WANDERERS will not want to be known as nearly men this season – but that seems to be the way things are heading.
Frustrating as it is, they are just unable to marry up their much-improved football with the ability to hold out and win games. And, while the Whites will win friends with the way they are playing, they will not necessarily win promotion in May.
At Huddersfield, Wanderers nearly pulled off a perfect away performance, playing some fine stuff in a breathless game. And yet it was with a tinge of disappointment that many of the 2,000-plus fans headed back down the real ale trail towards Manchester, reflecting on another two dropped points after James Vaughan’s late strike.
Dougie Freedman insists the team are on the cusp on winning this kind of match, and it would be fantastic to think he was right. Watching Chris Eagles, Chung-Yong Lee and Mark Davies with the kind of swagger they had in the second half would be even better with three points at the end of it.
And it is to the manager’s eternal credit that he has brought them this far. Several weeks ago they were not so much nearly men, as nowhere near.
But that will not come as much solace to many paying regulars who expected more this season. And when you look down the teamsheet, you can see they have a point.
The Whites have dropped more points from winning positions than any other club in the Championship, with the total now standing at 21.
It is an annoying habit to have developed, especially when such improvement has been made in other areas.
In attack, the issues in front of goal seem to have been cured. Eagles and Mark Davies have found a system to suit and the same also seems to be the case for Keith Andrews, whose first goal for Wanderers cannot be far away.
Full-backs Sam Ricketts and Stephen Warnock are linking up well, and Jay Spearing – whose consistency has been there all season – just ties it all together nicely. Unfortunately, that isn’t the end of the story. The same problems that haunted Owen Coyle all the way through his tenure – an inability to batten down the hatches when necessary – has been passed on like an unwanted baton to Freedman.
Having done the hard work in overhauling Zat Knight’s unlucky early own goal with strikes from Mark Davies and Chris Eagles, who also missed from the spot, Vaughan capitalised on a late defensive reshuffle after Matt Mills went off injured.
His replacement, Tim Ream, seemed to find it tough to get to the pace of the game and that’s where the former Everton man found space to beat Adam Bogdan with an angled drive three minutes from time.
Wanderers can’t be too downhearted from the performance but might want to give the league table a wide berth for a while, at least until they can start stringing wins together.
They could have been out of sight early on as Alex Smithies came to Huddersfield’s rescue with fine saves to deny Andrews and Eagles from close range. From their first corner, the Terriers took the lead. Ollie Norwood’s centre clipped the top of Kevin Davies’s head and then bounced off Knight into the net. For some reason, Anthony Gerrard seemed to claim credit. That spurred the home side on and they nearly scored a second as Bogdan blocked Adam Clayton’s shot and Lee Novak then crashed an effort against the bar.
Andrews’s misfortune in front of goal continued, as Dixon cleared his header off the line from Kevin Davies’s flick, but it was Huddersfield who looked the more likely to score a second as the half drew to a close, with the impressive Jack Hunt forcing Bogdan into a scrambling save under his bar with a deep cross and also having another effort well blocked by Knight.
Freedman’s half- time team talk worked a treat, though, and it was one-way traffic when Eddie Ilderton resumed the game. Both Ricketts and Knight will be disappointed not to have got more with headed efforts at goal and Chung-Yong equally so after choosing to cross and not shoot when racing on to Eagles’ through ball.
Kevin Davies should have had a penalty after being pushed in the back by Gerrard, and the captain then turned provider for Eagles, who was denied right in front of goal by a magnificent challenge from Hunt. With noise from the travelling fans building, Wanderers were also coming to a crescendo.
And on 70 minutes, Mark Davies curled a shot round Peter Clarke to register his fifth strike of the season and his second in as many matches. The Whites sensed blood and when Dixon tripped the rampaging Ricketts, the stage was set for Eagles to erase memories of Millwall from the penalty spot. Smithies had other ideas though and pushed the winger’s shot on to the post.
Even though they rode their luck a little when Knight’s unnecessarily panicky clearance missed his own post by inches, the Whites deserved to seize the lead with 10 minutes to go.
It was a brilliant strike too, with Mark Davies back-heeling Spearing’s through ball into the path of Eagles, who slammed home left footed for his first goal since October. If only we could have stopped the game there. Simon Grayson threw on Alan Lee and James Vaughan from the bench, while Freedman was forced into a change at the back as Matt Mills hobbled off, to be replaced by Ream.
The two Terriers subs combined as Lee out-witted Knight, turning the ball into Vaughan’s path, and his pace got him past Ream to fire a shot past Bogdan from the angle.
Vaughan nearly grabbed a winner when seizing a loose pass from Ream – Bogdan bailing out his team-mate – but that would have been too much.
On its own, the draw was a fair result between two teams who had mustered some great football between them. But for Wanderers, it took a different light when set against all the other dropped points this season.
It was nearly, but not quite, a day to remember. And “nearly” just won’t do.