THAT is how you start the season at home: with a bang. A great big one. A sonic boom.
Slick Boro bamboozled Bolton and eased to an emphatic victory with a cavalier display of liquid football that lit the red touch paper on a season of promise.
After all the hype that came with the summer spending, the talk of a reshaped fluid front end and the dreaded bookies’ favourites tag – and after so many false dawns in seasons past – it was important that Aitor’s Army delivered.
Wow! They did that in spades.
Boro’s first 45 was a swaggering show of passing and probing, deft touches and bewildering movement that left Bolton bedraggled and dizzy. If was fantastic. It was bewildering. Reports from the other end of the press bench said a shell-shocked BBC Bolton’s bewildered answer to Ali Brownlee described his side being dismantled by “a cross between Real Madrid and Barcelona.”
Bolton started with three at the back, switched to four after the second goal and not long after that they looked like they had six or seven but were still porous and out-classed as Boro carved through at will. It was a box-ticking banquet of Brazilan sunshine soccer that had an expectant Riverside crowd purring.
Which is exactly what you want to launch the new campaign: to come away from a match salivating. Any Boro fans who witnessed that will be delighted. And encouraged. And knowing if it can be repeated regularly we could be in for a sizzling season.
The game was an absolute pleasure to witness. Every single fan who was there for what was probably the best 45 minutes since relegation will be buzzing. And to get that on the opening day is brilliant. That is the magic moment in the season when scripts are written, opinions formed, standards set, horizons surveyed.
There was a delicious bubbling of August optimism outside the ground long before kick-off. There always is. The first home game is always special. The sins of the past are forgotten. The failing forgiven. The first day back has a tangible tingle and a blank canvas cocktail of hope, ambition and possibility.
You could sense that in the swirl around the statues. There were zealous drummers banging away (although not the Red Faction ones) and a retina scorching swathe of new away shirts mingling among the red and a sea of smiling faces.
It may have been the third game in an action packed week but it was Beer Voucher No 1 in the kiosks and the first time back on home turf in anger since the chest bursting battle with Brentford. The last time a lot of people saw this pitch they were on it dancing deliriously and taking selfies in an ecstatic moment of collective pride.
That euphoria fell flat at Wembley and in the bleak introspective aftermath but since then a lot has happened to rebuild the buzz in a summer of spending: Downing, Stuani, Karanka have all signed and the squad has looked bright in the build-up.
The hand-brake may have been applied with the bore-draw opener at Preston but momentum was regained with an upbeat display at Oldham so there was a crackle of anticipation as a bumper crowd filed into the Riverside.
The pre-match roar was intoxicating, the insistent stereo urging was ramped up by an assertive start then there was a sonic boom with the opener after just seven minutes as cult hero in waiting Diego Fabbrini unleashed a molecule-melting black booted thunderbolt, a sizzling strike that flew into the top corner with an artistic perfection.
The Riverside exploded again soon after as livewire locksmith Fabbrini threaded a deft pass into the feet of Kike – subject of much “he doesn’t know what he’s doing” team-sheet pre-emptive chuntering before the game – who drilled in a low shot under the advancing keeper. Vast quantities of humble pie was quickly despatched to concourse kiosks for half-time consumption . Game over.
Then Kike, possibly prompted into action by the sight of Stuani and Nugent on the bench, stoked up the volume even more when he pounced to poke home the third as Fabbrini’s deflected shot looped up over the keeper and bounced down off the bar. The intensity of the roar sucked the air from your lungs.
The Riverside was rocking in surround sound. There was the usual jubilation in the Red Faction block. You may have expected a slightly frosty reticence given this week’s cold war stand-off over recent expulsions of five members but no: the racket from there was as constant and loud as usual, if lacking the usual percussion.
There was still room to turn the volume up to eleven as fans from every direction poured vitriol on referee James Adcock for putting Albert on the naughty step for taking eons to put his boot back on.
