Good Hogg Almighty

Town took a huge stride towards safety by finally winning away from home for the first time since October, with a solid, though not flawless, performance against a QPR side who were uncannily reminiscent of their opponents for much of the proceedings.

With Hogg back in the side protecting the back 3, largely negating the threat of Rangers’ creative midfield and setting the tempo of Town’s game, the Terriers’ chances of victory, or at least the avoidance of defeat, were raised.

Other than one moment in the first half when he was caught too far forward and bypassed, it was a perfect day for the captain whose leadership is always sorely missed.

Following a familiar pattern, Town started brightly and threatened in the early stages. An O’Brien burst ended in a decent effort, though Dieng in the Rangers’ goal made a meal of a straightforward save, and Mbenza shot wide from distance. Naby Sarr could also have done better with an excellent Mbenza cross as the visitors dominated.

The contest evened up after 10 minutes as both sides strived to exert authority with little success. Town had a further opportunity near the half hour when an unmarked Keogh headed just wide from a corner, only for the miss to serve as a prelude for the hosts’ best spell, which should have seen them take the lead.

Seizing control of possession, with Rangers capitalising on an error in midfield by Rowe and opening up Town’s left side, the sporadically dangerous Chair played in Kane for a chance he should have buried. Instead, Schofield was able to make a decent if straightforward save and, crucially, clear the ball with his foot before Kane could atone for his weak effort.

The miss was pivotal. QPR continued to dominate but with muted threat while Town, even during their least comfortable spell, created a decent chance when Keogh, who was excellent throughout, surged from the halfway line to just outside the area and fed Bacuna to his left. The mercurial midfielder didn’t quite control his shot after a good first touch and fired over.

The visitors, however, were the more relieved for the half time whistle.

An entirely deserved victory was secured in a second half which was almost entirely in their control. Despite the hosts having the lion’s share of possession, Town’s defensive discipline, from front to back, rarely wavered, and when they had the ball, their threat was more potent.

The early introduction of Holmes and Duhaney, for Mbenza and Rowe, changed the dynamic and stiffened the team’s defensive resilience and, in the case of Holmes, added a little unpredictability in attack.

Neither were involved in the winning goal, which came shortly after their introduction, however. 

The excellent Naby Sarr pushed a lovely pass in to space for O’Brien who drew players towards him before laying the ball out to Pipa, raiding down the left. The Spaniard teased the opponents in front of him before laying a great ball with the outside of his foot in to the path of Bacuna who smashed the ball past a stationary Dieng.

With the lead, Town took control of the game and could have won more comfortably. Ceding possession intelligently, they allowed QPR to paint pretty pictures in the middle third and smothered the rare occasions they threatened to threaten.

Other than a miscalculation by Sarr of a hasty clearance by the hosts as a Town attack broke down – the odious Charlie Austin shanked an attempted cross with the recovering Sarr in pursuit – and a comedy moment when Duhaney managed to concede a corner by firing an attempted clearance on to himself, Town controlled the contest after the goal.

It is worth mentioning that Austin was ineffective throughout, until subbed, but again managed to kick out at a prone Huddersfield Town player (Bacuna), using the cover of the ball being stuck under his body after being fouled. Coward.

Town’s transition play, often involving Holmes, O’Brien and Pipa was as impressive as their defending and they deserved a greater margin of victory.

Shortly after taking the lead, Bacuna fired a free kick just wide, Holmes had a good effort kept out rather awkwardly by Dieng and Pipa curled an effort just over the bar. 

Perhaps the best chance fell to substitute Sanogo who threw his body in front of a near post ball from O’Brien, but the ball bumbled wide. 

An impressive second half, built on discipline, control and creative offensive play secured a hugely welcome and important 3 points to finally drag the Terriers over the 40 point mark and in sight of safety, which should be quite a few below 50.

A long, tough winter nears it’s end and the possibility of sustained momentum could provide a better than expected finale to the season.

Backbone located

Carlos Corberán may have come of age, counter intuitively, with an ugly goalless draw against an in form but rather tired looking Cardiff City side who brought their brand of powerful, effective and physical football to the John Smith’s Stadium and left with a barely deserved point.

Throughout the season, and even with the services of important players still missing in action, a persistent impression has been that the occasionally attractive style he clearly wants to impose was some way beyond the squad he has. The demands of insistent possession alongside the energy required to accomplish superiority have, all too often, weighed down on a team not equipped to maintain it.

The philosophy is laudable but flawed by its practitioners lacking the muscle memory to sustain it for more than brief periods. Sometimes, in those heady days before the turn of the year, those periods were enough to carry the team home but, in the main, a collection of players were playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order for too long periods.

As they strived to adapt, there was an overwhelming sense that they never really earned the right to play with beautiful fluency and the glaring weaknesses could be and were exploited in the unforgiving Championship. The loss of key individuals to a string of injuries upended the progress to mid table comfort which allowed experimentation, but didn’t bring the necessary adjustments to the ideals and an alarming plunge in to trouble has ensued.

Faced with a schedule packed with muscle and established nous, Town have been slow to adapt their own circumstances to reality but the terrible spectacle midweek against Birmingham signalled long overdue change as the Terriers finally adopted a strategy to minimise rather than invite risk. But for a freakish equaliser, the newly found pragmatism should have yielded an undeserved win, and against opponents far more powerful and adept, a single point was earned when 3 were deserved.

The recent elevation of Mick McCarthy to Shankly, Ferguson and Pep levels of managerial genius on the back of an admittedly extended new boss bounce with a squad preternaturally suited to him, coupled with the glaringly obvious mismatch of known strengths and weaknesses, was enough to condemn Town to defeat before a ball was kicked.

The likeable Yorkshireman, last seen in this division leading Ipswich to season after season of such stultifying banality that he was sacked in favour of more entertainment only for his successor to land them immediately in to League One, was celebrating his 1,000th game as a manager. 

Stage set.

Painful as it must have been for the transparently idealistic Corberán, all pretence of cleaving to his principles was dispelled by a glance at the team sheet with 2 up front and 3 centre halves. All that needed to be added was resilience, risk aversion and calm competence.

An attritional first half with limited opportunities for either side was more notable for Town’s durability in the face of Cardiff’s predictable aerial assaults from free kicks, corners and throw ins. The first of these, with Schofield allowing an unusually high lofted ball to reach the far post before he recovered well to block an attempt from the knock down appeared portentous but things got better.

The Bluebirds’ direct approach and second ball strategy seemed a little blunted, and Keogh and Sarr should take credit for meeting the challenge, though a good effort from Vaulks required a good save by Schofield and Flint hit the bar from a position incorrectly ruled offside.

For Town, most of the threat came down the right with Bacuna and Rowe linking well without being able to deliver good enough quality in to the box. Debutant Sanango wasn’t given enough opportunity to shine and was rather anonymous through no real fault of his own.

