IT WAS a rot-stopping, Trees chopping, spirited show that was greeted more with a wave of relief from Stockton to Saltburn than any sense of jubilation.
Sky Sports News claim that the scrappy but welcome win had revived Boro’s play-off prospects was met with widespread cynical laughter and sneering. Who are these delusional fools with their outlandish sci-fi predictions? Haven’t they been keeping tabs on the results this year?
For most Teessiders mighty Boro felling Forest was a coupon-busting shock that had saved a troubled team from being dragged into the relegation place, probably to go down flicking the Vs with an historic flourish in an ill-fated final fixture at Sheffield Wednesday.
It was a Pyrrhic victory, a ‘typical Boro’ sarcastic win. But it was a welcome one and headed off what would have been a psychic surge of unstoppable angst.
After six defeats and a draw – against the rock bottom side – deepened the cataclysmic collapse since New Year, morale in the team and in the crowd has been in a freefall to match the limping league position.
Had Boro lost there would have been a split in the crowd: half hastily knocking together a gallows in Car Park B and half shuffling in a gloomy queue to jump from the Transporter.
I spent most of the build-up to the crunch match arguing theoretical mathematics with zealous pessimists armed with surreal sets of subjective projected results proving doomed Boro were going down.
Rip up your spreadsheets. Boro are safe. They have killed off relegation fears. They are staying up. And they’ve done it under their own steam. Hurray!
We shouldn’t laugh. It was a close run thing. After weeks of incredible freak third party favours the vital victory came on a night when all the results finally all went against Boro.
Down in the depths Birmingham won at Bristol City (and relegated Matthew Bates), Ipswich beat play-off fixtures Crystal Palace, Leeds saw off Burnley, trouble magnets Millwall beat famous football refugee camp Watford while Blackpool and Derby both picked up a single point in scrappy draws.
Had Boro not won all those six teams would have edged above our heroes sparking off a wave of fear and loathing with bitter in-fighting and vocal protests aimed at the dug-out and the boardroom.
Now, if Boro somehow can follow it up with a win at seventh placed Bolton on Saturday then suddenly the play-offs WOULD still be on. Crazy.
That really puts the surreal nature of this ridiculous division into perspective.
Boro have been in woeful form for over three months now and going into the game had racked up just eight points from 57 – the worst start to a New Year since 1923.
They were in a powerless tailspin. Even the most loyal of fans, natural optimists who look for the positives, were already totting up how many new grounds they would be visiting in League One next year. Many others were weighing up if they were going at all. Teesside was shrouded in a cloud of nagativity.
Then suddenly Boro are catapulted back into contention – theoretically at least – and everyone is smiling again. With one result. It is astonishing really. But then, the stats are almost deliberately contradictory.
Only relegated Bristol have lost more games away from home than Boro – but only promoted Cardiff have won more at home.
Boro have beaten eight of the nine teams above them but have lost to 10 of the teams below them. Some more than once: Millwall, Bristol, Birmingham, I’m looking at you.
It has been the worst start to a calendar year since 1923 (I know, I’ve looked.) Yet Boro have spent most of it defiantly within one win or so of the play-off places.
Boro have taken just 17 points on the road but for all the talk of a terrible season and the Middlesbrough matchday being some kind of painful purgatory, the win over Forest means they have now racked up 41 points at home – the second most productive best ever at the Riverside. Only the 55 points in the Paul Merson inspired promotion season of 1997-98 has yielded more at home.
So, with one result a season of extremes has swung back towards being, if not exactly satisfactory, at least potentially palatable if Boro can finish with a flourish.
Ironically, in shape and dynamics at least, the defeat of Forest was not greatly different from many other far more disappointing fixtures of late. It wasn’t that far removed in complexion from the games against Birmingham or Hull for instance.
There were the same scrappy and error strewn long spells punctuated by outbreaks of crisp movement, neat passing and probing and decent flurries of decent chances that went begging… only this time one went in.
There were the same passages of chaos at the back, a failure to clear convincingly, the string of free headers for the opposition and the nervous late frantic scrambles in the box … only this time the defence held firm.
And while the team won and that in itself is worth celebrating after a mini-ice age of habitual defeat, It wasn’t great. There were some very patchy personal performances.
Faris Haroun had a ‘mare and seems incapable of hitting the target no matter how close in he gets or how sweetly the ball is lined up for him. Sammy Ameobi’s erratic legs have a life of their own beyond his control and he looked a long way from the electric presence of his debut against Cardiff.
And top striker Scott McDonald worked hard enough but has lost his touch in the box. He got away with mugging the keeper on the edge of the box but failed to bury the loose ball then took a cartoon air-shot 10 yards out.
But there were some great performances too. Andre Bikey and Rhys Williams were superb at the back together, especially when one dimensional Forest – who looked progressively poorer as the game wore on – opted to lump hopeful high balls in.
The Dormo Destroyer Richie Smallwood was an industrious presence in midfield, closing and tackling but also getting forward and creating and he had a hand in sparking the move for the goal.
Josh McEachran also helped out for the goal on a lively night when he moved the ball around midfield quickly, crisply and intelligently and remembered how to pass it forward.
And Mustapha Carayol not only slotted the winner away sweetly but also showed flashes of searing pace, tricky footwork and real attacking intent and in the second half offered a potent outlet down the left flank that terrified the Forest defence.
Plus of course, after months of frustration, it was a much needed emotional pay-off for the patient punters. Not that one win will make up for the disappointment of a shrivelled season of ‘what ifs’. There is still a summer reckoning to come.
There were some sign of encouragement, but it is too little, too late for this season.