BORO’S rookie defenders faced the flak after a sickening late slump against Swansea.
The consensus was that Boro had frittered away a commanding lead and three precious points because of naive defending by the youngsters and that the chief villains of the piece were the central defensive pairing of Seb Hines and Jonathan Grounds.
After seeing his team implode the frustrated gaffer pointed to individual errors in defence and stand-in skipper Barry Robson rummaged around in the big bag of football cliches and added that he wasn’t naming names but pointed to ‘schoolboy’ stuff at the back.
But Robson and Co need to shoulder theri share of the blame. The kids needed help from the senior players in the team – and it didn’t come.
There can be no mitigation for the disjointed display by the young central defensive pairing, or by both the full-backs who were butchered by Swansea’s flying flankers, or by a suddenly shaky looking rookie keeper who made a string of errors.
No doubt all of them will feel shell-shocked by their collective nightmare. It was terrible. It was well short of the standard needed to survive and flourish in the Championship and they will all know that. It was “a shambles” said gutted Joe Bennett on his Twitter.
Inexperience told. It was always going to at times. Hines has played just 11 first team games and Grounds has made only 30 starts, many of them at left-back – and the duo have played together as a unit just three times in the first team. Even for veterans that is nowhere near enough pitch time to form a functioning relationship. And it showed.
The fledgling pair struggled all day with the fluid movement, pace and penetration of the Swansea strike force and were repeatedly exposed. The made mistakes as individuals, as an ill-fitting partnership and within the creaky back five as a whole.
There were individual moments of madness that will give them nightmares, notably the lapse for the first Swansea goal when Hines opted to defy playground lore and dribble out of defence and across the face of goal only to lose the ball, miss the tackle that could have won it back and leave a gaping hole where he should have been.
That ball should have been played safely back to the keeper, or inside to a team mate to retain possession, or quickly down the channels for a runner moving forward, or, if in doubt, whacked into row zed. But he will learn.
Behind them Jason Steele, one of the biggest plusses of the season so far, put in a jittery display and was at fault for Swansea’s leveller when he came out to collect but failed to either catch or punch clear under pressure from Luke Moore and allowed the ball to go spinning to the back stick where in a moment of black comedy Hines and Tony McMahon got in a tangle and it was weakly nodded into the path of Ashley Williams.
Having come out the keeper should have thumped the ball with Hayemaker and more than cleared the box and clattered Moore into the bargain.Â But he will learn.
Having asset-stripped the team which has then been hit with injuries we have been forced to blood the kids in greater numbers and far earlier than intended and we must recognise that carries inherent risks. They are learning on the job and they will make mistakes. It is part of the process.
Normally those mistakes, that process would be out-sourced and they would be learning harsh lessons out of harm’s way on loan at a lower league club. Now instead they are doing it in the full glare of first team games with high stakes and little tolerance for errors.
Yet the pivotal moment of the Swansea game came not from a slip by one of the rookies but when one of the most expereinced players on the pitch – and one of Boro’s best performers this term – made an horrendous error.
At 3-1 up Boro were on the rack after Swansea made a shrewd double switch and took off their two most creative schemers and put on more solid and direct players to beef up in the midfield – there were a string of crunching tackles that really rattled Boro’s engine room in a pivotal five minute spell – and they gradually pushed deeper and dangerously towards the box. The defence was being swamped.
The youngsters at the back needed help. Cool heads were required from the senior members of the team. The experienced players had to lead by example, to win and retain possession, to take the sting out of Swansea’s surge and help take the pressure off the wobbling back-line as Boro defended a two goal lead for the final 30 minutes.
Only Julio Arca will know what he was thinking when he made such a clumsy tackle from behind and through the legs ofÂ Allen in the box when Joe Bennett was between the Swansea man and the goal. It was crazy and totally unnecessary.
The resulting penalty threw the visitors a lifeline, intensified the pressure on the creaking defence and sparked the familiar jitters that spread quickly through the team.
Even at that point Boro should have won and it was down to the senior players to take control, steady the ship and the nerves and stop Swansea playing. In that, they failed.