Bacuna also nearly threaded an excellent ball through to Campbell but a slight touch from Morrison saved the day for the visitors. He also fired in a reasonable effort from a Mbenza range free kick which was well saved by Phillips.

As the half came to a close, Flint tripped Sarr near the touchline and an incensed Bacuna raised his hand to the giant central defender. Perhaps the comedy value of seeing Bacuna square up to the aptly named Flint took the tension out of the situation and, remarkably, neither was booked. On another day, Town’s enigmatic midfielder could have seen red.

Overall though, Town competed well and minimised the errors which have plagued their season, though Edmonds-Green, the least comfortable of the back 3, got away with dallying in possession and was rescued by the rapidly retreating Sarr.

A far better second half largely belonged to the hosts whose defensive discipline was maintained, on the whole, and they had now earned the right to be a little more expansive if still wary of an in form opposition.

Sanogo had much more influence as team mates began to probe more effectively. This was particularly true of O’Brien whose surges began to worry, justifiably, the Cardiff back line.

The partnership between Campbell and Sanogo began to take some sort of shape. Though the couple of occasions the debutant won his battles and fed his partner narrowly failed to create chances, it was encouraging to see early signs of understanding, and with one of them resulting in a booking for Morrison’s hauling back of Campbell, a chink in their armour was revealed.

Town’s first chance of the half fell to Keogh from a Bacuna delivered free kick. The returning defender escaped attention in the box but the ball was slightly behind him, affecting his header’s direction and power.

With Cardiff largely subdued, Town seized the opportunity to play and an excellent O’Brien burst in to the area saw a blocked Rowe shot lead to him being brought down while hunting the loose ball.

Sadly, poor execution by the surprise taker, Sanogo, who fired badly wide of the target meant that Town wasted their easiest opportunity to record an unexpected win. A case could be made for Sanogo to be designated penalty taker to give an immediate confidence boost for a striker who hasn’t played competitively for a long time. Which is also the case against him.

As demoralising as the miss was, that it didn’t lead to mental collapse was encouraging. Town continued to boss the contest and two further, very presentable, chances were created.

First, Campbell nicked the ball from a hesitant opponent and freed O’Brien to measure an excellent pass behind Cardiff’s right side in to the path of Pipa. The Spaniard tried to work the ball on to his favoured right foot which caused a momentary loss of momentum and the split second was fully exploited by Phillips who made a good save from a closer range than he should have been allowed.

An even better chance fell to Campbell in the box following Sarr winning another aerial dual. Snatching at the effort when he had more time than he appreciated, and perhaps, like the rest of us, assuming he was offside, Campbell spooned the ball over the bar with an overly acrobatic effort.

Despite the frustration of dropping 2 more points in a week which should have harvested 6, this was a gritty and resolute performance where standards were largely maintained against an uncompromising opponent which has far too often not been the case against the more physical sides.

Relegation worries are far from over, indeed they may increase with other results, but adhering to basic principles rather than leaping straight in to the fancy stuff is a major and welcome shift by Corberán.

With 8 days until the next game at Loftus Road, there is time for the indispensable Hogg to return, gives time to work on the Campbell/Sanogo partnership and aid Stearman’s return to the fold.

Above all, Town finally appeared to understand the gravity of their situation and adopt the qualities required to meet the uneasy challenges which await. Consistency is now essential and a reversal of their horrifically poor away form their immediate next objective.

Blues deepen

As the returning Richard Stearman lay prostrate following an elbow to his chin just 5 minutes in to a vital game for both sides, the usual early minutes dispensation rules meant Harlee Dean stayed on the pitch and, thankfully, Town were spared the ignominy of failing to beat 10 men.

They failed to beat a full complement too, but at least they had the consolation of the reprieved Dean presenting Campbell with the opening goal for a lead which, of course, they proceeded to surrender.

It was an advantage the Terriers did not deserve.

Indeed, after a contest pregnant with palpable tension, comically poor passing and lacking quality in all areas it could be argued that neither side deserved the point each took to marginally improve their survival chances.

Birmingham, fresh from a confidence boosting victory at the weekend, carried a little more flair in the first half than the hosts though it rarely translated in to the final third and scoring opportunities and most of the fabulously inept executions of passing came from their feet.

Unrelentingly dire, the first half past with little of note to report. Birmingham threw a few crosses in which caused virtually no concern while Town’s laboured ventures forward scarcely troubled the visitors until an incorrectly awarded free kick was blazed over a wall positioned about 2 yards closer than it should have been by Mbenza.

Both sides looked every inch the relegation candidates they have become. Few risks were taken and both appeared paralysed by doubt. With fluency absent, Town relied on Campbell’s willingness to work Birmingham’s back line while City, unsurprisingly, looked for Jutkiewicz long and often.

Improvement came there none after the break. Mbenza disappeared, Pipa’s worryingly poor form continued and O’Brien gave away possession at will. Vallejo was unable to spark any reaction from deep as the game drifted towards a stultifying stalemate.

Just after the hour, however, a goal arrived out of the blue. Dean’s fluffed attempted clearance of a nothing ball in to the box fell nicely to Town’s lone striker who hit it very sweetly from just outside the area. The quality of the strike was entirely out of keeping with the dirge which preceded it.

The visitors’ equaliser came along immediately and it’s ugliness was far more fitting.

A corner from the right beat Campbell’s near post cover, dropped and died in front of Roberts who gleefully converted. Though later inquest may point fingers, there was a freakishness about the goal which summed up Town’s recent fortune. Not that they earned any luck in this fixture.

For much of the rest of the game, Birmingham looked more likely to grab a winner as Town became nervy. They weren’t helped by Corberán’s strange decision to replace Vallejo with Scott High. 

The Spaniard had produced little of influence but does exude calm on the ball while the youngster looked lost and his inexperience rather shone out. To his credit, he made a good tackle late on to stop a dangerous Birmingham foray.

Towards the end of the seemingly interminable struggle, Town got on top but a series of balls in to the box from corners, a free kick and open play were easily dealt with despite the presence of Sanogo who couldn’t get in to the game in his 15 minutes in place of Campbell.

The best opportunity was provided by Bacuna, probably the best of a bad Town bunch on the night, who burst in to the area but was unable to hit a colleague with his lay back.

It was Birmingham, however, who came closest to grabbing a winner as Sarr inadvertently nodded on a long throw in to the path of Hogan who flicked over.

The final flurries of action could not disguise the worrying lack of quality, cohesion or purpose and the final whistle came as a blessing with both sides relieved at least not to have lost. For Town, pressure continues to weigh down the team and management and there were few signs of any upturn in fortunes on the horizon.

