THAT was a nervous performance and a ricketty result that will do little to settle the January jitters on Planet Boro.
Boro came from behind to salvage a precious point in a 1-1 draw with well drilled Blackburn and showed signs in the final 20 minutes that they have the ability to turn the screw on teams in this division when they play with hunger and intensity.
But the soporific first 70 minutes was a painful self-imposed tedium that invited trouble – and got it – and which flagged up the problems in the team that the transfer window was supposed to address.
And it was unconvincing and creaky display that did little to ease the bubbling cauldron of tensions among a dizzy fan-base who have been on the waltzers for weeks.
New boy “Jason” Rhodes makes a belated entry to the action
It was a tense afternoon at the Riverside, an emotional hothouse at the best of times, that has left question unanswered and the big issues unresolved and left the underlying tensions within the crowd still fizzing and snapping away/
Boro got back down to action after what felt like the longest break ever in a strange and volatile atmosphere. Even visiting boss Paul Lambert was moved to comment on the pressure that the anxiety brought . There was a cocktail of trepidation and excitement as the fears fostered by back-to-back defeats and a squeeze in the pack were battling against the sheer elation of the final feel-good few hours of the transfer window.
Everyone should have been on a high after the well wadded assertive shopping but the doubts quickly resurfaced as the team-sheet for Blackburn revealed Boro’s extensive January re-jig had beefed up the bench but not the starting line-up.
After the defeat to Forest there were plenty of anxious squeals: oh no! Here we go again! We’ve blown it! Typical Boro! A fortnight to stew on two bruising defeats that ended the long winning streak, home and away, and having the dazzling clean sheet sequence stomped in the mud had shattered the air of invincibility.
Big questions were posed by the wobble: do Boro have enough bite up front? Do Boro have the creativity to by-pass the bus parkers? How will we ever replace George? But determined Boro set about answering those questions and pointing the tiny cracks in the Teesside psyche with a successful strategic shopping spree.
Early in the window they signed unknown quantity Kike Sola, then secured Uruguay World Cup schemer Gaston Ramirez on a very shrewdly structured loan-deal and then went into deadline day with a series of holes to fill and did it in the full glare of publicity.
Boro finally secured Jordan Rhodes after a frustrating year long courtship, an eleventh hour collapse and a beat-the-bongs resurrection and added solid and experienced top flight defender Ritchie De Laet and Belgian hot prospect Julien de Sart.
Emotions were soaring then. The Achilles Heel up front had been solved in style with the best striker in the Championship said Steve Bruce and every other department had been strengthened too. What could possibly stop Boro now? Nothing. Set the engravers to work.
The build-up to the match was marked with gleeful expectation and swapping of Rhodes pun predicted headlines, especially after midweek results swung the table back our way.
No wonder the match kicked off with a multi-platform praising of Steve Gibson, first with a new banner unveiled by the Red Faction – there can’t be many self-styled ultra groups that hail the owner in such fashion – and then a song roared out with universal pride and gusto. It was hard to hear if the Blackburn fans responded with a ditty trumpeting the triumphs of the Venkey’s but you suspect not.
But the mood was soon dampened. And not just by the dreary weather. There had been dark grumbling from an hour before kick-off when the team sheet came out an hour and threw in an Aitor Karanka curve ball.
There were two debutants… but not the two most were expecting. Kike Sola was handed his first appearance – possibly to maintain the integrity of the Karanka La Bamba song – and De Laet was predictably at left-back. But Sola power was swiftly disconnected at the break after failing to light up the Riverside and looking lost for long spells but De Laet was impressive, slotting straight in and showing some nice touches and good engines.
Sola eclipsed: new boy becomes scapegoat elect after 45 ineffective minutes
Meanwhile Rhodes and Ramirez – and Cristhian Stuani – were left on what was possibly the most expensive and powerful Championship bench, a selection that Aitor Karanka later explained as being part of his usual outlook, that he sticks with the players who got Boro to the top and it is down to the new boys to earn their place.
The absence of Rhodes, the source of much of the midweek excitement, turned the buzz right down and made the boss hostage to fortune. It was a big call.
And it looked to be back-firing as the match spluttered and flailed and failed to ignite and as the team failed to generate any dynamic or narrative or atmosphere the fears filled the vacuum during a languid first 45 minutes so tedious that even the most hardened critics were too comatose to boo.
Or still in shock at the exit through injury of defensive rock Dani, Dani Ayala.
Ayazz! That knacks! Dani Ayala goes down heavily after an aerial challenge.
A lack-lustre display with an absence of intensity, creativity or the ruthless domination that was the hallmark of the team when they had a swagger and were winning – plus worrying signs that they were vulnerable on the break – left some sections very nervous as the game wore on while some had already written off all the new players and the season as a whole. “There’s always next year.”
