NERVOUS. Tense. Gripped by a heart-pumping, pulse racing, stomach churning sense of anticipation. Worried. Apprehensive. Excited. Very excited. Fearful. On edge. Agitated. Fretful. Disturbed. Jumpy. Overwrought. Keyed up. Worked up. Wound up. Pumped up. Hyped up. Going up? Worried sick. Stressed. Blessed. Frightened. Heightened. Jittery. Taut. Fraught. Optimistic. Pessimistic. Fatalistic. Up. Down. In. Out. Shake it all about.
That was the internal emotional turmoil going into a tense top two tussle with Derby that even though it was a fixture exactly at the half-way point had a final furlong feel of a pivotal point in a promotion push.
Boro came out on top with a clinical 2-0 win that seized control of the Championship. They tangled the Rams in a tactical strait-jacket, slowly and methodically wore them down and dismantled them with two clinical goals. And set a whole raft of defensive records. Even Paul Clement held his hands up.
Never in doubt… but it never felt easy. It was a tense day that had us all pumped up.
Mixed emotions in the build up to the top two tussle
Victory held out the teasing possibility of opening a ominous gap behind Boro bolstered with a game in hand and with a huge psychological advantage. And coming hot on the heels of massive dents in big spending Burnley and previously unbeaten table-toppers Brighton, the win would have put down a weapons grade Championship marker with a seismic thud that would reverberate across the league and terrify our rivals.
But the prospect of failure loomed large too. Had Boro lost they would have missed a golden moment of opportunity, lost momentum and found themselves behind the Rams again and with resurgent Hull just behind.
Losing top spot would have raised the spectre of doubt and woken the ghosts of last season’s brittle Boro cracking under pressure whenever they scrambled to the summit.
So it felt like a “week of destiny” high-stakes shoot out long before the kick-off. It felt like a watershed moment. It felt important in a way that was out of synch with the reality of the number of games still to play. It was exciting but scary.
And Boro rose to the challenge and saw off their closest challengers with what was, on reflection, relative ease. Although the long wait to break the deadlock put us all through the wringer. Again. It wouldn’t be Boro if we didn’t need to pack a defibrilator in with the matchday essentuals. The game dragged us all along the emotional spectrum.
All pile on: the team celebrate Albert’s haul
There was a fantastic atmosphere before kick-off with both sides in good voice and creating a real tingle – despite the best attempts of Me Mark Page and the stadium PA to drown it out by whacking the volume up right up to a retina-rattling sonic boom. Jeez, just turn it off. Let the power of the crowd grow organically. It is engrained in our culture. No-one needs Pavlovian prompting in how to support the team in a promotion six-pointer.
And the crowd were fantastic. It was close to a full house and they played their part in driving Boro on for the full 95 minutes with the South Stand and the Red Faction energised by the return of the drummer after the last few banned boys came off the naughty step.
The early tension quickly evaporated as Boro screamed out of the blocks to grab the game by the throat early on. Nerves were swamped by the positivity as Boro probed and showed real attacking intent. Chances flew a fraction wide, Boro were winning all the 50/50s and all the second balls and seemed to have Derby in a tactical strait-jacket and supporters crowd first relaxed, then started to enjoy themselves and seize control of the aural high=ground in a one-sided banter battle against a bumper away following.
There was a flicker of bad blood as the now established chanting and torchlight twinkling of support for Ali Brownlee on 33 minutes was greeted with whistles and derision and the 3000 Derby fans questioned its artistic merit in forthright terms but that led to the Riverside uniting in outrage and whacking up the volume right up.
But the nerves crept back in as Derby wriggled off the hook and got back into the game in the 10 minutes before the break. Tension grew and flecks of fear flashed again as a few crosses flew in, a diving header squirted well wide then after Dimi failed to come to collect a corner to an audible in-take of breath there was a moment of chaos and tangible fear as the ball bounced around before a brave block by Ben Gibson.
The interval came as a blessed relief and offered a chance to recharge the emotional batteries for what seemed like may be another tense 45 but a high tempo start after the break got Boro fans quickly back on song and then a few questionable decisions and a couple of fractional offside decisions stirred a dollop of injustice and a dash of righteous angry into the volatile mix.
The longer Boro went without scoring the more the seeds of fear took root. Derby looked solid and well organised at the back and fans grew in confidence as the match wore on and there were some moments of call-and-response chanting and everyone internally rehearsed the arguments after settling for the honours even goalless draw
But as the game headed towards the dangerous red zones the tension rose dramatically. As we know, panic is inversely proportional to time left to play and the time left to play stretches out to be measured in hours rather than minutes. We’ve been stung here before. Stomachs were knotted like a school boys shoes.
By George! The fans’ favourite celebrates sparking a second sonic boom
Then BANG! BANG! Two moments of absolute ecstacy as Boro suddenly delivered a deadly double blow with a brace of superbly crafted goals and the faithful dissolved into a joyful mass release of stranger-hugging EIO collective celebration.
Brilliant! Incredible! What a team! Albert! George! Top of the league! I love Aitor! And Gibbo! And everyone of the team of heroes! Never in doubt! Cut the top off the 263. Promised Land here we come. What a fantastic air-punching, chest-pounding finale to a close fought game. What an experience. What a buzz. The rammed Riverside was bouncing. And that is why we watch football, for memory making moments of magic.
Most of Teesside will now now have aching cheeks. My beaming smile was so wide I had to turn sidewards to get back through the front door when I got home. What a brilliant day. And this season can get even better…