With a rampant Cardiff due next, Town’s plight remains precarious and their future worryingly reliant on others’ failings. 

Dizzying descent at Deepdale

The nagging feeling that the excellent score line and result against Swansea last weekend was more a freakish outlier than a turn in fortunes was confirmed just a few days later at Derby and hammered home at Deepdale as Town’s survival hopes increasingly rely on others’ ineptitude.

While defeat in Preston, and indeed, at Derby or Middlesbrough, is hardly surprising given results over decades, this doesn’t make these 3 reversals any more forgivable or the concern any less alarming. This is not to give credence to the idiotic idea that certain grounds are jinxed and affect generations of players.

The midweek display at Pride Park held no redeeming features and despite a fair amount of first half misfortune, neither did this latest away defeat.

Right up until the Lilywhites’ opener, at the midway point of the first half, Town had dominated play, created two decent openings forcing good saves and were denied 2 penalties by a referee who baffled and confounded the visitors all afternoon.

The first opportunity for the Terriers arrived after a bright opening (again) with Mbenza forcing a decent, if routine, save from the keeper from range. 

An uneventful period featuring good spells of Town possession, particularly down the left where Pipa, O’Brien and Holmes offered good combinations but little penetration was followed by the defining 5 minutes of the game.

First, Campbell was played through behind Preston’s defence and appeared to be bundled to the floor as he got in front of his marker. While the collision could have been interpreted as a simple coming together, Campbell was through and had zero incentive to fall and later in the half, Edmonds-Green was booked for making a similar challenge just outside the box.

If the benefit of the doubt could be given to the defender in that incident, the next penalty shout was much louder and more convincing. O’Brien raced in to the area to chase down a short back pass to the keeper only for the defender who made the errant pass to take two steps in to his path and completely wipe him out. 

This isn’t to say that Town, who have missed both penalties awarded to them this season, would have converted it or gone on to gain anything from the fixture, but taking the lead at that point, against a team who had yet to win at home in 2021, would have altered the whole outlook.

In open play, an excellent ball through by Sarr found Holmes who cleverly lifted the ball over the despairing legs of 2 defenders to another O’Brien surge only for Iversen to cut out any angles and block the attempt.

This proved to be the high watermark of yet another dismal away defeat as the promising opening disintegrated like bones in an acid bath. Movement stagnated, passing perceptibly slowed and errors began to accumulate.

Seasoned followers of the Terriers know that the promise of a bright start rarely translates in to points and Preston, largely passive in the opening stages, pounced.

Latching on to a mistake in the middle of the park, Evans played in Sinclair behind Sarr and though Schofield made a good point blank save the ball fell to Potts who struck a powerful shot goal wards which Sarr tried to keep out only for it to roll agonisingly in under his foot. To be fair to the big defender, he was in the right position again but could not add to the several last ditch saves he has made this season.

The hosts barely deserved their lead, and should have been behind but for a negligent referee, but the lift of a goal eased their own home demons considerably and they proceeded to run out comfortable winners by the end.

A poor final 15 minutes of the first half for the visitors, along with Edmonds-Green’s booking for a foul on the hosts stand out player in the first half, Gordon, prompted a change at half time which very probably doomed Town to their fate.

Though Rowe, who came on for Edmonds-Green, was far from responsible for the characterless mundanity which followed, and indeed was considerably brighter than most, the switch of Pipa to the right after a reasonably effective stint on the left seemed an over reaction.

The Spaniard had a dreadful second half but was far from alone as all semblance of togetherness and cohesion evaporated in a display as dispiriting as many of the others in this dreadful year.

Posing little threat, it was no surprise when yet another individual error exposed Town’s back line. Mbenza inexplicably tried to push the ball in to space behind a Preston player but, presumably, had not seen another Lilywhite waiting to collect. Within seconds, Preston had gone two up as Potts, who had struck the bar with a good effort shortly beforehand, set up Evans for a routine finish in the box.

Defeat was inevitable from that point, though Sarr should have done better when trying to divert an O’Brien shot following a corner when all alone in the box.

By this point, Holmes had been replaced by Phillips as Town changed shape from whatever they were in before to a new one which proved as ineffective. Again, the substitute tried hard and there is some promise but it is difficult to know how Phillips will develop as part of a team which inexplicably ceases functioning on a whim. Ditto for Scott High, on for Mbenza.

Further changes saw the first outing of Sanogo in place of Campbell and Stearman on for Keogh. The debutant looked reasonably energetic but it would be ludicrous to judge him in this abysmal context. 

Multiple substitutions failed to affect anything approaching change as Town failed miserably to rediscover any tempo and struggled to even hint at carrying threat. A final blow never seemed far away and it duly arrived.

As a Town corner broke down, Preston launched a devastating counter attack with 10 minutes to go. Barkhuizen was released down the left, pursued by Phillips, who laid a perfect ball for Sinclair to smash home in some style. In common with the second goal, the hosts showed how to attack with pace and purpose.

The comprehensive defeat leaves the club under great pressure. The coach is sitting on an appalling record in 2021 and one which very few Championship bosses would survive, the game against Birmingham is now elevated possibly beyond the mentality of these players and the unrest at the Chairman’s decisions is growing very loud.

It is difficult to see beyond a crushing single goal defeat on Tuesday night against a team who will employ the complex tactic of allowing Town futile possession, sitting back and waiting for the inevitable error. 

A coach searching for answers for a team bursting with frailty in March as disaster looms simply isn’t good enough. The injury excuse, once genuine when added to the disruption it initially wrought, is now gossamer thin. Genuinely committed teams would respond to the adversity rather than be crushed by it and enough time has elapsed for solutions to have been adopted and applied yet the exact same issues arise in virtually every game.

Another defining week in store.


My Derby report went in the bin. A lot of research was expended on Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire” in an attempt to make a point about Town’s decades of failure at Middlesbrough, Derby and Preston. Writing it was tortuous, but not as tortuous as reading it would have been so I spared you all!

Hope jacked up

Town finally secured a win in 2021 with a remarkable 7 minute period just after half time which entirely confounded the form of both teams going in to the game.

A fairly even first half, during which Town mixed encouraging forward play with their usual failings when deep in possession, ended with a Swansea equaliser so heavy with foreboding that defeat seemed inevitable.

Blessed with talent, which has carried them towards the top of the table since their only home reversal all those long months ago, and a consistently parsimonious defence, the Welshmen would surely follow in the footsteps of Wycombe Wanderers and trample all over their hosts’ fragility?

Instead, a bright start to the second half, not unlike the previous week but with end product, delivered three, high quality, goals to the eye rubbing disbelief of the audience.

While incompetence has underpinned a disastrous 2021, there have been periods in some games which suggested that the inadequacies were not immutable and that the squad, all be it depleted, could elevate itself back to mid table stagnation given a few breaks.

