Going backwards

Goodwill is a vital currency for the manager of a football club. It is used to see them through inevitable slumps in form and gives them breathing space to instigate change and regain momentum.

Sadly for Carlos Corberán, the frustrated booing at full time last week at Oakwell and again following a desperately unconvincing draw with Mark Robins’ impressive Coventry, it seems his goodwill well is dry.

Town were on course to blatantly rob the 3 points despite playing second fiddle to the slick Sky Blues who had been thwarted by some excellent goalkeeping, the post and several blocks before an injury time equaliser delivered a sliver of justice for their progressive, easy on the eye style.

In fact, the football played by the visitors seemed to be the type we were promised under Carlos but which is rarely delivered by a squad who appear constrained by rigid tactics. As well as they can defend, which is the significant difference over last season and the reason the limited football isn’t dragging us closer to the relegation battle, any early season joy has been sucked out of performances.

On the rare occasions Town break out of the rigid structures imposed by the manager, they show that they are not without talent. The goal which very nearly took them over the line was a case in point as a sweeping move down the left resulted in a perfect low ball in by Toffolo which was sweetly struck first time by Ward. 

Despite some good work down the left by Colwill in the opening 20 minutes, Town had been scruffy in possession and unthreatening before the goal, while Coventry’s neat and tidy approach play failed to trouble the hosts but more than suggested they were going to be a tough challenge. 

And so it proved. The goal didn’t settle Town at all and they nearly handed out an equaliser 2 minutes later when a poor Nicholls ball to High saw the youngster engulfed and robbed but O’Hare’s attempt to lob the keeper was badly executed and easily dealt with. It was a big let off and simply increased the already jangling nerves. Possession was lost immediately after the scare too though Coventry again failed to take advantage.

On the half hour, O’Hare hit a shot too close to Nicholls, who blocked well, following a sumptuous cross field ball by the visitors which completely opened Town up. They had hit a similarly excellent ball earlier in the half but rather messed up the opportunity but should have equalised with the second one.

The half rather fizzled out after Coventry’s big opportunity and Town took an undeserved lead in to the break and an opportunity to regroup.

The whole complexion of the afternoon could have been changed in the first minute of the second half as a lovely ball in to Holmes who had made a good run in to the box saw the midfielder hit a good effort which was finger tipped on to the post and away for a corner. Coming desperately close to doubling the lead was a massive turning point; Town’s confidence levels, which appear to be low at the moment, would have been boosted and Coventry’s resolve possibly weakened.

As it was, the visitors proceeded to batter the Terriers who were desperately poor in possession throughout a very disappointing second half. 

A cracking shot from just inside of the area slammed against the post, last ditch blocks thwarted other attempts and generally poor finishing (including a far post header at a corner which looked much easier to convert than miss) and decision making at the sharp end contributed to Town barely clinging to a lead which looked increasingly preposterous.

And yet, with virtually his only contribution after replacing Ward on 70 minutes, when other candidates, particularly the ineffective and out of form Thomas, looked far more prudent, Campbell hit a shot against a defender which looped up invitingly for Pearson. Sadly, the defender couldn’t convert to seal the points, heading wide.

This was a rare foray forward as Town consistently gave up possession and sat deep to cling on to their precarious advantage.

Though the defending could be seen as effective and, in some ways, admirable, it was anything but that. Constantly failing to clear correctly – and even the otherwise excellent Colwill was guilty of this as time went on – and persistently wasting the small amounts of possession available to them, Town were as unattractive and ineffective as they had been the week before against much inferior opposition.

The injury time equaliser, one of the most deserving the stadium is likely to witness, came as a result of tired defenders and Nicholls failing to deal properly with a ball in the box. Godden arrived at precisely the right time to glance his header past Nicholls to the delight of the excellent travelling support who had encouraged their team throughout.

Most of that support will never have seen Coventry in Huddersfield before, the clubs having assiduously avoided each other for decades (nearly 50 years in the league until last year’s behind closed doors encounter), and their club looks to be on a good path after many years of horrendous struggle through mismanagement.

The boos which descended from the thin home support, and the clear evidence of significant stay aways continues to be of great concern, was justified and a judgement on a performance which seemed at least as much to do with the architect rather than the team.

Nobody was fooled by the elevated position Town were occupying just a few short weeks ago, but levels have dipped enough to create real concerns that a repeat of last season is, at least, a possibility. This seems unlikely given a significantly improved defence and it is hard to imagine an injury crisis of similar proportion, but the dull performances simply cannot continue if Carlos wants to remain in post.

