Tuesday, 24 April 2012

We Still Believe...

Well.... well... well.

As Anthony Vickers rightly put it on Twitter: "What a crazy, cruel, perverse team this is."

Just when we had been led to believe that the Moggalution was more of a mirage than an oasis, that Nicky Bailey was not the player he was before Christmas, that this disappointment of a season should just hurry up and die already... it happened.

Less than a week ago, we'd only managed a goalless draw at home with bottom of the table Doncaster, leaving chuckling Cardiff knowing that a home win against Leeds, who had nothing to play for, would give them cause to prepare for another possible promotion party.

We needed some kind of miracle to keep our extremely slim hopes alive. But it came.

Minutes after Andy Taylor, of all people, was denied the chance to seal Cardiff's play-off spot - and our fate - Luciano Becchio* got his head to Paul Connolly's cross at the other end and we were suddenly back in the play-off hunt.

This was actually the first of several "miracles" on a day that really saw us get the rub of the green, with a few exceptions. Even after Cardiff had failed to beat Leeds, a home victory over Southampton was still a huge ask.

Everything was stacked against us before kick-off. For a team of supposed "promotion challengers", our form was wretched - just one win in ten, with one of the most lacklustre home records in the Championship. The Saints had also won three times and drawn once on their last five visits to the Riverside. (You have to go back to the eventually irrelevant Juninho-inspired 3-1 win in 2004 for the last time we beat the Saints at home.**) Additionally, they hadn't lost a game after going in front for eighteen months.

If you believed the Sky commentators, nobody - especially not Boro - would spoil Southampton's promotion party.

And, sure enough, it looked like everything was going according to plan when Billy Sharp - who's been everything for Southampton that Lukas Jutkiewicz hasn't yet been for us - scored after only 52 seconds.

Uncomfortable memories of Roberto Di Matteo's thunderbolt at the old Wembley returned, along with the now commonplace scepticism about our defence. Even the returns of Merouane Zemmama, Faris Haroun and Rhys Williams (as a substitute) didn't seem to inspire us early on. Sure, we were combative, and we'd had efforts on goal to speak of (Bailey's first half pass to set up Barry Robson for a shot that went over the bar was a beaut), but so had they, and it might have already been curtains for our season had Danny Fox and the normally dependable Rickie Lambert taken the chances that came to them.

They didn't, though, setting the stage for miracle #2 - Bailey's shot getting the deflection it needed to leave Kelvin Davis helpless and find its way into the corner of the net. It was just reward for the spirit of the team, and especially for Bailey, who was playing his best football in months. It also came right on the stroke of half time, forcing Nigel Adkins to change his team talk entirely... but, most importantly, it convinced our team of non-scorers that they could actually score again. And, just seconds after Bailey's goal, we very nearly did score again - but the offside flag cut Lukas Jutkiewicz's celebrations short. (A real shame, in my opinion - his finish was truly professional. Marginally offside or not, I've seen those given. It would have been an invaluable boost for his confidence.)

Turns out that said flag was one of the very few times our luck was out that day. Early in the second half, Sharp missed a chance that he would normally have buried, before Seb Hines fouled Adam Lallana clean through on goal and stayed on the pitch. Not for the first time this season, we were grateful to a Bates - Tony Bates, that is.

Once we had weathered that storm, however, the pendulum swung yet again, with Mogga pulling off a surprisingly clever tactical switch (by his recent standards), sending on Rolls Rhys for Robbo and Curtis Main for Scott McDonald. The extra energy, enthusiasm and pace, at the expense of Robbo's temperament, clearly unsettled the Saints as we began to create chances again... later culminating in the free kick and the delightfully familiar celebration that re-ignited our dream.

Now what we've got to ask ourselves is this: is it still too late?

You have to admit that it's still more than likely that the final play-off position will go to Cardiff. Their next opponents, Crystal Palace, have nothing to play for and have only won seven games at home (just one fewer than ourselves) while Cardiff have only lost four away.

Cardiff may have developed a reputation for dropping points recently too, with just three wins from their last nine games, but, against that, they haven't lost a match since March 13.

You also have to go back to March 20 for the last time Palace actually won a league game. They've managed just three points out of a possible 24 since then.

That, and don't forget that we still have a job to do against Watford! We're in major danger of losing our focus here. An excellent away record (by our standards) does not entitle us to a win when it matters most.

How cruel is it to be given hope just when we have resigned ourselves, as fans, to everything ending on a low note? Last week, I accused the team of "playing us for fools" all season - and they still are, taking us on a roller coaster ride towards a possible play-off finish that we could have, in fact, sealed a long time ago.

The season will be full of what if's and if only's if we fail to get into sixth place. If only we hadn't suffered crucial injuries at the wrong times... if only we could learn to see out games when it actually mattered... if only our capable strikers could actually put the ball in the net more often...

But, on the other hand...

Let's go back to November 1987. Bulgaria hadn't lost a competitive international match at home for five years. To qualify for Euro 88, they only needed to draw against an already-eliminated Scotland. But then this happened...

...And so, a glorious new chapter in Irish football history began.

It's situations like these that can help create a great new chapter in Boro's history as well. As Bulgaria only needed a draw, they were less inclined to attack on the night, which worked in both Scotland's (and, more significantly, Ireland's) favour. The same could be true of Cardiff next Saturday.

More importantly, since when does the form book really matter? Lest we forget, Cardiff had won five out of six matches before Boro came to town last year and gloriously shredded their automatic promotion plans.

On the other hand, Cardiff have choked on the big stage enough times in recent years. They will still be hurting from narrowly missing out on the League Cup earlier this year too. Surely they can't fall short again.

Or can they?

* * * * *

*Kind of makes up for his Elland Road sickener of New Year's Day 2011, doesn't it?

**That game now brings back sad memories, as our first goal was the last professional Middlesbrough goal Juninho would ever score.

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