BUGGER. Holed below the waterline by a glorified Championship side with one weapon, a ballistic freak of a throw; left needing snookers after yet another predictable away day defeat in which Boro did well enough tactically and technically to edge the game and carve out enough chances to win but failed abysmally where it mattered in front on goal and then were undone by one late slip to a set-piece we all saw coming.
It is disheartening writing the same thing every week on the road as the season slips from our grasp. Eight away defeats on the bounce, seven of them goalless. And how many chances to win have gone begging in those games? How many chances to seize the opportunity to shape our own destiny? And the string of winnable home games that offered salvation – bar one freak result – all fizzled out into inadequate draws.
Over the past few weeks we have been treading water and staying afloat courtesy of the typical Boro win over Liverpool and the others obligingly stuttering in their own survival battle. But we could never rely on results going our way every week. There was always going to come a week when things swung ruthlessly against us. And it did. Now our own powerlessness and inadequacies are exposed.
Now it feels like it beyond us. Now it will take two wins just to haul ourselves back into the pack even if the rest of the weak who are limping over the horizon don’t pick up any more points along the way. And then we will need another two to make serious headway out of danger. And after one win in five months and fewer goals than Elgin City what is there to suggest there will be a sudden upturn? Bugger. Bugger. Bugger.
Southgate had warned his players they would face a wall of noise and hostility at the Britannia Stadium – but they probably didn’t expect the high volume vitriol to come from their own fans.
After weeks of simmering anger and dissent by proxy the dam finally broke at Stoke. In what could prove a watershed moment, for the first time there were direct calls for the head of Gareth Southgate.
The tunnel at the ground is in the corner near to the away end and as the team trudged off dejectedly they had to troop disconsolately past an angry mob of travelling Teessiders who taunted and jeered “you’re not fit to wear the shirt.” Another group gathered to barrack the team coach with several taking off their shirts to wave angrily.
True, it was a minority, but a vocal and, crucially, one that seemed largely unopposed. There was no Lennie Lawrence fisticuffs between the factions, no PRG/ARG split that marked the crumbling last year under Bryan Robson. There are very few loyalists ready to stand up for the Southgate camp now as a season that promised so much unravels rapidly. Instead there is resignation and limp surrender, on and off the pitch. On the whistle at Stoke there was a tangible feeling that we are at the end game.
The frustrations of the fans had a profound impact and the rattled and world weary boss made the now undeniable presence of widespread dissent the key part of his post-match comments. It could hardly be avoided.
And the frustrations are understandable. Boro fans have kept the faith. They have been remarkably patient through a long bleak winter and largely stuck vocally by the players as they beavered away with little reward.
But Stoke was one ‘must win’ game lost too far so perhaps it is no surprise that the simmering tempers boiled over. It was the line in the sand. It was the point at which the stats that had been stacking up swung the balance of probablities against us.
And Stoke! Of all teams. Stoke are the ONLY team in the bottom half that Boro have beaten so far this season, back in that sunny August of hope and expectation.
Defeat to Stoke underlines all the problems that have weighed Boro down this term. They are by common consensus the most technically limited side in the league, a glorified route one Championship side well aware of their own ‘ugly’ nature and unapologetic that they play to their strengths.
They are the very antithesis of the highly technical passing at pace philosophy espoused by Southgate – but while Boro have rarely been able to deliver their Arsenal-lite, panache Stoke are more than capable of making their style count.
They are a well drilled and highly motivated bargain basement outfit that play with steel and determination and are greater than the sum of their parts and with the full unequivocal backing of their crowd, everything that softe-centred Boro are not.
Stoke are also the template for a direct no-frills football that beckons on a weekly basis should Boro go down. And that dark future is looming large.
Viewed in isolation it would be harsh to crucify the team for the Stoke failure: they were the better team, played the better football and lost because of one lapse in concentration. In itself that is forgiveable.
But the cumulative corrosive effect of a string of spirit-sapping reverses in the Groundhog Day tailspin towards the trapdoor has been to leave Boro a fragile and vulnerable side and the crowd resigned to what now looks an inevitable relegation.
Boro can still escape – but the Stoke result has stacked the odds against us. The form, the fixtures, the gap are all conspiring to leave Boro with a massive task. It means Boro must now throw caution to the wind, cast off the shackles of fear and be ready to go down fighting rather than meekly capitulate.
Faint-hearted Boro have had a string of chances to shape their own destiny and have been too scared of the prospect of failure to take them. Against Sunderland, Blackburn, Wigan, Portsmouth and now Stoke – high stakes games that could each have lifted the team out of the drop zone – they have set out to avoid defeat rather than tried to win.
The time for such caution has gone. It is win or bust.