THE MEDIA consensus was that relegation bound Boro were going to get battered by an imperious Arsenal who wouldn’t be muscled out of victory in the far North a second time in a week. But what do they know? The real cognescenti were the ones waving their betting slips at the end, the few Riverside regulars who threw the compelling logic aside and gambled on Boro’s historic perversity.
Boro to win… 11-2; Boro to win 2-1… 25-1; Downing first scorer and Boro to win 2-1… 225-1. Result. And everyone who put their money where my doubt was deserves the kudos that goes with queuing at the payout window. I was sat with a coupon that had a quid on Boro to win 3-0 at 100-1 in my pocket at the insistence of my wife. How we laughed. No chance I sneered. It was more ritual dance than conviction. Yet after the second went in she never stopped texting with a mixture of gloating at facing down the form book to call it right and anxiety that they had eased up and were showboating. Stop fannying about and get the ball forward – there’s money riding on this!
In hindsight Boro’s win was almost inevitable. The visitors on an unstoppable run, unbeaten all season, top of the table, Champions elect and with a history of banging four, five, six, seven past us; Boro struggling to score, without a win in three months and an alarming tendency to fold under pressure… what else was going to happen? Boro are coupon busting run breakers.
There was an echo of Steve McClaren’s last season when with the fans in revolt the team had hit rock bottom with a spineless collapse at the Riverside to Aston Villa that had prompted the watershed Red Book throwing incident. Next home Boro ripped apart champions and table-toppers Chelsea then lumbered onto a run that was to end with the gloriously chaotic surge to the FA Cup semi-final and Eindhoven. Not that I’m saying for second that people should book hotels in Wembley for the second weekend in May, but, hey, this is Boro we’re talking about. So get your daft quid on them losing at Derby next week. Some observations:
Boro Braveheart Starting To Deliver: What a difference a goal makes. Tuncay has the ability, the passion, the workrate and the touch of magic to play his way into Boro’s heart. The Riverside is crying out for an heroic figure with the heart, zest and trickery to at least go some way to being a Juninho substitute.
The former Fenerbahce semi-divine dream weaver has had a tough start but has shown in glimpses – at West Ham, at Old Trafford – that he has the potential but against Arsenal he was magnificent: he chased, he squeezed, he tackled back, he crossed, he passed, he dribbled and tricked and turned in areas that hurt Arsenal …. and he scored. Hot on the heels of a crucial goal at Reading he showed an alertness and hunger in the box to drill home another which in terms of this season makes him practically a goal machine.
And he enjoyed it too, lapping up the adulation of the crowd after his goal and on his exit from the pitch having ran himself into the ground. He ticks a lot of boxes and if he can keep that kind of display up then he can be the galavanising presence that transforms the season in the way Carlos Tevez did at West Ham after a sticky start last year.
Teesside Steel: Boro showed the whole package against Arsenal and hinted at what was possible with a full strength team that is highly motivated and well organised. They showed pride and passion and a real bite combined with some exquisite moments of devastating skill that ripped apart a very good side.
They got into Arsenal’s faces early and made the game scrappy, forced the table-toppers to compete on Boro’s terms and then having earned the right to play took advantage with some incisive movement that made Arsenal look ordinary. For long spells they bossed the game, there were a string of excellent individual performances – Tuncay, Aliadiere, Downing, O’Neil, Boateng and Woodgate – contributed to an inspirational team display. In truth Boro could have won far more convincingly.
The national press will dismiss the result as a blip by a ‘lacklustre’ Arsenal team having a bad day at the office but it was far from that. It was a thoroughly professional display by a well drilled Boro side that set the agenda and more than matched one of the best teams in Europe on every level. We out-thought and out-fought them and it was brilliant to watch.
Crowd Pleasing: The Riverside atmosphere was the best of the season and showed a renewed sense of unity between crowd and team, a rejuvenated resolve that suggests that not only are we all in this together but that we are all determined to get out of it.
Of course, the early goal helped – in the symbiotic relationship between atmosphere and display, it is the lads on the pitch who most convincingly set the tone – but you could sense walking up to the ground that the bitterness and dischord of the Villa game was gone to replaced by a new determination.
Once Boro were ahead the crowd grew in confidence and delivered what is needed: a non-stop vocal expression of undiminshed support for not only the team but for those individuals who have taken some stick in recent weeks. Stewy Downing, barracked to the point of distraction in recent games, had everyone back on side and chanting his name with an awesome display. Tuncay, dogged by Turkish tittle-tattle that he is disillusioned on Teesside, was visibly buoyed by the reaction to his goal. Fit again Julio Arca and Robert Huth returned to rapturous applause.
And most pleasing of all, the underfire boss who polls suggesting 70-80% of the Teesside public wanted sacked a fortnight ago got to revel in a genuinely supportive atmosphere in which he got a warm namecheck and even responded happily to Bruciesque requests to “give us a wave” and did so validated but without any hint of bitterness.
You Don’t See That Often Do You?: When was the last time you laughed because the ref seemed to give everything Boro’s way? I can’t remember an accumulation of little decisions so blatantly facouring us since Cardiff. I am not legally allowed to suggest that Howard Webb was ‘a homer’ but it must be pointed out that when Arsenal fans started to chant “1-0 to the referee” I was tempted to join in.
It started with the penalty which in real time and from his angle must have been a difficult 50/50 call and on a bad day could easily have been waved away. Then followed a string of bizarre decisions as Boro were given goalkicks that should have been corners, throw-ins going the wrong way and crunching tackles and niggly trips going unpunished while Arsenal seemed to be pulled up for almost identical challenges.
Not that I’m complaining. And it wasn’t all one sided as if you wanted to be churlish you could ask why Eboue wasn’t at least booked for his slap across the chops of Pogatetz (although to be fair the ref was probably gobsmacked at the transparency of the Alpine hardman’s pathetic face-clutching theatrics) and how the hell he escaped a red in the second half when he left his foot in the air after a clearance then raked his studs down Stewy’s ribs.
And when was the last time we saw Boro taking the mick out of the table-toppers with “ole” ringing around the stadium at the sequences of passes and touches and back-heels as the team gleefully stroked it about nonchalently to the amusement of the crowd. I can’t remember.
**Apologies to anyone who has had problems calling up, reading or posting on the blog over the weekend. There was a technical glitch that meant new postings weren’t visible to many people, including me. It was, as our geeks explained “knacked.” Normal service is now resumed.