THE RIVERSIDE crowd gave Steve McClaren a warm reception – but that’s all he did get on his Riverside return. There were no points packaged as a home-coming gift.
Instead Aitor Karanka’s battling Boro worked hard to frustrate our former master tactician and make sure he went away empty-handed. Karanka out-McClarened McClaren, wrapped the game in a stifling tactical shroud to stop the opposition playing then hit them with a well worked counter to claim a deserved 1-0 victory over Derby.
That helped take the sting out of what otherwise could have been a taunting, haunting emotional reunion.
It is no surprise McClaren got generous applause: he will be forever intrinsically linked to the memories of Boro’s golden age. He earned it.
His last game in charge was the UEFA Cup final in Eindhoven in May 2006.It was Boro’s high water mark after a glorious two years in which we won a first ever trophy on a famous day at Cardiff and then set off on a two-year fairytale trek across Europe meeting and beating some of the biggest names in the game along the way.
At Eindhoven Boro’s line-up was: Schwarzer, Parnaby, Riggott, Southgate, Queudrue (Yakubu), Morrison (Maccarone), Rochemback, Boateng, Downing, Viduka (Cattermole), Hasselbaink. Subs: Jones, Ehiogu, Parlour, Bates.
That’s some team McClaren was working with then. One carefully assembled with a huge investment in transfer fees and wages and peppered with household names and established internationals. It was a time when Boro could genuinely compete with the big boys for players and for the honours.
It was a different world.
And people were cheering the electric emotions and memories of that dream time as much as the man. That is understandable. It is the stockpile of memories and experiences that bind us together and to the club.
But lest we forget, Steve McClaren was not always universally loved when in charge at Boro. His last year at the Riverside was divisive and marked by a soundtrack of bitter squabbling in the stands and rancour behind the scenes.
He spent much of the first part of that final season skulking out of sight in the tunnel on matchdays lest he prompt another cascade of booing. The team were struggling in the relegation-zone, he was being pilloried for playing dull football with one up front at home to poor sides – even the chairman was moved to call it “dross” live on the radio – and fans were in turmoil, divided and openly hostile.
The dissidents, and there were many, had a lengthy charge sheet to level against him: he had sold Juninho, he played safety first football, he had openly flirted with other clubs – painfully with Newcastle and Leeds – and for all his vaunted PR training had alienated many fans with his “magnificent” mantra after woeful, disappointing games and left many insulted after he said they “needed to be educated.”
Among the crowd, collectively and individually, all that bubbling back story had to be balanced against the undoubted success. And some people struggled to square the circle at the time. And still do.
So when Steve McClaren left there was much respect (some begrudged) and a lot of gratitude (some qualified) and many testimonials to his managerial ability and record – but very little love. He was not viewed with the residual warmth of Bruce Rioch for instance. Or even Bryan Robson.
So it is no surprise that the Return of the Mac prompted an outburst of emotion. It was a proxy celebration of a fabulous golden age of which he was a central part and that will never be forgotten. No surprise either that for many it underlined painfully exactly how far back the club have slipped since his departure.
But there is nothing to be gained in swooning over faces from a fading past and bemoaning a fall from grace.
What is important is rebuilding in the present and marking out a path to get the club back into the big time.
And Boro are starting to put down the platform for that. Slowly. And from a far lower base than Steve McClaren would recognise. But the signs of progress are there.
A functional fledgling Boro deservedly won 1-0 on a day that suggested McClaren’s Derby – despite the set-back still nailed on for a play-off place – are not that far ahead of Aitor Karanka’s side.
McClaren indicated after the game that his side were below par – “it wasn’t us out there today” he said – but the fact is that Karanka’s Boro did a job on them. They took the tempo out of Derby’s usual game, stifled their fluid movement and blunted their attack in a very disciplined display.
The central defensive duo of Ben Gibson and Kenneth Omeruo were fantastic in their tenacious tackling and between them shackled 19 goal top scorer Chris Martin and Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford with relative ease.
And in midfield Nathaniel Chalobah did a superb man-marking job on Derby dangerman, schemer Craig Bryson to neutralise him before passing that job to Grant Leadbitter and switching to a more assertive role going forward.
Having taken the sting out of Derby, Boro started to look more enterprising on the break and snatched victory with a well-enginered counter-attack, Gibson pinging a sublime 50-yard crossfield pass to Emmanuel Ledesma who slotted diagionally into the box and into the path of Chalobah who took a touch and rifled home.
McClaren would have been proud of the game plan.
And Karanka can be proud of his team too. As at Brighton last week, who were just outside the top six, Boro more than matched an in-form side and then edged a close fought game – because they have finally found some firepower.
Not devastating firepower. No way. They never looked like blasting Brighton nor drubbing Derby. But the relentless industry throughout the team, the closing and pressing, the tenacious tackling and blocking at the back, the tactical rigidity that stifles the opposition, grinds them down and blunts their cutting edge has slowly been allied to something approaching a bit of punch.
After a 12-hour, eight-game goal drought Boro have now scored six goals in four games and nine in seven. They have come through a relatively tough run of games against a string of polished teams higher up in the table – Nottingham Forest, Ipswich, Bournemouth, QPR, Brighton and Derby – and only lost one in those seven… and that only after a bottle-top bobble in stoppage time.
It doesn’t constitute a new goal-den age of net-busting but it does suggest that Karanka has started to tweak the tactics and mentality to address the problem up front just as he did earlier in his tenure to solve the porous defence.
Initially the tweaks that led to goals also led to Boro leaking as they sacrificed institutional rigidity for more movement and hence more space but the last two games have also seen clean sheets as the balance is adjusted.
So it is starting to come. In flashes. Tentatively. And against some of the better teams in the division too. That bodes well for next year.
Against Derby Leadbitter was given the more conservative anchor role while Chalobah was given a little more licence to get forward. Whoah there – not too cavalier! But certainly a little more freedom to push forward and add pace and creativity. Chalobah’s goal was well taken, a crisp low strike, but just as telling was the delightful dink over the top just before that sent Adomah into the box, although he poked wide under pressure.
With the goal drought monkey off their back it looks like Boro have started to regain a bit of belief going forward. There are little flickerings there, reasons for optimism. Forest, Brighton, Ipswich and Bournemouth are all locked on 58 points, just six ahead. And we know this side can easily live with all those team, even if it ultimately turns out we can’t catch them in the final straight because of stuttering spells earlier on..
Boro now need to give it one big final push in the games that remain to turn a few more of the narrow draws into narrow wins, to build a bit of momentum, to put bums on seats and go into the summer with a bit of a buzz of anticipation ready for next year.
There are new memories to be made. And hopefully things to be cheered in the present.