|A Retrospective: August to December 2014|
Written by Mullet on Monday, 22nd Dec 2014 11:31
When Town opened this season at home in the August sun, a new dawn of optimism and gentle hope shone about the place. Mick and Terry had plugged the leaks and steadied the ship.
Last season ended with the loss of David McGoldrick and the loss of momentum that ultimately would keep most of us pretty grounded. That injury still hungover Didzy and the whole place as he was consigned to the bench.
In his stead was lanky Hungarian Balint Bajner. Plucked from the obscurity of Dortmund's never-seen nether regions a lot of questions were coming forth. Unfit but undeterred the new recruit charged at the visitors who had recently tumbled from years of Premiership banality and had at their disposal a mad professor on the touchline, furiously mixing talented kids and £12 million Ross McCormack in a heady cocktail of contrast to everything Town had/were. Needless to say the omens were soon cast for our season and the rest of the division.
It was hard to suggest that the disarray across the loads-a-money West Londoners' whole side was indicative of them spending the opening weeks of the season hurtling towards relegation. But as any good Town fan knows, a whole wealth (or more pertinently spending) has been no match for teams that are united and together throughout our record stay in the second tier. We've sat on both cheeks of that particular posterior after all.
Murphy took just over half an hour to open his account for the season, and right then little of us would foresee the interest his importance would accumulate for Town. McG joined on the stroke of half-time, the newboy Bajner was completely out of steam and time. It was barely after an hour the secondary striker in our deadly duo would take a second goal-bound strike and secure Town all three points.
In a game which saw Dean Gerken in goal, Elliott Hewitt on the right wing and a bench of Anthony Wordsworth, Kevin Bru, Frank Nouble, Alex Henshall and Jack Marriott all keeping Didzy company it's hard to envision so much would change and yet stay the same.
When Cole Skuse went off and Mick mixed the midfield the results allowed Fulham a glimmer of hope and Blues the first lesson in the importance of shape and possession, the downturn in play gifting a consolation goal. It would be a pattern within patterns that have dictated our half-season success thus far.
By the time we went to previous year's Houdini act Birmingham, Town had lost in tight game to a single goal at the soulless Madejski bowl. Our inability to finish chances at St Andrew's meant we had ended up on borrowed time and just like Lee Clark in May, we had one last escape act in us.
Gifting two goals, it was a double strike from Christophe Berra utilising Town's mix of set-piece superiority and never-say-die attitude that rescued a hard fought point. The impressive bow of Henshall as a much needed harbinger of speed and direct threat, as well Bajner's neat touch to make one or two telling incursions including the equaliser deep into injury time would have lead many Town fans to assume that the whole season ahead hinged on these two results. Win at home, nick as much as you can away and see just how far that takes us.
Leaving Birmingham always brings a sense of elation, but doing so with a rescued point and the manner of our fightback were all too intoxicating as drunk up a great atmosphere in the away end that night. The clear pros and cons of tying ourselves to the shoestring approach was apparent even back then.
The new recruits showed that, a mixture of youth, long-shots and ragtags, the only money we'd spent was £10,000 on a lanky understudy to Aaron Cresswell who spent last season out of sight and was now thrust into the limelight following the multi-million pound departure. Ours has been an investment in character and Town's presumed security within the new world of FFP is down to shrewd stock early doors now paying dividends.
The early forays of the season had given many to wonder and worry when the wheels would fall off. Even Mick's miracle at the beginning of his tenure was rudely ripped apart by runaways Leicester as loanees on borrowed time were crucified. It wouldn't be a Championship season without the odd hammering on the way.
As the usual suspects threw money about and fans nationwide, threw accusations of mid-table aspirations and lacking ambition at I daresay most of the clubs in the country, Town went about slowly employing a soft revolution, a style that saw a hand of steel in a velour glove.
Mick's previous fee-commanding signing Wordsworth joined Scott Loach and much-missed expensive flop Paul Taylor at Yorkshire's answer to Colchester – Rotherham. The Championship new boys gladly taking our offcuts and outcasts.
