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).

Back down to earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A right Royal demolition

A lot more evidence will be required for many to be convinced that Town have turned the corner and can deliver a season free of desperate struggle, soul sapping defeats and barely deserved survival, but an encouraging start to the season was confirmed by an emphatic home victory.

Amongst a clutch of very good performances, notably the back 3, Hogg, Sinani and Koroma, the impossibly exciting Sorba Thomas, with 2 assists and his first senior goal, stood out, yet again, on an afternoon which couldn’t have gone much better for the Terriers.

Completing a third win on the trot, Town overwhelmed a desperately poor Reading side who could barely cope with the plethora of threats carried by the hosts as Corberán could leave the early season Covid issues well and truly behind, naming a strong squad with options all across the bench.

The opening half hour saw plenty of intent from the confident Terriers, which was slightly let down in execution too often, particularly by a surprisingly unsure O’Brien, and only an excellent free kick by Sinani, which slammed against the far post caused genuine consternation for the visitors, but pressure was building.

A marvellous cross field ball by Colwill found Thomas on the right. The youngster executed a precocious flick over Yiadom, leaving the Reading right back on the floor, controlled the dropping ball with his chest before hitting a first time ball in to the area which eluded Ward and two defenders before reaching O’Brien. The sought after midfielder slotted home from close range for a deserved lead.

The promise of the first half blossomed in a second period brimming with hope as Town dismantled their hapless opponents.

Within 5 minutes, victory was all but assured as Thomas curled yet another superb free kick delivery behind the Royals’ defence for Pearson to tap in. The defender was one of a clutch of players who could have converted, such was the quality of the ball in.

Reading responded with their best spell of the game, forcing a couple of corners and free kicks but couldn’t translate it in to anything even vaguely alarming for Town’s dominant defence and assured goalkeeper.

As they pushed forward in the hope of a nerve inducing goal, the Berkshire outfit simply exposed themselves to counter attacks in to the spaces necessarily vacated and were punished twice in quick succession just after the hour mark.

First, Thomas carried the ball from just inside his own half with pace and purpose, received a little luck from an attempted challenge just outside the box, which his adventure deserved, and found a yard of space before steering his shot across the keeper for his first Town goal.

Minutes later, Koroma collected the ball in a tight spot on the left, pushed it past Reading’s right back and roasted him for pace before supplying Ward, unmarked, in the box. The rightly maligned striker neatly side stepped the exposed keeper and slotted home a much needed goal.

Ward, who upped his game to adequate levels of competency was substituted immediately but could reflect on a much improved performance. Doubts, sewn over many, many months, remain but it would be unfair not to acknowledge his contribution to a hugely satisfying team display.

The problems Corberán faced last season as injuries ravaged a thin squad, forcing him in to fielding an inexperienced and panic inducing goalkeeper, relying on ageing central defenders prone to error and an attacking force of minimal threat seem to have been largely resolved.

Nicholls provides the much improved back line with a level of assuredness and certainty, the flair on both flanks is unrecognisable from last season’s tepid efforts and while creativity in the middle and a genuine cutting edge at centre forward remains elusive, the positive improvements throughout the side overcomes those issues just enough.

Sinani offers something a little different too. He needs time to adjust to the rigours of the Championship, but the potential is real.

Much sterner tests await. A depleted and, frankly, terrible Reading offered little and their ridiculous spending seems ready to bite them badly this term but the confidence and momentum Town can take from a thoroughly entertaining and encouraging afternoon augurs well.

If, as seems more likely than not, O’Brien stays now that a sickening move down the A62 appears off, and if Mbenza can be taken off the payroll opening up the possibility of recruiting a striker or creator, Corberán should be able to guide Town to a season with far less trauma. 

And maybe better.

Levi lifts spirits

Bramall Lane erupted in relieved delight as Billy Sharp finally got the better of a resilient rearguard action by Huddersfield Town, scoring the Blades’ first League goal of the season and surely earning a deserved point for his side? The veteran had already given notice that his obligatory strike against the visitors was on its way with a snap volley straight at Nicholls.

Most of the Yorkshire crowd would have accepted a draw following a largely dour struggle, though the West riding contingent felt more deflated that an injury time leveller apparently prevented a second, dogged, victory of the week.

It is greatly to the Terriers’ credit that, rather than clamming up to protect their reduced reward, they won a corner and decided to deliver it rather than take all the sting out of the game with some time consuming tippy-tappy (which invariably results in a dead ball and a final assault).

