THE WIN over Derby felt like a pivotal point in the promotion battle. It felt like a seismic shift in the balance of forces. It felt like the landscape has been reshaped in the in the psychology and the maths and the momentum at the top. It felt fantastic.
This “Week of Destiny” has been looming large for months and lets be honest here, some people have been wetting themselves over it. If you are that way inclined and spend most of your time viewing events through a jaundiced flaw-magnifying telescope of scorn predicting that the next match is a looming disaster then you would have seen this Titanic trio of tussles as the point where the wheels would come off, where the inherent obvious weaknesses in the team were exposed and “typical Boro” collapsed.
In fact the “Week of Destiny” is showing what the rest of the league – managers, players and fans of other teams – knew all along: Boro are a very good team. They are well organised, well motivated, technically gifted and tactically astute, they have strength in depth and they have the right balance of steel and spite needed to get through games that the opposition try to turn into a toe-to-toe blood and snot scrap.
Boro have risen to the challenge of a massive week. They polished off Ipswich with a ruthless zeal live on TV when the habitual critics said they would bottle it on screen.
They went to Derby when the critics said they had yet to beat a top team away, and that Steve McClaren was the uber-coach and would prepare a trap and we would now see why Tom Ince was a Championship game-changer and that Boro wouldn’t cope with a baying full-house in a high pressure away game. And they won. They were battered and bruised and physically drained on the whistle but they won and landed what could be a dream denting blow on Derby and beefed up their position at the top. And then there were two.
Mag-bloody-nificent….. not again!
The dust-up at Derby felt important because of the nature of the battle. For all his clip-board coaching credentials and appliance of science approach, McClaren’s tactical plan was fairly simple: clatter Patrick Bamford to nullify Boro’s threat and get if forward quickly to Ince and Ward, play at a test-to-destruction tempo and intensity and try to pick or batter a way through. Boro defused that approach with ease. They more than matched the muscle and pace and played all the best football to finish well on top.
For all Derby’s possession and balls down the flanks and into the box Boro were rarely troubled and bar a punched clearance of a late free-kick Dimi barely had to do anything. There was a frantic first 20 with Christie and Ward putting a few square balls in a couple of hopeful efforts stabbed wide and an attacking home energy that produce more heat than light and an even more frantic kitchen-sink last 20 with four, five, six up-front and a barrage of crosses to be blocked and headed. But for all the nervous energy it never felt like dentures Derby had real incisors. Russell on featured in flashes . Ince quickly faded. Yes, Derby have injuries to key players and it was “a good time to play them” but they are still one of the strongest squads in the league and hey, we have injuries too.
But it wasn’t easy. Physically, it was one of the toughest tests of the season. Boro had to be at their best. They were industrious without the ball, closing and chasing and tackling and blocking and they headed away a barrage of routine crosses and after a first half spent largely on the back foot drawing the Derby sting they started to assert themselves.
They should have broken the deadlock in the first half with the the Jelle Vossen 40 yard first time audacious chip after a scuffed shot-stopper’s clearance, an inching instinctive arch of ambition over the hapless stranded shot-stopper, a long geometric plotting that wafted a sudden shroud of open-mouthed cinematic slo-mo silence over the ground as everyone’s neck rose and tracked the flight of the ball through what seemed minutes of agonising airborne uncertainty as it dipped goalwards… then rattled off the far post and bounced down and back up into the relieved keeper’s arms as full-speed resumed amid a massive sigh of relief from Rams and disbelieving laughter from Boro fans.
After that the balance of the game and the mood of the ground shifted decisively. Derby were getting no joy with either their frustrated probing down the channels or their simplistic bludgeoning and their belief and tempo gradually waned while Boro started to show they had a potent punch in reserve, that they had quality given a chance to shine.
And they won the game with a goal conjured with another moment of magic, a perfectly weighted Lee Tomlin run and well spotted wire guided pass that somehow squeezed through a crowd of flat-footed defenders to find Bamford’s perceptive run and he took a deft touch to guide it around and beyond the keeper then sublimely swept it into the net with an angled stroke that was almost one balletic moment.
That was a moment heavy with inevitability: he was a former Derby player with a point to prove, a Nottingham-born Forest fan (a “Red Dog”) with all his friends and family watching, and he had been battered relentless on the pitch and barracked off it by increasingly hysterical fans. He was whacked and crunched at every turn. He was kicked and pushed and pulled and rammed in the back but he kept battling, kept moving and scored a sweet St Patrick’s Day goal that oozed Premier League class.
Paddy Power! Bamford turns on the Football Inevitability Drive.
He could have had a second at the death that would have echoed his goal against Ipswich as he peeled away from Keogh as a long ball forward bounced on the halfway line but as he raced forward he felt his calf cramping and never had the ooomph to finish it. He was knackered. Albert went down cramped at the end. Woody was limping. Gibbo was creaking. George was bruised (although not as bruised as Ince after some early hits).
