BORO go to West Ham looking to bounce back from their bitter FA Cup exit and step up the push for Euro glory through the tradesman entrance of the Intertoto Cup, or so the upbeat spin would have it. Bolton, Everton and Spurs have applied for the safety net but could all yet squeeze into the UEFA Cup if the big boys carve up the trophies again.
Blackburn, just four points ahead of Boro and also still bidding for a lucky losers spot in the FA Cup, and reigning plaque holders Newcastle, one point better off, have also applied and both can easily be overhauled if only our heroes can continue their recent good form.
Hold on. Come again. Good form?
This ‘good form’ was alluded to frequently in the build up to the quarter-final clash with Man United and went almost unchallenged to shape a fragile consensus that Boro were on a roll. Before the Riverside rumble with Fergie’s boys there was much optimistic buzzing about a run of nine games in which the only defeat was to champions Chelsea. Even Bernie bought into it. There were isolated voices of dissent but they were drowned out by hysterical fate-tempting chatter about Wembley ticket allocations and pie prices and talk of whether Chelsea would rest players in the final, what with the Champions League final four days later and everything.
But spin the statistical coin and read the results from a vantage point on the Chicken Run and suddenly it didn’t look so convincing. Of those nine games the only victory was the 2-1 over Reading. One win in nine sounds far more perjorative.
Since that high-water mark for unaccustomed optimism, Boro have slumped to a distracted 2-0 defeat at home to a woeful Manchester City side then battled bravely but gone down in the replay against United to a well crafted penalty amid angry recriminations. Those two results cast a bleak shadow over what was supposed to be a good run. Good run? You decide.
Bristol C (a) D 2-2
Portsmouth (a) D 0-0
Arsenal (h) D 1-1
Chelsea (a) L 0-3
Bristol C (h) D 2-2 (W 5-4 on pens)
West Brom (h) D 2-2
Reading (h) W 2-1
West Brom (a) D 1-1 (W 5-4 on pens)
Newcastle (a) D 0-0
Man Utd (h) D 2-2
Man City (h) L 0-2
Man Utd (a) L 0-1
Not great is it. Now Boro’s terrace temperature has turned decidely chilly in the space of just 180 minutes and now the numbers stack up differently. Since the sizzling 5-1 thrashing of Bolton – the climax of a run of three wins in four that had banished relegation fears and set supporters sights on the upper reaches of the table – Boro have played 12 games. They have won ONE of them. There have been three defeats and eight draws – and four of the seven draws were against lower league sides and in in two of them Boro needed penalties to progress.
And worst (oh yes, with the FA Cup prop kicked away things are easily jaundiced) Boro go to West Ham having failed to score in the last four Premiership away games. In fact, they travel with still only one awayday win in all competitions all season, and that at a then demoralised and rock bottom Charlton side poor beyond belief back in January.
And (I’m scaring myself here ) with a mounting selection crisis – key players Woodgate and Arca out injured, headstrong Cattermole and rash Morrison out suspended – the matches at relegation strugglers West Ham and then at home to fellow basement battles Watford suddenly look daunting. Lose those and it is hard to see where the next win is coming from. Villa at home is always a tricky game and they have a habit of bringing a crisis to a head. Then it is Liverpool (a), Manchester United (a) and UEFA Cup chasing Spurs (h) before a trip to Wigan and last day home game with Fulham.
I still believe it would take NASA number-crunchers to build a statistical model that would see Boro relegated: Charlton are nine points behind with five of the top ten to play and if they take the points they really need to take from Sheffield United, Wigan and Man City then that strengthens Boro’s hand. And even if inept West Ham do beat Boro on Saturday they will remain ten points behind and facing a similar scenario – Man U, Liverpool and Spurs to play plus five teams below Boro who look far more vulnerable to a late surge.
So Boro can probably forget relegation – but they can equally forget about the Intertoto. The key now is playing with enough purpose and style to finish with a real ‘good run’ and build a decent momentum that will carry us into next season and persuade the likes of Jonathan Woodgate and Mark Viduka – and other prospective employees – that next year will be the one.
TO return to the theme of Steve McClaren’s Doggy Market public relations skills, there is an interesting insight into the muddled mechanics of his spin operation on the excellent BBC Sport website where his former press guru Max Clifford explains the problems of media management in the England job and why he left the former Boro boss to it. You can read it here.