EMANUEL Pogatetz came on as a substitute just before the half hour of the goalless draw at Bolton and almost immediately crunched into the ribs of Danny Guthrie as they chased a ball running out of play then barely a minute later Boro’s Terminator wiped out his old sparring partner Kevin Davies with a sliding tackle and left the striker in a heap.
The ref called the Alpine hardman over – eventually – and sensibly dished out a stern lecture accompanied by the international sign language palm down gesture for ‘calm down’. Two minutes later Pogatetz touched the ball for the first time.
It was a perfect game for the imposing Austrian to return to action ahead of schedule to a no-quarters-asked encounter in which battling Boro matched the robust challenge of possibly the most physical and direct side in the league. It wasn’t one for the purists but it was a game in which Boro stood up to be counted in the kind of scrap in which they are usually muscled out.
A point away from home is always a good one, even when it could be argued that cautious Bolton were there for the taking. The first clean sheet on the road all season was a handy bonus too for a side that has looked all too porous in recent weeks. But the real plus from the day was the determined, steely show by the entire team in the face of a resurgent Bolton side that looked far from fired from their midweek UEFA Cup exertions in Munich and were on a high of sorts having been inspired by ‘the Megson effect’.
Boro were under the cosh for long spells but dug in and battled and rode their luck at times and while it wasn’t always silky or cultured it was effective. David Wheater was immense in the opening spell, a one man wall that blocked and tackled and barged Bolton men aside, closing down crosses, hooking away dangerous balls into the box and picking up a ridiculous yellow card for what was the best tackle in the game.
Lee Cattermole ran his bollocks off for a second successive game, closing down all over the middle third, flying into tackles, pushing, pulling and getting into people’s faces in uncompromising fashion… George Boateng was back to his best, especially in the second half as crunched into Bolton, unsettling their midfield and breaking up any attempt at a passing game and also setting up arguably Boro’s best chance of the game with a delightful slotted pass into the box… Chris Riggott put some recent wobbles behind him to make some vital interceptions and headers (although a misplaced one gifted Davies a glorious chance just before the break)… boo-boy Stewy Downing put a difficult week of barracking and transfer whispers behind him to work hard, tackle back and show his commitment in exactly the kind of game his critics say he usually disappears in. He even resisted the chance to pull a Cruyff turn in the box and showed he had learned his lesson with an agricultural clearance.
Even much maligned Mark Schwarzer looked solid. It would be easy to say he was never really tested – Speeds free-kick curled into the side netting, Davies blazed over and a few free-kicks fired straight him aside he never had a save to make as such – but when he was needed he was there. He came out to collect balls, barging people out of the way, he came racing off his line to put in a sliding tackle on the edge of the box after a underhit Poggi backpass almost played McCann in, then at the death he reacted well to save a close range Campo header.
It was chaos at times, not least in a frantic final backs-against-the-wall ten minutes when at times it was Keystone Cops defending and bodies got in each others’ way, but the industry and commitment never dropped throughout. And this in the kind of game where Boro in the past have proved fragile… think back to last year’s trips to Watford, Manchester City and Sheffield United when they wilted in the face of no-frills route one assault.
That is something to build on. Boro have not turned the corner, indeed, the indicator is not even on yet – but they have showed that they know which direction they must take. To get out of the hole we have found ourselves there will be a need for naked workrate and physicality as much as finesse over the next few week. Boro must stop being a soft touch if they are to claw themselves away from the dangerzone and push on.