The ownership uncertainties buy him a little time to imbue this team with a bit of personality. Maybe if he stopped the micro management and allowed them to play more freely, he may rescue himself? 

Fortune certainly favoured the meek in this one.

So predictably typical Town

There are those of us of a certain vintage who were delighted to see a Cardiff back line with McGuinness Flint in it but, early 70s nostalgia aside, this sobering defeat in horrible weather was more than disappointing.

Town’s trips to South Wales rarely bring much reward but the circumstances of this encounter promised more than most. Cardiff’s dreadful form, which cost Mick McCarthy what may prove to be his final job in management, coupled with the Terriers’ encouraging season to date was sufficient comfort to overlook a generational propensity for Huddersfield Town to be the perfect opposition for struggling teams.

Despite having better squad depth available to him this season, Corberán went with an unchanged 11 from the physical demands of the past week. It was a decision which looked far from wise by half time, despite his charges leading 1-0 at the end of a low quality 45 minutes, as both Hogg (after less than 10 minutes) and Holmes had to be replaced with injuries. Both failed to complete the Peterborough game and Hogg, in particular, should not have been brought back so quickly.

A swirling wind carrying the type of rain which sprays and soddens with miserable intensity was weather more suited to the rugby international which made Cardiff city centre a great place to be prior to the game; a sparse football stadium seemed miserable in comparison.

Hogg’s injury immediately preceded Town’s opener. McGuinness, under no discernible pressure, under hit a back pass to Smithies which turned in to a through ball for Sinani, who finally opened his account for Town by holding off a challenge well before squeezing the ball between Smithies and post.

This was a perfect gift for the visitors. An early lead, provided by the incompetence of an opponent struggling with confidence, has the affect of deflating home support which eventually turns against their team whose anxiety levels spike and performances implode.

Town largely let Cardiff off the hook. Instead of piling on the pressure, some ridiculous decision making at the back, the main culprits being Nicholls and Colwill, managed to achieve precisely the opposite. It was fortunate that the Bluebirds were incapable of taking advantage of their opponents’ largesse, some decent recovery work by Town players should be acknowledged, but the opportunity to bury Cardiff psychologically was completely missed.

Towards the end of the half, the visitors could and probably should have doubled their lead with a couple of decent forays forward but Holmes failed to react quickly enough to a ball across by Sinani. O’Brien also created a shooting opportunity as Town finished the half strongly, but it was far too little, too late.

The second half was as frustrating an experience as you expect from Town on far too many occasions. They were clearly the better side, they were capable of some very decent football sporadically and created simple opportunities to put the game to bed which, had they been taken, would have resulted in an entirely different post match conversation.

In the first 25 minutes of the second half, Town largely controlled their struggling opponents and started to ramp up pressure with extended periods of possession which culminated in a burst of activity which should have sealed the 3 points.

Scott High had a goal bound effort blocked following good work by Koroma, as the left side of Town’s attack began to click; Toffolo, O’Brien and Koroma were causing problems with decent interchanges and movement.

It was O’Brien, whose bursts caused Cardiff problems all through the second half, who fed Sinani for another blocked shot which led to the corner which, in turn, produced the easiest chance to go 2 up and win the game.

Thomas, who looked far too leggy, delivered a quite superb corner which eluded a bunch of battling opponents to reach Colwill about 3 yards out. The youngster had little time to weigh up his options, but they weren’t particularly complex. Either head the ball down or back across from whence it came. Unfortunately, the ball rather hit his head and flew at Smithies who, nevertheless, made a very good save to push the ball on to the post.

It was a remarkable miss and a potentially deflating one but Town kept coming and forged 2 further chances to finish the contest.

Ward did very well to beat Flint to a high ball from Nicholls which left him clear on goal and one on one with his good friend, Smithies. His deft chip beat the keeper but not the upright and another glorious opportunity went begging.

More good work down the left saw Koroma deliver a sumptuous ball across the face of Cardiff’s goal but Ward was unable to apply a finishing touch.

The encouragement of a spell of play which emphasised Town’s growing superiority was quickly replaced by the dread of the knowledge that spurning opportunities would only lead to punishment, and so it came to pass.

A rather cheaply conceded corner indirectly following sloppy attempts to play out from the back (which blighted Town all afternoon) was very well delivered for Moore to get in front of Colwill and equalise.

