TWELVE months ago today a brittle Boro were just outside the Championship relegation hot spots on goal difference alone.
A creaky post-Strachan side were above Crystal Palace by a fraction. They had scored just 21 goals and had taken a 21 points from 22 games – and most of those were banked after the arrival of Tony Mowbray in October. Fragile and unbalanced, Boro were just two points above rock bottom Preston with a trip to the basement boys up next. In that momentous game they actually slipped behind and were briefly dumped on the bottom.
Since then they have been galvanised and transformed in a spectacular year of renewal and revival. Now bubbling Boro are just outside the promotion places on goal difference and are a tantilising three points off the Championship top spot. From one defeat away from rock bottom to one win away from the summit. It has been an amazing year of deep seated change. It has been a year of Moggalution at Middlesbrough.
It has been an incredible 12 months of transformation engineered by Tony Mowbray. Despite having essentially the same personnel – numbers and wages have been trimmed dramatically but the nucleus of the team remain – Boro are almost unrecognisable. The Mogganaut is gathering momentum and could soon reach the escape velocity needed to go into orbit.
So far in 2011 Boro have taken a hefty 82 points from 46 games to top the annual adjusted Championship table discussed last week. That is promotion form in anyone’s book – certainly play-off form by a good 10 point margin – and week by week as the patchy form of January slips off the annual calculations to be replaced by relentless, ground out wins and the points-per-game ratio creeps slowly upwards, it looks healthier still.
The breakdown of league results in 2011 is impressive: Boro have won 22, drawn 16 and lost just eight with 73 scored and 54 conceded. And a once brittle and porous team have kept 16 clean sheets in that sequence too.
Since the watershed win at Preston year ago, Boro have clawed away from danger and steadily climbed up to the business end of the table and it has been a relentless if under-stated improvement by the match. They have gathered momentum and belief as they have slowly put in place the basic components of a team capable of winning promotion.
They have tightened up at the back, evolved an impressive tactical flexibility to counter the strenths of the opposition, found a steely will to win, developed an ability to see games out and concentrate through to the final whistle and learned to hit from behind. All the fundemental weaknesses of just a year ago have been addressed.
Compare the realistic optimism of going into New Year today with last year’s sense of relief at the exit of Gordon Strachan mixed with trepidation over an uncertain January (liquidation rumours were still common currency on the grapevine) and the icy hearted fear that the old boss had done deep seated permanent structural damage to the squad and the wage bill and that even under Mogga it was too late.
December has seen all the crucial pieces slotting together nicely as a deternined Boro bounced back from a stinging 2-0 defeat at home to pace-setters West Ham – the team who are setting the standard – to rattle off a significant sequence of four straight wins.
Boro have played a string of teams slap bang in the middle of a run of red hot form and come away with all the points by hook or by crook.
Bristol City were unbeaten at home under a new manager and had won five out of six – including leaders Southampton – but Boro survived a torrid time in the first half to mug them at the death and win 1-0 with a stoppage time Malaury Martin screamer.
August hotshots Brighton had bounced back from a wobble to battle to four wins out of five and were in high spirits as they came to snarl and scrap their way to a result at the Riverside but Boro matched that robust approach and again nicked it.
Cardiff were top of the form table, were unbeaten in 15 and had won six in a row at home and kept five clean sheets on the bounce. They were buzzing as they took a commanding half-time lead after a dead ball assault but assertive Boro, playing yet another new system, came out fired up after the break and went for the jugular and in a storming fight-back won a pulsating game 3-2 to go back above the dragon botherers.
Then Hull arrived on the back of four straight wins under Riverside boo boy favourite Nick Barmby and just two points behind. They perhaps edged the scrappy game in terms of clear cut chances but once again resilient Boro knuckled down, tactically stifled them, gradually took territorial control and then plundered the points at the death with a Robson Rocket that sparked this celebration in the packed North Stand.
It is a football cliche that good teams are those that can play badly but win. Boro have showed a capacity to do that.
Not that Boro have been playing particular badly – but they have certainly been far from in their sparkling, expansive early season form that produced a flying start. With a few routine knocks and bruises and suspensions the team has been tweaked in recent weeks while opposition managers are increasingly setting out to contain them and none of the past four games have been eye-pleasing classics.
At Cardiff Boro were superb after the break but were under the cosh in the first half, the Brighton game was physical rather than flowing while both Bristol City and Hull will feel deeply agrieved not to have got something from games they bossed for long spells and in which they created the bulk of the chances only to be mugged late on. Tough.
This re-engineered Boro are fit for purpose.They can match whatever challenges are posed physically and tactically and have the drive and determination to grind something out of scrappy close fought games. And there are a lot of those in the Championship.
Boro have come through their toughest run of fixtures so far this season and despite being under the cosh for spells in every one of them have come away with maximum points and well placed to push for promotion.
Hopefully the display – spirited, steely, successful – and the excitement and buzz over a favourable position in the Championship table will help win back on a full time basis some of the waverers who helped swell the Boxing Day crowd.
The bumper gate of 27,794 was 10,000 up on the normal Riverside crowd and was the biggest since Boro slipped out of the Premier League. The biggest in fact since 33,767 turned up to watch Gareth Southgate’s Boro slump to a 2-0 defeat to Manchester United in May 2009. Just two games before that Boro hosted Hull in another six pointer, a top flight relegation rumble, in front of a crowd of 32,255.
Since then Riverside crowds have followed Boro’s dip in profile, ambition and league position. Last season’s best was the 23,550 who turned out last October to see a 2-1 defeat to Leeds, Strachan’s swansong but the general trend was plummeting. At the end of the Strachan era gates were distorted by a counting method that included season ticket holders even though many were not attending and while they were regularly announced as below the 16,000 mark they were in reality well below that.
In the 2009/10 season, the campaign that saw the end of Southgate with falling gates cited as one of the reasons, the best crowd was the 27,347 who turned out for a 2-2 draw with Newcastle in March. That was a sharp spike in the graph and while the first four games of that season had been above 20,000 the trend was again downwards with increasingly regular figures of between 16 and 17,000. The crowd was flat, beaten, broken and demoralised. Stewarding was heavy-handed. Matchday was a joyless chore.
Those trends were reflections of crowds voting with their feet on a team in disarray and a club on the slide under Southgate then left directionless, toothless and heartless after the culture shock of the Strachan Year Zero.
But under Mogga, as with the team, crowds have recovered from rock bottom and are also showing signs of revival in terms of quantity and quality, spirit and passion. It’s a much better team now, stronger, tighter, better organised and much more likely to win and the crowd has responded by producing consistently better atmospheres home and away this term, combining unstinting vocal support with patience, good humour and realistic expectations. It has been a pleasure to go to games again. .
Fans who came along as a one off for the Hull game and enjoyed it, get yourself aboard the Mogganaut now. If the next year follows the same relentless upward curve as the last one, it could be a fantastic second half of the season.