BATTLING Boro showed their mettle on a fantastic night at Old Trafford as they proved once again they can live with the Champions League elite.
It went to penalties for the second year running after the big boys failed to crack a determined and resiliant side full of fire. And this time we won: Aitor’s army keeping their nerve in a spot-kick shoot-out in front of the amazing Tees travellers.
What a night. What a team. What a time to be alive and a Boro fan.
There was a dazzling display of Teesside unity in the stands as 10,000 travelling fans flashed up their smartphone torches in a show of solidarity with Redcar’s axed steelworkers. Then Aitor Karanka’s second shelf team shone just as brightly on the pitch with a superb show in which they more than matched arguably the biggest club in the world.
In the past year Boro have been pitted against the best of the Premier League and each and every time we have come away full of chest-bursting pride and full of hope.
And a belief that if we get promoted we could survive in the top flight. And florish.
At title-chasing United there was no sign any gulf in quality. No sign of Boro being swept aside or over-awed or out-gunned. Yes, it was hairy at times. But for them too. Boro were the best team in the first half.
And possibly in the second too. We certainly had the best of the chances until the last few minutes when United threw everything forward and still couldn’t crack a determined defence with incredible Dani Ayala at the heart. It felt like there was a psychic forcefield across the Boro goal in a frantic finale as sheer will to win kept them out.
Don’t talk my word from it. I’m the ra-ra in chief and minister of spin remember. But the assembled masses in the press room agreed, the huddle of the national press, TV, radio and the United Nations of broadcasters that are regulars at the Theatre of Dreams. Even United sycophant Alan Green was forced to praise Boro.
It is hard to disagree with them all. Boro were calm and collected, organised at the back and probably had the best of the first half chances with George Friend’s close range angled effort and Stewie Downing’s distance dipper in the first half then the disallowed own goal, an attemped second cock-up from United then Grant Leadbitter had two saved and Downing another cleared off the line. It was a fantastic team effort. And then United did their best to help out with one own goal disallowed and then another effort from distance that just bobbled wide after a comic keeper’s airshot.
Boro were organised, strong and steely at the back and routinely snuffed United’s threat on the break with Ayala and Tomas Kalas making timely tackles. They were compact and tidy in midfield with Jack Stephens superb. And up front much maligned Kike worked his socks off. And Downing was industrious and influential in the No10 role.
The performance was important. Boro weren’t embarrassed, they weren’t over-awed or over powered. Once again they went toe-to-toe with a giant team and matched them over 90 minutes in a pulsating show of pride and passion. And then through extra-time. And then they kept their nerves to win the in the casion of penalties.
Boro players prepare to pile onto Tomas Mejias after the final save.
Boro have some amazing cup games under Aitor that have been great for the club, the team and the supporters. Last year we went to Anfield for an emotional epic and were edged out by the odd goal in 31 by Liverpool in a surreal Scouse spot-kick showdown that went to 14-13 before heartbreak. It was a noisy night out for the fans being back in the big time, making themselves at home, raising the roof and enjoying every pulsating minutes.
Then the FA Cup bandwagon took us to to the Etihad for a coupon-busting win over then reigning Premier League champions Manchester City. Boro raised eye-brows and the proud red standard high as they weathered an opening barrage to beat the jet-lagged juggernauts 2-0 with a brace of beauties and Lee Tomlin twisted Vincent Kompany so completely before he hit the post that the City man may as well have been on spin cycle.
Next up was Arsenal… well, the less said about that the better. Boro were given the run around and fell through the quality gap. But it was a great day out.
Last term’s trio of glamour trips were tasters of the future that teased us an in the end eluded us – but they were valuable learning experiences for the players and the boss. And lucrative pay-days for the bean-counters.
Boro were never disgraced. They played three teams who were in the Champions League and showed spirit, tenacity and enterprise to win plaudits from the national press. Again.
In four games away at the Euro-giants in just over a year Boro’s record over 90 minutes is: P4 W2 D1 L1. That’s not bad, , drew one (over the 90) and lost one. That isn’t a bad return. Those results and those performances have boosted morale and fostered ambitious dreams about just how we would fare should we get promoted.
And it poured a lot of cash into the coffers which has been put onto the pitch for the promotion push this team. Boro are entitled to 45% of the gate and almost full houses at Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal earned a £5m windfall which helped fund the summer spending spree. A similar bumper gate from Old Trafford lasyt night – with a near capacity 68,000 – will come in useful again.
And maybe come January it will help Aitor fine-tune the team for the really important games: the nitty-gritty Championship bread and butter games. Starting on Saturday.
DEJA Vu: a money-spinning glamour game away at a Champions League side, a big challenge on the pitch and a jubilant Boro party off it. Last year it was Anfield. THis time it’s Old Trafford . The scenario is the same: the league games in the aftermath are far more important but it will be nice to put on a spirited show that will raise the profile of the club, boost morale and prove that the team are capable of raising to a challenge.
The trip to Anfield last September was memorable and entertaining and finished in dramatic fashion with the pulsating 14-13 penalty shoot-out defeat. Remember the surreal Scouse spot-kick shenanigans?
Bamford and Reach – against the odds Anfield scorers
We probably can’t engineer that kind of climax again but there’s no reason we can’t go there and give it a good crack. It is a cup where there are plenty of strange results. Whatever they say about focus, it is United’s fourth most important competition. The Boro team may be patched up with a little flurry of injuries taking its toll but whatever side takes to the pitch will be up for it and the 10,000 travelling Teessiders will make a racket.
The result almost doesn’t matter. It is a bonus game. A win would be amazing and while some people don’t want the extra games or the distraction of a cup run I think it would be brilliant: a feather in the cap, a chance to push on, something to get the fans buzzing. A defeat, so long as it is not a crushing one, would be no shame either. Extra-time would be inconvenient but not a massive problem. We are always being told we have a great squad. Its time to see that over the next week or two.
Over to you: usual drill. Predict the scoreline and the story… penalties again? Then all back here afterwards for a debrief and a chat about the next round.