TO BOLDLY Go….
There’s little point dissecting what happened at Crystal Palace: Boro dominated possession, failed to take their chances, struggled to break down a side who shut up shop and then were punished for one fatal lapse at the back.
We’ve heard it all before. It has been the damaging default for the best part of three years. It was the key factor in relegation from the Premier League and remains unaddressed two managers and Â£20m later.
So let’s throw the spotlight instead on an ever more obvious phenomena under Tony Mowbray – the turn to youth.
At Palace Boro started with seven academy graduates on the pitch.
There were four more off the conveyor belt on the bench and two of those came on to make it nine involved in the match. That’s incredible.
It is something to be proud of that the Academy, superbly managed by the club’s unsung hero Dave Parnaby, can churn out talent of sufficient quality to step into first team action. Few teams can boast such a productive youth system – or such a profitable one.
The Boro Academy has raised over Â£35m in sales since it was launched in 1998 and Â£25m of that been brought in over the past two turbulent years with Stewart Downing (Â£12m), Adam Johnson (Â£8m), Brad Jones (Â£2.3m) and David Wheater (Â£2.5m plus add-ons) all being sold in timely moves that helped the club deal with a mounting financial crisis.
Now the next generation are coming through and as belts are tightened they are being thrown straight into action and largely have flourished.
Among the better performers this term are rehabilitated Joe Bennett, a left back discarded by Gordon Strachan and probably destined to be flogged for Â£200k who has grown in confidence since being restored to the team by Tony Mowbray and who now looks a very promising attacking option.
Another key figure has been Matthew Bates who has battled back from four cruciate injuries to become a fixture at the back – and the new skipper – with some mature and cultured displays.
And Jason Steele has come from being just a rumour to establish himself as the first choice keeper and earn an England Under-21 call-up.
The others have done a solid job. Whole-hearted battler Tony McMahon has stepped in for injured Justin Hoyte at right back, Seb Hines has put an injury nightmare behind him to step in for departed Wheater, the relative veteran Andrew Taylor – who has played over 100 games for Boro – and Jonathan Grounds are back from spells in exile to beef up the squad while prodigies like Jonathan Franks, Richie Smallwood, Cameron Park and Luke Williams have made cameos.
It is a glimpse of the future. As the club’s financial downsizing continues, Boro won’t be breaking the bank for mouthwatering stars on mega-buck wages for the foreseeable and the local lads will be the building blocks of a new prudent era of stability. It is a good job they can play a bit.
Now, no one is pretending that starting with so many rookies is an decision taken through choice. A massive injury crisis and a string of big name exits over the past 18 months has left Boro with big holes in the team and the elevation of the youngsters is about necessity as much as a long term commitment to a strategic vision.
If Mowbray had cash he would no doubt bring in proven quality in key positions and the kids would be largely left on the fringess to be blooded slowly and steadily; brief run-outs in a winning team or League Cup games or sent out on loan to make their mistakes at a lower level. Downing went to Sunderland, Adam Johnson to Watford, Bates and Wheater to Darlington.
Now we have to bite the bullet and accept they will make their mistakes as they learn on the job at Boro. Beggers can’t be choosers.
At Selhurst Park Boro started with an all Academy back five that was raw and inexperienced.
Defenders mature in their mid to late 20s when they have 100 plus games behind them, when dealing with speed merchants, Fancy Dans, battering rams, divers, one up front, two, three and sometimes four up front, little and large combinations and midfielders bombing on from deep becomes second nature. That experience can only be gaining in the heat of battle.
But injury plagued Bates has made just 67 starts for Boro in six years and equally unlucky McMahon just 71 in the same time. Seb Hines has made only 10 starts and Joe Bennett 27. That’s just 175 between them.
In contrast Palace’s key defender Patrick McCarthy has made 193 career appearances alone. David Wright has 395. Claude Davis 186. New left back Dean Moxey 229. Even Nathanial Clyne – the Eagles young player of the year last term – has made 90.
It will take time – and patience – before the current crop reach their full potential. And they will make mistakes along the way. Seb Hines brief lapse in concentration as he let the ball squeeze under his studs to let James Vaughan streak clear for the goal at Palace is just one. But they will improve.
Seven starters may not impress everyone, after all, Boro fielded a team against Fulham in the Premier League in 2006 that had 10 of the line-up at kick-off who were Acadamy products and brought another off the bench late on, and with an average age of a shade over 20 years. That’s true.
But that team was an anomaly. It was a “weakened” second string cobbled together by a club who were focussed on the UEFA Cup final a weak later. It was a one-off team treading water. Boro had Schwarzer, Southgate, Zenden, Viduka, Yakubu, Mendieta and Downing to come back in. We don’t have that luxury now.
A more telling parallel may be the team of 1986 when Boro were forced to turn to youth out of necessity.
Pears, Laws, Cooper, Mowbray, Pallister, Gill, Parkinson, Hamilton, Slaven, Ripley, Stephens. Sub: Turnbull. That was pretty much it. A collection of talented teenagers, a couple of journeymen and a bargain bucket goal-getter thrown together by circumstance. What a side!
The retro-myth about the post liquidation line-up portrays them as a world beaters. They weren’t. They were raw talent with flaws and limitations but fired up by an inspirational manager with an clear vision of how to play an instinct feel for psychology that got more than the sum of the parts out of his squad. They were the Blackpool of their day. Only built on local youngsters.
What they did more than anything was forge a strong bond in adversity between the club and the crowd. They were local lads, they cared, they shared the passion of the supporters and realised that the club were clawing back from the brink, that we were all in it together.
The kids coming through now are an echo of that. Local lads thrown into battle through necessity after relegation and a traumatic financial downshift. The situation is not quite as bleak but there is still an air of the abyss about it.
We need to hope they are as successful, on and off the pitch as the Class of 86.
Not all of them will make it. Some will be exposed by the heat of battle and will be replaced as soon as is possible – but some others will seize the moment and have the opportunity to make themselves first team fixtures, the cement their futures at the Riverside and with a bit of luck become cult heroes and part of our mythology. It’s all up for grabs.