THE LADS from the Beeb arrived just in the nick off time and rushed into their press box places flustered and unprepared just as the early opener of Boro’s 2-0 defeat flashed in.
They had been caught in a three hour nightmare traffic snarl up on the M4 and just made kick-off so can be excused their sluggish start. They had to set-up, plug in and use the old fashioned starting handle to crank up Ali Brownlee.
But Boro can have no excuses for failing to be all revved up and raring to go straight from the whistle. In what was a tough test against in-form promotion rivals Reading they stalled at the lights then coughed and spluttered with disastrous consequences
Boro, who so often have been the sprint starters this season were caught cold at the back and left on the hard shoulder after just 15 seconds. It was the quickest goal in the Championship this season, Reading’s third fastest ever and the third earliest ever scored against Boro. In 1962 the then Swansea Town scored after 12 seconds of a 2-2 draw at Ayresome and Chelsea matched that in 1970 in a 3-2 League Cup away defeat.
And it was a poor goal to concede by what was statistically English football’s meanest defence. Robson-Kanu, who sounds like a cut-and-shut player made from two golden oldies, was allowed total freedom to scoot down the outside lane to cross in and the close range header from Williams was totally unchallenged.
There was another scare soon after as George Friend was cut up on the left and when the Reading man crossed Dimi got a punch on it but it was weak and fell short for unmarked Sa on the edge of the box to slam a half-volley goalwards that skidded and bounced up but alert Dani Ayala headed it away six yards out.
After that Boro finally started to gradually click into gear and find some oomph and eventually get somewhere near top speed but they never really recovered.
The team stepped up the intensity and tempo and worked really hard as they tried to claw their way back into the game. They stuck to their template and tried to pick and pass and probe their way forward through a congested final third without much success.
But Reading were good. Let’s not forget there are two teams on the pitch and at least one of them was fully tuned up. Make no mistake, no matter how attractive and easy an explanation, it wasn’t all about Boro’s failings. The well organised Royals were fast into the tackle, they pressed quickly and closed down efficiently. They were tight at the back and in the engine room were industrious and disciplined.
Boro laboured away and may have the bulk of the possession in the last hour but they kept running get lost and turning into cul-de-sacs of the Royals’ devising. Hapless Boro found themselves in a midfield gridlock every bit as frustrating as they one that had held up the microphone men and a lot of travelling fans. And everytime they tried to change lanes that new one swiftly stopped moving too.
Boro stepped on the gas in the second half and were a bit more direct but they just couldn’t find a way through. Crosses were easily cut out and cleared (although twice they appeared to have been handled before being hoofed away) and attempts to pass through the middle were quickly closed down.
With the main routes through to the danger area blocked Boro would have needed SatNav to navigate through the back roads and find a short cut but they struggled to find the creativity needed.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. They put in plenty of effort. The substitutions were attacking. There were sustained spell of pressure and possession. A Downing free-kick brought a good save and Carlos de Pena put a bullet header just wide. As the game ebbed away they threw everything forward (and several times were almost caught on the break – which lead to a salt-in-wounds spot-kick after several strong Boro calls were waved away).
But there was no way back. Maybe a different permutation of the front four may have helped. Maybe not. A different front end wouldn’t have stopped the early goal flying in and that’s where the tactical traffic jam began.
Having got the opener Reading could afford to close the game up, get the cones out and construct strategic roadblocks in midfield then sit back as Boro gunned their engine without making any headway towards salvaging the game.
That has been a familiar problem in recent years and one the summer recruitment was geared towards solving. And which, to be fair, generally this season it has done.
Still, it wasn’t a complete car-crash. Yes, the result was disappointing. We have grown used to victory this season and the bar has been raised when it comes to expectations of results and performances. Seven wins in a row and being bookies red hot favourites brings with it a pressure to succeed and the shock of defeat stings.
But no matter the gnashing and wailing in the aftermath of the first stinging defeat on the road, the season is far from a write off. Ten games gone and Boro are in second place with 20 points. They may not be cruising to promotion but they are certainly en route.
Boro have had a solid start and there is no reason to panic and demand Aitor gets his team up on ramps for an overhaul but the international break gives the less than chuffed boss the chance to get his machine in for a quick points and plugs tune up.
We’ll soon be motoring again.