SHAY Given has left some pretty big gloves to fill. When Boro go to Sheffield Wednesday at the weekend the keeper will be playing under a massive shadow.
A staggering 10 clean sheets in 16 games with fans’ favourite Given in goal has raised the bar to Premier League levels. And raised expectations too. The shut-out success of Shay’s stay will heighten the intensity and volume of the stinging criticism that will be no-doubt fired in from all angles at his successor.
Welcome back Jason Steele.
Before the heart-breaking exit of our bromantic hero I asked him if his shot-stopping success had piled the pressure on Steele. “Pressure is for tyres,” said Shay, smiling enigmatically and side-stepping the inquiry neatly, showing he can handle potentially contentious questions as well as any awkward high ball in to the far post.
He added diplomatically that there was plenty of talent at the club, all the keepers were training hard and that whoever Aitor Karanka hands the jersey to will do a good job.
But there is no escaping that the next goalkeeper will be under almost painful scrutiny.
They will be very harshly judged against the Irishman for their technical competence, their command of the box and their organisational and communication skills with both team-mates and the crowd and will also certainly fall short on pin-up status.
And, if it is Steele in the spotlight, he also faces huge residual political pressure and an unjust historical charge sheet from a already sizeable regiment of terrace detractors with two seasons of scape-goat simmering under their belts.
Past performances were always viewed through a prism of caustic criticism by those who decided very early on he “isn’t good enough” and have no intention of being persuaded otherwise.
Now he will be measured against Shay and all comparisions are sure to be unflattering.
He has been consistently among Boro’s top performers in the past two seasons (he has been second behind Grant leadbitter in the past two Gazette star men table and the club Player of the Year awards) – and that in a position where there is no hiding place and where every costly mistake is magnified and remembered.
No matter how many games he has kept Boro in almost single-handedly (think back, there have been LOADS), no matter how many points-salvaging saves and blocks he has made as the defence collapsed in front of him, no matter how many opposition managers or pundits have heaped praise on him, the critics see only a nervous bundle of flaws who can’t kick, can’t deal with the ball in the air, can’t command his box and can’t organise his back four.
But he is ‘a good shot-stopper’ some of them they begrudgingly concede.
And ironically some demand he should to Liverpool or Sunderland or whoever is being linked at any given point and the £3-5m used to buy a “better” keeper.
They antis are already sharpening their barbs, nursing their pre-emptive anger with an agenda and spreading doom laden jitters through cyberspace before he has even gone to collect his first cross.
Now they will be able to renew their sniping but with added weaponry.
Now they have a whole forest of sticks to beat poor Steele with.
And statistics. Lots of statistics. Now their vitriol is practically science.
It seems some people are actually looking forward to the chance to barrack a Boro players and will relish a goal going in so they can enjoy their sport. There will be little room for rational, objective analysis when Boro do concede, as they will at some point – the stingy sequence can’t go on forever.
When they do, even if it is an unstoppable “worldie” or a bungled own goal with a clear culprit, no matter how complex the chain of causality it will signal open season.
“Shay would have saved that.”
But that is hugely unfair.
As Shay Given was quick to point out on several occasions, the number of clean sheets during his tenure came as much because of the shape and style and workrate of the team as because of his own individual displays.
Yes, he has put in some sizzling shows of acrobatics and agility that rightly deserve praise.He has pulled off a couple of unbelievable reflex saves from piledrivers (some after the whistle has gone but eye-catching nontheless).
He has delivered a master-class in the goal-keeping art and shown the kind of top flight quality we haven’t seen at the Riverside in years.
But while he has between the sticks the entire structure and tactical philosophy of the team has changed dramatically. When he arrived it was to a demoralised and disorganised team that had a fatal cavalier instinct, a team that habitually committed men forward in a bid to pass the opposition to death in their own half and frequently got caught on the break. Time and time again the Tony Mowbray mentality of expansive attack left the keeper exposed.
It was also to a team that had an in-built mentality fragility at the back, which was time and again ripped open by quick balls down the channels for wingers to run at full-backs still retreating after an attack broke down, which was caught in two (or more) minds when defending set-plays and which started to visibly panic as the Countdown music speeded up in the final few minutes.
That is why Boro had only kept three clean sheets all year and why the most common score-line of the season up to that point had been 2-2.
