Monday, 15 April 2013

2012-13: No Easy Street For Boro

If there's one thing that Saturday's wretched result - and indeed, the whole of the wretched run that now threatens to transform what was once a promotion campaign into - heaven forbid! - a relegation fight, it's that there are no easy answers for Boro's malaise. And to be frank, I like it better this way.

2012-13 can't really offer many, if any, standout excuses or scapegoats for Boro to fall back on. No simple, silly "answers" for our shortcomings this season. No one, or nothing, to point a finger at. No individual we can really, truly criticise for a lack of responsibility. We have actually been forced to ask the hard questions about what's really, truly going on at the Boro. And this is a good thing. No, really, it is. 

Genuine failures, like our unsustainable promotion bid this season, fully expose the chinks in the Boro armour. We are made to genuinely question the structure and strength of the squad, the manager and the club as a whole, rather than just one of the above and injuries or/and loss of form to individual players.

With sentimental or "heroic" failures, there is no such thing. Toss in a scapegoat here, a "what if" there, and difficult questions need not be asked.

We have had many of those in the past. Nicky Bailey's injury in 2011-12. Gordon Strachan for, in my colleague Mike Baker's words, taking "a tremendous management opportunity, spending our money and sending us spiralling off in reverse" where in truth, Steve McClaren did almost the exact same thing and came out smelling like roses. The timing of Gareth Southgate's departure in 2009-10; for all his and the team's weaknesses, the stat of "one point off the top" will forever reek of what might have been, particularly when one considers what followed.

But, in my humble opinion, there's no better example than 1996-97, Boro's ultimate dream nightmare season.

When watching that 1-1 draw at Elland Road in May 1997 and witnessing the tear-stained faces of both Juninho and the Boro fans, it is really, really difficult to think of anything but the "evil" and "heartless" nature of Graeme Kelly, Tony Parkes, Harry Redknapp, Jim Smith and just about every other footballing figure who ganged up on us to make sure we were punished for an injury and illness crisis that was out of our hands. How dare the FA suggest that a deduction of three points was "right and fair" when Spurs had gotten off far more lightly for even worse "offences"?

No one's denying that the FA's conduct during the situation was more than a little out of order; they seemed pretty determined to make an example of us so that no team would ever "call in sick" for a match ever again, to the point where they conveniently ignored that we had acted on advice given to us by them. Worse still, it was later proven that Rick Parry had lied during the affair, pretending that he wasn't in the office to take a crucial phone call.

But what had really, truly, rubbed the FA, Parkes and company the wrong way was not so much what we did but when, why and how we did it. Almost a week before the postponement took place, Boro had turned up at title-chasing Liverpool with a team low on morale and key players and had gotten thrashed 5-1, completing a run of twelve games without a win. In the meantime, Blackburn were slowly but surely on their way out of the drop zone.

It really doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that Parkes' anger at Boro's postponement stemmed not so much from illness and injuries as the fact that Boro were there for the taking. Furthermore, we had served extremely late notice regarding the postponement, and had fulfilled a reserve team fixture with a side featuring both Emerson and Mikkel Beck on the Tuesday. There was nothing to disprove the cynics' theory that we knew we were likely to keel over at Ewood Park and so knowingly cancelled the fixture in order to buy time for recruitment, regrouping and rejuvenation. The relief than even I felt at the postponement at the time admittedly had more to do with not having to go through another ninety minutes of torture.

Questions about the very nature of the affair remain to this day. Why weren't Blackburn contacted earlier? And why, despite not having received a clear answer from the FA on whether or not we could postpone the fixture, did we decide not to fulfil it anyway?

In a way, however, that three point deduction was a godsend to Boro. Not only did it inspire the team to play like they almost never had done throughout the whole of the season up until then - just four defeats in the last sixteen games, and three weren't particularly deserved - it gave Boro something to fall back on, someone to blame if the fight against relegation failed, especially if it failed directly because of the points deduction. And, Boro being Boro, that is exactly what happened.

But those three points were just one of whole series of things that would blind us to the Riverside Revolution's flimsy framework. That whole season was the biggest collection of "what if"'s imaginable. What if Nigel Pearson's knees hadn't been so dodgy? What if Mark Schwarzer hadn't broken his leg a mere month or so after we found him? What if Pearson's header against Newcastle had gone in? What if Ravanelli's perfectly good goal in the same match had stood? What if Emerson had converted that penalty against Wimbledon? What if David James hadn't gifted our relegation rivals, Coventry, a last minute winner in a game that Liverpool had bossed from start to finish, all while Emile Heskey was breaking our hearts at Wembley?

Questions like these allow us to ignore the bigger issues and overlook many of the problems behind the scenes. Too often that season, rather than confronting our problems, we ran away from them; with that in mind, the Blackburn fixture that never was pretty much summed up the worst of 1996-97 in a nutshell. That Boro were a team that, if they could, would cut and run at the first sign of serious trouble.

And even though I don't agree with Spurs fan Dan Clark's argument that "the FA had no other choice" when it came to the points deduction, his final point about the Riverside Revolution as a whole is extremely valid:

"That a team which had lavished millions on assembling a squad could fail to field a starting eleven was a damning reflection on the true lasting value of the vision projected by Gibson and Robson. It confirmed that the project had shallow foundations and was never built to last."

Over the years Boro have established themselves as a team that - how do I put it? - only turns on the style when it suits them. When we want to. Then we dare to wonder why we have earned such a stinging reputation in the eyes of the southern press. It may well be that we bring it on ourselves. We preach equality and justice in football when it suits our needs; otherwise, we are more than happy to take advantage of dubious situations when they favour us. Nowadays, which Boro fan talks about David Healy's late equaliser that did cross the line? Or Boro getting away with calling off a home match against Newcastle on Friday because of "snow", just days after the team loses their unbeaten home record?

The Boro mission should be to consistently confront the reality of the situation rather than forever live in a world of simple answers and wishful thinking. And by searching for easy scapegoats and fixating on targets of hate, we will not do that.

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