Britt’s best thaws Besic brain freeze
Today saw the return of yet another of our recent Managers and possibly our finest Captain in recent memory, at least for those of us over fifty. The return of an ex Middlesbrough Manager used to be a very rare occasion but nowadays it has become commonplace in the Championship in fact there would have been another one just last week had Steve Agnew still been at Villa. This was Mogga’s first official return to the Riverside. His last exit from Boro was less than most had hoped it would be but the groundswell of goodwill especially as we enter this festive season was still there as most appreciated that despite some poor runs of results he did have a knack of plucking players from bargain bins and in doing so cleared up Strachan’s mess.
TP had a serious selection problem at Right back with Dael Fry still recovering from concussion. Ryan Shotton was back in training but questionable as to where he was in his recovery program. It may be that he would be risked with the only other alternative being Paddy McNair. Other than that there was a clean bill of health apart from Rudy Gestede but personnel wise attacking options were well covered for TP which was more than could be said for their effectiveness.
Mogga had a few question marks over the availability of Lenihan, Bennett and Bell with two of those three, Lenihan and Bell close to returning. Boro’s record against Blackburn isn’t great having only won two of their last seventeen games against the Rovers (ironically under Mogga), drawn seven of them and finishing up on the wrong end of the result eight times. The main Rovers threat was expected to come from ex Boro boy Danny Graham and the seemingly much coveted Bradley Dack now recently reunited with his Z list attention seeking reality love interest Olivia Attwood (who?, yeah I had to google her as well).
Well the Team news saw that two of Blackburn’s injury worries had cleared up enough to feature on their bench. TP threw the curve ball of starting Fletcher at the expense of Tavernier who was on the bench and Shotton thankfully deemed fit again. Why Fletcher was considered a better option than Tavernier wide left was a strange one but early tactics seemed to be focused on Shotton getting down the flanks and firing over hit crosses to the far side of the Blackburn box aimed at Fletchers height advantage. As a tactic it was basic but potentially functional. Defensively it did leave Friend with more to do than preferred especially against the very lively Nyambe but to his credit Fletch did get a few telling challenges in tracking back and even tried to ruffle the Blackburn defence conceding a free kick early on for his alleged physicality.
Blackburn were moving the ball around with gusto and getting players quickly into position to receive, keeping the ball, constantly moving and with it Boro on their toes but it was Boro who were looking the more likely with a more direct style of play. It almost paid off with a Flint header from a Downing corner with less than five minutes gone. The momentum was slowly building in Boro’s favour as a Shotton cross had the Blackburn defence lucky to get a free kick awarded in their favour when Howson looked like he might be in a position to break the deadlock. Rovers were a constant threat however with their ability to pick their way through Boro with crisp incisive movement and if Boro weren’t careful they looked like they could find themselves undone.
Williams came to the rescue for Blackburn when Hugill fluffed his lines on the Rovers six yard box. A rusty challenge from Shotton on Corry Evans surprisingly saw a straight yellow for a late tackle in the middle of the pitch from Ref Simon Hooper. Most refs would have called him over for a talking to but the Official went straight to his pocket which seemed a bit harsh. Five minutes later Williams was involved again this time to receive a yellow card with Shotton on the receiving end. The game was being competed in a no frills fashion but both cards to me seemed a bit of an overreaction from the Ref so early in the game.
In the middle of the park Besic was busy running in circles taking on players unnecessarily at times overcomplicating as he went, it was at least entertaining even if there was little end product. That was to horrifically change on twenty minutes after he dithered in a dangerous position yet again just outside his own box and had his pocket picked by Dack who was clearly aware of the Bosnian’s Achilles heel. A seemingly straightforward clearance was compounded by Mo’s overly inflated confidence and not for the first time this season gave away possession cheaply just outside Randolph’s box and in an effort to remedy his excesses this time went one further in pulling Dack back. There was a moment of despairing hope that it would all go unnoticed but Dack’s protests and a 45 second delay from Sian Massey running the line saw an ensuing flag waving performance that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Cheerleaders convention.
The two officials were clearly conversing on their headsets as Blackburn players pleaded their case convincingly and a Red Card was produced from Mr. Hooper’s by now favourite pocket. Despite protestations from the North and West stands it was a clear opportunity created by Besic’s dithering and he had to go. After an encouraging start Boro now found themselves down to ten men and it was about to get worse as Mulgrew done what this entire Boro squad seem incapable of perfecting and curled a beautiful free kick up and around the Boro wall leaving Randolph with no chance putting the visitors one nil up.
The loss of our muddling midfield maestro destabilised Boro. It was now a backs to the wall hanging on display from the Red Shirts made worse by Sian Massey (seemingly rattled by the crowds hostility) giving a few strange rulings, rubbing salt in wounds. A shot from Reed flew past Randolph’s post as Rovers were now intent on taking full advantage of their extra man with Boro still struggling to re shape. Frantic activity on the Boro bench to try and plug the gap resulted in the unlucky Fletcher being withdrawn for the more aggressive and stable Wing with just over thirty minutes gone. What had started off as a confident opening spell had now descended into panic mode with Boro struggling to get a grip on the game.
