BOOOOOOO! The Pavlovian post-match despair was all too obvious at the Riverside.
Yet another late lapse led to a ‘red zone’ sucker punch – the sixth goal Boro have conceded in the last five minutes so far this campaign – and victory was snatched away. Boooo.
A familiar fatal lack on solidity at the back, some chaotic scrambling and a failure to find Row Z and Derby wriggled off the hook with a cruel late leveller that – again, for a second game running – looked to have more than a hint of offside about it. Boooo.
But on the whistle the booing wasn’t aimed the officials. And I’m not sure it was even entirely aimed at the team. It was an existential howl at the Championship experience.
The game “wasn’t one for the purists.” It wasn’t a vintage show. But it certainly wasn’t the worst display of the season. It wasn’t as demoralising as the battering at Blackpool and it wasn’t as lethargic as Barnsley. But it was in many way more frustrating, if only because the full of enormity of a drab division really hit home.
Boro beavered away, broadly tried to play passing football rather than hoof it and they did fashion two deserved goals for Lukas Jutkiewicz – and they could have plundered a third to seal it with a powerful header from man mountain Andre Bikey – and there is no question they tried to win the game.
There were spells of decent passing football, crisp passing moves picking and probing although most of the match day traffic went down cul-de-sacs and ended awkwardly in convoluted reversing and three point turns before retracing the route back to the beginning to start again. No through road.
But that struggle wih detour and diversion is part of the cultural learning process that comes with trying to be a passing side. You don’t suddenly magic the finished product out of the air, especially with a jiggled team far from first choice in shape and personnel. You can’t just tell a team to go out there and play like Barcelona. Or even Swansea. It has be learned, instilled, drummed in and drilled until it becomes second nature and adopting a process which is as much psychological as practical will be littered with mistakes and nervous reverting to type under pressure.
A Teesside tiki-taka has to be slowly established out on the pitch over a period of months. Or years. And the opposition try to stop you. The Philistines. It won’t be easy. It won’t always be pretty. And it certainly won’t always successfully deliver victory with a flourish. Especially not with a team shorn of some key players.
Boro are battling through a demanding flurry of games without their first choice centre-back pairing, last season’s top scorer and the man brought in to add a lightning burst of pace and creativity down the flank sidelined. Among others.
So for a second successive slow motion home game Boro were stodgy in a mono-paced midfield, lacking width and zip and creativity and for all the patient probing there was a lack of the vital flash of speed and creativity to carve open a massed defence.
But we knew that. Adam Reach and Mustapha Carayol – the component parts expected to provide that – are out injured. You can change the shape and personnel and organise tactically and tell players to get wide or get forward as much as you want but you can’t make them faster. You can tactically create width but you can’t create pace.
The squad is big enough to cope if it mixes-and-matches and twists itself out of a natural shape bit you can’t expect them to assert themselves, to play enterprising attacking football and rip into teams in the cavalier fashion the gaffer wants and the crowd wants. So, until the walking wounded are back we are stuck with a team that falls between two stools and is trying its best to make headway in a tough division.
Most people understand the model that Mogga is working towards and accept it will take time – but I’m not sure it was even the frustration and impatience at the painfully slow progress towards a new look Borocelona that was being booed.
No, I think it was a general howl of existential angst at the chilling realisation that Boro have slowly turned into a prisoner of the Championship before our very eyes, a scream of fear at the prospect of a long incarceration in this hell of institutional mediocrity.
All the delusions that Boro are a Premier League side in exile are long gone. The players are gone, the cash has gone, the trappings have gone, the crowds have gone, the profile has gone, the ambitious horizons have closed in quickly like winter nights and the dreams have been downsized. Boro are now very much a middling second shelf side treading-water, a faded former top flight side struggling in the shadows. There are plenty of those.
Boro’s dour draw with Derby was an average game between two average teams in an unremittingly average division. It was in turn frustrating, disappointing, uninspiring, infuriating and for long spells a frightened brain-numbing embrace of mutual mediocrity – but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
In fact, it was pretty much par for the course; that kind of flawed and flaccid football by hard working evenly matched teams cancelling each other out is the divisional default. The lack of zest is not something specific to Boro, although it may feel like it to us. It is endemic across most of the teams in this attritional division most of the time.
This Legion of the Damned is packed with upstart clubs with top flight ambitions they are not quipped to deliver. It is populated by teams who are not quite good enough, who are inconsistent, who have squads that lack depth and balance and experience and creative magic, who are fragile at the back and lack a ruthless edge upfront.
Teams with institutional weaknesses, that can play in flashes but lack the mental strength to impose themselves for 90 minutes week in, week out and that make mistakes in dangerous areas at crucial points, who can’t put two good games together. One point at home from two – on paper – easy home games? Yes, that will be table-topping Brighton. From top to bottom the division is riddled with inconsistency and it is the few teams who can overcome that obstacle long enough to break the shackles that will go up.
That these flawed teams have to play each other means every fixture is a contradictory cocktail of shifting intangibles – form, confidence, injuries, expectations – that make games almost impossible to predict other than to say that for long spells it will be a grind.
That picture of purgatory is the broad context of huff-and-puff Boro’s on-going labours. As the manager’s mantra insists: It is what it is. But that is a very hard sell.
That’s why the crowd is ebbing away, worn down by the spirit-sapping slog. A lowest ever league gate of 13,377 stoic bloody-minded masochists represents a hardcore struggling to balance the instinct of loyalty with quality control. And with the fear that it is the ones who have drifted away that are the rational ones, the happy ones, the ones unburdened by the fear of a future of drab unrewarded toil.
Welcome to the exciting world of the Championship. A third of the games this season are going to be like that. Embrace the zen of mediocrity. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.
Some other things we noticed:
GEORGE Friend’s concerted push to shape himself as the new Franck Queudrue is going well. After developing a trend for cavalier surges forward and quick dashes back to recover when the balls goes down the gap that creates, our suave left-back poster-boy upped the ante by getting his head clattered and returning to action stylishly sporting a natty head bandage with Gallic elan. Sacre Bleu!
IN A REVIVAL of Steve McClaren’s ‘red zone’ rash, late leakers Boro have now let in six goals in the last five minutes so far this term: against Derby, Leicester, Blackburn, Blackpool, Millwall and Burnley. Not all of those have cost points (although the last two clearly have) but it is a very dangerous habit to slip into.
SCOTT McDonald was in his matchday tracksuit and “in the bosom” of the squad for the first time this season but had to watch from the stands… is there no end to his punishment? Expectations – and some reports – that he would play or at least be on the bench were well wide of the mark. He is ring rusty and still being rehabilitated and it will be a while before he works his way back.
DERBY were so close to being a retro-delight. Had Jamie Ward – their No10 – played, the Rams would have lined up numbered 1-11 and in their right positions too. I really can’t remember the last time that happened. Any ideas?