BUGGER. And I wasn’t going to swear. After the massive build up with rallying cries and bold statements of intent and big talk about mental toughness and natural winners who could handle the big games in the play-off pressure cooker, brittle Boro just wilted.
It was an opportunity to ignite the flagging season, galvanise the home support and launch Boro back into the play-off frame. And it went begging. Boro may just have missed their best chance to shape their destiny and ensure the season finished on a high.
Leaden and laboured, stilted and stuttering, they started with their now customary low tempo and were swiftly punished by a side that – after a nervous and erros strewn first few minutes of their own – quickly seized the initiative.
Cardiff punished Boro’s chaos at the back by first plundering the obligatory goal from a sloppily defended corner then, with the rar guard in disarray Joe Mason turned Joe Bennett and Steve McManus inside out twice before sweeping home a second that was greeted with jeers, groans, sighs and the long hissing sound of a season deflating.
And it could have been worse. Jason Steele could easily have gone after he clattered Kenny Miller after three minutes. It was a poor touch back from Bailey that forced him to charge out but Miller definitely got a touch on the ball and was away when Steele wiped him out. He never got the ball. He was the last man. It may easily have been red. And with no keeper on the bench we could have been talking about a massacre.
As it was they clipped the bar and had a fair few other chances in a nightmare first half in which, let’s be frank, Boro were rubbish. They were awfu. It was a disastrous first half. It was a shapeless mess. There was no cohesion, no tempo, no conviction, no spirit, no movement, no penetration. Passes were going astray, the first touch was terrible, crosses were wayward, clearances were weak. It was rubbish.
The defence were being ripped open with embarrassing ease with Joe Bennett in particular struggling to deal with routine diagonal balls. But he was the worst of a bad bunch. The midfield were just as bad; they were pedestrian and lacked imagination or urgency or enterpise. Up front it was laboured and toothless. Not one player came out the first 45 minutes with any credit. No wonder they were booed off.
The second half was better – plenty of pressure, more enterprise, everyone was pushing on with a cavalier urgency and there were a flurry of half-decent chances although mainly from distance and three times the woodwork was rattled – but the damage was done. There was no clawing it back. We didn’t deserve anything. The only real pivotal moment was the Hammill shot against the post early in the second half. Had that gone in, who knows what may have happened. After that, for all the possession, it became more frantic and less convincing.
And it must be said the change in th egame was as much down to Cardiff changing their tactics as anything Boro did. They surrendered the ball and sat back and you got the impression that had Boro scored they would go back on the offensive. As it was they still had a couple of decent chances on the break. They did us good and proper.
After the game Mogga was downbeat despite his attempts to convince us that we are still in the mix while smarting skipper Barry Robson growled through two minutes of surly Strachanovite simmering and snapped at a question about being baited by the crowd at half-time. Both remain confident Boro can do it. Few people chuntering away after the game share that conviction.
We are still in the mix. You can’t rule anything out in this crazy division and for all the gloom after that massive dent we are only one point outside the play-offs. But now there is no room whatsoever for error. One more defeat and it is probably game over.
We are where we are because other teams have repeatedly failed to punish our slips. In the past few weeks that has changed as Blackpool, Cardiff and Birmingham have all stepped up a gear and improved their form just when it matters. In contrast Boro have flat-lined. No wins in seven. Four points from 21. That’s not good enough.
Home displays have been icreasingly pedestrian, predictable and unprofitable. And in every big match bar the cup clash with Sunderland the side have frozen. For all the good, progressive things that have happened this season, very few have been at home and that has fed directly into an atmosphere of frustration and dismay. That malaise as much as anything makes the Cardiff display a disaster. It was a chance to clear the gathering gloom. Riverside regulars are losing heart.
If Boro are to somehow squeeze into a play off place they must get at least two wins from the next three – Hull and Derby away then rock bottom Doncaster Rovers at home. One of those wins will probably need to come on Monday at Hull or the stats could shift against us and a big gap could open above that will be hard to claw back.
It would be fantastic to make the play-offs and to some extent an over-achievement given the limitations of the squad and the budget and where we all expected to finish when we kicked off in August. If we fall short now after being among the front-runners for so long it would be a major disappointment – but not a surprise given recent form.
But wherever we finish, we need the season to finish on a high. If we want to reshape with confidence in the summer – and shift season tickets – this campaign can’t be allowed to fizzle out without giving it a good crack in the last five games.