BORO showed they are fit for purpose in the Premier League on an emotional day at the Riverside. The new look team – four debutants – more than held their own against an organised and robust Stoke side that are the cliché “can you do it?” benchmark.
And they have a precious first point on the board after a solid 1-1 draw. That they failed to hold on for the full three may have been initially frustrating, but on balance most will be happy at drawing with the side who finished ninth last season.
But the day was about more than football. It was about Boro – the club, the crowd, the community – being delivered back to the big time after a long road to redemption. Boro are back up where we belong. That was the important thing. And so long as Stoke didn’t turn out to be party-poopers (there is always that ‘typical Boro’ fear) it was always going to be smiles all round.
There was a carnival atmosphere long before kick off. Long before. Plenty of tingling Teessiders never slept a wink, full of Christmas Eve festive fidget and waiting to see what Karanka Claus would bring. The matchday buzz started at breakfast as Twitter twitched into life and fizzed at the prospect of Boro’s return, and excited crowds were milling around the Riverside two hours earlier than usual.
There was a real crackle of glee and nerves, the new term anticipation sharpened by the sight of the Premier League livery and the feel of a box-fresh stadium with revamped concourses and, for some, new seats.
As kick-off approached there was a swell of pride and passion at being back in the big time. There were some brilliant new banners unveiled in a visual stereo from Boro’s dual kop: “The Club That Will Not Die” and the Ayresome Gates from the Red Faction in the South Stand, and a stirring message of “Strength in Unity” from the Twe12th Man in the North.
There was a real buzz as a plane drifted overhead trailing a crowd-funded banner with a touching tribute to much-missed microphone man Ali Brownlee declaring: “Everyone back to mine for a parmo.”
There was a sense of collective effort and civic pride from the Red Army, celebrating success after a seven year slog in the second tier. And after a build-up that sucked the air out of loyalists’ lungs, the match started with an ear-drum bursting roar of sheer joy.
The team matched that intensity with a blistering start and as Boro pressed and probed, the roar turned into a resounding universal chant in praise of chairman Steve Gibson, who more than anyone can view the return from Championship exile as hard-earned and deserved reward. The team delivered. Boro turned in a top flight performance.
Aitor Karanka’s side looked confident and determined in the opening exchanges as they pressed forward with some assertive, aggressive football and an Albert Adomah dipper sent former squeeze Shay Given back-pedalling to tip over.
The fairytale debut opener for Alvaro Negredo was well-worked and ramped up the volume again just as the early hysteria was settling. It was text-book stuff: lively Albert Adomah danced down the left and sent a deep cross sailing over the box for Gaston Ramirez to nod it back superbly into the middle and Negredo darted free – casually heading home from close range. Get in. Scripted.
Boro relaxed and played with an impressive swagger, imposed themselves and set the tempo and tone and created chances. But a testing spell was always going to come. Stoke are a good side and they had chances as the first phase drew to a close but Boro showed they were just as strong at the back as at the sharp end.
Ben Gibson and Antonio Barragan made crunching tackles in the box then Ramirez popped up with first a crucial header to glance away a Xherdan Shaqiri crossm before Mame Biram Diouf could connect, then nodded off the line after a bout of penalty box pinball.
After the break Stoke clawed their way back into the game and started to apply some pressure there was a scare at the back as Stoke’s top knot targetman Arnautovic burst forward onto a weak back-pass from Barragan but the otherwise under-employed sweeper-keeper Valdes streaked out his box to clear and soon after he flew into a diving punch to clear at the far post.
The game had slipped into the shape that most fans felt the season would see: Boro defending against an opposition pressing forward with a lot of possession, soaking it up and then hitting on the break.
Boro are not the finished article though. There was a golden chance on the counter as Albert was sent free down the flank but with Negredo and Downing bursting into the box the decisive final low cross was sloppy and cut out by the last defender. Boro may not get many such chances to seal a game over the season and have to make them count.
Then Boro were punished for that lack of a killer touch as Stoke levelled on 67 minutes, Shaqiri dipping a harshly awarded 25 yard free-kick over the wall that Valdes got a hand to but glanced in off the foot of the far post.
The game became scrappy and peppered with fouls but Stoke increasingly had the edge forcing a tiring Boro into some desperate defending but they held out. They still chances too but the early zip, poise, shape and intensity had gone in a ragged final phase.
In the end a draw was a fair result in what was a solid top flight return. There were some very promising signs of a team that can more than hold its own and despite hard work they were undone by a harshly awarded to sublimely executed free-kick.
And it was an entertaining game on a memorable day that had most of those leaving the stadium beaming. Aitor was happy enough. So were the players. They took positives and confidence from the game. Albert walked quietly past the press pack, stopped, turned and punched the air and roared: “Yes! We smashed it!” then headed off happily homewards.
And red hot Ramirez was Will Griggs-like and on fire all day. So much so that I’m blaming him for the brief post-match evacuation of the West Stand.
That left the suited and booted – including the chairman – mingling with the smiling shirts still outside and swapping notes on a bright start to the season.