BRILLIANT. Bubbling Boro eased to a first ever victory in a Premier League curtain-raiser at the Riverside as they saw off media darlings Spurs in style. The scoreline flattered Spurs. On another day it would have been three at the break with Alves looking sharp and David Wheater having a perfectly good goal ruled out.
Tuncay was magic. Alves excellent. The makeshift right-back as good as ever. Digard looked impressive when he came on and even the under-pressure keeper kept the lynch-mob at bay as he survived some shaky moments and flapping in the box to pull off a superb point-blank save with the game still in the balance at 0-0. In the end it took a Boro player to beat him. All that and a 32,000 plus crowd revelling in a display of enterprising, open, fluid football that bodes well for the future.
It was important to put down a marker right at the start. We don’t win many on the first day. In fact the last opening day victory was in 2000 when Boksic ran riot in a 3-1 win at Coventry, and incredibly Boro have never won the curtain-raiser at the Riverside in the Premiership at all, so we are already ahead.
But it was perhaps more important than ever to win to convince the waverers because of the massive step into the unknown Gareth Southgate has taken in the summer with the cull of the over-30s, the calculated switch to youth and pace and the determination with which he has made himself hostage to fortune over the keepers and the late sale of Luke Young. A defeat and a chaotic display at the back would have turned the murmurs into squeals of panic and turned the pressure up another notch with Liverpool coming next.
In fact, it was a display of great panache that has boosted morale no end, that has strengthened a cautious whispered belief that Boro have a marked potency and excitement going forward and a palpable team spirit that can be the basis for a season that promises much. Most would admit there were still some eye-brow raising moments and areas of weakness. Spurs had a string of chances, there were some hairy moments in the box and after Berbatov finally sulked his way onto the pitch they looked sharper and for a moment – as Jenas burst through on goal – it suddenly looked like last year’s opener against Blackburn all over again. That one moment aside Boro were in control and it felt great. Some observations:
Provincial Paupers Rip Up The Script: The Cockneycentric media fawning over Spurs is sickening. They last won the title before I was born yet every August since then – with or without ‘a one in it’ – has been hailed as the dawning of a new era because yet another new manager has wasted yet another fortune on mediocre new players who have the media luvvies dribbling in expectation (the last batch were unloaded as a job lot to Sunderland). They are hailed as a big club, touted as a side who can break the domination of the evil quadropoly and well, their fans are ‘a bit special’, they ‘love their football’ and ‘expect to see it played the right way’. So not over-demanding loudmouths with delusions of grandeur, an obsession with victories they only know through Pathe News footage and a barely disguised bitterness at the success of the neighbours then? But the media love them because they are a circus and easy to write up.
The Geordies of London spent squillions in the summer and money is the measure of power so they have been penciled in as the team to stretch hopelessly for the coat-tails of the Big Four this year to continue the illusion of competition and possibility of change, and preferably while playing more swashbuckling football than the dour utilitarians of Everton. They are a creation of spin and I am delighted that the unfashionable provincial paupers took them apart so easily. That said, it was a good time to play them: once Modric, Giovanni and Bentley (and possibly Arsharvin too) settle they will get better.
Bumper Crowd Go Away Happy Shock! It was fantastic to see the Riverside full. After years of the red rash creeping relentlessly across the stadium in full view of the cameras and a lazy press box looking for an easy intro, suddenly the buzz is back. Cheap tickets for kids, a bumper away following of 4,000 and a decent walk-up full of optimism for the new season combined to push the figure up.
The 32,000 plus crowd was 7,000 up on the opening day against Blackburn last year. It was 7,000 up on the Spurs game last year. It was a bigger crowd than turned up for last season’s big derby games complete with sell out away ends and a bigger crowd than for Arsenal. Only the gates for Manchester United, Liverpool and the ill-fated Cardiff game were bigger. That last one is important because it was the last time when people outside the season-ticket base turned up – and thousands went away disgusted at a spineless display and vowing never to come again. Hopefully the win over Spurs will help in the rehabilitation and the thousands extra who saw the sizzling display will want to come back. That is a great result.
Boro Boy Booed: “Johnny Woodgate is a red, he hates Geordies.” Maybe, but he still committed the cardinal sin and left Boro so must be held to account. In fact the gentle booing of Woody was half-hearted and patchy and lacked any kind of malice. It was just going through the motions. Which is fair enough because he never really left the club under a cloud or after a string of poor displays or any kind of public flirtation with a rival. And in every interview about the Boro he had ticked all the boxes – childhood fan, proud to play for and captain his club, part of the 50,000 crowd for the Port Vale at Hartlepool. He had crowd cred so was hard to target as a traitor.
If anything his exit was engineered by the boss as part of a concerted cultural re-arrangement in the dressing room, his departure was more than compensated for by the rise and rise of the Redcar Rock and the money raised was swiftly reinvested in a much needed striker while he went on to score the winner in a cup final. Everyone was happy. Hence the luke-warm Pavlovian booing without any passion.
It will be a poor season for those who like to boo former Boro boys. George Boateng will arrive with Hull and no doubt get a resounding appreciative cheer, as will team-mate and OAP cult hero Dean Windass. Nick Barmby may get the usual bad-taste taunting from people who barely remember why they are doing it (his only crime was being squeezed out at the club for not being Juninho) but hopefully that will be lost in the generally appreciative welcome the other two get.
When West Brom come it will be the usual wave of sincerity and warmth for Mogga and a pre-match ripple of polite applause for James Morrison and possibly a few light-hearted Jesus jibes but nothing of any substance, he wasn’t really a hate figure.
There will be some misguided money-grabbing and weight related comments about Mark Viduka when Newcastle visit but they will be derby banter rather than serious charges as he was a good servant who arguably got the goal that kept us up, who never left mid-contract or mid-season to leave us in the clag and anyway since his departure has played his expected part as an ageing and over-priced hibernating perma-crock so can be used as a political weapon against the Geordies.
Only the Yak can really expect any real stick this season, mainly because his dummy spitting was so badly timed for the team and almost left us in serious trouble. That and his last few lardy, lethargic and positively resentful displays which left him estranged from the team and at serious risk of being chinned.
Warning: High Hero Content: A year ago Boro were in danger of being a one man team. Stewie Downing was the only real creative force and the opposition knew that doubling up on him effectively neutered Boro as an attacking force. Of the rest of the team the “big” players were essentially conservative and defensive – Woodgate, Boateng and Schwarzer – were highly erratic and frustrating like Rochemback or remained unknown quantities like the injury-plagued Huth or Tuncay, expected to struggle to acclimatise.
Now Boro are brimming with players who can make things happen, unpredictable and mercurial figures that can cause problems for the opposition. Afonso Alves having adjusted to the pace of the Premiership looks every inch the penalty box poacher that Boro have needed for year: he has a neat touch, excellent close control and a hunger for goal that makes him a constant threat. Tuncay is simply brilliant. He has a magic box of crowd pleasing tricks and an infectious zest but that is allied to an incredible industry that sees him charge back deep into his own half to tackle or make himself available then surge forward and terrify defenders. No wonder he is taken off after 70 minutes in every game, he is knackered – but that paves the way for Mido, a targetman with physical presence and superb close control that scares defences.
As well as the frontmen we have Aliadiere who has blistering pace that carves holes in defences for others to exploit and a neat touch that makes for some exquisite interplay with the likes of Tuncay. And then there is Boro’s secret weapon David Wheater, a schoolboy goal machine turned defender who is equally commanding in either box. Two good goals he scored against Spurs. A legend in waiting.