Friday, 22 May 2015

Boro No Longer Beaten By Fear... Just In Time For Wembley

Ahead of what feels like Boro's biggest game since the Riverside Stadium opened, perhaps ever, I find myself recalling Boro's previous visit to the capital, that fateful Saturday afternoon at Craven Cottage where Boro nearly hauled back a two goal deficit, but where the team's title tilt, as The Sunday Times put it, was ultimately left in tatters.

I have concluded that the reason why Boro were sadly but deservedly beaten to the automatic promotion places by Bournemouth and Watford was not because we had a worse squad or lesser resources. Nor was it down to being more defensive, or even being less offensive.

Rather, Boro were too meticulously methodical.

Like a Championship version of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, or Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool, too often Boro had to win their way – with an early goal, in control, a clean sheet, or maybe all three – or not at all, at least this season. Only once, at Bolton, have Boro come from behind to win a game in 2014-15.

The crazy second half of the game at Fulham was one of those rare occasions where Aitor Karanka's Boro threw all planning out the window and just went for it. Lose though the team did, it was neither for want of trying nor lack of proof that they could claw back deficits if need be. Boro may have lost both the game and their chance of automatic promotion, but they had gone down fighting. They had adapted when all seemed to have gone wrong.

And, to be frank, how welcome was that?

Karanka has done a magnificent job in leading us to fourth place in the Championship and the play-off final at Wembley. That cannot be doubted. And I would not be one to discredit his achievements or his presence, both invaluable assets to Middlesbrough Football Club.

Nonetheless, it must be pointed out that he appears the sort of manager who mostly, but not always, fears losing control. The kind who will take it particularly badly when his big match-winning plans are foiled.

This is not so apparent with Eddie Howe, Slavisa Jokanovic and even Alex Neil, who prefer to place the majority of their trust in the match-winning abilities of their players.

I don't discourage comfortable, controlled victories or ground out 1-0 wins. I enjoy them as much as anyone does. My joy at the final whistle of the second leg of the play-off semi-final against Brentford was proof of this.

But what happens when the team are not in control, or don't keep a clean sheet? It's a question I asked of Boro at the turn of the year, and they still haven't answered it often enough for my liking.

Not even in the super show against Brentford recently. Superb though the team were, and I will go on to applaud the performance later, that was as controlled a victory as they come.

This reminds me of why regular UntypicalBoro commenter Len Masterman, earlier in the season, couldn't help, as he put it, the heretical wish that we played like Eddie Howe's cheerful Cherries. In his words, Bournemouth were a team that made mistakes but played without fear, hence attaining a level of creativity and movement that surpassed Boro's. As Masterman says, fear of failure, of making mistakes, is death to any kind of creativity. And with Boro, all too often, fear of losing overtakes daring to win.

Hence the casting aside of Boro's inhibitions, previously seen at Blackpool and Fulham, and in the first leg of the play-off semi-final at Griffin Park, was both hugely welcome and timely.

The real reason to applaud Boro long and loud after the final whistle of the first leg was not for the pleasing return to the stingy, dogged defending of January's Clean Sheet Kings, stylishly replicated in the return leg at the Riverside also, but for the manner in which the team responded to conceding an unlikely equaliser. Not unlikely on the balance of play, but unlikely because, for all their possession, the Bees had rarely, truly stung Boro.

How easy would it have been for Boro to crumble after Dimi's mistake? How tempting would it have been for Albert Adomah, back to something resembling his best form just in time, to run into the corner and keep ball, in the knowledge that a 1-1 draw would have been a good result to take back to the Riverside?

Thankfully, both he, and Fernando Amorebieta, had other ideas.

The late, late goal was the net result of a raised tempo in Boro's game that had occurred from the very moment Andre Gray had scored; rather than fold, Boro had sprung back into life, knowing they could not now cruise to victory and had to fight for it.

And rather than induce complacency, this smash-and-grab victory was the platform from which Boro could dazzle us the following Friday in a packed Riverside. We #Believed, and the team responded on a heart-warming, spellbinding and unifying night as the right result was achieved in as accomplished a manner as we could have possibly hoped for.

No one will pretend the job is done, no matter how many statistics, particularly the 4-0 and 1-0 wins against Wembley opponents Norwich, point in Boro's favour. But Boro's latest generation of brave hearts and brave stars - for the future belongs not to the faint-hearted, but the brave - can deservedly travel to Wembley in the right frame of mind, having found their form and fearlessness at just the right time.

An amazing conclusion to a memorable season is well and truly on. Let's make it happen.

Up The Boro! And #Believe.

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