FOOTBALL can be a very cruel game.
Proud Boro out-played a high-flying Premier League side for over an hour. On their own patch. Then they were beaten by a very harsh late own goal off a player having a stormer. And after a couple of game changing injuries. To come away empty-handed after the most wicked of watershed moments has got to sting.
It was cruel for the team. And a cruel twist of the knife for Seb Hines in particular. And unbearably cruel too for the long haul loyalists who treked there and back through atrocious conditions to take Boro’s gruelling 12 game League Cup away day expedition through the 4,000 mile barrier.
The team will feel the result was a bitter blow after their industry and heroics. They had more than matched the current Premier League Barca-lite media darlings in every department until the bitter blow. If anything they were the better team throughout.
As at Sunderland, Boro looked brighter, more organised, more coherent, more motivated, more enterprising and far more likely to score. For the majority of the game it was hard to discern any sign of a quality gap.
So Boro will rightly be disappointed. They did just about everything right.
Mogga’s men shackled Swansea in their own half, pressed high up the pitch at an insistent tempo with the tireless front pair closing down quickly to prevent the home side building from the back and preventing them playing their natural game. They harried and hassled and forced them into ragged mistakes to win the ball and then struck quickly on the break. With the game plan being rigourously applied, in the first half Boro created by far the better chances and threatened more often and more convincingly .
The midfielders chased and contained and tackled them surged forward quickly when Boro broke at pace and carved through a shaky Swans back line with real intent. Grant Leadbitter had three good chances but brought one full length save and blazed the other two straight at the keeper. On another day one of those would have gone in and had that happened there is a decent chance Boro would be in the hat now – Swansea would have to chase the game and more space would have opened to exploit.
And Boro were impressively tight at the back too. They stifled the space, smothered the Premier League’s top scorer Michu and with some superb tight marking, timely tackling and brave blocking left the shot-shy Swans frustrated. We got away with a few scrapes as high-risk challenges went unpunished and Bikey got away with what was described on twitter as an “crocodile death roll of a tackle”. You felt it was to be our night.
When Swansea did find a rare sight of goal Jason Steele was almost unbeatable. He made an incredible save just as the tide was turning, going full length to stretch and tip a free-kick zipping towards top corner onto the bar.
That was pretty much Swansea’s only self-made moment of danger, although after injuries to Faris Haroun and Andre Bikey disrupted Boro’s rhythm the Welsh side certainly had more of the play and started to apply some heavy pressure for a nervous spell of 10 minutes or so.
But reshaped Boro looked to have weathered that and be holding them. Extra-time was looming. And beyond that, who knew? Many were daring to dream.
So it was painfully cruel on impressive Seb Hines that the wicked winner came zipping g off his head as he went to clear from a routine corner. Questions can be asked about the absence of a body on the post. It was one positional slip in an otherwise solid display, one second, one mistake. How cruel is that?
It followed a blistering 10 minute spell in which Hines – arguably Boro’s Man of the Match – had been immense, stepping into the enormous chasm left by Bikey to add a more physical edge to his game, winning everything in the air and putting in a series of last gasp sliding challenges to close off the danger as Swansea started to turn the screw.
Fate teased him further as the death as he was gifted a chance of redemption at the other end and climbed to meet an inviting cross in but the Swans keeper got a hint of a fingernail to the ball and just tweaked the trajectory enough to mean his close range header squirted over instead of in to book extra-time. Harsh.
And spare a thought for the fans. The outcome was cruel too for the travelling army of 709 Teessiders who made the 11 hour, 644 mile round trip through freezing fog and traffic chaos and who limped back bleary eyed to meet the milkman.
The supporters can be proud of themselves. A far bigger contingent than would have made the journey the other way out-sang the muted home crowd throughout. They did themselves and the team proud.
There was an echo of the FA Cup semi-final at Old Trafford when Steve McClaren’s spirited underdogs had the edge over mighty Arsenal on the pitch and out-sung them off it only to be beaten by a bobble and a deflection off Trojan Luca Festa’s shinpad.
And the agony for Tony Mowbray didn’t end with the result.
The knockout came with injury added to insult: both Haroun and Bikey limped off holding hamstrings – changes that altered the rhythm of the team and dynamic of the game – while in the closing stages there were a couple of other walking wounded looking to be carrying bumps and bruises. Friend looked to be struggling with the phyical demands of his first game back while Andy Halliday was walking tenderly too.
Those blows could prove every bit as costly as the cup exit. Boro have some tough games looming and already have some key players sidelined. We can’t afford to lose any more influential figures, even for just a few games, if we are to push on towards promotion – and that was always the priority.
Boro must now refocus quickly for the visit of Wolves and regain momentum in the league. Immediately. There is no time to smart or bemoan our luck.
Swansea boss Michael Laudrup led the plaudits for battling Boro’s spirit display and predicted the fixture will be restaged next term in the Premier League. It is up to Boro to live up to that billing now. The praise will count for little if the team now falter where it really counts: in the Championship.
They must take heart and inspiration from their show at Swansea – and at Sunderland too – and must channel that raised level of performance into the bread and butter battles of the Championship.