Joining these players on the way out was £25,000 gamble Nouble whoes dreadful showing in the Capital One Cup defeat at Crawley dumped him out of the club. For all the hard work he showed here, the quality simply never emerged.
Waiting in the wings were a host of new faces. Cameron Stewart had caused quite a stir when arriving here on a free. A quick and attacking winger who could play both sides, he was very much the antithesis of Taylor and promised to add much needed firepower and balance. His only impact so far was to a soon fractured jaw and as we sit here at Christmas, he's still not emerged in the first-team picture. He remains one of several questions as yet unanswered.
Since the start of the season Mick has been ruthless. Ruthless to the press who criticise, ruthless to the players who don't conform, and ruthless to the opposing managers left complaining of hoofball and Town's physical approach as they are left kicking shadows and pointing fingers outwards, all the while we are pissing outwards as we move upwards.
Town closed the opening month of the season with a Bank Holiday visit to Derby. Our last game there had been a 4-4 thriller where yet to be in charge Steve McClaren orchestrated a massive fightback by strolling into the changing rooms and taking over a little early. This season they showed the streetwise threat you'd expect of a team spearheaded by Chris Martin. Town had other ideas and showed up looking anything but woolly.
It's important to remember that Tyrone Mings wasn't yet fully convincing or established for everyone. We actually started that game with him on the bench and Jonny Parr at left-back. The same back four as the game just gone with Boro. To think we went into Saturday's game wondering if we'd suffer for his absence is far from lost on me. Again August would be made on another goal from Berra. In a tense and exciting draw away from home we saw again how Town just don't give up.
The second half saw Mings replace the concussed captain and Parr switch flanks. It opened up the possibility of having two dynamic full-backs on the pitch at once. It showed that for all his knockers, Chambers wasn't a square peg, just that he doesn't have the natural athleticism of Parr and Mings. With the revelation of Bru playing in the hole and Henshall ahead of Mings down the left the first real proof of Mick's ingenuity and Town's versatility played out.
To think in pre-season Bru especially, had been publicly written off by a few, the critical tone of the 'on the cheap' approach had very little substance a full calendar month later. With the clarity of hindsight it's easy to see the quality of passing Bru has and the fact he can play deep and advanced and still find a man is excellent.
Yet, he still can't hold down a regular place in the side. A draw at Derby that day left Town in 19th in the table on just six points. Admittedly it was early days and places incredibly tight but to think that point we'd overhaul 17 places in as many games is slightly mindboggling to say the least.
September and October contrasted as Town raced into a near month of wins followed by a then sneer-inducing run of draws punctured by defeat on foreign soil in the Welsh capital. Knocking aside Millwall, Brighton, Wigan and Rotherham at a pace of braces, conceding just once on a Monday in front of the Sky cameras. A hard-fought draw the bum note at the end of strident late summer run for Town.
Returning to Town and then to Palace in the interim was last season's poster boy Jonny Williams. The Welsh wizard helped secure a point at Hillsborough in a game where Town were let off several times before the unfit sub, was thrown on and threw himself forward to stab home a valuable point.
Like Bru, like Noel Hunt's bonkers 95th winner at Charlton, like so many of the squad its been the supporting cast and the cameos that have really made Town's season thus far. Nothing sums up Championship football better than Town's ability to rescue owt from nowt. It's the simple Yorkshire mindset of Mick that emboldens our play and proves to be most Town fans' cup of tea.
However, October was as cruel a month as any. With Town in generous form. Gifting last minute equalisers in tough and tense games to Forest, Blackburn and Huddersfield around that solitary defeat.
To say it was upsetting would be lopsided. To think it's the period which arguably has cost us a near perfect run to the top of the Football League, inconsequential now. It is no coincidence for that, that run of games saw the end of Town gifting points and the end of Mick selecting Gerken in goal.
Dissent was probably most vocal following the public flogging from Norwich live on Sky back in August, just a game before the resurgence at Derby. For me, it was the error by Gerken and the bullying of our own midfield terrier Luke Hyam that undid Town.
