Towels and Tribulations
Having lost last Saturday away to Millwall and bouncing back by giving Garry Monk the Blues at home on Tuesday night Lee Johnson literally flew his Robins to the Riverside this afternoon perched just a single point behind Boro. With games disappearing fast it looked like the loser of this game would be saying goodbye to any realistic aspirations for the Play-offs. Both sides were in a similar vein of self-imploding football at the moment so anything could have happened results wise allied to some recent uninspiring lamentable performances.
Despite their lofty league placing Bristol had the worst way record over the last twelve games in the Championship of any club having only picked up five points from five draws and seven defeats. Even the Mackems and Burton had bettered that return. Like us they could only manage a recent draw away to lowly Burton. Having never ever lost at the Riverside their last four visits to Teesside meant that they had won three and drew one making Boro by far their favourite away day. As the side with the worst away record playing at their favourite travel destination what could possibly go wrong for Boro?
Selection wise Boro had injury worries over Downing and Bamford while Mo Besic was actually rated “doubtful”. To me Besic and Bamford have both been carrying injuries in the last few games and have been playing when it would have appeared more sensible to let them rest and fully recuperate. Half fit, neither of them have come close to their recent high levels. Downing’s injury scare I presume was because he found his shooting boots and has had to lie down in a darkened Rockliffe room all week. Grant of course had been excused from duties at the moment due to a rush of blood to the Captain’s head.
Lee Johnson had a few ponderables in his nest in terms of selection. Eros Pisano had sat out Tuesday night’s win for reasons of fatigue apparently but should be back in the reckoning this afternoon. Club Captain Bailey Wright had struggled with a thigh strain and was unlikely to feature but Lloyd Kelly had been earning plaudits of late meaning that Bryan looked likely to be deployed in front of Kelly in an attempt to smother Traore. Further up the field O’Dowda and Paterson were missing on Tuesday and could feature. In mitigation it could be argued that with three half time substitutions TP was also conscious of game management and resting his big guns on Tuesday evening. The Bristol trio of Bobby Reid, Famara Diedhiou and Matty Taylor were all likely to be starters but the 90 minute fitness levels of Reid and Famara could be questioned.
With the 1-1 result of the Blades and Lions game sinking in come two o’clock we had our selection answers and learnt that TP went with same again apart from Clayts in for the suspended Grant. Lee Johnson kept Taylor and O’Dowda benched but did keep both Bryan and youngster Lloyd on the left to target Adama as suspected. Reid started along with man mountain Djuric with Diedhiou also entrusted with taking the game to Boro.
The Robins lined up in a Purple and Lime Green kit which was certainly distinctive but not I would imagine a Bristolian marketeers commercial dream. Boro started the game reasonably steady and had a half chance early on with Jonny Howson but he seemed to scuff his shot and it squirmed wide of Fieldlings upright. The early intent was welcome as hopefully it signalled a desire to actually win rather than sitting deep and pick the visitors off.
A failure by Downing to cut out a midfield pass meant that Besic was forced to charge back and slide in to cut out the danger but earning a yellow card in the process and giving away a free kick. On thirteen minutes a soft build up involving Lloyd and Reid led to a cross being put in which was wincingly half cleared by Shotton and spun out to the edge of the box where another headed attempt to clear by Besic seen him beaten in the air and saw the ball drop for Djuric stealing in between Ayala and Friend to prod home. Our defending was to put it mildly all over the place and very poor but that wasn’t the language being used around me in the North Stand at the time. Our start wasn’t great but not disastrous up until those few mad moments of chaos.
Just after the restart another Bristol foray saw Ayala and Randolph almost take one another out as the thwarted Reid closing in on goal. The enormity of the task facing us wasn’t lost upon the home fans and they rallied round behind Boro. A few minutes later a Traore Corner was literally fizzed in with pace and George met it perfectly centrally on the edge of the six yard box with a glancing header past the despairing Fielding to draw level with eighteen minutes on the clock and suddenly the mood changed inside the Stadium. The visiting fans noticeably reduced their hitherto optimistically hopeful and upbeat decibel levels. Just as the celebrations were dying down George was once again in the action cutting out a ball in the middle of the Park which the attention seeking Ref deemed worthy of a Yellow.
