Friday, 27 February 2009

Video Vault

After another depressing afternoon of mind-numbing tedium at the Riverside, its tempting to begin to question why we all shell out hundreds of pounds every summer to 'enjoy' another year of boredom and frustration. I've dusted off my collection of 'vintage' VHS season reviews in an attempt to rouse spirits – if the present is dire and the future seems worse, at least the past can provide some comfort. Particularly if it comes in an officially licensed box with generous narration alongside.

My particular favourite is the 1991/92 promotion season. Commentator John Helm responds to Jimmy Phillips deciding a ZDS Cup tie with a spanking free kick by boldly stating “unless you're a Derby County fan, you won't mind seeing that goal over and over again”. He's not wrong. That kind of hyperbole might be grating when Sky are worshipping at the altar of the Champions League but its endearing in these less glamorous locations. Helm's enthusiasm isn't matched by all his colleagues. The guy charged with covering a perfunctory defeat of Port Vale describes Alan Kernaghan's solitary goal with all the exuberance of a man completing his tax returns.

The production values of modern TV coverage of football (ITV aside) has taken much of the charm and warmth out of watching the game on the small screen. The amateurish nature of those early 1990s videos provides a charm of their own. Its like a time capsule from a different era – from the Casio soundtrack and some extremely shaky footage to Brighton's ludicrous stripy shorts, its a world away from the today's version on and off the pitch. A time when fans who wished to stand up and support their team got tickets in the Holgate instead of a snotty letter from a safety officer. A time when footballers had names like Geoff Twentyman.

The video culminates in the drama of Molineux, where Boro came from a goal and a man down to win a place in the inaugural Premier League. Paul Wilkinson's crucial header, described by the man himself as “the worst of my career”, in all its spawny, bobbling glory, ends a gruelling season. A barechested Jamie Pollock E-I-Os in front of the away end. John Hendrie offers his incomprehensible post-match thoughts. Happy days.

The 'Champions' tape, documenting the final season at Ayresome Park, was another childhood favourite, particularly as Nigel Pearson can be heard quite clearly exclaiming “you f***ing beauty” as the Division One trophy is held aloft within a minute of pressing play. There are some great memories - the last game at Ayresome, Robbie Mustoe's goal of the century against Watford, Jamie Pollock (ugly bastard) silencing the, in fairness, accurate taunts from the Roker Park crowd.

The modern versions don't have the same charm. Having been given the option to skip through the dross by DVDs, there's not much left to revel in. The season review no longer feels like a vital document of a season, the only place to revisit long-forgotten games and players, its thunder well and truly stolen by YouTube. It'll be sometime before I can bring myself to throw them away though. Whether its Bernie scoring at Old Trafford or Pollock volleying from preposterous range at Filbert Street, it doesn't take long for the anger and frustration of 14 winless games to fade. There's a reason why we do this and now, more than ever, we need to remember it.

Read this and other better written, funnier articles in Fly Me To The Moon 437 tomorrow!

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Boro deal Hammer blow

You don't save those

Boro have booked a place in the last eight of the FA Cup for the fourth successive season after despatching an insipid West Ham team last night. A performance of unexpected verve and competence including two goals in the opening 20 minutes ensured a comfortable passage to the quarter-finals and a tough tie at Goodison Park.

There have been few finer strikes at the Riverside than the opening goal. After Tuncay was impeded, Stewart Downing struck with a free kick of unerring accuracy. Curling away from the diving Robert Green, the ball glanced the underside of the crossbar on its way in. Downing was lively throughout and came within inches of adding a second soon after following sloppy work from the West Ham midfield.

More unconvincing defending from the visitors led to the second. Tomkins' clearance lacked purchase, allowing Tuncay to volley past an unsettled Green. Boro's supremacy was rarely threatened in the remaining 70 minutes as the changes made by Gareth Southgate had a favourable impact. Matthew Bates screened the back four athletically and grew in confidence, carrying the ball deep into Hammers' territory as the game progressed. Although he didn't last the whole game, Jeremie Aliadiere's movement and workrate again provided a riposte to those who highlight his unquestionably meagre goal tally. Even the frequently maligned Julio Arca made some telling defensive contributions. Robert Huth was simply unbeatable.

Even with 2,500 from London to swell the numbers, the game was modestly attended. Yet despite the crowd numbering 15,602, the Riverside produced the best atmosphere for some time, moving captain Emanuel Pogatetz to praise the fans. 'Lettergate' appears to have had unintended consequences, galvanising the crowd against the unlikely scapegoat of Sue Watson.

The much improved performance and stunning early goal were obviously important but this was a more patient and supportive crowd than normal. With Sue's boys adopting a sensibly low-profile approach, the club's most vocal fans were freed from the restraints of moaning fans and jobsworth stewards. There was a rare confluence of passion in the stands and confidence on the pitch. A repeat is needed for the remaining six games at the Riverside, starting on Saturday with a Liverpool side fresh from defeating Real Madrid.

Monday, 23 February 2009

A shot in the foot

Another week and another depressing chapter has been written in the grim tale of Boro's season. A promising start soon faded after Didier Digard suffered a serious injury following Lee Cattermole's challenge. Ultimately, it was another tepid display that further tested the patience of the dwindling Riverside crowd.

Fans seem increasingly resigned to relegation and, despite the protestations of players and management, its hard to escape the impression that this sentiment has spread onto the pitch. The lack of belief and purpose shown yet again on Saturday is sending our club down and those who protest otherwise are struggling to sound anything but deluded. No wins in 14 games and one goal scored in nine - those are facts that leave little room for debate.