For all the parachute payments and perceived advantage, the Budgies have come crashing down in the meantime. A terrible result in a displeasing manner, but even afterwards I felt in the minority to think we weren't that bad, it just felt bad to lose like that, to them.
It would obviously take another two months for the balance of Gerken's wondersaves and indecisiveness to tell and dislodge him from the side. A groin injury in the warm up at struggling Blackpool saw Bartman take up his place in goal for Town and never look back.
Like a Grant Leadbitter corner, he's not let go of the opportunity since. A warrior's beard and bravery in spades. Part of Town's most recent form has come from the confidence bred from the back as the long and sturdy Pole steers many threats away from goal. Over half of his games in a two-month spell have heralded clean sheets after all.
Since taking his chance here's how the glovesmen compare at Town in the league so far:
Much like the anomalies of selection and recruitment that provided opposition fans and managers to take exception on a seemingly weekly basis there has been a few results which provide telling counterpoint to the grudging respect of Town simply grinding out narrow wins. Certainly there is universal truth to us being 'a Mick McCarthy side' and nothing more says that then the demolition of Leeds which kicked off this month.
A first-half display which saw Murphy sandwich impressive finishes either side of our first penalty of the season, coolly dispatched by McG saw Town not just cruising by the break but crushing the car crash that is Leeds United.
While we have turned the Marcus Evans era from the sacking of Rome and incompetent managers into a footballing Constantinople. As the landscape and culture changes, Marcus's vision and investment beyond more than just money keeps pace and has brought about a new period of plenty. Nothing could be further from us than Massimo Cellino and his reign.
When Tommy Smith used another excellent set-piece to put the ball over the line (or was it Berra? the bookies certainly didn't know and we didn't care) it embodied everything that made us great so far and a few things we'd been missing. The belief to keep going and going at teams had turned defeats into draws, chances into goals, and goals into points.
Up until this point we hadn't seen so many examples of what made us so strong all in less than hour of football. It was our only win out of 11 this season that yielded victory by more than two goals. The other ten have been split by five single-goal margins and the scintillating victory over Boro equalled the tally for two-goal victories to five as well. http://www.soccerstats.com/trends.asp?league=england2
There are plenty of reasons for this and one is Connor Sammon. Generously cast off by now overtaken Derby, the tall, bald Irishman was greeted with derision, tentative suspicion and even gentle fury in some quarters. The more measured waited until he played before casting aspersions or judgement.
It's now clear Sammon is a striker, unless you consider he doesn't really score. At Blackpool he had a glorious chance which was only outdone by Stephen Hunt in terms of missing when scoring was easier. Quick, physical, straightforward and good for only a fraction of a game, you'd think he was the McCarthy philosophy incarnate according to the lengthening list of bitter out-thought managers so far this season. The truth is somewhat stranger.
Players such as Sammon haven't led to the damage of spectators' necks or the goalscoring charts but the dwindling morale of defenders across the division. It seemed at times obvious that once the 70th minute passed, Sammon would be called upon. His ability to stretch tired legs, jump for anything and everything and generally be a nuisance to beleaguered backlines has been a key ingredient into Town mixing it with the good and great.
By keeping the ball in the corners just as Shankly prescribed decades ago, Town have allowed themselves the opportunity to deny and create chances in the right end at the right time several times this season.
McGoldrick's reinvention as a player neither striker nor midfielder but some sort of hellish goal-making heart-racing hybrid has greased the McCarthy machine. Meanwhile, it's been the free-scoring Murphy which has set us apart. From the first game to the last thus far, Murphy opening the scoring has been crucial – he's done it four times this season.
For so long the multiple debutant has rarely been given a fresh start by certain fans, but I've long championed him as more than just a big man. Good with both feet, deceptively quick, excellent in the air and playing with the sort of confidence you can't buy the league's top scorer has earnt his plaudits the hard way – like us he's one of the few to suffer Roy Keane and Paul Jewell before Mick's messianic rule. It's amazing to think that after the opening month of the season he'd scored just once, in the opening fixture. Here's how his season looks in terms of goals.
