A LAST gasp sucker punch knocked the stuffing out of Boro at Pride Park.
The ten men had worked their nuts off to contain the Championship’s form side: “Steve McClaren’s Derby.” That Boro’s former boss engineered a painful 2-1 defeat for Boro with the goals coming in the Red Zones (45+1 and 90) was heavy with irony.
It wasn’t the worst Boro display. Not by a long way. The sending off was very harsh – although the ref had already flagged up that he was keeping an eye on over-enthusiastic Main – forcing Aitor Karanka into a first half reshuffle for the second away game running.
And the switches worked. With Kamara pushed out and Carayol brought off the bench to play as the frontman in a 441, Boro looked more solid down the left flank and had a real jet-heeled burst of speed going forward on the break. As at Leeds it was a scorching run by Muzzy that did the damage, although his square ball to Smallwood was initially stumbled over before it ran kindly for Whitehead to lash home. At that point the mooted headline was “Dream Whitehead” as the midfielder came in from the cold to remind us of his potential.
The late winner was painful. And harsh- even McClaren admitted Derby were not at their best and got lucky. But for long suffering Boro fans it was predictable. A ball into the box took a deflection off George Friend, looped to the back stiff where a posse of Boro defenders – Given, Williams and Gibson – looked favourite to clear but somehow Connor Sammon reacted first to stab home. Stop me if you’ve heard this on ebefore.
That is Boro’s fatal flaw: stopping crosses into the box and dealing with balls bouncing through the danger-zone. That is the problem that Karanka must address urgently. That is what is costing over half the goals. There have been improvements. You can see the team are tactically tighter and more solid, closing down further up the pitch and being more conservative in possession. But so long as they are still leaking cheap goals Boro will continue to flounder in the lower reaches.
BLACK to the future…
When Boro fans first visited Derby’s new ground it was easy to dismiss it as an off the peg replica Riverside with a few added bells and whistles.
Now Pride Park is far more than a black and white Riverside 2.0. It has been gradually tarted up and is now well ahead of our middle-aged home. Now it is the stadium that Steve Gibson probably dreamed of.
Built into the ground are smart outlets for high-street names like Starbucks and Greggs. There’s even a gym. Although hitting the running machine with football fans gurning through the window must be distracting.
And the area around the ground has been developed into a massive leisure and retail complex. Imagine if the Riverside had been built at Teesside Park… or if the local authorities had delivered on their promise to Boro and ushered in our Tall Ships, marina and cafe culture matchday experience to kick start a transformation of Middlehaven.
Derby are also ahead of the game on ticketing. At the heart of a complex variety of tailored packages is “dynamic pricing”: price varies match to match depending on weather, day, recent results and how prestige of the opposition.
Tickets last night for home fans started at a tenner. It’s nice to know Boro are still seen as a prestige fixture.
CURTIS Main paid the price for some early over-enthusiastic harrying of the Derby back-line.
The striker – given a very rare start – was sent off after 34 minutes for a second yellow card that seemed very harsh. Even former top whistleblower Jeff Winter – who usually backs the man in black to the hilt – admitted it was “never a booking.”
For his costly caution Main went to challenge Craig Bryson for a ball that was there to be won in No Mans’ Land. The Derby man may have been a slight favourite to get there first but nevertheless, in pundit parlance he “had every right to go for it.”
And he was probably doing exactly what he had been instructed to do by the boss: close quickly, defended from the front, put himself about, ruffle a few feathers. There is nothing wrong with that. Most teams have a niggly frontman who does the same.
But the ref had already marked Main’s card. Main had made a high-tempo start, hustling and bustling and charging down defenders, using his physicality and maybe leaving the odd foot in. And Andrew Madley had noticed. Possibly it is Mains’ new eye-catching shock of indie-kid hair and had he kept his close-cropped camouflage maybe he would have slipped under the radar.
The ref decided early on that Main would be a handful. He had already appeared to have had a few brief words with Main using the universally acknowledged ‘calm down’ patting gesture before finally taking action, waving his first yellow on 23 minutes after he closed in to challenge as the keeper came out to collect. Again, he had “the right to go for it” but the ref had had enough.
After that Main was always sailing close to the wind. His hot-headed approach took him right up to the line, left him teetering on tip-toes and finally falling over it.
He will feel aggrieved. Both bookings may seem harsh. And plenty of other challenges after that far more worthy of cautions went unpunished. Karanka said afterwards that if the second was a booking then “games would finish seven or eight a side.”
Even home fans behind the press box after seeing half-time replays came out laughing embarrassed at having profited from such a clear injustice. They knew Main had been hard done by: “Ridiculous.” “Both harsh bookings,” “the ref’s playing a blinder for Rams.”
Boro fans agreed. They warmed themslves up on a Baltic night with a fine selection of seventies songs berating the man in black, questioning his parentage and solo activities and suggesting his grasp on the laws were suspect.
“You’re not fit to referee”. And it is rare you get such consensus on the man in black.
EIO EIO EIO… Boro’s wheely-good equaliser on the break and against the run of play sparked much jubilation.
Dean Whitehead stabbed in and peeled off towards the Boro fans in the corner followed by beaming, dancing team-mates… then from behind the hoarding trundled a glee-powered wheelchair!
A Boro fan suddenly appeared from the disabled section in front of the stand and through a gap in the barrier and started to weave in and out of the players high-fiving them and taking the cheers from the main body of visiting support before non-plussed stewards arrived to sheepishly wheel him back.
Sorry, not a great photo. I’ve nicked it off twitter. But you get the picture.