Hugely disappointing, though ominously predictable, it was the first time the dangerous Moore looked like contributing to the afternoon and wouldn’t be the last.

Town responded reasonably well and, to their credit, didn’t simply retreat to take the point, but they were unable to carve out another chance despite some promising possession.

Thomas, while trying to set up another Town attack, under hit a pass forward, Cardiff switched it out to their left, Pearson was too easily beaten and Moore, again, beat Colwill to head home a thoroughly undeserved, but undoubtedly welcome, winner.

It is legitimate to question Corberán’s decisions for this game, particularly keeping an unchanged line up after a gruelling week. Losing Hogg and Holmes in the first half was prima facie evidence of error and one which reduced the possibility of flexibility in the second half to counter the evident tiredness towards the end.

And oh for a centre forward who can play as poorly as Keifer Moore did and score twice!

When we are all dead and gone, future Town teams will be losing away games in this manner as they have so often in the past. 

(And that’s me done for a while – finally allowed back in the US. Will return for Barnsley away)

Ooh, we’re halfway there

With two thirds of the season to go, a point at Peterborough took Town to half of the 50 point target which, usually, keeps you above relegation.

The result was disappointing following a performance which, while far from faultless, should have been enough to secure a creditable away win, and it should be said that there was some genuine bad luck with decisions and injuries.

However, it was probably a more realistic assessment of Town’s chances of sustaining a challenge at the top end of the table that they were unable to see through a victory against fairly limited opponents, lacking the ruthlessness necessary for tricky midweek fixtures away from home.

A dominant first half display, which wobbled ominously towards the back end, should’ve laid the foundations for victory and the exceptionally marginal offside decision against Ward when he converted a rebounding effort from Holmes off the bar, was particularly galling following a similar decision at Bournemouth. Neither call remotely hinted at the benefit of doubt supposedly afforded to strikers (if there is such a thing), and the much improved Ward has been desperately unlucky to be denied goals which attested to good striking instincts.

The disallowed open play goals would also have provided a little more balance to those achieved through set pieces, which seems to overly concern the more esoteric fans and commentators.

A high press which was maintained throughout a solid first half pinned the hosts back for long periods but, the disallowed goal aside, the control didn’t result in opportunities and a late flurry by Peterborough nearly, and ludicrously, could have seen Town go in one down.

Just before the break, Hogg went down injured and though he made it to half time, he didn’t reappear and was replaced by High. This was a blow; High is a good footballer but simply couldn’t hope to replicate Hogg’s experience which had been instrumental in the dominance of Posh in the first half.

Still, it was the visitors who continued to look the more likely winners and with O’Brien driving the team forward, they looked increasingly dangerous from both flanks. Thomas, who was otherwise a little flat and probably in need of a break, delivered a great cross to the back post which was headed over by Holmes, who perhaps should’ve done better.

Toffolo was brighter than he had been for much of the season and was integral to a couple of complex passing movements down the left which failed in the last action. He also brought a standard save from Posh’s otherwise too underworked keeper.

It was Toffolo who won the corner which led to Town’s goal with more good offensive work down the left and Thomas finally delivered a decent delivery on to the head of Colwill, who headed down for Ward to snaffle the opener from short range.

Ward thoroughly deserved his goal, particularly after being on the wrong side of two highly marginal decisions in the last 2 away games, and, along with Holmes who put in another strong performance before injury saw him replaced by Turton, should be highly praised for their massive improvement.

Sadly, the goal provoked a mindset which ultimately cost the team 2 points. Wether Turton would’ve been sent on to shore things up had it not been necessary to replace the injured Holmes is a little moot. Town’s approach became defensive and tentative and it is disconcerting that they were undone by an opponent simply throwing on a big fella to try to turn around a game they never looked like gaining anything from.

With just over 5 minutes to play, High and Turton conspired to miss opportunities to either clear a loose ball or block the consequent cross which exposed Colwill to Clarke-Harris in the middle. A small push by the Peterborough substitute was missed by the officials – O’Brien was furious and booked for his protests – but Town really only had themselves to blame.

Despite the disappointment of dropping 2 points, there was a fair amount to like about the performance. As mentioned, Ward and Holmes performed to high levels again, O’Brien and Toffolo put in their best displays of the season to date and, the late lapse aside, Town still looked defensively solid.

Saturday’s trip to Cardiff, likely with an injury depleted squad, will be tough despite the travails of the Welsh club, but whatever the outcome, the first third of the season has been more than satisfactory.

