[**CUT AND PASTE**]
THE CONSENSUS is that the Championship is totally unpredictable. Not when Boro are playing it isn’t.
Boro’s frustrating defeat to Brighton could have been a cut and paste from any of the familiar failures in the sorry slither from the summit. Sickened spectators will know the script off by broken heart by now: blunt Boro boss possession and win the stats but fail to take their chances and then are punished by a more clinical side.
For Brighton read Birmingham. Hull. Millwall. Huddersfield. And, as they say on the various artist compilations, many, may more.
Straight off the template, Boro passed and probed and picked their way forward and back again then sidewards a few times then forward and back again and repeat to fade in a low-tempo first half.
They created the better of the chances in a tentative opening period without ever looking convincing or clinical or dynamic or dangerous.Richard Smallwood fired a low angled shot at the keeper that was routinely saved full length, Scott McDonald skied one and Grant Leadbitter sent a sizzler over then Andy Halliday lashed wide.
It was “alright” without causing any pulses to race. Teesside tiki-taka is an admirable trait – so long as there is an end product. But as so often in the New Year nosedive, there wasn’t.
Boro dominated possession but lacked zest and pace and width and creativity and for all the ball they had they never really seemed to worry well organised Brighton. They probably haven’t had as comfortable a game all season.
Gus Poyet said after the game that the first half atmosphere was flat, that the lack of noise in a nervous stadium had got into his players heads and feet and that he told them to go out after the break and create their own passion, make their own atmosphere. And they did.
Bubbling Brighton came out after the break and looked sharper, faster and more dangerous. Predictably, mono-paced Boro failed to match the sudden change in tempo and style and suddenly looked very vulnerable and chaotic at the back.
Brighton had a couple of good chances scrambled away before they scored what was a perfectly well executed but straight-forward training ground goal as unmarked Orlandi stroked home. And that was that. This Boro side don’t come back.
Boro didn’t give up. The beavered away. They pressed and probed again. They tried.
Then as toothless Boro committed men forward and laboured away en masse without much conviction 30 yards out, the compact Seagulls sat deep, strangled space and stifled any incursions into their box then Lopez struck a text-book second on the counter. Game over. Season over. We hope.
Boro are now eight points off the play-offs – although it feels like light years – but more urgently, they are just six points off the drop zone… Boro couldn’t could they? No. Surely not. No. Almost certainly not. It would take a complex and spectacular series of results to see 12 teams claw above Boro in the last four games.
The bookies think it unlikely and are offering an average of 66-1. If you really think Boro will go down get your money on now. You can’t blame more pessimistic Boro fans thinking it though. After all, the final fixture is Sheffield Wednesday away and that’s an ill-fated date heavy with history for supporters of a certain age. Boro have been dragged through the trapdoor twice before on the final day.
Boro will stay up – but it could a tense finale unless they can stop the rot quickly and rack up a few points somewhere. Right now that doesn’t look as easy at it sounds. After eight points from 51 with confidence visibly draining away by the game it could come down to other teams failing to punish their woeful form.
After months of all the results going the right way above us, we are now anxiously glancing over our shoulders hoping for the same behind us.
This broken season can’t end soon enough now. Four dead rubbers left. Four chances to restore some battered pride. Four chances to shift season tickets and offer some thin shards of hope.
Meanwhile former sublime striker Alen Boksic was in the directors box. What must he have made of the languid and plodding affair? Boro are exploring the possibility of using his contacts in Croatia, he is assistant coach, to tap into the as yet unexplored market. Croatia join the EU in the summer so work permit restrictions will be lifted: we may finally get Robbo’s ‘next big thing’ Igor Cvitanovic. Or his modern equivalent.
That and similar mooted link-ups in other countries may help find undiscovered talent on the cheap in the summer and help in the continued drive to improve the side against a backdrop of belt-tightening and looming Financial Fair Play.
With this season making creaking metallic scraping sounds and grinding to a halt, Boro are already planning for the next campaign.
Mogga said after the game he wasn’t a quitter and had no intention of walking away. He was a Teessider and was digging in and Steve Gibson shared his DNA and approach and understood the circumstances and limitations. And the chairman underlined last week that he was not sharpening his axe. Mogga is his man.
That may not go down too well with a now firmly hostile section of the Riverside crowd but ‘it is what it is.’ There has been chuntering and cyber-squabbles but amazingly very little vitriol aimed at the dug-out during the long bleak slide. Booing on the whistle yes, and understandably so. But very few outright calls for Mogga to go. Partly he may be shielded by sentiment. Partly too because, for all the frustrations, most people see the limitations of the finances and the squad and are aware of the political landscape.
There’s no mileage in demanding his head. And to fair, for many it has gone beyond anger and recriminations. The atrophied season has ushered in widespread apathy. Which is maybe harder to deal with.
The club are already planning for next season. The wheels are already in motion for a complete revamp of the failed squad so a promotion push can be carried into the business end of the season.
Next term will need to be far better than this one – and it will need get off to a bright start – if the viral disillusionment spreading through the crowd is to be contained.
There is now a layer of fans who have declared themselves against Mogga. It will take something special and sustained next season to get them back behind the boss.
This season has disintegrated along with morale and belief off the pitch. Putting that back together in the summer could be as big a job as player recruitment.