THE NEXT four games are pivotal for Boro’s season.
Yes, I know, it seems that we say that every week or two with the sombre tomes of the stern unheeded warnings of an “End is Nigh” Biblical sect. We have battled through stern examinations of our play-off credentials, a series of Titanic games that are all the biggest test so far and watershed moments have whizzed past with dizzying regularity
But this time, it may just be true. How Boro do in the festive fixtures could have a massive agenda setting impact on exactly how the rest of the campaign pans out.
Boro face a tough trip to third placed Cardiff on Saturday then have back-to-back home games against high-flying Hull and unpredictable but goal crazy Peterborough and then go first footing at resurgent Blackpool on January 2nd.
Obviously the points return will help determine whether we are seen as serious contenders and whether or not the schedulers nudge us up the running order on the Football League Show. Anytime before midnight would be nice lads.
It may well also have a positive impact on the gate. An inspirational win away at Cardiff could scupper the sceptic and galvanise a gung-ho optimism, get the Mogganaut rolling again and the town buzzing enough to persuade the economic expats back at their Mam’s for a few days to don their Christmas jumpers and take in a couple of games.
There will be the half-season ticket dividend kicking in as people get the present they really always wanted (“did you keep the receipt?”) and maybe some younger waverers will opt to spend their cash bonanza from aunties who didn’t know what to get on scrambling aboard the Boro bandwagon. What else are they going to do with a big wad of cash. Kids have got everything already. They don’t know the’re born. Apparently.
Perhaps more importantly, where Boro sit in the table going into the New Year could have a distinct bearing on exactly how much is rattling around in Mogga’s Rockcliffe biscuit tin when the transfer window opens again.
For all the fiscal discipline and prudent book-balancing at a club still weighed down by the legacy of the bloated years of the Premier League, the big-wigs at the club are fans and acutely aware of the limitations of a small squad.
They, like us, know exactly what Mogga needs to add options, especially up front.
If Boro were two points off the automatic promotion spots going into the New Year the adrenaline would be surging, the hopes and dreams would be starting to bubble through the protective layers of cynicism and a light-headed optimism would take hold.
The chairman, who has been running a tight and prudent ship through a choppy ocean of austerity may be persuaded to change course a little bit and gamble on catching a fair wind that can take us billowing back to the big time.
There may never be a better chance to get promoted than this year. Generally in football there is never a better time than now. That time honoured truism has been reinforced by the top flight’s moves to pull up the ladder. The parachute money has been almost doubled from this year and extended to four years so anyone who comes down now is relatively insulated from the financial shock. They will be more able to maintain a Premier League squad and under less compulsion to launch into a frantic fire sale. For the rest it will get harder and harder to compete. It could be now or never for Boro.
So a good run of results now could mean a sudden seismic shift in Boro’s favour in the table and could increase Gibbo’s willingness to squeeze out an extra few bob. We know that there was “around” £1m available for Lukas Jutkiewisc on deadline day. Crowds have not swelled Boro’s coffers but costs have been controlled tightly and we must assume that is still there for the right man. Maybe, just maybe, a bit more would be found if Boro were, say, one point and a few goals and creativity from the automatic spots.
Everyone: close your eyes and concentrate on sending out the collective psychic message: “Gibbo, we are only a striker and wideman away. Give Mogga some money.”
Of course it is not just down to what we do. Mogga and the players may insist in every interview that they don’t even look at the table yet or take any notice whatsoever of the other teams’ forms and fixtures but I do. We all do. Incessantly. Quantifying, calculating, balancing the shifting probabilities with new weightings every week as each result, trend in form and but of injury news is factored in.
Sadly, some of us may even have the BBC Championship predictor as our home page!
So what can we expect in the next four games. And what can we expect from our “promotion rivals” – there I’ve said it. We are jinxed now.
Boro’s festive foursome start with a the toughest possible test as Cardiff are top of the form table. Over the last eight games Andrew Taylor’s Dragon Botherers have taken 18 points from 25 winning five and drawing three. Not bad.