It was a well organised and meticulously prepared win. After the game George revealed he had spent the whole week watching DVDs of Ince’s twists and turns and knew what to expect, when to hit him and when to stand off. Bamford revealed that in the warm-up he had deliberately and publicly lined up wide right during the kicking-in drills to send out pre-match tactical disinformation to McClaren. Both said pitchside after the game that they had already started work on Bournemouth. Those are the levels of micro-management that Aitor Karanka puts into every single day of his project.
Aitor Karanka himself was delighted and rightly praised his players and said, yes, it was a big night but he counselled caution, said nothing had been won yet and was immediately focussed on Bournemouth…. although his “for this one reason we are happy” body language suggested he had EIOed his way from the changies to the press lounge and was about to leading the singing all the way home on the coach.
It was a fantastic, pulsating electric atmosphere and that reflected the frenetic high-stakes nature of the game. At kick-off there was an ear-drum bursting up-to-11 roar that made it feel like a cup final. And that energising volume and passion was relentless through the first 15 or 20 minutes of Derby’s quick but gradually more ragged probes forward.
But the organised volume of passionate mass urging soon dropped to be replaced by more anxious notes and urgent, nervous individual squeals and suddenly Boro fans dominated the soundscape. By half-time the home fans were no longer chanting in purposeful unison – except when they were berating Bamford as he picked himself up from yet another juggernaut drive-by – and from those in front of the press box the fear started to bubble through, the pitch went up several octaves to dog-whistle territory and the scape-goating started and morale dipped. Quickly. By the end every misplaced pass brought a fractured yelping. That is a club with a serious crisis of confidence and a big challenge to go up.
So that’s the “Week of Destiny” so far: two games, six points, a pair of putative promotion rivals seriously dented, the rest of the pack falling away …. and it is Bournemouth next. The long time leaders are two points behind now. They only know one way to play so they will attack and pass and try to have a go at Boro. That may suit our normal game.
I’d take a draw right now.
And here’s what we said before the game.
BORO have a massive chance to change the mood music of the title run in tonight as they go to long time rivals Derby in the second instalment of their “Week of Destiny.”
It feels like a good time to play them. Boro’s wobble is weeble-like, we haven’t fallen down and seem to right ourselves quickly for the next push. But Derby have had a massive Greek plate spinning crockery catastrophe with just two wins in eight, four without victory and some distinct stutters, needing to come from three down to grab a draw with Rotherham and letting slip a two goal lead in stoppage time to draw with Birmingham.
They appear to be having a crisis of faith, an injury crisis (key strikers Chris Martin and Darren Bent are both out) and a once rigid backline has sprung a leak and they have conceded two goals or more in EIGHT of the last nine games. Talking to their press people the tension at the top is is getting to both the team and the crowd with nerves setting in early and the fear that even two goals may not be enough for a point. Last season’s play-off failure is casting an icy shadow over their hearts.
Here’s a quick preview chat I had with DerbyCountyBlog. The fans seem to be a little bit jittery there and a bit more worried about Boro than we are them. And to be fair, most Boro fans are more worried about Boro then they after about the Rams..
Boro travel boosted by the emphatic (eventually) 4-1 win over Ipswich that pretty much ploughed the Tractorboys out of the race for the automatic spots. Another victory tonight *could* seriously dent Derby’s morale as they labour through their own fixture flurry of five games in six against top eight sides. It would also set up Boro nicely for the big trip to Bournemouth on Saturday.
There has been a lot of theoretical mathematical modelling going on over the past few days over what points return is acceptable, possible and desirable. Having beaten Ipswich and given the looming fixtures for all the top sides I believe TWO points from the next two games would be acceptable, four is possible and I’d be pinching myself with six.
There is an abstract argument going on that TWO would be better than THREE. It sounds crazy because obviously that would mean Boro would be one point worse off. But the logic is that two draws would peg back both rivals where as a win one, lose one outcome would let one of the others steal a march. If Derby were to win they would be back ahead of Boro. If it was the Cherries they would open a gap. I see the logic but don’t buy it. I think it is just psychologically building a cushion to land on if Boro fail to win the games.
It depends whether you want to play the long game and try to control at least some of the factors in a tense multi-team chase or believe we should just bank the points and let the rest take care of itself.
A moor point. I think we’ll win. I think Derby are vulnerable. I think they are also scared of the Totemic power of “Red Dog” (Forest fan) Patrick Bamford, who it emerged this week their fans dubbed ‘Wigwam’ when he was there last year. Bamford – who scored in the reverse in December – has declared himself “well up for it” for a bundle of reasons . If he plays to his Paddy Power potential Boro will win.
I’m going for a Boro win, 1-0 or 2-0. But it will be tense. Aren’t they all now?