COMATOSE neutrals across the nation snoozed on sofas. Affronted “purists” stormed out of the living room slamming doors behind as they went to find their hipster Ajax 74 Total Football DVD collection. And pundits with fear in their eyes groaned at the thought of digging out the “highlights” from 94 minutes of functional, glamour free grind.
Meanwhile metal merchants everywhere must have been surveying the screen avidly because if it was weighed in for scrap this match had hit pay dirt.
Welcome to the ‘Greatest League In The World’ and the start of yet another sizzling small screen soaraway Super Sunday subscription spectacular.
Now, I don’t mind the odd attritional slog. It is part-and parcel in the football mix. Mind-numbing games with “nil-nil written all over them” in big thick black marker are far more common at every level than the brand-managers will ever acknowledge and I long ago learned to roll with them.
The highlight – the only historical footnote anyway – was that the team was led out by proud Teessider Ben Gibson, the youngest skipper since Lee Cattermole led a youth side at Fulham in May 2006.
Most of the aftermath will be dominated by competitively harsh comments on quality control. And that is fair enough. It was hard work watching it.
We would all like to see sweeping cavalier football and Teesside tiki-taka you don’t get extra points for artistic merit. But while it will be quickly be air-brushed out of most people’s memory, don’t make the mistake of thinking it wasn’t an important game. And a very important point. Boro have put down an important marker in a tough match.
West Brom, a yo-yo side last time we were in this league – have stabilised in the top flight by making a habit of beating the teams ‘in and around’ them at home. And Tony Pulis is a past master of setting up big, physical teams to be well drilled at the back, hard to beat, battle for the clean sheet and maybe snatch one from a set-play.
For Boro to get past that kind of test is a big box ticked.
It shows the team can bring took industry, organisation, collective sweaty work-rate and sheer ball-breaking battling to the table as well as flashes of flair.
They dug deep in defence with everyone getting back to help. Stewart Downing and Gaston Ramirez were neatly passing their way out of a crowded box at one point, Cristhian Stuani and Alvaro Negredo headed balls away.
The central defensive duo of Gibson and Dani Ayala blocked and tackled and intercepted and headed away everything that was fired into the box in the torrid spells.
After a torrid start Boro clawed back into the game with the midfield dynamic duo aided by Downing dropping deep were working hard to retain, regain and recycle possession and take the sting out of the game.
And Boro slowly – very slowly – started to push play into the West Brom half and assert some pressure of their own, although that was the weak link: Boro lacked the killer ball in the final third.
There were flashes of hope at times with some crisp movement and passing going forward but very little sustained pressure, a succession of poor finals deliveries and not a single shot on target barring a bundled Ayala effort in a late scramble.
Boro need to sharpen up at the business end. No one would question that. There have been signs of potency if the Negredo-Ramirez axis is sparking and two of Boro’s three goals this term have been well worked. And that element can be worked on in the break .
But you can’t coach pace it may take a dip into the market to add some real extra zip and bring more width or pace going forward. We’ll see. There may be surprise said Aitor.
West Brom wasn’t a good game but it was a good result to cap off what has been a good start. Aitor Karanka’s team have extended their unbeaten start to life in the Premier League and kept their first clean sheet and they have gone into the international break having built a solid platform with three industrious performances.
They have taken five points from three games and were in sixth place at the full time whistle. That’s not bad. They have opened a small but crucial gap over the sides in the relegation mini-league. If they can maintain that and be four points clear of the bottom three come May it might not be open top bus time but it will be a success.
They are far from the finished article but have shown they can match the established sides they will be measured against and look to be adapting quickly.
HERE’S my player ratings…. feel free to mark this marking out of 10 out of 10.
AND here’s what we said before…
BOING. Boing. If Boro can beat the Baggies they can bounce to the top of their league. The important results went kindly for our heroes on Saturday: a late leveller for Southampton against Sunderland (courtesy of a man who hadn’t scored for over two years in what we would call a ‘typical Boro’ scenario) meant all our rivals in the Premier League’s Division Three dropped precious points.
The Mackems, Hull, Burnley, Watford, Bournemouth, Swansea, Crystal Palace – maybe even Stoke too now – all drew at best. That means if Boro win at West Brom (they are in that group too) they will go up to joint third in the overall table – and top of the one that we will probably be more concerned with this season. Victory will take Boro six points clear of five teams after three games. and three or four of a couple of the others That would be brilliant. Once we open that vital survival firewall and get a bit of momentum we need to scrap like drunken sailors to keep it up and stay clear. Hook or by crook. Nip and tuck.
And just as we went to Sunderland saying “it is a good time to play them”, there is an echo of that at West Brom. The Hawthorns is not a happy place with fans growing disenchanted with functional Pulisball and worried at the form which fell of a cliff once safety was secured last season. There have been few summer signings. There are whispers of tensions behind the scenes between owners and manager. There is even a suggestion it is a “must win” game if the bubbling dissent is not to burst into the open. Every little helps.
We need Boro to react sharply to the sting of defeat and a limp display at Fulham in midweek and to the old school “not as good as they think they are” post-match blast from Aitor. We need the Ramirez-Negredo combination to click up front. We need the defence to hold firm against the aerial assault and we need a solid show between the sticks.
I’m going for a repeat of the Sunderland game, with Boro getting the opener then digging deep against a Baggies bombardment and looking to hit on the counter. I think we’ll see a lot of that this season. Hopefully we’ll get a second goal to buy some time and space. If not it will be a long, tense scrap. But I think we’ll get there. 1-0 (Ramirez, 29).
Over to you… usual drill (its been a long time but you must remember). Predict the score and how the game unfolds and then all back here after to swap notes.
Here’s a nice pre-match read, an interview I did with Teesside small screen surrealist and proper fan Bob Mortimer on ‘proper scary’ heart surgery, meeting Aitor Karanka and marking out the milestones of your life in Boro memories.