Ominously they have only leaked three goals in that sizzling sequence too although they have only scored 11. As Boro have the tightest defence in the Championship – they have leaked only 17 in 21 games – so no doubt the bookies have it down as a goalless draw. I’d take that right now.
Cue seven goal thriller
Then comes Hull on Boxing Day. They are “flying” under historically tainted boo boy target Nick Barmby and are now just two points behind Boro after three wins in a row and yes, it will be difficult as most games in this division are – but, to be honest, I’m not quaking in my boots.
Peterborough is a more generous fixture. After a good run Posh are fading. They are fourth bottom of the form table with just six points from 24 and although their eight games have featured a net-busting 31 goals they have only managed one win.
Gulp. Typical Boro looming? No, I don’t think so. If Boro have any serious ambitions of promotion – and being well placed in the window – that is a game that realistically must be won. We owe them one after battering them for 70 minutes then letting them wriggle off the hook last month.
Then Blackpool away on January. Blackpool are on of the most unpredictable sides in a crazy division and they are better at home than away but we were a far better team in the 2-2 and we owe them one after battering… stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
That’s Boro’s festive fixtures. Eight points from that lot would be an excellent return.
And to be honest I’d be happy with six if that included status quo stabilising draw with Cardiff and at least one morale-boosting home win.
So what about our top of the table rivals’ prospects in their seasonal showdowns?
Southampton – who are showing little signs of vertigo – face a tricky run with games at Portsmouth, who have won three out of four at home, at home to Palace and then Bristol City who beat them convincingly a few weeks ago, then in the New Year they go to Brighton for what is sure to be a simmering derby clash.
West Ham have what looks on paper the easiest run. After a home game with upwardly mobile Barnsley they face three teams in the bottom half of the form table including rock bottom Coventry and dawdling Derby. You would expect them to finish that run as Championship table-toppers.
Cardiff have a potentially rocky run of games. They start with Boro, travel to Watford who are fourth in the form table having lost just one in eight then they go to iffy Forest and host Reading, just outside the play-off places and who have just beaten West Ham.
Watch out for Hull. As well as Boro they play Millwall, Burnley and Derby, all in the bottom half of the form table. But if we can dent them and take the steam out of them it will help reduce that threat.
Unpredictable Leeds’ biggest test could be the derby trip to in-form Barnsley but Reading at home could also be tricky. Brighton have a tough trip to Reading and take on the Saints but also have troubled relegation bound Coventry. And Blackpool, not far adrift, take on form table dark horses Watford and Barnsley plus Birmingham before Boro.
So as well as Boro’s form the shape of the New Year table is going to come down to other teams – especially Barnsley who play three of our rivals.
COME ON BORO.
Here’s the fixtures for the top eight. How many points will we get? How will it look come the New Year? Who will fade? Who will barge into contention?
Dec 18 – A PORTSMOUTH
Dec 26 – H CRYSTAL PALACE
Dec 30 – H BRISTOL C
Jan 2 – A BRIGHTON
Dec 17 – H BARNSLEY
Dec 26 – A BIRMINGHAM
Dec 31 – A DERBY
Jan 2 – H COVENTRY
Dec 17 – H BORO
Dec 26 – A WATFORD
Dec 31 – A FOREST
Jan 2 – H READING
Dec 17 – A CARDIFF
Dec 26 – H HULL
Dec 31 – H PETERBOROUGH
Jan 2 – A BLACKPOOL
Dec 17 – H MILLWALL
Dec 26 – A BORO
Dec 31 – H BURNLEY
Jan 2 – H DERBY
Dec 17 – H READING
Dec 26 – A DERBY
Dec 31 – A BARNSLEY
Jan 2 – H BURNLEY
Dec 17 – H BURNLEY
Dec 26 – A READING
Dec 31 – A COVENTRY
Jan 2 – H SOUTHAMPTON
Dec 17 – H WATFORD
Dec 26 – A BARNSLEY
Dec 31 – A BIRMINGHAM
Jan 2 – H BORO