Any such happy talk seemed ridiculous, however, as Hourihane lifted a free kick over a wall which was less barrier and more an aid to the ex-Barnsley man’s trajectory, and past a hopelessly out of position Schofield for an equaliser on the stroke of half time.

The leveller was the culmination of the only brief period of the game in which Swansea looked remotely superior to their struggling opponents and owed as much to Town’s predilection for hesitancy and error playing out from the back than their own ability.

Though the award of the free kick was dubious at best, the Terriers had only themselves to blame for the lack of care preceding it and all the good work of a half in which they took the lead, threatened regularly and subdued the Swans for long periods was wasted.

Shrugging off a nervous opening few minutes, Town played with a purpose and energy which may have taken the visitors by surprise judging by the absence of guile in a team flying high and the number of lofted balls they resorted to, and deservedly took the lead midway through the half. 

Rowe, continuing the encouraging form from the second half in midweek, either over hit his cross following good work down the left or picked out Pipa in lots of space beyond Swansea’s defence, which allowed the Spaniard to advance to the byline before picking out Campbell in the area, whose slightly scuffed shot went in off the post for a deserved lead.

Campbell had already had the ball in the net earlier but the linesman interpreted that O’Brien, who set up the striker, was offside when coming back on to the pitch despite the last touch being from a visiting defender. Or it had gone out of play.

Minutes after the opener, Bacuna found half a yard of space after bamboozling Hourihane and struck an excellent effort from distance against the post with Woodman comprehensively beaten.

Establishing control and unfortunate not to be further ahead, Town’s unexpected but welcome levels of comfort began to evaporate as half time neared and they were grateful for a goal line clearance by Sarr, a save from Ayew by Schofield and two efforts from range being slightly off target.

Swansea’s brief but hugely threatening period of dominance began with Keogh dallying in the absence of options in front of him as he carried the ball forward and spread alarmingly through the team as persistent failings threatened to undo all of their previous good work. We had been here before and, sure enough, the pressure eventually told with Hourihane’s free kick.

Remarkably, within 10 minutes of the restart, Town put the game to bed, completed a double over one of the best sides in the division and dismantled the meanest defence of that division to record a confidence boosting win against any expectation.

O’Brien, producing his best performance of the season by some distance, restored the lead following excellent work by Bacuna who played a great ball in to Campbell who, in turn setup the midfielder for a strike which took a slight but very helpful deflection on its way past Woodman. He deserved the fortune having driven forward to begin the move in the first place.

Bacuna was involved again as Town turned the screw with a third goal minutes later as his chipped ball forward to Campbell was knocked down for Rowe to feed Holmes in to the area to finish well.

Not satisfied with a two goal advantage, Holmes then produced the goal of the season to date and one unlikely to be bettered. Taking the ball off Rowe and moving right to left, the diminutive Anglo-American took advantage of a nice bobble off the pitch to find the top corner from distance.

The devastating spell, as welcome as it was astonishing, sealed the first 3 points of the year even if beleaguered and weary supporters could still be forgiven for harbouring doubt.

The Terriers’ ability to hold on to their large lead was not to be tested, however, as a freak and horrible injury befell Morris as the Seattle Sounder loanee stumbled awkwardly while attempting to trap the ball. The seriousness of the injury was immediately and instinctively understood by Pipa, who knocked the ball out of play before urgently beckoning help.

Unfortunately for Swansea, they had already used up all their substitutes with Cooper rather obviously conceding defeat on the hour and their trip home to South Wales was further depressed by a cruel injury.

As often happens, the incident sucked the air of competition from the game with the last half hour rarely developing beyond a stroll. Swansea’s resignation, coupled with the deflation of the injury, and Town taking advantage of the rare opportunity to provide rest to some key players by using all 5 permitted changes reduced the contest to a pragmatic exercise of damage control for both parties.

Only a fool would declare Town’s problems over following an unusual if exhilarating victory. The closing minutes of the first half demonstrated how easily they can crumble under pressure to which they make a significant contribution and the score line was somewhat more convincing than the balance of play in the first hour warranted.

However, the vanquishing of as good a side as Swansea should not be under estimated.

Other than more concerns over Schofield, each and every player contributed to a fine victory, with Holmes and O’Brien finding excellent form, Bacuna channelling his talent in a more disciplined manner, Rowe constantly threatening a previously excellent defence and Vallejo providing calm and cultured possession, there were many positives to add to the relief.

Now for Derby, as much a graveyard for Town teams as Middlesbrough, and a different proposition to the poor team which barely turned up to the John Smith’s stadium early in the season. To restore our place in the boring middle of the Championship, the Terriers need to consolidate this unexpected victory with a couple or more points by the end of February.

Desperation intensifies

Interpreted generously, 35 minutes of competent , occasionally penetrative play bookended a seriously poor mid section to constitute the type of sandwich it is unnecessary to elucidate and exposed Huddersfield Town’s failings as they continue to plunge inexorably towards the bottom of a distinctly average division.

A very bright opening saw Town move the ball quickly and purposefully against a lethargic Middlesbrough side suffering their own injury and form problems. 

Typically incisive in the early stage of a match in which the Terriers desperately needed a reaction to Saturday’s disastrous and hugely damaging defeat, it is far from uncommon for Corberán’s charges to set the tempo with great promise, but seasoned observers know that the superiority is almost inevitably illusory.

Rewarded for their enterprise in an encouraging 10 minutes by another excellent free kick conversion by Mbenza following a foul on Pipa, followed by a break minutes later when Mbenza failed to find the unmarked Holmes in the box, the visitors didn’t appear to have been crushed by the weekend’s events. Until Middlesbrough woke up.

With the simple application of greater intensity, the home side, possibly fearful of wily old Warnock’s wrath come the break, broke the visitors down with disconcerting, though hardly surprising, ease.

The shape of the side disintegrated, control was entirely abandoned and a horror show ensued for a full half hour culminating in a deserved half time lead for Boro which deserved to be greater than just one goal.

Pinned in their own half, the folly of drafting O’Brien as a temporary left back and starting the perpetually ineffective Pritchard in his midfield place was ruthlessly exploited by the hosts. Town weren’t helped by a literal lack of sure footedness as several in yellow slipped over at crucial moments, including in the lead up to the equaliser, which had been coming.

Panicky defending kept Boro at bay for 15 minutes, though the obligatory comedy moment arrived soon enough with Sarr and Schofield creating havoc for themselves and allowing Watmore to poke the ball through the keeper’s legs in to the open penalty area. Fortunately, Mbenza was on hand to clear. Unfortunately, the Belgian pulled his groin making the clearance and left the pitch a few minutes later to join the teeming throng of injured.

