ANOTHER big box ticked: If Boro are to get promoted then that was exactly the kind of game they will need to win.
It was a comatose encounter ignited at the death by a contentious penalty – but Boro made sure it counted. And for all the visitors howling about a grave injustice with the spawny spot-kick they didn’t do enough to win. Boro did. Just.
It was a massive result that could prove vital come May.
In a cut-throat division, when your rivals drop points you have to take advantage if you have any serious ambitions of success. And sometimes you have to do that by winning ugly, by hook or by crook, even if you are leggy, laboured and lack-lustre and even when you are playing a long way below your best.
It’s a cliche bingo catchphrase that: ‘Good teams win even when they don’t play well.’
And Boro didn’t play well. In fact, the display against Wolves was as poor at home as we’ve seen all season. It was timid, toothless, disjointed and shapeless. There some early tentative probes and the odd flurry of punchless possession. There was no rhythm or real sense of menace. It was poor fare.
It was all very well saying the team were tired and had a hangover after the heroics at Swansea in midweek but there were six changes. There were plenty of fresh legs and plenty of incentives to play well.
Yet Boro huffed and puffed and passed and pressed without ever carving out a clear cut chance. It was far from scintillating. And Wolves weren’t any better. They looked a vague threat on the break at times and, especially in the second half, they were a bit more direct than Boro but without ever seriously testing Jason Steele.
They drilled a few shots from outside the box straight at the keeper, he had to be sharp once in the first half to save low at his near post when the wall jumped over a free-kick and a stinging shot through a crowd rattled his shins once.
The most danger he was in all game was when he got crunched by Seb Hines.
Boro were rigid at the back with the impressive central defensive pairing of Jonathan Woodgate and Hines dealing routinely with whatever the tame Wolves had to offer. They tidied up and worked hard and never looked in danger.
And Boro worked hard enough as a unit in midfield too, beavering away to close and chase and tackle. It was a battling but blunt performance.
Going forward they hadn’t really clicked. There had been some early buzzing and positive probing with Ginger Messi Luke Williams having a few snapshots but that soon shrivelled.
And the spells of promising possession proved fruitless and became rarer.
It was fizzling out into what would have been the first goalless draw of the season. That would have been disappointing and a missed opportunity.
With two minutes left, most of frustrated crowd were resigned to a point and just praying for the whistle to put them out of their misery. Or, if you are a of pessimistic bent, digging in ready for the red zone sting of a cruel but predictable sucker punch.
A far from memorable match was already being airbrushed from history. Had it finished like that there would have been a lot of concourse chuntering and the post-match moan-in switchboard would have melted down. Imagine only drawing at home!
Instead we went away laughing at an injustice in our favour right out of the blue. Boro were gifted a late match-matching penalty. “You’ve seen them given” – but it was very harsh on Wolves. Although we’ll take it.
Scott McDonald was wandering down a cul-de-sac on the right when he floated a hopeful ball into a crowded box that hit Karl Henry on the hand. The player had made some hard to discern minimal movement and that was enough to convince the linesman. My instinct was it was never a penalty. It was cruel. Had it been given against Boro we would have been screaming blue murder: incompetence, conspiracy and infamy! How we laughed.
But the linesman flagged immediately and the referee agreed and pointed to the spot and the Wolves fans went mental while giggling brass-necked Boro supporters were open mouthed in glee and gratitude.
Coincidentally, the same Robert Madley gave Boro their last penalty at home, 44 games ago in February 2011 during a pulsating 4-3 defeat to Swansea. Arca missed it. This time, after the furore died down, Marvin Emnes stroked home casually. He is so laid back that any amount of rioting around him wouldn’t have fazed him.
And to twist the knife further and make a drab encounter look far more convincing than it was, Emnes set up McDonald to seal it with a second deep into stoppage time.
So just a few minutes after looking to have skulked to a solitary unsatisfying point the home side were celebrating a barely credible Riverside ram-raid to steal all three.
Wolves players were furious. On the whistle the manager Stale Solbakken was quickly onto the pitch to herd them all away from the referee. The last thing he needed was a post-match red card or two.
After the game an angry and bemused Solbakken was reduced to an unconvincing bout of charades as he tried to explain the mechanics of his man’s movements but you could tell he didn’t really buy his own mitigation.
The ball wasn’t blasted at him. It wasn’t one of those from six yards where there is not time for evasive action. The ball was in the air a long time – Henry had time to reposition himself – and despite that he leaned into it and put himself at risk.
While his steaming Wolves team-mates protested, Henry himself was left looking sheepish. He knew he had put himself in a risky position and invited the decision. He was asking for it. It may have been a soft one but it was penalty.
And Boro made it count.
It was a poor game. But all we will remember about it come May is that we won ugly and plundered two goals and three points at the death – and on a day when the top two both dropped points.
It could yet be a watershed moment.