THUNDERBASTARD! And a Mist Opportunity. That’s the recent stand-out trips to Huddersfield covered. Now – after what seems like a month of dreary doom-laden talk about an on-going crisis – Boro go there again knowing they can go top of the Championship table … if they win by two goals and Brighton don’t beat Birmingham, the team with the best away record in the division that is. So there is everything to play for.
IT WAS a dramatic finale as Grant Leadbitter slammed home from the spot in the 94th minute. Talk about leaving it late. It came at the tail end of a televised tedium that would be branded a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ under the UN charter of human rights.
It certainly woke people up. after they had been dulled into submission and left soporific and frustrated by a ‘win ugly’ 1-0 over QPR that was not a great or memorable experience. Relieved Boro will bank the points and move on and we will never speak of this again.
OBVIOUSLY there will be gnashing and wailing and demands for recriminations and a fundamental, far-reaching tactical review because that is the default after a defeat through football now. Something must be done.
People are simmering and smarting and bruised. after the 3-0 defeat at Hull. The team trudged dejectedly out of the tunnel onto the coach looking morose. The boss was crest-fallen in the aftermath while among supporters there were sighs of resignation, demands to know what had gone wrong and fearful predictions that a repeat of last season was nailed on. Clearly Manchester United had just papered over the cracks.
THE MILLERS Grind wouldn’t make any Boro’s Greatest Hits album. It probably wouldn’t even make an Berlin drugs phase B- side. It was a flabby filler on the difficult third album. No one would ever claim it as their favourite and all but the most ardent fan will forget it immediately and, to be honest, on CD most people would just skip it. But it is there, part of critically acclaimed wider body of work that has some far more memorable stuff on it so you tolerate it and accept it for what it is: a bum note in a classic collection.
Sometimes you have to work through those numbers as part of the build-up to get to the big anthemic crowd pleasing finale. The 1-0 win over Rotherham was like that. A downbeat, going through the motions set-padding kind of fixture where Ringo or Sid or the Edge was allowed to do the vocals.
And after the triumphant headlining glory of Old Trafford it was all a bit of a comedown but so long as Boro are topping the charts come May, no-one will worry too much about the last couple of solid but unspectacular shows.
PATIENCE, persistence, probing, passing, possession… add potent to the mix and Boro are a real team more than capable of getting out of this league.
On paper the three goal win over Charlton was a one-sided affair. The possession stats, the shock and awe shot imbalance, the corner count, the scoreline all suggest a routine romp for the promotion contenders against hapless basement battlers. And it was. In the end. The breakthrough ghoul was only a matter of time.
After the whistle we can look back and make a sober assessment that Boro ticked all the boxes to get past what was potentially a Bristol City shaped banana-skin.
But at times it can be very hard work watching them. If Boro don’t come out of the blocks with a sprint start goal they can quickly lose some steam and momentum, settle into a low-tempo toothless pattern and look laboured as they beaver away to slowly turn the screw on the opposition, to recycle possession and stretch the game sidewards, backwards and inside out in pursuit of an error or a lock-picking moment of magic.
Trick or treat? Scary striker Nugent poacher prank scares Charlton witless
Unless Boro get an early opener to force the opposition to come out and play the intensity can seep away and make the match feel like doing the breast-stroke in porridge.
And that is what we saw against a very poor Charlton side, another slow attritional grind straight out of the big book of Championship stereotypes. After the Lord Mayor of Salford’s Show at Old Trafford on Wednesday night Boro were back to the role reversal bread and butter of struggling to penetrate the massed ranks of team set up to defend.
Charlton were awful. They were possibly the worst team we’ve seen this season. Even Bristol had a go, they had a plan to break-out onto long diagonals, they had a threat.
On Halloween they looked like a limited lifeless zombie team lumbering through the motions, doing just enough to get by but always looking likely to collapse when the first goal flew in. If it flew in.
