James Thornton (@JThorn26)
Town’s 5-1 thrashing of Yeovil last Sunday marked the halfway stage of the current season and with 24 games played Town find themselves sitting pretty in mid-table. As 2013 fades into 2014 there is an abundance of optimism around the club and there has even been talk of a push for the play-offs in the second half of the season. With this in mind we take the opportunity to look at where it has all gone right for Town so far this season.
After avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth last time around, it was evident that Mark Robins had a huge pre-season ahead of him to ensure that Town would not once again find themselves embroiled in a relegation dogfight. Despite a series of underwhelming results in pre-season, some excellent business over the summer has helped ensure that the chances of this happening again in 2014 are remote at best. The signings of James Vaughan, Jonathan Hogg and Adam Hammill, for a combined total of just over 1 million pounds, – the same fee that Town allegedly received for full-back Jack Hunt – have added real quality and have each played their part in helping Town to progress to the next level.
With regards to the signings themselves, leading scorer James Vaughan has rightly taken the plaudits for his terrific form in the early part of the season. With 9 goals in the opening 11 league games it is fair to say that Vaughan’s form at the beginning of the season has been a major reason for Town’s current comfortable league position and at 600k has been arguably the signing of the season by any team in the division. With Vaughan in the side Town have picked up 24 points from 17 games (1.41 points per game) whereas in the games Vaughan has missed Town have picked up just 7 points from 7 matches (1 point per game) and this is a real indicator of how much better Town are with Vaughan in the team.
If Vaughan has almost single handedly carried the burden of scoring Town’s goals at times this season, the same can be said of fellow summer recruit Adam Hammill with regards to the team’s chance creation and assists. A disappointing spell on loan last season meant that many Town fans were skeptical when his permanent signing was announced in June. However, Hammill has answered his doubters in emphatic style, racking up 8 assists already this season and adding much needed flair and creativity to the team. To put Hammill’s impact into context it is worth pointing out that no Town player provided more than 7 assists throughout the entirety of the last campaign. Though Hammill can still be a highly frustrating player to watch, for instance he will often try do to one trick too many and is occasionally let down by his final ball, he has been one of Town’s most consistent players since making his move permanent and is almost certainly Town’s most exciting player to watch.
If Vaughan and Hammill have provided the bulk of Town’s attacking threat, Jonathan Hogg has been equally important in tighteneing up a defence that shipped goals for fun last season. Hogg has added much needed steel to the Town midfield and his incredible workrate and stamina has added protection to a defence that was overrun and exposed far too often last season. Despite the fact Town’s defence this season has been pretty much the same as in the 2012-13 season, Town’s defensive record this time around has vastly improved and this is indicative of the impact Hogg has had. To emphasize how important Hogg’s contribution to the team has been, it is worth pointing out that Town have only conceded more than two goals on two occasions so far this season, one of which was in a game where Hogg was out injured. This is a far cry from last season when Town had the third worst goals against record in the entire league and suffered drubbings at the hands of Leicester, Nottingham Forest and Watford.
As well as bringing in quality new additions, Mark Robins deserves immense credit for the way he has improved the talent already available to him at the club. At the end of the day, only three of the players who started in Town’s final game of 2013 against Yeovil – Martin Paterson, Adam Hammill and Jonathan Hogg – were actually signed by Robins. The other eight starters, and six of the seven substitutes, were either already on the books or part of the club’s youth setup when Robins took over. The improvement in players like Paul Dixon, Oliver Norwood, Danny Ward and Adam Clayton this season has been clear for all to see and is testament to Robins’ excellent man-management skills. Despite the fact the squad he is working with is largely made up of signings from the previous two regimes, Robins has been able to mould the team into his own image as the team has gradually adapted to his footballing principles and philosophies.
As Mark Robins himself has often said, the talent of the current squad has never been in question, it has simply been lacking the belief and confidence necessary to achieve its potential. Unlike the Simon Grayson and Lee Clark regimes, the players are playing to a clearly defined system – whether it be 3-5-2, 4-2-3-1 or whatever – and there is a much greater logic to team selection than the seemingly random selections that characterised the Grayson and Clark eras. This has led to a much more settled and consistent team and Town are now reaping the benefits as the squad grows in belief and ability. Though most of the players in Town’s starting eleven were not signed by Robins, make no mistake that he is largely responsible for their progress and development.
Town have come a long way already this season and at the minute seem to be getting better with each passing week. At the beginning of the season Town were often solid rather than spectacular and made hard work of games they should really have been winning, for instance: Doncaster, Barnsley, Blackpool, and Birmingham. In many ways the debacle against Birmingham marked something of a watershed moment in the season so far. Following the 3-1 defeat Town headed into the international break with just one win in eight matches and there were growing worries that Town might be slipping into a relegation fight after all.
