BfB watches the play off finals: Part two, Huddersfield Town v Peterborough United

Old Trafford, not a happy place yesterday unless you were a Stevenage fan, has been pressed into action for the League One and League Two play off finals owing to a double booking at Wembley for the Champions League final but – in a way – the shifting down of this season’s promotion finals seems to fit in with the mood in football from half way down the leagues.

Wembley is the place to battle for a place in the Premier League – the suggestion is – and everyone is at some point on the road to that destination. Stevenage showed the power not of performance but of momentum, as have Norwich City and Leeds United in the Championship this year. While this morning’s newspapers are full of praise for Lionel Messi the difference between this Barcelona side and the one which contained similar talents but went unrewarded is the momentum with which it approaches games.

The winning habit seems to have become ingrained in Lee Clark’s Huddersfield Town and with thirty games without defeat it seems curious that the Terriers were not automatically promoted. Perhaps the truth lay within their play off semi-final results, two draws and a win on penalties.

Having switched managers reasonably seamlessly mid-stream Peterborough United’s season with the club arresting the downturn that started with a woeful year in The Championship that saw the now returned manager Darren Ferguson replaced and chairman Darragh MacAnthony lambasting the squad. Posh fans were glad that the likes of Craig Mackail-Smith, George Boyd and England call up keeper Joe Lewis were not able to exit the long term contracts that MacAnthony talked of them signing in his rant.

MacAnthony and his opposite number at Town Dean Hoyle have both kept expensively assembled squads together for this season after disappointing returns last time out. Mackail-Smith has scored 34 goals this season – not as many as Messi or Ross Hannah but a good return – while Lewis is hunted by Everton. Promotion is the reward today for the winner, the loser’s punishment could be the loss of momentum which has brought them to this point.

Huddersfield’s supporters outnumber the Peterborough fan but are left with hearts in mouths as Mackail-Smith hits the post within the opening minutes. Town are on the rack as George Boyd – playing in a free role behind Mackail-Smith – but have the out ball of Benik Afobe as constant and effective.

The tier three play-off final is the only one of the three which Bradford City have ever been to – the 2-0 win over Notts County being the first hurrah of the push that led to the Premier League – and while the game that day seemed to be fated the Bantams way from kick off this match is more in the balance despite the vocal and visual overpowering of the Town support.

Town’s first chance comes when Bolton loanee Daniel Ward does well to get the ball to Peter Clarke but Paul Jones saves well and hurls the ball to Mackail-Smith who hurtles away. This is a theme for the afternoon, hitting the striker quickly and seeing if the Town central defensive pair can handle the pace of the forward.

So the game is set with Town parrying the speedy attacks of the Posh and the Posh defenders – especially the excellent Ryan Bennett – trying to keep Town’s more physical force at bay. Blows are exchanged up to half time and perhaps there is a sense from both sides that there is more to lose than there is to gain.

That a season in the Championship is good, but that the pain of the lack of progression which defeat represents is too hard to swallow. In a way both teams represent different way to progress. Hoyle has looked at Huddersfield’s near peerless (in the lower leagues) off the field set up of Academies and Training facilities and asked how he could make it better. £5m of new pitches and set up are bolstering the Terriers next season.

MacAnthony backs his squad – despite the criticism – with lengthy contracts which protect the investment in the squad with the prospect of transfer fees should any exit and with a continuity which allows for stability despite manager movement. Both are excellent paths to follow for clubs looking for a competitive advantage and neither approach is discredited with defeat.

The worry though is that it might appear that it is. Talking to Mark Lawn this season the City chairman pointed out that Middlesborough were doing poorly in the Championship despite having spent money on youth development as if to suggest that youth development itself was discredited. Boro survived the season while Posh and Town climb above the morass of League One by having a plan for success and following it regardless of set backs.

Yet a set back for one is inevitable and and Daniel Ward looks like inflicting that set back on Peterborough coming out in the second half like a live wire but still Town struggle to cope with Mackail-Smith and the speed of his counter attacks – and the speed in which Posh get players alongside and past him – worries the West Yorkshire side.

It is not Mackail-Smith who provides that breakthrough ten minutes from time – that comes from Tommy Rowe heading in a Grant McCann cross – but the striker combines with George Boyd for a second goal two minutes after the first and the few are out singing the many, celebrating promotion with a swagger as McCann adds a third as the game ebbs away.

To the victors, the spoils and a quick return to the top half of professional football for a second go at what went so badly wrong last time. The big names enhanced reputations and values and should the Posh cash in to march into next season they are well positioned by virtue of adopting an approach of putting their faith in a playing squad which they believe has the quality and back with contracts that give security and stability.

