WELL that was a kick in the tightly clenched gnashers.
Shards of enamel were flying all over as Boro’s clinical clean sheet machine suffered a knock-out blow at Bristol.
It was a stoppage time stomach churning sickener that suddenly felt like it had doubled the distance home and deepened the mid-winter gloom.
An incredible 1460 Boro fans had made the trip, setting off long before sparrow fart to make the ten hour marathon trek only to leave deflated at the cruel sucker punch.
It was a red zone rocket that blew away Boro’s bid for the rigid rear guard record books apart leaving an historic tenth clean sheet within a whisker.
It was a goal that had “typical Boro” written all over it.
If Boro’s awesome armoured plated points collecting machine was going to come unstuck it was almost inevitable it would be at a basement battling outfit – and one who had won just one in 12 and were reeling from a dug-out axing. But then, the boss had warned a side scrapping for survival was a tough test.
And one that were the only side to beat us at home in the league. These things often have a taunting symmetry.
And perhaps more importantly it was a goal that broke the spell.
For two months Boro had zealously worked double shifts and built an aura of impregnability around the goal that has created a growing bubble of belief around Boro.
They were busily digging tactical trenches around a penalty box that was was one of the most heavily defended strips of land outside the world’s war zones and the fans bought into the impressive endeavour.
And their collective industry from front to back slowly earned respect from even the hard core entertainment evangelists who demand end to end attacking and goal thrills a plenty.
Supporters had learned to if not love then take pride in Boro’s weekly battle to force the opposition to slip into the tactical strait-jackets and slowly tighten it and strangle the game before popping in the inevitable winner.
There have been times when the games were not pretty but there was a deep admiration for the mechanical work-rate of the entire team digging in to keep the opposition at bay.
Even against Bristol as the home side turned the screw in the frantic finale and piled on the pressure with dead-balls into the box it was incredible to watch Boro throw bodies in the line of fire, dive in to prevent shots.
In the tense closing stages there were more blocks in and around the penalty area than a bumper box of Lego.
But of course, it was always going to happen. It was beyond logic that the run without leaking would go on for ever. Boro had to concede a goal at some point. They had to lose sometime. The incredible two month long may have meant we forgot what the sensation felt like, the sting, but it was inevitable.
Yes it is a gut-wrenching that it had to end at Bristol of all places, a team in disarray and one we needed to beat to at least partially atone for the only stain on the Riverside record
No doubt there will be immediate instinctive howls of anguish, bitter recriminations and a maybe a bit of scape-goating at both ends of the pitch. That’s natural while the pain is still raw.
And yes, it was deeply disappointing that with Derby losing victory would have opened a nine point gap on third place – with a game in hand! – and attention would have switched to arguing over the route of the victory parade.
But it is far from the end of the world. It was a slip, a blip and a little stumble but Boro remain remarkably well placed, far better than we would have dared to dream back in August.
Aitor was angry about the manner of the defeat but philosophical about the position Boro are in – six points clear of third place with a game in hand and one more round of games gone. It was another small step towards the ultimate target of promotion.
We need a bit of perspective. Teams lose. Even good teams. It is an occupational hazard. Boro were always going to slip up at some point. But it is how the team bounce back now that matters. Now they have to show they are hungry, determined and mentally strong enough to respond in style again and to regain the initiative in the title chase.
Last season too often Boro got to the top then wobbled. The pressure got to them and they cracked and slipped back. So far this term they have showed no sign of that fragility and in the high-stakes games in recent months they have polished off all the direct challenges – from Ipswich and Derby and Brighton.
Now they have to prove they can respond to a defeat that has been lurking ominously in recent weeks. After the last defeat – the morale-denting mauling at Hull – Boro put together an incredible run of eight wins and a draw to grasp the initiative.
If they can do that that again from this position of incredible strength then Boro will take a massive step towards promotion.
The game was played under the shadow a huge half-finished construction designed with a brighter future in mind.
The Karanka project is in similar position. The framework is in place and going to plan, the shape is clearly visible and you can see exactly what it will look like when it is finished.
Hostage to fortune: Here’s what we said before the game
AITOR Karanka’s awesome Middlesbrough machine rolls into Ashton Gate tomorrow scattering superlatives and eye-catching statistics in their wake: won eight of nine unbeaten league games; won four on the spin away from home; haven’t conceded a goal since the Repeal of the Corn Laws; five points clear with a game in hand; meanest defence in all four professional divisions; if they score first they pretty much always win… it is pretty incredible really. It is shaping up into the season I rashly predicted back in May.
Boro go looking for revenge against the only one to beat them at the Riverside in the league this term and find Bristol in a state of chaos. They are in a relegation spot. They have won just one in 10. They can’t sign a player even at gun point from his parent club. The popular manager who got them promoted has just been sacked and the fans are edging towards open revoly. What could possibly go wrong?
Albert can barely believe Boro have been beaten by Bristol
For me, nothing. I think it will be routine ruthless crushing of a side in disarray. Its getting predictable but I’m going for the now mandatory 2-0/3-0 win and I might throw an extra daft quid on former Robins man Albert Adomah to harness the Football Inevitability Drive and score (any time) as well. What say you?
Usual drill: predict the score and how the game will pan out and anything else you want: the crowd, the weather, the man of the match, how the rest will get on, whatever. And then all back here afterwards to swap notes. Although God knows what time I’ll be back. You can predict that as well if you like.