IF LETTERGATE was this season’s Season Ticket Chucking moment that channelled the anger and frustrations of the crowd into a noisy defiant unity, then bubbling Boro’s 2-0 win over big boys Liverpool will be seen as the equivalent of the 3-0 defeat of champions elect Chelsea in the next game that launched the Riverside revival.
It can be the result – and the performance – that turns the tide after a long barren spell. Liverpool were unbeaten in 15 league games and had seen off Real Madrid away in midweek. Gareth Southgate’s shot-shy side had gone 14 without a Premiership win and had scored one goal in nine games. No wonder there was a buzz of confidence around the ground. This one had ‘typical Boro’ written all over it.
We should have seen it coming. History was in our favour – Boro were unbeaten in six league games against the bin dippers at the Riverside – and the players were burning with confidence. When Stewart Downing said as much in the Gazette after the polished performance in the FA Cup win over West Ham the chicken runners and cynics choked on their parmos.
But the players had reason to be confident. Fans and pundits may have looked at the stark statistics of the traumatic tailspin towards the trapdoor and feared the worst but the players never wavered. Now we are starting to see that confidence had some foundation.
The conventional measure of recent form is six games and over that span Boro have only lost once. The previous three league games at home were drawn while the defeat came at a Manchester City inspired by a Shay Given dream debut. In the other two games Boro went to form side West Ham – a ground where Boro usually get turned over – and were only pegged back late on and then emphatically won the replay.
So in the short term Boro had gone back to basics and stopped the rot. That run of six games had produced three clean sheets. The points return from the league games – three from four games – was not fantastic and it is not surprising that panic crept in as the table tightened like a noose but the players confidence was slowly seeping back.
The West Ham game ignited the season, and not just because of the fans’ reaction to Sue Watson’s cack-handed missive. It was a good performance too. The team had a better balance, the return of Jeremie Aliadiere added pace and options down the right and the partnership of the French forward and resurgent Tuncay suddenly gave Boro a cutting edge in and around the box.
The same team, the same shape, the same urgency and the same passion from the crowd brought a much deserved and long awaited win over Liverpool and suddenly the stats and the smiles suddenly look brighter. Four points from high-flying Wigan and Liverpool is an excellent return. One goal conceded in four league games. Three successive clean sheets. Four goals in two games. An FA Cup quarter-final next week. We are not out of the woods yet but now there are concrete reasons to believe we can engineer an upturn rather than just a vague faith.
Let’s not over-egg the pudding. It was far from a perfect performance. Liverpool created a lot of chances, several times got behind the defence and once again Brad Jones had to earn his corn with some excellent saves while there is no denying Boro’s opener was spawny, but hey, we’ll take it. It was exactly the kind of break that has been going against us all season so we were due one and we have been saying for weeks it may take a freak one going in off someone’s arse to ignite us. You make your own luck in this game. Some observations:
Wing Wizard: Stewart Downing has played as well in the past month as at any time in his career and in the past two matches has been simply awesome. It is no surprise that Juventus are said to be watching him. It would be more of a surprise if they – and others – weren’t. When he leaves Boro as now seems inevitable in the summer he can do far, far better than Spurs, the Geordies of London.
His touch, close control, vision and instinct to get forward make him Boro’s most potent weapon and digging in to keep him in January when the big cheque was dangled was a key decision the club got right. Against West Ham his cushioned lay-back for Tuncay was exquisite. Against Liverpool time and again he beat his man to put in teasing crosses. He is always an available outlet, he rarely loses the ball and when Boro put together fluid attacking moves he is invariably at the heart of them.
The Real Deal: It is so good to have the real Tuncay back. Those few months when he was distracted by whispers about Chelsea and it appeared he had been replaced by his useless twin brother were awful. He has the tricks and flicks to make things happen and when on song is a delight to watch. In the past two games he has revelled in a renewed flexible front pairing with Aliadiere who, schooled in high tempo precision passing at Arsenal, anticipates and makes use of his audacious magic.
Fans United: Men of the moment, the Red Faction, hogged the limelight after Lettergate and there was a certain amount of unhelpful message board point scoring between the leather lunged loyalists in the South East Corner and the Block 17 crew over who was the loudest or most passionate. But it doesn’t matter who starts the songs just that someone does and that every joins in and that happened today. The Riverside was rocking from start to finish and every stand played their part. It was a brilliant atmosphere and it shows what we can do when everyone – players, dug-out, crowd, safety officers – are singing from the same songsheet.
What’s It All About Alfie? Where to now for Afonso Alves? The ÃÂ£12.7m (ÃÂ£13m… ÃÂ£14m… ÃÂ£15m… and rising) record buy and ‘Goal Machine’ has been shunted into the sidings. He was dropped against the Hammers and the team was transformed.
The new front two – neither of who are ‘real’ strikers – offered movement, troubled the defence and, crucially, held the ball up effectively instead of moves breaking down as the main man stumbled over good passes or was easily brushed aside. What a difference. It has helped relieve the pressure on the defence as they know that balls forward are not coming straight back at them and it has helped the midfield show more creativity because both Tunks and Ali can hold the ball up and bring them into play in more advanced positions. Suddenly we can hurt teams. Four goals in a week is practically a new golden age of net busting.
What should be more worrying for Alves than seeing the team suddenly display teeth without him is watching the substitutions being made. Against West Ham when Ali came off it was Emnes who went on. Against Liverpool when the ex-Arsenal man went off it was Marlon King who was introduced and then when the Turk was subbed it was Adam Johnson who replaced him. That puts Alves sat uncomfortably close to the exit door unless he responds very quickly to this salutory switch in style by showing he is worth his place and can produce what he was bought for. Unless he comes back and has a real impact his long term future must now be open to question.
Calm Down, Calm Down: It is always nice to beat Rick Parry. Not just Liverpool and the “fat Spanish waiter” , although that is something to savour too, especially as those playground glory hunters who refer to the Mickey Mousers as “we” in broad Teesside accents stream away chuntering under their breath and hiding the shirts they were proudly displaying as they walked up to the ground.
It must be said that generally I don’t have a lot of time for the bean counters who have hijacked the game and turned it into market of competing brands but I think most Boro fans (and a lot of Scouse fans too) reserve a special antipathy for Parry.
The three points. The Ziege secret clause. The High Court battle to avoid having to abide by the Premier League rules he drew up and was so zealous in applying to the letter against Boro over the no-show at Blackburn. There is something about the bloke who brings out the small minded bloody minded parochial Teessider in me so it is always nice to beat his club. If having their title chances torpedoed means he is forced out of Anfield even more quickly and empty handed so much the better.
In Our Own Hands Now: The recent back to basics platform building and defeat of Liverpool have helped Boro claw out of the drop spots. We must not waste this opportunity now. The improvement – in performance levels and points return – must continue through the massive challenge of the next five league games: Spurs away, Portsmouth at home then trips to Stoke and Bolton before Hull at the Riverside.
We messed up the last run like that in January. We can’t do it again.