DEFLATED Norwich boss and Lee Mack lookalike [insert your own “Not Going Up” joke here] Neil Adams spent most of his post-match press conference saying he was “not taking anything away from Boro but…”
He chuntered a bit about his own side not quite being on song, said it was the most disappointing display of the season and concluded that there was nothing in the game, nothing between the teams but Boro “just did the basics better.” Hmmmmm.
Boro dismantled Norwich 4-0 with a clinical professionalism that should send out a frightening message to the rest of the division. It was billed as the first big test of Boro’s credentials. They passed it easily. It finished as a one-sided procession. It was a massive statement of intent from a reshaped side only just now finding its feet.
Boro strangled the Canaries tactically, out-thought them and when needed out-fought them too. And they scored goals. Four of them. And had chances for more while Norwich brought one save from Dimi and slowly shrivelled as the game wore on. Whatever the visitor’s manger thought some of the Norwich fans were more frank in their assessment that the Canaries barely ruffled a feather.
Adams/Mack was right though: Boro did “do the basics better.” They closed Norwich down, denied them space, stopped their front men making runs, grabbed control of the middle and cut out crosses. In midfield Clayton and Leadbitter imposed themselves and grabbed the game by the throat. Again. At the back Gibbo and Ayala quickly got the measure of the Norwich front men. On the offensive Boro used the flanks well, zipped the ball around and picked their way through a static defence to create chances.
Grant and Patrick: Doing the basics well.
Boro probably weren’t at their best in the first half. They were solid but not spectacular. Norwich had a lot of the ball 30 yards out but did little with it while Boro looked sharp going forward but the system – the full-backs bombing on as against Watford – wasn’t working with the fluency the gaffer wanted and he was to change it at the break.
Nevertheless the stooped header opener for Patrick Bamford was finely crafted as Adomah’s ball was perfectly delivered and the striker darted through a lumbering defence. The penalty was clear-cut (although the ref took an age to think about it) and resulted from a sublime Kike back-heel that again carved a sluggish defence open. Grant Leadbitter slammed home his eighth of the season and his fifth penalty. Game over.
The second half was a stroll. Boro stepped up a gear with Lee Tomlin sparking into life and linking everything up and Norwich simply failed to live with them. Leadbitter got a second with a looping back header then goal-a-game Flying Dutchman Yanic Wildschut – who again tore into the opposition with his searing pace – back-heeled the fourth after the keeper fumbled to claim his second goal in successive games. Easy.
That is all three of the relegated sides – “full of Premier League quality” – that Boro have polished off now. That is one defeat in 12. That is seven goals in two games after responding in style to the Wolves set-back. That is five unbeaten at home. That is one goal conceded in three games. That is a side in great form. Boro are joint top with Bournemouth – who share the summit – who are the visitors at the Riverside on Saturday.
Well I don’t know about you but I’m excited. Seriously. You can feel the buzz. The atmosphere was fantastic (again) because fans are starting to believe. Yes, “we’ve been here before” … but this SQUAD is far stronger than the one that went top for 24 hours under Mogga two years ago with a win over Sheffield Wednesday. Then Boro had a strong first XI but beyond that looked a bit shaky. Now Boro have one of the best squads in the fdivision and a very, very strong bench. The manager has options. And he’s not scared to shale it about. And a few changes doesn’t make the team less coherent or potent.
And there is a real sense of unity and purpose about the squad now and a almost tangible belief within the camp. They have all bought into “the philosophy and methodology” and are all totally focussed on the unspoken target: promotion. Look at the squad celebrating. Everyone is pulling together now. It is fantastic to see.
Karanka stressed the collective in his post-match comments: “We don’t have anybody above the team, not the manager, not the striker, not the keeper, we are all the same importance, from the chairman to the kitman, we are a team,” he said. And you can see it.
I hope the layers of lapsed loyalists who have grown estranged from the club after false dawns and shrivelled seasons can see it too and rally round the club and play their part. Yes, there are people who can’t afford it. But there are just as many who can but who have opted out because “they don’t feel the club’s ambitions match their own.”
If Boro keep winning games convincingly, if they keep passing tests, if they stay at the summit and look like realistic contenders then those people can be won back. If Boro can maintain their momentum then the half-season ticket can be THE red hot Christmas present of choice on Teesside.
There is a fledgling feel-good buzz about Boro but it remains fragile. Cynics remain to be convinced. But they want to believe, they want to be cajoled back aboard the bandwagon. The team and the club are doing their best to do just that.
Bournemouth next. Another massive test. Bring it on. I’m loving this season.
MEANWHILE… here’s a pre-match read for you: this week’s Big Picture column in the old-fashioned paper Gazette: