BORO may have lost the opener but thereÃ¢ÂÂs no need to write the season off just yet.
Going into the game amid a deep defensive crisis and an unprecedented air of doom and gloom over ticket sales, Keith Lamb’s comments, transfer activity seen by many as well short of ‘spectacular’ and abrupt radio silencefrom Ali and Bernie their were low expectations. Many expected a Boro side with a makeshift backline to be battered by bogey team Blackburn.
In fact Boro sparkled for an hour, deservedly took the lead and showed promising signs that the new attacking mentality was taking root before two defensive slips in concentration cost them the points in 15 minutes of madness.
Of course, you donÃ¢ÂÂt get points for bright approach play but the movement on and off the ball of new boys Tuncay and Aliadiere and the way they combined crisply with Stewart Downing – last seasonÃ¢ÂÂs only creative outlet – and galvanised frontman Yakubu was encouraging.
Several times in the friendly against AZ Alkmaar then again against Rovers incisive four man passing moves involving the mobile frontline cut into the box only for Aliadiere to just fail by a fraction to connect with killer balls from the Turk, much to the delight of the crowd.
Meanwhile the young defence – Chris Riggott at 26 was the elder statesman with Davies, Wheater and Taylor all recent products of Boro’s academy – acquitted themselves well on the whole while George Boateng’s vastly improved showing was welcome.
One worrying aspect was that Boro faded in the closing spell, this despite the oft-repeated media mantra that the team “are fitter than ever before.” Boro’s pre-season was far from ideal – Schalke was a tough opening and injuries have disrupted preparations so Southgate has been nowhere near a first choice team – and they need to get up to speed quickly.
But a little fine-tuning – and the addition of the physical presence of a Mido figure rather than lightweight Lee Dong Gook coming off the bench to add punch when chasing a game – could see Boro take shape as a potent counter-attacking outfit, especially when under-pinned by the solidity of a fully fit first choice defence.
But that development must take place quickly. Going into the season the initial run of fixtures looked generous but Boro must make them count – and Gareth Southgate must hold his nerve and stick by his vow of high energy entertaining play.
The trips to Wigan and Fulham are crucial. Both sides, among the strugglers last term, played well in their opening day defeats and like Boro will feel they are not far short. Also like Boro they will be desparate to make up lost ground in what already feels like an tense campaign in which mistakes will be punished ruthlessly. It may be ridiclously early to talk about Ã¢ÂÂmust winÃ¢Â? games – or Ã¢ÂÂmustnÃ¢ÂÂt loseÃ¢Â? games at least – but Boro canÃ¢ÂÂt afford to fall behind so early or it will be a long hard and unforgiving season.
The danger is that if the pieces donÃ¢ÂÂt fall into place quickly that Southgate will retreat into a more defensive approach and the prospect of an overtly attacking three up front and a cavalier mentality will gradually mutate into the harsh reality of five across the middle and a renewed sense of caution being sold to the punters on the basis of solidity.
It is notoriously difficult to judge on the basis of the opening day (although that won’t prevent any kneejerk reactions), especially when Boro have such a poor record in the curtain-raisers. Boro have never won an opening day fixture at the Riverside in the Premiership in seven attempts so losing to Rovers was surrendering to historic inevitability as much as anything.
Here’s that glorious Riverside record in full:
1996/97 Liverpool 3-3 (Ravanelli 3)
1998/99 Leeds 0-0
1999/00 Bradford 0-1
2001/02 Arsenal 0-4
2004/05 Newcastle 2-2 (Downing, Hasselbaink)
2005/06 Liverpool 0-0
2007/08 Blackburn 1-2 (Downing)
*Boro did win at home in 1997-98, beating Charlton 2-1 with goals from Festa and Ravanelli.