A FUNEREAL retreat from the swansong shambles of Sheffield Wednesday was dominated by one question. Well two questions, but the other was “shall we stop at the Wetherby Whaler?” and that was very easily answered.
The painful post-mortem was dominated by the demand: has there been a WORSE display than THAT this season?
It is damning of the dismal display that initially there was a consensus that yes, of course it was, stupid. That spineless, shapeless surrender was rock bottom. How could it possibly be worse? It was as bad as it was possible to imagine.
But it is equally damning of the shrivelled season as a whole that as the emotional anaesthetic wore off with distance from the scene of the disaster, gradually a list of rival candidates for the tainted title started to emerge. And it is a long list.
Let’s be honest, there have been some real stinkers.
There have been pallid performances where a powerless Boro have been swept aside by a more organised and motivated side in good form and that has been painful – but that’s football. Sometimes a better team tonks you and you have to bite the bullet.
But there have been some woeful displays too this term where a mentally weak Boro have quickly crumbled under routine but persistent pressure from technically inferior side and that is far harder to swallow. Or to forgive.
Supporters can cope with losing, God knows we’ve had enough practise over the years, but it hurts when the team signally fail to offer any resistance to a lesser outfit that simply want it more.
And it is far worse when Boro fail to rise to the occasion, when they don’t respond to a big atmosphere and who fold under the pressure of expectation when a golden opportunity presents itself because not only is that a slap in the face for fans who do raise themselves for a big occasion but also it is a psychological fatal flaw that will prevent the club ever achieving success.
Anyway, let’s pick our way through the debris of the worst displays this season….
BLACKPOOL (a) September 18. L 4-1
A traumatic Blackpool rocking was the nadir of Boro’s Black September.
Boro had won three at home and lost away at Barnsley and Millwall. So far so average.
Then they were clinically dismantled at buoyant Blackpool as pundits anxiously checked Boro’s promotion credentials.
A shapeless side were ruthlessly carved open by the mechanical forward diagonal thrusts of Ian Holloway’s on-song side in a first half onslaught that was embarrassing. Boro knew what Blackpool would do but had no answer.
It was terrible. It was the first real milestone on what would be a nightmare season on the road – but it was forgiveable.
That orange crush came from a rampant side on song. Blackpool were rattling goals in a purple patch then with Holloway still at the helm. It was the wrong team at the wrong time and a Boro side still finding its feet were walloped. No excuses. No complaints.
And Boro bounced back with a run of just one defeat in 12 that took them to…
BIRMINGHAM (a) November 30 L 3-2
The first cracks had appeared in Boro’s promotion bandwagon. They had dominated but lost 1-0 at Cardiff and fumbled in the fog and lost 3-1 at home to lowly Bristol City in the “buy one” part of a ticket BOGOF.
Then somehow Boro contrived to lose 3-2 at Birmingham on TV after twice leading. And not just leading but bossing. On 45 minutes the crowd were booing the team and Lee Clark and it looked all over.
Then came three colossal cock-ups that cost the game after what had been as dominant a first half all season.
Bikey finally got caught out after riding his luck for weeks to concede a first half stoppage time spot kick, Jason Steele developed Brad Jones aerial flappy wrist syndrome for the second then Josh McEachran played a sloppy ball and got punished. By Marlon King, naturally.
Boro were in command but failed to make it count, then lost their rhythm, lost their composure and finally lost any semblance of a grip on the game against a limited and demoralised side suddenly galvanised by the gifts.
It was the sign of things to come. After that Boro won only one of 12 away games – and that was a close call at rock bottom Peterborough.
DERBY COUNTY (a) January 1 L 3-1
After two home wins on the bounce put them in an automatic spots, hungover Boro suffered a damaging New Years Day drubbing at Derby.
It was not the score but the passive acceptance of defeat by a more motivated side that hurt – and rang alarm bells.
Derby were nothing special. They were the archetypal Championship side. But they were fired up, well organised and ruthless in applying their plan to press Boro at high tempo and force mistakes.
Boro never came close to matching the pace and intensity of the Ram raid and lost all semblance of team shape and individuals started doing their own thing. To no avail. It was deeply worrying.
That game was the start of a run of five successive league defeats as a jittery January turned into fragile February
IPSWICH (a) February 2 L 4-0
Boro had just been edged out to play-of rivals Watford and a last gasp penalty miss cost them at Leicester – but they were still in the picture.
After a week when all the results had gone their way Ipswich offered a golden chance to regain momentum but they meekly surrendered. A brittle side folded without a fight in abject fashion.
They were torn apart by a demoralised Town that were in freefall, fourth bottom and had not won in six. One of the lowest scoring sides in the division easily put four goals past Boro – and they could have more but for a couple of good blocks by Steele.
They sat deep, left Boro to enjoy fruitless possession in the middle third and then hit on the break with devastating quick balls forward in text book Mick McCarthy fashion.
And it was frightening that a strong Boro defence could not cope with one of the weakest and predictable attacks in the Championship.
CRYSTAL PALACE (a) February 19 L 4-1
BORO were left tattered and torn as a deja vu Palace coup left hopes of an end of term coronation in the balance.
Tony Mowbray admitted after the game that, just like at Ipswich, an abject display had been littered with individual and collective errors. It was a scenario that had become frighteningly familiar.
And stinging too because the flop in the “play-off six-pointer” followed hot on the heels of a gritty, spirited scrap to beat Leeds that showed real steel.
At Palace, disorganised Boro were woeful at the back, over-run in a pedestrian midfield and toothless up front in a display lacking spirit. The template was set by then.
BRISTOL CITY (a) March 9 L 0-2
This was a far more damaging result than the scoreline suggest. The rot had set in.
Boro desperately needed to reignite a stuttering promotion push but spluttered and failed. They failed to grab what should have been a routine winnable game by the scruff of the neck. They failed to contain the Championship’s rock bottom side. They failed to compete, to battle, to threaten, to penetrate, to impose a pace or pattern. They failed. Individually and collectively. They failed to show the spirit and desire and ruthless will of a side battling for promotion.
It was a flat and flaccid display by a leaderless and demoralised team. It was very, very disappointing.
The local radio commentator, a Bristolian Brownlee with a touch of the pirate about his exclamations, felt moved to comment, with an note of surprise, on Boro having the demeanour and “the body language of a beaten team.” And that was in the first half.
PETERBOROUGH (h) April 2 0-0
IMPOTANT Boro struck a bum note as they found themselves in a cow/banjo situation.
Against basement battlers who had come for a point, Boro bossed possession and created a dozen good chances, three or four glorious ones… and one or two gilt-edged sitters – but the flaccid front-line failed to make a single one count.
It was woeful. Boro’s poorly calibrated players queued up to screw it wide, scoop it high over the bar, take airshots six yards out, fall over the ball and drill it well wide, high over or straight at the keeper.
Between them the shot-shy shambles blasted it from just about every distance, angle and velocity known to football physics and barely forced a save out of the Posh keeper.
It was a mis-firing masterclass of multi-marksman mediocrity. They should have all hung their heads in shame.
BRIGHTON (h) April 13 0-2
Boro’s frustrating defeat to Brighton could have been a cut and pasted 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 and organised side.
But what made this so dismal was the context. It was the do-or-die moment, Boro’s last chance to keep their fate in their own hands. And they didn’t take it. They didn’t want it. They showed no hunger or urgency and did little to rattle the visitors at all.
Boro passed and probed and plodded and picked their way forward and back and sidewards in a repeat to fade low-tempo first half. Then got punished after the break. Oh. So. Predictable.
I’m sure there are more. Shout up if I’ve forgotten your favourite. Cast your vote here