SNAP judgements: a Teesside speciality? Exactly how long do players get to either impress the Riverside crowd – and the all important opinion formers of the Bernie Slaven fan club and the al-Jazeera bar stool brigade – as worthy of their shirt or be written off as a complete waste of space? Despite the evidence that time and time again such hasty assessments are wrong – at least three times this season – the current standard seems to be about three games.
That is what Afonso Alves has had: 268 minutes, a shade under three games. And that has been broken down into a mosaic of brief cameos, usually coming off the bench when the template of the game has been imposed and Boro have already begun the long slow ‘sub-conscious’ retreat to the edge of their own box.
As I pointed out in my Evening Gazette column this week, Alves is a quality player but has seen little football action for several months and needs time to get up to full speed and to bed in, and with the battle for survival making experimentation unlikely we must now assume we will not see his best until next year after a full pre-season and time to adjust.
So far his Boro career can be broken down thus:
Boro 1 Fulham 0 (Feb 9) – 35 minutes – On for Lee Dong Gook on 57 minutes. Boro are already sitting back on the lead. Late on broke onto a Rochemback ball but was flagged offside.
Sheff Utd 0 Boro 0 (Feb 17) – 18 minutes – On for Mido on 75 in a hectic 100mph, physical affair in which the ball rarely touched the pitch.
Liverpool 3 Boro 2 (Feb 23) – 22 minutes – on for Tuncay on 69. Liverpool are well on top and Boro are penned back and with ten men at the death he spends most of his time defending.
Boro 1 Sheffield Utd 0 (Feb 27) – 73 minutes – Makes his first start and in an impressive opening half is BoroÃ¢ÂÂs most effective player. Some good touches and a decent free-kick. Picks up one Gazette star before being replaced by Tuncay.
Boro 0 Reading 1 (Mar 1) – 68 minutes – Makes his first league start but is starved of service on a bad day at the office.
Boro 0 Cardiff 2 (Mar 9) – 45 minutes – BoroÃ¢ÂÂs brightest hope in a flat FA Cup match and had the best of the chances and a possible penalty shout before being replaced at the break.
Boro 1 Derby 0 (Mar 22) – 7 minutes – Came on with Boro pegged back and threatened as he chased a ball forward only to lose control and his feet just as he got to the danger zone.
Total: 268 minutes. (132 league) (136 FA Cup)
Just before he signed he sat in the directors box and watched Boro playing Wigan. He must have salivated at the prospect of playing for this team that created a dozen excellent chances in a blistering first half and dreamed at the joy of being the final piece of that particular jigsaw.
But since then Boro have gone off the boil and with the icy fear of relegation strangling any attacking instincts, the flurry of chances that Alves was brought in to convert have dried up, and with it the compelling urgency of getting him on the pitch and playing has eased too in favour of getting a more solid shape in place and scrapping for survival.
Hence, apart from the Sheffield United FA Cup fifth round replay when he started and Boro set the pace, the ÃÂ£12.7m hitman has spent most of his time ploughing a frustrated furrow along the halfway line or charging hopelessly after long punts forward. His failure to get regular, full games has left him short of match fitness and still struggling to acclimatise to the differences in tempo, style and physicality that all Premiership new boys find a culture shock.
Despite that, in his limited time on the pitch he has looked Boro’s brightest prospect. Against Sheffield United he showed some excellent touches, strength in a very physical game, a deceptive turn of pace, excellent movement and an eye for goal as well as a stinging free-kick that actually hit the target rather than fans on the second tier, like the other Brazilian who fancies himself as a dead-ball specialist is wont to do.
So barely three frustrating games in a stop-start spell of matches in which the team are playing scared football and a shape that is not conducive to the style of football and the knives are out in the underpass. Seven minutes against Derby was “the final straw” for some. “He’ll never be a striker so long as he’s got a hole in his arse,” said one Chickenrunning Simon Cowell.
How short the myopic mob’s collective memory. We have seen this habitual inaccurate knee-jerk asassination prove premature three times this season alone, as players crawl off the scrapheap whence they have been consigned to become essential members of the team and double-think kicks as former critics insist “I always knew he would come good.”
The first to be written off was Jeremie Aliadiere: the jet-heeled French frontman was damaged goods before he arrived having never scored a Premiership goal and having failed to shine in three loan spells. He compounded that by not scoring at Boro for five games. That was plenty for some people to decide that he was a waste of space. Now of course the consensus is that his pace and movement is the crucial element in Boro’s ability to break at pace and he has been the architect of some important goals and points. And of course, we all always knew that he would come good.
Next to be consigned to the dustbin of history was Tuncay. He suffered in that he was unveiled in the wake of Steve Gibson’s declaration of imminent “spectacular” signings so was being judged harshly against inflated expactations. We had all seen his YouTube hat-trick against Manchester United and knew his pedigree so when he didn’t score on his debut he was already on the slippery slope to becoming a scapegoat. Like Alves he flitted in and out, on and off the bench, and struggled with the physicality before a a sizzling show at West Ham six games in in which he was brilliant but missed a string of sitters and was immediately convicted of also failing to take his last chance. Now of course he is widely regarded as a mercurial presence that can make things happen and we all always knew he would come good.
Then it was Luke Young. Having not had a full pre-season due to a niggle he was off the pace and blowing a bit in his first few games and the hasty were already insisting he was a waste of money, they could see why Charlton had been relegated, he was worst than Andrew Davies and was only in the team until Tony McMahon was back to full fitness. But he has been an ever-present in the league since making his debut and has gone from strenghth to strength. Now the received opinion is that he is Boro’s Mr Reliable and he should be in the England squad. And of course, we all knew he would come good.