Friday, 29 March 2013

Alen Boksic & Mark Viduka: An Appreciation

The lanky Croat and the rather portly Aussie may have been two of the finest strikers in Boro's history, but they had "could do better" written all over their Boro careers...

When it comes to recalling the strikers of the Riverside era, few come to mind more clearly, for better or for worse, than Alen Boksic and Mark Viduka. Both were international strikers that respective Boro managers Bryan Robson and Steve McClaren had expressed interest in for some time. And if both arguably joined Boro past their peak, they still had much to offer, and certainly offered much of it while at Boro; vision, exceptional positional play, remarkable footwork and strong aerial presence.

But their Boro careers were also hampered by what I'll call the DII Curse - Disinterest, Inconsistency and Injuries. For these reasons alone, most Boro fans seem all too anxious to block them out of their memories today. Too often, when we recall Boksic and Viduka, we think of what might have been more than what was.

Several factors worked against Boksic the moment he arrived at the Riverside, and not just his age. Like his future manager, Steve McClaren, he rarely seemed to smile after a goal was scored, indicating that he considered himself above the Boro set-up and/or was only really there for the reputed £63,000 per week wage. That, and he seemed to develop mysterious viruses the day before tough away games. The Sunday Times' David Walsh's remark that Boksic "never quite bought into the Boro dream" seems all too true on reflection.

What makes his time at Boro equally memorable and frustrating is that when he did switch on, he scored more than a handful of important or brilliant goals, or both. Among my personal favourites are an extremely well-taken one-on-one against then title-chasing (yes) Leeds, a thunderbolt of a free kick at St. James's Park, a seemingly casual chip in a 3-0 away win at Leicester, and his "sign-off" goal in a 3-1 win against the future champions on Boxing Day 2002.

Equally notable, if not so spectacular, were his first ever Boro strikes, the vital winning goals in a misleading 3-1 opening day win at Coventry in August 2000, where his sharp reflexes and penalty box composure were there for all to see. "Composure" was probably the most apt word to describe Boksic on his good days... he approached the penalty area or box with such swagger or finished with such assurance, power or both, that you felt that if he was on form, a good result was virtually guaranteed. In fact, with the exception of a 3-1 home defeat to Southampton early on in 2001/02, and a 2-1 away defeat to Spurs in the same season, when Boksic scored, Boro never lost. More than that, he was named Player Of The Year in 2001, and he did score in two wins against Manchester United.

Alas, one of his other defining traits, apart from "injuries" (the nickname "Boksick" was quite commonly heard in Boro circles in those days) was his condescending attitude towards teammates he did not perceive to be on his level. This undeniably played a major part in his inconsistency, and left football critics scratching their heads, imagining just how good Boksic could be if he was fit and fully motivated. My gut tells me that both we and McClaren were not going to continue sitting around and waiting for the best of Boksic while he kept collecting his money; and when the striker did depart, it was met with apathy, a shrug of the shoulders. A shame.

If Boksic's arrival was met with "muted" excitement, to say the least, Mark Viduka arrived at Boro amidst a bit of a fanfare. One of three extremely high profile signings - the other two being the Dutch duo of Michael Reiziger and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink - in the space of a few heady July 2004 days, he looked like he would be a force to be reckoned with in an upcoming season featuring Boro's first ever march on Europe. And he was... for a handful of games, at least. Those who argue that he "failed to inspire" during 2004-05 are missing the point - when fit, and in full flow, his partnership with Hasselbaink was extremely potent and even devastating. The braces against Birmingham, Banik Ostrava and Manchester City in the first half of the season remain excellent examples of what I'll call Viduka's Boksician virtues; power, trickery, aerial presence and the ability to create something out of nothing. What he lacked in dead ball situations he made up with all round strength, hold up skills and a hugely inspirational team presence that Boksic never quite captured. It was only unfortunate that his hamstring got in the way of what could and probably should have been a much more productive season for both Viduka and the team.

And 2005-06 didn't start much better either... another brace against Birmingham was a rare highlight in a hugely inconsistent first two thirds of the campaign, one where Steve McClaren never seemed quite sure what his best team was. The arrival and early season form of Yakubu shifted "The Duke" down the pecking order a little, and when he was called upon to lead the front line during Boro's worst run of the season - which, of course, reached its nadir in Operation Season Ticket Throw, that 4-0 home defeat to Aston Villa - he was found both wanting and indifferent. When he was named as a substitute for the inexplicable thrashing of Chelsea that followed a mere week later, he left the stadium, and fans didn't seem to care whether he came or went...

But he proved his worth. Sort of. Crucial goals, assists and team play in the league, cup and Europe towards the end of 2005-06 solidified his presence in the first team again as Yakubu's faded. Even as that rollercoaster season ended with a whimper, a heavier debt and McClaren taking the England job - for what, exactly? - Viduka finished the season on a high. And Hasselbaink's departure opened the door for him to both take the No. 9 shirt in Gareth Southgate's first season as manager and form a coherent, if not always consistent, partnership with Yakubu that, when firing, would ensure a good result and/or team performances.

As good as Woodgate, Downing and Julio Arca (yes, surprisingly) were that season, goals win matches, and Viduka netted nineteen of them in 2006-07, fourteen coming in the league and seven in the last seven league games. Immediately, such a stat, like Rob Huth inspiring Boro to four clean sheets in his final four games for Boro, raises cynicism, as if Viduka was playing the "I'm Now A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here" card that we lobby at so many star players who have "rejected" Boro. However much he was appreciated at Boro (so much so that Boro-born Alistair Griffin adapted Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" for him - opinions of the song still vary as far as I know), and for all his value to the team, once he discovered Sam Allardyce's persuasive powers and a different club that were willing to match his wages, there was only going to be one winner. A pity, then, that said other club had to be Newcastle... hence our cheers whenever Viduka failed to perform or priced himself out of moves to other clubs, as Ravanelli had once done, in the future.

What to make, then, of both Boksic and Viduka? It is both shameful and unfortunate that their wages and unprofessionalism have cast a shadow over their qualities on the pitch, but in the long run, they probably deserve to be remembered almost, if not quite as fondly, as many Boro "heroes". Because in truth, Boksic and Viduka were the perfect fit for Boro, a pair of strikers who were capable of producing magic and mystery in equal measures... and going missing when you needed them most.

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