THE BLADES are being sharpened for Strachan.
His team – and it is undoubtedly his team now – have been sluggish and one dimensional in the opening games; the La Manga trip was supposed to produce a super-fit team but they have been out-worked; despite the heavy summer investment the glaring long standing problems of a lack of pace and width in midfield remain; and the newly installed star striker has barely had a touch as the team have created next to nothing going forward. Right now the pre-season title favourites do not look serious contenders.
So is Sheffield United a “must win” game? Already? After two games? With 132 points left to play for and the transfer window still open? Plenty of people think so. And even those who don’t should brace themselves for the backlash if Boro lose.
In terms of points it would be preposterous to suggest the third game of the season is crucial. Mathematically Boro could lose the next six and still claw up the table and into the play-offs – although probably such a start would probably rule out an automatic spot.
But politically, losing to Sheffield United would be a disaster. It could blow a hole in what had been an upbeat approach to a crucial campaign. Already the sunshine summer odds on optimism of just a fortnight ago has dissipated to leave a clammy feeling of uncertainty and empty fear. The emotional vaccuum has been filled with murmurs of dissent. It would not take much to turn that into a more widespread opposition.
Losing a second successive game at home, on telly and to a team who finished below Boro last term and one reeling from dug-out and who have just been turned over by Hartlepool could see those fissures widen. Boro could easily go into the game eight points adrift of the leaders and in their lowest position in the league since the relegation battle of 1989-90. To fail to arrest that slide would be a disaster.
After four grinding years of downsizing, despair and disappointment the unaccustomed coat of collective enthusiasm was fragile and has already begun to crack. Those who are set against Strachan – and they are a sizeable minority – have largely bitten their tongues over the summer but will turn up the volume and vitriol in the wake of a poor result. Or even a good one with a poor performance. Meanwhile, those who are undecided and opted to to suck it see may spit it out as unpalatable.
The opening day crowd of 21,000 plus included 7,000 or so sceptics who turned up hoping to be persuaded to climb back on board a promotion bandwagon. They wanted to be given hope for the coming season and the future. They left to a familiar depressing sound track of booing and with many wondering why they bothered and telling friends and family – all potential bums on seats – nothing had changed.
The Blades match is on the box and that will be playing to yet another wider layer of exactly the people that Boro need to win back, those waverers who may be tempted to the Riverside if they thought that the new look side could out-fight and out-play the opposition and that Kris Boyd could fire the side to promotion. For those people watching at home and in the pub a defeat in what for most is the first chance to see Strachan’s new side will have them reaching for the off button on the season.
If Boro fail to shine against Sheffield United, if they fail to excite and inspire it will be very hard to win the battle for hearts and minds and get those disillusioned thousands back into the ground. The team may well later still slowly grind their way up the table and be among the chasers but it will be against a background of groans: “typical Boro”. Defeat now will be later used in evidence against them.
We need to win and win well. Or the knives will be out.