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