WHEN Boro scored early in the second half of their 1-1 draw with Watford they were briefly joint top of the Championship table. “Steve McClaren’s Derby” were drawing – they went on to lose 2-1 at home to Wigan – and there suddenly was a huge prize on offer for Boro’s biggest game of the season.
Had Boro held on, or had they got the second goal they deserved at that point, they would have been sitting pretty now with a slice of a three way share of the summit. There would be a tangible background buzz building and those extra bums on seats that turned up (17,000 home fans there today, it is steadily nudging up) would have gone away bubbling about a great display and spreading word for mouth, doing excitable missionary work among the cynical masses of stay-aways.
Kike scores and Boro go top of the league. Briefly.
But then Watford scored and Boro ‘lost’ two virtual projected points. And Wolves came from behind to beat Leeds 2-1 (seeing off the perma-shambles club third manager in eight months) to nudge ahead of Boro. And Bournemouth went [BRACKETS] as Bimingham did a Sunderland and collapsed to ship eight sending the Cherries leap-frogging ahead of our heroes on goal difference. Just to add to the frustration of not winning, Forest lost 3-1 at home to Blackburn and Norwich drew at Sheffield Wednesday.
From touching the top soon after half-time, Boro slipped back to fifth, although they remain just three points from top. Which isn’t the end of the world. But. But. But. The fag-paper gaps between the teams at the top make it frustrating to see points slip away.
If only Boro they could have pressed home the the first half spell when George was ripping them open down the left and Fredericks was terrorising then down the right, when Boro were carving out a buffet of chances. Or been just that little bit more ruthless and clinical in the spell immediately after Kike’s opener early in the second half when they were turning the screw and had some very chances to put the game to bed.
Then, Watford changed their tactics, pushed closer to the Boro full-backs to stop the supply down the flanks and stabilised the game. Then enter Troy Deeney as the Hornets went to three up-front and threw everything forward (although only until they scored when they swiftly reverted to their starting shape). Deeney changed the game and for 10 minutes Watford zipped around the edge of the box and pulled Boro out of position.
And after a few close calls Watford got their rewards as they gatecrashed from the right, cutting past and then tricking past an exposed Ayala to set up the substitute to score. There was a nervous spell and the visitors clipped the post from a poorly defended free-kick before Boro gradually got a grip on the game again and finished on top but without ever really looking like regaining a stranglehold.
It was very frustrating. Boro were so close to taking a massive leap forward. Not just mathematically had they taken the points but also mentally. In back-to-back games Boro have been pitted against their promotion rivals and at Wolves they didn’t show up then against Watford they let them off the hook. Had they won today it would have shifted the psyche of Teesside up a gear, as a team and as a collective with the crowd and the layers in the hinterlands waiting to be coaxed back by the prospect of success.
Still, mustn’t grumble. A point against Watford wasn’t bad. They are a good team and will be up there come May. And they will be just as frustrated as we are going away with just a point from a game they will feel they too could have won as we are. It was the archetypal “a draw was a fair result” kind of game. Both bosses were happy with the result. Aitor Karanka was delighted with the performance (if not the finishing) and he’s right. It was a good display. Boro played well.
Both full-backs were superb; Bamford looked hungry and played well in a unaccustomed wide role; Clayton had a storming game on his return; Kike did what he does well, dropped deeep, linked up and pulled defenders all over the place and got a goal that will do his confidence the world of good; Tomlin played some perceptive balls from the tip of the diamond; Dimi made two great saves when called on; and the rest of the team put in a real shift too. Boro played fluid enterprising football in a hugely entertaining game between two side who set out to attack. It was great fun to watch.
Still frustrating though.