The breaking news about Phil Hodgkinson’s other businesses adds a layer of uncertainty and unwelcome distraction, but there is nothing Corberán, the players or the fans can do about that. If it proves to be the end of his ownership, however, his stewardship during a painful and difficult transition is clearly bearing fruit and this should be acknowledged amidst the crisis he is now facing.

Hogg brings home the bacon

A mildly entertaining, robustly contested game appeared to be heading to a goalless draw, which neither side would have complained about, when a late Sorba Thomas corner was headed in by Jonathan Hogg, arriving at the near post with immaculate precision.

Following their chastening defeat on the south coast last weekend, all be it inflicted by an excellent Bournemouth side looking certain to run away with the league, it was important to react in front of their own fans. An in form and very awkward Millwall team, who had won 4 of their last 5 to join Town and a plethora of other clubs on 21 points, provided typically stiff Championship opposition.

A cagey opening 15 minutes handed the visitors the initiative and though they were unable to turn their superiority in to chances, they easily thwarted Town’s attempts to gain any momentum and a long, attritional afternoon beckoned.

The similarities to the stalemate with Birmingham were glaringly obvious yet, somehow, this encounter proved more entertaining despite neither side creating enough goal scoring opportunities nor troubling either keeper much.

When Town finally began to look forward with their passing and introduced an element of pace and movement, they engineered a chance for Ward in the box only for him to volley it high and wide. The busy Holmes had fed Thomas who picked out the striker from the right with a great ball in and Town should have taken the lead at that point.

Ward did make the Millwall keeper work with another effort which was struck well but straight at him and contributed well over all against a resilient Millwall back line.

Both teams moved the ball well at times but the lack of penetration where it matters blunted their efforts, and a goalless first half rather limped to its conclusion and Town’s drought stretched over the 3 and a half hour mark (though it should be said that the goal scored by Ward at Bournemouth was perfectly legitimate and not offside).

If Town were to win this one, the most likely source of a goal would be a set piece and within minutes of the restart Pearson latched on to a flick on at the back post only for his effort to be cleared off the line by the keeper’s legs.

After this brief flurry of excitement, the game settled back in to attrition with personal battles taking place all over the pitch and, to the credit of the participants, it rarely boiled over despite the physical intent.

Hogg, unsurprisingly revelling in this full blooded contest, set Holmes on his way after winning possession and the much improved midfielder set up Toffolo for a strike which was fairly close but not particularly troubling for Bialkowski.

O’Brien then made an excellent run past three attempted challenges through the middle before laying the ball off to Sinani who fed Holmes before Thomas fired wildly over from a decent position.

The defining moment of the game arrived immediately after Thomas’ effort as Millwall broke effectively and played in Tom Bradshaw behind the Town defence. Pearson recovered and put in a crucial tackle to stop the considerable danger and almost certainly prevented the visitors taking the lead.

Bradshaw was replaced by Benik Afobe shortly afterwards and Pearson was to thwart the ex Town man as well later on to cement his man of the match status.

Town also made a change with Koroma replacing Sinani. The Luxembourger seems to divide opinion with his performances, but he has undoubted ability which doesn’t come off quite enough during games despite useful contributions to the team effort. He is worth persevering with, however, and the extra couple of percent he needs to add will create a very useful creator, which the side rather lacks.

Koroma’s introduction added urgency and a more direct approach and Town’s ascendancy in the final quarter of an hour became pronounced. Corberán also switched things around with Turton replacing the excellent Colwill to form a back 4 and Campbell replacing Holmes and joining Ward in a rarely seen front 2.

The changes paid off with a period of pressure creating a series of set pieces, still the most likely source of goals for this side.

Ward had a fierce effort blocked following a free kick delivery and Millwall began to creak under the pressure.

Perhaps their growing discomfort allowed Jonathan Hogg to get in front of the South Londoners’ defence to divert yet another Thomas assist in to the far corner. The unlikely scorer was fantastically delighted with his winner and his performance fully deserved the accolades which would follow.

First, however, Town had just over 10 minutes to cling on to their lead and, perhaps understandably, retreated a little too deep for comfort. However, the defensive resilience of this team is well established now and despite one or two moments of concern, notably a strike by Afobe which a less lenient referee may have called handball by Toffolo, the 3 points were secured.

