WHERE do you start with THAT?
Battling Boro were squeezed out in a 31 goal thriller at Anfield. They scored 15 goals against away Champions League side and “lost”. Keeper Jamal Blackman scored a penalty and conceded 16 goals on his debut. Whack. Smack. Hammer. Neither keeper got anywhere near 20 consecutive penalties in a nerve-shredding cup record shoot-out. Crazy, surreal, unscriptable spot-kick shoot-out.
Liverpool 2 Boro 2 (aet) (Liverpool win 14 [FOURTEEN] – 13 [THIRTEEN] on penalties). Total brackets. Total madness. Totally emotional exhausted after a pulsating night of pride and passion and barely believable absorbing end-to-end action in which Boro more than matched a far from weakened Champions League side. Live on TV! What an advert for Aitor Karanka’s Boro side. If that doesn’t put bums on seats I don’t know what will.
Even taking the penalty marathon out of the equation it was still a dramatic game packed with incident and encouragement. A spirited side twice battled from behind to equalise and snatched a last gasp leveller in the 123rd minute! And deserved it.
For long spells it was very difficult to decide which was the Championship and which was the Champions League side. Liverpool fielded Mignolet (£10m), Lallana (£25m), Moreno (£12m), Sakho (£18m), Markovic (£20m), Enrique (£7m), Lucas (£5m), Lambert (£9m) plus the future of England Raheem Sterling… and Balottelli (£16m) came off the bench.
There was nothing in that game. “Worryingly, Middlesbrough looked the more likely to find a winner in normal time” said the Liverpool Echo. Boro played with zest and spirit and combined steel with real skill. The cock-up for the first goal aside, the team were organised, composed, balanced and played some delightful passing football that looked potent. Boro created real chances. And there were some fantastic performances. You could come to blows pressing the case for three of four candidates for Man of the Match. For me Dani Ayala was the pick of the bunch but if you want to canvas for Adam Reach, Kike, Lee Tomlin or Adam Clayton, go ahead.
But the real result was that the team, the system, the shape, stood up to a high pressure environment. Indeed, it flourished. The team is mentally and physically strong.
After the game I was down in the tunnel area doing interviews and as the players milled around they were laughing and shaking their heads in at the crazy finale but were lining up to praise each other. There was no sense that this team had lost. There was no spirit crushed self-pity of defeat. They were buzzing. They had go to Anfield and got a draw. They thought they should have won. The surreal shoot-out was a freak and no guide to the balance of play. That won’t be what they take from a game full of positive.
Most fans went away buzzing too. The 2,800 travelling Teessiders made a right racket non-stop. Most will be hoarse this morning after roaring through the best part of three hours. They drove the team on and almost helped Anfield’s propose redevelopment by exploding the Anfield Road end with their sonic boom.
That was in sharp contrast to the Liverpool fans who only piped up immediately after both goals and to boo and whistle when Boro players walked up to take their penalties. “Where’s your famous atmosphere?” Boro fans asked. No reply came. That constant support as much as the team’s display helped shape a general impression that Boro were the side setting the tempo and tone of the game. It was brilliant. Even the Liverpool fans and local media were impressed with a lot of nice thing said after the game in real life and on social media. Although there was a slight patronising tone to it as they ruffled our hair and you know they would have been scathing and vitriolic had we won.
“I think we have shown everybody on TV what kind of club Middlesbrough is,” said Aitor after the match. Indeed. All that “under the radar” reaction to Boro’s weekly 42 seconds on the Football League show has been blown apart. The football nations would have watched that and though… Wow! Watch Boro’s promotion odds tumble now. All the national press big hitters were there and went away gushing. After four years of ignoring our shabby second shelf existence they want to know us again now.
Hopefully those layers of lapsed loyalists across Teesside will want to know us again too. Maybe the cynics who have formed a picture from snippets in the media, the jaundiced post-match moan-in from people who haven’t been and the blipvert coverage on the Football League Show (the 4-0 win over Brentford got 12 seconds of team walking out, one minute of action and 22 second of of gaffer interviews… at 00.35) will reassess.
Riverside regulars and Tees travellers will have seen a shape starting to emerge after the summer rebuild, a coherent team with structure and purpose. This Boro side are starting to reshape the narrative around the club. They are starting to make people outside Teesside take notice. We need to do that in our heartland too. Now we need to persuade people closer to home believe that something special could be happening.