Dragon Slaying, Party Pooping And Boro’s Steel Edged Professionalism

DRAGON slaying Boro showed a killer touch as they went to Cardiff expected to roll over.
It was all set up for a ritual slaughter: Cardiff needed to win to nudge into an automatic promotion spot in what had been selected by Sky as another exciting instalment in the race for the Premiership. Boro were there to make up the numbers and were expected to put up little resistance. But this is a different Boro now.

It was supposed to be jet-heeled spiteball Craig Bellamy and bruising blink-and-you’ve-missed-him England passerby Jay Bothroyd against sluggish Stephen McManus and a makeshift back-four of a lowly team with nothing to play for.
Cardiff had a full-house in and had a meticulously planned post-match ‘lap of honour’ scheduled, according to the press room handout, to last 20 full minutes of gleeful celebration after helpless Boro had been routinely devoured as part of the entertainment. Please be aware of the day’s timetable we were implored.
There was an impressive ear-splitting bi-lingual big match build up by their exciteable version of Mei Marrchllyc Pagechlli as Cardiff orchestrated a nationalistic fire breathing hostile atmosphere what was to be a shoo-in.
But party-pooping Boro silenced the crowd into shrivelled sullen ember within three minutes with the opener and disgruntled Cardiff fans were streaming for the exits after just 20 minutes as Boro showed their mettle with a fatal third slice at the beast.
It was fantastic. What an heroic team of epic battlers this brave army are turning into. And on the weekend of the belated St George’s Day too.
Boro were sizzling in the first half as they played some crisp passing movements that carved through Cardiff and they were industrious and hard-edged in the second as they dug-in to ensure there was no Welsh revival.
It was nice to see Boro do to other teams exactly what had been done to us so often. Even the opening two goals were off a familiar template. First a routine harmless looking early cross floated in for Leroy Lita to climb almost in slow motion above two half-hearted delayed attempts to challenge then send a looping header home beyond a static spectator of a keeper. Then as a low ball was drilled across the face of goal Barry Robson was far from favourite but somehow squeezed between two defenders to stab home from close range virtually unopposed.
The third goal was a bit special; a well worked series of quick passes and neat movement slicing through Cardiff in a moment of precision engineering, a lovely lay-off from Emnes and an incisive run to collect the return then a deceptive little shimmy to wriggle past a challenge and an unselfish cut-back that allowed the fast improving Richie Smallwood to burst through to leather home his first for the club.
That move alone exploded any notion that Boro had somehow spawned their way to a win over the better side that choked. Boro were superb. Tactically they had neutered the Welsh side’s main threat from very early on, they out-played them for long spells in midfield and when needed they out-fought them too. It was a throughly professional performance that would have had the watching audience wondering exactly which of these two teams was hoping for a place in the Premier League.
There were faint echoes of “typical Boro” moments of the past about the occasion: the ghosts of an Ayresome Park choking against Leicester that torpedoed automatic promotion and dumped Bruce Rioch’s side in the play-offs and the FA Cup quarter-final humbling at home to Cardiff under Southgate were in the background for instance.
But now it is the opposition who are being stung by Boro’s refusal to stick to the script.
The result aside, the most pleasing things in Cardiff were the unbreakable mental toughness floursihing throughout the team and the determined display of a resurgent clinical professionalism among Tony Mowbray’s reshaped team.
There was a time not so long ago that Boro would have been swept away by the occasion. They would have buckled under the weight of Cardiff’s expectation and been battered. And a lot of Boro fans expected that. I was denounced before the game as a delusion ra-ra high on foam finger fumes for suggesting we could get a score draw.
But this Boro are far tougher than oprevious brittle incarnations. And far more flexible.
Tony Mowbray pulled at tactical surprise and set out his team to shackle Cardiff’s movement and strength up front with an unaccustomed line up of three central defenders and the two full-backs closing the supply from the flanks.
That system has been deployed before when Boro were expecting to be bombarded by in-form home teams, at Millwall and at Portsmouth and the team has proved adept at making it work.