Thomas’s delivery, which had been a little below par on the few opportunities he had, was far more dangerous this time and needed to be cleared. Picking up the ball, Sarr laid it sideways to Vallejo, whose pass was intended for O’Brien but landed at Toffolo’s feet. The much missed full back superbly turned his marker and laid the ball square for Colwill to convert his first professional goal and Town’s winner.

Two minutes of an otherwise forgettable game may, and perhaps should, provide the catalyst for an upturn in fortune for Town. Though still lacking much of a spark, and heavily reliant on Thomas for moments of entertainment, the shambles witnessed against Fulham has been replaced by unspectacular (to say the least) discipline.

Neither of the subsequent opponents have the quality of the favourites for the league, but the Blades can call upon 4 strikers of variety who were largely subdued as they took turns to try and break down their Yorkshire neighbours. Sarr, in particular, stood firm and, so far, is only eclipsed by Thomas as Town’s most effective individual.

Town started quite well, taking the game to their nervous hosts, fresh from a midweek battering, but the early promise fizzled out quickly and United began to dominate possession. Pushed back, the Terriers were disciplined, restricting their hosts to a spectacular but fairly harmless overhead attempt by McBurnie which Nicholls pushed away with relative ease and a free kick by Norwood straight at the well positioned keeper.

Norwood’s opportunity arose from Turton and Hogg over passing on the halfway line allowing McBurnie space to run at the defence. Turton, who needs to step up in the absence of Pipa and is too prone to error, fouled the Scottish international on the edge of the box.

Through the middle, the obvious class of Berge rather shone out despite the youngster failing to unlock Town’s defensive wall. Scares were few for the visitors but with them carrying no threat themselves, the contest rarely nudged above the mundane.

Ten years ago, the last Blades v Terriers league meeting in Sheffield featured Danny Ward. It was patently absurd that he featured again (but for his injury, Jordan Rhodes, a sub that day, would also be back on the away bench), made all the more ludicrous by his supreme ineffectiveness in the previous 2 games.

On the hour, Town made the changes which would ultimately decide the game. The invisible Ward made way for Campbell, while Toffolo replaced High. The appearance of the first choice left back allowed Town to change shape and dynamic; Ward’s anaemic display was replaced by Campbell’s energy, which may not bring the veteran many goals but causes far more difficulties for the opposition.

Suddenly, the visitors, who had survived a spell of sustained but chance free pressure, began to threaten. Koroma shot wide from a decent position and Campbell spurned 2 opportunities to shoot before being robbed of possession. But the Terriers had disrupted the one way traffic and exploited United’s nerves as a first goal continued to elude them.

It seemed inevitable that Town would score after soaking up so much pressure, and an excellent through ball by Thomas to Koroma opened up the Blades’ defence. Koroma got a shot away which was blocked by Foderingham but calmly side footed the rebound to register his first goal of the season.

Sharp’s equaliser, a goal created by his strength and instinct, and Colwill’s late winner embellished a game low on quality if high on endeavour. 

The similarities between Sheffield United’s first season back in the Championship following an awful 2nd Premier League campaign and that endured by Town are pretty obvious. Blades fans should look at our plight over the past few seasons and worry.

For the Terriers, this week may or may not prove pivotal to their fortunes. Other than brief spells towards the end of each game, performances have been poor, if determined, but the return of Toffolo augurs well for the options Corberán now has for his team.

No doubt this cautious optimism will come crashing down at some point, sooner rather than later perhaps, but to take 7 points from a quartet of fixtures where we have played well for just short periods, and this is being charitable, is encouraging.

It’s an ill wind…..

Low on confidence, bereft of quality and hit by illness in the squad which forced a late change at the back as well as a blessed substitution at half time, Huddersfield Town snaffled 3 welcome but thoroughly undeserved points on a night of relentlessly turgid football.

Preston, early prime candidates for relegation alongside their woeful hosts, spurned two reasonable chances in a first half as rancid as any seen over the past few years of interminable struggle, while Town’s inability to cause even a modicum of threat put an intermittently restless crowd in to a stupor.

Fear of losing hung heavy in the air throughout the opening half, with transition seemingly beyond the Terriers. Up front, Koroma was pushed forward to make a two with the wretched Ward, though he spent most of his time occupying Thomas’s space and blunting the almost non existent threat the team carried so ponderously. 

Turton, presumably, was supposed to be the right sided wing back, yet forays forward were rare and invariably fruitless.

In midfield, glimpses of O’Brien’s ability to surge forward belied the price Leeds are reportedly ready to pay for him while the dynamism shown on Saturday by Scott High was entirely absent as the youngster drifted in to deep, unthreatening positions on the right far too often.

