Huddersfield Town started yesterday planning for the long-term, but their more immediate future is still not safe.
The Terriers ripped things up and started again in January, giving newish manager Danny Cowley carte blanche to shake up the side, signing nine players and letting eight leave since he arrived in September. They started the day by enacting their succession plan, swiftly appointing academy manager Leigh Bromby to replace David Webb as their head of football operations when he leaves at the start of next season.
Cowley quickly got a team which looked locked in a downward spiral out of the Championship’s relegation zone, but they just cannot pull away from it.
There was a fresh feel to the Terriers at the start of the Championship game against Cardiff City, but their crisp football counted for nothing. Cardiff won 3-0, and although Huddersfield have a five-point cushion, it is not much in the craziest division in football – just ask the club up the M62 in Leeds.
The stadium announcer cheekily labelled the England-versus-Wales game as “the return of European football” and Cardiff pulled off a classic away-team heist.
For almost half an hour, it all looked very good for the Terriers. Their “three-quarter line” of Elias Kachunga, Emile Smith Rowe and Juninho Bacuna switched positions at will behind Steve Mounie and Smith Rowe looked every bit the Arsenal loanee dropping down a level as he switched the play from right to left.
The stadium announcer cheekily labelled the England-versus-Wales game as “the return of European football” and Cardiff pulled off a classic away-team heist.Stuart Rayner
Nice football counts for little if you cannot make it count, though. Huddersfield saw 62 per cent of the first-half possession and made eight chances from it, but only put two on target. The orange-clad Bluebirds scored with their second and third shots.
From there, the in-from play-off chasers kicked on.
One of those Smith Rowe passes set Town going forward in the third minute, but Bacuna, whose brother Leandro came off the Cardiff bench, could not get hold of his shot when the ball came in. A minute later, Kachunga had an effort blocked.
A lovely flowing passage midway through the half floundered when Kachunga’s pass hit the first defender, but Huddersfield quickly retrieved it.
Bacuna’s header from Kachunga’s cross was above Alex Smithies’s head, but did little to trouble him on his return to West Yorkshire.
Bacuna’s next effort, in another move started by Smith Rowe spreading the play to Harry Toffolo, produced a much more taxing near-post save.
In between, Cardiff had their first shot. Marlon Pack’s wild effort was not worth the 23-minute wait.
Their opening goal was, though. Mounie stabbed over at a corner and three minutes later his side were hit on the counter-attack, former Middlesbrough player Lee Tomlin chipping a lovely pass for Josh Murphy, close to being offside, to lift over Jonas Lossl.
Four minutes later, it was two, former Rotherham man Will Vaulks running in front of the near post and volleying the low drilled ball into the net.
Not surprisingly, the whole mood changed, the home fans voicing their frustration, the visiting players rising in confidence. Albert Adomah powered onto a midfield 50-50 and released Tomlin, who lifted the ball over the advancing Lewis O’Brien, Lossl and the crossbar.
Lossl saved well from Adomah, and Richard Stearman fouled the midfielder on the stroke of half-time as he threatened to charge onto a return pass from Tomlin.
The strong Middlesbrough flavour to Cardiff’s best play would not have been lost on the watching Jonathan Woodgate.
The game became niggly at the start of the second half, and Huddersfield looked nervy, never more so than when Stearman headed uncomfortably close to his own near post and out for a goalkick as Lossl scrambled across in vain.
This time it was the Terriers who were slow to register a shot, and Smith Rowe’s was even wider than Pack’s had been.
Cowley threw on two old-stagers to make a difference. They had an immediate effect, but not a decisive one.
Andy King won the ball, and when it came into the area, Fraizer Campbell spun on it. His shot was blocked out to King, whose effort hit Curtis Nelson on the hand in the area. It was fired at close range, and if Nelson did deliberately get his fingertips to such a well-struck shot on a cold night, he needs his head examining. Referee Darren England was on his side.
If that was not Huddersfield’s last chance gone, the moment came nine minutes later with a scrappy third goal.
Junior Hoilett’s shot hit Stearman’s back, and Lossl saved with his legs from Tomlin, but could only direct it to Callum Paterson, who beat the two men on the line.
It was a harsh lesson for some of the younger Terriers that football is all about taking your chances.
Huddersfield Town: Lossl; Simpson, Stearman, Schindler, Toffolo; O’Brien, Hogg (King 58); J Bacuna, Smith Rowe (Willock 75), Kachunga; Mounie (Campbell 58). Unused substitutes: Chalobah, Coleman, Pyke, Stankovic.
Cardiff City: Smithies; Richards, Morrison, Nelson, Bennett; Pack; Paterson (Ward 86), Adomah (L Bacuna 66), Vaulks, Murphy (Hoilett 66); Tomlin. Unused substitutes: Etheridge, Flint, Glatzel, Whyte.
Referee: D England (South Yorkshire).