Three years ago, Town players’ celebrations of a 1-1 draw down South were so epic, they made the pages of the Daily Mail. The hangover persists.
There are very few straws to be clutched after a hugely disappointing season which ended with a typically bloodless exercise in completion, but at least the point gained by a very late Edmonds-Green equaliser at Reading meant the campaign wrapped up with Town avoiding defeat.
The game itself featured a fine free-kick by Koroma which gave Town the lead, a very promising full league debut by Scott High, a soft penalty given against the visitors and one denied Vallejo who had run half the pitch before being clipped then, ludicrously, booked, some poor defending for Reading’s second, a mixed bag of performances and Lewis O’Brien, yet again, at bloody left-back.
It wasn’t the worst dead rubber game ever played, but the drama elsewhere was an easy distraction. Relief that Town were not involved in the nerve-jangling horror as three sides jostled for the one survival place on offer was tinged with the fear and, for many, expectation, that it was simply being postponed for 12 months.
Occasional injections of energy by both sides provided some lift, but the lack of tension or peril was never far beneath the surface and tedious stretches of slow, unadventurous play were a regular reminder of the game’s fundamental banality.
Recently crowned player of the year, Jonathan Hogg, put in a curious performance with errors which led to the penalty and Schofield bailing him out with two good saves. In contrast, Vallejo played with a calm authority and signing him should be a priority in a summer crammed with priorities.
Koroma’s happy knack of scoring regularly is also key if Town are to progress away from flirting with relegation year after year. His free-kick, which he curled into the top corner to give Town the lead was a thing of beauty. High had hit the post moments before and was later to press very successfully, robbing a dawdling defender, before skying over the bar.
As ever, Town’s main problems were defensive. Hogg’s indiscretions were the main issue, though the penalty he conceded was harsh and coming just a few minutes after the opener, prevented the visitors from gaining momentum and control.
Just before the half-hour, Town were behind. Schofield made a good save to spare his captain’s blushes but the subsequent corner resulted in a deep cross which was met, unchallenged, by Meite who looped his header over Schofield and in at the far post.
If the first 30 minutes had been relatively bright in the circumstances, the final hour of the season rarely bothered to pretend to be little more than an exhausted stroll to a finishing line yearned for by both clubs. Reading, whose stellar start to the season seemed certain to see them in the top 6, have collapsed in the past few months despite some genuine talent in their ranks and a pretty eye-watering wages to turnover ratio.
For long periods of a dull second half, the hosts enjoyed swathes of possession while Town sat back and soaked up largely ineffective pressure. The appearance of Joao, who had destroyed them in the home game, was ominous but the Portuguese’s impact was restricted to a glancing header from a corner which flashed wide.
As the game drearily trundled on, Town began to show some flickering signs of life and finally ventured into the final third with a faint, but noticeable, sense of purpose. It was no coincidence that Eiting had come on to the pitch, adding some desperately needed guile. Another substitute, Thomas, added some much-needed purpose down the right which had been entirely barren while Aarons, who was woeful, had been there.
Vallejo’s long run from the halfway line to the box ended with the Spaniard being clipped, felled and then booked for non-existent simulation. Town’s record from the measly 3 penalties awarded to them through the season suggested that even with an award, an equaliser was far from guaranteed.
The new-found enthusiasm to chase a point included the appearance of Schofield in the area for a corner. Would that the club had shown as much urgency in 2021 rather than leave it until the final moments.
In the end, Town levelled through a clever ball played by yet another substitute, Bacuna, to yet another substitute, Edmonds-Green whose shot rather went through the Reading keeper. The influence of all these replacements cast something of a shadow over the team picked to start; Hogg owes nothing to the club and can be forgiven a dip in performance but Aarons and Holmes have a lot to prove. At least the latter works hard and energetically.
Falling short of the hastily adjusted target of 50 points, and miles away from the mid-table progression which preceded the new objective, it is difficult to overstate the size of the challenges ahead of the club.
Patience and goodwill have all but expired, the promising first 4 or 5 months of Corberán’s tenure is buried beneath persistently puzzling tactics and repeated errors and there is little trust that recruitment will deliver the necessary transformation of a club steeped in disappointment and defeat.
With many departures expected, some tinged with sadness and many others with complete indifference, the opportunity is to rebuild, regain trust and create a new mentality. We can only sit back and see if the club is up to the job. If they are not, and the evidence doesn’t favour optimism, a much tougher Championship next season looks daunting.
There has been precious little to enjoy since Christmas and while it would be churlish not to acknowledge the injury difficulties which stripped an inexperienced coach of very important players, the worst defensive record in the division cannot simply be shrugged off. Horrendous capitulations at Norwich, Bournemouth and Blackburn did not have common causes; deliberately weakening the side on the south coast, overwhelmed by quality with little fight in Norfolk and a tactical disaster at Ewood Park suggest far deeper issues.
Yet another reset beckons, then, and the success of that will determine whether this horrible slog of a season can be consigned to history or be seen as a continuation of a long term and vertiginous decline.
Have a great summer, and thanks for reading.