YES, it was only Swansea, a team missing last season’s 30 goal strike force, reeling after the departure of an inspirational manager and with most of the first choice midfield on the treatment table.
But they were a seasoned Championship side that were well organised, worked hard in midfield and created their fair share of chances so Boro’s win at the Liberty Stadium is worthy of some celebration. It may not be time to cut the top of the Ellerman Beeline for a parade down Linthorpe Road but let us not be churlish: it was an away day win and we barely remember them.
Boro ticked all the boxes: they were strong at the back to collect a second clean sheet; they were industrious and energetic in midfield and with Gary O’Neil an exercise in perpetual motion the red two were more than a match for Swansea’s three; the flankers were inventive and incisive and carved open the opposition defence; the front two worked hard and chased back; and Marvin Emnes cracked in a sizzling strike to show he does have firepower.
More importantly, it is a massive psychological hurdle leaped. Boro CAN win away.
Last season Boro were a disaster on the road. A six month slow motion car crash left our Premiership pedigree dented and twisted beyond recognition, rusted and dumped in a scrapyard of broken dreams.
Champions Manchester United remain the only team to beat Boro at the Riverside this year – but the travel sickness was terminal. Before the trip to Swansea Boro had lost a shameful club record 12 away league losses on the bounce.
That disastrous dozen defeats left the team and fans demoralised and fearful and handed host teams a huge advantage: if they could keep it tight Boro would eventually wilt and wobble and leave themselves vulnerable at the back.
Boro had last won away in November when a battling display and two Tuncay goals earned a 2-1 win at Champions League chasing Aston Villa. That nudged Boro up to the dizzy heights of eighth and prompted some short lived bubbles of optimism but that was as good as it got.
There followed insipid, uninspired and costly defeats at Hull, Fulham, Manchester United, West Brom, Chelsea, Manchester City, Spurs, Stoke, Bolton, Arsenal, Newcastle and West ham… all nails in the Premier League coffin.
The vulnerability to set-plays, the brittle mentality, the fear as the clock ticked down, the predictability of the sickening late goal were the hallmarks of a Boro away day.
So it was hugely important to put down a marker in The Principality, to slay the dragon of away day despair.
If we are to be chasing for a swift return then we must be ruthless in plundering the points on the road to teams who will see Boro as big boys – Swansea had the match down as a ‘Category A’ game – and who will try to shut up shop.
Equally important was the manner of the victory. After 12 defeats, I would have taken a scrappy 1-0 win thanks to a late oggy after being battered for 89 minutes. In fact Boro turned in a thoroughly professional performance and answered a lot of pressing questions.
It was far from an easy game. Swansea’s midfield five had some bright moments and with Leon Britton pulling the strings at times their movement down the flanks caused a headache for Tony McMahon and Jonathan Grounds. Several times Stephen Dobbie broke through and Robert Huth or David Wheater were needed to make perfect sliding tackles to block shots.
But Gary O’Neil grabbed the game firmly by the throat. The engine room battler closed down quickly, crashed into tackles, intercepted passes and showed some excellent distribution to stifle Swansea and seize the initiative.
With his energy and some willing work from Rhys Williams the threat of Britton was neutralised, Swansea were forced deeper and Boro were allowed to play the game in and around the home team’s box.
O’Neil looks a cut above at this level and if he can perform at that level consistently he can be a trump card this term. His imperious display bought time and space and allowed Boro’s undoubtedly quality to shine through.
He was not alone in his work rate. The pair on the flanks put in a shift too, chasing back when needed but also pressing the full-backs to force mistakes when Swansea had possession while making incisive runs down the wings or cutting inside if Boro had the ball offering balance, options, pace and work-rate that will be crucial in this division.
Emnes’ goal was a real peach and deserves its bandwidth on YouTube for its sheer quality. The other moments of quality were bittersweet though: Turk talisman Tuncay came on for an electrifying 25 minute cameo full of audacious twists and turns, sublime close control and neat back-heels that bamboozled the opposition and galvanised Boro fans and to top it off scored a goal.
He was head and shoulders above the rest of the players on the pitch, in the way that Magic Man Paul Merson was at this level last time. Unfortunately, unlike Merson, he is unlikely to be at the heart of the promotion surge. That may well be his Swans-song.
VULNERABLE Boro face a nail-biting countdown to the transfer deadline. Having seen their income slashed by more than half the club are under massive financial pressure to offload the big-earners and claw back the massive wages deficit before they can spend.
But if they can’t flog the ones they want to shift then they may have to bite the bullet and sell some of the ones they want to keep. It is going to be a nervous few weeks. Who knows what holes will be blown in what could and should be a promotion team between now and 1st September. That’s the subject of this week’s Gazette Big Picture column