THAT BORO fans were left devastated by the last-gasp sickener at Anfield hints at an unusual optimism bubbling up through the cracks in our traditional Teesside armour of cynicism.
In times past the trip to Anfield would have been written off when the fixtures came out. None of the current team were even born last time Boro won a league game there in March 1976 and the gaffer was only five so it is not normally a happy hunting ground. A battering is usually budgeted for and getting out with pride intact and a narrow defeat has been claimed as a moral victory before now. Even the wild-eyed ra-ras high on foam finger fumes only ever argue for the possibility of nicking a spawny draw.
So for Boro – team and fans – to be genuinely desolate at losing there is a real sign of progress.
That shows how far expectations have been raised. It also reflects a widespread feeling of exactly how close we were to a thoroughly deserved win. And that is not just Boro fans talking. The press-room after the game was full of relieved Scouse scribes queueing up to admit that Boro deserved something and Liverpool had got out of jail. Gary Lineker and sofa-buddy Alan Hanson admitted it. Sky Sports admitted it. Stoppage time Nemesis Stevie G admitted it with a world weary sigh. Even the “Fat Spanish Waiter” almost begrudgingly let the truth out through gritted teeth.
And the truth is that Boro more than matched the Champions League giants in every department for 85 minutes. They were tight at the back, industrious in midfield with Gary O’Neil closing and tackling and chasing in midfield like the Tazmanian Devil and sharp and inventive on the break. The back-line kept Liverpool’s ÃÂ£40m strikeforce so quiet they may as well have been bound and gagged and locked in the boot of the Compass Royston team coach in Stanley Park and even when the big boys went long and direct Boro’s defence just headed clear with ease.
Yes, they slipped into old habits and inched back in the closing stages but that was not entirely voluntary, Liverpool’s desperate and direct pressure changed the shape of the game as much as any conscious tactical decision by Boro.
And but for a few slices of fortune at key moments would have secured the points long before Gerrard struck four minutes into the three added on. Had Tuncay not been hauled back by Carragher as he twisted and turned onto his flick he would surely have drilled home. Had Mike Riley been bettered placed he would surely have given a penalty. And on another day maybe Carragher’s shot into a crowd for the equaliser would have deflected at a less morally charged angle and flew over.
So, close but no cigar. Yet, despite the result that left us so dismayed there has ironically been an upsurge in optimism because the display has not been written off as just another brave but ultimately doomed effort by underdogs playing above themselves but as a positive indication that Southgate’s side are starting to deliver on their promise. Some observations:
Jeepers Keepers: The injury to Brad Jones in the warm-up may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The custodian conundrum has been the biggest political hot-potato in pre-season and contains the highest potential risk for Southgate. Now his hand has been forced on his selection dilemma and Turnbull – who appears to be the people’s choice – will now be given his chance without any need for diplomatic fudge or unsettling rotation.
The injury – and respected crock shock web guide physioroom.com reckon a bad dislocation can leave a keeper sidelined for eight to ten weeks – leaves Boro with just Jason Steele as back-up and he has barely even seen the first team bench. That allows to go into the transfer market for experienced back-up (even if just on loan) without any red-faced back-tracking or accusations of U-turns. It is peace with honour. We must be grateful it didn’t happen after the deadline.
Fred And Ginger: Tuncay’s artful flick and graceful pirouette that left leaden hoofed Carragher lumbering in his size eleven diving boots was a moment of magic that illuminated a game that otherwise was not one for the purists.
In a delightful turn of phrase the Beeb’s shouty hyperbole machine Jonathon Pearce described the classical cameo by saying “in a game that was like watching the dance floor on a stag night that was a Fred Astaire moment.” He was right, and it was worth making a song and dance about.
And spare a thought for his partner Mido, cast as Ginger Rogers. His nifty footwork was just as graceful as he skipped over Arbeloa and burned him off with an incredible burst of speed down the left flank then skinned Skertel at the cornerflag before putting in a perfect ball for Tuncay.
The new slim line Mido has been a revelation showing pace, power and a deft touch as well as scoring two cracking goals after coming off the bench as a super-sub. If only he can keep scoring beyond August (and stay fit) then he can be a huge player for Boro this season.
Red Zone Relapse: Two games, two goals conceded deep in stoppage time. Some things never change. It is a costly habit and late lapses against Reading, Arsenal and Sunderland cost precious points late last term and dragged out the tense trapdoor dancing until the penultimate game. We can’t afford that to continue if there are genuine hopes of a top half finish. That is a lesson that must be learned if the team is to not slip back not just into bad habits but the twilight zone down at the bottom.
“Typical” Tests Looming Large: Have Boro’s displays against Spurs and Liverpool been the shape of things to come or just the underdogs playing above themselves when the pressure is off? We are about to find out.
Boro now face a big test of their reputed new mentality as they go into a run of “easy” games against the sides that they – and most supporters – would expect to finish above: Stoke (H), Portsmouth (A), Sunderland (A), West Moggawich Albion (H) and then Wigan (A). If we are still all bubbling at displays after those games then it is game on and top half here we come.