WELL, we all arrived home knackered, emotionally drained, hungover and gutted by the result – but the better team won on the day so there can be no complaints.
They did to us what we did to them. Twice. They were sprint starters and subdued Boro were sluggish and were punished for it then never had the nous, energy or penetration to claw it back. Norwich played well when it mattered and good luck to them next year.
We were numb and dismayed on the whistle and had the heart-ache of trudging away empty-handed from Wembley for a fifth time – but once we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and regain some sense of sober perspective it is clear there are still plenty of positives to take from the campaign as a whole. And as we sift through the debris of Wembley there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic for the future.
Wembley – and the play-off against Brentford – was a fantastic and galvanising experience after a season of solid progress. And that has raised the bar for the team and the fans.
Boro have only lost three times at home (and in two of those games have battered the opposition) and thumped all three of the other teams in the play-offs by four goals at the Riverside; they went away to three Champions League teams (W1 D1 L1) and did ourselves proud; had the best defence in the division – in the entire Football League! – by a mile; have played some brilliant football and scored some sublime team goals; and the manager has reshaped the squad and dramatically improved almost every player he inherited through the creation of a demanding culture of excellence.
We know that Boro need to improve overall and be more clinical and score more goals if they are to be promoted next season, no one would deny that, not least the manager. But Boro were not woefully short. It was agonisingly close. Boro fell just four points short this time with a tally that would get you promoted nine years out of ten.
We can all pick out two or three games or decisions that could bridge that gap. Defeats at Bournemouth and Watford maybe. Or draws at home to Blackpool and Wigan. Or the disallowed goal at Leeds or the foul on Dimi at home to Blackburn. Or August.
Football is about fine margins and closing those gaps by incremental improvements. Boro will need to up their game and improve their points return next season by just 2.5% next term to get promoted – and I believe we will. I believe the will and resources and the staff are there to do just that. To continue the upward momentum of the past 18 months.
I am absolutely certain that after a full campaign to learn the nuances of the Championship, observe closely strengths and weaknesses of his squad and to work out exactly what skill-set he needs, that Aitor will demand and achieve that extra oomph.
And I am absolutely certain that once again Steve Gibson will back his man to the max to bring in the players needed to complete the jigsaw, especially up front.
This season has seen a lot of the elements of a vibrant and successful club start to emerge, not least a positive and passionate fan-base.
A massive positive from this season has been the on-going evolution of a new mentality among the supporters, only now coming out of the cynical cold shadow of relegation and relearning the importance of shared experience and their pro-active role.
Boro fans were awesome all weekend from Trafalgar Square to the stoic aftermath of defeat and being part of that spine-tingling spectacular will be main memory for most of the 40,000 strong Red Army who descended on London.
Red Square: Boro fans set up a boozy base camp in London
But that awesome support wasn’t a one off. It has been growing in size, volume and intensity all season. The colour, noise, unity, the pride and passion showed in the last few weeks and months, the new songs, the impressive sonic stereo in the Riverside plus the experience of travelling en masse and enjoying it and routinely turning the matchday volume up to 11, will be the building blocks of a bigger, better atmosphere home and away next term that can help drive the team onto success..
Layers of lapsed loyalists have returned re-energised to the fold in the run in after years of estrangement and apathy. Thousands of first timers and kids have caught the bug and are now entangled in the experience, they’ve had a taste of the narcotic buzz of a big crowd and are now eager for more. Many who were just occasional fans- “part-timers” – are now thinking about the compelling logic of Season Tickets. Which is good.
And while it is easy to denounce ‘glory-hunters,’ the Brentford and Wembley ticket frenzy was based on a genuine upsurge in interest in Boro for the first time since relegation. There is a wider public awareness in the area about the team now. Friends and family and colleagues who haven’t mention Boro in five years are now chatting in animated terms and taking an interest . That is fertile ground for a sustained growth if Boro make a couple of exciting signings over the summer to keep the momentum alive.
Those people, potential partisans, should be welcomed and encouraged, their interest nurtured. If a third of those extra 20,000 who have been ignited in the past month can be cajoled and convinced to come back on a regular basis it will boost the Riverside roar and boost the coffers enough fund new two players for the next big push.
While we are still smarting from another bruising Wembley defeat, Boro are in a good place. The club and the team have earned a lot of respect this year inside the game. The defensive record, the string of televised wins over our rivals, the display ay Manchetsre City – that Tomlinho turn! – have all caught the eye. The pundits know this is a fledgling side with great potential.
And Aitor has carved out a reputation for being more than just a Mourinho mini-me. He has gained a reputation for meticulous preparation, for creating a ‘team,’ for tactical awareness and crucially he has showed that he can markedly improve and develop players: that and a good finish and the prospect of another tilt at the title will make it easier to recruit in the summer, either permanent signings or good loans.
And the players have bonded through this season too. Don’t under-estimate the importance of that both to increasing output on the pitch and to giving players an incentive to stay. The players all love it here. They love being part of the club and have forged links with the fans. The spirit in the camp is incredible. You can see that sense of unity among them, the cameraderie in the celebrations and in cyberspace. They WANT to play for Boro. That is why so many have signed new long contracts this season.
And the promising youngsters in the team are a year more experienced. Ben Gibson and Dani Ayala have been outstanding and a crucial component and they are both in their early 20s for example. The group has been together barely a year. The core are still learning to play together and are improving as individuals and a unit. And they will get better. And while new players must be grafted in, they will join a side that has a solid platform, a cohesive football philosophy and mentality and a great team spirit.
And usefully Boro have made a few bob from the big away days in the cup runs and from Wembley. The sides agreed as a courtesy that the loser took ALL the gate receipts and that will add somewhere close to £2m to the bottom line of a club who only had revenues of £8m last term. So Boro will have a bit more market muscle to put on the pitch.
And – crucially – Boro are already making detailed plans to improve. Having talked to both the manager and the chairman on the evening after the game I can assure you that both are clear about where they fell short, both are absolutely committed to the project and they are united in a determination to do whatever it takes to be better, stronger and more successful next season.
Getting to the play-offs this term was, on balance, a success. Next season it will be a failure. Next year Boro are going up automatically.
Seriously, next season we will storm this league.