BORO beat Barnsley comfortably but the day was blighted by yet another cruel blow for injury jinxed Rhys Williams. There was barely a minute on the clock when he down, thumping the turf as much in anger and frustration as the agony.
Play had moved up-field when I noticed him down. I didn’t see a challenge. There wasn’t one in the draw with Wigan last January when he went down with the original injury. But it was clear he was in considerable pain and after a few minutes brief treatment he looked to be in tears as he was stretchered off to ominous respectful applause. There was more applause as he appeared later on crutches to watch the rest of the game from the bench and he acknowledged the fans bravely but you could sense that both feared the worst.
Gutted: Team mates look on anxiously as Rhys Williams is stretchered off
After the game Aitor Karanka was gutted for the lad. He admitted the staff thought it was the same injury or a similar one and while he insisted they would need to wait for scans and full reports his body language and expression suggested that he did not expect good news. All his team mates were in downbeat mood as they left too and several were quickly on Twitter with #CrossedFingers and hoping it wasn’t as bad as feared. So, a sombre note.
Obviously, there was an instant reaction to blame the club and ‘Crockliffe’ from cynics corner with the armchair physios claiming ‘they’ had rushed him back too soon. But the injury has been carefully and conservatively managed with the player taking an active part and far from being rushed back he has been eased into action in a planned way with a couple of games in the Under-21s with full assessments afterwards and several weeks of full contact and high-intensity training sessions before a brief cameo on Boxing Day in the win over Forest.
But it is an awful injury and there is a statistical tendency to reoccur and as with all serious weight-bearing muscles you can never tell until they are tested in the heat of battle if the rehabilitation is succesful. Ask Matty Bates. If it was going to happen it could have happened in the reserves or in training just as easily as in a match, whether the first or the tenth or whenever. And at some point you have to suck it and see. To some extent it is fate. And fate has not been kind to the erstwhile Rolls Rhys.
If it is the worst case scenario and he faces another 10 or 11 months out then it doesn’t look good for Rhys. That will be three practically season long injuries three years out of four going into the final year of his contract. As with Bates after his fifth cruciate, it would be a brave club that offered him a long term deal after that.
Rhys now faces a massive battle to get his career back on track. Good luck to the lad. He is a lovely bloke and took the last injury – and second wrecked World Cup dream – badly so I hope someone at the club puts an arm around him over the next days and weeks.
The game itself – when it finally kicked off after a hold-up for a suspected main stand gas leak – was routine and functional as a “weakened” Boro did the job without ever hitting top gear or threatening to run riot. The gulf in technical ability between the sides was evident from the off and for long spells in looked like a keep-ball training exercise and Boro zipped the ball from side to side, picked holes and probed forward and recycled the ball with the care and enthusiasm of a Green party candidate.
Of course, you don’t get points for possession. It is what you do with it that counts and on that front Boro made hard work of the first half. They bossed the game but over-elaborated, took a touch too many and squandered a string of good chances. Former Boro shot-stopper Ross Turnbull made a couple of good saves too, from a Kike header and sliding in at his feet plus holding stinging shots from Bamford and Tomlin.
But it was always going to come. A bit more urgency after the break forced a flurry of early mistakes from Barnsley and one was punished as loose ball was pounced on and pushed into the box for Vossen to drill home. After that it was straight-forward. The second came as Ayala powered in a downward header from a corner that was fumbled onto the post and in by Turnbull. Game over.
There were a few other chances. A cross in was headed against the Barnsley bar by a combination of a defender and Kike but was hooked away at one end then at the other Meijas went full length to tip over a free-kick superbly but the ref must have been engulfed in the Boro fans wave a tangible disbelief as he awarded a goal-kick. That came as the result of Adam Clayton’s ‘one for the team’ second booking for a “tactical foul” on largely anonymous Leroy Lita. So, another one match ban traded for a clean sheet.
Some will have a little moan about it – it is in our DNA after all – and say that shot-shy Boro should have battered Barnsley out of sight, or played a different team or shape, or that Rhys was rushed back to soon, or even that they would have been better off losing the game so they could concentrate on the league.
But they got through and that is all that counts, especially on a day when the FA Cup routinely throws up upsets. They dominated, there were no wobbles, they kept a clean sheet, a few fringe figures put in superb displays (James Husband was outstanding) they kept up their momentum and mighty Middlesbrough are in the hat for the fourth round. Which is the important thing. On to Reading and the bread and butter now.
Good in the air: Spring heeled Spaniard Dani Ayala celebrates scoring.
A few other things to note. Firstly Karanka batted away suggestions he was being linked with Newcastle and while the quotes are linguistically clunky his body language was emphatic and when the question was rephrased and he was asked, for clarification, if he remained committed to Boro project he stressed, “Yes – 120%” which will annoy linguo-mathematical purists but reassure most fans.
And secondly, Tomas Kalas was wearing Boro training gear and watching the game sat next to Dimi and the other non-playing members of the party. Chelsea’s Czech international defender returned from a frustrating spell at FC Koln on Thursday and is poised to join the squad for training tomorrow and seal a loan move until the end of the season in the next few days. As exclusively revealed by yours truly on Twitter at 00.59 on New Years Eve and the Gazette on-line soon after. Never let it be said I don’t respect an embargo. And if you don’t follow me on Twitter, why not?