Play-offs just a step too far for Boro
With a heavy heart and a huge sense of disappointment Middlesbrough’s play-off hopes quickly evaporated amongst the boos and groans set in the aftermath of the Doncaster draw.
The disappointment leans more towards ‘what could have been’ rather than ‘what should have been’. Having sat in second position on Boxing Day everything looked rosy and a return to the Promised Land was a real possibility. Perhaps that was the problem. The expectation that comes with winning matches piles the pressure on, what was under previous managers, a young fragile squad that was capable of throwing points away in the closing minutes of a match.
If you look towards the bigger teams in the top-flight, supporters attend matches expecting to win and sit back waiting for the players to do something to get them out of their seats and making some noise. More experienced players that have been there and done it all before can handle this, but to a Boro side that has never really been used to winning games on a regular basis, one defeat takes the wind right out of the sails.
The FA Cup match with Sunderland was a prime example when the team were huge underdogs and effectively had nothing to lose. With full backing from the stands and little pressure on the players, we put in a strong performance that had the team and supporters leaving the ground beaten but not defeated. If each game was played in the same manner of the Sunderland match you can’t help but wonder whether we would be heading along Wembley Way to a Play-off final.
With the likes of Stephen McManus, Justin Hoyte and Matthew Bates all set to leave the club in the summer, the squad looks short of numbers and more alarmingly, desperately lacking in experience. Barry Robson’s move to Vancouver Whitecaps at the end of the season will mean not only are we losing a player capable of stunning goals but also a leader. Robson might have his off-days but he always gives 100% and drives the team on dishing out the usual verbal volley leaving his face the same colour of his hair. Out of Gordon Strachan’s signings Robson was the pick of a sullen bunch and one that will genuinely be missed when he heads off across the Atlantic.
Any question of Tony Mowbray’s management of the club should immediately be dismissed. In terms of the bigger picture the club is back on a stable financial footing and with departures in the summer the position should improve a lot more with Mowbray hopefully given a bob or two to secure his preferred targets in the transfer market. Mogga’s record in the market is pretty impressive with some shrewd signings made at West Brom on a relatively similar budget and relatively sized club.
Home form is an issue that needs addressing urgently with Boro picking up a meagre 31 points this season – a points total identical to second-bottom Coventry City. The club cannot expect supporters to return week after week watching abject performances from a team who score very few goals.
One thing that will keep the fans onside is the continuously blossoming Boro academy. The Middlesbrough Academy once again will provide excellent prospects with Ben Gibson, Adam Reach and Richard Smallwood all looking for a bigger role in the team. Former Darlington striker Curtis Main looks the pick of the crop, pace and power in abundance and a clinical finisher with both feet – he could be the real deal.
I understand Mowbray’s position with youth at Boro in trying not to throw them in at the deep end at the Riverside. A fear of the youngsters choking would be a real concern; though the supporters are always a lot more patient with the local lads, than maybe they are with a certain left-footed Scottish midfielder. It would be nice to see them get more game time, but with Dave Parnaby’s brilliant past record who I am to argue?
On reflection the season was more successful than most had anticipated. I would have taken a finish of seventh back in August without a shadow of doubt. Nevertheless you can’t help think of what could have been had the performances of the first half of the season been replicated in the second.
2012/13 will be a tough season for us given the parachute payments have stopped and the huge turnaround of players expected. There is no doubt though that Boro are still in good hands. Being owned by a Boro fan, managed by a Boro fan and with Boro-born players throughout the squad it really is a local club to still be proud of.