OBVIOUSLY there will be gnashing and wailing and demands for recriminations and a fundamental, far-reaching tactical review because that is the default after a defeat through football now. Something must be done.
People are simmering and smarting and bruised. after the 3-0 defeat at Hull. The team trudged dejectedly out of the tunnel onto the coach looking morose. The boss was crest-fallen in the aftermath while among supporters there were sighs of resignation, demands to know what had gone wrong and fearful predictions that a repeat of last season was nailed on. Clearly Manchester United had just papered over the cracks.
Surely this wasn’t the end of the road for a team that had kicked off just a single point of the top and even now are firmly in the mix? Even Steve Bruce – with the objective perspective of an outsider (albeit a well informed one) – said he expected Boro to still be a title rival. He certainly doesn’t think Boro are a busted flush.
That doesn’t mean we should just shrug defeat off. It hurts and will fester across the international break. But neither does it mean we should panic.
The Hull match was never going to be decisive but it was always going to set a bench-mark. It was Boro’s first big toe-to-toe test against one of the quality quartet shaping up to scrap it out at the summit. And Boro fell short – which will set off alarm bells among some supporters and raise the spectre of last season’s failings.
The consensus is that Boro’s fatal flaw last season was the inability to match their direct rivals away from home. They did well at the Riverside against the play-off pretenders but away, when the pressure was on, they buckled mentally and physically.
Hull doesn’t fit in that template. Ye, it was a defeat but it wasn’t the cold start and rapid implosion that characterised Bournemouth or Watford away last season and the fixture has not come at such a decisive point.
And, whatever the blanket of gloom that the result will throw over Teesside for a fortnight, the season is far from over. It is a league, not a knock-out.
The important thing is to learn the lessons from the game , and chiefly that Boro have to make the key moments count. They can’t wait for things to fall into place, they have to force the issue, make things happen.
But they did compete with Hull. At first. They started at a high tempo, got stuck in, showed attacking intent and matched Hull for 44 minutes. And they did create chances. But they didn’t take them while Hull did . From the moment the first goal went in the tide of the game turned and Boro got washed away, quickly lost their shape, momentum and morale and fell through a quality gap.
But it might have been different. They failed to make their early spells of pressure count and what had been a rock solid rear-guard unravelled under pressure when the Tigers turned the screw. After three Championship wins on the spin and the victory at Old Trafford it was a sobering experience.
For half-an-hour it was an entertaining and enterprising game with no sign of what was to come. Everyone expected a cagey contest between the two tightest teams in the Football League. Given the goals against column and Aitor Karanka’s instinct for solidity and a rigid rearguard most pundits were predicting a staid showdown. I know I was.
And with most pragmatic supporters ready to settle for a draw beforehand you could be forgiven for expected a cautious game, a tactically tentative game with two sides eyeing each other up and circling around a risk free mutually beneficially draw.
Forget that. Both went roaring into it it right from the off. It was a high tempo, full-blooded affair with some early hefty challenges flying in and some feisty battles brewing in midfield and both sets of fans roaring along. It was really enjoyable.
There was no sense that Clayton was walking a disciplinary tight-rope as he clattered Diame high and late and that really deserved a card. And that was a taster for what was a physical encounter. But it wasn’t dirty, just intense, no quarter given toe-to-toe scrapping all over the pitch balanced by some great, crisp passing football.
Both sides set their stall out early on and attacked with sweeping moves as the game swung from end to end. And Boro created their moments of potential with two golden chances in that nip and tuck opening phase.
They could have broke the deadlock as Diego Fabbrini slotted a ball down the inside right channel for David Nugent to surge into the box then drill in a low angled shot that flew under the advancing keeper and drifted just wide of the far post. Inches. Fine margins.
Then on the half-hour Boro almost got lucky as banana booted full-back Moses Odubajo – our old friend from Brentford – went to head clear a routine ball forward and inexplicable slipped under no pressure nodding into the feet of Albert Adomah on the edge of the box. He turned inside looking for an angle to shot but in that fraction the cavalry arrived and he was crowded out. The moment was gone.
Hull had chances too. Dimi Konstantopoulos made a great full length save to claw away a dipping Clucas free-kick heading towards the far top corner.
But then the Tigers made a key moment count: Mo Diame stabbing home after Fabbrini went down very easily, almost theatrically, under a challenge by Meyler and he sent Elohamady free down their right to put in a good waist high ball to the far post.