Hogg’s worryingly pedestrian start to the season continued, with his efforts subdued by a, perhaps forgivable, emphasis on protecting his defenders.

Ward, who was withdrawn at half time with illness, managed to match his now infamous lack of contribution against Fulham with an appearance of staggering pointlessness.

Guilty of giving away possession, wandering without intent and barely competing in the air, if he has transmitted any infection it will be the first time he has passed anything to a team mate in two halves of football.

On the positive side, it was a relief to welcome some competence in between the posts as Nicholls made his league debut, though he didn’t have a huge workload in the first half, while Sarr made an important block on the line to prevent Evans converting the best chance of the game and dominated in the air in the box.

Sarr also came to the rescue when his young colleague, Colwill, lost the ball in a dangerous area with a slip.

Other than the occasional foray down the left by Thomas, when his path wasn’t blocked by Koroma, Town’s impotence didn’t even extend to shooting blanks. It wasn’t just that they failed to register a shot on target, they barely mustered an effort worthy of note.

Ward’s ineptitude may charitably be attributed to his reported illness and his withdrawal at half time handed his manager something of an undeserved gift as Campbell’s energy and sometimes misplaced enthusiasm gave Preston far more to think about.

Not that his colleagues took the cue. Leaden footed, slow to pass and with far too many desperately mundane performances, Town struggled to find any cohesion and a goalless evening beckoned. 

Their opponents, who displayed more competence and basic technique, were nevertheless rather predictable and rarely tested the home defence beyond the occasional panic redolent of the Terriers for so long.

O’Brien’s possibly final appearance for Town ended with his substitution by Holmes. Tame as the likely final hurrah had been, he leaves with good wishes, even if the promotion to a Premier League bench seems rather premature. 

Putting aside his shambolic display on Saturday, Holmes offered something a little different to the plodding efforts up to his arrival, and, for the first time, Town offered a little more going forward (though showing less would have been impossible). He was, at least, willing to try to join up with the isolated attackers and his run forward which resulted in the winning goal was to be applauded, if not the attempt at execution.

Fed by Koroma, the American’s first touch in the box eluded him but not the sliding feet of Van Den Berg who pushed the ball past the previously unemployed Iversen.

It was entirely fitting that this entertainment free game was settled in such a manner.

To be fair to Town, the lead seemed to spark some life and confidence in to them and the exciting Thomas, the one offensive bright spark, nearly killed the contest with a curling shot against the post following another incisive run.

Koroma should have buried North End late on when freed by the hard working Campbell but screwed his shot wide, preserving Town’s proud record of no shots on target despite collecting maximum points.

The desperate visitors were unable to conjure any guile against a now deep defensive wall, though their one dimensional play did force an error from Nicholls who came out too far to flap at a ball which would’ve been dealt with. The subsequent mêlée saw the otherwise peerless Sarr smash an attempted clearance against Turton. Thankfully, the ball looped in to Nicholls’ arms.

To the disappointment of few, all Lancastrian, the referee called time on a contest between two clubs more than likely to be struggling throughout the season.

As it is, however, Town’s good fortune saw them climb to 16th in the table, out of the play off positions on goal difference. On this performance, this will be the closest they ever get to such a position and nobody leaving the ground was fooled.

Nicholls, Sarr and Thomas produced acceptable performances amidst the crud and the introduction of a fit Pipa and Toffolo in to the side could make a huge difference but the confusing tactics, the ever present threat of comedy goals against and the inevitability of far superior opposition than Preston remain foreboding.

Recruitment with the O’Brien money, if allowed, is key. At least 5 of the team put out should be the nucleus of a reasonable bench, which will only be possible if higher quality and proven players arrive, and quickly.

Bramall Lane will be a test of much higher magnitude; it is to be hoped that this inglorious victory will inspire some confidence to meet that challenge.

Fragile Town blown away

There are mitigations, but it is an enormously charitable stretch to believe that a catastrophic home defeat is anything other than portentous for another season of dire struggle.

Missing 4 senior players takes its toll, though one, possibly two, of them will be sold in this window anyway and the shallowness of the squad being exposed so early is desperately worrying. 

The enforced absence of Nicholls once again threw Schofield to the lions. Nervous and shredded of confidence, it is now borderline cruelty to play him and with the first choice almost certainly out of Tuesday’s game, Bilokapic should step up. This is a depressing solution which may harm another youngster, but the constant refusal to accept that Ryan Schofield simply isn’t close to being Championship standard has delivered yet another avoidable crisis.

