WELL, that went well. An archetypal “typical Boro” moment that probably goes straight into the top 10. Millwall’s casual 2-1 win was a real kick in the teeth for anyone naive and daft enough to have the calculators and fixture lists out plotting a path to a far-fetched sixth spot. And a shoo-in for the cynical veterans who betted against Boro.
We all know the time-honoured ingredients. And, bar he damning presence of the TV cameras, they were all in place
In-form Boro, on a roll and with something to play for. TICK
Coming off the back of a battling display in which the team showed real spirit. TICK
Build-up bubbling with people who should know better ‘daring to dream.’ TICK
At home with a decent crowd just willing to be won over. TICK.
Match played just before the season ticket deadline. TICK
Opposition in bottom three and looking vulnerable. TICK
We battered them in reverse fixture. TICK
They have a couple of players we have flogged as flops. TICK
At least Scott McDonald didn’t score. That would have really rubbed it in.
As it was, the slump to Millwall was disappointing, not least because it was almost the same team and shape that had put in such a spirited show at bubbling Burnley. The same team but nowhere near the same intensity, organisation or sharpness.
Of course, Championship team are inconsistent. Finding a way of overcoming that fatal flaw is the key to building a promotion side and we have seen enough in the past few months to suggest that process is underway, if not yet complete. But having seen that progress makes such a woeful, weak display all the more frustrating.
Boro actually clipped the post early on as Graham stabbed in a shot that was pushed aside by keeper Forde but that was as good as it got.
The defence was a shambles. The makeshift wing-backs were nowhere near as industrious, fierce or fast in closing down Millwall’s wingers and as a result crosses rained in, especially from the left where Lee Martin had Adomah on toast. It was a bit embarrassing really. Martin had a 20 minute spell where he played with the unfettered confidence or a man with diplomatic immunity. He had already put three unimpeded dangerous crosses before unmarked towering targetman Stefan nodded in the opener.
It was basic stuff and easy to cut out. But Boro didn’t cut it out and the second was a carbon copy unchallenged cross and free-header for the lanky striker. It was exactly the kind of simplistic assault that ripped apart Tony Mowbray’s team on a weekly basis and which the new more rigid Boro have worked hard to cut out.
Karanka changed the shape after that to a flat back four but the damage was done. After that Boro probably had more of the ball and created a flurry of half chances without ever looking like clawing it back – and Millwall actually looked more potent on the break.
Boro pulled one back with a superb dipping Ledesma free-kick, which you can see here – but it was too little, too late.
That torpedoes any hope of snatching a play-off spot. Not that it was anything other than far-fetched. But it was a timely dangled carrot to keep the team and fans battling through the last few games and keep the season alive. Four good wins in a row – including top six sides Burnley, Derby and Brighton – had built vital momentum and morale and started wild-eyed talk of new term’s possibilities and people renewing season tickets with enthusiasm rather than a grudging sense of duty … there is a danger now of that upsurge of optimism fizzling out. And that would be ‘typical Boro.’
Still, three games left to repair the PR damage, refocus the team’s mentality and show that the Millwall slip-up was a freak, Three games left to finish with a final flourish and show that the feel-good factor from last week has substance and that all the positives we have seen in the good run remain. Let’s not throw that away now.
Here’s what I wrote in the build-up to the game, widely blamed in some quarters for the “inevitable” defeat. Although, I think it still stands…
MILLWALL. Or M’iwaaaaaal. Whatever. After a string of generous results this could be the start of Boro’s big play-off push. We need some far fetched probability-busting permutations of results and some slap-stick slip-ups by our rivals for sixth spot. But hey.. it’s a funny old game..
Realistically Boro have to extend their perfectly timed lunge for the line to eight straight wins while the rest – Brighton, Bournemouth, Reading, Ipswich – falter in the final straight. And Boro have the bottom three to play plus the stuttering Royals on Tuesday night… it’s a crazy plan but it might just work.
However it pans out, the big plus is that normally by the stage of the season Boro have fizzled out in a dismal series of dead rubbers and grumbled recriminations. This time we have a chance to finish with a final flourish and with some excitement, momentum and heightened morale to take into the summer. It could sell some season tickets too. Who knows.
But first Boro have to get past Millwall and their clutch of former Boro “heroes.”
Millwall offers a chance to see if ruthless Aitor Karanka – who by winning a string of games in January and engineering victories to the top teams who normally spank us has already shown he has no respect for our time honoured traditions – has put “typical Boro” on the naughty step.
The loveable Lions of course signed three Boro players in August including two world beaters who had become proxy sticks to beat Tony Mowbray with whenever they were excluded from the team and placed in internal exile, no matter how poor their display when included. They got better by the week when sat in the stands.
For fans with a certain mind-set Millwall were to be feared. It meant facing three times the power of Football’s Inevitability Drive when we played them. Surely Nicky Bailey would play like Iniesta and single-handedly strangle Boro’s midfield with his box-to-box surges while over-lapping Justin Hoyte would set up Scott McDonald for a hat-trick of sublime strikes with a series of pin-point deliveries? #DaftQuid
Er…. no. Far from showing what a numpty Mogga was to let such Galacticos (Gulagticos?) go, in fact all three have barely featured at basement battling Millwall.
I spoke to the Millwall man from the South London Press in midweek – ironically quite posh, erudite, friendly and called Toby; very Deptford – and he gave me the low-down on our former anti-Mogganaut dissidents, political prisoners who spent time in the Rockliffe Gulag.
Scott McDonald, the Lions’ feared three in 31 striker, may be on the bench tomorrow. Mainly because DJ Campbell is injured and Morison is just back from sick bay. Skippy was a frustrated and isolated figure in the reverse fixture back in December when Boro won to spark their Christmas offensive and hasn’t really improved. “There’s a good player in there,” said Toby. “We just don’t see that player often enough and he’s isn’t always necessarily playing for the team.”
And the argument-in-an-empty-room merchant very quickly fell out with Ian Holloway who took over in January and tried and failed to ship him out on deadline day.
“Scott and I have had some discussions,” Holloway, told Millwall webzine News At Den in a revealing interview with some familiar themes last month. “He needs to deal with how he feels and where he is in his mind. But if he does what he thinks is right, and not what I think is right, then he won’t be here, it is as simple as that.”
Justin Hoyte meanwhile has disappeared. Literally. “He wasn’t invited along to the warm weather training camp and bonding session when Holloway first arrived and we haven’t seen him since,” said Toby. Hoyre remains listed on the BBC Millwall page as a defender but his squad number has ominously been airbrushed out..
Nicky Bailey, Boro’s one time human shield, looks set to play though the pain barrier though. Unless his bad back breaks down. The Ginja Warrior has shown a bit of bottle and battle and talks the local lingo so has fitted in well and has been bravely putting his body on the line after rushing back from a slipped disc. “He’s been one of the best players in the last month during the Lions revival and the supporters love him ,” said Toby. “But he isn’t really fit and his back could go again at any time.”
So, overcome the Iron Law of the Returning Flop to beat Millwall and then go to Reading knowing victory would overhaul them… the season is still alive!