Boro were doing all the attacking but as the game lost momentum and intensity and inched towards the break fans grew frustrated as a thick duvet of ordinariness stifled Boro’s attacking intent. They bossed it on 80% of the pitch but still looked blunt in the box as the usual banjo/bovine bum note sounded an alarm.
After four games in five without a goal there is a fear not far from the surface that Boro’s set-up has “struggle to score” stamped into its DNA (despite being the leading pack’s top scorers and with the best goal difference to boot).
Albert’s haul. Adomah ghoul makes Charlton rearguard look like right pumpkins
And there is a fear that teams “know how to play against Boro.” That’s true. They do know. Just as we watch our heroes in action and know their strengths and weaknesses. Teams will come here to sit deep and defend with two rigid banks of four or five behind tactical trenches and barbed wire and hope to hold off the assertive home side . But knowing and being able to put a text-book strategy into practice are two different things.
It takes 96 minutes of concentration, relentless hard-work and a dollop of luck to keep Boro at bay. And not every team will be able to do that. A string of teams have come to the Riverside and dug tactical trenches – but Boro have blown most of then away. Eventually. Not all of them but most: Leeds, Bolton, MK Dons, Wolves, Charlton.
You expect to see some bus parking – after all we are the big spending promotion favourites – but this season has felt that the Riverside has become a popular tourist destination with charabanc drivers circling around Car Park B looking for a space.
Rotherham will come and try to do the same on Tuesday – and Boro will set about trying to dismantle them again them in the same methodical, well drilled way they did against the rest. Aitor said it was “perfect.”
Sometimes an early goal will fly in, they can relax and the opposition at some point will push out to chase the game and create space. Sometimes it will take a new ice age of slow picking and passing and probing until and opening can be deftly fashioned or forced by a more direct route. Sometimes it feels like purgatory.
But that is something we will need to deal with as fans this season just as the team must learn to deal with it on the pitch.
What we said before kick-off….
BUBBLING Boro must put aside the champagne fizz of their coupon-busting cup win at Old Trafford and get back down to the Championship bread-and-butter against Charlton.
Teesside has been on a high after the deserved victory over Manchester United – part euphoria after the pulsating spot-kick shoot-out and part sleep deprivation after the three hour crawl across a ten mile section of the M62 – but we must make that dividend count.
Champagne spot-kick celebration. Now its back to bread and butter
The win at Wolves ended a three game goalless blip that brought the first real ripple of nerves through the fan-base. The win over United ignited excitement again but for all the teasing glimpse of glory in knockouts this season is about one thing and one thing alone: securing promotion. That means Boro must not squander the Old Trafford dividend.
Aitor Karanka’s team are still just one point off the automatic spots after the stumble of one point from nine and need to get emphatically back on track in the league and put the pressure on the leaders . They can do that against a fragile looking Athletic, the first of two very winnable games at home to strugglers under new management.
Charlton has been a gimmee in recent years. Just as Boro fans fear Forest or Leeds or Ipswich, Charlton fans blanch at travelling to Teesside. They have won just once here in 25 years. They don’t win at their place too often either. In the last decade going back to the “Operation Riverside” FA Cup quarter-final when they arrive en masse on free coaches the Boro stats are: P10 W7 D3 L0 F20 A7. We have to extend that run. In style. After a barren spell in front of goal – United was the fourth game in five Boro have drawn a blank. We need to build on the Old Trafford heroics with a potent display at home.
Charlton are vulnerable. The club has slipped into the relegation zone after losing eight of the the last 10, they haven’t scored in three and have conceded six in last two. That saw Guy Luzon axed and Karel Fraeye as interim boss, their fifth in two years.
Fraeye was previously at Belgian third division side VW Van Hamme, 12th in a league of 18 teams when he left, with two wins in 11 games. It is an appointment that has done little to pacify a fan base now close to open revolt against trigger happy Belgian owner Roland Duchâtelet, who has presided over one cock-up after another.
