BIG CALLS. Big balls.
Dropping star men in the middle of a crisis of creativity and a crisis of faith. Risking precious points, squad spirit and the sanity of the crowd. Putting your reputation as a tactician on the line with a curve ball.
Those are the season defining selections that managers live or die by.
Aitor Karanka took the pin out of a hand-grenade and sat it beside him in the dugout and for a tense hour under the cosh at Molineux it looked like it had blown up in his face.
Then… BANG. Benched Stewart Downing bounced back from dug-out duty with a beauty, a match turning assist and a demonstration of star quality that helped Boro came from behind to win a league game for the first time in over a year. The last Championship fight back was the 2-1 victory at Bolton in August last season.
Now a relieved Karanka can point to the result, the character shown in the fight-back to win 3-1 and the high-impact of the fired-up flanker as evidence of his shrewd management of a sticky scenario.
Now the doubts after three goalless games and one point in nine can be swept away, momentum is regained and we can all breath again and look forward to Old Trafford and two relativey gentle home games with a sense of excitement and expectation.
But it could have been so, so very different. Because the stakes for the Spanish supremo today were massive.
Karanka dropped a pre-match team-sheet bombshell in benching £5.5m marquee man Downing and fans’ favourite flanker Albert Adomah.
That radical revamp was a massive call that left the manager hostage to fortune. Not only did it spark a pre-match furore – twitter almost exploded when the news broke – but it set up the potential for a both barrels backlash on the whistle and handed Karanka’s critics a stick to beat him with.
In the most extreme no-go areas of the internet, passionate plans were afoot for a full-on pitchfork and torches procession to mourn the demise of the season and the Spanish Revolution.
The midweek counselling session warning fans not to get caught up in the emotions of individual results for fear of ending up at the psychiatrists wouldn’t have counted much in a messy aftermath.
Boro fans had been demanding changes in the wake of the wobble – but they probably didn’t expect that. Changes in midfield yes, a reshuffle of the three behind the striker, yes. But not such radical surgery.
It was brave decision. Both have had their critics but Stewie and Albert are the creative forces that have driven the team this season.
Downing has taken some flak in recent weeks. It must have felt like old days. He has shown flashes of real quality, has a deft touch and great vision and while he hasn’t been the prolific scorer many expected when he arrived with a fanfare, he has been productive. And while fans rarely agree with the Gazette scribes, he tops our star man table.
There have been those disappointed he is yet to rip up the division, yet to transform games in the way that Paul Merson did and that for the price-tag and experience, he has not had the impact expected.
(Although it is maybe worth pointing out that Merson only scored once in his first nine league games before clicking and hitting the accelerator.)
Some people have suggested he has shown “bad body language”, that he is playing “with his head down” – but that may be in the eye of the beholder.
Others believe he may be yearning for a role in the middle – he has publicly said he feels that is his strongest position – but even if that is true he is still superb on the left so it is not as if he is a fish out of water having been square-pegged out wide.
And Albert has had his critics this term too, not least the manager.
The Ghanaian had a sluggish start to the season, was unhappy and after falling out with the boss and slapping in a transfer request was placed firmly on the naughty step and looked to be edging towards the exit door.
But he bounced back with a bang against Brentford and then produced a string of influential displays during Boro’s seven game winning run.
So it would seem, whatever the gripes from the terraces, neither has been dropped because of their overall form.
And neither were particularly poor at Cardiff. Indeed, Albert was the brightest spark, brought a great save from a header, had a few chances and teed up Grant Leadbitter for an effort that was blocked on the line.
But when the key collective failing has been the ability to unpick defences, the telling touches that create chances, then it seems strange to say the least to leave out both of your most adept locksmiths.
There may well have been a nuanced tactical reason but it remained opaque to we humble spectators. And there may have been be a logistical reason, nursing key players through a busy month, keeping the batteries topped up – but a Championship game is far more important than the glamour trip to Old Trafford in the cup and, with all due respect, Wolves more of a test than Rotherham.
And should Boro have lost, gone four without a goal, without a win, many fans would not think much of that mitigation.
But it was Aitor’s call. It is his job is to make the big decisions.
That was his biggest decision of the season so far. And it came at a crucial point with momentum and morale fading and the first signs of self-doubt creeping in and jitters spreading through the crowd.
And look at the result, he got it right. And so long as you get them right, everyone – well, nearly everyone – is happy. For now.
I WAS a bit surprised to read in the Boro website matchpack that Wolves are the team Boro have the best historical record against (W43, D29, L27, fact fans). Mainly because I can’t remember winning there in the league while I’ve been covering Boro in a “professional” capacity . There was the win there with the Emnes goal in the FA Cup in the relegation season, but I’ve not seen a win in the league.
I’ve seen Boro win going there as a fan. Back in the end of season promotion clincher – “the Jon Gittens Match” – that earned Lennie’s Lions a place in the inaugural Premier League and the comedy defender a full term contract. You can see loads of pictures from that day here. And then a few years later in another promotion campaign I remember a game in which Uwe Fuchs scored. So, win at Wolves, get promoted. It’s trending.
But since then Molineux hasn’t been a happy hunting ground (although they would say the same about Teeside and haven’t won here since 1951). In fact we’ve had some real mares there. Last year a sluggish starting Boro were monstered by a very direct Wolves side after giving away a sloppy penalty then hitting the bar and piling in the pressure then getting caught cold. Two years before that were were two up and cruising against a relegation bound basket-case before imploding and losing 3-2.
Their press lads said “it’s a good time to play Wolves.” They are having a dip of form, they can’t score goals for love nor money, the fans are getting on their backs and they have a key player up front out injured injured. But then, I could probably have said the same.
The idea that it is “a must win game” is ridiculous. After this there are still 33 games left and 99 points up for grabs. But there is undoubtedly a sense of fear bubbling up through the fissures in the collective psyche of Teesside.
There is a growing sense that the prospects for the season revolve around the next few games. Get something at Wolves, enjoy the glamorous diversion at Manchester United and then cash in two winnable home games and the promotion push is back on force. But lose at Wolves and there will be a crisis of faith. Getting beaten at Old Trafford would stretch a sorry sequence beyond blip territory and the atmosphere at home to the Riverside for the visits of Charlton and Rotherham will be volatile and combustible.
So Boro need to win to head off the emotionally taxing premature pressure and anxiety that Aitor – who seems to be rapidly coming to terms with the grip the club has on Teesside’s mindset – says will see us all on the psychiatrist’s couch.
On the plus side Boro have made a habit of smashing historic hoodoos this term with wins at Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest where our records are far worse. And Aitor insists he has learned from the Fulham and Cardiff games about how to “manage” disappointment and the reaction to set backs. And he has his troops fired up.
Obviously, it comes down to the first goal. And I think we’ll get it. Then either dig in and hold on for a nervous 1-0 that will hasten my speckling of grey hair or cast aside the shackles and go on a romp to galvanise the season.
Usual drill: your pre-match predictions of the score and how the game will pan out here and then back again later for a convivial pint or two and a pre-match debriefing.