Ahead of tonight’s game there was no doubt what was expected and what was hoped for. A much-weakened team without a win in eight games, coming off the back of what was by all accounts a poor performance at Boro, up against a side one place above the relegation spots and themselves without a win in five. Needless to say you take any sort of ground-out, ugly win – and don’t go in anticipation of a demonstration of the beautiful game, especially on a wet pitch in blustry conditions (to the point where it wasn’t just the North Stand lower tier running for shelter from the rain).
And in that context the first half didn’t disappoint. Bowyer opted for a back five with Pratley sitting in front of it, which with the full backs not venturing past the half-way line left Gallagher to contest much of midfield almost on his own, to try to supply a disparate trio of Bonne, Leko and Doughty. It looked as though the instructions might have been ‘keep it very tight, keep a clean sheet to the break, if we’re lucky we might nick something at the other end, then we’ll change it at some point in the second half’.
To say the forward players were feeding on scraps would be an understatement. A ball bounced over their defender’s head to let in Doughty but he shot over the bar, one or two set pieces (one after Lockyer – I think – made a good break forward only to be taken out, their guy picking up a yellow), and that was about it. At the other end Huddersfield’s front two (including Grant of course) had pace and movement, but our set-up afforded them no space. One routine save for Phillips (plus a strange decision from him to head a ball away when he was well inside his area; if he wasn’t sure fair enough), some threat from corners was the sum total. They’d had more of the ball but to that extent our gameplan had worked.
So at the break we’d had 45 minutes of pretty horrible stuff but the promise of a different second period attacking the Covered End, with a certain someone on the bench. One thing worth noting was that Gallagher had picked up a yellow, for his fourth or fifth slightly mistimed challenge, but he showed commendable maturity after that by adjusting his approach, not giving the ref an excuse to give him another but remaining combative.
The second half was likely to be different – and it was. Huddersfield found ways around our defenders twice early on (at least once from a corner) and both times hard, low shots prompted superb saves from Phillips to turn them around the post. In a game in which the first goal was becoming increasingly important it was only thanks to him that we were still on level terms.
However, after those scares we started to come into things more. It was noticeable that Solly was getting further forward, Sarr was bringing the ball out down the left side more often (not always to good effect but always with intent), and with the urging of the crowd we were starting to look as if we might carry a threat, although Bonne and Leko were being well marshalled by their defence (I kept noticing their number 27, Stankovic, who dealt with everything).
With 20 minutes left on the clock the change we expected was made, Taylor making his long-awaited return. Have to say I was a little surprised that it was Leko who made way. Not that he was having much of an influence but as I’d have liked to see what we might have done with him and Bonne either side of Taylor (and shortly after Doughty was replaced by Vennings). The change lifted the crowd again and we went looking for the winner.
And we did produce two moments when it might have come. First, good work down the left involving Gallagher and Bonne produced a low cross just behind Taylor but running onto it was Solly. He hit the shot well but a defender threw himself in the way to block. Then arguably the game’s defining moment as a ball into their box was deflected up and Sarr and Taylor seemed to combine to get it over the line. However, the linesman’s flag had gone up well before the ball was in the net. Seems Bowyer is saying it should have been a goal, I’d have to see it again.
Huddersfield did themselves have a moment or two in the final 20 mins, including one situation when their guys were lined up on the left side of our box in isolation only for the ball not to find a way through to them. But in that final 20 period there was really only one side looking to win the game – and looking likely to.
Into three minutes of stoppage time and it looked like we’d have to take the point. But a move down their left saw the ball covered by Solly, should have been a routine clearance. Instead he rather lamely knocked it out straight to their guy, who advanced and put in another low cross. Like the two before it early in the half the ball in was hit well and this time Phillips could do nothing about it. And shortly after the final whistle went.
One advantage of drowning your sorrows after a game rather than dashing back to scribble something is you can have a look at Bowyer’s comments. He said the players gave “absolutely everything”, which was undoubtedly the case, no questioning the effort and commitment. He added “we score a goal that gets disallowed for offside – He’s not offside”, which is possible, have to see the replays. He also said “we didn’t get anything that we deserved from the game today” and that “in the second half it only looked like one team was going to win it”. I’d say almost. In the final 20 minutes we were the team going for the win, but that was after two saves early in the second half which kept us in the game. Over the 90 minutes (45 really given that the first half was a waste of time) I’d guess a neutral would say a draw would have been fair and of course losing in stoppage time is always a kick in the teeth.
It's tough, the chances are we’ll drop some more in the table with tonight’s games, and we’ve Hull on Friday evening, with Bowyer indicating that Taylor shouldn’t be risked to start the game. Whether there’s any reshuffling of the small pack for that game remains to be seen as until Taylor is fully match-fit (and signed up on a new contract) we are bit in limbo. The real decision will probably be whether to stick with a back five and Pratley in front of it.
Phillips – 9/10. His two saves kept us in the game, no chance with their goal.
Purrington – 7/10. I saw nothing wrong and, like Solly, he got forward more often in the second half.
Solly – 6/10. Might have been an 8 rating if his shot had found the net and if he hadn’t made such a hash of the clearance for their goal.
Lockyer – 7/10. Can’t really have any complaints about the central back three, all of whom did their job.
Pearce – 7/10. Perhaps still looks a little rusty, one or two unnecessary fouls conceded, but overall sound.
Sarr – 7/10. Defensively a mistake or two and mixed results going forward, but he does give you something different.
Pratley – 6/10. Nothing wrong with him being asked to protect the defence, but with five of them didn’t leave much over for the midfield to cause them any problems.
Gallagher – 8/10. The mark isn’t because he had a great game. He didn’t. But he was aware enough to adjust after his yellow card, strived manfully with little help in the first half, and was involved in most of our best moments when we went more on the attack in the second.
Doughty – 6/10. Bright in the first 20 minutes or so but became increasingly peripheral as the game went on (to be fair he was subbed for the final period when we attacked most).
Leko – 6/10. Not much went his way and like Doughty was taken off for our most attacking period. Doesn’t look comfortable trying to play more centrally with a partner and had little joy against their centre-backs.
Bonne – 6/10. Kept going but for much of the game was outplayed by their defenders and didn’t manage to hold the ball to wait for support. We wait to see if he can form a good partnership with Taylor (or of course if he or Taylor leaves in January).
Subs – Taylor (6/10 – no miracle return, but that would have been expecting too much); Vennings (6/10 – questionable whether it was the best choice to send him on into an area where we were struggling to compete).