PUNCH-drunk Boro climbed off the canvas to claim a crazy win at Watford thanks to a spirited fightback, a fortuitous red card and a soap scripted winner.
Frozen out frontman Scott McDonald came back in from the cold with a bridge building winner at Vicarage Road that was a big step forward in his Riverside rehabilitation. And most season Boro fans had it marked down as inevitable.
But whether he netted or not, from the moment he was named on the team-sheet, Scott McDonald was always going to be the story. “Oh McDonald, What A Yarn, EI-EIO!
It was a high-risk and politically loaded selection. Tony Mowbray was hostage to fortune as the Aussie exile returned after two months on the naughty step for his first competitive action this term.
It is no secret that McDonald’s wages no longer fit within Boro’s squeezed budget and in an ideal world he would have been off-loaded during the summer and the cash redistributed.
But there were no takers and after the transfer window closed the simmering “Scott McDonald situation” – a potent cocktail of financial, footballing and personality issues – was allowed to fester and started to turn toxic.
In his absence, even though Boro had no trouble scoring goals and most of the pitchside problems stemmed from leaking them, the striker had become a stick to beat the boss with, every blank and every lost point amplifying the grumbling of the dissidents.
Clear the air talks last week prepared the way for a return – a reintegration process – but bringing the feisty frontman back was always going to be tricky.
Had he stayed on the bench and Boro lost – which looked absolutely nailed on after the first minute – then the boss would have taken flak for not fielding him from the start.
If the boss put him on and he scored then that would be used as a retrospective indictment of the defeats to Barnsley, Millwall and Leicester.
If he came on and played poorly then he would have been ring rusty from his spell in the gulag with the boss carrying the can for that too.
Mogga was on a hiding to nothing – although obviously a scoring return in a welcome win was the best outcome and by far the easiest to spin.
As it happened, he was introduced in a bold tactical gamble that salvaged the game.
McDonald came on for injured Justin Hoyte just before the break with Nicky Bailey dropping to right back and our hero slotting into an enterprising wide left role allowing Boro to switch to a more cavalier style with three natural attacking players and a lot of movement and width and fluidity.
Having clawed back into the game with some extended spells of patient possession it let Boro to press forward, stretch Watford and carve open gaps in their defence – a quality that proved decisive when they went down to 10 men and were digging in.
The brave move paid off and had the manager as well as the player taking plaudits. And both were models of diplomacy and discretion in post-match interviews that should lead to a new detente and the addition of a useful player to a strained squad.
So that should hopefully put the matter to bed. Until January at least.
And, of course, it was scripted that the resolution would come with a predictable goal. It was nailed on. As soon as the team news broke, bookies on Teesside and in cyber-space were inundated with shrewd daft quids on McDonald as an anytime scorer. More so when he came off the bench. “It’s all about the in-play Ray.”
But after a torrid time for Boro’s chaotic defence in a sloppy start that left them reeling it looked like any strike for Scott would be little more than a sarcastic consolation.
A self-inflicted goal down after just 26 seconds – a suicidal back pass by Andre Bikey that was a carbon copy of the one by David Wheater that teed up Danny Graham in 2010 in the same fixture – was followed by a sustained pummelling that had most Boro fans in the ground wincing and watching through their fingers.
After 10 minutes Boro could have been three or four down but for a string of magnificent saves by Jason Steele, a coat of paint on the bar and some woeful finishing.
But battered Boro survived the onslaught and grabbed a foothold in the game with a spell of Teesside tiki-taka, sustained short possession football that took the sting out of the Hornets attack and pushed the game gradually forward into the home side’s half.
Boro, who had looked dead and buried, started to probe tentatively to create chances and in a crucial spell before the break, the game swung their way with three key events.
First Marvin Emnes’ superb hooked overhead equaliser from a Jutkiewicz header after a corner squared the game and left Watford deflated. Had all their work been for nothing?
Then Mogga threw on McDonald for Hoyte and added some extra zip up front with the hungry Aussie working hard, linking up well with the midfield and offering an attacking option on the left.
And then came the contentious (and confusing) red card for Watford’s most potent striking threat Mataj Vydra. He tumbled over a Nicky Bailey sliding tackle and raked him with his studs as he landed on his rolling rival before being sent off as the ref raced over emphatically mimed a stamp.
It looked accidental in real time. As the ref approached most people expected a foul – and possibly a card – against Bailey. Boro players did and were canvassing the ref on his behalf. Jason Steele latyer admitted he was shouting at the linesman to inteceded on Bailey’s behalf. And certainly the home fans did and they, and Vydra, were stunned by the red card when it came. The ref was barracked with every decision after that and there was a real fear among the Boro contingent he may be tempted to ‘even it up.’
That enforced exit may have been the watershed moment but even when wilting Watford had a full complement, Boro were right back in it.
In an impressive second half, with an extra man, Boro’s persistent passing was slick and effective as they picked dogged Watford apart.
There were some good chances before McDonald slotted in the pre-ordained winner then at the death Steele – rapidly emerging as the single biggest factor in the season so far – made a simply staggering save from point blank range with his feet to hold onto the three points.
It was a crazy match in a crazy division. The first 20 minutes was as bad as Boro have played since, well, since the 3-1 Strachanovite shoeing at Watford back in 2010.
And yes, there were a few lucky breaks but given a couple of dodgy decisions in the last few games Boro were due one. After that it was as good as Boro have played all season – showing character, bravery, neat passing, patience in breaking down a massed defence and the mental strength to first force a winner and then hold out against a final flurry.
It was a display the loyalists who travelled to Watford after a difficult week deserved as much as the team who dug deep to deliver.
*Blog title shamelessly nicked from Colin Fairlamb on twitter @Triquertum