Monday, 24 December 2012

Are We Really Ready?

Si's Insights returns at the halfway stage to analyse Boro's promotion prospects

The last time we were with you, Tony Mowbray had just celebrated his hundredth game in charge of the Boro with a 1-0 win at Brighton. Little did we know at the time that it was the start of an absolutely magical two weeks, which featured determined (and vital) home wins against Hull and Bolton, and a great triumph at the Stadium Of Light that left even the most cynical Boro fan daring to dream. The icing on the cake appeared to come at the Valley, when the team bounced back from going behind early on to go joint top with a convincing 4-1 victory... and neither Marvin Emnes nor the consistently-improving Ishmael Miller were available for the game!

Of course, we all know when the real icing on the cake came – the day we went top of the league. To me, there were few better ways to achieve such a goal, with everything coming to fruition that night; our passing, our willingness to chase lost causes, our "no excuses" mentality (we failed to let a goal that should have been disallowed, Scott McDonald's (justified) whining and Woody's injury deter us) and possibly, most importantly, our ability to deliver on the big occasion (which, as you know, is usually non-existent). It wasn't a Cardiff choker, a la 2008; it was a Sheffield super show, and the Manager Of The Month Award was well deserved...

But with the words "Manager Of The Month" comes the traditional curse, the time when every opposition manager is now watching out for you, and when any team tends to let its guard down a little, believing that they're better than they really are. The consequences of any monthly award are usually sloppiness, laziness and raised expectations that most clubs, particularly Boro, find very hard to meet. And sure enough, we have won only three of the eight league and cup matches we have played since, and two of those victories have been rather fortunate. It's like a post-Christmas holidays slump come early. Typical Boro again, then?

To be sure, more than a few of those defeats have been rather unfortunate, making it easy to reduce the slightly more downbeat Boro experience to a series of what if's. On another day, Josh McEachran might not have misplaced his pass at St. Andrews. On another day, Sian Massey might have allowed that "ghost goal" and we'd have gone on to clinch victory against Bristol City. On another day, said game would not have been allowed to continue in the fog. On another day, Paddy Kenny may have fumbled Emmanuel Ledesma's shot in for a late equaliser against Leeds. On another day, Luciano Becchio's equaliser may have hit the inside of the woodwork and bounced back into play. On another day, Tom Lees may have driven Emnes's cross into his own net. On another day... On another day...

As a BBC Radio Five Live pundit pointed out more than a decade ago, Middlesbrough "must be the most excruciating team in the world to follow." Even when you feel that their achievements are commendable – four points and three places off an automatic promotion spot, with a superior goal difference to Hull City, is nothing to sniff at – frustration hangs over every game like a dark cloud, the constant feeling that Boro are capable of, as Roxy Music might put it, more than this. To an extent, the likes of Anthony Vickers are correct to applaud our efforts so far this season – a stronger squad and a more all around attacking game and numerous effective new faces have brought plenty of reasons to be cheerful. But how many times will we continue to waste an opportunity to establish ourselves as the title contenders our fans, and even some neutral pundits, believe we can be?

While the Moggalution initially appeared to transform Boro into a completely different outfit from what they had been before, at their core Mogga's teams really resemble a return to what Boro were pre-Strachan; a club in tune with both its fans and the community that promised good, even great things, but was dangerously, consistently unpredictable. Like the English national team, it doesn't seem to matter who is the manager (if you don’t count Strachan); it's always the same old story of missed promise. And it may yet amount to a horrifying slump similar to that in our relegation season of 2008/09, where after repeatedly dropping points because of the worst kind of luck at the wrong time (see: Liverpool (A), Sunderland (A), Blackburn (A) and Hull (A), to name but a few) we seemed to give up on the road altogether and surrender to dispiriting defeat after dispiriting defeat. Not that that's very likely to happen again, but of course, you can never be sure.

The thing is, it really doesn't have to be this way. With Jason Steele playing better than he ever has, numerous options at both the back and in midfield (some more reliable than others) and a relatively proficient attack, the talent is undeniably there to consistently challenge at the top of the league and, unlike last year, survive into at least the play off places.

I've come to the conclusion that whether or not we can finish in the top six, or better still, achieve automatic promotion, depends on overcoming the psychological fear of failure that has haunted many Boro teams of the past. What other explanation can you offer for many of the goals we have given away recently? As unlucky as the Birmingham defeat may have been, the goals were self-inflicted, and we can't really complain about ex-Boro failure (and consistent Boro tormenter) Marlon King buying the penalty; had a Boro player done the same we certainly wouldn't have complained. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

What I hope we can have is more consistency from our strikers. As gifted as our four main frontmen – Scott McDonald, Lukas Jutkiewicz, Marvin Emnes and Ishmael Miller – undeniably are, they aren't the kind of goalscorers you can wholly rely on. Juke's profligacy and not-so-marvellous Marvin's contribution, or lack of it, must be addressed; how about focusing on turning Marvin into an out-and-out playmaker/goalscorer when called upon, a la Cantona? He's certainly not very much of a team player at the minute. And if it helps get us out of this "doing everything but score a goal" phase, then I'm all for it.

Moreover, what's to become of the once undroppable Nicky Bailey? Mogga's treatment of him borders on puzzling. Yes, he is still on Strachanesque wages, is not as indispensable as he was, and we can hardly sell Kevin Thomson – but what if Chelsea were to recall McEachran, and Grant Leadbitter gets injured? We ought to be prepared.

Ultimately, our season will be defined by our ability to take the right chances at the right time. Whether or not we'll actually be capable of doing so is anyone's guess.

For now, I wish you all a Merry Christmas!


Anonymous said...

Not much to argue with here, Si, and in fact I've been putting down similar sentiments in my pieces for FMTTM this season. My feeling is that the squad is becoming ever more a good Championship one than the arguable Premier class side going through a slump that we were when we went down. Inevitable now that we're in our fourth season here, but without significant injections of cash - which we aren't going to get - I don't suppose we can expect much better than what we've got. We're a fine second division outfit, nothing more, and we will either gel into something greater than the sum of the parts a la Reading last season, or continue to be a top half of the table team, no matter as you say who the manager is.

Nevertheless, I've got no real problem with Mogga's management. He's generally doing the best he can with severely stripped back resources, and could do with better luck in terms of injuries. The squad seems to enjoy playing together by and large. The egos, when Scott McDonald's not in his dark place, are being reined in. The football's decent to good. Get a few more thousand on the gates thanks to some of those offers sinking in, and who knows...? I just hope peoples' patience with the manager doesn't run out.

Cheers - Mike

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike. I'm in complete agreement with your second paragraph, but regarding your first, I think that one's perspective of what the team can really achieve depends on whether you're a "glass half full" or "glass half empty" kind of supporter. When you consider how little money we have, not to mention the numerous injuries, it seems that, as you said, we should be delighted with our current position.

But, to me, how is it possible not to be at least a little frustrated with the way things are going when better results seem there for the taking and we're not taking them? Especially because, as Roald Dahl put it, however small the chance may be of striking lucky, the chance is there.

Personally, I'm the sort who will not give up on automatic promotion until it is mathematically impossible. And I may end up feeling unreasonably glum, not to mention, well, reflectively realistic, at the end of it all, but... but... to paraphrase something Anthony Vickers once said, even if you know the final act is coming, it's the hope that kills you.

And with the squad we have, and with Rolls Rhys, Carayol, Haroun and Main still to return, I don't think that such hope is founded on mere wishful thinking.