Adomah had lost his footwear in full flight down the flank and had actually delivered a superb cross before going back to sit down and struggle to get back into his size nines. The caused the ref to come over and in a heated exchange order the player off to do his adjustments… then left him stood there on the touchline – and for a short while laid there nonchalantly head propped up on palm – waiting for two, maybe three minutes amid a cacophony of cat-calls, jeering and whistling. It may be the letter of the law but there felt like a punitive and petulant element to it that stoked up the crowd. Great fun.
Bootiful: Albert lost his footwear in full-flight down the flank
In the second half Boro couldn’t maintain the tempo but they still passed and probed and attacked with zest and Downing, Kike and George all went close and when Bolton briefly, half-heartedly, rallied the team defended collectively like tigers, with every action at either end played out against a background of cheers.
And every Boro player leaving the field to be subbed was hailed to the echo too. And the new signings coming on – Stuani and Nugent both looked lively and hungry in their cameos – were well received with even fruitless forward movement cheered.
But the best noise of the day was the roar of sustained, genuine, warm applause and appreciation on the whistle. It was a sincere show of gratitude and support from encouraged and excited fans revelling in a high-tempo, passionate team display.
It would be brilliant if that full-time feeling was the sound-track to the season.
INSTANT HERO DIEGO FABBRINI: THE MISSING PIECE OF THE JIGSAW?
In a swaggering show against Bolton on loan new boy Diego Fabbrini looked every inch that mythical beast the “number 10.”
Fabbrini has all the vital ingredients to make the the team tick and supporters purr. The mercurial midfielder weaved about all along the front three, probing into gaps, dropping deep and buzzing in and around the Bolton box in a masterclass of incisive and entertaining movement in the final third.
He showed some deft footwork, a cavalier instinct to run at and beat a man and the spatial awareness to spot the runs of players off the ball and the ability to pick them out.
And he has an eye for goal. His sizzling opener was a long range laser guided missile that screamed home. It was a beautiful strike that deservedly won the viewers voted Sky goal of the day gong. And he also teed up Kike for the third when another snap shot took a deflection and looped up then bounced down off the bar. He is not scared of shooting.
And the eye-catching Italian – who was a regular Under 21 international and also has one senior cap – also claimed an assist for Kike’s first goal, threading a sublime well spotted pass through the defence and straight into the Spanish striker’s feet.
It was exactly what Boro were crying out for all last season, a livewire locksmith to unpick well drilled defences, a catalyst to make things happen in the final third.
No wonder Fabbrini had fans chanting his name within minutes. He plays with a zest, with a dynamism. He makes direct runs but also tracks back and shows a feisty flash, puts in a tackle, snaps at heels, chasing loose balls and lost causes. He is a box-ticking trickster with all the important attributes of a fans’ favourite. And now fans have actually seen what he brings to the mix they have embraced him with gusto.
Fans may have shrugged their shoulders dismissively when the Italian arrived. He had been a fringe figure at Watford and loaned out to Millwall and Birmingham last term without setting the world alight.
And he made his low-key entry after big ticket purchase Stewart Downing had arrived in a fanfare and while La Liga star Cristhian Stuani was unravelling his red tape. And while the on-going brinkmanship over Jordan Rhodes raised the bar in the transfer market. A loanee was all a bit *meh*
Downing arrived amid much talk of the prodigal playmaker being given a role in the hole. He was pencilled in as the number 10. But after seeing him buzzing at Barnsley on his first outing, then excelling in high-tempo action at Oldham and then bamboozling Bolton he seems the stronger candidate for that position right now.
Not that it is either/or. Fabbrini linked really well with Downing, the dynamic duo switching smoothly between left and central channels and inter-changing passes crisply and effectively deep in enemy territory.
The pair have adding creativity and fluidity to what had been at times a stodgy attack.
That gives Aitor Karanka options in the campaign to come. And that’s Fabb