For Huddersfield Town one would expect any self-respecting Bradford City organ to be gloating but I find it hard to celebrate another team in defeat and it gives me no joy. Town are a club with more money than most at this level for sure but more significantly they have a set of priorities off the field which allow I’d rather City learnt from than shake a fist at. Indeed despite the talk of City having to make do with the facilities we had David Baldwin announced that – at no cost to the club – the Bantams were going to have better facilities next season. Danny Cadamarteri – on the bench for Town in his second spell with them after being another one of those mystery under performers for City – might have faired differently at the new Apperley Bridge set up.

The nature of the play-offs – as with any final – is to create winners and losers and for a second year Lee Clark’s side are dubbed as losers. If sense reigns to the South West of Bradford then next season will be a same again for Huddersfield as they carry on carrying on. If they lose their bottle then they will make unnecessary changes.

Darren Ferguson – a former Manchester United player who celebrated victory at Old Trafford – and his chairman Darragh MacAnthony might reflect that three changes of manager following the sacking of Young Fergs it was going back to the original plan which took them forward.

Honest

Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on your point of view – I know I saw it in a movie this Christmas – and so as City trundle into 2010 at home to Cheltenham one is given cause to reflect on the utterances that come from Valley Parade and the relationship they have with that most precious of things: The truth.

Lee Clark – manager of Huddersfield Town – has made it clear that he has recalled goalkeeper Simon Eastwood from his time at Valley Parade after what is charitably described as “an up and down” time at City while Stuart McCall suggests that City let the shot stopper go in favour of bringing in a more experienced man. That one club did not want him to stay and the other wanted him to go seems to say enough about the keeper’s time as VP shot stopper.

Eastwood will be replaced in goal – in all likelihood – by Jon McLaughlin who is not the experienced man McCall is seeking but is well fancied by many fans the majority of whom have not seen him play. Blind faith in City players always heartening though and the months put into Eastwood’s development which could have gone into McLaughlin seem to have been waste but sometimes a gamble pays off and other times it does not and Eastwood is set against the success of three other rookies in Scott Neilson, James Hanson and Steve Williams.

Which manager is telling the truth? Perhaps both are, perhaps both are not. Probably both tell half of it. McCall was unsure about keeping Eastwood until he had someone else lined up, Clark wanted him back for fear for his development which is stunted. The truth depends greatly on your point of view it seems.

Stuart McCall’s point of view after the Shrewsbury Town game last week was that it was referee Peter Quinn who won the game for the visitors and not the side from Shropshire. Certainly the vocal comment on Quinn’s performance would suggest that there was a broad agreement with the City boss although other demanded McCall stop using “excuses”

As a position to be in McCall stood on invidious ground. He faced criticism that had City not missed early chances – Simon Whaley’s pinging a shot off the bar being judged in the same way as Gareth Evans’s fluff – then the Referee’s interjections would have been irrelevant (or so the logic goes) and thus McCall is excuse mongering.

How the City gaffer does not point out that appeasing an official for making two such massive errors – errors unsupported by his non-flagging linesman in the most serious case – on the basis that one of the teams had not already scored is avoidance of a much higher order I do not know. When it comes to excuses the “he got two decisions wrong but it was our fault for not having scored” borders on the masochistic.

McCall was not able to be honest after the game – although he tried with his “Shrewsbury have not won that” comment – and nor were BfB our Rochdale honed sense of what will get us sued preventing us from writing the original article that said “Player X and Player Y are cheats, plain and simple.”

I have sympathy for Peter Quinn for that reason. Some of the Shrewsbury Town players were far better at cheating than they were at football and if someone needs to be giving out excuses it should be Paul Simpson for playing those players at all. An honest man would not. To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand – or so Dr Who says.

Simon Ramsden is expected to return for City at right back displacing Jonathan Bateson – who had his best game in a City shirt against Shrewsbury – with Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams being reunited as Matthew Clarke starts his suspension. Luke O’Brien continues to play the season red cardless one of which will be high on the impressive Louis Horne’s new year wish list.

Omar Daley is expected to be kept on the bench once more as he returns to fitness with a stacked January of rearranged away trips in mind – Daley’s pace is incredibly effective on the road – giving Scott Neilson the right wing place opposite Simon Whaley who also impressed against Shrewsbury. Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn continue in the middle.

James Hanson and Gareth Evans continue up front with Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding injured. Hanson continues to win admirers while Evans struggles to impress all. Personally I can forgive Evans the fluff against Shrewsbury – I recall Benito Carbone doing the same against Southampton – because of the striker’s reaction.

Head up, on to the next chance, honest.

Reserved judgement

It’s not just the legions of empty seats that invoke feelings of eeriness and suspicion during reserve team fixtures. For the Bradford City and Huddersfield Town players involved in tonight’s West Yorkshire derby reserve match,  the wide range of people stood watching by the side offered different reasons for their attention.

