I remember when the draw was made; every Boro fan (including myself) was pretty much willing us to be paired with Burton Albion.
What happened? Yep, the ‘dream tie’ was on. I punched the air in delight, probably a little disrespectful, but I’m sure any Brewers fan would understand that. In fact, looking at the other teams in the draw they’ll have likely been doing the same.
How things were rosy
Third in the Championship table, on the back of a very fortuitous home point against Derby County, we dispatched of Premier League Crystal Palace at The Riverside, a Lewis Wing wonder strike enough to seal the victory.
Yes, there were murmurings about the football, some louder than others, but given the league position and the progression in the cup, for me it was ridiculous to suggest the season was going anything other than rather well.
Fast forward six weeks and it’s all gone a bit toxic.
Initially, eight points from the next four league fixtures saw us stay third after a brief flirtation with the top two, yet the tightness of the table suggested slip ups could, and would likely be costly.
Not that there was much to worry about, we were solid, dependable if not exciting.
Until Aston Villa came to town.
A crushing 3-0 home defeat left us all feeling rather deflated, not least because we suffered from some horrendous defensive/goalkeeping errors. The one thing we had got down to a fine art was keeping clean sheets, looking impregnable. Well, that evening we were anything but.
But if that was a blip, then the following weeks 1-1 draw at home to Blackburn Rovers wasn’t exactly a disaster, despite Mo Besic’s early red card, but it was a definite case of shooting oneself in one’s foot. Arguably unlucky not to come away with all three points, though it may have been a tad harsh on Blackburn, the fact it is, we didn’t.
In fact, home form has been dreadful for some time now.
In the seven games since the Bolton win in September, at home we’ve only managed one league win in that time. Appalling, but fortunately we were picking up points on the road, keeping ourselves in and around the top two.
But then came QPR away, a team back on a poor run after early season resurgence took over from a poor start.
Yet the performance was dire, Britt Assombalonga was deployed as a wide man. Baffling use of personnel and another game wasted the mood had well and truly shifted.
The calls for Boro to rid themselves of a so called ‘dinosaur’ intensified on social media. Even those who had previously stuck up for Tony Pulis were starting to waver. However, we had a Quarter-Final in the League Cup to look forward to, and this brings us to the present day.
Whilst I accept our football hasn’t been scintillating, it’s been effective in the most part. However, the almost annual Christmas slump began a week or so early, and those fans of who criticised Pulis felt their claims were now starting to become legitimised.
Here’s the result of functional, no frills football when it doesn’t get results. I’ll admit it again, it’s not been pretty, but it’s not been totally Pulis’ fault. Like he’s stated, we’ve suffered from a lack of options, threadbare in key areas. You know it, I know it, the whole world knows it; we need creativity and we need width with pace.
I’ve felt for Pulis as he told us all in the summer we’d likely fall short without those aforementioned qualities, and I don’t feel he was properly backed, especially not like his predecessor in Garry Monk. However, Pulis has been clear in his wish not to simply blow Steve Gibson’s cash, but the failure to land multiple targets was regrettable at the time, and looking back it’s starting to prove costly.
A welcome distraction in the cup against Nigel Clough’s men, we were looking at a golden ticket to the semi-final and a potential match up with one of the Premier League’s big boys. The sort of game Middlesbrough Football Club thrives on.
Much talked leading up to the tie centred on Boro’s inability to overcome Cardiff in similar circumstances back in 2008. The phrase ‘missed opportunity’ couldn’t have been more apt as Gareth Southgate’s side crashed to 2-0 reverse.
The fact that The Bluebirds went on to beat Barnsley in the semi, only to narrowly lose out to Portsmouth in the final showed just how tantalisingly close Boro really were to their first FA Cup trophy win.
Of course, the path to glory this time round in the League Cup wouldn’t have been anywhere near as inviting, what with the likes of Spurs, Arsenal and Man City in the mix, but a glamour tie all the same, two legs under the lights would’ve provided some atmosphere and a huge dash of excitement in what has been a decent, if understated first half of the season.
Yet, rather predictably it wasn’t to be.
Dangling carrot passed up
Despite dominating for large parts of the game, the same old frailties reared their ugly head. The worryingly recent shakiness at the back contributed to the only goal of the game as Jake Hesketh was allowed to fire home under little or no pressure, along with what feels like a lifetime’s worth of missed one on ones and goalmouth cock-ups.
The header from Aden Flint, where it seemed easier to tap it in than to head it wide, summed it all up.
Boro crashed out, and so came the calls - inevitable given the level of vitriol from sections of the support online and sometimes in the stands (though not quite reaching toxicity levels seen in the past under previous managers – but you sense its coming).
Now I’m not one to advocate such thoughts, I’m still a firm believer that he deserves the January window and the full season before we can properly judge his time with us, yet last night was a real hammer blow.
It hurt, massively.
I’ve even conceded that it could well see him sacked. Harsh to see the end of his time on the back of one defeat, but for some last night it was the straw that broke the proverbial, and we all know how Gibson has reacted in the past to dwindling attendances and surround boos.
The ground should have been jumping last night, packed out, but yet just fewer than 17,000 made the journey. One of the reasons Southgate was binned was due to the fall in support, same with Gordon Strachan too. There’s a precedent that’s been set before, and whilst I wouldn’t back that call now, I can definitely imagine Gibson being deeply unhappy at recent events.
As a fan, he’ll get it like we all do, he’ll have been majorly hurt by what unfolded last night.
What will have hurt the most, like I felt, was that not only did we get beat, but we got beat by a team in the league below us, in the latter stages of a cup competition our Club has a great affinity with for obvious reasons.
Not only that, but the dangling carrot, the golden prize was the chance to welcome one of the big boys to The Riverside, under the lights in front of you hope would’ve been a healthy crowd. It would’ve been an opportunity to bring some buzz, some much needed drama to the proceedings, the sort of games this club has thrived on over the years – yet the opportunity was passed up in the most depressing and wasteful of manners.
Individual games don’t get managers the sack, it’s the lead up to them, and that’s why I wouldn’t call for any sort of change. However, they can set a ball rolling, a ball that not only carries on rolling, but it gathers pace, gathers momentum. Last night’s defeat brought into sharp focus our deficiencies, left us without a semi-final we should all feel, as supporters, robbed of.
I fear this could be the beginning of the end of Pulis, which sounds crazy given the mood only a few weeks back, but losing like we did yesterday will be hugely damaging to Pulis’ reputation on Teesside.
As a staunch supporter I’ve always gave him the benefit of the doubt, although not absolved him of blame for our poor form, but last night, despite players failing to do their bit, the responsibility lies squarely at his door.
Unfair or not, the buck stops with the manager.
He’s got some making up to do over Christmas.