A typically tight Championship game, settled by fine margins, produced a decent level of entertainment by both sides with Town just about deserving the win on chances made.
5th in the table and miles away from the wrong end of the table, Town enter the winter in very good shape. 

The elevated league position feels a little flattering to the actual ability of the squad, but it is also encouraging that there is room for improvement in some areas, particularly creativity and conversion, and with a January window on the horizon, a good platform is in place.

Blinded by the light

The run of 1-1 draws between Huddersfield Town and Birmingham City in Yorkshire came to an end, at long last, at the 6th attempt.

Unfortunately, a goalless stalemate was not the sequence busting bonanza we were hoping for, but a largely uninspiring contest, refereed by another idiot, kept Town in the play off spots ahead of an exceptionally stiff challenge at the weekend.

A 3rd consecutive clean sheet strongly indicates why the Terriers continue to trouble the right end of the table, and yet another superb Lees performance, ably supported by Pearson and Colwill, not to mention Nicholls behind them, restricted Birmingham to one decent chance in the whole game. This was late on and Gardner should have scored, but headed wide from close range. 

Perhaps the late let off affected Nicholls. Minutes afterwards, he was caught by Deeney as he gathered a loose ball and then spent an age putting his boot back on, composing himself and finally taking the free kick. Around 2 or 3 minutes elapsed in this pantomime, which rather inflamed the frustrations of the home support, and when a free kick in injury time was passed backwards, this translated in to some final whistle booing which appeared harsh without context.

The Blues, struggling after a bright start to the season, defended deep and robustly, much like Hull had tried to do at the weekend, and largely kept Town at arm’s length until the appearance of Campbell threatened to deliver a win for the hosts.

Ward, despite the usual struggle with hold up play, had been competent before being replaced, but Campbell brought aggression which unsettled Birmingham and injected some momentum in to the home side. He had only been on the pitch for a minute before hitting the post with a shot on the turn from a low Thomas cross.

A speculative effort by Campbell hit the other post in injury time, but a breakthrough was not to come.

O’Brien shot narrowly wide earlier in the half, which rather disguised the fact that Ward had been flattened in the area attempting to reach a cross, though expecting this latest abysmal official to spot an offence in the area would be going too far.

If ever a game needed a goal, it was this one. Town threatened sporadically in a first half which was fragmented but far from completely unentertaining. Faced with an opponent deploying almost their whole team defensively, the home side worked some decent openings and Sinani forced another good save from an opposition keeper while Ward, in the very first minute, flicked over the bar from a marginally offside position.

Holmes’ good form continued, providing most of the energy produced by the Terriers, but both Thomas and Sinani looked mentally and physically weary and will surely be rested at Dean Court, along with the enforced absence of Colwill who picked up another rather silly booking.

A disappointing evening would have been much more palatable had one of the near misses been converted, as the previous home game showed. As it was, the only bright spot was the retina scorching advertising displays at either end of the ground which were inexplicably fired up towards the end of the game.

Still, nearly 50% of games have seen Town achieve a clean sheet, which would have been laughably unlikely in the past few seasons. These shut outs are the reason Town are not, and will not be, struggling down at the wrong end again. 

Toothless Tigers tamed

After easily his best performance since returning to Town, Duane Holmes latched on to an over cooked Thomas corner, slid past two Hull players on the edge of the box then unleashed an excellent shot in to the top corner to seal a deserved, but not entirely comfortable, win for the Terriers.

Limited but awkward, the Tigers enjoyed the majority of possession in a game more notable for inconsistent officiating than the quality of play, but came up against a resolute host deliberately drawing their opponents on to a solid defence and looking to hurt them on the break.

The adoption of a low block was possible because Town scored their earliest goal in a game this season from a rather eventful corner, which arguably shouldn’t even have occurred as the referee failed to penalise a strong challenge on a Hull player in the passage of play immediately preceding.

With Town’s artillery massed beyond the far post, an unusual ploy appeared in the offing though the chaotic events which followed had less to do with a planned set piece and more as a result of a powerfully whipped in swinger from Sinani proving too difficult for Hull’s keeper to handle. Under pressure from Ward, which looked marginal for legality, Ingram punched the ball upwards and behind him, allowing Lees to attempt to force it home from inches away, only for a block to hit him on the back of the leg and over.

Town’s game plan changed after the goal, allowing the visitors to come in to the game but while the impressive Nicholls had to make one smart save and also cut out a potentially dangerous cross, Hull’s threats were fairly limited.

