OH NO! Football’s Inevitability Drive is broken!
Millwall away was a game that had “Scott McDonald late winner” written all over it. It was a dead cert daft quid magnet. So we are all out of pocket but who cares? Boro won and the ghost of Christmas past was far from scary.
From the day McDonald moved, shrewd observers of the “typical Boro” phenomenon had it “nailed on” that the argumentative Aussie would score (probably after a storming run and cross from ginger ninja Nicky Bailey.)
After Tony Mowbray finally shipped out the high-earning hitman after 18 months of brinkmanship it was fated that McDonald would not only bang in the winner but also get booked after his confrontational celebrations in front of the Boro box.
In certain circles his absence was the key reason for Boro’s early season stutter. In fact he had started to take on mystical powers. “You don’t sell your top goalscorer” was the mantra of those who thought the move was suicidal (even though he had only ever managed one in four and was a debilitating drain on the club’s economy).
Even with his Nemesis Mowbray gone the shadow of Skippy loomed large in jittery fans’ consciousness. As Boro results tailed off and the team inched down the table, the fixture took on even more significance. It was a six-pointer now.
And McDonald was out of favour at Millwall and hadn’t netted for ages: He was certain to score.
And then to add to the ingredients of pre-destined punishment, the sadists at Sky switched the game to the worst possible time slot. In their wisdom Sky chiefs decided to put their contractual obligation small screen sizzler between two distinctly unsexy sides on a day when the schedulers had already conceded defeat.
Most people looking for glitz and glamour, intricate well-rehearsed moves and nifty footwork on the box would have been tuned into the Strictly Come Dancing finale.
Many others who were watching at kick-off would willingly have surrendered control of the remote – or had it prised gently out of their hands as they slumped into a coma by the end of a woeful first half. So great, Boro were all set up to be tonked on the box and plunged deeper into the relegation quagmire with the pint-sized poacher set to rub our noses in it.
Well that script was well and truly ripped up at the New Den.
McDonald was a frustrated flop, totally ineffective and was booked in a bad tempered strop. He was awful. I think that particular spell is broken now.
But something far more significant was ripped up in the rain lashed misery of Millwall: Boro’s atrocious 2013 away record.
The travel-sick side have been woeful on the road this year. They went to Millwall (in-form at home) with an abysmal record. They had recorded just ONE win in over a year, just down the road at Charlton. Boro had amassed a paltry seven points from a possible 66. Plenty of hard luck stories but not enough points.
It’s hard to imagine a worse record in all four divisions. Or in Boro’s history. Even relegation- bound teams spawn the odd away win once in a while. So to win away – with all the runes and the stats stacked against them – is a massive relief and weight lifted.
Boro have looked solid in the away games under Karanka but have been undone at the death by mistakes. They have been compact and organised and worked hard as a unit to press high up the pitch, get into tackles early and hassle the opposition.
They did well at both Leeds and Derby to come from behind with 10 men only to lose to poorly- defended corners and dominated at Birmingham before getting a draw that felt like a kick in the teeth with another late lapse.
It has been hard work to sell the notion of a gradual change in shape and approach to fans when results and form were flat-lining. So to finally get the reward for that structural shift and the inching improvement is a morale-boosting vindication.
Hopefully, with that mental millstone cast aside, Boro will start to improve dramatically on the road. Even an upgrade to ordinary would do.
And, look, another collector’s item … Boro clocked up a very rare clean sheet.
It was only the fourth this season after the 1-0 win away at Charlton, the resounding 4-0 Riverside romp against Doncaster and the scrappy 1-0 home win over Bolton.
And there were only three more in the second half of last season: 1-0 home wins over Forest and Leeds plus a steely goalless draw at Burnley. That makes seven in the whole of 2013 and only three away.
That fundamental fragility – especially in the last 10 minutes – has been Boro’s fatal flaw.
Yet now Boro have edged to two clean sheets in just six games under Karanka. That shows signs of an emerging solidity.
It may be low-thrills at time – not even the diehards will be watching reruns of either the Bolton or Millwall games – but clean sheets and the confidence they breed at the back are important in giving the new boss a platform to build on.
And, interestingly, the win came with a reshaped side bereft of what under Mowbray looked like the first team skeleton. At the back there was no Jonathan Woodgate or Rhys Williams (nor Jason Steele) while in midfield Grant Leadbitter was ill and up front Kei Kamara is crocked and Lukas Jutkiewicz was on the bench.
When the team was announced there were reaction’s on Twitter that ranged from raised eyebrows to out-right panic at the extent of radical shuffle in personnel and shape. Again.
Five changes, a previously untried anchor duo of Dean Whitehead and Richie Smallwood, Curtis Main up front in a lone role and Jozsef Varga playing at right-back for the first time at Boro – although it must be noted he has played there for club and country back in Hungary and also in the Bundesliga so he is hardly a novice.
But the changes paid off. Phew. Losing at Millwalll would have been a disaster. It would have killed off dwindling faith among fans, possibly undermined belief in the squad and seen Boro dragged down by the dark gravity of the basement battle.
The victory and two moments of illuminating quality for the goals are all that will be remembered from a game most have already deleted from the memory banks.
The match “wasn’t one for the purists” or indeed, anyone who remotely likes to watch football. It was dire. The first half was a poor 45 minutes and painful to watch. Had it been shown on a tape loop to terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay the UN would have stepped in to stop such a cruel and unusual punishment. I mean, water-boarding, yes but please God no, not this again!
The wind swirled from all directions simultaneously in blustery battle – at one point two flags on top of the main stand were fluttering in opposite directions even though they were only 10 yards apart – and the rain swept in dancing sheets in matching maelstrom rhythms. It was awful. And the football was poor. Boro played the best of it, trying to get the ball down and pass and pick intelligently before getting to the edge of the box and moves fizzling out.
Millwall just hoofed it for Morison to chase while McDonald stood rooted in the flight path and twice Shay Given had to sharp off his line to hack or head clear.
The first shot on target didn’t come until 42 minutes and that was a low hit and hope hoof straight at Given. The game perked up after the break. It had to. Had it got worse the ref would have been within his rights to abandon it on quality grounds. And no one would have complained.
And it was lit up by Boro’s Christmas saviour Emmanuel Ledesma, collecting a perceptive Dani Ayala diagonal ball behind the full-back to cut in from the right and curl a delightful shot off the inside of the far post.
He had a role in the second too, a well weighted pass finding Albert Adomah’s run to the edge of the box and he deftly skipped past the advancing keeper to slot home.
In between both sides missed good chances, Richie Smallwood blazing over after a crisp move carved open Millwall and Morison put in a decent diving header for the home side that was well save by Given.
It is also worth mentioning that there was a touching shirt celebration tribute to Stuart Parnaby after his recent family tragedy. Twice. That shouts out ‘team spirit.’
The Boro fans were loud and proud and beery while the home fans were as hostile as usual – although this time the bile was saved for under-fire boss Steve Lomas. He is of course a former Hammer and hated to the core. Only good home results have prevented the local lynch mob from gathering before now. Defeat rised the floodgates open.
Aitor Karanka was taken aback by the ferocity of the attacks. He was in one dug out and could see the spittle flecked shouty pointy anger of the militant wing of the Danny Dyer Commando and while his grasp of the English vernacular is not yet street sharp he understood exactly the tone of the insults being thrown. And that is just by the kids.
“It is crazy from their fans,” he said after the game, shaking his head. “They have lost once at home since September and they try to kill the coach.” Still, it was ever thus at Millwall.
Fantastic result though. A good solid win in difficult circumstances.
Happy Christmas. Even you Scott.