Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Flat Finale Threatens Boro's Future


I was tempted to hold off this blog until after the Saints match, when our promotion challenge is likely to be mathematically dead.

But a dismal showing like last night's inspires no confidence whatsoever.

And I'm not just gutted. I'm also very, very concerned.

Before the Doncaster match, I had called for Boro to show the spirit and mentality of Denmark at Euro 92. Instead, we saw something that bore a greater resemblance to France under Raymond Domenech - that is to say, flat as a pancake, with an ageing and unnecessarily temperamental midfield inspiration. (For Zinedine Zidane in 2006, read Barry Robson in 2012.)

Once again, we were presented with a golden opportunity to make the top six. And we failed to take it.

We really have been played for fools this season, haven't we? From time to time, following those halcyon days of August and September 2011, we've experienced a fillip; a win, a performance or even just a goal that we believe will "reboot" our promotion campaign. And every single time we've been tricked, be it for a few days or a few weeks, only to be brought back down to earth with a bang when it matters most.

The Doncaster match was no exception. Yes, their goalkeeper played a blinder. Yes, we hit the woodwork twice. But this is already-relegated Doncaster we're talking about. If we'd have approached the game with the right mentality and the right amount of bottle, we would have seen them off comfortably.

I'm not going to use lack of quality as an excuse, because quality is there. As poor as Hammill has been in a Boro shirt following his oh-so-promising debut against Portsmouth, he has proven in the past that he can cut it at this level. Robson, McMahon, Hoyte and even Bailey have all shown themselves to be capable of supplying our front line.

Furthermore, McDonald, Emnes, Ogbeche, Main and Jutkiewicz are all considerable Championship performers. Yet, apart from Emnes, none of them have reached double figures in the league this season! Why is this so?

When your team is struggling to score goals, you're left to point fingers at the organisation of the team - and it's here, alas, where Tony Mowbray must be deemed culpable. As much as I admire Mogga for going with a more adventurous formation for last night's match, a number of questions must be raised.

Why was Barry Robson, our most creative and tenacious midfield presence, replaced by the much more lightweight Adam Hammill? If Hammill was to be on the pitch then he needed another creative presence alongside him, and Robbo would have been it. And, wrong though it was for the fans to boo Kevin Thomson, he was not the kind of attacking, exciting substitution that we so desperately needed in the final ten minutes.

If ever there was a time to revert to McClaren-esque tactics, last night was it. With twenty minutes to go, my final formation would have been:

Steele - McMahon, McManus, Hines - Bailey - Robson, Hammill (for Arca) - Emnes, Jutkiewicz - McDonald, Main (for Hoyte).

And as a last chance saloon, with ten minutes to go, I would have brought on Ogbeche for McDonald. It makes more sense to go gung ho when (a) you have nothing to lose and (b) you absolutely have to win the game at all costs. That way, at least you can say you went down fighting.

At times like these I have more respect for McClaren's team in Eindhoven. Even if they weren't up to it, at least they had a go.

* * * * *

On December 31, Blackpool were ten points behind Boro. Back then, Birmingham would have needed four wins to catch up with us, while Reading would have needed two.

Today, Brum and the Tangerines are on the verge of cementing their play-off places, while the Royals' promotion party is already in full swing. All while just five wins and nineteen goals in twenty league games have virtually rendered this season meaningless.

If only that was our only problem. As Mogga has hinted, how much harder will a summer rebuild be? Barry Robson's already on his way, and Bates and Williams are likely to follow him.

Furthermore, the promise and momentum of last season is a thing of the past. The Joe Bennett of 2011/12 is a disjointed parody of the Joe Bennett of 2010/11. And the likes of Richie Smallwood, Adam Reach, Cameron Park, Curtis Main and Andy Halliday have not been given the amount of games they deserve.

With a cheaper, weaker and almost certainly less skilled squad, just how difficult will it be to mount a serious promotion challenge next year?**

It's as if 2011 never even happened.

**On the other hand, Reading managed promotion this year despite losing both their captain and star striker before the season began. So you never know...

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