THE TWE12th Man unfurled a new pre-match visual device in the North Stand with a pair of eight foot square flags in the club’s traditional home and away colours – for any club marketing men not aware, that’s that’s red with a white band and blue and black stripes – furiously waved in impressive patterns by steely biceped Boro boys. My semaphore is a bit rusty but I thought I made out the phrases “miserable red-faced whinger”, “dirty, cheating, diving nancy boy” and “ugly spud-faced granny botherer”. The link with the sea cadets is really paying dividends.
The critics who say the Twe12th Man is out of step with the Boro consensus must be right. If they had truly caught the mood of the night they would not trying to intimidate the opposition players or rousing fierce local pride. If they were really picking up the vibe from ‘the Boro street’ the flags would be angrily spelling out: “Downing you useless fanny.”
Stuart Parnaby will be relieved, we have a new boo-boy target: the man whose crosses created both goals. The local lad made good who over the past two seasons has been Boro’s assist king. The creative force who single-handedly salvaged the UEFA Cup dream with a string of pinpoint crosses against both Basel and Bucharest that engineered an historical orgasm.
The bloke who barely a month ago ripped apart Bolton and took centre-stage in Boro’s most convincing display of the season. Yes, its official: Stewart Downing is rubbish!
There was a lot of hostility in the Riverside. Man U were booed from the off with Ronaldo’s every touch in the opening half hour bring ear-bleeding peaks of audio bile. The loudest cheers of the night came as first Lee Clattermole then Julio Arca wiped out our dark spring loaded Nemisis to huge public approval. No doubt viewers across the land cheered too.
Rob Styles got some stick too, especially late on. His pivotal penalty award against Boateng was probably right, the acid test is whether you would be screaming “stonewall” at the other end and I think I would. But what was just a dodgy decision was given a sinister edge big club bias and multiplied into a gross injustice when he failed to give an equally compelling call against Vidic. After that a string of decisions went against Boro and a head of righteous anger built up with the crowd taunting the ref with some old school serenading: “the referee’s a w*****”, “you’re not fit to referee” and “cheat, cheat, cheat” – all chants calculated to ensure every decision from then on went resolutely the other way.
So we clearly have our villains, the focus of our hate and our excuses: Ronaldo and Styles. But no! The vindictive Chicken Run faction shuffling heel-to-toe in the underpass had chosen a different scapegoat: Stewart Downing. He’s crap apparently. He can’t cross. He doesn’t track back. He won’t skin his full-back. And until he charges back 80 yards to break his leg in a reckless 60/40 challenge he will remain a lily-livered waster and we should get shot.
Unable to escape the half-cut kangeroo court in the jam as we waited for the 7.25 to Redcar to trundle past I stuck my neb in with what I though was compelling mitigation. “But his crosses set up both goals.” They pair of them looked at me as if I was stupid. Finally one slapped me down with the retort: “Aye, but that’s all he did do.” “Setting up two goals against the best team in the country to keep us in it isn’t enough?” I asked. “Wouldn’t you take that every week?”
“But he doesn’t look interested. His body language is all wrong. He’s not getting at teams. He doesn’t beat his man. The crosses came from dead balls. He can’t do it in open play. He needs some fire in his belly like young Cattermole.” So there you go Stewy; forget that knuckling down and waiting for the two or three chances in a game to float in a perfect cross. If you want the fans on board you need to go rushing 20 yards out of position to make an unneccessary crunching tackle, preferably leaving a big gap behind you for the opposition to come steaming through if you don’t take the ball. Boro is a tough audience.
It is possibly true to say that Downing didn’t have a great first half – but who did? There was a 20 minute spell where Boro were being torn apart and the team wobbled as a whole. The defence were being dragged all over and even the normally imperious Woodgate was backing off and in two minds over the first goal. But they were not getting the protection they needed from midfield – George Boateng in particular was exposed by United’s pace – while the forwards were not holding the ball up when they got it to buy time to reorganise. The ball was being squandered cheaply with Andrew Taylor, Cattermole and Yakubu probably the biggest villains. If you wanted an excuse to slag off the irrational scapegoat of your choice it was easy. Downing did little with the ball – but for long spells he did not see it because the team as a whole were being battered.
But suddenly Boro were back in it as a teasing Downing cross was spilled and scrambled away then nodded back in by Arca for Cattermole to cushion superbly witha sublime first touch then crack home on the turn for the leveller just before the break. Then almost immediately after the restart a well crafted Downing corner curled over the crowd to the back stick where Boateng arrived unmark to stoop and head Boro ahead. There’s three people it would be oh so easy to slag off turning the game in the space of a few minutes. But don’t let that stop you booing.
Supporters claim they pledge their loyalty to the shirt unconditionally. If only that were true. Sometimes I despair that so many can not see the special, distinct and rare qualities of each of the players wearing it and their different contribution to the team. To berate Downing for not defending is as ridiculous as calling for Woodgate to be dropped because he doesn’t dribble forward, beat his man or score enough goals. Or suggesting Viduka be pedalled because his marking defending corners is woeful and his tackling weak.
What is important is to recognise that the team – not individuals – did not preform well in the first half. But that they did in the second when they showed that with the right attitude, organisation and motivation they can take the game to even the best of sides. Boro are still in the FA Cup, the Wembley dream is still alive and there are growing reasons to be optimistic for the future under Gareth Southgate. The players that have played their part in that deserve praise. All of them. We should save our hostile energy for the opposition and for referees.