WELL that was a sickener. Birmingham got a late, late leveller to mug Boro of what would have been a hard earned – and rare – away win and kick long suffering supporters squarely in the kisser. You would think we would have evolved six inch thick emotional armour against the stoppage time sucker punch but it still stings like hell.
Leaking deep into added time to a twice taken corner was a real blow. Especially after also conceding a needless penalty. All we needed was a harsh sending off to complete the shambolic defending full set.. Battling Boro had played with a real shape, spirit and solidity and were within touching distance of a result that could have been a turning point of the season before the familiar fatal flaw showed its face. It hurts. But it isn’t a great surprise.
Almost a year to the day ago Boro edged to a 3-2 win at Peterborough. Since then – a calendar year – Boro have won ONE paltry game (at Charlton) and have now just drawn four from 22 games. That’s seven points from a possible 66. Jesus wept. That’s abysmal. At any level. The law of averages suggests you’d have spawned more than that.
That sequence has been littered with sob stories, bad luck, dodgy penalties, sendings off and freak deflections – but mainly it has been blighted by poor defending individually and collectively. Under three gaffers and with a bewildering permutations of players. The needless rash tackle and the suicidal stoppage time slump are now systemic. It is in this squad’s DNA. an institutional mental weakness. It urgently requires a complete overhaul and cultural rewiring. But we knew that.
You could be forgiven for a crazed rampage of drunken dog-kicking and rage against the world and the cruel Gods of Football. You could be forgiven for thinking that the players are all useless, the new manager is just as bad as the previous incumbent and the season is over. Go ahead, point and shout and demand recriminations.
And you can point and shout at me if you want but I can see positives. Boro ended a run of five consecutive defeats with a gritty draw. That is a small step. A tiny tentative step. I’m not suggesting for second you crack open the champagne because Boro got a point at a limited Birmingham side – but there was a real spirit about the side.
Boro worked hard at the back and were rattling into tackles and closing quickly and got to grips with both penalty box lamp-post Zigic and Man United starlet Lingard (although they struggled with Arch-Nemisis Chris Burke in the second half). Midfield also beavered away with revived Dean Whitehead and Grant Leadbitter pretty taking control after a rocky opening 10 minutes and forcing Birmingham to go long as they chased the game.
Boro are lively going forward and have width, pace and a bit of trickery. Look at the goals scored column. Boro can hurt teams at this level. And increasingly they can contain teams for long spells too. They are defending from the front more – even lightwight Fancy Dan Marvin Emnes won a few physical battles – and closing quickly high up the pitch. It is starting to come together.
In Karanka’s four games Boro were edged out with 10 men at play-off contenders Leeds and suffered a late lapse at Derby seconds away from snatching a point at form-side Derby a man down too. In between those game they ground out a win against another side in a purple patch with the 1-0 home win over Bolton. Then they outplayed and out-fought Birmingham – five undefeated – and were only denied victory at the death. Boro have done well in all those games and come away with just four points from 12 when they probably deserved at least two more and possibly five. It’ll come.
Again, I know that talk of ‘fine margins’ and ‘maybes’ is cheap. A year long slump has eroded patience and perspective and lowered the boiling point. Fans are rightly getting annoyed at weekly battle cries from players who vow to ‘learn the lessons and bounce back’ while the trapdoor creaks just below them. But it is early days under a new boss who does seem to be slowly tightening and fine-tuning the team.
He is having a good look at the players, identifying the problems (and all his public pronouncements suggest he is under no illusions where those lay) and deciding exactly where he needs to strengthen in January. In the meantime he needs to squeeze a bit more out of what he has got. And, even if it is frustrating, we will have to be patient.