THE MONDAY VERDICT: Huddersfield Town 0 Bolton Wanderers 1
THERE are few better ways to win a football match than with virtually the last kick of the game and on Grand National weekend, it was Wanderers who edged it by a nose thanks to reserve rider Joe Mason.
The Cardiff loanee, who has a similar diminutive build to that of a top jockey, was brought on by Dougie Freedman for the final 20 minutes of what had largely been a scrappy encounter with these two mid-table horses having all-but run their Championship race for the season.
The substitute’s aim was a simple one: try and get a goal to sneak the Whites across the finishing line.
Mason left it late but when that chance came, he took it with some aplomb and there was no way back for Huddersfield.
The fact Freedman could call upon game-changers like Mason and Jermaine Beckford illustrated his post-match view that his options have grown as the season has progressed.
It may have been a slower work in progress than he had hoped but there is no denying he is assembling a squad that can now win games like this, ones they would most likely have lost earlier in the campaign.
There is a stronger field available to the Whites boss with a hatful of runners and riders he believes can stay the course and distance of the gruelling Championship race.
On this evidence, it is hard to disagree. From the in-form Adam Bogdan in goal, the stubborn defensive unit marshalled by David Wheater and Zat Knight, the midfield engine room commanded by Jay Spearing and Medo Kamara right up to the attacking menace that is Lukas Jutkiewicz – the backbone that every team needs is there.
And when you still have plenty in reserve like Beckford, Mason, Matt Mills, Alex Baptiste and Andre Moritz, it allows changes if things are not going to plan. That is exactly how it played out at the John Smith’s Stadium.
It would be wrong to say things were not going to plan as Wanderers were more than holding their own, defending resolutely and posing more threats as the game wore on. But they needed something extra to turn it their way and Mason was the man to do that.
It had been suggested beforehand this game was a dead-rubber between two sides all-but safe from the drop and out of the play-off picture but it started lively enough.
Inside the first 15 minutes, both teams had been denied by the woodwork. First, Danny Ward let rip with a left-footed piledriver from distance that bounced up and over off the angle of post and bar for he hosts.
Then, after a completely different passing build-up, Chung-Yong Lee saw a placed effort from 10 yards come back off the base of the post with Terriers keeper Alex Smithies a helpless spectator.
That chance was provided by attacking right-back Alan Hutton who would add even more threat as the game reached its climax.
The first half belonged to Huddersfield in terms of possession but they were restricted to long-rage shots and almost all were straight at Bogdan.
The defensive pairing of Knight and Wheater were largely responsible. After a shaky first few minutes, they denied Terriers striker Nahki Wells space to work in behind and he cut a frustrated figure.
The best chance for Mark Robins’ men came from a set-piece when Oscar Gobern rose to head an Adam Hammill corner towards goal only for Spearing to be guarding the post and clear off the line despite almost being clattered by team-mate Jutkiewicz in the process.
Aside from that, there was little in the way of chances despite the continuous hard work of Jutkiewicz to try and fashion something for the Whites. He may not have got another goal but the classy frontman never lets you down in the effort stakes.
The second half saw a brighter start from Freedman’s men and Liam Trotter, who headed straight at Smithies moments earlier, almost squeezed the ball in from an acute angle but for the Terriers keeper to hold on to the ball on the line.
It was Bogdan’s turn next to get into the action.
Ward had been the main threat for the hosts and after glancing a header over, he forced a fine save from the Hungary international one-on-one – the Whites stopper showing strong hands to block.
It was an even more-agile stop that followed when Ward got his header on target only for Bogdan to turn it over the bar with a fingertip save.
It looked like a goal was coming but Spearing was in the way on the line again to stop the ball going in after a scramble from a header into the Whites box.
With the game opening up, Freedman looked to his bench and called on Mason to replace Trotter – a decision met with cheers from a 2,300-plus away following.
Ten minutes later and Beckford joined him as Jutkiewicz took a deserved rest.
And it could have been a dream return to his old club late on for Beckford but for an angle too tight after the bounce on a long Neil Danns punt deceived Smithies and momentarily gave the Whites forward a sniff.
There was a sense that was the golden chance to win it gone but Mason had other ideas.
The away fans roared as Wanderers won a corner in the second of three added minutes and it was as if they knew what was coming.
Chung-Yong whipped in a driven low cross and in the blink of an eye, Mason peeled off his marker and swivelled to superbly volley home into the bottom corner.
It was harsh on the Terriers who may have wanted a steward’s enquiry after playing well enough to earn at least a share of the spoils.
But for Freedman and Co it was the perfect ending to a gritty display.
The manager suggested this week he now has players who are adapting to Championship football.
If they continue to grind out results like this and he can add a few more thoroughbreds to the mix in the summer, there is no reason why they cannot be in the leading pack when next year’s promotion race reaches the finishing post.