SUN-baked Burnley was hot and sticky and basking Boro turned in a factor 40 and flip-flops performance. The gaffer denied it after the one-sided thumping at Turf Moor, but having crossed the 50 point line with weeks to spare, some players looked to have eased off the gas and are winding down ready for a long session on the sun-lounger.
It was sombreros and speedoes.
The post-match pundits consensus was that hungry Burnley “wanted it more” as victory would catapult them right back into the play-off frame.
They looked fitter, faster, stronger and in the first 45 minutes dished out a clinical football lesson as they were strong and organised at the back, competed in midfield and then broke at pace and in numbers and carved brittle Boro open repeatedly.
They were getting down the flanks at will – both Boro’s jittery full-backs were skinned time after time – and firing crosses in from all angles that caused nervous ripples of panic across the box. Blunt Boro in contrast looked leaden, tired and ordinary.
Yes, it was a patched up side. Isn’t it always. Boro had a lot of players just back from knocks or looking weary after a flurry of fixtures after long lay-offs and with bodies tiring and some tough games coming in quick succession the gaffer was keen to rotate.
The back five was another new unit. The only other time Matthew Bates and Stephen McManus had played together in the middle was in the home game to Burnley (the night Tarmo Kink twice unleashed the Estonian Exocet at the death) but that was under Strachan and Joe Bennett was in the cold and Jason Steele was between the sticks.
And yes it was another different tactical shape with a five man midfield and Boro’s versatile Rhys Williams, fast becoming the fulcrum of the side, in a new attacking midfield role behind lone striker Scott McDonald.
And yes, in recent displays the side may have ridden their luck – against Leicester and Ipswich they could have been dead and buried before they staged their dramatic revivals – and maybe the fickle finger of fate was always going to point damningly at some stage.
But the battering at Burnley was a sobering lesson of what happens if you fail to turn up in an unforgiving league. Of course, that slight lapse from full pelt, that inconsistency, is why the players are in the Championship and why Boro are where they are in the table. We know that. The winning run could not go on forever. But even given those mitigations it was a poor display across the board.
Boro started slowly, lumbered disjointedly onto the back foot and were powerless to resist as Burnley imposed their shape and tempo on the game. After two goals in two minutes left Boro looking punch-drunk the game was effectively over.
By the break and three down – two of them to sloppily defended set-plays – there was never the slightest hint that Boro had the steel or spirit to stage another fightback.
A triple substitution gave them a little bit of spring in the last half hour with Lita adding a bit of zip up front and Smallwood a bit of bite and Boro clawed back a late red face-saver but it couldn’t disguise how poor the performance had been.
Tony Mowbray admitted there had been a long and honest “heart-to-heart” about the failings after the game while Rhys Williams went further and hinted at a full and frank exchange of views between the players over where it had all gone wrong on the pitch.
Good. While we don’t want to descend into recriminations and the blame game over a single result after a good run, it must be stressed to all concerned that knocking off early this season is not acceptable.
It has been a nightmare campaign. It has been an unmitigated and costly disaster. It has seen the club hit rock-bottom and relations with fans tested to destruction by the spirit-sapping Strachan slide towards the trapdoor. The sorry season has flat-lined and stumbled and for long spells has seen some very well paid players fail to deliver.
Boro have looked a far more polished, organised and motivated outfit in recent weeks as diligent Mogga has set about the tricky task of fashioning a silk-style purse from his limited materials.
And the recent unbeaten run has been impressive and inspirational and hinted at a brighter possible future with a feelgood factor seeping back on the back of some steely, spirited shows.
But there is not enough credit in the bank – or leeway below them in the table – for this team to wind down just yet.
And whatever platitudes the pundits pull out of the big bag of football cliches, this season is far from over. There is still plenty to play for.
Yes Burnley “had something to play for”, but so will Hull on Saturday; And Coventry; And Cardiff; And if Boro don’t get their heads back in the game quickly they may yet have too in the final fixture at home to Doncaster Rovers.
Now, it will take some complex mathematical modelling and some spectacular revivals by several teams to drag us back into it now and only the most gloomy confirmed Chicken-runner will seriously see relegation alarms flashing.
But that doesn’t mean there is nothing at stake. Far from it.
The season ticket renewal forms have just gone out against a background of fragility and flux. There are plenty of ‘don’t knows’ out there and a lot of cynics waiting to revert to their doom-laden default and as shapeless end to the season and a slump now could persuade those in two minds to “wait and see” on renewals, denying the club vital cash and damping the upsurge in enthusiasm amid fears of sub-10,000 crowds next term.
So it is more important than ever that a fired-up Boro have a barnstorming finish as part of a pivotal summer sales drive to set the tone for next year.
And a lot of the players have plenty to prove as well.
Some senior big name buys will know they have not given value for money this season and should be busting a gut to restore their personal pride and tarnished reputations.
Even if they want to or expect to leave, they should be turning it on for potential buyers.
And some others on the fringes, those who have been playing to fill gaps as Mogga gets through the season, need to show they have what it takes to be part of the future when the gaffer reshaping the club.
There are four games to go and 12 points plus far, far more still at stake this season.
As you will know if you are following the Gazette’s 100 Days of Destiny flash-back features, it was five years today that Boro went to Steaua Bucharest and those that went to the game (played in a glorified Clareville Common Stadium) were left with bleeding eardrums at the volume of the PA blaring out Scooter’s Maria. Great, but bizarre, trip.
Here’s my travelogue from the time plus a few bits of Youtube footage. First, the Romanian TV highlights of the game plus a bit of shaky hand-cam work from inside the Boro end to give you a taste of the atmosphere.