Having managed “the biggest derby in the history of the world” – Concord Rangers versus Canvey Island, obviously – Danny Cowley is used to spending Christmas preparing for big matches, but he has had to do double the homework for today’s visit to Middlesbrough.
As the boss of 19th-placed Huddersfield Town, a match against Boro, a point behind in 20th, should add to Cowley’s catalogue of memorable Boxing Day matches. He therefore made sure he did his homework with a scouting trip to watch Boro beat Stoke City on Friday, but came away thinking he would need two plans.
“When I was at Concord Rangers it was Canvey Island (his side faced on Boxing Day), which was the biggest derby in the history of the world, or at least it felt like that to me!” commented Cowley. “There would be about 1,400, 1,500 people and we were a small club. They were the big club on Canvey Island but they hit some financial issues, we went up and ended in the same division and we won nine of 10 derbies.
“With Braintree we lost to Boreham Wood and that was horrible.
“At Lincoln we beat Stevenage but in our first year we lost to Guiseley when we were on a 17-match unbeaten run in the last minute when Paul Farman let a last-minute free-kick through his hands. But we got promoted that season, so it was all right.”
Buoyed by three wins in their last six Championship matches, Middlesbrough threaten an even greater test than the Islanders.
“They’re a good team, a powerful team,” says Cowley. “They were a team created by Tony Pulis so they have real physicality in their group.
“Jonathan Woodgate’s come in and tried to change the style, the system and the way of playing. That allows them to have two different ways of playing. They’re a group that has more physicality and then they have another way of playing which Jonathan’s developed.
“I watched them at home against Stoke and in the first half they didn’t have it all their own way but they changed the system, made some key substitutions and looked significantly better in the second half.
“Jonathan can be really pleased with the impact he made on the team in that game and no doubt they’ll be buoyed off the back of that victory, so we anticipate a really tough game.”
Boxing Day marks the midway point of the Championship campaign, and after being beset by injuries since coming in as manager in September, he is hoping for better luck in the second half.
“It’s not all my fault!” he says when asked to give his half-term report. “I can only reflect on the 17 games I’ve had here but it’s been tough, definitely the most challenging part of my management career.
“Lots of variables have probably gone against us. I used to always think I was a lucky manager until I came here!
“I don’t think I gave the football gods my change of postcode but we’ve navigated through a really tough storm and I can actually somewhere in the distance see the sun.
“We’re going to have some players back fit and hopefully we’ll be able to bring some players in during January to give us some depth to our squad and a bit of balance we desperately need.
“I think you learn a lot about yourself and one another in adversity. I’ve been pleased with the way we’ve come together and created a bit of siege mentality, which I like.
“We’ve shown if you do that and you work hard, it doesn’t matter what goes against you, you can always find a way in life. We’ve done that to this point but I’m respectful that we’ve got the second half of the season and a lot to do to keep improving and get to a place where we can get a group that’s balanced and has continuity.
“I’d like to think we can then start to put some smiles on people’s faces and provided some brighter times for the Huddersfield Town supporters.”
If Cowley’s injury list is starting to ease, there is no such luck for Woodgate, whose main doubt is over six-goal top-scorer Britt Assombalonga. He can at least take solace from his squad’s commitment.
“We have Anfernee Dijksteel out, George Friend out, Darren Randolph out, Ryan Shotton out and Britt is only 50-50, as well as having Paddy McNair and Marcus Browne suspended,” the Boro manager reflected.
“I can’t knock the players’ belief.
“Their confidence can be low but the players are giving me everything they have got.
“I don’t think we’re far away. A lot of the games have been decided by fine margins.
“The attitude of the players, in the building, outside the building, in training every day, I can’t speak highly enough of the players.”
Last six: Huddersfield Town DLLWDW; Middlesbrough WLWDLW.
Referee: D England (South Yorkshire).
Last time: Huddersfield Town 0 Middlesbrough 2, November 28, 2015, Championship.