BORO went from heroes to zeroes in a damaging defeat at Hull.
From a commanding position they let a limited side on a nightmare run – in this case five defeats on the spin – wriggle off the hook. They lost their fluidity, their shape, their focus and gifted a goal to let Hull back in it then naturally, we all know the script, were caught cold with a sickening late strike. Which has been the story of a frustrating season.
They took zero points in a pivotal pair of play-off battles with fellow outside promotion pretenders over the crucial Easter weekend.
They have a damning zero goal difference after the familiar flaws at both ends reared their heads to add up to flat-lining stats.
And, to judge by the heavy post match sigh of resignation on the Teesside street, they are now seen as having zero chance of extending a wilting season into May.
But for a while there it looked like they could be heroes again. Certainly they had a travelling army of over 2,000 Teessiders bouncing at the KC Stadium in a bubbling first half played with zip and a cavalier outlook .
The Boro fans, many of may well have booed the team for their dismal display against Cardiff, were galvanised again. They could be heard cheering and chanting all through a lively first half – no mean feat after the eardrum bleeding ‘goes up to 11’ volume of a pre-match build up that left most of the crowd deaf and disorientated.
And there was plenty to cheer. No, really. There was. In a swaggering first half full of promise Boro played textbook expansive counter-attacking football with rapid breaks orchestrated from the back that repeatedly carved Hull open.
Tactically Tony Mowbray got it right. A frantic first few minutes aside when Jason Steele had to make a good save, it was markedly one sided. Hull were reeling as Boro carved them open time and again. If only Boro could stick away the gilt edged chances, if only the players up front could show more a bit more composure and make the right decisions in the box and be a few percentage points more clinical we would be home and dry now.
But then, if they could do that, they wouldn’t be plying their trade in the Championship and we wouldn’t be left looking for snookers.
In a composed display Boro pinged sublime well targeted diagonal balls forward over a flat-footed defence – not long hoofs, this was a cut above that – and a team with real teeth would surely have taken advantage to rack up a famous goal glut.
Seb Hines, Barry Robson and Julio Arca all found sublime geometrical angles and arcs that bisected the hesitant high Hull back line to send Marvin Emnes and Scott McDonald bursting beyond a creaky offside trap through with intent.
The opener came like that. After a divine 50 yard pinpoint crossfield ball from Robson, Emnes brought down in his stride superbly and skipped down the inside left channel then checked neatly onto his right to rifle home a lethal low rocket that echoed his early season Dreadlocked Dynamite swagger.
And Emnes could have (should have?) had a second on the half hour after a neat knock over the top from Hines but it was well saved by an advancing keeper. McDonald twice had efforts in the box blocked, Emnes fired one wide and a few other more speculative efforts drifted off target.
Boro were carving through Hull at will and although some of the shot selection and the final square ball in from good wide positions was suspect it seemed that a second goal to seal it was inevitable.
Meanwhile, their rivals were choking again and other results were going their way.
But in a shrinking second period with the door of opportunity swinging invitingly open, as so often this term, they were found wanting.
Once again, they couldn’t score to kill off a game from a commanding position and then were punished after a couple of costly lapses in concentration.
There were warning signs as Hull went close within 30 seconds of the restart… why can Boro not string two good halves together? With the second half of Cardiff and the first at Hull they would sweep anyone in this league aside. If only…
But after a stuttering start to the second half revived Hull were suddenly back in it. Boro weren’t getting the space going forward, they weren’t winning the 50/50s and gradually they were pushed back into their own half. But they still should have held out.
The leveller came just before the hour as a poor square ball from Robson left Justin Hoyte in trouble and he lost a stretching challenge with King – if he couldn’t get the ball he should probably have taken the player and taken a yellow for the team – and the Hull made free into the box and lashed an angled 15 yard drive into the roof of the net.
Both sides then had half-chances – Ogbeche had a weak effort pushed behind – before delivered a hammer-blow with a winner on 88 minutes. Nicky Bailey missed as header and the ball sailed out to the flank where impressive King, on-loan from Manchester United, knocked a ball down the right and a well timed run took Matty Fryatt beyond the offside trap and past Martin and with Hoyte trailing in his wake he skipped into the box to rifle a low angled effort under Steele. Game over.
It was a kick in the teeth… but, if we are honest, no surprise. It has happened often enough in recent months.
We know the reasons: Boro are a limited and thin squad and beyond the first choice ten or 11 players are frighteningly average. With even a couple of key players out they lack the ability to play with the intensity, consistency and solidity needed to kill games off and see games out when on top and lack the creativity to break down rigid defences when chasing a game.
With a couple of parts missing they are not really up to the rigours of a tough league. It is still a work in progress.
They have struggled to hit the Autumn high notes since New Year with the first the absence of Bailey, then Rhys Williams and then Matthew Bates disrupting the fluidity of what was always only a precariously balanced side.
That has left depleted Boro helplessly thrashing in the wake of the front-runners.
The Hull reverse has probably torpedoed any hope of the play-offs. Certainly it has swung the stats markedly against Boro. Hope has not been extinguished completely as bizarrely, unfeasibly, perversely, despite a run of just four points from eight game Boro are only two points outside the lottery numbers.
But with the goal difference heavily weighted against us we need to claw back three points now and that will take a dramatic upturn. Boro have not won in eight now and it is hard to see where and how they can now suddenly find the spark, form and cutting edge to win three out of four to finish with a flourish.
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Who can call this crazy division? And who would rule out Boro dragging out the agony to the final day?
Down to the wire at Watford….