Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Annus Horibilis

So ends 2009 – what a miserable twelve months it has been. The feeling of getting simultaneously slapped in the face and kicked in the balls by witless, spineless displays on a near weekly basis has long since developed a wearying monotony. Where once there was anger, there is now only despair and a poisonous, contagious apathy. The descent must be stopped promptly – if this freefall continues for another year, it doesn’t bear thinking about where we may be by the end of 2010.

The only thing consistent about Middlesbrough Football Club this year has been abject, weak-willed football and confused, muddied thinking. The year began with a series of crucial relegation battles – Sunderland, Blackburn and Wigan all visiting the Riverside in the first two months of 2009. With the situation far from irreversible, the onus was on Boro to take the initiative and take control of the club’s future. The three games brought no wins and a solitary home goal.

Away from home, the team began the year three games into a record-breaking run of consecutive away defeats. That became four with a heartbreaking capitulation at bottom of the league West Brom. It was the day relegation stopped being a danger and became a near certainty.

It was also clear warning that this group of players lack the mental courage to succeed as a group. Under pressure, basic, inexcusable errors were made at both ends. There was no raging against the dying of the light. The briefest glimmer of hope from embarrassing Liverpool was soon stamped out by capitulation at Spurs four days later. Boro slipped away into the sunset with barely a fight.

When the final whistle went at Upton Park in May, there were many emotions. More than anger, sadness or frustration, I felt relief. Despite the succession of soul destroying performances, we had somehow kept in touch with 17th place until the bitter end. The gnawing sense of hope meant that we could never quite accept the inevitable. But those moments – the scrambled opener at St. James’ Park, the rousing atmosphere as the first half ended against Villa – served only to make the drop that much harder.

The new season was supposed to be a fresh start. But without Robert Huth to steady the nerves and Tuncay to act as an unexpected plan B, the same cracks started to show. Sickening trademark concessions in the dying moments against Bristol City, Coventry and Leicester. Nervous, unconvincing home performances, especially utter humiliation against West Brom. The change had to come – the right decision was made but months too late.

Gordon Strachan may well be wondering what he’s got himself into. Shaky and unconvincing before his appointment, the wheels have since well and truly come off. For all the talk of one point from the top, Southgate’s legacy has been a horribly unbalanced and inadequate squad.

The malaise has also spread to the stands. Let down week after week, many have simply given up. The official figures of around 17,000 for the Cardiff and Derby games are bad enough without even taking into account the number of those who paid but did not want to attend. Those left struggle to rise above the gloom. The vacuum has been filled with nervous silence and the thoroughly depressing scapegoating of Brad Jones, whose cack-handed display at Newcastle will now provide the North Stand boo boys with months of ammunition.

The fans and the area need a lift. 2010 is unlikely to bring promotion. A team we can begin to feel pride in again would be enough.

From the Boxing Day Fly Me To The Moon

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Forest stump Boro

Gordon Strachan is still waiting for his first victory after another concerning afternoon at the Riverside. After a promising start, Boro reverted to bad old habits and were fortunate to escape with a point. Boro have taken just four points from the last six home games, failing to score in four of them.

Strachan made further changes to his team, replacing both full-backs, recalling Julio Arca and a masked Emanuel Pogatetz, pushing Rhys Williams into the back four and handing a debut to Dave Kitson up front. The reshuffle paid off almost immediately as Boro took an early lead. Adam Johnson found an unmarked Arca and, although Lee Camp managed to stop his shot, the Forest keeper's limp wristed parry gave Leroy Lita an easy chance.

For the opening half hour Boro looked comfortable, although clear-cut chances were still at a premium. Defenders snapped into tackles while Isaiah Osbourne and Gary O'Neil ferried the ball around midfield sharply and accurately. As half time dawned, Boro loosened their grasp on their game and were indebted to Brad Jones for maintaining the lead at half time. The oft maligned keeper blocked magnfiicently when Dele Adebola took advantage of a slip by Sean St Ledger to send David McGoldrick.

The limp end to the first half set the tone for a depressing second 45 minutes, during which Forest completely dominated. The equaliser had been coming long before the 73rd minute when Rob Earnshaw clipped a free kick into the gaping left-hand corner of Brad Jones' net. At the other end, Lee Camp was a spectator. Kitson and Lita were starved of service and struggled to hold the ball up - their replacements, Marcus Bent and Jonathan Franks, fared little better.

With automatic promotion an increasingly remote possibility, even the play-offs may be beyond Boro based on their current form. The points earned in the early weeks of the season, with a defence marshalled by former captain Robert Huth and an attack sprinkled with Tuncay cameos, have given the current squad an artificial position in the top half of the table.

Since the double sale to Stoke, Boro's record reads P13 W4 D3 L6 F16 A18 Pts15. Over the whole season, that kind of form would leave Boro two-thirds down the table at best, looking nervously over their shoulders. There are severe systemic flaws with the current team and Gordon Strachan is being left to perform major surgery mid-season after being parachuted in. It is going to take more than a few weeks on the training ground to sort out a nervy defence and tepid attack or the stodgy, unimaginative home performances that have pockmarked 2009.

When opponents can neutralise the threat of Adam Johnson, as Forest did by fair means and foul, Boro are worryingly limited. The vast turnover of players reflects the attempts of two managers to find short term solutions to underlying issues. Boro are wasteful, timid and uninspired on the ball, particularly at the Riverside, and have been for at least a year. Too many players make the wrong decisions at crucial moments at both ends. There is a fundamental lack of resilience and quality in the squad. Of the current top fifteen teams in the division, Boro have beaten only one (Swansea City, way back on the second weekend of the season).

It is a long road back to the Premier League from here.