IT WAS a stuttering season of frustrations and false dawns. It finished on a fairytale high to send us smiling into summer but before that went through a series of facial expressions from tortured angst to boredom, via deep felt pain, relief, indifference, gobsmacked disbelief and sullen resignation.
And now the dust has settled a bit it might be time to sift through the debris and look back at some of the key moments and events.
Boro ended what was supposed to be a season of progress with a two good wins that brought a sigh of relief and some rare chances to see goal celebrations but they were hollow victories: the season had long ago soured leaving an undignified scramble for safety and an abiding sense of regret that was underlined by Saturday’s FA Cup final.
There were occasional hints of attacking potential peppered throughout the campaign that had the pundits purring and the ra-ras searching the loft for the foam fingers although the flashes were rarely sustained over the full 90 minutes. Boro enjoyed the highs of becoming the first team to beat Arsenal and went within four minutes of pulling off a famous double. And they also monstered Manchester United at the Riverside in a spirited show in the snow. And though, any celebrations from those results were cut short by the failures that followed hot on their heels.
Far more frequent than the false dawns though were the long powerless spells of becalmed rudderless drift toward the relegation rapids. Boro endured a morale sapping shot-shy ten game without a win from September to November then another squeaky-bum time sequence of just one victory in ten in March and April that left the FA Cup dream in tatters and the trapdoor creaking ominously beneath our studs.
There is no escaping what the season will most be remembered for: the failure to show up as history beckoned against Cardiff and the failure – despite repeated golden opportunities – to claw away from drop zone danger with any conviction have framed the season. That unavoidable reality even had a string of players queuing up in recent weeks to join the chorus of consensus that a campaign that promised much has been Ã¢ÂÂbitterly disappointing.Ã¢Â?
So where did it all go wrong? What games and events pushed us towards trouble? And which ones helped us dig our way out again? What were the season-shaping moments that defined the campaign? HereÃ¢ÂÂs a few to consider…
Yak Your Bags And Go…
Gareth SouthgateÃ¢ÂÂs fragile forward line, already missing a key player following the acrimonious exit of Mark Viduka, was torpedoed again as the transfer deadline loomed when the sulky striker – who had not scored since February – spat his dummy out. Having spent most of the summer flirting with Man City and Portsmouth he finally set his cap at European giants Everton and made it clear he wanted to leave. Or else.
Amid talk of a strike – which appeared to have started on the pitch at Wigan with an insipid show of workshy wandering – and dressing room fisticuffs with team-mates, the season looked to have fallen into squabbling chaos before it had even really started.
The choice was to stick and risk the disruptive presence of a wantaway main man – neither Tuncay nor Aliadiere had been brought in with the intention of leading the line – or to twist and take a chance in finding a late replacement and run the risk of being two key men down.
Boro cashed in and while the ÃÂ£11m was good business (few quibbled and many offered to personally drive him there) it forced them to enter the striker market in a hurry and with No 1 target Afonso Alves unavailable the hastily sign a clearly unfit Mido under the noses of Sunderland (who were forced to go for Kenwyne Jones instead, a decision that may well have kept them up where winning the battle for the Egyptian may have put the Mackems down).
The late reshuffle up front was far from ideal and even without Mido’s disastrous injury record it still left Southgate needing to bed in three new front men and reshape the team and the shape on the hoof. The misfiring front line was to hamper the entire season.
The wobbling season lurched towards crisis in a nightmare week in when the dearth of frontmen came home to roost and shot-shy Boro ransacked the reserves to field a forward line at Manchester City.
Teenager Tom Craddock started up front on his own in a 3-1 defeat at Eastlands while one time Billingham Synthonia loanee and soon to be Celtic reserve Ben Hutchinson came off the bench to get a late consolation. Despite the endeavour the obvious lack of quality was a searing indictment of the thin squad. Where were the strikers?
Crestfallen Tuncay was on the bench after squandering a hat-trick of chances at West Ham while Aliadiere had been injured in that game and Mido broke down at Everton. And switching schoolboy goal machine and constant aerial threat David Wheater up front would leave us brittle and the back. That left Lee Dong Gook as Boro’s first choice goal-getter. DÃ¢ÂÂoh.