The simple truth being, as Town have climbed the table, Murphy continues to score more, more often, so far. Only a goalless return from the next two would reverse that trend. If stats were ever indicative of anything then it'd seem Murphy is a one man goal machine. Looking to hit somewhere north of 30 goals!
The fact that in the same period McGoldrick has arguably been far less prolific than one might expect only serves to illustrate how crucial the overall team contribution is if we are to continue in something even close to this current form.
On paper alone you'd be forgiven for thinking it was Murphy not McGoldrick attracting £7 million bids rebuffed not so long ago. The value of both to the team far outstrips the figures on imaginary cheques casually waved about at times. As Town fans ponder the implications as well as the likely inevitably of a £10 million bid from the rapid rise of Tyrone Mings the refusal to sell McG for slightly less shows that taking risks applies to the money you spurn as much as the money you spend these days.
FFP got everything talking, but the false teeth that is its ability to punish, seems depressingly obvious as only three teams are currently getting a light slap on the wrists. The effect of which is still very hard to predict even now.
While Town's conversion from Simon Clegg wellying Marcus's pin number to the model of frugality has shone a blindingly light on the link to success not being the road that the likes Fulham found themselves on long after our U-turn. Whether Mings will go beyond the half-season point with Ipswich in the same fashion he goes beyond the halfway line every game remains to be seen. But he's not the only new kid on the scene attracting interest.
I might suggest that even Murphy has been shaded in terms of improved form this month by two players, Bartosz Bialkowski and Teddy Bishop. The former now looks undroppable in the last two months let alone the last two games, the latter has looked more and more unplayable.
Teddy's mazy run at the Macron and his bossing of the Middlesbrough midfield has become the norm, the best example if all though being the confidence with which Bishop looks for the ball. His cross for Jay Tabb's header was a blessing, but also a full stop on a passage of play which shows just what the boy wonder can do.
The transformation in Town this half-season isn't down so much to the injection of fresh blood and certainly not just some fresh ideas but the changes in personnel creating and continuing existing balances. If anything Mick's return to his own take on 4-4-2 in December has yielded even more points!
We now have selection dilemmas based on too many good options available. Our excellent defence has only four spaces and five worthy candidates. The pros and cons of selection come in terms of just how effective our centre-backs will be as they are shuffled to partner Berra or patrol the touchline.
Not only do they keep goals out but three out of five of our regular back four have scored this season. Berra is our third top scorer! With the addition of Smith and Parr's goals our defenders have netted more goals than Didzy! It shows that not only do we threaten teams in the air but make it count at either end.
There is a cause for concern though and that is the scoring talents of our midfield. Only Bishop, Hyam and Tabb have found the net once this term. If you refuse to quibble of precise positions and play and add in Noel Hunt and Williams's contribution of a goal each it rises to the same amount as Berra overall. It is our assists that show that Anderson and Bishop now lead the way with five apiece and Mings has not replicated Cresswell just yet with three to his name – he of course doesn't take corners or freekicks much though.
The spread of assists is fairly even throughout the team but not as predictable as you might think http://www.itfc.co.uk/stats/player-stats/ . It seems obvious and evident that Town's attacking play is not down to the strikers picking up scraps from midfield endeavour. In fact the midfield has come under the most scrutiny and the most change from Mick. Hyam of all people has not managed to hold down a regular place either through injury or suspension and it seems we haven't necessarily suffered for it.
Bru looks classy but often unable to complete 90 minutes in the same way Paul Anderson did last season. His effectiveness is tied to those around him and the context of when he enters/exits centre stage.
Stephen Hunt is perhaps the most senior player, and while he struggled last term as did Tabb, both older players have put in some consistently excellent shifts. Although as Hunt shows, once you drop out, you need to play yourself back into regular contention as soon as your colleagues given you the chance to. The energy and workrate of both men typifies the engine room that has powered Town up the league.
