WHEN the open top bus parade is over and the newly inked ‘Aitor’s Army’ tattoos telling of title glory are paraded proudly around the hotel pool we will look back over the magic moments of the season and beam about cup wins at Man City and Arsenal and days at Derby and Bournemouth that swung it decisively our way and gush about the soon to be fabled fixture at Fulham that sealed it.
Should those celebrations come to pass no one will remember the win-ugly bread-and-butter battle to a 1-0 win at Brentford. To be fair I’m already actively trying to forget it. It was scrappy, tense and low quality fare played in atrocious conditions.
It was all long balls, stray passes, niggly fouls, squandered chances, misfiring moves and mistakes. And it was freezing. It was light years away from the Etihad. It fell well short of the demolition of Derby or the clinical defeats of the Bees and Norwich at home. And it was won with a penalty against the run of play. No one will be celebrating it as a true reflection of the team’s philosophy. Honest Aitor admitted that his side were “lucky”.
And yet, these are exactly the building block battles that get teams promoted.
Yeeeeeessssssgerrrrrrinthere: Grant debates the aesthetics of Boro’s win
Scrapping to narrow wins at Cardiff and Bolton and Huddersfield and Brentford may not take up much space on the end of season high-lights videos but you get the same number of points as more aesthetically pleasing victories. Winning when you are not playing well is a crucial part of the promotion skill set. We all know that. Newcastle, West Ham, QPR made grinding out wins on poor days their modus operandi.
And Boro did not play well. They were well below par. They were second best and under the cosh for long spells, especially in a torrid first half when they were given the runaround. Our heroes struggled to come to terms to a side that did a good tactical job on them, closing them down quickly at the back and stopping them building from the back and playing largely fruitless long balls. They were clunky from the off as Fred and Ken showed signs of ring rust and Brentford carved through a few times forcing Dimi into a couple of crucial early saves while twice headers flashed just wide.
They couldn’t impose their shape or tempo or intensity, they struggled to find their fluid passing and probing, they looked creaky and frantic at the back and laboured going forwards. They were poor. And yet they won. They wriggled off the hook and got a goal against the run of play – a long ball forward, an assertive run that drew a foul and a cool headed spot-kick from our penalty king – and then dug in and defended it with Trojan zeal.
So, not one for the purists and I dread to thing what the neutrals in the armchair audience tuning in to see the team that toppled City made of it. But who cares? Job done. Points banked. Ground at the top of a very tight table made up. A promotion rival dented. Another clean sheet. And a productive unbeaten January wrapped up. That’s a good day’s work in anyone’s book.
Brentford was rubbish as a spectacle – but could play a bigger part overall in the season’s narrative than Manchester City. That coupon-busting cup success at the Etihad was a delicious ego-boosting bonus and a great day out but in strategic terms beating the Bees is far more important. It can be a significant step along a path to promotion that has been carefully prepared and planned for.
Not that we should forget the City game. We – and the players – should take strength from that. This Boro team have proved that if they stick to the game plan, keep their concentration at the back and take their chances they are a match for anyone. They have raised the bar and raised excitement levels and expectations among the fans. And it is important now they reach those heights in the bread-and-butter games too.
They may not be able to play the brightest and best City slicker football in every match but they have to show the same determination, spirit, snarling will to win and mental strength to claw to wins by hook or by crook, even when they are not quite clicking.
Boro have a “week of destiny” in March that already has many supporters instinctively nervous and suffering a pre-emptive sense of foreboding deep in their DNA – but before then all the teams around us play each other. Points will be dropped. Gaps will appear. Pressure will tell. The dynamic will change.
If Boro can keep their focus, keep racking up points, keep the clean sheets piling up and keep winning games – six out of the last eight now – then they could be in a position of considerable strength before March. Especially if they can keep somehow find a way to grind out a result in the games like Brentford.
And that process, of carving out breathing space, of ratcheting up the pressure on our rivals, of relentlessly banking points and closing in on the top spot in a cut-throat scrum at the summit has to step up a gear now.
Boro won’t win every game. There will be set-backs. Boro will draw games. They may – shock horror! – lose a few. But we can’t be weighed down with fear at that prospect and we can’t transmit our historic anxieties onto the pitch. We need to get behind the team and play the long game. The crucial phase of the promotion battle is underway.
Roar passion: Leo shows the spirit that will be needed in scrappy games