Middlesbrough equalised on the half hour with a good quality strike by Watmore who should never have been allowed to get in a position to shoot. O’Brien, temporarily delayed in to position by the aforementioned slip, waved an apologetic right leg as an excuse for a challenge as Watmore cut inside, bypassed Sarr with consummate ease and fired past Schofield. Sarr, in fact, had been beaten easily twice in the space of seconds.

The defensive disarray and inability to keep possession encouraged the hosts to swarm all over the Terriers and force a series of corners and dangerous open play situations. They thought they had taken the lead from a free kick on the right when Schofield’s inexplicable rush from his line allowed Hall to head home from, to the relief of the young keeper, an offside position.

With all confidence squeezed out of them by the relentlessness of Boro, the sanctity of half time while still level was just about the only hope for the battered visitors; an objective they could not achieve.

Yet another cheap loss of possession on the left allowed a cross in to the area and Fisher arrived to meet it just before O’Brien whose tardy challenge felled the attacker to concede a clear and unequivocal penalty. 

Benevolent as ever, Schofield’s lame attempt to save Fletcher’s rather insipid penalty allowed the ex-Barnsley man to end his goal drought which stretched back to September (though 4 months out with injury didn’t help).

Another late goal changed the game’s dynamic, even if that dynamic was flowing entirely in one direction in any case, and it was almost impossible to imagine a Town recovery in the second half.

Just before the break, a rare Town foray in to opposition territory brought a free kick in Mbenza range. In his absence, Bacuna drew a routine save from Bettenelli.

To his credit, Corberán made the necessary, and obvious, changes at half time. O’Brien was relieved of his full back duties in favour of Rowe who at least had the credentials of having played in the position more than twice, all be it on the other side of the pitch, and Pritchard’s typically feeble contribution was terminated to get O’Brien back to where he is comfortable.

Middlesbrough’s need to press forward was less urgent than in the first half and while they dominated the opening of the second half, there wasn’t quite the intensity which had crumbled Town before the break. Nevertheless, the visitors remained on the back foot and Sarr proved to be more adept at clearing danger coming in to the box than tackling out wide.

With 20 minutes to go, and with Phillips replacing the anonymous and disappointing Holmes, Town finally began to assert some control over the game and began to look capable of an equaliser. A fast break saw the visitors with a four on one advantage which they managed to mess up through a poor attempted pass by Pipa, but the situation seemed to give Town more belief.

A raid by the lively Rowe saw his cross spooning up off a defender and Phillips, who had shown a lot of purpose since coming on, flicked his header from short range only for Bettellini to touch away.

An excellent chance for Campbell following some good work by Bacuna was lashed wildly over the bar when more composure was needed.

Town were provided with a numerical advantage with 10 minutes to go when McNair brought down Bacuna on the edge of the box and was, perhaps harshly, sent off for his rash challenge. Sarr took the Mbenza territory free kick but put it over the bar.

Pushing Boro backwards in desperate search of a point, the best chance fell to the lively Phillips who took a pass from Campbell, made space and hit the inside of the post with the keeper beaten. 

Despite maintaining the pressure in the dying minutes, Town couldn’t fashion another chance of equal danger and another defeat left them still winless in 2021 and facing a strong Swansea side at the weekend.

A desperately poor half hour in the first half cost them dearly, as did the team selection. Playing O’Brien at left back was a poor decision exacerbated by handing Pritchard a start. It is becoming clear that Schofield needs a break and is adding to an increasingly spooked defence, and while Phillips and Rowe may also succumb to the same type of breakdown through inexperience, they surely earned a start in the next game.

Though not on the same scale as the Wycombe debacle, the seemingly endless throwing away of advantage persists. An inability to maintain performance levels over 90 minutes plagues a team crying out for calming presence and leadership. Hogg cannot deliver this on his own.

With a tough February schedule ahead, it now seems certain that Town’s situation will deteriorate and reliance on the failings of others the only preventative strategy. Mbenza’s injury adds another worry to Corberán’s pile. The revelation that he has been playing on the edge of breakdown for the past few weeks goes a long way to explain his subdued performances and shines a harsh light on the management of players’ fitness.

The agony persists.

Collapsing in to crisis

Momentous games arrive from time to time. Some are celebrated and some are so utterly ignominious that they not only live long in memory but are held up for future generations as defining moments in the club’s history.

Whether this appallingly abject defeat to a far superior Wycombe side will resonate down the years, as it should, depends on the reaction to the disgrace which should be cleaving to the consciences of all involved, from boardroom to coaching staff to players.

The most optimistic of us, who could rationalise a disastrous January by pointing to a catalogue of injuries which disrupted an idealistic coach’s plan to transform a club from functional relegation battlers in to contenders, have been made to look utterly foolish by a performance which plumbed subterranean depths.

In summary, a bright opening half hour brought a 2 goal lead and missed opportunities to bury the visitors, only for the tables to be turned like the plot of a terrible B movie, beginning with an injury time concession which felt ominous and proved to be much, much worse.

Two stretches of the first half saw Town’s energy and intensity drop alarmingly; a feature throughout a season where even the good wins have been accompanied by perilous and inexplicable periods when the opposition is allowed to profit from mini self implosions.

The first of these followed the opening goal, which was well crafted by Vallejo and Campbell to set up a simple headed finish by Bacuna, as Town’s control and prominence simply disappeared. When on the ball, the Terriers were reasonably effective and comfortable; without it they looked nervous and fragile. 

Sensing vulnerability, Wycombe began to expose the usual frailties. Much was made of the different styles of the two teams before the game, citing Town’s high pass completion against the visitors’ necessarily rudimentary approach given their circumstances, but the statistics belie the Terriers’ discomfort without the ball and susceptibility to physicality and pressure.

Losing shape, errors were forced by the visitors and Town were grateful to Sarr’s interceptions on more than one occasion, including two clearances off the line as Wycombe, with little to lose, reacted to going behind with commendable spirit.

With half time approaching, Town doubled their lead through Mbenza who struck a decent shot across Allsop, who was beaten a little too easily and had a great opportunity to finish off the League’s whipping boys only for Bacuna to make a mess of a simple ball in to the box for the unmarked Holmes.

Off the hook, Wycombe staged a late assault on Town’s faltering rearguard and got their reward in injury time when the impressive Mehmeti strolled past Vallejo and Bacuna to strike a good shot past Schofield. The goal followed a scare just a minute earlier when Knight hit the bar and the goal was just reward for the visitors’ endeavour.

It was also the defining moment of the game. Instead of being down by 3, the Buckinghamshire stragglers had given themselves hope and a huge lift at a crucial time, simultaneously casting fear, uncertainty and doubt in to their hosts.

What followed in the second half was entirely unacceptable. Unprofessional, lacking inspiration of any kind and disastrously sloppy in and out of possession, Town were completely dominated, on their own patch by demonstrably the poorest side in the division.