Just as Boro started to find their feet and the Red Faction their voices the next event sickened everyone in attendance when Paddy went up for a ball with alleged ex Boro target Flint and landed (splattered is perhaps a better description) face first after a hefty aerial duel. He lay motionless and it was Bristol players that first raised the alarm by drawing Ref Madeley’s attention to it and the Boro Physio’s to rush on to Paddy. What followed would have been pure comedy gold had it not been so serious. The Paramedic/First Aid/Stretcher bearer team had to be screamed at by the fans of both sides to get their act together. Now whilst jibes at tickets and kits directed towards the club are well deserved the confused, disorganised and chaotic fumbling of them was matched only by the Boro defence for the opening goal. Twenty four thousand people screaming at them to get their act together and run onto the pitch with oxygen and stretcher etc. certainly focussed their athletic prowess.
After a very worrying ten minutes or so the Stretcher was eventually raised and Paddy was carried off to a standing ovation and cheers of “Paddy, Paddy, Paddy Bamford” from both sets of fans. The farce however didn’t end as the Stretcher had to be let down again as presumably the weight was too heavy for the bearers and they changed arms half way across the pitch, picked Paddy back up and the removal continued once again. Slapstick at its finest!
During the injury break Dani had raced across to TP and informed them that Paddy was out cold and to hurriedly ready Assombalonga. Britt’s first touch was OK but a little heavy, importantly however and noticeably he received a supportive round of applause and cheers to lift his confidence. The game now had a kind of surreal feeling which in a strange way matched the weather, overcast but with the sun struggling to break through with temperatures in the balmy low Teesside teens.
The first half ended with a sustained spell of Boro pressure building up to a series of shots and blocks which somehow ended with the ball not crossing the Bristol goal line thanks to a series of defiant and desperate defending. I counted a Besic effort and I think two from Stewy one of which was flicked on by Britt. The much delayed half time whistle finally went with the major attention of the half created by the Referee who obviously had a new whistle along with a new set of cards. He looked determined to win the MOM award in front of the Foreign TV Camera’s suspiciously looking like he was after a lucrative Middle East retirement deal.
News that Derby were trailing at half time to lowly Burton (remember them) lifted spirits that were considerably dampened after Paddy’s worrying removal from the field of play. Better news had started to filter through that Paddy had been responsive and talking in the changing rooms albeit groggy before being taken to James Cook. On commencement of the second half Bristol brought off Djuric which was surprising as whilst he was far from mobile he was a thorn at set pieces and balls into the box for which his goal was testimony. Pisano came on which was a nod perhaps to Bristol hanging on to what they had which was a rare and valuable point on the road.
As the half wore on Fielding resorted to time wasting techniques along with time being taken at each set piece in an effort to run the clock down. Boro were not exactly putting on a stellar performance and Bristol were sitting deep defending in numbers giving us plenty of possession but not threatening. Britt had a few opportunities but his finishing was worse than woeful and his appetite for jumping back up and getting straight back in the game was slow motion personified. That was in stark contrast to Mo Besic who was busting a gut and lungs and Clayts who was blocking, chasing and charging down everything in sight.
George was having joy down the left flank and Adama was giving poor eighteen year old Lloyd a wake-up call to life in the Championship. The screw was slowly turning but Bristol were dangerous and Boro were thankful to both Ben and Clayts in blocking attempts which was just as well as Shotton was having a torrid time conceding possession in his own half. There was lots of endeavour from Boro but little to show for the possession and anxiety was growing amongst both sets of supporters with the game having so much at stake.
Another brilliant corner from Adama was lofted in with deadly accuracy evading the giants of the Bristol back line for Dani to rise majestically and head home but it was cleared off the line by Baker but much to our euphoria only into his own net. Our secret Goal machine had done it again and it was now 2-1 to Boro with around 25 minutes to hang onto the slender but priceless lead.
After Ayala’s goal Johnson’s side looked more like a combined Pulis/Allardyce eleven that you are ever likely to see with Aden Flint thrown up top and every ball humped, hoofed and lumped 60 yards up the pitch. With five minutes of normal time remaining Fabio was brought on for Downing to run the clock down, add fresh legs and a bit of inventive pace. Bristol were knocking on the door but Boro were resilient with some sterling, determined, defensive work. It was squeaky bum time for the Home fans as attacks were repelled and every goal kick and throw in breaking the pressure as the fans sang loud and proud supporting their hero’s efforts.
