THE game at Huddersfield was supposed to be about the “Football Inevitability Drive” showdown between summer shirt-swappees Clayton and Butterfield. But instead the mooted midfield head-to-head turned into a bad-tempered toe-to-toe tear-up.
A simmering first half of the last gasp 2-1 win bubbled and and spat as a niggling start bubbled over into open hostility when James Vaughan took a poor touch then followed through with a challenge that clattered Dimi’s rib-cage as the keeper dived to smother the loose ball. It may – “may” – have been there to win but from my angle it seemed a desperate reckless lunge. He was lucky to escape with just a yellow and probably only the well positioned linesman’s failure to signal for a foul saved him from being sent off.
But that incident sent the temperature soaring. While Dimi was down getting treatment for five minutes players from both sides were tugging and pulling and remonstrating with opponents and the ref while on the touchline the incident had lit the blue touch paper: volatile Leo Perchovic was raging about the technical area pointing and accusing the Huddersfield bench as if Chris Powell had personally gone in studs up. Higgy had to haul him away from Town officials and then from the fourth official while both groups of steaming subs, physios, analysts and kitmen all joining in the angry ritualistic posturing.
On the pitch scattered groups of players squared up while battered Dimi waited to take the free-kick. Once play resumed there was a chain of recrimination and the ref had to dish out several “calm down” warnings. Butterfield chopped down George in full flight and after playing advantage the ref went back and booked him. Still smarting George whacked Coady off the ball as a corner was cleared and the ref again waved play on then went back and showed a yellow card when on another day that could possibly have been red.
Meanwhile Leadbitter stomped around midfield facing down and offering out the Huddersfield midfield with a snarling show of steel that helped Boro grab a scrappy game by the throat when it was in real danger of drifting away from them.
During that spell Leadbitter was being the classic niggly Mackem midfield workie ticket, getting in Town players’ faces and storing up grudges. It was no surprise that when there was a post-match tunnel bust-up – there was certainly a noisy commotion that sent people from squad and stewards rushing over although both short-sighted managers donned Arsene Gegs and failed to spot it – the whispers in the ground suggested he had been the target of some home team animosity. That and the winning penalty of course. Maybe his celebrations at the death goaded a response from those who had already marked his card.
Leadbitter was superb, a dynamic driving force in a game that for long spells was the archetypal Championship War of Attrition. It is all very well having the deft touches of Kike (exquisite in his link up play at times) and later the well spotted and well weighted passes of Vossen and the outlets wriggling down the wing – but this is a division of brute force and muscle and sometimes it comes down to bottle, battle and spirit. Sometimes you have to “win the right to play.” And it is not always pretty.
It may not have been intended but maybe Karanka’s selection of players already battle-scarred in English football rather than throw in a couple of debutants that may have been left culture-shocked paid off. It was a game that could easily have got nasty quickly.
Boro lost at Leeds because they got dragged into a scrap by a poor side and Bolton tried to do the same. At Huddersfield Boro showed they can get down and get dirty and battle when needed and still pop up with a bit of quality to win the game.
That moment of quality came as Leadbitter – described presciently in the programme as Boro “dead ball specialist” – sent a laser-guided missile of a free-kick home midway through the first half. You can watch it here. While his team-mates were involved in some complex movement in and around the box, peeling away and ducking and weaving, and while Aitor pointed and shouted instructions for some training ground synchronised set-play, the midfielder ran up and whacked in a 30 yard ‘thunderbastard’, a hammer footed Exocet that screamed past the despairing dive of the keeper. Get in.
His penalty was also a calm, well struck one with the pressure on in stoppage time and in front of the tense travelling Parmo Army. That salvaged victory when it seemed Boro had thrown it away. Again.
It came as Boro frantically threw everything forward after journeyman nailed on Nemesis Jon Stead (naturally) put Huddersfield back in the game on 86 minutes – the third team he has scored for against us. Which is probably a third of his career goal tally. And that was in their first attack of the half. And they almost scored again soon after. That would have been so painfully “typical Boro.”
When Stead scored Boro well were in control. The hostility rating had dropped from downright spiteful to just a bit tetchy by then and Boro were starting to play a bit more, probing and passing and with Vossen dropping deep to collect and play some perceptive well weighted balls to set up some good probing moves.
It should have been wrapped up at that point as Kike headed over, Vossen fired just wide , Clayton put one into the side-netting and Adomah put an angled effort straight at the keeper. Boro should have been home and dry – Karanka later said they should have won “three, four, five nil” – before Huddersfield scored. But since when have Boro done things the easy way?
That said, there were times in the recent past when they would have folded at that point and allowed Stead to get a winner. This time they stepped up a gear, threw everything forward in a fast and furious final assault and got a lucky break in stoppage time.
They won the penalty as Adam Reach was hauled back needlessly by Tommy Smith. The home fans were screaming at the ref and insisting it was a combination of a dive, a stumble, a legal bit of leverage and blatant cheating. Was it a “soft penalty”? The consensus among the local press was that Smith had been stupid giving the ref a decision to make in front of the Boro fans two minutes into stoppage time. Who cares?
Leadbitter slammed it home: that makes him the top scorer at Boro – and in the Championship – with five in the league (and six in all) – and none from open play. He scored a penalty at Bolton, two spot-kicks in the second half fightback against Sheffield Wednesday and then another penalty today AND a free kick. His only goal in open play was at Oldham in the cup. He is on course to be top scorer, “Dead ball specialist” indeed.
VOSSEN came on and looked good with some neat touches and link up play that galvanised a team that had looked laboured for long spells as Lee Tomlin beavered away fruitlessly.
JACOB Butterfield was busy and animated in an impressive first half playing wide on the right. It was a display that will have left Town fans convinced they had the better part of that particular deal but he faded as the game wore on while after a slow start Clayton came on strong with an industrious shift of snapping into tackles, closing quickly and – as Boro took control – some decent distribution going forward. Result: score draw.
TOMAS Meijas has an injury (honest guv) after ricking his back on Friday – although Dimi had already been told on Wednesday he was playing as Karanka made the decision the supporters were praying for. The coach explained the keeper situation afterwards but you feel his decision was taken long before he told Dimi. You sense that as Blackman plays his way into contention Tomas could be feeling that back pain for some time.
IT WAS fantastic that for once a massive Boro away following left the ground singing and happy after so many times when the team froze when the gate and expectations were high. Boro took 3,500 fans, which is magnificent support, and for most of the game they made a right racket. Respect.
I hope they all enjoyed a game that wasn’t really “one for the purists” but suggested this team have a blend of steel, spirit and style that – once bedded in properly – can put them at the right end of the table.