Not that Wycombe looked anything like the worst Championship side in recent memory. That sobriquet belonged to their opponents who, after a reasonably promising opening 10 minutes of the second half, proceeded to collapse in to a profoundly disturbing and ramshackle paltriness.

Bullied all over the pitch, entirely incapable of winning a second ball, rarely completing a pass, hesitant and in some cases hiding, lacking spirit, bereft of cohesion, defensively inept, offensively impotent, thoroughly unprofessional; even this litany of sins barely conveys one of the worst displays witnessed in many a year. The many failures in the Premier League at least had the consolation of being committed against opposition of quality.

This is not to diminish Wycombe’s efforts, which entirely debilitated the hosts and may well have condemned them to inevitable further deterioration. Their domination was as complete as it was astonishing and laid bare the uncomfortable fact that for all the flair Town can show from time to time, as they did in the first half, it counts for nothing if half the team aren’t prepared to sully their talent with the fundamentals of the game. 

This was no smash and grab; if anything, the visitors should have won by a bigger margin. A Schofield save from point blank range, a remarkable miss from close in scrambled away from the line, a good chance put wide following an ill advised Schofield rush from his line and a McLeary effort which just cleared the bar, illustrated Wycombe’s superiority. Allsop, at the other end, was entirely untroubled.

The inevitable crack of Town’s puny resistance came when Keogh decided to run alongside Ikpeazu, who browbeat the home defence, rather than execute a tackle. Handing over responsibility to Hogg, Town’s captain bundled him to the floor to concede a penalty converted by Jacobson.

The thoroughly deserved winner arrived with 5 minutes to go. A free kick glanced off the head of substitute Scott High and fell to the feet of Knight. Easily evading feeble attempts to block, he took one touch before beating Schofield and condemning Town to humiliation.

So, now what? The first game of the shortest month was supposed to deliver a confidence boosting 3 points in advance of the considerably harder challenges ahead. Instead, Town have reached a watershed. The glimmer of hope represented by picking up 2 points at the end of a losing streak has been extinguished and without the, admittedly, minor redemption on offer against Wycombe, all excuses have now expired.

Corberán, whose nascent head coaching career is now firmly on the line, has to deliver a team on Tuesday which can rectify the damage inflicted on a dark day for the club. It is more likely that he cannot, as the psychological damage looks far too severe and his inexperience too exposed but he should be allowed the opportunity. It is his choice whether to stick to his principles or introduce, somehow, a level of pragmatism to a squad seemingly incapable of performing to the standards he clearly desires but pursues against increasingly flimsy evidence of likelihood.

The fine line between principle, including training methods which may be contributing to seemingly endless injury problems, and obstinance is now being severely tested. Can Corberán innovate to affect change? The season long ineffectiveness of in game adaptability suggests not but perhaps necessity will prove the mother of invention.

He isn’t helped by an increasingly poisonous and hostile opposition to the Chairman, CEO and head of recruitment. The only blessing is that he and his players are spared the wrath of the support. By the time we get back in to stadiums, the haemorrhaging of that support may be severe and all of the damage inflicted.

Patience has snapped with a club which insisted upon searching for a new identity without paying enough attention to it’s personality. Rather than becoming the Brentford of the North, built on shrewd investment and fuelled by the development of raw talent, which needs supporters to understand the plan, they are left baffled by it and unconvinced that it even exists.
All we can do is now watch the rest of the season unfurl, or unravel, through our fingers. Over to you, Carlos.

A joyless point

Scraping a fortunate draw, which could have turned in to a thoroughly undeserved victory, Town extended their unbeaten run to two. More pertinently, their winless streak in 2021 goes on and anything other than an end to their joyless New Year against collapsing Wycombe will trigger significantly increased levels of opprobrium amongst a support fast losing faith.

In dreadful conditions against aggressive, relentless opponents, a point at Kenilworth Road would ordinarily be taken as a marginal gain, but in the context of what appeared, from the outside, as an inept final day in the transfer market and no evidence that failings at both end of the pitch are close to being addressed, Town’s equaliser, welcome as it was, provided minimal comfort.

The promise of a bright, if typically less than incisive, opening was punctured by yet another Naby Sarr transgression which gifted Luton possession and left the visitors naked and exposed. The Hatters gleefully accepted the gift, as so many have done before them.

It would be far too kind to call this a glitch, given the propensity of Town’s defenders in general and Naby in particular for undermining the efforts in front of them, and, indeed, Sarr played a similarly risky ball in to the middle later in the half which directly led to an O’Brien booking. For balance, he also played a couple of decent balls in to the middle during the half, but a success rate of 50/50 rather suggests that the risk and reward ratio simply isn’t favouring the Frenchman.

As ever with this team, they excelled when allowed to be in their comfort zone, particularly down the left. Regrettably, that zone doesn’t include the business ends of the pitch rendering their strengths approaching, appropriately, pointless. Ignis fatuus.

All of the effort expended to get in to threatening positions flounder through poor execution, bad decision making and not enough commitment to get in the box. The last of these is particularly disappointing as it was a feature earlier in the season and rightly acknowledged as a massive improvement.

That all the unfulfilled promise came down the left, featuring 8 unsuccessful balls in to the box, was not surprising with Mbenza’s inexorable descent to pre Corberán form and, worryingly, attitude. Listlessly uninterested, he contributed little and was rightly substituted at half time.

A scrappy first half on an uneven surface which certainly didn’t help the tippy tappy stylings of the visitors, saw precious few opportunities for either side but the hosts should have wrapped the game up shortly before the break. Pipa rather over sold himself when chasing a clearance from a corner and was easily bypassed by Mpanzu whose cross was headed against the post from close range by Potts. 

Town’s two, off target, attempts on goal summed up a pretty dreadful first half showing. O’Brien found good space just outside the box but fired hopelessly wide while a very good run by Bacuna should have ended with a lay off to the much better placed O’Brien but, instead, he used his normal decision making processes and rolled a weak effort wide.

To their credit, Town were a better, if far from perfect, proposition in the second half and the introduction of Aarons was key. Operating on the right, perhaps the miserable performance of Mbenza has inadvertently pointed the way towards a more effective formation and the right flank can begin to relieve the left of the burden they have increasingly carried during this dismal run.

Despite one or two scares, including a wild effort by Mpanzu after being freed in to a position he really should have scored from, the visitors largely matched Luton’s energy with errors reduced if not eradicated. Hogg’s return added some very necessary steel and defensive know how and if Holmes can shake off the rustiness which saw him lose possession too easily at times, he should prove an asset.

The first sign of improvement was a good effort by Pipa which fizzed just wide from distance after good work from Holmes.