“It’s the football equivalent of a FTSE 100 company whose share price is plummeting and suffering from profit warnings picking a shop manager of an outlet with struggling sales as the chief executive to turn things around,” was the damning verdict of a Charlton webzine.
So, let’s twist the knife for them. Boro need to match the intensity and spirit of the Old Trafford heroics to relaunch the promotion push, score the goals to ignite the Riverside and fire the team back towards escape velocity. I’m going for 3-0.
Usual drill: predict the scoreline and script the game and then regroup later to swap notes and relive the EIO excitement.
COME ON BORO.
BATTLING Boro showed their mettle on a fantastic night at Old Trafford as they proved once again they can live with the Champions League elite.
It went to penalties for the second year running after the big boys failed to crack a determined and resiliant side full of fire. And this time we won: Aitor’s army keeping their nerve in a spot-kick shoot-out in front of the amazing Tees travellers.
What a night. What a team. What a time to be alive and a Boro fan.
There was a dazzling display of Teesside unity in the stands as 10,000 travelling fans flashed up their smartphone torches in a show of solidarity with Redcar’s axed steelworkers. Then Aitor Karanka’s second shelf team shone just as brightly on the pitch with a superb show in which they more than matched arguably the biggest club in the world.
In the past year Boro have been pitted against the best of the Premier League and each and every time we have come away full of chest-bursting pride and full of hope.
And a belief that if we get promoted we could survive in the top flight. And florish.
At title-chasing United there was no sign any gulf in quality. No sign of Boro being swept aside or over-awed or out-gunned. Yes, it was hairy at times. But for them too. Boro were the best team in the first half.
And possibly in the second too. We certainly had the best of the chances until the last few minutes when United threw everything forward and still couldn’t crack a determined defence with incredible Dani Ayala at the heart. It felt like there was a psychic forcefield across the Boro goal in a frantic finale as sheer will to win kept them out.
Don’t talk my word from it. I’m the ra-ra in chief and minister of spin remember. But the assembled masses in the press room agreed, the huddle of the national press, TV, radio and the United Nations of broadcasters that are regulars at the Theatre of Dreams. Even United sycophant Alan Green was forced to praise Boro.
It is hard to disagree with them all. Boro were calm and collected, organised at the back and probably had the best of the first half chances with George Friend’s close range angled effort and Stewie Downing’s distance dipper in the first half then the disallowed own goal, an attemped second cock-up from United then Grant Leadbitter had two saved and Downing another cleared off the line. It was a fantastic team effort. And then United did their best to help out with one own goal disallowed and then another effort from distance that just bobbled wide after a comic keeper’s airshot.
Boro were organised, strong and steely at the back and routinely snuffed United’s threat on the break with Ayala and Tomas Kalas making timely tackles. They were compact and tidy in midfield with Jack Stephens superb. And up front much maligned Kike worked his socks off. And Downing was industrious and influential in the No10 role.
The performance was important. Boro weren’t embarrassed, they weren’t over-awed or over powered. Once again they went toe-to-toe with a giant team and matched them over 90 minutes in a pulsating show of pride and passion. And then through extra-time. And then they kept their nerves to win the in the casion of penalties.
Boro players prepare to pile onto Tomas Mejias after the final save.
Boro have some amazing cup games under Aitor that have been great for the club, the team and the supporters. Last year we went to Anfield for an emotional epic and were edged out by the odd goal in 31 by Liverpool in a surreal Scouse spot-kick showdown that went to 14-13 before heartbreak. It was a noisy night out for the fans being back in the big time, making themselves at home, raising the roof and enjoying every pulsating minutes.
Then the FA Cup bandwagon took us to to the Etihad for a coupon-busting win over then reigning Premier League champions Manchester City. Boro raised eye-brows and the proud red standard high as they weathered an opening barrage to beat the jet-lagged juggernauts 2-0 with a brace of beauties and Lee Tomlin twisted Vincent Kompany so completely before he hit the post that the City man may as well have been on spin cycle.
