WHEN Lee Cattermole crunched into Didier Digard to show he was top of the crops it was a pivotal moment in a crucial game.
The bone-juddering tackle that led to the influential Frenchman being stretchered off was robust, full-blooded and fiercely committed and was just this side of the law. It was an old school challenge that showed passion, steel and a ruthless will to win: qualities that soft-centred Boro could do with right now – and that they were displayed by a local lad so recently wearing a red shirt just served to underline that painful fact.
Be honest, for all the wincing, momentary sense of outrage and demands for cards and retribution, don’t you just wish it was one of ours putting in that kind of take-no-prisoners successful challenge?
It could have been the galvanising moment that ignited the atmosphere and sparked a defiant, united performance that launched a revival, a symbolic act that showed we had the bottle for the battle, we were ready to shed blood and scrap our way to safety.
Instead it was a typical Boro moment: the prodigal son marked his Riverside return by doing to us exactly what we had cheered when he had been doing it to others. You could have scripted it in advance. The only saving grace was that he didn’t add insult to injury with a late winner.
That moment changed the dynamic of the game. It took out Boro’s midfield kingpin and disrupted what had been a promising start to a match most fans had pencilled in as one of the five wins Gareth Southgate says we need to secure survival.
And with Digard out for six weeks or more it will weaken what is already a thin and fragile unit. It could well be a tackle that has serious implications for Boro’s top flight status and Southgate’s future.
That Cattermole was the story heaped the political pressure on Southgate as much as the toothless display and the stark statistics fast piling up.
His exit raised questions about the bosses’ ability to manage headstrong characters and also the role of the academy while his subsequent flourishing at Wigan has been in stark contrast to the spluttering of Boro’s ailing engine room.
The tough-tackling midfielder terrier had his limitations here and in truth was never going to live up to the early hype that suggested he could be Boro’s Steven Gerrard.
His tackling was often rash and costly, either in terms of free kicks conceded or yellow cards collected. And his eagerness to chase the ball could leave him out of position and Boro exposed as attacks came through the holes he left.
But he did have a burning pride, chest-bursting passion, endless energy and a willingness to go in where the boots were flying to win the ball – all qualities we are crying out for in midfield right now.
Yes, he was a handful and at times he spilled over from the back to the front pages but there is an argument that stronger management could have curbed those excesses and channelled them into improved performances on the pitch. Had we kept Cattermole and harnessed his energy there is no doubt he would walk into the current team.
His exit also set off alarm bells over fears that Boro were fast becoming a selling club. Wasn’t the academy supposed to supply talent for the first team? The sudden sale of a first team prodigy suggested it had gone from production line to shop window.
Now, we shouldn’t over-egg the pudding with Cattermole. He wasn’t a Paul Ince and he isn’t a political exile. When he left punters and pundits alike were divided. He had as many weaknesses as qualities and the majority saw his departure as sound business that was as beneficial for the individual as for the club.
The real issue is not so much that Catts was allowed to leave – or forced out, depending on your perspective – but that he, along with George Boateng and Fabio Rochemback, was never really replaced.
Had Boro brought in better players, more experienced players to fill those gaps in a threadbare unit the problems would not have been so glaringly exposed by his return.
Exactly how far Boro have slipped since he was shipped out was illustrated when Digard was carried off to be replaced by mini-me Catt-clone Josh Walker who is an exciting prospect but with only four Premier League outings under his belt he was never going to save the day.
That said, we should not let Cattermole distract us from a far more serious worry.
Wobbling Wigan arrived on the back of a run of six without a win and three straight goalless draws and reeling from the January window exits of Emile Heskey and Wilson Palacios. They were there for the taking. That match should have been one of the five wins we need to stay up.
Yet conservative Boro started with one up front, as they did against Sunderland and Blackburn, previous home games against vulnerable visitors where a win was not only realistic but imperative and games that fizzled out into scared stalemates. Even when Wigan showed little attacking intent Boro did not turn the screw and go for the win.
We have now gone 14 games without a win – a damning new club record – and 495 minutes without a goal… time is running out fast.
MEANWHILE Boro have shown their impeccable sense of timing with a crazy cack-handed crackdown on fans trying to create an atmosphere.
The letters dished out to vocal supporters in the South-east corner – the self proclaimed Red Faction ultras – are a PR own goal of monumental proportion that offer an excuse to the national pundits to pour derision on the club and will divert our emotional energies into a bout of internal squabbling when we really need to be focused on survival.
It is a crazy demonstration of an internally divided club that is not singing from the same team-sheet. The boss and the players have spent weeks making pre-match rallying cries urging fans to play their part, to generate a noise that can power on the team and intimidate the opposition – while the behind the scenes jobsworths are preparing to threaten those who respond with ejection.
Now, no one would question the club’s need to be mindful of the need to meet the safety requirements of their licence. The stewards do need to curb any dangerous or illegal persistent standing so long as the current legislation is in place.
But to go in with both jackboots at a time of heightened anxiety and with such a cavalier disregard for the most dedicated supporters’ sensibilities is self-destructive to the point of stupidity and to do it with such a crass, badly constructed and frankly comical letter (apparently you are only allowed to make a noise once in nine games!) is a text book example of customer service worst practice.
Naturally, after retrospectively realising the PR impact of this surreal sledgehammer/nut scenario the club launched a damage limitation exercise long after the horse had bolted. There was website apology and Dave Allen was wheeled out on Radio Tees to explain the misunderstanding. It seems fans need educating in how to read a letter.
But it just raises more questions. The website rationalisation insists there had been complaints (just how many is not yet clear) about banging on the back of the stand AND standing blocking the views of others. That doesn’t add up. If they are at the back how can they obstruct anyone’s views? And if they are obstructing views they must have long arms to do the banging. I can hear the tannoy announcement at the West Ham game now: “If there is a Mr Tickle in the ground can he contact the nearest steward please.” .
I think they should just stop digging.
More on this later.