BORO salvaged a point with a stoppage time leveller from £9m new boy Jordan Rhodes.
The looping header somehow nudged Boro to the top of the Championship table after a frustrating and deeply unsatisfactory display against a team of basement battlers.
And the goal at the death got Aitor Karanka off the hook.
Had Boro not scrambled to a second scrappy successive draw the dam of fans’ frustrations threatened to break and the gaffer would have got pelters.
Supporters have been through agonies in recent weeks as the once healthy cushion has been slowly and steadily eroded behind them and momentum fizzled out. A string of soul-sapping performances have been poor. Turgid. Timid. Laboured. Predictable. Disjointed. Nervous. Woeful. Dull. And deeply worrying.
And for the fans who have watched it the nerves have grown taut and the dark fears in the collective psyche have grown steadily and eaten away into self-confidence. The swagger of six weeks ago is a distant memory.
Boro are not bossing teams, not grabbing games by the throat, not bullying opposition into a tactical strait-jacket then ruthlessly squeezing the life out of them. Now they look pale and impotent while the aura of impregnability at the back has fractured too.
So the pressure – and a coherent minority counter-position overtly opposed to the manager’s tactics and philosophy – has been building. Every set-back strengthens that current.
All the talk has been about how to categorise the current spell. Is it a just blip? A more sustained wobble? A shaky blindfold teetering along the edge of a cliff? Could Boro be about to go on a slide of Mogga proportions.
The undeniable evidence of the table suggests not. The quality of the squad suggests not. Every pundit, manager and neutral observer insists Boro are still the best bet for promotion and probably the title.
Yet, something deep inside has spooked supporters.
And at MK Dons it felt like that accumulated anxiety was about to erupt. The atmosphere was fretful outside the ground and the doubts were doubled when the team sheet was announced and Rhodes was on the bench. Again.
And once MK Dons scored the frustration was tangible. You could feel the waves radiating from the top shelf behind the far goal. There were yelps as balls went astray. There were screams in anger and angst as attacks broke down. And some sections edged, slowly, reluctantly, towards open hostility.
After the break – and with no changes – it seemed there was a battle of wills as the crowd (and cyberspace) built layers of ever louder demands for the new striker to help out a flaccid front-line and the boss stuck rigidly to his plan.
Fans called repeatedly for Jordan Rhodes long before he peeled off his tracksuit. And they offered pointed tactical advice and chanted “attack, attack, attack.” It felt, as the whistle loomed, that defeat would usher in open season on the manager, his tactics, his selections, his entire ethos. It felt like battle lines were being drawn.
And then Rhodes scored, he celebrated with glee and the fans punched the air wit ha mixture of joy, relief and total incredulity. But many joy. A last gasp leveller always feels almost like a win. Almost.
The goal, the point, the inching to top spot have all helped to relieve the pressure – for now. But it was a deeply frustrating and unsatisfactory performance from a side who looked laboured and blunt and rarely managed to impose themselves.
There can’t be many more of them. The pack are closing fast and the game in hand won’t protect that narrow lead if it is cashed in as cheaply as that one was.
In the eyes of many, the manager has got out of jail.
Had Rhodes not scored the fact that he was on the bench would have been a weapon to beat him and a crime that would not be forgotten. It could yet come back to haunt him.
I understand the logic behind it: Aitor likes to get his signings up to speed with the style and shape of the team and in tune with the philosophy and mentality and has taken that approach from day one. And, as he had always stated, the players in the shirts keep them so long as they are doing the business and David Nugent worked his nuts off and scored to salvage the game against Blackburn.
And there is next to no chance of a change in shape. The gaffer has spent two years hard-wiring the formation into the team. He’s not going to change it now. Why would he? The shape has taken the team into the promotion spots and has yielded the golden ration of two points a game this term.
But that is hard to sell to the fans. Especially after a the January jitters, just two goals and two points in four games and the team crying out for extra ooomph as they look to find Championship escape velocity.
And especially when Rhodes is well versed in this division. He is not an import who could fall through the football culture gap. Rhodes has rattled in 11 goals for Blackburn this season. Standard. Leaving him out made the boss hostage to fortune.
So once again it was a big call for the gaffer. As were his changes at Wolves.
Once again he got away with.
Sometimes it is just as important to be a lucky manager as to be a good one.
NEW club. New ground. New start? Boro need to kick-start their promotion push quickly. A wobble of four points and just two goal from four games has seen their lead eroded and the pack close in while some sections of supporters have got the jitters.
These stumbles happen in every promotion campaign to every team. At this stage last season Bournemouth went six without a win. Under Bryan Robson in 1995 ‘nailed on’ Boro got battered twice in a week and leaked nine goals in a sustained slump before Uwe arrived as a catalyst. It happens.
It is not necessarily terminal and we should be wary of projecting our own dark fears onto the situation and the team and predicting doom. Now is the time to get behind them. It is in these moments the team need unconditional support to give them a shove
Go! Rhodes ready for a sprint start to the second phase of the promotion push
And Boro are well placed to reboot the season. They are not trailing and looking to play catch-up. They are joint top and with games in hand. Victory at MK Dons would transform the dynamics and put them clear with a healthy cushion and a game in hand over third.
They have also had a healthy injection of fresh blood during the transfer window. They have signed the Championship proven prolific striker they have courted for a year and a creative midfielder with a great pedigree (though he may be ring rusty) as well as adding bodies in every other department.
Just a few weeks ago everyone was talking about Boro being the best balanced squad and best organised team in the division working to a coherent tactical framework that was being applied clinically. They had the best bench in the league too packed with talents that would walk into the first team of almost any other team . The pundits were gushing. Opposition managers were in awe. The national press sat up and took notice. None of that has changed. Boro remain well equipped and placed to push on. And it starts here.
Boro go to franchise outfit MK Dons – cynically spirited into the league at the expense of the real Wimbledon – looking to get back into gear. The last 20 minutes against Blackburn suggested that if they up the tempo and apply some pressure then they can be creative and potent and have the punch to beat a struggling side who have plateaued.
With added ‘Jason’ Rhodes and possibly Ramirez and Stuani too, Boro should have the firepower and if they can match the focus and work-rate they had before the clean sheet magic aura was broken they should have too much for MK Dons.
Ben Gibson is back now – his absence shouldn’t be ignored when looking for the cause of the creaking – but Dani Dani Ayala is out now as well as George Friend so the defence still looks a bit makeshift, however although Tomas Kalas and Ritchie De Laet look to be more than competent deputies. But will have to be sharp. And the midfield anchor pair will have to up their performance and resume their roles as human shields to protect them.
But it is up front where Boro need to perform. The quality on call is amazing. The options are staggering. The price-tags are eye-watering. Now results have to match that.
I haven’t collected for a few weeks but I’m sticking with 2-0/3-0. Over to you. Usual drill. Predict the score and the plot-lines and then we’ll regroup later to swap notes.