The City game was the lowest point in a bleak and dispiriting run of four games that yielded one goal, no points and a meek exit from the Carling Cup at Spurs, itself framed by a run of ten without a win in which Boro scored just six goals and slipped into the relegation zone.
Six minutes from the end of what was heading for a damaging defeat at Reading, Tuncay finally arrived. Flashes, frustrations and missed sitters had marked his early outings but when he came off the bench at Reading to get to a Luke Young cross and head in a late leveller it was the launch-pad for a Boro revival and for his own personal status as cult hero.
The joy and relief on the TurkÃ¢ÂÂs first goal face lifted the cloud over Boro and sent him on a sizzling run of sparkling form in December in which he scored four times and Boro won three games that hauled them out of the relegation zone to buy breathing space.
Tuncay slammed home a rebound after a corner in the next game against Arsenal to seal victory then picked up the Goal of the Month gong for a sublime volley in the 1-0 victory at Derby and notched the winner at Portsmouth too.
Window of Opportunity…
A Ã¢ÂÂRio styleÃ¢Â? carnival greeted Afonso Alves when he arrived to shatter the club transfer record and to slam shut a testing January window that had featured a cats cradle of red tape, the now mandatory late night vigil and on the squad front one in, one out and one shaking it all about.
A tense month had the code-breaking Kremlinologist faction of the Boro support in turmoil over the political signals in the oblique statements coming out of Hurworth. Stewart DowningÃ¢ÂÂs agent said his boy was leaving with a departure to Spurs looming large while Gibbo said he wasn’t and the pair went toe-to-toe in the tabloids. Meanwhile George Boateng had been deposed of the armband after a bust-up with the boss and looked set to go while out of the blue Jonathan Woodgate – a ÃÂ£6m summer signing that had underlined Boro’s ambitions – was shuffled off to Spurs under a cloud for not buying into SouthgateÃ¢ÂÂs vision while the buzz was that James Beattie – or worse, Paul Dickov – was coming in.
The rumour machine insisted it was a divided dressing room and the club was skint… then on deadline day Gibbo signed the monster cheque for EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs most prolific top flight striker, Stewie was still in situ and suddenly it was all hunky dory again. Boro were flying, we had the new Juninho and FA Cup glory beckoned.
As far as kicks in the teeth go it would be hard to beat the enamel shattering horror of FA Cup surrender to Cardiff.
We all know the story. The evil quadropoly were already out, Arsenal and Liverpool early victims while Manchester United and Chelsea had followed the day before. The road to Wembley and historic open topped bus parade glory had been swept clear for mighty Boro, at home to a mid-table championship side.
Glory was there for the taking but the weight of expectation was too much. Boro bottled it, leaking an early goal and never getting out of the blocks. It was another deep Ã¢ÂÂtypical BoroÃ¢Â? psychological scar to be jealously guarded and periodically picked at and revisited with fresh venom at every opportunity in the future, a fresh trauma to take its place in our cynical cultural heritage. And it was not just damaging for the future. It left the season a nervous, numb slog through the debris of broken dreams
Mad Dog Bites Back…
Soft touch Boro were being rolled over week in week out and were deep in a corrosive ten game run without a win in which they had been repeatedly muscled out by sides who fought harder and wanted it more. Enter Emanuel Pogatetz, back from double knee surgery… Poggi came off the bench after half-an-hour away at Bolton and put in two bone juddering tackles and was twice spoken to by the ref before he had even touched the ball. From then on Boro had a meaner, taller, shaven headed look about them at the back and became far harder to beat.
**This article is a remix of this week’s Big Picture Column and part of a week long Gazette series of analysis, number-crunching and reviews featuring end of term reports on the boss and the manager, verdicts on every game and the views of our big name columnists Bernie Slaven on the strikeforce and Jeff Winter on the card count. I’ll add the links here as they appear during the week.
**We are experiencing some cyber-lag and articles are not appearing on the gazettelive blog front page immediately. To read the latest bit – on Mark Schwarzer’s exit – try clicking on the Untypical Boro logo to refresh the contents.