WELL, it is still mathematically possible to get something on the last day at West Ham but the stats swung against Boro when they failed to beat Villa. It was a last chance to keep our fate in our own hands. Now it comes down to results elsewhere, goal difference and prayers.
It was deeply frustrating because in the first half Boro played with considerable zest and desire and took their fate in their own hands, scored a cracking opener and engineered a string of good openings and could maybe have sealed it… but then as so often this season they went off the boil, leaked a leveller and started to panic. By the end they had run out of steam, ideas and the institutional mental frailty had kicked in. In truth, we were lucky to get away with a point in the end.
Gareth Southgate got booed at the end and admitted it hurt but to be fair he got off lightly. That could be the end of Boro’s Golden Age of Premiership football fizzling out for the foreseeable with barely a wimper.
The sky was biblical black and heavy with omen during a pre-match deluge, a tone that matched supporters’ gloom but then a teasing shaft of golden age sunlight shone on a hopeful spell that hinted at escape before the prospects clouded over again in a bleak end as the crowds departed grumbling into a gathering storm.
What could well be the last Premier League game at the Riverside for some time ended as flat as week old lager. In a fitting cypher for the season it started well with an early opener and some crisp, bright positive football that suggested that Boro were on the verge of something of note.
But then a frustrating familiar pattern imposed itself as Boro failed to make their possession count then got sloppy and conceded a goal that prompted a slump into demoralised and shapeless chaos.
Boro failed to take their chances then were punished by lapses in concentration before running out of steam, ideas and belief. The whole fateful day fizzled out unchallenged into an empty and soulless affair that lacked real urgency or bite.
Even the booing of the boss at the end lacked any real venom. It is a season that slumped into mindset of powerless resignation months ago. It was a day on which a lot of people seemed to be going through the motions.
And the day held other parallels with the season as a whole too.
There were some strange selection choices that left fans baffled. With a problem at left back what better time to introduce Rhys Williams, back from a spell at Burnley that earned rave reviews?
But instead an uncomfortable looking Justin Hoyte was switched from the right and instead of his slot being taken by his normal proxy Tony McMahon, Matthew Bates was moved back from midfield with his holding role filled not by Mohamed Shawky – rated the best bet at Newcastle on Monday – but by Julio Arca, back three months after disappearing into Boro’s Bermuda Triangle.
That made for Boro’s 21st different defensive permutation in 37 league games this term while up front a new pairing was blooded too, ‘project’ Marvin Emnes – not seen as being good enough for anything other than cameos until a week ago – teamed up with Tuncay.
Another parallel: there were costly injuries to key players at the worst possible times.
Stewart Downing had an electric start against Villa and was at the heart of everything creative in Boro’s lively opening, bursting down the flank and cutting inside to great effect to engineer a series of openings and instrumental in the goal.
But he was chopped down by Petrov in a heavy unpunished tackle – another feature of the season – and after lengthy treatment and a tentative attempt to play on he was stretchered off after 25 minutes.
It would be sad to think that pathetic exit could be the last we see of Boro’s best homegrown talent in a generation at the Riverside. In a home shirt any way.
Then, with Boro chasing the game, Gary O’Neil – another one who could have been saying his farewells – followed down the tunnel forcing another reshuffle that exposed Boro’s lack of options.
Another parallel with the season as a whole came in the shape of Tuncay, the one fizzing presence of promise.
It was fitting that on a day when Boro huffed and puffed and had spells of positive possession without ever really threatening, Boro’s goal came with a flash of sublime skill from the tricky Turk, a moment to savour in an otherwise toothless affair.
Another parallel came in the post-match reaction from supporters, an ambivalent cocktail of anger, frustration and acceptance along with a passionate defiance. The traditional ‘lap of honour’ to salute the fans who have kept the faith no matter what had wisely been shelved and players were told to stay in the centre-circle to acknowledge the crowd – or possibly protect them from recriminations.
But they couldn’t even show a squad unity in that. Some made a token gesture before heading for the tunnel only to be shepherded back by ‘one of our own’ David Wheater who then broke ranks and headed over to the North Stand, followed initially sheepishly by a posse of mainly younger and local players who were warmly applauded.
The manager’s reception was less generous and his appearance on the pitch sparked loud boos, a reaction he later admitted had hurt him. But in truth the boos could have been far worse.
There was some venom there, but also apathy, resignation and a tired emptiness. Whole layers of supporters had gone beyond anger months ago, while others were inhibited in expressing anger partly because of Southgate’s stockpile of goodwill as a cup winning captain, partly because for all the stats stacked up against Boro they are not down yet, and partly because they understand that he is financially bound up with by a strategy decided by the chairman.
The biggest parallel with the season was that once again Boro were presented with a golden opportunity on a plate but spurned it. As so often, results went their way as inept Hull and Newcastle lost. It was in their own hands to snatch victory and cash in but when it mattered they weren’t good enough.