Saturday, 6 December 2014

Boro Blackburn'd, and Higgy Popped

Rewind back to roughly seven minutes before the ninety-minute-mark last Saturday, and you would have thought almost all was rosy at Boro.

Despite losing Ryan Fredericks to an unfortunate injury – which, it has now been revealed, will sideline him for a month – the deadlock had finally been broken against a resolute but fortunate Blackburn side, and joint top spot in the Championship was Boro's for the taking.

The events of virtually everything that followed brought everyone back to reality, or worse. Suddenly Blackburn, knowing that they now had to step up a gear if they were to get anything from the game, surged forward and almost equalised when Shane Duffy's header hit the woodwork. It felt like an “about time!” mentality had crept into the Boro players' minds once in-form Patrick Bamford – my personal choice for player of the month in November – had given us the lead we never thought would come. The Typical Boro moment, deep, deep into injury time, was undoubtedly devastating, wholly unfortunate yet not entirely unexpected.

Yes, decisions went against Boro in the run up to Rudy Gestede's equaliser that
shouldn't have stood, but in a way it was a disaster waiting to happen given both Boro's wastefulness in front of goal and the breakdown in the fluidity and organisation in our play.

On reflection, I suspect Aitor Karanka's explosive touchline frustration was as much about Boro failing to put the game to bed long before Gestede's goal than Mark Clattenburg failing to spot fouls and handballs. It was as much about an undeniable injustice as a fitting tribute to the dearly departed John Neal and Juninho's return not going according to the Boro script.

Karanka has since accepted that he boiled over in the heat of the moment.

Although I felt at the time that AK was 100% correct to have a go at Clattenburg, when you challenge authority like that you're only asking for trouble: whether your rant is fair or not is, unfortunately, irrelevant. Far better, in my view, that AK has apologised for his actions rather than continuously try to justify them. His combination of mild-mannered reflection and winning mentality are hugely admirable, even if they haven't saved him from a charge of improper conduct.

It's a shame that it's come to this, because there were a number of tantalising positives to be taken from Saturday's game.

Karanka turned the absence of the turbo-charged Adam Clayton into a strength as Dean Whitehead's more stable anchoring enabled Grant Leadbitter to play more of an all-action conducting role. Kenneth Omeruo returned and made his mark with a beautiful pass that set George Friend away to cross for what should have been Jelle Vossen's first Boro goal.

As classy as Simon Eastwood's save looked, Vossen's header was, as John Powls has correctly pointed out, within reflex reach of the goalkeeper. It was powerful all right, but too central, too close to Eastwood. Chalk it up, however, to the mentality of someone who hasn't broken his Boro duck yet and is trying extra hard to get it right not just for himself but for the team.

It is easy to say that he should have planted his header down in hindsight, but in the moment, took a safer option – to get the header in powerfully and on-target so that at least a corner would be guaranteed. We live in hope that his confidence and thoughtfulness in front of goal will increase.

There's that word - "hope". At moments like this, I am reminded of what The Sunday Times' Rod Liddle stated at the start of the season: "I still don't see who is going to score all the goals Middlesbrough will need to compensate for a sometimes distracted defence." The Blackburn performance fitted his words to a tee! A team that, for all their attacking talent, couldn't score enough goals, and a defence that got distracted by bad decisions when we needed them most. Of course Gestede's goal wasn't fair on us – but should it have mattered?

It seems unfair to criticise our forwards, particularly when Bamford and Kike are beginning to form quite the understanding. (Bamford's hold-up play for his equaliser at Wigan was worthy of a young Mark Viduka.) But Kike, while always a threat, has lost his knack of scoring goals – the painful statistic of one league goal since September 20th speaks volumes. No one's denying his value as a team player, but as a forward we need him to be more prolific. (Indeed, no one has scored more than one in a league game this season with the exception of Leadbitter.)

Additionally, the currently successful deployment of Bamford as a right wing forward has its weaknesses. It increases the demands on the right-back for width and crosses, even if Emilio Nsue is up to the job. If Albert Adomah is going through a run of poor form – which he currently is – our supply from the flanks is limited, leaving Boro to rely on the craft and charges of Lee Tomlin time and time again. Does AK have it in him to swap Adomah, a natural right-winger, for Adam Reach on the left-wing? It may well be worth it.

And then there is Craig Hignett.

The man seen, in Philip Tallentire's words, as "the ideal English guide to help Karanka settle into the Championship" has departed from the club due to "differences in decisions and points of view."

The loss of any of the coaching staff is a jolt to the senses. The loss of a genuine Boro hero, the man who scored the first ever goal at the Riverside Stadium and brought more of the requisite identity to go with Karanka's ambition, has been a true shock for Boro fans. Some credit him with the upturn in form last season, and it is not unreasonable to assume, as Bernie Slaven says, that there will be no hiding place for Karanka if all goes wrong.

We'll never know why it didn't work out, but we can only hope – there's that word, again – that Higgy's departure does not seriously affect morale at the Riverside. We need everything to hold together smoothly for the testing fixtures ahead.

Onwards and upwards.

(Originally published online at GazetteLive on December 5, 2014.)


Anonymous said...

You should be well aware that your goal against blackburn was a foul just like theirs so neither should have stood and the end result would have been the same. Justice was served, your keeper flapped at the ball and failed to get anywhere near it and then he fell on the floor under the slighest of pressure, unlike Marcus Olsson of Blackburn who was pulled to the ground seconds before Boro's goal. You didnt see Bowyer doing a Karanka though and complaining to the Ref. AK was wrong, he and Boro got exactly what they deserved.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anon:

Thanks for your comment.

Note, though, that I am also pointing out Boro's wastefulness and our failure to convert our possession and chances into more goals. I have also explained Karanka's behaviour as "heat of the moment", and to be fair, you would be angry too if your team had failed to fully capitalise on their dominance and been undone by an unjustly allowed goal with the very last kick of the match.

But I have also said that he was right to apologise, as however justified he (and we) may have felt at the time, he (and we) had a responsibility to be professional. It was all sour grapes, of course, because of what took place, but we had more than enough chances to win the game and didn't manage it.

On the plus side, I guess it did fire us up for the great win at Millwall.