Sinani, who really needs that first goal in Town’s colours, forced a very good save from Ingram as the half time whistle loomed and there were a few decent counter attacks to cheer but it was all a little mundane.

A plodding second half saw Town relinquish possession in favour of defensive shape against opposition which struggled to break down their block. The superiority of the hosts’ back 3, backed up by the confidence instilling competence of Nicholls, kept the visitors at bay, though the counter attacking which was meant to accompany the solidity was too rarely seen.

O’Brien, with his best display of the season, constantly carried the ball from the danger area and was regularly dumped to the floor by unpunished challenges. Despite giving out an early card to Colwill, rightly, for a high foot the inconsistent and regularly bewildered referee allowed far too much leeway (just minutes after Colwill’s booking, O’Brien was chopped down while breaking and a yellow card was obvious but not produced).

As the second half wore on, Town’s devotion to defending began to look a little extreme and rather tedious. While there has been a marked and welcome improvement in game management this season, such a deep block against fairly limited opposition appeared too over cautious and the prospect of a calming second goal remote.

Thankfully, Holmes capped his energetic performance with a lovely strike, unaided by a bobble this time, to put the result beyond reasonable doubt.

A professional, competent display and a sprinkling of excellent individual performances, garnered 3 welcome points without providing many thrills. Over the past few seasons, such games have invariably ended in defeat so it would be churlish to critique the win too deeply.

The keeper and back 3 performed with exemplary calm and executed a defensive strategy with aplomb. Pearson, who went off ill, was back to his best after something of a form dip in recent weeks, while Lees continues to excel. Pearson’s replacement, Naby Sarr, had a very Naby Sarr moment when he kicked fresh air and let in a Hull forward only to recover with an excellent block. 

In the middle, Hogg and O’Brien put in monumental shifts to thwart and frustrate Hull. The latter was rewarded with several unpunished clatterings to go along with his concussion in the first half when trying to finish off a Ward cross.

Holmes, operating out wide where he is significantly more effective than in the middle, was busy all afternoon and fully deserved his excellent goal.

Up front, Ward contributed a lot to forward movement though his ability to hold the ball with his back to goal remains poor. For the first half hour, he was dominated by central defenders getting to the ball before him, though when he did free himself of their attention, he showed that he can link up play to good effect.

A game to swiftly move on from, but the very welcome points pushed Town in to the play off positions, cementing a very encouraging opening quarter of the season.

Waving, not drowning

A hard earned point, played against the backdrop of a biblical deluge, sees Town enter the latest international break in pretty rude health.

Desperately poor in a first half where they were bereft of craft or inspiration, Town nevertheless managed to limit a relentlessly aggressive Luton side, buoyed by their nap hand victory over Coventry in midweek, to one gold plated chance just before the much needed break.

As Bell crashed his effort against the woodwork, following excellent work by Cornick to set up the chance, it felt like a pivotal moment in a game where Town appeared to be just waiting to concede.

Despite the Hatters’ dominance, and their intensity couldn’t be criticised, their decision making largely let them down in the final act and Nicholls, who was excellent throughout, was rarely extended. In front of him, Lees put in another peerless performance and cruised through a game others found extremely challenging.

Town undoubtedly missed Hogg in a first half where they rarely advanced in to their opponents’ half with anything resembling purpose. O’Brien battled hard but was unable to exert any real influence, while Scott High looked lost in the face of Luton’s remorseless hunger for possession.

Occasionally, Town tried to loosen Luton’s grip with long balls down the channels, with virtually no success. The one time Thomas was found, he delivered a very good ball in to the isolated and anonymous Ward but the danger was mopped up quite easily by home defenders.

It was a scrap of encouragement for the sodden Town following, but did nothing to dispel the fear that their team was hanging by a few threads and massively more likely to concede than strike on the break.

In dreadful conditions, in a desperately poor arena and against an opponent high in confidence, reaching half time still level was commendable, though Bell’s miss was a huge slice of fortune, and a slender lead would have been the least Luton deserved for their unremitting superiority.

A good towelling down, possibly including a verbal one, at the break seemed to have had the desired effect as Town produced a much improved performance in the second half.

Far more composed and confident in possession, Town began to cause problems for their hitherto unperturbed hosts, particularly down the left.

O’Brien began to surge forward with far more purpose, High was far more effective and the previously anonymous Sinani began finding pockets of space for the first time.