The Blackburn goal was accompanied by a loud audible “here we go “ groan and much head-shaking, confirmation of the wisdom in wearing the armour of cynicism. At that stage the shroud of gloom was stifling and you could feel the boos being nurtured, the jeering welling and waiting for the whistle
Then the tempo and atmosphere suddenly revved up. There was a loud reaction to the goal as fans rallied, the mandatory touchline toe-to-toe as Leo went full radgy with the Rovers bench over a hefty tackle on De Laet, Rhodes was finally introduced better late than never to a loud roar and Boro became more urgent, assertive and direct.
Back in it! David Nugent glances the headed equaliser past Jason Steele.
There were a few half-chances, a Stuani header just over and a Rhodes snap-shot saved and their renewed industry forced a leveller through Nugent, the crowd roared them forward for a winner and the final 10 minutes was high-octane, direct and showed plenty of positive signs of being able to force the issue. That never came but at least people left if not on a high, certainly on the upward slope and with the anger at least partly mitigated.
It is strange – and revealing – that Boro can come from behind after a woeful first hour to salvage the point that took them into joint top spot with games in hand but so many frustrated fans can leave in a barely contained rage.
So, as you were. None of the fears and frustrations have gone and none of the internal tensions have abated but there were some positive signs at the death. And we have yet to see what impact the new boys can have. And Boro haven’t taken advantage of Hulls’s slip but they have chipped away another point. And they do still have their games in hand cushion behind them. The the strategic position is still healthy.
So we take our perpetual angst roadshow to MK Dons on Tuesday night where another golden opportunity waits to be grasped or squandered, depending on your perspective. Its torture. It’s going to be like this all season isn’t it?
JUST because Boro have spent a lot of money on him the game is NOT all about Jordan Rhodes. Yes, he was the dramatically scripted eleventh hour big money move that kept the yellow tied hysterical idiots in hyperdrive through the last few hours of the ever more moronic televised showbiz cattle market of deadline day.
Yes, he is Boro’s most expensive signing since Afonso Alves (*shudder*) and one of the most expensive in Europe in January. Yes, his arrival sent the Teesside feelgood factor soaring into the stratosphere as a gold-plated statement of intent slammed down with a thud: Steve Gibson means business and will give his manager whatever tools he need to ensure promotion. And yes, Rhodes will make his debut against his former club where he has long been a talisman and the one good thing amid the debris, so there is a perfect storm of sentimentality and easy intros and headlines to hand.
But Boro are not just a vehicle for a football fairytale. Not that one anyway. That is not the script that matters. There is a bigger story unfolding that is far more important.
The Blackburn game is massively important for a long list of reasons and the personal tale of the new boy, no matter how symbolic or strategically important, is well down the list. Promotion is the only thing that matters this season.
Against Blackburn first and foremost Aitor Karanka’s side need to bounce back from the rude awakening of a run of rocky displays and back-to-back defeats (for the first time in 17 months) that have abruptly put the handbrake on what was shaping up to be a procession. The job is not over yet. Far from it.
Luckily for Boro the wobble has not been punished as the teams in the pack stagger and stumble and show the same lack of cut-throat zeal we demonstrated last season. Especially Derby who are hitting their annual atrophy. But Burnley drew in midweek and they play Hull this weekend. Something has to give there and whatever the result, it opens a door for Boro to profit.
Boro have come through their first wobble with a gap behind them and a two game cushion. Against Blackburn they have to hammer home that advantage ruthlessly. No mistakes. Victory is essential to regain momentum and regain the initiative, to restore morale and the belief in the inevitability of victory.
Yes, it would be nice for Rhodes to score a debut hat-trick but there are other new boys who will be under scrutiny because other questions need answering too: can right-footed full-back Ritchie De Laet replace the left-sided fixture that is George Friend better than Fernando Amorebieta did? Can £12m top flight flop Gaston Ramirez add some spark in the number 10 role as he sets out to prove a point in the Championship? Will New Kike – big lad, good in the air, add something to the mix? Can the team get off to the blistering start that will ignite the Riverside with all the explosive ingredients in place? Can they rebuild the impregnable force-field across the back-line with Ben Gibson back?
I know we say this every week, but this feels like the most important fixture so far. I suppose that is what a promotion campaign is made off, constantly cranking up the pressure on every game. And the team delivering.
It’s impossible to second guess Aitor so I suppose the first big question is will Jordan Rhodes start? I think not. But he will come on (61mins) – and then will football’s Inevitability Drive strike and force him to manfully try not to celebrate? I’m saying yes. He’ll seal it. I’m going for 2-0. I think Ramirez will start – he’s had almost two weeks training now (and while he’s a new Dad I don’t think he will have been up doing the two o’clock feed and change). Stewy on the left with a rocket. Stuani on the right looking to impress his Uruguay team-mate. Clinical.
Over to you… predict the scoreline and how it will pan out, the crowd, if Rhodes will start or when he will come on, if he scores and how Hull get on against Burnley. Then all back here after the game for a debrief.