After that the game swung against Boro. Having been neck in neck, Hull accelerated away with ease in the second half and left Boro spluttering in their slip-stream. Although even then, at 1-0, there was a great chance to level as Stewart Downing picked out George Friend at the far post but his angled effort was saved.
Within a minute Hull had wrapped the game up as they forced the issue and made something happen – Clucas stretching to stab home a shot that was drifting wide. Game over. The third just confirmed the gap had emerged between the team in the closing spell.
The result won’t decide the promotion race. Things remain very tight. But then, that’s the Championship. And we are only a third of the way through. But it was a set-back and we can’t afford too many of the them.
But the game might teach us a lot. Or at least reinforce what we already knew. Primarily that if you don’t take your chances then you are hostage to fortune.
And it also taught us that finishes above Hull will almost certainly be in an automatic promotion spot. On that showing it is hard to argue against the idea that Hull are the strongest side in the Championship.
Of the relegated sides they finished the higher, scored the most goals, leaked the least and over the summer lost fewer key players. They have a squad packed with quality players, big ticket buys and shrewd signings. They have a lot of top flight and international experience and a manager who has been promoted from the division three times, twice with Birmingham and two years ago with the Tigers.
And after a slow-burning start Hull inched ominously to the top spot with a relentless, methodical march built on a rock-solid defence.
At kick off the statistics of the sides were incredibly evenly matched on paper. To find that the gap was so wide by the final whistle should be a massive wake-up call. Maybe they are not as good as they think they are.
Boro are still fourth and still in what will be a cut-throat pack again and already we are looking to other results – thanks Forest.
But if Boro are to go up and to avoid the play-off casino then nothing can be left to chance.
Boro must take the opportunities. They must make things happen. They must make their moments count.
I HAD a friend who lived in Hull once so I spent the odd weekend there. It was the early 80s. Christ it was bleak. It was before the Housemartins briefly gave the town some cultural cachet with a coupon-busting 4-0 win over big boys London. If was all off-white telephone boxes, a slight whiff of fish from over the river when the wind was in the right/wrong direction and that desolate, parochial end-of-the-line port town sailors DNA tendency to hard drinking to forget and as a prelude to a last orders pub brawl. I quite liked it.
He used to go to the match. Which was an experience. Hard-as-nails Mixed Martial Arts marksman Billy Whitehurst was the big icon at the crumbling Boothferry Park. Local hero. He was from Mexborough or Goole or somewhere equally glamorous. The phrase “robust” was used quite a lot.
That was when Hull were a 2nd/3rd tier yo-yo side watched by maybe 6,000 hardy people. They were the third best supported side in the town behind Hull Kingston Rovers and Hull. Their football trivia fact was that they were the biggest town or city in Europe never to have had a football team in their nation top flight. Oh, and there was was always aggro. It was one of those places, like Carlisle, where it was endemic.
Anyway, fast forward to the new era of a new stadium, Premier League cash, idiosyncratic ego-ownership fixated on rebranding to make Hull as big a brand as Cardiff and an FA Cup appearance and – no disrespect – I still can’t break away from the idea that Hull are a smaller club weighed down by a barren history and with a glass ceiling somewhere in the middle of the second tier. And yet Boro (who historically are probably only a dozen places or so better off, glazing wise) go there as the poor cousins. How did that happen? Am I wrong in thinking that Boro still feel like a bigger club with more potential, more history and more intensity in their quest to be restored to their rightful place?
Hull is probably the first BIG game of the season. Yes, Reading, Sheff Wed, Derby etc etc… but we are 15 games in now, the table is taking shape and we are going directly head-to-head with a genuine title contender and a newly relegated gravy train team so this one is under the national spotlight. Especially as Boro have just knocked out mighty Manchester United Nil so are briefly in the eliteocentric consciousness of the media. Boro are going away to the leaders, a team packed with Premier League experience. A real test.
I’d take a draw now. Almost everyone I know would. I suspect both managers would too. And with the top two defences in the Football League going toe-to-toe you would expect them to tactically cancel each other out. Everything points to a goalless stalemate. So get your money on 3-3 of 4-4 then. Seriously: this has nil nil written all over it. That would be a good end to a tough few weeks work. Boro go there with three league wins on the bounce and the laser-powered spot-kick win at Old Trafford behind them so should be in high spirits and determined to go into yet another international break with “a result” – and a draw will do. Even Aitor will be happy. For this reason…
Usual drill – use your Lawro-pundit power to predict the score and how the game will unfold here and now and then after the game it is all back here to swap notes/celebrate/decide on a scapegoat/tell Aitor how he got it wrong.