The shift in the balance of power was evident from the kick off, with Town imposing themselves on a tiring opponent who seemed unable to maintain the intensity which had threatened to overwhelm the visitors in the first half (and would’ve undoubtedly swamped last season’s defence).

The first 15 minutes was largely played with Town on the front foot, with corners and a free kick allowing Thomas the opportunity to deliver danger in to the box. Unfortunately, his deliveries failed to trouble the Luton defence, but it was encouraging to see Town shrug off the inadequacies of the first half and operating much further up the pitch.

A curling Sinani effort whistled past the far post, and represented the Terriers’ best effort just over an hour in to the contest. A later strike had power but was straight at the keeper, and it was Sinani who was instrumental to a move which should have opened up the Hatters.

Breaking from a now fairly rare Luton attack, Sinani manufactured a position on the right with Koroma in the clear to his left. Unfortunately, the Luxembourger slightly under hit his pass and the opportunity was, frustratingly, lost.

Luton briefly reasserted themselves with a couple of corners and were handed a free kick on the edge of the box following a clumsy Sarr challenge, which they duly wasted. The hosts’ increasingly rare threats were effectively dealt with by Nicholls and the men in front of him.

Late on, Town created their best chance of the game down the left as a combination between Koroma and Holmes, on for Sinani, freed Toffolo in the box. The full back chose to shoot over the bar rather than lay the ball off to the options in the box; a poor decision.

A winner would have been more than a little harsh on Luton, but the second half turnaround would’ve been sufficient vindication had Town grabbed the 3 points.

7th place going in to the second international break, Town’s progress over the ridiculously poor standards set last season has been moderately pleasing. 

Vulnerability in the first halves of away games is a significant and problematic feature of the campaign so far (and only a slice of good fortune prevented them going behind and likely suffering defeat at Kenilworth Road), and demands resolution.

A much stronger and reliable defence should allow Corberán to build and improve upon a good start, and with notable absences likely to be fit again for a home double header which looks potentially fruitful, a strong start after England have disposed of a team of farmers is eminently achievable.

Thankfully, the delights of Luton’s barely adequate ground, which were several levels of misery worse in a relentless downpour, are behind us for another season.

Maligned, much?

As a terrific contest was reaching it’s crescendo, the much maligned substitution strategy of Huddersfield Town’s much maligned manager justified itself as the much maligned Turton found Toffolo with an excellent cross; the left back looped an assisting header for the much maligned Danny Ward to secure victory with his second goal of the game.

There has been good cause for these malignancies to become common currency amongst the Town support, but, for this evening at least, all was forgotten as a rollickingly excellent clash with an expansive Blackburn Rovers delivered 3 points and banished the sour taste of two poor defeats.

A 3-2 score line is, arguably, more redolent of entertainment in football than any other, particularly if the scoring sequence casts doubt over the result throughout. Lots of goals without being freakish, indicative of committed struggle and achievement and where the loser often leaves the pitch with credit. All of these applied on a quite special evening at the John Smith’s stadium.

After the stagnant displays of late, Town’s energised start to the game was hugely encouraging and created 3 very presentable chances. Before a minute had been clocked, Thomas put in an excellent far post cross met by Koroma who headed across for Ward. Unfortunately, the first half Ward was somewhat diminished compared to his second half performance and his attempt was skewed well wide, coming off his head as if it was thru’penny bit shaped.

Sinani wasted an even easier chance, inevitably set up for him by Thomas, in minute 2, blazing over from near range.

Though Rovers gradually gained more composure, the early momentum remained with the Terriers and a third, more complicated, chance arrived for O’Brien in the box just after the quarter hour. Toffolo capitalised on a slip by a Blackburn defender before laying the ball back to his captain. With defenders closing down space, O’Brien had to hook his foot around the ball to get his shot off. He was marginally short and saw his attempt rattle the woodwork.

It took a while for the visitors to show why they have only been beaten once this season, but their quality on the ball and ability to open up defences became evident even if their execution fell short. 

Brereton’s hard work and willingness to find space, combined with the trickery of Rothwell and Dolan more than hinted at their ability to hurt defences, but the outstanding Lees commanded a largely convincing rearguard in a first half of high entertainment as the 2 sides went toe to toe.

Just as it seemed the Lancastrians had worked their way to the upper hand, Town struck.

Koroma’s persistence saw him rob possession in the middle and his measured, very well timed ball out right was perfectly in the path of the marauding Thomas. Favouring cutting inside, the Welshman celebrated his remarkable progress from Borehamwood to the Wales squad by laying off yet another assist to Vallejo, who swept the ball past a slightly disappointing effort from the Rovers’ custodian.