The fourth Official signalled three additional minutes and TP signalled he wanted to bring Cranie on for Adama with the emphasis now on dealing with high balls and holding on. Seconds later the star of the show Madeley finally blew his whistle for full time and the ground erupted in celebration apart from the understandably dispirited travelling fans and the Bristol players sat on the pitch realising that their season which had so much early promise had all but fizzled out.
News filtered through that Paddy was not as bad as first feared and a later radio interview with Pulis revealed that he was now back at the ground sat in the changing rooms chatting to his team mates. The afternoon wasn’t a classic but it had elements of frustration, comedy, passion (stand up Besic, Clayts and Friend), inevitability (thank you Dani Ayala), drama (courtesy of poor Paddy) and farce courtesy of Mr Madeley generally and his shiny whistle but also for he and the fourth official deeming that Shotton and Friends drying towels were now illegal.
At this stage all that matters is the result and we won those precious three points. MOM for me had a few contenders all for differing reasons but I think Clayts won me over for his all-round display and probably his best in a few seasons but anyone who felt Besic, Friend or Ayala deserved it would get no arguments!
Boro need to avoid missing the boat
by navigating safe passage to play-offs
Boro slipped out of the top six following defeat to Sheffield United and after just one win in their last five games, the failure to gain three points on Saturday would leave Tony Pulis’s promotion course heading for the rocks as the club’s play-off challenge became seriously holed below the waterline and the chances of a top-six place would start to sink along with our lingering hopes. As Bristol City sail up to the Riverside, moored just one place below and one point behind in the table, it’s surely time that the players found their Championship sea legs and took the wind out of the opposition’s sails rather than risk leaving their own supporters in the Doldrums. The key may well be starting the game at a fair rate of knots rather than just treading water as no doubt there have be some stern words from the manager following recent listless displays.
After several scary performances of late, it’s possible Tony Pulis will be showing the players some horror videos of those games ahead of Saturday’s crucial encounter. Whether such viewing on Friday the thirteenth will produce a change in fortune against Bristol City is uncertain but perhaps team selection may involve the manager being crystal clear about what he wants and then consigning the squad to an overnight stay at a log cabin in the woods around Stewart Park lake. In this lesser known instalment of the Friday the Thirteenth franchise, entitled The Old School Camp, a group of under-performing players wait to find out which of them gets brutally axed ahead of the upcoming game.
No doubt the severe slashing received in the first half against the Blades may have prepared some for the inevitable anticipated carnage that lies ahead, though it’s possible Assombalonga will at least survive the prerequisite trip to barn and a gruesome end by actually failing to see the barn door, let alone finding it. Though with the Championship entering its final chapter, a seemingly unstable Grant Leadbitter has disappeared from the camp after losing his head but still remains obsessed with taking one for the team, so it would be a brave man that volunteers to go out alone in the dark to search for those who have one-by-one gone missing on the pitch.
Boro really need to learn to play without fear if they are to survive the tests of the coming weeks and we have now reached the stage where there can be no more excuses for failing to perform when it matters. The display in the second half at Bramall Lane was as if all of a sudden it dawned on many of the players that they were sleep-walking through the season in a recurring nightmare on easy street. The urgency shown was in stark contrast to so much of what had gone before in recent games and one wonders what was preventing the players from previously displaying such intensity.
|Tony Pulis||Lee Johnson|
|P42 – W19 – D9 – L14 – F59 – A41||P42 – W17 – D14 – L11 – F59 – A48|
Points per game
Points per game
|Last 6 Games
Sheff Utd (A)
Nottm Forest (H)
1:2 (0:2) L
2:0 (2:0) W
1:1 (0:1) D
1:2 (0:2) L
1:1 (1:1) D
3:1 (2:0) W
|Last 6 Games
3:1 (2:1) W
0:2 (0:1) L
0:1 (0:0) L
2:2 (1:1) D
1:0 (0:0) W
0:0 (0:0) D
After the Easter disappointment of Wolves and Burton, Grant Leadbitter told fans not to worry as the players were still getting it right on the training pitch and said that means “nine times out of ten you get things right on the pitch during the game.” – before adding confidently “Of course it helps that so many of us in this squad have been here before… and we’ve got players who have been promoted in there too. That will help over the long run, I’m certain it will.”
