BORO battered Bristol City to put down another couple of crucial building blocks in the battle for survival.
The emphatic 4-0 win took Boro’s league run to four games unbeaten including two teams in the top four. They made it three games undefeated away, including at Leeds and at Bristol, teams with among the best home records in the division.
They collected a first morale-boosting clean sheet in five games. And they clawed four points clear from the drop zone.
It was a day of marked progress.
After the banana-skin blow-out at Burton’s Pirelli Stadium there were squeals of dismay that the recent revival had ended wheels up in a ditch. If Boro couldn’t beat a League Two side we really were still deep in trouble.
But Boro’s long awaited rampant display of goal power at Bristol was a significant step forward that should reassure and inspire as the basement battle reaches a pivotal point.
Four goals away from home is an impressive performance no matter how you look at it. There have only been eight wins on the road by four goal margins in the last 50 years.
And it was no fluke. Boro played well. It was an enterprising and confident display, although it would be hard to judge from a 90 seconds we now merit on the Saturday night highlights blur.
Boro were creative going forward with prodigal left-back Andrew Taylor recast as a midfielder playing a key role. He linked up well with Joe Bennett on the flank, showed some deft touches and found some excellent defence splitting passes that helped put Bristol on the back foot early on.
Boro were clinical in front of goal. Leroy Lita had his usual stormer against a former club – if only he could do it every week, or if we could hypnotise him into thinking every team in the division was a one time employer he had a point to prove against.
But Lita he wasn’t the only one having a crack and football pensioner David James had a torrid time. He was twice forced to save well from Gary O’Neil then watch a good Taylor effort deflected wide before he sent teenage debutant Cameron Park tumbling for the penalty.
Boro were industrious in the middle with O’Neil, Nicky Bailey and Barry Robson working hard to win the right to play more expansive football.
And the defence – an all Academy back five after Tony McMahon came on for injured Justin Hoyte – dug deep to hold out when Bristol piled on the pressure, especially just before the first two goals when the home side enjoyed good spells of probing possession.
Those back in Teesside may have been left questioning their hearing as the results came in: Boro winning 4-0 away? Surely some mistake.
But it has been coming, slowly and surely, a shape emerging from the fog and confusion as Mowbray reshapes the debris of Gordon Strachan’s reign.
The boss pointed out that while the result would catch the imagination of the fans and raise the confidence of the team, it actually wasn’t that far removed from the kind of display that Boro had been putting in over recent weeks – but with added goals.
Boro had dominated at Coventry only to lose out late on; had dominated at Doncaster only to be caught cold at the death; had the edge at Leeds only to be hit by a sucker punch. Then Burton.Â
It is easy to dismiss the result as a freak, a one off: “it’s just one game”. But in fact it is four games in the league now, a run of games against the sides at the top and the bottom to test Mogga’s men tactically and mentally. And it has been four games of inching but concrete progress.
With each game, the new shape and spirit has been evolving and been fine-tuned. There is more composure on the ball, more purpose going forward, more solidity and belief. And it is starting to show where it matters, in results and in the table.
The Bristol result was a massive one. After Burton there was a threat Boro would wobble and slip back as they have so often in recent years. In-form Bristol were unbeaten at Ashton gate in eight league games so it was a real test.
Boro came through it in style and now the small positives are starting to pile up.
The team have now gone three unbeaten on the road. Gareth Southgate did that in September 2009 but wins at Sheffield Wednesday and Reading either side of a draw were punctuated by dismal and ultimately fatal home defeats to West Brom, Leicester and Watford.
Gordon Strachan managed three unbeaten away in March and April 2010, draws at Derby and Watford followed by a win at Plymouth – and that was matched by four unbeaten at home too but by then the rot had set in. After Plymouth Strachan did not manage a win away and that saw him off.
Bristol meant Mowbray has already clocked up three away wins in 13 games – as many as Strachan managed inÂ a year and 23 matches.
Mogga’s men have won five, drawn three and lost five in his 13 games and taken 18 points – a marked improvement in the return. Strachan’s last 13 games brought just 12 points – and the graph was heading downwards.
And crucially, while supporters have been left frustrated by against high-fliers Leeds and Norwich, the new steely Boro have shown they have the strength to win the games that really matter against their relegation rivals.
The wins over Preston and Bristol were classic ‘six pointers’ that have twisted the table back in our favour.
At one point during away day Christmas clash at Preston led, and with other results swinging against us, they clawed above Boro and dumped us on the bottom.
Boro play Preston again on Saturday and if they can win we will be TWELVE points above them. That is the scale of Boro’s slow but steady upturn in the past month.
Now the next trio of Titanic tussles pit Boro against the current bottom three, Preston and Scunthorpe at home then Crystal Palace away.
We have already beaten all those three teams this season – and all three times since the arrival of Mowbray. If we can repeat those victories it will transform our season.
We still won’t be safe – a spectacular rise up what is a poor division still looks beyond what remains a thin and limited squad yet to feel the effects of the transfer window. The play-offs are well beyond Boro. A 70 point tally for sixth place will mean taking two points a game and we are not strong enough to hit those heights and the priority remains survival and ensuring we don’t slip back.
But in the coming spell of basement battles we can hole our relegation rivals below the water-line and open a yawning gap behind us. We can take a huge step towards safety.
That will give us a breathing space and time to continue to rebuild. For next year.
MEANWHILE, as requested by some of those outside Gazetteshire, here’s the bit on Boro bribe scandal that rocked football and brought the club into disgrace – and torpedoed theri title challenge -100 years ago this week.