Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Steel Or No Steel?

Before the Shrewsbury and Burnley matches, I was contemplating the absence of Barry Robson and Nicky Bailey and asking myself, "Who'll play?"

Today, the question is: "What now?"

What now, indeed. A fortunate cup win over the spirited Shrews preceded a 2-0 choker against Burnley at the Riverside, which saw the Clarets do to us exactly what we had done to them back in September. Back then, of course, we were on a crest of a wave, wrapping up our fifth successive Championship away win. Marvin Emnes was in peak form, both Robson and Bailey were playing (with the latter scoring) and we had a confident Carl Ikeme between the sticks. Now, Ikeme's long gone, Jason Steele is sidelined with injury, and Emnes is looking a little like the lightweight we feared he was during Southgate's final year in charge.

Have we learnt anything from these last two games? Apart from that poor Connor Ripley seems to get a touch of Massimo Taibi Syndrome every time he goes in goal? And the fact that Tarmo Kink should never don a Boro shirt again, ever? As it turns out, we've merely been reminded of an old chestnut - Boro's lack of a Plan B in attack, especially at the Riverside.

Almost every time, an early goal, or two early goals, conceded at home has torn our game plan to shreds, and on nearly every occasion, we've crumbled. Countless times under Mogga, we've shown that we can recover from a single-goal deficit. But from 2-0 down? You need to go all the way back to April 2006 and the Spirit Of Steaua for that. (And no, the Leicester game last season doesn't count - on a day when both Southampton and West Ham capitalised ruthlessly on our misfortunes, we really needed to win.)

Simon Bird (no, not Will from The Inbetweeners) of The Mirror has, albeit reluctantly, joined in the negativity that engulfs Boro at present, predicting that we won't go up this season at all. It's too early to agree with him, of course, but it's hard to ignore the gloom. Marvellous Marvin is misfiring, and without Bailey's accurate long balls and break up-play, Robson's crosses or a fully fit Scott McDonald to help him, how is he to prosper again?

Before Saturday I would have thought Lukas Jutkiewicz - or Lukey Juke, because I still can't pronounce his name - might be the answer. But he will need time to settle into the pattern of our play. And while he will certainly add both height and presence to our attack, is he technically good enough to inspire a Championship promotion charge? Mogga certainly thinks so - but this will be the young striker's toughest test yet.

More importantly, who will service him? Robson will be back for the next game, sure, but there are plenty of alternatives within the team that either we haven't yet considered, or, as in the case of Justin Hoyte and Joe Bennett, really aren't performing up to scratch. Hoyte has really blown hot and cold this season - a bit like Scott McDonald - while Bennett's looking a shadow of the player he was in early 2011. Perhaps he's suffering from second season syndrome, a la David Wheater.

There's also Tony McMahon, but he hasn't offered quite as much in attack as I thought he would this season. Kevin Thomson (when he's fit), Richie Smallwood and Julio Arca have shown themselves to be capable of passing the ball well, but being forced to play as first-choice anchormen at the moment isn't helping their cause. One must wonder, too, if Arca's still got the legs to be both an anchor and a creative force, even at this level. As for Faris Haroun and Malaury Martin, they remain enigmatic.

I don't think I've mentioned a single winger amongst these players. It's starting to make me long for the days when we were heavy with options in that position, such as Downing, Johnson, Taylor. (Maybe we might have a use for Kink after all, if his statistic of 46 goals in 15 games for "Real Tallinn" is to be believed). But then I thought of Andy Halliday, due back from a loan spell at Walsall this month. He - in addition to Robson, Bailey, McManus and McDonald, of course - is proof that Gordon Strachan had a good eye for a player, even if he couldn't get the best out of them. My thought is - why not give him another chance? Memories of his super show at Ipswich last season, where he scored a goal and set up two more, still live long in the memory.

And speaking of giving players another chance - how about Stephen McManus? It would surely make more sense, to me, for Big Mick to return to the centre of defence in place of Rhys Williams. This, in turn, would allow Rolls Rhys to play in front of the back four, behind a three-man midfield - and would offer us an additional creative outlet at the same time.

There's more options in this team than we think. Mogga just needs to figure out the right way of using them...

* * * * *

Now, a few other things worth mentioning. First of all, well done to Chris Coleman for landing the job of Wales manager. I think the job that he did at Fulham was greatly undervalued, and to sack him when the club was effectively safe from the drop, in April 2007, was sheer madness. Worse still, Mohamed Al Fayed had Coleman's replacement lined up immediately, a move that eventually proved detrimental to both Fulham and Northern Ireland. (Ironically, Boro would suffer similarly two years later when they sacked Coleman's friend, Gareth Southgate, and appointed Strachan, but that's for my next blog post.)

A special mention too to all of you who helped save our near neighbours Darlington from extinction! £5,760.35 alone was raised by Boro fans before the Burnley game, money that helped meet the £50,000 total required by the Darlington Rescue Fund to secure the club's future until the end of January.

You can read the full story here. Let's hope that this is more than just a stay of execution for former Boro man Craig Liddle and his players. Be sure to follow the campaign to save the club on Twitter, at SaveDarlo.

Finally, one more special mention - for Si's Insights' first follower, cancer survivor and Deal Or No Deal jackpot winner Tegen Roberts. The manner in which she has battled back from Hodgkin's lymphoma is an inspiration to everyone.

I hope that a similarly steely determination can spread throughout the Boro squad during what's left of this league campaign.

So: Twenty league games remain. Two automatic promotion places are there to be won. What are the lads made of - steel or no steel?

1 comment:

Mike said...

I've heard it pronounced 'Duke-of-itch' and I've no idea if that's correct but it sounds better than anything I could come up with.

Mogga's been a bit canny in telling us that the Duke is the first in what he sees as a series of signings for new Boro. This could make for an interesting January, especially if he tries to pack in a creative midfielder or two (as opposed to the side-passing Arca) that the side is crying out for. It would also be fantastic if Halliday added to the early promise he's showed...