BLOATED Boxing Day torpor and hazy hangover atmospheres. It was ever thus.
The eagerly awaited festive fixture is one of football’s most entrenched traditions but like the heavily trailed Christmas small screen spectacular and this year’s ‘must have’ present it so often fails to live up to the hype.
There is a strange air of dislocation in the ground and the inflated expectations of a bigger than usual seasonal crowd – many of them exiles making an habitual visit heavy with obligation but lacking the warmth of familiarity – totally at odds with the reality of game that is oddly out of synch.
It is a midweek game at 3pm in the middle of a flurry of sporadic games, untimely training sessions and fractured preparation. In an age of exact scientific professionalism, the players’ bodyclocks are all over the place and tactical planning is rushed and haphazard.
No surprise then that so many Boxing Day games are scrappy and unsatisfying on a lot of levels. Blackburn was like that.
Let’s be honest, these festive fixtures are rarely Christmas crackers. In fact, some of them have been the least memorable matches ever.
Take Hull last year. Apart from Robbo’s late, late winner what do you actually remember of it? Nothing. Or not much. The year before that the game was off due to burst pipes and frozen Riverside concourses that handily gave Boro extra time to prepare for the watershed win at Preston.
And the previous outing, in 2009, the rump of Gareth Southgate’s side dismantled struggling Scunthorpe with new boss Gordon Strachan already planning a great project of Jockification in the January sales.
Before that there was a bleak decade largely dominated by real turkeys and the occasional seasonal stuffing. In the five tinselled tussles before the Scunthorpe win Boro didn’t even score a goal and their only paltry point came in a tasteless reheated leftovers of a game with a goalless draw at Goodison.
Yes, there was an impressive 3-1 Riverside win over Manchester United courtesy of Boksic, Nemeth and Job in 2002 back when, bizarre though it sounds now, we were Alex Ferguson’s bogey side and a 1-0 home win over Liverpool in 2000 thanks to a Karembeu goal.
And if you want to go back further there was the false dawn of a 4-2 Juninho inspired win over Everton that ended a 13 game run without victory in an ill-fated season and supporters of a certain age will recall Paul Wilkinson scoring in an famous 1-0 robbery at Newcastle. The smash and grab at St James’s Park was the third of three successive scrappy 1-0 away wins.
But that came after a decade marked mainly by a string of dismal 1-0 defeats to Carlisle played out with the tetchy, smouldering hostility of a dysfunctional domestic dispute in front of dismal crowds there under sufferance.
Historically Boro have won 32 and lost 31 of their 82 Boxing Day games. Over the last 20 years form has dipped off a bit: They have only won seven of the last 20. Lost eight, drawn seven, fact fans.
On the whole Boxing Day has been poor fayre in recent times, and usually best forgotten. The two trips for dismal defeats at Birmingham? The fruitless home clash with Everton? The trudge to Sheffield Wednesday under the dark shadow of the Millenium Bug? Nothing. All erased from the memory banks.
It is for the best. I think it is only that act of self-imposed defensive amnesia that persuades the DiasBoro expats come back the following year naively expecting some kind of seasonal sizzler.
In fact, the Boxing Day default is a laboured low key affair settled by a single goal.
Boro’s laboured 1-0 win over Blackburn was like that. It wasn’t a complete turkey but it certainly wasn’t one for the purists.
Boro made very hard work of unwrapping the points. It was a scrappy and disjointed first half in a muted atmosphere and Boro had to ride their luck to get through to the break.
They survived two rattled uprights: one in the first 30 seconds as former ‘future Turkey star’ Colin Kazim-Richards cashed in his voucher to allow him a free run into the box but still could only stab against the post; then when Justin Hoyte was skinned and King cracked in a low shot that came off Andre Bikey’s shinpads and slithered off the foot of the post before Jason Steele clawed it out.
That was pretty much it from Blackburn. There were a few occasions when they got into the box only for poor touches to cancel out any danger then late on a free-kick was drilled into Steele’s chest. They can’t claim to have been the better team. It wasn’t really a robbery.
Boro were just as inept in front of goal for long spells. After Scott McDonald and Marvin Emnes screwed wide, Lukas Jutkiewicz found himself in an envelope of time and space usually found in a Doctor Who special but somehow contrived to weakly poke goalwards from close range and keeper Kean stretched to scoop over.
But they won the game with a well engineered goal in the one polished passage of genuine quality play in the entire 90 minutes.
A Blackburn attack broke down and George Friend played a quick, pinpoint ball down the left flank for Jutkiewicz to flick inside neatly into the path of McDonald then peel away and race to the box.
The Aussie collected the ball and burst forward to the edge of the box and held off a challenge then swivelled to roll inside for Jutkiewicz to rifle a low 15 yard shot home. It illuminated an otherwise dim and lack-lustre encounter.
So it wasn’t the best of games, but it will do.
That’s two successive scrappy home wins when Boro were well below their best. That’s a good trait for a team with promotion ambitions.
Those six points balance out the decent displays in empty handed trips to Leeds and Birmingham.
In fact it is three Riverside wins on the bounce – and, importantly, three clean sheets in a row at home for the first time in a decade. It keeps the momentum going and keeps Boro in touch at the top.
But we were in this situation last year and let it slip. We can’t allow that again this year.
The important thing is to keep the hard work and obvious and admirable fierce team spirit going through this sticky spell, keep on collecting the points and keep the Mogganaut rolling.