Victory over Sheffield Wednesday in the next match, however, sparked a run of three straight victories and Town haven’t looked back since. Since the Birmingham game Town have played 9, won 4, drawn 2 and lost 3 – a stark contrast to the 1 win in 8 in the preceding set of games. What is more, in the four home games following the Birmingham match, Town have registered no fewer than 99 shots on goal – more than they managed in their previous eight home league games combined. In the process they have outperformed, or at least matched, some of the best teams in the division, most notably in the home matches against Burnley and Derby.
Furthermore, as the season has progressed, Town have gone some way towards dispelling the myth that they are overly reliant on one or two key players such as James Vaughan and Adam Hammill. Of Town’s first 18 goals this season, Vaughan or Hammill played a significant part, either by scoring or providing an assist, in 14 of them. In other words, 77 percent of the goals Town scored between the season’s start and the Watford match in October relied on the contributions of just two players.
In recent weeks, however, other players within the squad have increasingly come to the fore. Adam Clayton, for instance, has been superb since his return to the side and it is little coincidence that Town’s performances have improved dramatically since his return to the side. Comfortable on the ball and capable of picking a pass, Clayton is finally consistently performing to the standard he showed in glimpses last season. Equally, Clayton’s midfield partner, Oliver Norwood, has been impressive recently and has chipped in with some superb goals against Burnley, Bolton and Grimsby. With the aforementioned Jonathan Hogg working tirelessly behind them, Clayton and Norwood have been able to flourish as part of a central midfield three and for the first time in years Town have a midfield capable of dictating play in the centre of the park. Furthermore, Mark Robins finally seems to be getting the best out of the often infuriatingly inconsistent Danny Ward. Two goals and two assists in the match against Yeovil mean many fans are praying that they are finally starting to see ‘the real Danny Ward’.
What is particularly exciting, as we begin 2014, is that many Town fans feel that the current team can only get better, a point that has been constantly reiterated by Mark Robins himself. The average age of Town’s starting eleven for the game against Yeovil was just 23.8 and at 27 Paul Dixon was the side’s most senior player. The likes of Murray Wallace, Tommy Smith and Duane Holmes have all responded magnificently to the pressures of first-team football whilst the likes of Adam Clayton, Oliver Norwood and Alex Smithies are all still a few years away from reaching their peak. The progress being made with regards to youth recruitment and development also means that Town should be able to call on an increasingly talented pool of players emerging from the club’s academy. Players like Jake Charles and Philip Billing, for example, continue to earn rave reviews as part of an under 18’s side that has taken all before it so far this season. With the spectre of Financial Fair Play lurking increasingly large on the horizon, it is a massive boost that the club has such exciting players within its own academy.
Admittedly Town are not quite the finished article. They still lack a killer instinct in front of goal, which has cost them dear on a number of occasions already this season, and despite the emergence of other players they are still a bit over-reliant on James Vaughan. Additionally, perhaps due to inexperience or naivety, Town are still being hampered by costly individual errors, without which Town may already be sitting in the play-off places. What is more, despite the fact Town have significantly closed the gap on the top sides in this division, they have still only recorded 2 wins against teams in the top half of the division and are yet to beat any top-half side away from home. The result and performance against Burnley on New Year’s Day was a stark reminder that there is still work to be done if Town wish to challenge for anything other than a mid-table finish in the coming seasons. A push for the play-offs will almost certainly be a step too far for Town this year, especially as injuries and suspension will invariably take their toll on what is not a particularly large squad, and a finishing position somewhere in mid-table is by far the most likely outcome for this season.
Nevertheless, this should not distract from the fact Town are making serious progress under Mark Robins. Make no mistake, this is a truly exciting time to be a Town fan. With a Chairman who loves the club and has worked wonders with the off-field aspects of the club, and a manager who has already proved himself as highly capable, the club really is going places. A young Town team has already matured a lot this season and if the club can maintain the core of their current squad then they are only going to get better. As it stands I feel that with one or two quality additions, similar to this season, and the further development of exciting academy prospects such as Duane Holmes, Jake Charles and Philip Billing, then there is no reason to suggest that Town are not capable of challenging for a top-6 place in the next couple of years. I’m not suggesting for a minute that Town will definitely make the play-offs – Town fans have seen enough false dawns over the years to know better than that – but if the likes of Blackpool and Burnley can then why can’t Huddersfield Town?
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