Next up was Arsenal… well, the less said about that the better. Boro were given the run around and fell through the quality gap. But it was a great day out.
Last term’s trio of glamour trips were tasters of the future that teased us an in the end eluded us – but they were valuable learning experiences for the players and the boss. And lucrative pay-days for the bean-counters.
Boro were never disgraced. They played three teams who were in the Champions League and showed spirit, tenacity and enterprise to win plaudits from the national press. Again.
In four games away at the Euro-giants in just over a year Boro’s record over 90 minutes is: P4 W2 D1 L1. That’s not bad, , drew one (over the 90) and lost one. That isn’t a bad return. Those results and those performances have boosted morale and fostered ambitious dreams about just how we would fare should we get promoted.
And it poured a lot of cash into the coffers which has been put onto the pitch for the promotion push this team. Boro are entitled to 45% of the gate and almost full houses at Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal earned a £5m windfall which helped fund the summer spending spree. A similar bumper gate from Old Trafford lasyt night – with a near capacity 68,000 – will come in useful again.
And maybe come January it will help Aitor fine-tune the team for the really important games: the nitty-gritty Championship bread and butter games. Starting on Saturday.
DEJA Vu: a money-spinning glamour game away at a Champions League side, a big challenge on the pitch and a jubilant Boro party off it. Last year it was Anfield. THis time it’s Old Trafford . The scenario is the same: the league games in the aftermath are far more important but it will be nice to put on a spirited show that will raise the profile of the club, boost morale and prove that the team are capable of raising to a challenge.
The trip to Anfield last September was memorable and entertaining and finished in dramatic fashion with the pulsating 14-13 penalty shoot-out defeat. Remember the surreal Scouse spot-kick shenanigans?
Bamford and Reach – against the odds Anfield scorers
We probably can’t engineer that kind of climax again but there’s no reason we can’t go there and give it a good crack. It is a cup where there are plenty of strange results. Whatever they say about focus, it is United’s fourth most important competition. The Boro team may be patched up with a little flurry of injuries taking its toll but whatever side takes to the pitch will be up for it and the 10,000 travelling Teessiders will make a racket.
The result almost doesn’t matter. It is a bonus game. A win would be amazing and while some people don’t want the extra games or the distraction of a cup run I think it would be brilliant: a feather in the cap, a chance to push on, something to get the fans buzzing. A defeat, so long as it is not a crushing one, would be no shame either. Extra-time would be inconvenient but not a massive problem. We are always being told we have a great squad. Its time to see that over the next week or two.
Over to you: usual drill. Predict the scoreline and the story… penalties again? Then all back here afterwards for a debrief and a chat about the next round.
BIG CALLS. Big balls.
Dropping star men in the middle of a crisis of creativity and a crisis of faith. Risking precious points, squad spirit and the sanity of the crowd. Putting your reputation as a tactician on the line with a curve ball.
Those are the season defining selections that managers live or die by.
Aitor Karanka took the pin out of a hand-grenade and sat it beside him in the dugout and for a tense hour under the cosh at Molineux it looked like it had blown up in his face.
Then… BANG. Benched Stewart Downing bounced back from dug-out duty with a beauty, a match turning assist and a demonstration of star quality that helped Boro came from behind to win a league game for the first time in over a year. The last Championship fight back was the 2-1 victory at Bolton in August last season.
Now a relieved Karanka can point to the result, the character shown in the fight-back to win 3-1 and the high-impact of the fired-up flanker as evidence of his shrewd management of a sticky scenario.
Now the doubts after three goalless games and one point in nine can be swept away, momentum is regained and we can all breath again and look forward to Old Trafford and two relativey gentle home games with a sense of excitement and expectation.
But it could have been so, so very different. Because the stakes for the Spanish supremo today were massive.
Karanka dropped a pre-match team-sheet bombshell in benching £5.5m marquee man Downing and fans’ favourite flanker Albert Adomah.
