SIX yellow cards in a red hot frenzied, urgent atmosphere under lights and with a passionate partisan support roaring their heroes on: this was cup football at its best.
The high-stakes semi-final shoot-out at Griffin Park was electrifying, pulsating and absorbing. The error-strewn affair may not have been “one for the purists” but it was a fantastic spectacle with two evenly matched sides going for it hammer-and-tongs.
Battling Boro were brilliant. It was an away leg tactical masterclass of soaking up pressure and hitting on the break.
With their batteries fully recharged after a sunshine power nap they came out snarling, snapping, hustling and harrying and play with an early intensity that rattled the Bees.
They pressed high, clattered into tackles and forced mistakes that prevented the home side finding any shape and rhythm and went for the jugular in midfield, shackling play-makers Jota and Pritchard and mugging dangerman Gray every time he broke forward.
It wasn’t all defence. Boro looked sharp on the break at times and had some good half chances before the forced a deserved opener through Jelle Vossen and the Belgian could have had another but for a superb save by Button who clawed the ball off the line.
Brentford had chances too. They put a few narrowly over. They got back into it when Dimi dropped a clanger and failed to clear then was robbed, although it was still a fine finish – although the keeper redeemed himself with a crucial save from a Douglas header.
It was tense finale in a pressure cooker with a series of scrambles in the Boro box that left stomachs knotted like a schoolboy’s laces – then at the death Boro snatched it with Nando’s tasty treat.
Nando’s tasty treat makes high-stakes shoot-out spicy
Brave Aitor had gambled and lost at Fulham as he urged Dimi forward for the stoppage time corner. This time the risk paid off as the flag-kick was knocked down in the box and fell nicely for on-loan Fernando Amorebieta – booed by the crowd when he came on because of his links to local rivals Fulham – to leather home.
The winner that sparked a sonic boom in the away end that only just drowned out the sound of cracking hearts in the home stands.
It completed a superb smash-and-grab raid that was a repeat offence after a similar mugging in January. Only it was sweeter. And far more significant.
The gritty game may not have been easy on the eye for an armchair neutral but for anyone with a vested interest it was an 100mph emotionally engaging, end-to-end scrap that you couldn’t take your eyes off for a second.
The home fans were howling with foam-flecked indignation at every robust rattling of their players but also because the potential prize had raised the stakes beyond belief. But they also had the jitters: “typical Brentford” have been in the play-offs seven times and lost them all. You could feel the fear of historic ghosts in their yelping.
And as the game wore on them became more agitated as their team tried and tried and threw everything forward but could not breach the Boro lines.
Under the sage and satisfied gaze of bus-parker-in-chief Jose Mourinho – Aitor knows him, you know – battling Boro dug tactical trenches 30 yards out and invited Brentford to attack.
Anyone that got through was brought down in a hail of barbed wire tackles along the front line at the edge of the box with Boro diving into bone-crunching tackles and putting bodies on the line.
That drove Brentford to go increasingly, impatiently and desperately long: more high balls into the box that were headed and cleared and blocked by the imperious pairing of Ayala and Gibson.
Ayala in particular was outstanding combining a fearless physicality with an ever more acute spatial awareness. He has eliminated the positional mistakes that blighted his early Boro displays to become the best central defender in the division.
You wonder if Boro would even need to be in the play-offs had he not been injured and absent through the wobble of Sheffield Wednesday and Forest and the trauma of Bournemouth.
And the Fulham freak has become more frustrating now as it could yet be the game that blighs an otherwise spectacular record. That is the only game so far that Boro have lost when Ayala and Gibson have started together. But we digress…
Boro fans were magnificent, as always. Before the game they unveiled a new banner declaring: “In our hearts, we do believe.”
And they showed that belief with a relentless leather-lunged zeal throughout another emotional assault course test of 96 minutes of mental torture before the explosion with the winner – on and off the pitch.
Boro go barmy, Brentford look broken
A hard core was still there chanting about promotion long after the whistle and almost drowned out the post-match interviews with exhortations to Aitor to “give us a wave” – which the beaming boss did. Several times. To loud and beery cheers.
Boro fans had been singing about promotion and Wembley and although we are not there yet – “it is only half-time” was the post-match mantra inside the camp – a fantastic chance now presents itself for an epoch-shaping end of season finale.