Whilst experience shouldn’t be a disadvantage, it almost feels like there is a complacency that they expect to prevail purely because they’ve done it before. What happened in the past doesn’t count for anything unless the team consciously puts everything they can into the task of winning each game – Sheffield United started on Tuesday with a determination to win from the off, Boro seemed to be behaving like it was an extension of a training game and began the game with a kind of measured composure and they couldn’t match the urgency of their opponents who instead played flat out rather than just flat.
Perhaps the team became too reliant on a few individuals performing at a higher than maintainable level and it masked the drop in the erratic form of others such Downing, Howson, Leadbitter and even Besic – few on the pitch looked to make an impact and were maybe content to be controlled and directed by their captain as they expected either Traore would at some point produce his usual lightning burst of speed to create the required goal or that Bamford would continue his well above average scoring streak. The removal of all three meant the crutch that had kept the rest of the players limping along in tandem with our promotion hopes was gone and they suddenly woke up and realised this was not a drill.
What was also interesting is that faced with needing to win, Tony Pulis switched tactics and went with a back three with wing-backs and a midfield that pushed, pressed and supported the centre-forward – even Clayton suddenly started making ranging passes instead of the safe, short square passes. He did a similar thing once before early in his reign when Boro visited Preston and went into the interval 2-1 ahead – three substitutions early in second half and switching to a back-three saw Boro win the game 3-2. The question is whether the manager will see the eleven-man version of this formation, with the addition of an extra forward, as the means to drive the season forward to a successful conclusion – or will he like post-Preston revert to business as usual in the hope that the tried and trusted will ultimately prevail. Though Shotton looks a more natural back-three defender than a right-back and Fabio’s energetic presence offered much more as a wing-back – perhaps Adama should be just given a free role behind Bamford rather than attempt to restrict his talent with too much responsibility at this stage of the season.
However, if Boro fail to find the required intensity then it may be a case of preparing for the usual excuses for failing to deliver when it mattered. Of course, we may ultimately see more imagination in these excuses than from the actual play-book but many Boro followers will not be easily convinced that this hasn’t been a season of avoidable errors. Though the club have a long way to go before they could match the less than credible excuse offered by eight Argentinian police officers this week when asked by their new chief what had happened to over half a tonne of seized marijuana which had disappeared from a police warehouse – they all rather innocently claimed it had been eaten by mice despite a forensic investigation finding no trace that mice had been in the warehouse and scientific experts ruling out the rodents confusing the drug for food. Anyway, the eight officers have been arrested and the investigators are now presumably looking for the big cheese who trained the mice to smuggle the marijuana out of the warehouse.
OK, perhaps the experts were right for a change and no mice were involved – though a little impromptu back of the envelope calculation (which may have an outside chance of being included in next year’s GCSE maths paper) shows if a mouse only eats a maximum of 5g of food a day, how many mice would it take to polish off a half-tonne stash of marijuana given the average lifespan of a mouse is just two years long. The answer of course is 137, but that doesn’t take into account how many packets of counterfeit chocolate hobnobs that over a hundred stoned mice with the fabled munchies would have also devoured from the police warehouse – plus the amount of time that they’d be floating in a most peculiar way instead of eating as they tuned in, turned on and dropped out of the rat race.
Nevertheless, whilst that brazen lame excuses by Argentinian police officers may be hard to beat, football clubs also have pretty good form when it comes to passing the buck and absolving themselves of blame. Should Boro actually make the play-offs then they may struggle to better the excuse offered by Blackpool in 1996, who placed the blame on letting a two-goal lead slip in a tie against Bradford City on the fact that the team’s boardroom was being haunted by the ghost of Lord Nelson. Apparently the wood panelling in the boardroom was made out of wood from Nelson’s ship, HMS Foudroyant, which later ran aground off the Blackpool coast. Stadium manager John Turner said: “It is an old maritime superstition that sailing folk take exception to anything on their ships being touched, which could explain these strange events.”