Though the game reverted to an attritional battle for long periods, Town dug in and defended their box with greater discipline and frustrated the Hatters with well timed blocks. They were a little fortunate when the influential Mpanzu decided not to go down in the area when clearly knocked in preference to stumbling in to a poor effort from a difficult angle.

At the other end, Luton were to be grateful for Bacuna’s curious decision making. Set free in to the area by Aarons, he fired a hopelessly ambitious shot in to the side netting when others were far better placed. Like Sarr, it was just a repeat of a previous lack of judgement and doing the same things over and over with the same result is difficult to forgive.

To his credit, Sarr was able to atone for his error with the equaliser. Pritchard, on for Pipa, bought a foul just outside the box with a dramatic fall from an innocuous challenge, which Bacuna delivered rather well in to the area. A dummy by Toffolo ensured Sluga had to make a save (his first) but he could only parry the ball in to Sarr’s path. Town’s third highest scorer wasn’t going to miss from a couple of yards.

The equaliser forced the game in to a period of mild entertainment, fuelled by frenzy rather than dazzling play and Town created the best chance to take all 3 points when Campbell was freed down the right on a break. His well directed ball in to the box was met by Holmes but the long throw specialist couldn’t quite control his effort to meet a cross which was knee height for him rather than on the floor.

With a precious point within their grasp, Town managed to create a sting in the tail when Toffolo miscontrolled when attempting to play out rather than taking the obvious option to launch the ball to safety. His attempted recovery saw him slip and clatter unceremoniously in to an opponent and the instant response of the referee was to assume dangerous play and show the red card. Replays show that the left back was unfortunate but as he was the author of his own misfortune, sympathy is a little reduced. The referee, who had a generally poor game, was right to dismiss but mitigation may result in an appeal.

The resulting free kick was the last action of the game and very nearly completely ruined an already very average afternoon, when a decent header inside the area struck a post and the stalemate was preserved.

Frustrating and unsatisfying as it was, the point away from home at a tough venue is welcome. The value of it will be increased by a home win next Saturday, but the performance didn’t enhance hopes, even against the worst side in the division; they can show resilience, a quality Town struggle to deal with.

Finding ways to unlock Wycombe’s defence must be the priority during this week, even though they have shipped 10 in their last two games. Presumably, those teams have effective strikers.

Had this point accompanied a couple of wins from January, it would have been seen as a dogged one. The multiple failures in January, however, meant it was the minimum required to begin to soothe nerves and it barely achieves that. A dozy deadline day, lack of meaningful communications and the bizarre introduction of West Vale Squash Club in to an over heating debate overwhelm any small positives it represents.

Losing streak ends, concerns remain

Staring deeply in to the mouth of a gift horse, Huddersfield Town’s losing streak ended with a limp draw as they failed to capitalise on Stoke City’s reduced numbers as old failures undermined their efforts once more.

Veterans of many Town performances against 10 men will not have been surprised at the frustrating inability to make their extra man count and no doubt relieved that the visitors were unable to counter attack and grab a winner once comfortable with their absorption of increasingly predictable pressure.

It had all started so well. Continuing on from their second half dominance of Bristol City, the Terriers swamped Stoke in a compelling opening 15 minutes with the men from the Potteries barely making it in to Town’s half.

The superiority brought a welcome early goal with a good Toffolo cross eventually landing at the feet of Mbenza who set up Pipa to strike. A very helpful deflection left Gunn stranded and beaten.

Town’s dominance continued with the left flank combinations of Toffolo, O’Brien and Aarons causing significant problems for the visitors and the team in general fluently exploiting Stoke’s static opening.

An excellent Mbenza corner found the towering figure of Sarr who should have made more of the opportunity but the best chance of Town’s brightest period of the game fell to Campbell who contrived to plant a header wide from a fantastic Toffolo cross.

The miss heralded a decline which was rarely arrested. 

The Potters finally began to find some energy to close down the spaces in which Town had flourished and the easy possession which they enjoyed dried up. Pushing further up the pitch, the visitors evened up the contest to an extent, and it was disturbing to see such a slight improvement have an immediate and detrimental impact.

Nevertheless, there was only mild pressure being applied to Keogh when he twice gave away possession in the space of a couple of minutes. Having got away with the first misdemeanour, the second became unforgivable and ultimately cost 2 points.

An attempted ball inside to Vallejo was even worse than his earlier misplaced pass to O’Brien and set up Stoke for a rare attack with Jack Clarke released towards the area. Even then, the ex-Leeds man should’ve been jockeyed and held up rather than being tripped up by Sarr’s impetuous challenge. Fletcher despatched the penalty for pretty much his only meaningful contribution of the day.

Stoke took encouragement for the gift and finished the half looking the team more likely to take maximum points until Norrington-Davies was dismissed in stoppage time for a reckless lunge on Bacuna. The Welsh youngster could have few complaints. The challenge was no doubt a genuine attempt to win the ball rather than deliberately malicious but the force of the tackle left the referee with little option to produce his red card with no hint of hesitation.

The depletion probably cost Stoke the chance of 3 points but, ironically, probably improved their opportunity for some reward given Town’s terrible record against sides who concede possession in favour of closing down space, and so it proved.

Laboured and lacking imagination for far too much of the second half, Town were, nevertheless, a little unfortunate on the two occasions they breached Stoke’s defensive walls and had a half decent shout for a penalty when Pipa appeared to be caught in the area only for the Spaniard’s overly wrought tumble to turn the decision against him.

As stodgy and inaccurate as much of the approach play was, Town only needed to nudge ahead to force the game in to the open to then take real advantage of an opposition forced to try and recover a game with ten men.

The threat Town were able to muster inevitably came down the left and their two big chances emanated from that flank. Toffolo, who is back to his 2020 form, set up O’Brien to hit a good strike from slightly behind him which may or may not have been finger tipped on to the bar by Gunn.

O’Brien then set up Bacuna in the area and following a nice piece of skill which opened up space for himself, his goal bound shot was cleared by McClean who positioned himself excellently to head away.

Had either of those gone in, the mood would be entirely different and, arguably, the restricted spaces Town find so difficult to negotiate would have opened up.

This is not to defend the rest of the half which was undoubtedly lacking in guile and threat. 

While Pipa looked back to somewhere near his best, he wasn’t particularly helped out by his lacklustre partner down the right, Mbenza. The Belgian simply didn’t contribute enough and his replacement, the returning Holmes, managed 2 more threatening balls in to the box (inevitably not read by our strikers) than he had achieved in a pretty dismal second half display.

Campbell also had a distinctly average afternoon after missing the early chance, culminating in a pathetic dive late on which was never fooling anybody. The veteran has his positives, not least a willingness to work selflessly for the system, but when that system gets bogged down and plants itself up its own firmament, his flaws are exposed more than most.