Tony McMahon was playing as an uncomfortable make-shift centre-back in the middle and despite players out of position and struggling for fitness it was a superb and professional display of versatility and zest.
The shape was so effective that blunted and frustrated Cardiff were forced to make tactical changes and use a substitution after just 31 minutes but in truth with Boro three up the game was gone for them by then.
Mowbray’s Boro have started to add effective tactical tweaks to their armoury.
But even more pleasing to see was the willingness of Boro to employ what is euphemistically called “professionalism,” to break up play with some well timed strategic stoppages and time-wasting as they ran down the clock in the second half.
Sometimes it is counter-intuitive to want to take the sting out of the game when you are sizzling and well on top but there was nothing to be gained in continued open play that would have given Cardiff the chance, the space, the time, to possibly get a goal that may have helped them claw back from the dead.
We’ve seen that before, Boro allowing teams to regain a foothold and roar back.
Best to turn down the tempo, frustrate the opposition and fragment the game. We have seen teams do it us, cynically time-wasting as we chase the game, stopping the flow of attacking spells, breaking up the continuity, disrupting the shape and getting the crowd frustrated.
We have seen players wander half the pitch to shake the referee’s hand on being substituted, players stopping to meticulously retie their laces – double sheet bend and two half hitches – before a free-kick or do a Chuckle Brothers “to you, to me” in decided who will take a throw. It is infuriating.
So how we laughed as Boro demonstrated some classic bits of time-wasting.
Marvin Emnes pulled up with what looked like a hamstring as he put in a cross in and signalled to the bench. As they prepared the switch Emnes – who had already spent a good 10 minutes dribbling in the corners before that, including at least one spell in the first half – drifted off to the far flank to maximise his exit distance and when his number went up limped over with wooden walking wounded pantomime wincing and glacial movements to provoke a furious crowd reaction and eventually pick up a booking.
Jason Steele matched that with an orchestrated series of provocative protracted goal-kicks that had the stadium seething. Steele trudged to retrieve the ball, fumbled catches Brad Jones style as the ballboys tossed him it then made a great show of deliberating over where on the six yard line to take his kick from, often changing his mind at the last moment and slowly switching to the other side. He too was eventually booked.
There were some artistic flops to the ground after minimal contact and some prostrate precious eaten moments rubbing shins and ribs and knees that required urgent and lengthy medical attention. Best not take any chances with these kind of knocks.
Alright, it’s not the beautiful game – but it is a key skill for winning teams and a cynical component that Boro have been lacking in recent years. And, as we have seen, even Mogga’s utopian template of Barcelona have shown they can do it when needed.
Boro picked up six bookings in a match that occasionally got a bit tetchy – and that was pleasing to see as well. For too long Boro have been easily bullied out of games. Not any more. This is a team that has discovered a bite.
Especially as it was in a game where they “had nothing to play for.” How often in recent years have Boro been out-muscled in games where they did have something to play for. Think back to Arsenal away in the relegation season where Boro were supposedly battling for survival but went to the Emirates and barely got a tackle in against a team that were due to play a Champions League semi-final three days later and were anxious to avoid injuries. I was furious we didn’t rattle them from kick-off. Had we come away from that game with six bookings we may not have gone down.
Better late than never. It is an essential skill, especially in the war of attrition of the Championship, and Boro are starting to master it. Tackles flew in all over the pitch with the defiant midfield especially robust as they stood up to Cardiff’s urgency. There were flashes of temper as fouls by Cardiff sparked reprisals: Richie Smallwood raked an opponent who had clattered Kevin Thomson. Taylor, McMahon even usually mild mannered Hoyte and Emnes crashed into tackles.
That willingness to fight for team-mates, to “put a foot in” is a delight to see. It speaks volumes of the spirit within the camp and is a vital building block of a successful team that, crucially, refuses to be intimidated out of games.
Considering that it was a game in which they had “nothing to play for” Boro really got stuck in and that will strike a chord with supporters looking for signs of a team being regenerated and refined.