Fulham will undoubtedly challenge for the Championship title this season, but the level of comfort they enjoyed for large swathes of a ludicrously one sided contest was a tactical embarrassment for Corberán, whose position is surely under severe scrutiny. Home supporters were treated to the young coach’s frantic touchline extortions for the first time in the flesh and, coupled with his Bielsa tribute act, which seems to consist entirely of aping his seating arrangement, few could have been impressed.

A crazy first ten minutes sealed Town’s fate. After an early chance for the visitors was saved by Schofield, the Terriers were denied the lead by a linesman’s flag which was baffling to everyone but the official. The corner had been won by Holmes who forced a save following a lay back by Thomas. 

Ward shot in to the side netting following a promising move, but amateur hour was just around the corner.

Thomas, who had delivered an excellent corner for the disallowed Pearson effort, inexplicably volleyed a back pass from the half way line towards Schofield. The ball appeared to be well over the dead ball line as the much maligned keeper tried to control it on his chest and then saw his, frankly ridiculous, attempt at a clearance hit Mitrovic and in to the net.

The outlandish comedy of errors surrounding the opener seemed to paralyse the home team and Fulham dominated all areas of the pitch and imposed their obvious superiority. A full half hour of struggle followed as Fulham pushed past their opponents with alarming ease. Hogg, Holmes and Vallejo were reduced to rubble as their ponderous attempts to gain even a tiny amount of control utterly failed.

A routine save from Mitrovic, who should have buried the chance, was followed by the same player heading past Schofield only to be called offside. Wilson missed a sitter as the visitors’ grip on the game became overwhelming.

For the second week in a row, Town were finally breached on the back post following a corner. It was the least the Londoners deserved and there looked no way back for the demoralised hosts.

Out of the blue, however, and with just 5 minutes until the sanctuary of half time, Town halved the deficit as Pearson met another Thomas corner delivery. If the Terriers could professionally see out the rest of the half, a glimmer of hope could be embraced.

It was extinguished within 2 minutes when Holmes lost possession following a throw in and Fulham burst forward. Turton and Koroma allowed Decordova-Reid to advance in to the area and provide Carvalho with an easy chance and the two goal cushion was restored.

Town had thrown away a barely deserved foothold in the game with rank amateurism and left the pitch to understandable jeers of a crowd seeing their return to the stadium ruined by the ineptitude so familiar from home viewing.

Campbell replaced the ineffective Ward at half time while Vallejo was chosen, presumably by lots, to be sacrificed and High came on. Corberán could have hooked any of the 3 midfielders, and it was a little surprising that Holmes and Hogg, both of whom had shockers, were left on.

High added some energy to the docile Terriers, and for a time a level of competency threatened to break out. It was short lived and while Koroma finally made Gazzaniga in the Fulham goal make an easy save, it wasn’t long before the visitors regained control, with Wilson hitting the bar after Schofield parried the ball in the Welsh international’s path.

Wilson was sent off for a retaliatory kick on Colwill after the Chelsea loanee had fouled him.

Seasoned Town supporters know that the opposition going down to ten men is rarely a cause for optimism, and it proved to be entirely meaningless again. Trying to push forward, Town were caught square by a superbly weighted pass for Cavaleiro, who had the easy chance to beat Schofield for Fulham’s 4th after destroying Pearson for pace.

The final humiliation came just before the curtain came down on yet another heavy, punishing defeat under Corberán, with Cavaleiro easily avoiding the attention of Pearson to give the score line an entirely accurate representation of the game.

With the exception of Colwill, whose ease on the ball puts his massively more experienced colleagues to shame, the summer recruitment programme, which aimed to add depth to Town’s elderly and creaking defence of 2019/20, lay shattered and broken by the end. 

Ripped asunder by a vastly superior opponent, it may prove to be a simple mismatch of resources, but the nature of the defeat was deeply demoralising, and witnessing it live brought the club’s travails stretching back to early 2018 in to bleak focus.

Poor recruitment, a coach who tries to impose a style of play well beyond the resources at his disposal and a hierarchy grappling with the problems left behind by the former benefactor add up to yet another season of struggle. 

Serving up a supine, error ridden display with virtually no redeeming qualities in front of their first live home crowd was disastrous; the suspicions of those not already convinced that a desolate future seems inevitable were starkly brought to the fore, making redemption even more difficult to achieve.

It was unfortunate to have to play a weakened team against a relegated Premier League squad likely to bounce back, but Town were incapable of meeting any of the challenges such a fixture brings and the reasons for that failure are far more complex and deep seated than economic disparity.