That radical revamp was a massive call that left the manager hostage to fortune. Not only did it spark a pre-match furore – twitter almost exploded when the news broke – but it set up the potential for a both barrels backlash on the whistle and handed Karanka’s critics a stick to beat him with.
In the most extreme no-go areas of the internet, passionate plans were afoot for a full-on pitchfork and torches procession to mourn the demise of the season and the Spanish Revolution.
The midweek counselling session warning fans not to get caught up in the emotions of individual results for fear of ending up at the psychiatrists wouldn’t have counted much in a messy aftermath.
Boro fans had been demanding changes in the wake of the wobble – but they probably didn’t expect that. Changes in midfield yes, a reshuffle of the three behind the striker, yes. But not such radical surgery.
It was brave decision. Both have had their critics but Stewie and Albert are the creative forces that have driven the team this season.
Downing has taken some flak in recent weeks. It must have felt like old days. He has shown flashes of real quality, has a deft touch and great vision and while he hasn’t been the prolific scorer many expected when he arrived with a fanfare, he has been productive. And while fans rarely agree with the Gazette scribes, he tops our star man table.
There have been those disappointed he is yet to rip up the division, yet to transform games in the way that Paul Merson did and that for the price-tag and experience, he has not had the impact expected.
(Although it is maybe worth pointing out that Merson only scored once in his first nine league games before clicking and hitting the accelerator.)
Some people have suggested he has shown “bad body language”, that he is playing “with his head down” – but that may be in the eye of the beholder.
Others believe he may be yearning for a role in the middle – he has publicly said he feels that is his strongest position – but even if that is true he is still superb on the left so it is not as if he is a fish out of water having been square-pegged out wide.
And Albert has had his critics this term too, not least the manager.
The Ghanaian had a sluggish start to the season, was unhappy and after falling out with the boss and slapping in a transfer request was placed firmly on the naughty step and looked to be edging towards the exit door.
But he bounced back with a bang against Brentford and then produced a string of influential displays during Boro’s seven game winning run.
So it would seem, whatever the gripes from the terraces, neither has been dropped because of their overall form.
And neither were particularly poor at Cardiff. Indeed, Albert was the brightest spark, brought a great save from a header, had a few chances and teed up Grant Leadbitter for an effort that was blocked on the line.
But when the key collective failing has been the ability to unpick defences, the telling touches that create chances, then it seems strange to say the least to leave out both of your most adept locksmiths.
There may well have been a nuanced tactical reason but it remained opaque to we humble spectators. And there may have been be a logistical reason, nursing key players through a busy month, keeping the batteries topped up – but a Championship game is far more important than the glamour trip to Old Trafford in the cup and, with all due respect, Wolves more of a test than Rotherham.
And should Boro have lost, gone four without a goal, without a win, many fans would not think much of that mitigation.
But it was Aitor’s call. It is his job is to make the big decisions.
That was his biggest decision of the season so far. And it came at a crucial point with momentum and morale fading and the first signs of self-doubt creeping in and jitters spreading through the crowd.
And look at the result, he got it right. And so long as you get them right, everyone – well, nearly everyone – is happy. For now.
I WAS a bit surprised to read in the Boro website matchpack that Wolves are the team Boro have the best historical record against (W43, D29, L27, fact fans). Mainly because I can’t remember winning there in the league while I’ve been covering Boro in a “professional” capacity . There was the win there with the Emnes goal in the FA Cup in the relegation season, but I’ve not seen a win in the league.
I’ve seen Boro win going there as a fan. Back in the end of season promotion clincher – “the Jon Gittens Match” – that earned Lennie’s Lions a place in the inaugural Premier League and the comedy defender a full term contract. You can see loads of pictures from that day here. And then a few years later in another promotion campaign I remember a game in which Uwe Fuchs scored. So, win at Wolves, get promoted. It’s trending.
