KRIS Boyd put any lingering window pain behind him as he deftly swept home his 200th career goal and set Boro on the road to a crucial victory.
The Scottish goal machine did exactly what it said on the tin as he made a perceptive, instinctive and perfectly timed little diagonal burst behind a rigid Scunthorpe defensive line onto a ball that hadn’t even been played yet. Then when Seb Hines got to a loose ball on the right flank and lofted it first time over the top and towards the edge of the box the Scot had stolen five yards on a sluggish Scunthorpe rear guard.
Boyd spotted the visiting keeper had fatally drifted off his line and as the ball bounced kindly for him the striker smoothly chipped it without breaking his stride and it arched perfectly under the bar from 22 yards out. It was a beauty.
We will need to see more of that. A lot more. It is time for Kris Boyd to knuckle down and deliver the goods.
For months Boyd has looked a sluggish, sullen and remote figure, struggling with the new shape and zip on the pitch under Tony Mowbray. He has looked increasingly demoralised at failing to bridge the culture gap in the Championship as chance after chance went begging and a shining reputation as a clinical finisher became tarnished and his body language has been that of an unhappy man.
He stopped making the runs, looked sluggish in the danger area, wasn’t alive to the ball in the box. And fans have been alarmed to point out that he has been at his most mobile when darting off the pitch and down the tunnel on the whistle while his team-mates are saluting the supporters.
The consensus was that he was an expensive luxury a cash strapped club could not afford – after Craig Bellamy, the all time record SPL goal-getter is probably now the best paid player in the Championship – and if Mowbray was to rebuild, along with the expected exits of Wheater and O’Neil, Boyd would need to be moved on and his wages recycled.
Boro never said so, the boss is too diplomatic for that, but the misfiring McMarksman has been in the shop window with a garish ‘for sale’ sticker plastered over him all month. Hurry, hurry, hurry. And not just sale. For short term hire at crazy, crazy prices. Cheap credit terms available. Inquire inside. No reasonable offer refused.
His agents have been busy fending off calls from some real football hotspots over the past month: Ruud Gullit’s big spending Terek Grozny of civil war ravaged Chechnya, two giant clubs in Moscow and a few ambitious outfits in Turkey too.
There was a link with Blackburn that wouldn’t go away – his agents have links to the group that helped engineer the chicken farmers buy out of Rovers – and his name on a list of transfer targets the boss knocked back appeared to have helped ease Sam Allardyce out of the hot seat. Then there were repeated tabloids assertions that Alex McLeish wanted him at Birmingham but one by one those vacancies were filled.
There have been a series of whispered calculations and fag-packet mathematics trying to make the figures stack up for a mooted return to Rangers, even if just on loan.
And right up to the fevered last few minutes of the deadline there seemed a myriad of unfolding possibilities as the exit of first Kenny Miller to Turkey then James Beattie to Blackpool left a big hole to fill up front at Ibrox and space on the Rangers wage bill.
But with the transfer window slamming shut a spell of uncertainty is over for Boyd. He knows now that he is at Boro for at least the next five months now and he will need to earn his corn.
Boyd has scored 200 goals and that is a laudable feat. Respect. But 194 of those have been in Scotland and most have come in one-sided games in which the Old Firm giants have bull-dozered some poor makeweights. He has been a flat-track bully.
His return in the far more competitive Championship has been, up to now, very disappointing. He scored five in his first 16 games: a neatly struck winner against Sheffield United in a 1-0 win, a powerful header in a 3-1 defeat at Derby and then bundled home in a 2-1 defeat at home to Leeds (Strachan’s last game) before netting in the 2-1 win over Crystal Palace (Mowbray’s frist victory) before pouncing to net in a 2-0 win in the next game at Scunthorpe early in November.
Five in 16 isn’t the worst ratio – and the three in six up to Scunthorpe away was excellent – but there has been a steady tail-off in performances along the way. Between the strike at Scunthorpe and last night’s sublime sweep he went nine without scoring (indeed, without looking like scoring) although he only made three starts in that sequence as he faded fast to become a fringe figure behind Leroy Lita and Marvin Emnes. Who would have predicted that scenario back in August?
But Mowbray, who knows he has his hands tied by the market and needs to get the best out of what he has got, has insisted that despite the recent diminishing returns Boyd can still have a big role to play – but that he needs to show more industry to justify his place. We can’t afford passengers. And the gaffer has been at pains to points out he has been working hard in raining and staying behind afterwards to put in extra work on his movement, finishing and fitness. Good. We need that little bit more too.
It has showed. He stetched to get in a neat flick on at Bristol for Leroy Lita to head home and has been a bigger presence in the box in his last few outings. We need that too.
In truth, Boro still can not afford Boyd in the Championship. He was bought by a club budgeting for promotion, that spent heavily to achieve that, got its recruitment spectacularly wrong and is now engaged in a furious belt-tightening exercise geared towards a massive reduction in the post-Prem millstone wage bill. Boyd, will still have to go in the summer and as soon as the season ends the sales pitch will start again.
And if we are to sell, at means it is imperative he has a barnstorming finish to the season, for the benefit of the stats column on his own CV and boosting his own viability in the market as much as the pressing need to secure Boro’s safety.
For the benefit of both player and club we need Boyd to be terrorising defences – or at least scaring them a bit – making well timed runs, creating things in the box, getting shots in and showing exactly what he can still do. More than anything we need him to start putting the chances away. In short, he has to do what he was bought for.
The mantra when he came was that if you gave him chances he would bury them and we have seen that in flashes. But we need that every game. Or at least every other game. We need him to shine in the games when erratic Lita fails to hit full speed. As our inching up-turn continues the team have been doing their bit. Gradually improving Boro are creating more chances. The stage is set. Now it is time for Boyd to deliver.
The win against Scunthorpe was another crucial building block in the foundations of a new Boro under Mowbray that will be built on survival this term, no matter how scrappy.
Boro have now gone six games unbeaten in the league and while there have been too many cheaply conceded points in disappointing draws that still rankle the slow but steady progress is nevertheless undeniable.
The shape is better and more solid, the team is playing with more spirit and belief and imposing a tempo and creating problems for the opposition, the academy graduates are grabbing their chance to shine, rehabilitated Leroy Lita and Julio Arca have taken centre stage and week by week Nick Bailey grows into a pivotal figure. The positives are slowly starting to pile up and a discernible shape is looming into view.
Boro are digging in when they need to, are ready to physically battle and not be bullied (check the card count in recent games) and are showing they can retain the ball for long spells of patient passing from side to side and back again if neccessary – and those spells far less often end with a jittery long lump forward. We ARE a better side now.
And that improvement is paying dividends. Nine points from five games is a decent return for a struggling side. And when was the last time Boro took an unbeaten run from before Christmas into February?
There has been a mental strength too as Boro have played three successive basement battles and not bottled it. We have come from behin dto win. We have taken points from promotion chasers. Wins at Bristol City and Scunthorpe either side of a draw with Preston is a fantastic yield from a crunch sequence of massive matches. Yes, we should have beaten Preston too… but this is Boro, not Barcelona.
This is a side that three months ago were dysfunctional, in disarray and drifting towards oblivion. We are still vulnerable. The gap behind us is slowly widening but is far from unbridgeable.
We need to step up a gear now and ensure we do not get dragged back down.
And to do that we need all our biggest players to deliver.