It was also a fitting reward for an excellent performance from the Spaniard, whose passing and positioning was instrumental in maintaining Town’s progressive momentum.

Rovers responded immediately from the kick off and only blocks by Thomas and Lees prevented an equaliser. They also pounced on a mistake by Koroma who failed to clear with a mangled attempt at an overhead kick and Town were grateful for a good save by Nicholls from the lively Brereton, who had earlier shot just wide from outside the box.

The contrast of the first half of this game to the debacle against Forest was stark. Both sides contributed to a breathless tussle and perhaps therein lies the answer. Rovers came to win and opened up space which allowed Town’s qualities to the fore. Corberán’s dilemma is finding ways to beat the less flamboyant, who tend to pick off his style.

But this wasn’t a night to carp about the past. The second half surpassed the excellent first 45 minutes to produce a classic; even had it ended in a draw, or even a narrow defeat, Town supporters would still have been able to take home warm feelings and, after the bitterness of defeat has disappeared, it is to be hoped Rovers fans can do that.

Town began the second period on the front foot without creating the number of chances they had in the first. A powerful drive by Sinani was too close to the keeper and several promising incursions by the hosts rather faded with the final actions. The intent, however, continued to be savoured by a crowd whose faith was being restored by that intent.

On the hour, however, Town lost Vallejo to injury and the disruption was immediately felt.

The impressive Rothwell, whose own departure later through injury had a similar disrupting impact on Blackburn, picked up the ball just inside Town’s half and embarked upon a surging, quite thrilling, run past O’Brien and then Pearson before squaring for Brereton, who had a little work to do before equalising.

Town shrugged off the disappointment, regained their composure and produced the best goal of a great game. Ward, by this point playing with a natural confidence largely unseen since his return, started and finished the move. His link up play was a few percentage points up on the first half, which were adequate, and the difference was exponential.

Taking a forward pass instinctively in his stride, he fed Sinani who, in turn, released Thomas to deliver a superb cross in to the perfect area between keeper and defenders. Ward got in between the much taller central defenders and buried a perfect header past Kaminski.

Within minutes, Blackburn struck back, all be it aided by the gifting of a penalty as Sarr’s lunge was hurdled by Brereton with any contact happening after the ball had gone. In real time, the decision of a generally poor and indulgent referee was understandable however, and the Chilean from the Potteries bagged his own brace from the spot. Nicholls nearly reached it but it was firmly and very accurately slotted in to the corner.

Resilience in adversity is not a trait often associated with Corberán’s squads, or many since Wagner to be totally fair, and may have informed his decision, which seemed baffling at the time, to substitute Thomas and Koroma following 10 minutes of decent reaction to the second equaliser when Town were on top.

Koroma’s withdrawal was perhaps the more understandable. His contribution to the first goal was substantial, but his efforts afterwards rather less so. Turton for Thomas looked entirely defensive, however, and seemingly an admittance that a point would suffice. Which wasn’t entirely without merit.

Counter intuitively, and as described many paragraphs ago, Turton provided the cross from which Ward, who, again, had instigated the move, converted following Toffolo’s very deliberate set up.

After the lead, Corberán’s substitutes, including Ruffles, the 1,000th player to represent the club, helped see out a rather nervous last few minutes and the 6 of injury time which followed.

Despite the concession of 2 goals, one predicated by a flash of brilliance and the other a less than convincing penalty award, Town were largely excellent defensively. Lees was magnificent, as was Nicholls, while everyone else involved created a difficult unit to break down, which bodes well.

It was the verve of the attacking which will, rightly, be remembered, however. This was many miles away from the tentative, safe and slow play which hampers the individual qualities the squad possesses. The performance had a natural and instinctive tone and some very good displays. Blackburn’s expansiveness aided this, and they contributed hugely to a great spectacle (including 2 fabulously inept foul throws) but the confidence sapping week which preceded this still had to be overcome.

At the final whistle, Toffolo went to collect a banner from behind the goal in support of a young Town fan suffering from terrible disease, to demonstrate the support of the club for him, as the players and staff stood behind it.

It was a reminder about the nature of triumph and defeat in sport and everyone extends their support to Daz in his battle.

Cut down to size

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Championship though? Weird.

Tangerine Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So does their coach.

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

Book your Wembley hotel (tongue firmly in cheek).