Impressing the two reserve team managers in the dug out might be the obvious priority, but to the wily this was secondary to catching the attention of the more senior personnel watching from further afar.  For Town, that was manager Lee Clark and assistant Terry McDermott, who plonked themselves amongst the spare crowd nine rows back, with a clear focus on events in front. Then there was the various parents who were clearly present, trying to keep warm and concentrating more on their lad impressing than which team would triumph. Finally, and perhaps most hidden of all, were scouts and the like eyeing up potential signings for their club. A certain Darlington Assistant Manager by the name of Dean Windass was sat in the Valley Parade media section for the first half, leaving one to mischievously contemplate whether the player he might be checking out with a view to his boss Colin Todd signing on loan might be Matt Clarke. Imagine Mark Bower’s reaction if the former Quaker defender, brought to Valley Parade by Todd, was to steal his place again!

But if those in the stands and in the dug out had differing focuses to their watching briefs, the agendas of those on the pitch are rarely collectively on their team triumphing. This was a typical Bradford City reserve outfit that can broadly be broken into four groups. There was the trialists, who usually capture the media attention. Tonight Tomi Ameobi played his third reserve game for the Bantams in his bid to earn a contract. Displaying a good show of strength and decent turn of pace, he impressed in small doses but failed to do enough to suggest he’d climb in front of City’s five strikers and play a first team role.

Also making a third trialist appearance was Clive Moyo-Modise, who had previously played for Rochdale and was close to signing for Stockport over the summer. The London-born winger demonstrated some nice skills to beat players, but his final pass was lacking. He kept losing the ball in promising positions and such a performance in a typical City first team game would attract vicious abuse from supporters. Those empty seats can be a forgiving bunch.

Of more interest is another group – those knocking on the door of the first team. Leon Osborne has made three substitute appearances for the first team this season and, with a lack of regular wingers at the club, may continue to receive chances before Omar Daley’s return. In the second half especially tonight, Osborne looked a menace playing down the left flank and a series of threatening crosses deserved more than to fly past some timid attempts of others in getting on the end.

Luke Sharry is a player I’ve enjoyed watching in reserve and pre-season friendly games. Tonight he again suggested he could take control of the midfield for spells, cleverly using the ball and reguarly picking out the right pass. His best moment came when he robbed a Huddersfield midfielder and played the ball to Ameobi, before finding space to receive back possession and hitting a long range lob which bounced off the cross bar.  Something is perhaps still lacking in his game and that may be gathered by the experience of going out on loan, but the day when Luke finally gets to play a first team game at Valley Parade can’t be too distant and, if and when it happens, it won’t just be his parents full of pride.

Jon McLaughlin is also being talked up for the first team with Simon Eastwood continuing to worry. Tonight he made some decent saves and couldn’t really be blamed for the three goals that flew into his net, but he still falls short of presenting a strong enough case for taking the first term jersey other than the fact he’s not Eastwood. With the on-loan Town keeper scheduled to return to Town in January, his chance may soon come.

But if Leon, Luke and Jon are on the way up, the third group would consider themselves on the way down. Not too long ago Michael Boulding and Clarke were first teamers, but having lost their place they face a battle to impress that stretches beyond playing well in a reserve match. Tonight Boulding and Clarke were judged as much for their attitude as their ability to score or keep out goals. Boulding appeared disinterested at first, but  the spark which makes him a good player was reclaimed as the first half wore on and he cancelled out James Berrett’s opener for Huddersfield with a shot that deflected past Matt Glennon. Withdrawn at half time, he will hope to continue where he left off if given the chance to come off the bench against Chesterfield on Saturday – opponents he scored twice past last season.

Clarke also impressed with the way he leaded the back four, barking instructions constantly and notably offering advice to central defensive partner Louis Horne. In the second half an upset Clarke got into an argument with McLaughlin over the keeper’s lack of dominance in his area, invoking memories of the numerous spats Clarke had with Rhys Evans last season.

Which leaves the final group of players – the younger ones, who competed keener than most throughout. 1st year apprentice Alex Flett took Stuart’s coverted number 4 shirt and put in the kind of all action display that suggests he can one day follow in his manager’s footsteps. At left back, Andrew Villermann got forward effectively and stood up well to the dangerous Lionel Ainsworth. With Luke O’Brien the only left back on the books, the scenario of Villermann or Horne getting a first team game before the season is out is far from unlikely. Phil Cutler also looked confident at right back.

Huddersfield took the lead three times – Rory Boulding bundling home City’s second equaliser following a corner after Berrett’s second – with Ameobi having the decisive touch at the wrong end after poking a Town free kick into his own net. Yet Huddersfield fielded a  strong team which included the tough tackling Jim Goodwin and Gary Roberts, who had ran riot against City’s first team in the League Cup tie last year. Midway through the first half Town reserve team manager Paul Stephenson barked instructions at his players, before looking over to Clark in an obvious attempt to seek approval. That’s the suspicion of reserve games, who exactly is trying to impress who?

For City’s four groups of players, their level of success differed.

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