Fulham, cheered on by a disappointing number of followers, effortlessly negotiated an easy game and though they would be wise not to over estimate the value of this victory given the shambolic opponent, look well equipped to go straight back up again.

By the time they drop back down, the chances of them making another trip to Huddersfield look slim.

Thomas erases doubts

In the end, Wayne Rooney was able to name an experienced first eleven after a week of drama as his boss tried to navigate around the sanctions he himself has brought upon the Rams, and the delusional predictions of an easy task for the Terriers predictably evaporated.

Town’s own, more short term, difficulties arose in the run up to the game and stripped them of a goalkeeper, two left backs and their most valuable asset (also a sometime, if misjudged, left back). With Corberán also isolating, the disruption was complete.

Defensively, Town look far more capable of overcoming injury and suspension this season, though that is a particularly low bar to clear, and the adoption of a back 3 in some games had been predicted, if not for the opener. With Turton on the right being significantly more defensive minded than Pipa, risks were reduced somewhat but at the expense of threat.

An ill prepared but experienced home side was pitched against a well prepared but disrupted visiting team and the eventual sharing of points was a fair outcome in a game lacking quality in most areas, but not effort. 

The fact that Derby didn’t visibly tire as the game wore on was admirable given their horrible circumstances and, indeed, they could have claimed all 3 points had Schofield not made up for a poor decision parrying a low cross in to a dangerous area with a good save from Sibley.

Minutes before that heart in mouth moment, substitute Campbell fired an excellent chance too close to Roos with Town looking increasingly more likely to grab a win.

The introduction of Campbell and Koroma introduced a better dynamic than the partnership of Ward and Rhodes. Neither of the original front two played badly but they lacked chemistry and produced little in the way of threat.

A disappointing first half, as the sides weighed each other up, was only brightened by Sorba Thomas’s vibrant and fearless efforts. None of his substitute appearances last season suggested the vertiginous raising of his levels he is showing, despite the obvious enthusiasm he displayed.

Somehow, Corberán needs to find a way of accommodating both Thomas and Koroma – the latter looked nearer to his own high standards when he came on than in his disappointing display at Hillsborough last Sunday.

Derby opened the scoring rather out of the blue, though an uncharacteristic error by Pearson had nearly let the home side in just before the half hour with Schofield doing well to close down the threat and the Rams had a brief period of ascendancy before their opener.

Giving away a corner following good work from Lawrence, the ball should either have been headed away by Holmes defending the near post or left to Schofield who came to claim it only to be thwarted by the ex-Derby man’s unintended flick on which flew to the back post. A combination of Curtis Davies and Levi Colwill bundled the ball over the line.

Encouragingly, Town were level by the break as the impressive Thomas delivered a superb ball in to the box from a free kick (he had delivered another to Rhodes minutes before which the striker didn’t quite connect with and the glance went wide). This one was met, unchallenged, by the towering Sarr and momentum switched back to the visitors for the second half.

Even before the half time whistle blew, High drew a good save from Roos and the subsequent corner should have caused more danger following another Rhodes flick.

A more interesting second half followed, with Town largely on the front foot but Derby looking dangerous on the break. The visitors played too slowly on the whole, though the penetration provided by Thomas was enhanced by the arrival of Koroma who carried threat down the right and Town began to look the more potent.

A corner resulting from another passage of attacking play found Pearson unmarked and the defender should have buried the chance rather than head over. Thomas, of course, had put the opportunity on Pearson’s head.

The outstanding player of the game then set Campbell free for another gilt edged opportunity but his shot was too close to Roos and, at that moment, it felt that the visitors’ chances of a winning start to the campaign had gone.

That final lapse and redemption by Schofield ensured that a positive, if slightly disappointing, result was achieved.

Playing their first competitive game ahead of the new season was sensible preparation, only to be ruined by the COVID problems, while the circumstances of their opponents, which will bite later in the season, added up to a game where conclusions are difficult to draw. 

The anticipointment (yes, this is a word!) which usually accompanies the first game was absent, though the joy of both sets of fans to be present was not.

Stiffer challenges await, particularly in the next 5 games, but the emergence of Thomas as a talent of great potential will be fascinating to witness. Goals look as scarce as ever, but a Thomas/Koroma combination may provide the ammunition up front to keep Town clear of trouble, if the former can maintain his progress and the latter can adapt to playing down the right.

Defensively, Town look more secure, though they need a calmer influence behind them than Schofield. Nicholls needs to be restored against Fulham, if his circumstances permit.

A strange opening day, then, but life apparently returning back to normal is to be celebrated. It felt good.