OH NO! There goes the relegation cliche klaxon!
Jacob Butterfield has uttered the dreaded phrase: “We’re too good to go down.”
That will scare the hell out of a lot of battle scarred supporters – including a cocooned few who may not have even been too worried before those dread words were uttered.
It is part of the lexicon of the lower end of the league.
Everyone knows that once you start putting up that particular linguistic defence you are already deep in the sticky stuff. Supporters of all clubs know that phrase is one of the key indicators that a basement battle is OFFICIALLY on.
It is a simple sentence heavy with symbolism and loaded with assumptions and delusions. Clearly, if you were that good you wouldn’t need to be saying is the obvious response it invites.
Thinking that you are better than actually you are shouts out that there is an air of complacency. It suggests you have badly misjudged the gravity of the situation.
And it is a phrase that is so obviously a hostage to fortune it should be relayed to the press on a note made up of letters cut out of magazine and delivered tersely by a jittery man holding up a copy of today’s Gazette.
Bruised Boro fans will remember the phrase well from the Premier League. We heard it every week in the increasingly delusional Comical Ali post-match battlecries.
In fact, optimistic two-thirds-full ra-ra in chief David Wheater was still insisting Boro could still make seventh place and the UEFA Cup as late as March while the rest of Teesside was dug in for a tense last ten games. Keep The Faith!
There are echoes of that now whenever a player insists that two or three wins and we’ll be right up there. The time for that has long gone. The league is starting to stretch out now and we are at the stage where two or three wins – even if the rest of the results fall the right way – still leave you six points short.
There is a familiar script to much of what is being said now: “We just need to cut out the mistakes and we’ll start to climb the table;” “We are not getting the breaks but it will soon start to even itself out”; “Everybody can beat everyone in this league;” “We have some fantastic players in this squad.” That is fine before Hallowe’en. Cliche wise, everyone knows ‘you don’t look at the league table until Christmas.’
But it is almost Christmas now. We are almost at the half-way mark. We are deep in “the league table doesn’t lie” territory.
To be fair to Butterfield, he didn’t roll out the phrase in a glib fashion to deflect the gravity of the situation. He added: “You can’t argue with the table. It doesn’t look good. We are down there now so you’ve got to say we are looking over our shoulder.”
And he put his hand up. He was quite open about the players need to take responsibility, maintain concentration, work harder and cut out the errors. He put it context of early days under a new boss with new methods and a different shape and tempo that were slowly taking root. And he rejected the notion of a run of ill-fortune. Because obviously, you ‘make your own luck in this game’.
Plus, it should be said that Brighton assistant boss Nathan Jones said pretty much the same – that Boro are a good squad, playing good football and that the Seagulls had nicked a big result against a side that, once they had adapted to Aitor Karanka’s game they would take off. Or: “They are too good to go down.”
Another equally frightening cliche has started to pop up in recent days too. One national newspaper said that “Boro’s new Spanish boss would continue his quest for his first away win in next week’s trip to Millwall for a televised six pointer.”
SIX POINTER! It’s not even Christmas. And the view from the South is that Boro have been branded as one of the basement battlers. You can’t blame them. Any objective, distant view would pretty much write Boro off as serious contenders for the play-offs.
One away win this year… serial sucker punchees,.. barely worth a minute on the fag end of the Championship review… crowds flat-lining… a former top flight club that has slowly and steadily morphed into an ordinary, middling second tier side… take that into consideration and glance at the table and anyone outside the Boro bubble would obviously think it was team very much part of the trapdoor tussle. Unless they look at the recent Premier League pedigree and decide they are ‘too good to go down.’
Having established we are not – no one is, just ask Wolves – and having steeled ourselves for the reality of a string of six pointers comes the next stage our mental preparation for the relegation battle: the search for three worse teams.
Slowly we have collectively started to look down rather than up. The night before Boro suffered their last gasp blow at Derby – the Twilight Zone closed in as the bottom three all won. Barnsley beat Brighton, Sheffield Wednesday beat Leicester and Yeovil beat Blackpool. The dotted line inched closer with menace, accompanied, in my head at least, by the Jaws theme music.
On the whistle on Saturday the first thought was not how play-off pretenders Forest, Leeds and Blackpool had got on but to take a furtive glance at the fixtures down below.
Phew. Millwall, Charlton and Doncaster got beat. That pegs them back. The bottom two – Barnsley and Yeovil – engaged in a mutual suicide pact and draw to leave them adrift. Well, I say adrift… the Wurzels are three points behind. Gulp.
That scraping noise you can hear is Boro fans’ moving their mental furniture. Very few people at the start of the season expected promotion. Certainly not the bookies. Not many more expected Boro to be cemented into the play-off place.
Most – including Steve Gibson – probably expected Tony Mowbray’s side to be ninth or tenth now, within touching distance of the top six and with as good a chance as any, injuries permitting, to be the team that made the late surge from the pack. I know I did.
But very few would have thought Boro would be a fragile three points above Yeovil at this stage.
So, we are in a relegation battle. Karanka has said as much. “It is not a good situation in the league.” Boro have 20 points from 20 games which is an alarming return, especially considering that the Brighton mugging was the first Championship defeat at home since opening day.
That leaves them below the points curve dictated by the magic formula that survival specialist Lennie Lawrence once outlined to Boro fans. Lennie’s mathematical “Iron Law of Survival” was NP = P+2 …. necessary points equals games played plus two. Boro are currently trading two points shy of that safety margin.
And as we know, “there are no easy games in the league.”
Plus, now Christmas is looming and we all know what that means: Yes,it is not long before the traditional January jitters kick in. Gulp. Boro’s first foot flopping is a notorious millstone and has proved toxic to many a season of promise in the past.
The last two are obvious examples but you could pick out just about any year at random and the results until the daffodils popped up would look like Roman numerals: LLLLDDL
No wonder people are nervous.
Still, the “six pointer” with Millwall next and a reunion with snarly scoreophobic Scott McDonald who has a point to prove
What could possibly go wrong?