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.