But since then Molineux hasn’t been a happy hunting ground (although they would say the same about Teeside and haven’t won here since 1951). In fact we’ve had some real mares there. Last year a sluggish starting Boro were monstered by a very direct Wolves side after giving away a sloppy penalty then hitting the bar and piling in the pressure then getting caught cold. Two years before that were were two up and cruising against a relegation bound basket-case before imploding and losing 3-2.
Their press lads said “it’s a good time to play Wolves.” They are having a dip of form, they can’t score goals for love nor money, the fans are getting on their backs and they have a key player up front out injured injured. But then, I could probably have said the same.
The idea that it is “a must win game” is ridiculous. After this there are still 33 games left and 99 points up for grabs. But there is undoubtedly a sense of fear bubbling up through the fissures in the collective psyche of Teesside.
There is a growing sense that the prospects for the season revolve around the next few games. Get something at Wolves, enjoy the glamorous diversion at Manchester United and then cash in two winnable home games and the promotion push is back on force. But lose at Wolves and there will be a crisis of faith. Getting beaten at Old Trafford would stretch a sorry sequence beyond blip territory and the atmosphere at home to the Riverside for the visits of Charlton and Rotherham will be volatile and combustible.
So Boro need to win to head off the emotionally taxing premature pressure and anxiety that Aitor – who seems to be rapidly coming to terms with the grip the club has on Teesside’s mindset – says will see us all on the psychiatrist’s couch.
On the plus side Boro have made a habit of smashing historic hoodoos this term with wins at Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest where our records are far worse. And Aitor insists he has learned from the Fulham and Cardiff games about how to “manage” disappointment and the reaction to set backs. And he has his troops fired up.
Obviously, it comes down to the first goal. And I think we’ll get it. Then either dig in and hold on for a nervous 1-0 that will hasten my speckling of grey hair or cast aside the shackles and go on a romp to galvanise the season.
Usual drill: your pre-match predictions of the score and how the game will pan out here and then back again later for a convivial pint or two and a pre-match debriefing.
DRAGON slaying: our annual foray abroad into Wales is usually productive. Boro have won five out of six – but all by only the single goal and a few of them have been muggings. For Cardiff it is usually a ominous fixture. Twice we’ve dented their promotion party and twice we’ve seem off the boss.
Boro need a win to regain lost ground and regain momentum and have generally been good away from home this term apart from at Reading where they were caught cold with a quickfire goal and and then spent the game trying to claw it back.
For me there’s only one goal in it. And I think Boro will get it. Possibly really late on after a tense and tetchy game in which the sides cancel each other out. I fancy Stewie Downing to seal lit/steal it with a late bit of quality.
Over to you. Usual drill: let’s have your predictions on the score and how the game will pan out and then we’ll gather later to laugh at each others’ wild optimism/faithless negativity and swap notes on the famous victory/crisis inducing chaos. God knows when I’ll get to write anything. Or get home. It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it.
AFTER the Price of Football survey there was a lot of talk about football no longer being the people’s game. But it is. No matter who “owns” the teams and makes the money, it is still very much a game at the heart of working class communities.
And at the Riverside Stadium today before blunt Boro’s frustrating stalemate with Fulham there were some stark reminders of that.
IT’S THAT time of the year again. The BBC’s annual Price of Football survey… a useful but not always truly representative snapshot of the cost of following “the people’s game” that prompts outrage, nostalgia, sighs of resignation and far fetched utopian alternative costing models from those who would like Premier League football on Northern League.
And here’s my bit on the Boro figures. That covers all the key prices and gives a rough comparison with our peers across the Championship. Basically Boro are expensive for walk-up pricing and among the most costly for the cheapest season tickets but fall well short of the top end pricing of a clutch of clubs. But we knew that.
In fact, there are very few real surprises to anyone with a passing knowledge of the pricing structure of the game at grounds across the country. It is a very expensive hobby and has been for decades now. It is a long time since the cost to get onto the terraces was about the same as the price of a pint. Someone has to pay for those Ferraris.