65 thoughts on “Dragon Slaying, Party Pooping And Boro’s Steel Edged Professionalism

  1. This is from the letters section of the guardian’s e-mail. Were there really only around 50 boro fans there?
    “Well said Fiver! Cardiff are bottlers. Dave Jones seems to be living in a state of denial, though he can hardly be blamed for that – everyone bar the 50 or so Boro fans (and they seemed a bit surprised) at the game on Monday found it hard to believe what they were seeing. With things a bit quiet at Newcastle, can we put in a bid to be known as Cardiff City Comedy Club, or at the very least change our nickname from Bluebirds to Bluebottlers?” – Barrie Francis.
    **AV writes: I think there were 378 Boro fans.

  2. Nice to watch a whole Boro match again (albeit on the telly). A much better match in terms of the result and the game itself, than that I witnessed at Fratton Park in March.
    I think I agree with most of the comments made by bloggers about the game, although I thought McManus was the man of the match,and by some way, in a team when nearly every player looked good.
    I felt Lita led the line really well, causing all sorts of problems.He’s such an enigma, never quite reaching the heights consistently throughout his career. What we might call an under achiever, but I do think opposition defenders are wary of his capabilities. Emmes gives the team something a little different and has undoubted skills, although he needs a few nights out in Middlebrough to harden up a bit. I thought the biggest disappointment, but no suprise, was Hoyte.Williams wasn’t quite there I know, but what class and potential.
    Anyway, its great to see the Boro turn it around after what for some period looked like relegation was a real possibility. And its good that Steve Gibson and Keith Lamb finally came to their senses and brought in a proper football manager, long may he reign.
    Now I’ll probably only get to see one or two home games next season, if I’m lucky, but can at least look forward to seeing Boro in three maybe even four south coast venues next season, depending on Bournemouth in play offs. Plus usual trips to Palace,maybe Watford and even Millwall if Im feeling brave enough. I’m hoping for a one, two of Boro and Brighton. Em, perhaps thats being a bit to silly.
    Have a great close season all you Boro fans and bloggers and I hope the sun shines in Redcar just like the south coast. Fat chance LOL

  3. Gordy at 3pm – I’m buying in. Those fumes are a heady cocktail. Isn’t it great to feel ENTHUSIASTIC about the next game, instead of being worried about it?
    Football spectating as a passtime? There is a chance it might catch on in these parts.

  4. Last two mornings I’ve replayed 1st 20mins of the Cardiff match before I went to work. I haven’t felt so upbeat since Carling cup final.
    With regards to transfers in the summer , I feel that now is the time for Mogga and Gibbo to state under no circumstances (no matter how much money is on offer) will any of the homegrown talent leave the club before the start of next season. Otherwise Gibbo might as well shut the club down .
    Most fans I know sense a similarity between this group of youngsters and those of 86-88 . If we can hold onto McManus, Mcdonald,Thomson and Robson I think we have great chance of winning the league never mind the play-offs.
    Players Out
    Arca (unless he takes pay cut)
    Boyd (in exchange for Smith and £1-1.5million )
    Players In
    Lambert of Southampton
    Up The Boro

  5. Ian Gill –
    Agree Mogga came in at a very low ebb with Boro falling at a rapid rate of knots towards relegation, only place to go was up.
    Mogga has done a fantastic job and deserves a knighthood. Southgate was arrogant, naieve and stupid in thinking that being captain fantastic was tantamount to management success – and boy oh boy how wrong he was.
    How on earth does the fickle finger of fate work? Southgate screws up Boro football club yet ends up with a plumb job at the FA. Guess some would say he cut his teeth at Boro and used that experience to good effect.
    What say you AV ?

  6. phil,norton –
    I agree with your sentiments about the kids but you cannot fit them all into the squad.
    I posed a few thoughts earlier about Smith. If we swap him for Boyd it will probably because they will be playing in the the Premiership, he wont come here to be number 2.
    If Smith is first choice and someone comes in with a decent offer for Steele what do you do? He wont appreciate in value as a number 2 in the championship.
    The same goes for Williams and Bennett, the one thing we have is a steady stream of good defenders coming through the academy, we dont appear to have right wingers or strong strikers.
    We may well be able to rejig the squad, I agree about the players leaving but will it release enough headroom for any new players to balance the squad and put us on a better financial footing?
    I will happily leave it up to Mogga to get the balance right. I dont believe Gibbo and the Count willingly sell the kids, few have left apart from under Southgate.
    Another word on Monday, watched the paper review on SkySports and there is Mick Dennis of the Daily Express resplendent in his Norwich City tie. Glad I dont have HD because it is rather bright.
    Come to think of it did anyone watch Bellamy in HD, did it make his hissy fits any funnier?