Though some superstitions appear to be almost invented retrospectively when football fans search for justification for their team performing badly. When Brazil lost 7-1 to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-final there was clearly one man who was primarily to blame – Yes that well known jinx Mick Jagger. He was apparently spotted in an executive box before the game and he’d previously been blamed for their defeat to the Netherlands in 2010 when he was spotted sporting a Brazil shirt at the game. He has been given the nickname ‘cold foot’, which apparently denotes bad luck in Brazil because any team he backs generally goes on to lose – he’d earlier publicly backed Portugal to go all the way and they then lost two of their group games and Italy who lost to Uruguay and went home too. They even claimed that he had backed England to win and they also lost but I’m not sure that this is the level of proof needed to be called a jinx – deluded obviously, but England losing a game is perfectly normal. Some Brazil supporters tried to counter the jinx by creating a Germany supporting Jagger effigy – but unfortunately the power of the man himself was just too great!
As for Boro’s opponents on Saturday, their supporters have been burdened for many years with their name being being associated with something that is perhaps holding them back from puffing out their chests and proudly declaring their allegiance. Thanks to that good old cockney pathological affliction with finding rhymes without reason in the hope that it will trick the Bottles (bottles and stoppers – coppers – police) into thinking nothing suspicious is afoot, Bristol City supporters are slightly aggrieved that they’ve inadvertent become victims of unfortunate and unnecessary rhyming slang. Why the east-end blaggers rounded on Bristol and not any of the other nine English football clubs with City in their name (a quiz question for a later date perhaps) is not quite certain.
Indeed, I discovered in my usual extensive research, it’s a subject that has occupied many a City forum as they look for closure, with the most widely favoured reason proffered being that Bristol’s port city was famous among sailors for its large-breasted prostitutes. Whilst it’s always good to see civic pride manifesting itself on supporter forums, I suspect it’s not a claim that will be proudly boasted in chants from the terraces of Ashton Gate any time soon. Although, it’s unlikely that much thought probably went into the rhyme given that nearly all other examples of the so-called secret language sound like the first word that subconsciously entered the heads of East London’s finest lexicographers as they enjoyed several King Lears in the Rub-a-dub whist compiling their definitive Fish Hook of cockney patois.
Still at least Bristol City have had plenty of alternative nicknames over the years to distract attention from their cockney moniker. Their first known nickname was the rather left-field ‘Red Shirts’ or ‘The Garibaldians’ due to the similarity with those worn by the followers of the Italian revolutionary – in fact, due to the popularity in England of Garibaldi in the late 19th century, quite a few club adopted Garibaldi Red as their club colours, including Nottingham Forest and Arsenal – incidentally, Forest fans recently set up the ‘ForzaGaribaldi’ (Force Garibaldi) movement in 2016 to mark their 150th anniversary and to galvanise support for the club, which is now awaiting the Karanka revolution to begin on the Trent.
The City supporting side of Bristol were also more obviously known in their earlier years as ‘The Citizens’ before becoming referred to instead as the less than politically correct sounding ‘Bristol Babe’ – but before you start thinking the previously model citizens had gone all glamorous on the beautiful game, it was in fact a reference to a small 19-foot-long wooden red bi-plane of the same name that was manufactured in the city and had a wingspan under 20 feet with a top speed of just over 100mph. After being launched in 1919 for the private flyer, experienced test pilots found it potentially difficult to fly and it soon had its Civil Aviation licence withdrawn a few years later – so given this obvious failure, it’s not quite apparent why this nickname lasted until the late 1940’s.
Anyway, Bristol City eventually became known as ‘The Robins’ shortly after the war and it’s a name that has stuck until the present day, with the origins of the name being once again related to their red shirts and the resemblance to an even smaller flyer in Robin Redbreast (Erithacus rubecula). Unfortunately, for the supporters of Bristol City it seems this unhealthy obsession with chest-related associations may leave some Cockney’s feeling vindicated as they would say there’s no Laugh n a Joke without Jeremiah – plus even the cockney rhyming slang for chest is actually Bristol and West. Still at least the club can regard themselves lucky that Garibaldi didn’t opt for yellow shirts with blue sleeves as I suspect there are other small British garden birds that would have been far worse to have been named after.
So will Boro finally channel their energies against Bristol and sail through the game as they refloat their play-off dream? Or will the former Garibaldians take the biscuit and leave Tony Pulis with few crumbs of comfort as they dunk our promotion hopes in the drink? As usual your predictions for score, scorers and team selection – plus will Mick Jagger be turning up at the Riverside to jinx our chances as the mood on Teesside is painted black?