TWENTY four hours later and there is some sensation returning. The numb outrage at being dumped out by one of the better teams in the lowest division is fading now to be replaced by a creeping fear that the fringe players – and especiall the big names – are just not good enough.
The Notts County game was illuminated by the flames from burning bridges as Massimo Maccarone showed he was not up to providing any sort of threat when he starts a game while Gaizka Mendieta floundered against journeymen to underline the yawning gap between the stratospheric level he once graced and the one that is now woefully beyond him.
And some of the wonder kids we have been raving about over the past year or so scattered questionmarks in their wake as they struggled to impose themselves on a game perfect for them to stake a claim for a first team place.
Maccarone was given an especially loud cheer when the teams were read out as recognition for services rendered in the spellbinding Riverside revivals against Basel and Steaua – that was the last time I made a note of his name all night. The ÃÂ£8.15m record buy – a phrase that still stings with every reading – failed to trouble a fourth division defence. In fact he did next to nothing, even in the second half when Boro were streaming forward. Massimo is clearly marking time until he is released in the summer at a huge loss, a monument to the ‘reckless signings’ that Keith Lamb publicly savaged earlier this month.
Mendieta: I really don’t know where to start. Except to confess that on a purely subjective level I have become increasingly frustrated by his slip-shod displays to the point where I groan when he gets the ball. We are regularly told he is the best footballer at the club in defiance off all the matchday evidence. In his appearances this season has looked incapable of controlling a ball and almost every pass goes astray, especially the audacious 40 yard chips over the defence to the opposing keeper. He always struggled with the pace and physicality of the Premiership but if he no longer has the touch and distribution to justify his inclusion in the first team. His half-hearted slo-mo outings on the right have been an unmitigated disaster but his workrate and tackling is short of what is needed in the middle, even now on most occasions in a five. Yet he has two years left on a bumper contract and it is hard to see him being unloaded.
It is hard to believe that either can ever be first choice starters in their natural position or even change a game dramatically from the bench. Both represent massive investments by the club, either in fee or wages, and returns on that are now so small as to be negligible.
The kids are more problematic. Undoubtedly they have huge potential and can play a big part in the future of the club if it is successfully harnessed but they can not be exempt from criticism just because they are local lads and speak passionately with a familiar accent.
Super Lee Cattermole is a terrace icon. His early displays of epic Tasmanian Devil energetic tackling, closing down and fearless surges forward prompted whispers that he could be Teesside’s Gerrard and we must all pray that comes to pass. But he will no doubt admit he had a poor game and must now raise the bar if he is to continue to demand a first team place on merit even if his short-sighted admirers in the crowd won’t.
And likewise Tony McMahon, Teesside’s top tip for future England full-back status just a year ago was also below par. Yes, he has had an injury blighted year that has seen him slip down the pecking order and left him short of match practice, but against County he was unrecognisable from the player who justifiably sparked the hype. He now has a lot of ground to make up if he is to regain his momentum and his first team place.
But it was not all bad news of course. Andrew Taylor looked lively and had pace and vision and looked to get forward on the occasions he saw the ball while Matthew Bates was solid if unspectacular. The big plus though was obviously Robert Huth proving his fitness and despite his slow start growing in stature as the game went on, finishing as Boro’s main attacking threat.
But that is scant reward for the most likely door to Europe slamming in our faces on a night when the team let themselves and the paying public down.