  7. Ian Gill said:
    Come to think of it did anyone watch Bellamy in HD, did it make his hissy fits any funnier?
    What if you have a 3D tv? Would their be gaps on the sofa as everyone slides out the way of the grolly coming flying out of the TV straight into your dinner?
    Any experiences of trays going flying due to 3D reactions?

  8. Agree a lot will depend on weather Forest go up or not and if Smith actualy wants to stay.
    As for youngsters maybe we dont need to get them so young. Look a Burn at Darlo going to Fulham not saying we needed him in particular but he was just down the road are there any others there.
    Finaly having hailed from Middleton St George, good luck to Darlo in their cup final. Do we need a scout there?

  9. Top scorer Scott McDonald is expected to return to the Boro squad after injury for the final game of the season. So I hope to see the following line-up:
    McDonald – Emnes
    Taylor – Smallwood – Thomson – Zemmama
    Bennett – McManus – Bates – Rhys Williams
    Steele (or Smith)
    This is unlikely, though as Mogga has promised to give the youngsters more time. But perhaps from the bench?
    Secondly, the new shirts are out and worn in the coming match. Nice to see that we have the sponsor solved for the next two season already.
    Their logo sits more nicely without the white band like this year.
    Up the Boro!

  10. Sandy –
    And of course we have the man who did nothing to halt the slide, Strachan, sat next to Southgate with both of them telling us what Guardiola and SrAlex should do next.
    Breathtaking arrogance or the signs of the detachment football has from the real world?
    I remember being in Majorca in the week of the 4th round of the FA Cup. Forest had been knocked out in the third round and the punishment was training on the beach in Magaluf.
    On another historical note the white yoke is back on the shirt. Suave though the models look it doesnt compare with the sight of Dickie Rooks and his neck that seemed as wide as his shoulders topped by a head of blond hair.
    Looked like a transformer but twice as frightening.

  11. Not impressed with the new shirt at all (maybe an age thing but much prefer the band).
    I thought the idea of the band was ours to look different from other bland red/white shirts, personally I thought it worked well. It actually gave us an image, as soon as people saw it, they thought Boro. This just takes us back to where we were, insignificant.
    Ian mentioned Dickie Rooks (again) and why not – he scored the best own goal I ever saw. It was at Villa Park (we lost 1-0 I think, about 1968), he headed it and it went into the net like a bullet. Everybody loved Dickie Rooks.
    Any ideas where and how he is now?

  12. Jarkko –
    No doubt fitness wiil affect the line up, the website says Zemmama is probably out for the season. We know Rhys has to be nursed and some of the others are carrying knocks.
    Couldnt throw in kids at Cardiff because of the integrity of the competition but do the fans want to see the best team possible and hopefully get a great end to the season or see the kids and maybe get a damp squib in front of a decent crowd?
    Very tricky balancing act indeed, no way to win that one.
    My own view is that it is best to blood them one or two at a time alongside those with experience. We saw how Grounds and Hines struggled at times, it isnt good for the players. Bates and Williams are not the most experienced in the squad but both Grounds and Hines benefit by playing alongside one of them.
    When young Luke Williams started playing due to horrendous injuries (shock, horror) Strachan said it would have been better to bring him in to an established side. Forget the rights and wrongs of his hideous reign but he was right.
    When Morrison, Downing, McMahon and Cattermole were coming through they played alongside the likes of Southgate, Ugo, Boateng, Parlour, JFH, Mendi, Zenden.
    I am not anti kids but you want them to benefit from the experiences they are getting.

  13. Speaking as a graphic designer – it was the correct decision to drop the white band given the long term sponsorship deal with Ramsdens and hence their logo.
    The problem with their logo (other than the colour) was that squeezing a solid graphic into a white band that was not much bigger just left it cramped and looking like an afterthought – so all in all it’s a much better shirt.
    Also I think Arca deserved to be player of the year – which probably means he’s leaving.

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