The introduction of Holmes sparked some life in to the increasingly desperate search for a winner and his neat and tidy cameo showed promise for the future. In stark contrast, the sight of Pritchard under the numbers board must have brought many a groan from the sofas of West Yorkshire and beyond. He didn’t, dear readers, make a difference.

Stoke’s threat was minimal, as expected, but a corner won from one of their rare appearances in Town’s half was threatening enough to suggest the unthinkable was possible. Their resilience earned them a point, however, and restricting Town to just two opportunities of note in 45 minutes was commendable.

It is of little consolation that Town finished a game with a reward for the first time in 2021 when a much needed win eluded them, but it is better than nothing.

The improved form of Toffolo and Pipa is encouraging, the introduction of Holmes promising and the reemergence of Corberán’s style, though not sustained long enough, positive but the shooting themselves in the foot refuses to stop.

The mild concern about collapsing in to relegation trouble wasn’t alleviated by taking one point from two games which should have delivered at least 4, and February needs to be a massive improvement on January to get the club back on the mediocrity trail.

A multitude of conundrums

A fourth successive league defeat leaves Town nervously contemplating a relegation battle should fortunes not change in the near future, but this latest reverse carried significant signs of hope that the club can get back to the mundane mid table position which looked pretty inevitable before Christmas.

Uninspiring as it is to yearn for mediocrity, a season with no drama remains enticing after the deep trauma of recent years, but the disruptions to a previously stable team capable of picking up enough points to keep comfortably out of danger have proven too fundamental to overcome.

Nerves and mood were not helped at all by a pathetic, featureless defeat to Millwall, and the absence of style, imagination and energy cast a pall of gloom which threatened to derail the Corberán project before it has had chance to build any sort of platform for the future.

Just 6 days later, and with just one change to last week’s mooching shambles (which probably helped), Town came away from Ashton Gate with no reward but, hopefully, a renewed sense of purpose.

Before the half hour, the visitors appeared doomed to their now traditional sound thrashing beside the Severn Estuary as the Robins struck twice inside 5 minutes, exposing Town’s static and square back line with two good pieces of skill. 

First, an Alfie Mawson through ball was cleverly dummied by Mariappa which set Diédhiou free to round Schofield and slot home. Town’s naivety contributed to the concession but should not detract from City’s invention.

A poor clearance by Sarr, over his head and with no control, allowed the hosts to strike a second time just a few minutes later as Palmer clipped a nice through ball inside Sarr for Diédhiou to grab his brace. 

Surgically dissected twice in the space of just a few minutes, Town’s reasonable start to the game which had seen them come closest to opening the scoring when an excellent O’Brien surge ended with a shot against the post, lay in ruins and an implosion seemed far more likely than what was to follow.

Much will be made of Town’s defensive frailty in those two moments, but this would be to unfairly overlook the invention of Bristol’s forward play and, indeed, before the double concession they should have made much more of an excellent ball by Palmer out to the right, but Marriappa fluffed the opportunity to create an easy chance for either of the forwards awaiting a simple ball in.

Rocked back on their heels and with confidence taking another battering, Town took a while to regain some equilibrium but the final hour belonged almost exclusively to the Terriers, only for them to be thwarted by a combination of ill fortune, some good goalkeeping and the familiar lack of clinical finishing.

Helped by Bristol’s decision to contain the visitors by settling back and hoping to profit from any over commitment, the home side rather lulled themselves in to passivity and can count themselves fortunate, to say the least, that their strategy eventually paid off. 

Perhaps informed by their rather short break since beating Millwall with some ease in the cup, the self extinguishing of any meaningful threat, after looking capable of punishing Town further, was a high stakes gamble, but the 3 points they gained were not deserved.

Just before the break, a Town corner was met by Vallejo, who thumped the ball in to the ground looping it towards goal only for Hunt to head it on to the bar and clear. It wasn’t to be the last encounter the Spaniard had with the woodwork, but along with some decent movement and interplay, which rather evaporated as they got nearer the goal, the visitors finished the half strongly while City’s ambition visibly waned.

Town’s second half display was the most promising for a long while. Their opponents’ decision to retreat makes it difficult to assess how much of this improvement was overwhelming superiority rather than taking advantage of circumstances, but it should still provide a platform for the near future and must be built upon.

For the first time in at least a month, Town’s left flank developed some potency. Toffolo was allowed to get further forward than of late, O’Brien finally found some form and Aarons produced easily his best display of his short time at the club.

The right wing was less effective, but Pipa was also more prominent behind a rather more mixed Mbenza performance. Marriappa, however, proved a more difficult opponent for them than the opposite side of the Robins’ defence.

The chances flowed.

A perfect cross by Toffolo should have been converted by Campbell; perhaps he was surprised at the quality of the ball in after such a long time feeding on scraps, but his attempt lacked the necessary calm of a Championship striker.

Mbenza slipped as he attempted one of his free kicks from a distance which looked optimistic, though Bentley in the Bristol goal was sufficiently worried by the attempt.

On the hour, more good play down the left saw the lively Aarons played in by O’Brien and after a mazy run, just on the right side of control, his ball in to the danger area was back heeled intelligently by Mbenza to present Bacuna with a chance he couldn’t, and didn’t, miss.

Vallejo then hit a superb effort from around the same distance as the Mbenza free kick, which caused the Robins’ custodian even more concern. Unfortunately, the quality of the strike wasn’t rewarded and crashed down off the bar and Bacuna, whose second half display was notably improved, was unable to profit from the aftermath.

Bacuna then hit another, equally excellent, long range shot which Bentley did well to turn over the bar, though the effort was very close to him.

The overriding feeling that the home goal was charmed was confirmed as another Bacuna effort hit Campbell and struck the post before diverting to safety. 

With a total of 26 shots, 6 on target, Town could not be accused of lacking creativity and the wafer thin margins worked against them on a night where an hour of total dominance simply wasn’t reflected in the final score.

The hosts’ threats were, and this is charitable, sporadic and either easily dealt with by the excellent Keogh or self inflicted in the case of yet another back pass moment which drew an “oh, God!” commentary on iFollow, as Schofield hesitated before winning, after a fashion, a dead ball.

The disappointment of yet another defeat on the road is, to an extent, alleviated by the promise of the performance though the opposition’s tactical choices allowed the game to be played to Town’s strengths. It is unlikely that Stoke will fall in to the same trap, but the confidence the team should take from a far more fluent and imposing display should not be under estimated.

Optimistically, it is encouraging that Corberán transformed pretty much the same group of players in less than a week and if and when injuries start to clear up and Holmes adds a new level of dynamism, hope may be resurrected.

However, the improvement must be continued at the weekend and the very different circumstances they face overcome. 

Winning is now an urgent requirement.