Those who haven't given up are simply fed up. Another turgid afternoon of football was depressing enough but that was not the only thing from the weekend to dent pride in MFC. The vitriolic response to Cattermole's challenge may have been harsh in retrospect but it was understandable and it succeeded in creating an all too rare atmosphere in the stands. However, the attempts of Afonso Alves to get Cattermole sent off were completely inexcusable. If we cannot go down with a fight, it would be nice to go with a shred of dignity.

How to make friends...

The growing disillusionment amongst the fans will not be helped by the spectacularly ill-judged letter (see above) issued to fans in the south east corner. Its not the first time the club have targetted fans in this way (as a Block 17 season ticket holder, I've had first hand experience). The club's belated apology will be too little, too late for many. At a time when club and fans must stick together more than ever, it was a staggeringly ill-considered response. Sitting in the opposite side of the stadium, its hard to judge whether there is a genuine problem. Even if this is the case, its baffling that anyone at the club considered this was the way to solve the matter.

At times like this its hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Some credit must then go to forgotten midfielder Mohammed Shawky for his surreal transfer request in a Sunday tabloid. Discretion would seem the obvious path for any player being kept out of the side by the horribly out-of-form Julio Arca.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Cup holds mixed fortunes

The opportunity of a fourth successive appearance in the last eight of the FA Cup remains. Victory against Premier League opposition remains elusive after profligate finishing and sloppy defending sullied another away day.

Once again, blame will be apportioned to record signing Afonso Alves. After an encouraging run of 4 goals in as many games in January, Alves has reverted to form over the past two weekends. Last week, Shay Given's performance may have offered some excuse. The criticism will be harder to deflect after this game. Alves was the chief culprit as Boro should have put the game to bed during the opening 20 minutes of the second half. Although he was unfortunate in some instances, the moment he shot wildly over the bar with Gary O'Neil and Stewart Downing queuing up to take a free shot at Robert Green betrayed a lack of confidence and questionable judgement.

It was Downing who had given Boro the lead after West Ham's opening flurry. O'Neil's cross should have been cut out but Downing continued his run to the far post and beat Green with a diving header. Although West Ham still had moments of danger (including a miss from David Di Michele that defied logic), Boro were looking increasingly comfortable. Didier Digard was a tenacious and imposing presence in midfield.

Unable to extend the lead, it was a familiar failure that allowed the equaliser. Savio's free kick somehow evaded the entire Boro defence. Herita Ilunga's task to head beyond Brad Jones from point blank range was straightforward.

The home games against Wigan and Liverpool will now sandwich a replay on Tuesday 24 February. The draw for the quarter finals takes place tonight and there's still a distressing Welsh contingent in the hat/perspex bowl. Boro will need to develop a hitherto unseen streak of ruthlessness if the Cup is to provide any relief from the grind of a relegation battle.

Man of the Match Stewart Downing

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Drifting into the abyss

Another week and another defeat. Boro's 2008/09 season is descending from difficult to disastrous, from failure to farce. By any measure, the team's form is disastrous:
  • No win in 13 Premier League games
  • The lowest scoring team in the not just the division but the entire league
  • No goal in 4 league games
  • One goal scored in 8 league games
  • One clean sheet in 10 league games
There may have been equally disastrous spells in the past but rarely has the mood surrounding the club been so depressing. There's paranoia in the dugout and growing apathy in the stands. The club are so deeply entrenched in their position that it barely seems worth to effort to voice dissent. Gareth Southgate has made it clear he won't walk. Keith Lamb has made it clear he won't be sacked. They've been rather less clear on what they will do to save the club from relegation.

Saturday's defeat at Manchester City barely raised a grumble. The home side may have spent a great deal of money but the likes of Nigel de Jong, Wayne Bridge and Craig Bellamy, able as they may be, should not inspire dread. City are an erratic and largely mediocre side. The winless run may well have been ended if Afonso Alves had taken even one of four presentable chances. But once City were in front, they were rarely troubled.

Its a sign of how expectations have gone through the floor that defeat with the merest semblance of fight is now deemed acceptable. The last game at the Riverside against Blackburn saw the lowest crowd of the season. Bar five minutes baiting pantomime villain Sam Allardyce, there was barely a sign of life in the stands. Defeat on Saturday was met with troubling ambivalence. Its hard to believe a Boro crowd has ever taken defeat at the hands of Craig Bellamy this lightly.

The fans cannot be blamed. Criticism has no impact. The drastic action taken at Chelsea and Portsmouth this week will not be replicated at the Riverside, regardless of results. If 13 winless games and an increasingly inevitable relegation don't make the manager's position untenable, its tempting to think that nothing will. The club's hierarchy clearly feel showing doubt would be an unacceptable sign of weakness. Yet this stubborness is now the biggest threat to Boro's Premier League status since promotion in 1998.

Saturday offers a break from the dreary monotony of the league campaign but its hard to see the afternoon offering much in the way of rewards. Gianfranco Zola's West Ham (Zola's for the time being at least) are a resilient and compact side who must be strong favourites to reach the last eight. Less than a year ago, Southgate was castigated for the feeble perfomance against Cardiff, the failure to sprinkle a dash of glamour and excitement into our stodgy existence in the middle third of the Premier League. Most people connected with the club seem past caring about the FA cup any more.

A glance at the foot of the Championship table makes sobering reading. Of the bottom seven, only Doncaster Rovers have never played Premier League football and there's plenty more top flight alumni lolling around midtable with little sense of purpose. Last time Boro went down, the promotion campaign was spurred on by a burning sense of injustice. If relegation does come this year, there can be no excuses. We must hope that there will at least be a fight.