A CRUCIAL win has clawed Boro away from the basement battle – but we are not out of it yet.
Seasoned Boro watchers will know that eight points above the trapdoor with 15 games to go is a precarious position and both Bruce Rioch and Lennie Lawrence’s teams were dragged down from what looked like the security of the ‘comfort zone’ to be relegated at the death.
The away win at Charlton – the first triumphant league trip since April – has taken Boro’s recent return to ten points from five games and made both the league and form table suddenly look a lot more reassuring. But there is a long way to go.
While the recent run has eased the hysterical pre-Christmas pressure, there is a school of thought – let us call it Slavenism – that snorts with derision at the results and points out that two of the three wins were against Charlton, a demoralised outfit sleepwalking towards the trapdoor, and the other at home to a one dimensional Sheffield United that have little to offer but muscled endeavour. ‘If Boro didn’t beat them they would deserve to go down’ is I believe the catchphrase.
Boro also got a good draw and a useful point at Everton to tip teh odds slightly in their favour but they lost the big six-pointer ‘must win’ games at Fulham and Blackburn and so missed a golden chance to really claw away from the danger zone in what was on paper the easiest run of fixtures in the whole season.
Now things suddenly get a lot tougher and the next six games will be a real test of the revival. The teams coming up will ask far tougher questions than those raised by nervous strugglers who start out desperate not to be beaten and rarely attack with conviction or confidence. Let’s look at the crucial fixtures, which may or may not, depending on the Hull game, be wrapped around two dates pencilled in for FA Cup action:
The next four teams coming are all Champions League contenders and will be highly motivated, well organised and in high spirits. Reading could losing momentus and starting to worry themselves as reality bites then there is a trip to St James’s, a venue where Boro have struggled historically, for a Tyne-Tees derby that could be tenser than usual.
Can you see ten points there? If you can then you are a far more optimistic creature than me and that is commendable but please, don’t go near a bookies. I can see one win and one draw from the last two and anything else – maybe another draw or two, or maybe a win rather than a draw at Newcastle – is a big bonus.
Taking ten points from those six and keeping up the momentum in the push towards safety is not impossible but would demand far higher levels of workrate and consistency between and within games than we have shown so far this season. It would demand that the good things we have been doing of late are intensified and rewarded while the bad things are not punished.
Three of the teams Boro must play – Bolton, Arsenal and Chelsea – are higher in the current form table and two more – Portsmouth and Newcastle – are just below. All six have scored more than Boro and all bar Newcastle, who are level, have better goal differences. All will be tough.
Make no mistake, if Boro were to lose three of the first four of those, the shifting sands below them would leave them suddenly looking very vulnerable again in the next two.
So there is no respite for Boro. And certainly no time to rest on their laurels. The real work starts here. One poor result and a few results going the wrong way below us and the pressure will be right back on – especially if the results in question go for West Ham.
That one step forward, two steps back tightrope trauma will continue now until we hit the 40 points mark or the three drop spots are decided. With the rest of the teams at the bottom also stepping up their own survival bids – eight teams are now scrapping to avoid that final relegation spot – the hard work is yet to come.
There was some wild euphoric post-match babble of pressing for Europe over the weekend – like the poor the delusional ra-ras are always with us – but that is just crazy talk. Boro have carved out a breathing space but will have to play far better than of late just to hold what they have.