BORO’S BOGOF battering of hapless Huddersfield proved great value for money. Over the two games – three if you include the Sheffield Wednesday – the club’s initiative on tickets must be considered a success.
Two wins out of three at home, seven goals – including a couple of crackers, two electric atmospheres either side of a surreal shrouded freak fog for the Bristol blip – and most importantly three bumper crowds. Over 28,000 for Wednesday, 20,000 for Bristol and, despite atrocious weather and some mumbling about he City no-show, 21,850 for the visit of the Terriers: that has been a superb result.
Without the offers the crowds for those three games would have averaged around the 15,000 mark. Given the weather, the proximity of Christmas, a midweek game hot on the heels of a sterile Saturday defeat to basement battlers could easily have dipped below the Derby crowd and been the lowest ever league gate at the Riverside. So the ticket offers have to be viewed as a success. And a first step.
It was the first run of three successive gates over 20,000 since relegation. It shows that if the ingredients are there – if the price is right and the team is performing and winning games – then the people of Teesside will respond. It is food for thought for the club.
But what about the punters who took advantage of the deal? They have something to think about too. The win over Huddersfield – the “free” part of the two for one offer – will have restored faith and persuaded them that the deal was after all value for money. Even if it didn’t feel like that after the mist opportunity of Bristol.
Those thousands of lured back lapsed loyalists who responded to the club’s tempting ticket offer must have felt short-changed by the frustrating fog-bound failure of the first instalment – the bit they had actually paid full price for. And you can’t blame them. The first foggy fixture in the two game package was a real grind.
It was a lack-lustre slog against limited opposition and for long spells it was barely visible. Which was a blessing. The Boro on show in that shop window showdown were sloppy at the back and toothless up front – the gushing reports of a new vibrant, attacking and entertaining outfit Boro must have seemed naive and delusional.
But against Huddersfield a different bubbling Boro more than made amends in the second slice of subsidised action as they put in a determined and dynamic display that deservedly took them back into third spot in the Championship with a flourish.
Against Huddersfield they played enterprising football, passed crisply, pressed high up the pitch, defended stoutly when called on and carved out some good chances.
They dominated throughout, set the tempo and shape of the game, scored three good goals, kept a clean sheet and were comfortable over the 90 minutes.
It wasn’t perfect – it was still a bit scrappy around the edges in places – and it was a solid and entertaining display that put them right back on track.
For the long suffering season ticket hard core who have seen the season unfold with a growing sense of purpose and a hint of promotion potential, the ego-bruising Bristol game would have still stung but probably felt like a blip, an occupational hazard, rather than an over-hyped rip off.
But the humbling of Huddersfield – on paper a far better outfit than Bristol City – was far more like the real thing.
Those Riverside returnees who shrugged off several days of biblical deluge to swell the crowd against the Terriers – a third successive home crowd of over 20,000 for the first time since Premier League days – will have this time seen the team they have read about.
They will have seen a well drilled outfit showing some of qualities that have so recently helped build an impressive run of nine games unbeaten that has put them among the front-runners.
Let’s hope they can all be persuaded to return more regularly – and that the club can find a way to make that return affordable and practical – because the key bits are starting to fall in place on what could be an exciting and productive season.
There had been an outbreak of jitters across Teesside after two defeats in a row but battling Boro showed real steel and settled a lot of nerves by beating Huddersfield in style.
And they showed that not only have a good team but also a good squad. And that is crucial to the campaign.
Boro are without a string of key players who are probably first teamers when fit: Rhys Williams and Jonathan Woodgate are arguably the default defensive pairing and George Friend is now nailed on as the automatic left back selection.
Grant Leadbitter has been the first name on the team-sheet in the engine-room but was out suspended.
In previous Championship campaigns losing just two or three first choice players has seen an unbalanced team splutter and fail.
Look at last season when Williams, Scott McDonald and Nicky Bailey were crocked in January: the team immediately looked less effective and results quickly faded.
But this term has revealed an encouraging strength in depth. The squad can cope.
Take Andy Halliday. Tony Mowbray opted to throw in converted wideman as a left-back and was rewarded with a superb display. Halliday, who impressed in the role in pre-season season and the early rounds of the Credit One Cup but had not been chanced in the league, was one of the stars of the show.
He caught the eye with a well balanced display that balanced matched solidity in the tackle and quick to close positional discipline at the back with an assertive attacking instinct and some electrifying weaving runs into the box.
He “did a Friend” and cut inside to beat his man and surge towards the box several times in the first few minutes to put down a marker and leave the opposition nervous when he broke forward.
And midfield enforcer Nicky Bailey returned after a spell in the cold to slot straight back into his role as an impenetrable shield for the back four.
Bailey was last season’s key man. He was the rock on which the team was built and it was his injury that undermined the foundations and saw the season crumble. But this term he has struggled to get into the team with dynamic Leadbitter Josh McEachran – a slick, quick and precise passer – being preferred.
But Bailey stepped in with a confidence and zest and was soon snapping into tackles like he had never been away – wiping out two opposition players with one sweeping challenge at one point.
He was also given the armband which was a managerial mind games masterstroke, underlining Mogga’s message in the Gazette that not only does he still have a role to play but that he remains a key player, a leader and trusted to take on big responsibilities out on the pitch.
Richard Smallwood too stepped in. He started his first league game of the season and put in a tireless display of chasing, snapping and closing down and his solidity meant that while he was in an unusual position wide on the left he added protection for Halliday and could drop back and slot into the gap when the full-back surged forward. It was another box ticked for the Dormo Destroyer who is growing as a player.
Mowbray has shown that it is a squad game. He now has a bigger group of versatile players who he can rely on and that gives him options to play different styles, shapes and tempos in what can be a gruelling and attritional league.
At times it has frustrated some supporters that he shuffles his pack so often and set out his side to counter the other side but the boss gets it right more often than he gets it wrong.
And sometimes he does get it wrong. Against Bristol City he got it wrong. It wasn’t a disaster but it was unfortunate that an offer enhanced crowd saw that out of context.
As the boss has pointed out, no-one is going to win their fixed odds coupon based on the Championship. Results can be crazy with teams from the bottom beating the pace-setters week after week.
All you can do is find some consistency, grind out a result in the next game using the squad at your disposal and build a run of results.
If you can do that successfully playing with a bit of zest and entertain the crowd along the way, so much the better.
Boro are doing that. Bristol was a blip. Huddersfield was closer to the real thing.