WELL that was a bolt from the claret and blue.
The first Burnley goal in the 2-1 defeat took me totally by surprise and caused a very rare and half-forgotten pain to stir deep in the psyche. What was this strange stinging sensation? Conceding a goal? What? I don’t understand.
And it wasn’t just me. The net rippled to the sounds of collective jaws hitting laps and a small intake of breath and most of the confused faces around me were left fixed in a empty state of incomprehension.
Collectors item: a goal flies in AGAINST Boro. Is that even allowed?
I think a lot were waiting for the flag to go up for offside or assumed the referee’s whistle was for a foul in the build-up or that this strange rupture of the football space-time continuum would swiftly be repaired and the mistaken frozen moment would be rectified and then we could get back on with the game.
The crowd was stunned. But there were no complaints. There were no yelps of distress. No wails of primal inner torment. No toxic bubbling of indignation. No accusatory pointing and screaming in phlegm flecked scapegoating rage. Nothing. Silence. It was as if the Riverside had forgotten how to react to a leak.
It was so quiet you could even hear the previously mute Burnley fans who had been stung from their own shell-shocked defensive silence and suddenly found their voice.
It was a genuine shock. And not just because it came out of the blue at the fag end of a half that had been one way traffic, an attack-against-defence training exercise that was almost embarrassing. Boro had them pinned down, sat on their chests and had pummelled them like a schoolyard bully.
Bench-pressed Burnley were reeling from wave after wave of neatly engineered incursions, fluid movement and confident, sharp passing and maybe a dozen serious chances from a Boro second string that looked eager to prove they should be starting.
Everything was going to plan, Boro were deservedly a goal to the good – it was scrambled but came from sustained pressure – and were playing some crisp, intricate attacking football and were clinically turning the screw against a submissive side that just wanted to get back on the coach.
Livewire Diego Fabbrini stabs home the goal that should have sealed the game
Chance after chance went begging – Burnley arch-Nemesis David Nugent’s spurned one on one the best – but the outcome seemed inevitable. The first goal should have opened the floodgates and as Boro piled on the pressure it seemed almost cruelly one-sided..
The defenceless visitors had been out-gunned so completely it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see a UN peacekeeping mission sweep in to protect besieged Burnley.
Then SMACK! Ayazz! What was that? It was their first serious attack. In truth it wasn’t even really an attack: it was a tentative amble forward as the interval whistle loomed.
It was a token defiant punch thrown more in hope than expectation – but it caught Boro cold and as a static defence stood rooted an opponent did the unthinkable: he scored. Against Boro. What? Is that even ‘a thing’?
The moment stung but for a frozen moment I didn’t know how to react. It was the denial stage of grief I think. No, this is wrong. It can’t happen. There has been a mistake. It felt like months since the other lot had scored. It IS months. Practically.
The long miserly leak free epoch has rewired our expectations of what constitutes the normal dynamics and emotions of a matchday and dulled our reactions to what used to be a frequent occurrence.
I’d forgotten the sickening blow to the heart that comes with a goal against. I’d forgotten the wave of weak-at-the-knees nausea and sudden sweating tingle of nerves and the fear that the team would implode. I didn’t groan in despair, swear in frustration (much)or even bang my head on the press box desk. Nothing. An opposition goal… does not compute.
That was the first goal Boro had conceded since losing to Everton in the League Cup on 1 December. The first after six clean sheets home and away, five wins and a draw, a fantastic run that had included wins away at hoodoo ground Ipswich and then unbeaten Brighton plus home games against Burnley side and title rivals Derby.
That long impregnable spell had welded on a steely layer of absolute faith in the rock solid defence. It had enveloped the team and the crowd in a bubble of belief. It had fostered a sense of immortality.
With the bubble burst, a sense of normality crept into the crowd – and the game too. It became a scrappy and open affair, an end-to-end close fought and niggly encounter in which Burnley offered far more of threat than in the first half or even the league game here last month.
Boro probably edged the second half on possession and again had good chances – Adam Forshaw put what looked an easy header well wide – and probably looked the most likely.
Then Burnley’s second flew it to a very strange, almost surreal reaction: a shrug of acceptance mixed with a dash of relief. And again none of the usual default dissent and frustrated finger-pointing.
Very quickly a consensus emerged from the unspoken wisdom of the crowd that what should have been a bitter blow – an impending defeat, a cup exit, the clean sheet record gone – was actually, probably, a blessing in disguise. It was mooted that it is never nice to lose but if you had to then this was as good a game as any. There were obvious benefits. This was probably as good a defeat as it gets.
In the closing minutes the most common uttering was: “Don’t score now. Whatever happens we don’t want a replay.”
Boro remember the bitter sting of defeat after a long unbeaten run
No one was actually ‘celebrating on the whistle’ – certainly angry Aitor wasn’t , he was simmering at the missed chances and a he takes every defeat as a personal insult – but there were plenty of philosophical smiles as everyone rummaged around in the big bag of football cliches and came out clutching “time to concentrate on the league.”
I’ve never known a defeat taken so lightly or so smoothly and swiftly polished into a positive. A potential distraction had been removed. One, two, maybe three games fewer has got to help in quest for the bigger prize.
Why, by the time the news came through that Derby and Hull as well as Burnley had progressed and now faced extra gruelling games at in a pivotal point in the promotion push it was being spun as practically a perfectly planned tactical victory.
It was a strange day, a defeat that almost felt popular, or at least that did not hurt, and one that, when we look back, could be seen as a crucial step toward glory come May.