Not because of Jason Steele.
They scored plenty but leaked plenty too – primarily because of the way the team was set up. Porous Boro could have played with Iker Casillas, Peter Cech and Manuel Neuer in goal and still wouldn’t have kept a clean sheet.
Indeed, when Given arrived and before Aitor Karanka had time to stamp his own more conservative imprint on the squad, our hero was far from impregnable.
He kept a clean sheet in his debut – a 1-0 tactical strangulation of Bolton sealed by a spot-kick – but only because Jermaine Beckford sent a last gasp penalty screaming over the bar.
Then he conceded two at Derby and another two at Birmingham with the stoppage time Brum leveller at least partly his fault as he stood rooted at the post as two defenders watched Kyle Bartley nip in to score from a corner. Then followed a drab 1-0 home defeat to Brighton that took his leak rate to five goals in three games.
That is not criticism of Given. Far from it. It is just pointing to the obvious flaws that remained in a creaky defence. Leaking Boro were listing and drifting and, averaging just a point a game and in danger or capsizing.
But in the months that have followed the boss has systematically and consciously made Boro water-tight. And it has been more than just tweaks. It has been a far-reaching radical rewiring of the shape and mentality of the squad.
The full-backs, once given licence to bomb forward at will, are now required to apply in writing two weeks in advance with supporting evidence. The midfield has been re-engineered with two defensive minded anchor men breaking up attacks.
And the front-men are under instructions to close down the opposition as high up the pitch as possible, preventing the opposition building at their leisure, carving down the flanks or pumping diagonals into the box.
It has been a marked tactical success. It appears to have resolved the problem and made once brittle Boro incredibly hard to beat – although the front end now needs urgently addressing, as we know.
It is now a team with a coherent shape and style, a good platform to be built on and one that appears to still function whichever individuals come into the side. In recent months because of injuries, suspensions and new recruitment the team has changed from week to week every bit as much as it did under Tony Mowbray but results remain resolutely miserly. It seems no matter who plays, Boro still stay watertight.
It is that under-pinning work on the tactical foundations the rather than individuals has been at the root of the transformation that has yielded 10 clean sheets in 16.
Were it purely down to Shay Given we would have seen much more of him. Had he been playing behind the pre-Karanka defence he would have been left exposed three and four times games, have to make far more saves and had to deal with institutional chaos at corners. And he would have conceded goals. In 16 games, lots of them.
As it is, after the initially rocky spell of tactical transition, he has had very little to do. In some games he has largely been a spectator and taken advantage of lulls to do that stretching break-dancing thing to keep his creaky spine warm.
And that new rigidity in the team should make it far easier for the new keeper too. They will be taking up the gloves behind a far more well drilled and determined defence that keeps moments of danger to a minimum.
Should that be Steele – he admits there is more intense competition than ever before but for my money it should be – then he will find he spends far less time on crisis management and watching comic capers unfold in front of him and far less time shouldering the blame.
Not that the former first choice is guaranteed the shirt. He has only recently returned to training from ankle surgery and has yet to test his fitness and the boss has shown a reluctance to play people without a long spell of orientation to the shape and syle.
While he has been out Karanka has brought in Tomas Meijas from Real Madrid’s second string with a view to fostering more competition. Some have read that as the boss having made his judgement on Steele and found him wanting.
As the manager has only seen the keeper in action for 43 minutes before he was sent off at Leeds – trying to salvage the situation after a woeful header by Daniel Ayala – that would seem harsh and out of sync with his on-going policy of giving everyone a decent chance to prove themselves.
Far more likely that it means the end for short-term signing Dimi Konstantopolus and long time benchwarmer Jayson Leutwiler, both out of contract in the summer.
That would leave a straight fight between Steele and Meijas for the post-Shay shirt. And the boss is quite clear that he has no preconceptions and whoever trains the hardest goes in the team.
Many of the former England Under-21 man’s detractors will be rooting for the Spaniard.,. even though they have never seen him play. They would rather opt for 10 minutes for Real Madrid than three years and 150 games in the Championship. Strange
Others will want their scapegoat elect Steele to play. And leak.
They have six goalless games of frustration to get off their chests.
***THIS is the Gloves of Fate ft Butta Fingaz remix of this week’s Big Picture column