THE referee was Roger East. Boro’s high hopes against woeful Watford went west. Let’s just hope the season isn’t going South.
Certainly there was a lack of direction at times. Boro got lost in a diversionary flurry of time-wasting, niggly fouls that broke up play and some top flight polished professionalism in the disappointing 1-0 defeat to a poor Watford side. Or ‘game management’ as we call it nowadays.
The referee took the brunt of the fans’ frustrations on a deeply disappointing day at the Riverside. “You are the worst. You are the worst. We’ve had some **** here but you are the worst!” It was a harsh assessment but it was a popular one. The inventive and damning chant started in the North Stand, was taken up passionately in the South and, once the language barrier was crossed, the Watford supporters joined in with gusto.
Both teams could have legitimate grievances. Boro had four penalty shouts. Yes, three of them were probably instinctive primal screams that could be easily waved away by the ref. “You’ve seen them given.” Maybe, but you would be furious if it was given against you. But the handball? That one looked clear cut.
And then there were the free-kicks given in defiance of the evidence. Or not given despite it. Or given the wrong way. With the Boro fans howling in derision and injustice in the second half it seemed at times the referee was openly trolling them.
But Watford fans had grounds to feel aggrieved too. Antonio Barragan should have been sent off. He was already weighed down by a yellow after a rash touchline challenge on Success when he committed a carbon copy one 10 minutes later and the ref stomped over.
The official then did himself no favours as he fanned the flames of the consistency/commonsense debate. If the first was a yellow card then so was the second. There was no question about it. He was off. But after a long spell of reading the riot act with anxious captain George Friend mediating and/or translating the referee took unilateral action that would have had the assessor choking on his Bovril and gave the shaky Spaniard a verbal ‘orange card,’ a final warning.
The referee was poor – but he was poor for both sides. It was an even handed show of ineptitude. Corners and throws went the wrong way, players – on both sides – threw themselves to the ground, some ropey advantages were played (or not played) and as the niggles spilled over into a card fest it felt like it wouldn’t take much for the game to flare into open warfare.
But Boro had been played. Yes, the referee wasn’t the best as the song had pointed out, but the team had been lured into a tetchy, scrappy, disjointed game that dragged their own mindset off course and guided the match up a cul-de-sac.
After the game Aitor Karanka criticised Watford’s time wasting and then channelled Jose and hinted at a shroud of dark conspiracy: Boro had been shown more yellow cards than the opposition, maybe as the Premier League new boys they were getting a rough deal but he didn’t want to say what he really thought.
But that can’t disguise the truth: Boro were not good enough to win. They had control of the game for half-an-hour but then let it slither out of their grasp and paid the price.
They started well. They were playing a crisp, calm and patient passing game, dominating possession and whenever they put the ball in the box a woeful Watford defence fell into disarray. They were awful. Watford were wobbling like a fat Nana on a bike. It was chaos in there. It seemed they were one telling cross away from a collapsing like a Jenga stack and that a fatal mistake or a penalty was imminent.
But Boro took their eye off the ball. They were distracted by the niggles. They lost their shape, their way and their discipline and they were punished for it. Again.
It was a game there for the taking but Boro somehow gave it away. With another self-inflicted goal. Boro started the second half brightly, had put a few dangerous crosses in and Cristhian Stuani fired just wide. Boro were turning the screw.
Then BANG! The weekly mistake. And a familiar formula. A poor attempted clearance from the box (this time Marten de Roon), then a Boro man favourite to collect the loose ball was muscled off the (Stuani again) and then a curling angled effort that took a slight deflection and squirted in under the bar.
If you want a stick to beat the keeper, Valdes may have had spotted it earlier, reacted to the clip and got to it. If you want a stick to beat Stuani with he was slow again to react to what should have been a routine collection as he had been again Spurs. If you want a stick to beat de Roon with, his clearance was played down the throat of the Watford attack rather than into row Z. There is a handy bonfire of sticks building up there.
For Boro that was a deeply worrying display. It was three points there for the taking and it was a lack of nous and concentration – game management – as much as a lack of a clinical cutting edge that cost them.
But it was also a result that will dent their points projections. Realistically Boro will see every point gained from the big boys as a bonus but will have budgeted to bank something from the lesser sides – and on the first half showing Watford were as poor a team as we have seen this season.
And it is a result that must also dent morale. Boro have not won at home this season and after a solid start have now taken just one point from 15 and are above the drop spots on goal difference alone. And with trips to Arsenal and Manchester City looming it won’t get any easier to get back on their survival curve. And once they are in the hot spots it could be very hard work to get out.
Boro will know that was a game they could and should have won. They can’t afford the costly lapses in concentration. They can’t afford any more mistakes. And most importantly of all, they can’t afford to squander winnable games.
OPINIONS eh? Here’s my player ratings for the match.
I’ve taken some flak,. Apparently I should have used the marks as a punishment beating this week. Yes we are all gutted not to have won a game that was on a plate but – the goal aside – Boro edged possession, created chances (not enough but more than Watford) and should maybe have had a penalty. They fell short but weren’t out-classed or battered. So some perspective. The problem is that the vast majority of them were average when we need to start having days when the vast majority are above average.