(***Boro honour fallen heroes today***)
MEANWHILE, with a damaging defeat at Crystal Palace, Boro’s stuttering promotion campaign is now running on half empty.
The shot-shy side squandered chances and were caught cold at the back on the break (again) , a serial self-inflicted twin design defect that has gradually blunted the bright start and ground down optimistic early hopes.
But more than that, it has crucially stacked the vital numbers against Boro as new boss Gordon Strachan starts his rebuilding on the hoof and under the cosh. Boro have now suffered six defeats – and that is too many at this stage for a team with promotion ambitions.
The second half Palace coup means that Boro have now taken their defeats tally to the half-way mark of the outside limit of what is possible for a team with genuine promotion pretentions and the two on the bounce under the new gaffer mean any feelgood factor from a dug-out change has dissolved quickly without a discernible immediate dividend.
Six defeats. That is half of the figure that any club can realistically afford if they are to make it into the play-offs, let alone grab one of the precious automatic promotion spots.
The 2-1 defeat at Bristol City – the first this term – was a sickening late lapse blip in the middle of a promising early run of five wins.
West Brom was a painful but instructive systematic dismantling by ruthless rivals as Boro chased the game after two unfortunate early set-backs.
But with Leicester, Watford, Plymouth and Palace the worries have mounted (and the old boss was axed). All those archetypal limited but organised Championship sides delivered single sucker punches in Groundhog Day games in which Boro had the edge for long spells and the chances to win but ultimately could not break down a determined defence and stick the ball in the net.
It is easy to sit and dissect those games in isolation and come to the conclusion that it is about fine margins, and to conclude that Boro are structurally sound barring a prolific poacher; what would we give for a Slaven, a Branca, a Yakubu, a Viduka; even a sporadic striker like Fuchs or Ricard would do.
And it is easy too to counsel calm and argue that Boro are creating chances and that all it takes is a slight tweaking for Leroy Lita and Marcus Bent to click up front, or the midfield to start chipping in, or a new hero to be grafted on to turn this chassis of a team into a viable vehicle capable of driving us back into the promotion race.
Boro are not far from being an outfit that could and should be among the contenders in what is in truth a poor Championship populated by limited but effective teams.
But those four frustrating 1-0 defeats in the last seven games have now tipped the numerical balance decisively against that. At least for this term.
The margin for error is now being eroded at an alarming rate.
Generally in recent years the teams that secured promotion did so having lost 12 or fewer games over the season.
Last season Wolves were champions having lost ten games while Birmingham went up in second having suffered just nine defeats. Burnley squeezed up through the play-offs having lost 12 while of their rivals in the end of season shoot-out, Sheffield United had lost 10, Reading 11 and Preston the relative rarities having limped into the lottery despite a hefty 14 reverses.
In 2007/08 West Brom went up having lost 11 games with simplistic Stoke in second with nine defeats. Hull won the play-offs despite having lost 13 while Bristol City had gone down 12 times, Palace 11 and Watford 12.
And in 2006/07 champions Sunderland and Birmingham had both lost a dozen games as did play-off winners Derby.
In the past three seasons then only one team in has gone up having lost more than 12 games – and Boro are at six defeats already with just a third of the season gone.
That means they can realistically only afford six more defeats in the 30 games that remain and given that they are so brittle at the back and so often lack the teeth to turn spells of pressure into an unassailable lead, to achieve such a record demands an immediate and fundamental change in performances and results.
Given those mathematical imperatives the breakdown of remaining fixtures suddenly looks ominous. So far Boro have won seven games. Six of those – Ipswich, Reading, Doncaster, Scunthorpe, Derby and Sheffield Wednesday – were against teams below them in the table while the other was against Swansea who were down there at the time but who have just leapfrogged above them.
Of the teams above them they have played, Boro they have been thrashed by West Brom and been caught napping late on by both Leicester and Bristol City as well as losing at Forest after extra time in the Carling Cup. And all three of those have arguably improved markedly in form and confidence since Boro met them.
That is worrying, not least because Boro still have most of the teams above them still to play. In fact, those tough games now dominate the fixtures.
Of the 30 games remaining – of which remember they can only really afford to lose six – Boro must play leaders Newcastle twice, third placed Cardiff twice, fourth placed QPR twice, fifth placed Blackpool twice, in-form Forest in eighth twice plus travel to second placed West Brom and Leicester in sixth.
Strachan will have to work very hard indeed to make his team far harder to beat if they are to negotiate that particular programme without adding irretrievable mass to the ‘lost’ column. They will need to become tougher, more focussed and better organised at the back and sharper and more ruthless up front. Consistently.
The next half-a-dozen games will be decisive. Between now and Christmas Boro face a Forest side who are unbeaten away at the Riverside and go to struggling Peterborough then a resurgent QPR before crunch home games against Jason Euell’s Blackpool and Cardiff and a derby sunday showdown away at Newcastle.
How we fare in that six game run will determine whether we go into the January transfer window with Gordon Strachan looking to fine-tune his improving side ready for the second leg of a quickfire promotion push… or start rebuilding completely for next year.
A COMMERCIAL BREAK….
NATIONAL treasure and precious posh polymath Stephen Fry has now decided that trendy ‘Twitter’ is a bit silly after getting some 140 character long bites of banter – and indeed, if you use it to relate vacuous ephemera while stuck in a lift or ask for help in deciding which preserve to have on your breakfast toast it, that may well be the case.
But I am sticking with the trendy Blackberry generation social networking tool. After all, without it would I have been able to lean across the aisle and tell Kenwyn Jones, an incognito fellow passenger on the 1900 KX-Darlo on Saturday after the game on Saturday, that Craig Gordon had broken an arm?
Here’s some of the stuff I have linked to on my Twitter in recent days:
A good Remembrance article in the Mirror about when international call ups meant something far more significant than football and when players really were heroes
And a counter-balance or two to an hysterical and slightly sinister bullying tabloid campaign to name and shame football clubs that refused to jump onto their populist poppy/shirt high horse.
The Lingo of Calcio… Italian tactical nuances explained.
Where’s Whaddon Road again… there’s a totally engrossing interactive lower league football geography quiz.
And a happy 140th birthday to the Gazette – a link to a brief history of Teesside’s best loved institution (apart from the Bongo, the Boro and maybe the parmo) on our sister blog Remember When.
To have your browser pointed at similar stuff plus the odd quip and occasional exclusive snippet of breaking news you can get down with the kids and “follow” me on Twitter here.