from wherever you were in the stadium. 

Instead, a corner was conceded moments later which was defended but at the expense of another. A good delivery was won in the air before a Swansea foot touched the ball on ahead of Chalobah’s attempt to clear, leaving Fulton unmarked to convert from a difficult angle.

While Town should have dealt with both corners better than they did, the whole phase of play was predicated on officials missing the ball going out of play. Their performance did not improve from this point.

Rather than press home their advantage, Swansea became too passive, while Town stepped up their pressing to instil some doubt in to the Welshmen and curb their ability to play out from the back.

On the rare occasions that the press was beaten, Town continued to look a little vulnerable but the Swans were unable to muster a further effort on target.

Despite patient and accurate build up play, Town seemed incapable of creating chances of their own with just one cross early on by Bacuna causing the visitors any real discomfort; Grant was agonisingly close to connecting.

Poorly delivered corners came and went, a strong and fair challenge on the Swans’ keeper by Campbell following a slightly under hit back pass increased the temperature of the game and the striker’s next challenge provided further ignition as he clattered in to Van der Hoorn for a booking which perhaps warranted harsher sanction.

The bizarre sight of the linesman from the other side of the pitch running over to inject his own wisdom on events may have cooled any austere thoughts from the mind of the referee (who, like the rest of the stadium, must have wondered why the hell he had waddled over).

Unlike quite a few of his comrades, whose falls, leg clutching and moaning peppered and interrupted the game, Campbell’s victim was genuinely injured by the tackle – he didn’t appear for the second half – and for all the righteous anger towards a poor referee, the leniency shown to Campbell was generous.

If Swansea’s opener was predicated on poor officiating, Town’s leveller had more than an element of good fortune. However, the goal was the culmination of quite intensive pressure and the result of someone, in this case Pritchard, shooting from outside the area.

The diminutive play maker’s rather unconvincing effort took a deflection off Schindler in to the path of Grant who finished with his customary panache.

Pritchard, who seems to be dividing opinion upon his return to the side, had two other efforts on target from range, was involved in most of Town’s good work going forward and has the ability to create uncertainty in defenders and space for others. While not a perfect performance by any means, and he really needs to add goals in to the mix, there are enough signs that the talent shown in this division previously is finally appearing for his current employers.

The equaliser was timely and proved to be the foundation of possibly the best 40 minutes of the season in the second half with Town not only dominating proceedings but on the rare occasion their grip loosened they regained shape very quickly to deny the visitors the opportunity to counter.

Excellent combinations down both flanks kept the Swans pinned in to their own half, but the impressive approach play simply wasn’t matched once the ball arrived at the sharp end. Even Grant, an exquisite and natural finisher, felt the necessity of an additional touch.

The instinctive passing and movement was very encouraging, however.

Creating space against a side employing a defensive block to the extent that it pushed a highly competent opponent back on their heels is no mean feat; it was just a shame that hesitancy in front of goal and a pair of excellent opposing centre halves thwarted the pursuit of 3 points.

Mounié’s appearance from the bench didn’t particularly move the dial and his lack of pace rather detracted from Town’s energy when compared to Campbell’s work rate. He cannot complain about a lack of service; he dithered when presented with a shooting opportunity in full sight of goal and connected badly to a cross which created a difficult chance. Heading hopelessly wide rather summed up his contribution.

With 5 minutes to go, and Town still pressing hard for a winner their performance deserved, Chalobah’s youthful naïveté burst in to the open. 

Despite one or two blips, including an errant cross field ball which nearly set Swansea free from the pressure built against them, this was comfortably his best performance of the season, linking well with others, putting in some good challenges and even having a shot from outside the area which was tipped, possibly unnecessarily, over the bar.

Town were still threatening the visitors’ stolid back four, had largely subdued any threat from them and, while time wasn’t on their side, looked the only possible winners. At this point, Swansea’s Byers made a late challenge on Chalobah which provoked the young man’s ire. Moving towards his opponent, his head jerked forward collapsing Byers to the ground. A red was the only possible outcome even if subsequent replays uncovered a complete over reaction by the (dying) Swan.

With ten minutes remaining, including the copious amount of time added on for the serious injury to Byers’ fringe, it should have been expected that the air would be sucked out of Town’s pursuit of a winner. But it wasn’t.

Coping with relative ease, Town’s depleted contingent continued to take the game to the visitors, though Swansea came closest to a winner with a back post header over which the vast majority of the crowd held their collective breath.

To only get one point for the second half dominance of a strong, confident opponent was disappointing but the positives shone through the late November gloom.

Alongside Schindler, Stankovic was excellent and his performance was not marred by the errors which accompanied his game against Birmingham. Commanding in the air, comfortable receiving and distributing the ball and rapidly forming a good relationship with his captain, the Slovenian has alleviated the worry of the central defensive disruption following Elphick’s sad absence.

In addition to getting to know each other, the central defenders have the extra responsibility of looking out for the juvenile full backs either side of them. So far, in 2 games, they have allowed three attempts on target. Sadly, two of those were goals, but the sheer mathematical probabilities will eventually work in your favour if that standard can be maintained.

Hogg’s early season travails are over. Despite yet another booking, a senseless foul on the halfway line, his energy, positioning and drive was key to a team display which augurs well. A raking, perfectly executed pass in to the path of a marauding O’Brien in the second half was a highlight; particularly as he is not supposed to be able to move the ball beyond 5 yards.

Perhaps the biggest positives as a team were the noticeably high levels of fitness of most of the side which allowed them to regain shape very quickly if possession was lost. This was more the case in the second half than the first but evidence of the real impact made by the Cowleys.

It was unfortunate that some of the intricate passing movements and genuine quality in the second half did not translate in to goals, but it did demonstrate much higher confidence levels both individually and as a team. Hopefully, the reappearance of genuine entertainment and enterprise indicates a much tighter squad with growing faith in each other. Hogg rarely has to shout at anyone these days.

Though spoiled by a routinely incompetent referee, who was no friend to either side, the stadium witnessed another entertaining game along with some genuinely encouraging performances by individuals working within a discernible team structure.

3 difficult tests now follow and there could well be setbacks, but supporters can have faith that the trajectory is upward even if it will still pan out over months, not weeks.

And, of course, we would have lost that one under……

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.