THROW that poisoned chalice on the pile of broken hoodoos over there….
The “curse” of the manager of the month award (and Charlton’s run of 12 games without a win) may have had superstitious supporters and the old school once bitten cynics quaking before the match and predicting a “typical Boro” nailed on home defeat. A long history of institutional inconsistency demanded a post-gong flop at home to a team on the slide.
But Aitor Karanka is no respector of this club’s traditions as the 3-1 win over Charlton showed. He doesn’t do “typical Boro.” Whatever whispered medieval mumbo jumbo is floating around the Teesside ether, he goes about his meticulous preparations, gets his team focussed and organised and demands daily incremental improvement. He’s a fiercely driven and professional individual. He’s not going to let fan’s fears seep into his universe.
So, no curse of the boss gong. Or the player gong. No post-Christmas slum. No January jitters. No buckling at Brentford as predicted in their first away trip to a top six side. No freezing in front of the cameras. This is a meaner, mentally stronger Boro fixed on the prize of promotion. They are winning even when not at their best. And that is in a division where so often the opposition game plan is geared to not letting you be at your best. Good. We are going to need that strength and determination in what is shaping up to be the most cut-throat Championship summit scrum ever.
The terrace tension was almost tangible as Boro – dominant in the opening spell – were pegged back just before the break while rivals Bournemouth and Derby were both cruising. You could hear the quiver in the tannoy voice of MMP’s little helper as he read out the scores. It isn’t and can’t be in early February but it felt like a watershed moment in the season. Had Boro stuttered and stumbled to a draw – or worse – at that point you sensed that the belief that has built up over the last month may have fractured.
But Karanka gave his stuttering squad ‘Los Hairdryos” at the interval and they came out firing to quickly score and settle nerves in the stands. It has under-pinned a growing sense of possibility: this team CAN win promotion. They ARE good enough.
And it was, on reflection, a polished display, the shaky 10 minutes leading up to the leveller aside. There was some criticism of course. Boro looked creaky at the back – and especially down the ring rusty right between Fred and Ken – and there were a few early warning sirens but Boro quickly played their way back into a dominant position. They plugged the gaps, took control of midfield and then started to carve through and create chances. It looked a foregone conclusion as the front line picked into the penalty box.
Then Boro were punished for taking their foot off the gas, for over-elaborating, and show-boating a bit, becoming a little complacent and allowing the intensity to drop. The goal came from the one real lax moment at the back – Big Ken allowed his man to wriggle away and put the ball into the dangerzone when really he should have made the tackle or committed a foul – but after that Boro rebooted and refocussed.
But either side of that sluggish spell Boro played well, especially going forward. Lee Tomlinho played like he suddenly believes he is a match winner. He put together a clip reel of deft flicks, tricks, drag-backs, spins and a sublime range of well weighted passes into shrewdly observed spaces as well as working hard closing down and linking. It was a fantastic individual display and he claimed a good assist and hit a sizzling goal.
Engrave that! Tomlin cracks home Boro’s third goal
When he won the gong I think there may well have been some eye-brows raised among Riverside regulars. Overall he probably hasn’t been Boro’s best player of late (Gibbo for me but there are other candidates too) – but against Charlton he put in a display that engraved exclamation marks and underlined his name on the precious glassware.
But he wasn’t the only one. It was a good performance, if not quite a classic. Aitor was disappointed that they fell short of his high demands but for me it was competent and comfortable. here was plenty of movement, creativity and crisp passing; energy and industry; organisation and tactical nous; spirit and determination. The whole promotion palette was being used.
Charlton boss Guy Luzon was impressed and pronounced Boro the best team in the division. And coming hot on the heels of the battle at Brentford, the game showed this side can mix and match styles, shapes and tempos and can do whatever it takes to win.
And it was needed. Boro’s win – more comfortable than the scoreline suggests in the end – was a timely one. The top four won again. The pace is not dropping off at all. The intensity at the top is incredible. It will come down to the ability to scrap and claw to victories, especially over the congested coming month, the February #fixturebomb .
Boro go into the sandpit at Blackpool on Tuesday for another high-stakes encounter on a night when the top two clash. Something has to give. All Boro can do is keep on raising the bar, grinding out wins, breaking hoodoos and closing in on the real prize.