BORO delivered in style in front of a Bumper Boxing Day crowd at a Riverside bursting at the seams with potential.
The one sided 3-0 crushing of Forest was an important win and an impressive performance on a day that could be a milestone on Boro’s long road to redemption.
If Boro now go on to make a second half surge and secure precious promotion, the defeat of Forest will become a famous badge of honour day like the game at Hartlepool of the Sex Pistols playing the Sex Pistols, a watershed moment when so many Riverside returnees will look back proudly and say: “I was there. That’s the day I started to believe again.”
The Riversider regulars can feel vindicated. The have dug in defiantly during the long testing seasons in the shadows and had to take some flak and ridicule from refuseniks who had bailed out and questioned the sanity of those who held on. And to be fair some may have questioned their own sanity at times as yet another false dawn darkened and results and gates dropped away under Strachan and again under Mogga. But the hardcore have grown in heart over the past year as they have seen a spirited and steely side slowly take shape and they will feel they deserve to be rewarded and see this campaign bear fruit.
And the once bitten sceptics and cynics and those who have fallen by the wayside in the bleak shrivelled seasons since relegation – or have applied higher objective standards of quality control – but who were lured back for this game have seen that too now.
And it was their presence that made the game so important. That potential extra 10,000 are the engine that can drive the club forward. It is crucial the club can harness them.
So often since relegation Boro have gathered some tentative momentum and attracted a crowd of lapsed loyalists eager to be persuaded back aboard the bandwagon only to stutter and splutter and disappoint. But this time – in front of the biggest crowd since Manchester United visited in May 2009 – Aitor Karanka’s side delivered.
To be fair, they have passed a series of big tests in recent months and crowds have grown slowly but steadily. They shot down the high-flying Norwich 4-0 when they were the form side; they had the edge in a stalemate with Bournemouth when the now leaders arrived on the back of seven straight wins; they dismantled Steve McClaren’s title tips Derby live on TV, all occasions when more fragile Boro teams of the past would crack.
This time the test was two-fold: how would they bounce back from defeat at Ipswich and could they handle the pressure of a sell out crowd?
But Karanka’s Boro responded in style and chopped down Forest – a long time bogey team and arriving on the kind of poor run of results that just screamed “coupon-buster!” – with a determination and a swagger that speaks volumes about the confidence and mental strength within the camp.
From the moment George Friend headed the opener there was only ever going to be one outcome. Jelle Vossen rammed home the advantage and Grant Leadbitter sealed it late on… his 11th goal of the season and his seventh from the spot.
By George: Friend Fells Forest With Thumping Header
Actually, the outcome looked obvious long before the opener. Boro dominated throughout. Forest – playing a disjointed, deep and defensive shape initially with three at the back that when we got the team sheet left us (and some of our Forest counterparts) scratching our heads – beavered away and tried desperately to keep swarming Boro at arms length but they never looked comfortable. In fact, it was a bit of a mess.
Forest were poor. They lacked shape and belief. One of the Forest fanzine people tweeted that once again the team looked as if it had been selected by “the Psychotron”, a random number generator. Their three at the back included two natural full backs while neither of their wing-backs (Burke and Antonio) looked happy. Antonio got a few crosses in early on then faded while Burke, who usually has a stormer against Boro, over-lapped and had a hopeful angled low range effort easily saved then he disappeared, they had next to no grip on the game in midfield and big money top scorer Assombalonga was anonymous and was taken off at the break. If Stuart Pearce is looking for him, he’s in Big Ken’s pocket.
But as poor as Forest were, Boro were good. Seriously. Professional, effective, functional. It was another clinical Karanka display. Not quite at the level of the Derby demolition but still impressive. They were on top tactically and territorially in the first half without making their advantage count. The visiting keeper made three good saves and there were some habitual “one of those days” jitters starting to ripple through the crowd – especially those who have only followed this season by proxy, the returnees who had turned up having been sold a dream of attacking, enterprising football.
But from the off Boro had been tactically turning the screw and it was only a matter of time. It was a supremely assured display. Boro played at a high tempo, passed and swept the ball around, picked and probed, especially into the empty acres behind those fragile full-back areas and gradually started to carve out chances. Nsue and Friend got forward to add width and cross from those unguarded areas leaving fire-fighting Forest increasingly stretched and exposed. Boro seized, absorbed and consolidated midfield territory with the heavily armed arrogance of the 19th century imperial carve up of Africa.
Floundering Forest were chasing shadows for long spells and made a string of tactical changes. They went from 352 to 451 at the break and tried to be more direct to no avail. Boro looked a class above. “And for this one reason we are happy”. Aitor was delighted with the result and that the team were not only able to handle the pressure of the big crowd but to send them home happy.
With such a big crowd – half of them Aitor Agnostics – it was crucial that the team demonstrated exactly what the rest of us have been preaching about for months. It was important that with upwards of 10,000 supporters who had not seen this new team live for ages, possibly years, Boro sent them away gushing.
It was important to show the returnees exactly what Karanka’s side was capable of and to give them a teasing glimpse of the possibilities, give them something to dream about, something to come back for. Hopefully the prodigals saw that, will be persuaded of Boro’s credentials and will go away as excited evangelists for Aitor’s Army. Hopefully we will get many of them back on a regular basis as the drama of this season of promise unfolds.
It would be very difficult for even the most practised of pessimists to argue that it wasn’t a good display or a good result. Boro were thoroughly professional, played some exciting, attacking football and got the crowd rocking. And with the heat on because of the crowd, results elsewhere and with some supporters raising doubts after the denting at Ipswich, they showed quite emphatically they could handle it, they could flourish with it.
It was a great day. The stadium was thobbing with excitement and anticipation and the courses were packed with Christmas Jumpered queues for everything an hour before kick-off and there was an enthusiastic background buzz of chatter and upbeat predictions.
For many it was like old top flight glory days and a decade when 30,000 plus crowds and penguin walks through the underpass were the norm. It was such a full-house flashback that the North Stand fans even managed to unveil the surfer. Old school!
Surf’s Up: Some long lamented old friend made a welcome return to action
For many more though – it was the first narcotic taste of what going to the match can be like when the club is healthy and ambitious and vibrant, when the opposite ends are chanting in stereo and a rammed Riverside is really rocking.
That is exactly what football is supposed to be about: a buoyant crowd getting right behind a team playing attacking football with zest. And winning. Winning is important. Especially on days like that.
Hopefully that will be the launch pad for a renewed swagger among fans and a new optimism across Teesside. Hopefully it can become the norm.