The team was as ‘experienced’ as it had been for a while. At Palace seven Academy graduates started; against Swansea it was just five. With Arca, Robson, Nicky Bailey, Scott McDonald and Leroy Lita in the team there should have been enough nouse there to see out a game and hold a 3-1 lead.Â
But the older heads failed to protect the kids. There was a distinct lack of leadership. There was a vacuum. Arca ran around to no avail, Lita and McDonald disappeared and it was no surprise they were taken off, while Robson lunged into missed tackles, was dragged out of position and spent a lot of time on the deck appealing for decisions. The senior players need to take responsibility and earn their corn when the heat is on. Even Bailey, generally the best on the day, should maybe have used his nouse to bring down Sinclair 30 yards out as he weaved towards the box for the winner. A judicious foul, a
free kick or even a booking would have been a good trade for a point at that stage.
If Boro are to get the best out of the next generation of starlets they need to be protected and mentored in the heat of battle and too often that is not happening.
In an ideal world Boro’s kids would be blooded gradually, brought in to a balanced, fully functioning and preferably winning team and surrounded by older heads for a spell. Then taken out for a breather.
But it is far from an ideal world. Boro are down to the bare bones. Every department is stretched to breaking point and ravaged by injuries. There is no cover. We are operating with a very thin squad and that heaps a lot of weight on young shoulders.
Jason Steele probably needs a breather more than anyone. Shipping goals – especially late goals – must have dented his confidence after a bright start to the season and all those early plaudits. He has been a fault for a few goals conceded of late and ideally would be taken out of the firing line. But there is no alternative. Danny Coyne is out for the foreseeable after a disc injury that will need surgery and Connor Ripley, just turned 18, hasn’t played a minute of senior football.
Likewise the centre-backs; who replaces them? Unknown quantity Maxi Haas has one reserve game under his belt and the gaffer is saying he still needs time to adjust to the environment (which raises the question of why he was brought in during January and not the summer with the wages instead spent on a journeyman stopper). While Haas may yet turn out to be a star, thrown in right now he would be a risk. He will need to acclimatise to a new team, a hectic new league, and a new (raw) partner all at once.
Meanwhile Matthew Bates is a month away and Stephen McManus maybe six weeks at the soonest – and when they return they will need games to get up to speed.
That is long time to rely on mixing and matching an untested trio, especially through a run of tough games for a still vulnerable Boro side with just a five point cushion from the drop zone, and with several of those below us due to play each other and gain points.
The kids at the back need help. If they are to realise their potential and not be crushed by responsibility in the weeks to come we desperately need to bring someone in to beef up the defence.
Boro are crying out for a commanding, battle scarred brute of a Championship seasoned centre-back: a leader, a battler, a no-nonsense warhorse who will take out physical strikers and who will have no illusions about sophisticated ball playing and will hoof it and head it clear and take no prisoners
It may not suit the long term strategy of playing neat possession football with cultured passing from the back – but any such plan depends on survival in this division first and foremost and to do that we must shore up the defence with a player who can cope with the rigours of the Championship and teach the kids the facts of life.
They also need a journeyman keeper for a month or two to take the heat off Steele.
Boro are working to a very tight budget, we know that and Mowbray knows it too… although the full extent of the belt-tightening may only just be becoming clear to him now. The club have made it clear space must be cleared on the wage bill by an exit before there can be any in-coming loans and January showed there were no takers for our luxury players on big bucks. Part of the problem was sat on the bench.
But while a prudent approach to finances is neccessary -most appreciate that – taking such a rigid stance at a time when the squad is so threadbare and the team precariously placed in the table is a massive gamble. The same gamble was taken in the Premier League relegation season and it failed catastrophically leading to a disastrous three year slide and our current parlous state.
Boro need some big gaps plugging. Now. Somehow, somewhere they need to find the funds or juggle what they have and quickly. Ideally it would come by easing out big earning Boyd or McDonald. It may be that Taylor needs to be loaned back out to Watford, even at the risk of undermining the bid to persuade him of his long term future.
But this is not an ideal world. It is time for the powers that be to look through the books and down the back of the settee. The funds must be found somewhere and somehow
Mogga should be banging on a few doors round about now.