'Confused right now: Will the real Middlesbrough Football Club please stand up?'
I can honestly say I’ve never been so confused about how I feel right now.
We’ve been through tough times in recent past; the Strachan years, the shambles of an EPL season we had in 2016/17, the lean period under Mogga too, where it’s taken time and the ability of retrospect to be able to fully appreciate the circumstances in play back then.
But I can say at all those times I was pretty clear about how I felt, how I saw the team and how I saw our prospects.
During Strachan tedious tenure we knew we were pretty dull, despite big money signings, that we weren’t really going anywhere and that he’d eventually be on his way.
The 2016/17 season started with plenty of promise but rapidly descended into farce and heartache, yet we knew the situation, we were going down and there was little to suggest any other outcome was possible.
And then the financial hardship under Club legend Tony Mowbray; we were a relatively pretty team to watch, not so much at the back, and whilst we showed signs of promise and mounted pushes for promotion that quickly faded, we were able to keep track of our emotions. We knew how we felt, it was clear to see on the pitch, even if some of us didn’t necessarily appreciate the conditions Mowbray was working under off it.
Of all those three highlighted ‘periods’ in Boro’s recent history, you’ll find someone right now who’d argue that they’d swap our current period in time for one of the aforementioned (yes, I’ve even seen people say the Strachan period isn’t as bad as the one currently, believe it or not).
But that has me all confused.
Aren’t we 5th, with a game in hand and just seven points behind the top two? One of the teams occupying those spots is Leeds, who we play Saturday. Win that and the league situation looks rather rosy doesn’t it?
Yet it doesn’t really feel that way. Or does it?
Feel good factor
After the shambolic nature of our exit to Burton and the Boxing Day disaster against Sheffield Wednesday, things had started to look pretty decent. Whilst the familiar home form gripes have rumbled on, and rightly so, our away form has carried us and we’ve maintained a good position inside the top six.
For me the steady increase in good feeling, whilst acknowledging there are pockets of negativity still, culminated in the impressive 3-2 win last weekend at The Hawthorns, Tony Pulis returning to haunt his former employers in West Bromwich Albion.
Hashtags of “together” were joyously posted by some fans, the Club leading the way, the bond between players and fans seemed to be reaffirmed, and even Pulis himself got in on the act as he acknowledged the travelling support to say “thank you” after what he described as there being a “negative feeling around the place”, following yet another Transfer Window let down.
The victory in the first of a three game run against top six rivals brought on the feel good factor, it felt like it could be a watershed moment - a ‘this is beginning of the rest of our season’ type vibe.
Yet within days, for me personally, it feels like all that’s been obliterated.
We all knew that the FA Cup replay away at Newport would be tough. The well trotted out fact that Leeds and Leicester have been beaten there, as well Spurs being forced into a replay following their trip to Rodney Parade, told us that it would be anything but straightforward.
However, following the WBA win we had nothing to fear. Spirits were up; confidence surely flowing amongst players and fan alike, what could possibly go wrong?
Well it turns out quite a lot.
You see, you can accept losing a game; after all it’s a fact of life, someone has to lose a cup tie. Losing to The Exiles, as much as it shouldn’t happen, was always a distinct possibility. But we weren’t just beaten, we were comprehensively outplayed, out-fought, out-thought and most worryingly of all we were beaten for quality too.
Unbelievable really given the team put out. A strong side that wouldn’t look out of place in the Championship, yet they stuck out like a team in an ill-judged, overpriced (and I’m sure cursed) 3rd strip.
The manner of the defeat was hard to take. No passion, no guts or non-stop running, the pre-requisites, the absolute basics you’d expect from your team just weren’t there. It was like Middlesbrough had become a Jeykll & Hyde outfit, which some would argue we already are given the differences in home and away form.
Pulis had made five changes to the team that beat WBA, but there was enough to get a result, more than enough in fact, but they played like a team that had never seen each other before. There was none of the spirit and determination that enabled us to bounce back from losing a winning position like we did at the weekend, only to turn the game on its head and come away with the win.
It’s like the weekend hadn’t happened. All the goodwill and praise, the buzz among fans and the confidence gained appears to have evaporated.
Hearing that some fans, people who had spent hard-earned cash, took time off work and stood in the pouring rain throughout the game, hearing that they’d reportedly been mocked by certain players, insulted even – what the hell is going on?
I’m not naïve here, there’s no doubting that the players will have received some stick, and whether what they got was appropriate or not, as players and professionals no less you would expect they could keep a lid on their anger. Let’s be honest, nobody likes to be abused and rightly so, but there’s an expectation that when fans are frustrated some may choose to air their views. Eloquent it never is, but still, engaging your club’s own supporters in an exchange of expletives rarely ends well for the player.
Given the circumstances and the sacrifice the fans had made, an appreciative clap and apologetic stance might have been the best thing, yet lamentably it appears some chose not to tread that path.
What’s left now is an outraged group of fans that will no doubt be at the game this coming weekend. The appearance of the players involved is likely to spark a sense of injustice and anger from those affected by last night’s events, and I dread to think what that does for the already questionable atmosphere at The Riverside.
They say a week is a long time in politics, but I’d say that also applies to football too. Pulis now has to do his best to spin recent events as well the situation moving forward, so much so that we get back on to the vibe we all felt after that thrilling victory at WBA.
Of course, that comes with performances on the pitch and a noticeable indication that we’re prepared to be more positive at home starting against Marcelo Bielsa’s men on Saturday. A repeat of recent showings at home and the mood could really darken, however news of a sell-out offers the prospect of a red hot Riverside, the sort of atmosphere we all know and love. That surely has to be motivation enough for Pulis to set up for us to be on the front foot, and for the players to give it their all.
If we do then you can guarantee that whilst the Newport fiasco won’t be easily forgotten, it will at least move us on in the right direction, able to look forward more positively once more.
My only worry is even if that does happen, how long is it likely to last?
It’s bloody exhausting trying to keep up right now; my emotions are all over the place.
So for Christ’s sake, will the real Middlesbrough Football Club please stand up?