WELL that was a soul-sapping, shot-shy no-show by a toothless team struggling against the shackles of tedium.
The trip to Doncaster was another dismal goalless grind, another bout of frustrating, fruitless, sweaty labour. And with an eager Red Army ready to respond to a rousing display, it was a massive anti-climax.
But that is the Boro way. We should have known. It is ingrained in the club’s genome sequence: Whenever Boro travel in numbers, naive enough to expect success, events have a habit of kicking us in the teeth.
I suppose we should be grateful Boro didn’t lose.
Boro took a well fuelled 4,254 fans on the short-haul trip to South Yorkshire in a convoy of coaches, Transits and cars that clogged up Doncaster and gave the town’s boozers and fast-food joints an unexpected spending bonanza.
It was the largest following in the entire country on the weekend and accounted for a hefty 37.2% of the 11,440 crowd at the cosy Keepmoat Stadium. That is the only stat from the day to be proud of.
The show of faith by the fans was the biggest mass exodus from Teesside since a similar buoyant beano to Baltic Barnsley under Gordon Strachan when, again, the crowd sizzled and the team froze.
Despite the dour fare, the crowd were fantastic. They were loud, proud and creative in their chanting, colourful with an eye-catching confetti display as the teams ran out – although there was an acrid wisp of pyrotechnics at one point and that is never nice when you are packed in a crowd and the wind-direction is unkind to you – and they generated an nerve-jangling atmosphere.
It was exactly what football fandom is supposed to be about.
And before kick-off there was a surging sense of upbeat unity between team and fans that hints at a growing optimism in the slow-burning Karanka project.
The players were wearing T-shirts wishing crocked team-mate Rhys Williams a swift recovery and were cheered to the echo as they warmed up at the Boro end.
And the news that last gasp deadline day signing Danny Graham was in the squad only pushed expectation to the max.
Surely it was scripted that the prodigal poacher – serenaded with regular bursts of “He’s one of our own” – would come off the bench to score the winner?
The crowd did their bit. They started with a full-throated roar and largely kept it going for the full 90 minutes, whereas the team barely got as far as doing their scales. The team’s off-key display was a bum note on a day that was orchestrated for Aitor’s heroes to deliver a symphonic performance. But it all fell flat.
The sharp contrast between the relentless passion, energy and spirit in the stands and a go-slow on the pitch that lacked conviction and fire was the most striking element of the day.
And Karanka – who is quickly winning hearts and minds on Teesside with the searing honesty of his post-match assessments – was the first to acknowledge that marked disconnect.
“No excuses, we should be better,” he said disarmingly. “With so many of our fans here I was a little embarrassed.”
“So many people from Middlesbrough came with us – they are always with us – but for them we didn’t play and we didn’t fight. That is not good enough.
“When you don’t play and you don’t fight it makes it difficult to win the game and is an embarrassment for our supporters,” he reiterated.
“Doncaster were fighting, they were working, they battled for the second balls and they were one second or two second quicker than us.
“At half time I told me team I was not happy with them.
“I told them when you have behind us that crowd then you have to play a good game. You have to deliver.”
No “taking the positives and moving on”. No gripe about the wind or the pitch or the referee. No excuses. Just a ruthless dissection of the problems and a demand for better.
It probably echoed exactly what was being said angrily on the convoy back home in far more abrasive language.
It is hard to disagree with Karanka’s analysis.
Lack-lustre Boro were sluggish and for all their honest huffing and puffing they were well short of the urgency and intensity that clinically swept aside then leaders Burnley and play-off pretenders Reading a month ago.
Their muted workrate was well below the animated piecework industry of limited but more motivated Doncaster.
The wind whipping across the pitch didn’t help flowing football but if wasn’t exactly freak conditions for February and they didn’t adapt to the conditions well, didn’t impose themselves and never looked likely to break the stalemate or force the issue.
Doncaster’s keeper was barely tested – “he’s done less work than Ledesma” said one press box cynic – and in fact Boro never had a serious shot on target. It was sub-standard fare and very disappointing.
Of course it was not a disaster. Boro were solid enough at the back, bar one moment when Rovers were gifted a sitter they squandered. Seven blanks out of nine is an impressive miserly recent record it would be churlish to criticise, despite some jitters and creaky moments.
That Karanka has come and dealt so swiftly with the fatal flaw he had inherited – a porous and demoralised backline – has been impressive.
With a few simple tactical tweaks – two solid human shield midfielders, the full-backs penned back in conservative roles, and closing from the front – he has underpinned the foundations and made Boro hard to beat.
That is the first and fundamental problem solved.
But the tweaks have left Boro short at the business end. They have now scored just once in four games and the drought has lasted five hours and 45 minutes.
Departed Lukas Jutkiewicz and Marvin Emnes had three goals in 48 appearances between them this term while Curtis Main has one in 15.
Which may explain why the club’s deadline day activity was concentrated on sharpening the cutting edge.
Danny Graham is undoubtedly ring-rusty. Instead of a scripted goal to light the blue touch paper he spluttered and fizzled a bit but failed to explode and handed those who like to beat the club by proxy an open goal – Kevin Doyle scored for QPR, giving those who a few days ago were denouncing him as not good enough for Boro the opportunity to change tack and say the club had signed the wrong one.
Meanwhile fiery frontman Lee Tomlin is banned after two red cards in three games. And Kei Kamara is still well short after just two brief cameos from the bench.
That leaves the entire tactical integrity of Karanka’s 4231 system resting on getting the strikers fit and firing.
That’s frustrating but it is something we will have to be patient with over the next few games of fine-tuning up front.
After a fantastic run of 16 points from 18 lifted Boro to five points from the play-off places, a stutter of two from nine has seen Boro slither back and the feel-good factor is fading.
Boro’s tactical problems appear to have been addressed at the back. Now Aitor has to address the log-jam in front of goal. But he’s good. He is determined, ruthless and shrewd. It’ll come.