Whilst the controversial Skuse has at times looked ineffective as he did when Bournemouth tried to blow us off their pitch with the best display of fast, attacking football I've seen this season. The role of retention and moving the ball is one that Skuse excels at, in spite of the smattering of boos and groans it yields. It isn't meant to be hyperbole when I suggest Skuse is our Michael Carrick. The way he sits and pushes the ball about is keeping us in games and opposition at bay for the vast majority of the time it works. For without it teams don't score and we don't lose. It's crucial and Mick seems to think so too.
One area that Town has drawn heavy criticism from lazy pundits and managers desperate to point fingers is the accusation of physicality. Yet Town are still yet to see red once this season. Oddly whilst relegation fodder Brighton can finally look down on everything else in a justified manner when looking at the current discipline stats, Town swap roles and find themselves in the bottom three, scrapping it out with Cardiff and Charlton for fair play honours. A brief summary of our worst three offenders this season shows that even our dirtiest player Hyam goes less than two games without receiving a caution. How? You might well ask Eddie et al.
Whilst sitting pretty in second might be beyond many wildest dreams just three months ago, and staying there in three months time let alone come May even more so. It's hard not to look at the cheap thrill of Mick's first game at Birmingham and trace a pleasing line under the old order of Marcus Evans's ITFC.
Should we not see out the next two games in similar fashion and come unstuck against fellow high fliers Brentford or even feel revenge for the smash and grab we performed at the Valley it'll be no disgrace.
Town currently sit one place behind their next opponents in the form table over the last half a dozen matches. Table-toppers Bournemouth actually sit in fourth behind us and Birmingham. Charlton meanwhile are down in 17th showing that the biggest ask of Town for the rest of 2014 is to do as they always have and just keep going.
Should 2015 not match this year in similar respects there is still reason to celebrate and give thanks this Christmas period. After all our fiercest rivals have made an artful tradition of January heralding crashes in form and season's hopes. So the test is to avoid similar mishaps.
What's clear is that the squad has taken us this far and the squad has seen much great overhaul than perhaps the first XI alone. The marked departure from Fulham at home to Boro at home can be seen incremental improvements to bench and teamsheet alike.
Mick could do with strengthening attack, as losing the division's top scorer or Didzy again to injury or Premier League interest could hamper us even more than it did last season. It's clear we lack viable options and pace.
While we might not find another Marcus Stewart, Cameron is still around on a long contract. Hopefully the reputation TC has to improve our attackers can come into play there, even if the former Man United trainee is not the man we need.
The fact that academy graduate Bishop is wowing people so much that it leaves his predecessor Darren Ambrose as our weakest midfield option is cause of excitement. We know the talent is there and the connection to the club, but not playing for so long and the good form of those around him only extends Darren's inability to breakthrough as yet.
I'd quite like Mick to steal away Charlton's Callum Harriott. Quick and two-footed he looks to have the raw ingredients we not only need but TC can put to good use. The safer option may well see us look to big boys we hope to be joining and loan in another Joniesta if there are any out there. Certainly a promotion push is a far sweeter hook with which to land such targets.
None of this hinges on the plight of Mings and the assumption he will be this generation's Kieron Dyer (a talent that burned brightly for a short time before being sold on to fund numerous additions in the push for promotion). However should that happen, Town have yet to flex much financial muscle. The potential to rip up the script and spend big, is as scary as the thought of next year's Sereni and Finidi being ushered in front of the press.
For all the misses of Nouble, Woody and Marriott this season has seen under Mick, we don't truly miss any of them. There are so many more success stories to his recruitment that it is hard to believe a drastic change will or should be sought.
The man who was in sharp focus at the start of this piece sums it up best for me. Just go back to the footage of a bloodied and blank-shirted Noel Hunt's goal at Charlton and watch Balint Bajner celebrate. If the sight of a foreign, rarely seen long-shot going as ballistic as the bumper crowd in the away end doesn't tell you all you need to know about the job Mick and TC have done this season, then I don't know what will.
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