The pressure was continuing to build with a series of Blackburn passes and crosses cutting Boro open, only some last ditch defending and near misses meant that Boro were still surviving as Downing (Blackburn’s Paul) came close but headed over for the visitors. A fierce low Rovers cross evaded everyone and looked a certainty for Graham to make it two as he blindsided Flint but then an outstretched Ayala leg came from nowhere to clear the danger. Minutes later Graham was again causing problems as he closed in on Randolph, shot and the parried rebound fell to Reed who somehow put his shot the wrong side of the upright as Boro again breathed a sigh of relief.
Boro cleared their lines with George charging forwards, went on a run, evaded two tackles and as the third came sliding in George rode it and in doing so saved himself from a bone cruncher but mysteriously the effervescent Gentleman with the whistle saw George’s actions as a dive and produced another yellow card. The frustration in the stands against the officials was now building and as the half drew to a close the vitriolic boos, jeers and whistles was drowned out by fans favourite MMP as he feverishly just couldn’t wait to announce half time scores elsewhere in an attempt to mask the paying publics opinions.
That was a half which turned into a horror show. That blunder from Besic was hardly surprising, he has been guilty several times this season of the same but fortune had favoured him up until this point. Having great ability is one thing, knowing how, when and where to use it is something else and its becoming clear that this huge flaw in his game is now a glaring a liability. TP took some radical brave, decisions at half time and withdrew Clayts and Downing (Stewart) for Assombalonga and Saville and in doing so removing the safety guard from his CB’s in favour of an extra body up front to assist Hugill.
The half started with Rovers clearly under instructions from Mogga to put this game out of sight and a flurry of immediate crosses saw Ayala once againclear the first one with Randolph dealing with the second with a clean collection clearly suffering no ill effects from his Villa debacle seven days previously. As the Rovers pressure continued it was that man Dack again who saw his attempt hit the post with Randolph saving Conway’s reaction follow up shot. Action man Dack then found himself next in line to collect a yellow card for a challenge on Shotton who himself had been full of endeavour on his return. It was only Shotton’s throws at this point that seemed to offer any cause for optimism as he seemed to have gained an extra 5 yards on his trajectory during his recovery.
With just over half an hour remaining a great chance was created by Saville (who had a good game) by launching a targeted long ball out of defence allowing Hugill to run onto it closing down on Raya in the Rovers goal. Unfortunately Jordan hesitated and instead of either shooting on sight or running across the chasing Mulgrew to draw a challenge he only managed a weak shot that was easily smothered by the Batman masked Raya. There were however some positive signs that Hugill with support from Britt were looking like they could maybe get some change from Blackburn as the ten men in Red were all scrapping, fighting in a brave never say die battle to get something from the ashes.
Boro now looked like they actually had a threat with the dual strike force and a foray involving Friend and a clever lobbed one-two with Britt saw Friend cut inside to feed Hugill who held firm and in doing so played the ball into the path of the onrushing Britt who hit a wonder curled strike from the edge of the Rovers 18 yard box to nestle perfectly in the far top corner of Raya’s net. 1-1, game on and in fairness Boro deserved it for their stoic display. A minute later and a Shotton in swinger was punched clear by Raya. Blackburn were now looking nervy and susceptible on the break with Hugill effective in battling with their CB’s and Britt looking for knock on’s and knock downs. Mogga clearly saw that he needed to mix things up to make their extra man count and on came Armstrong for Conway with twenty minutes left to play.
Still concerned five minutes later Mogga made another change this time local lad and ex Boro player Richie Smallwood coming off for Rothwell. The change definitely added some additional spice for Blackburn and two minutes later Reed had forced Randolph into a save to keep the sides on level terms. Boro took the ball up the other end forcing another throw, Shotton launched the ball onto Flint’s head who glancing it backwards across the face of Raya’s goal was teasingly inviting a toe from someone but none was to be found and the ball went out for a Rovers goal kick. The game was now see sawing back and forth and it was Blackburn’s turn to go for the winner with Dack playing Armstrong in only for an Ayala leg to intervene coming to the rescue. Armstrong had been lively since coming on and somehow had avoided Simon Hooper’s final yellow card after a series of tasty challenges on Boro defenders as he chased and closed down with a little more zest than required.
A late Shotton throw in was headed on by an understandably shattered Hugill but it was an easy collection for Raya as there was neither power nor direction on it. That was to be the last serious attempt from Boro as the three minutes extra time petered out and Boro’s indifferent Home form continued albeit it could have been worse, a lot worse.
There were a few interesting things to come out of this afternoon, the first one was the strange decision to take Fletcher in from the cold after being fourth understudy behind non scoring Strikers but suddenly pressed into playing wide left. I don’t have a problem with giving the lad a chance in fact I fully support it but thrown in from the off for his first start in nigh on twelve months seemed a desperate gamble. The lack of pace in the side is a given and that Ashley offers more pace and mobility as well as additional height is a plus but not at the expense of our only other pacy outlet Tavernier. Where all that leaves Braithwaite is anyone’s guess but maybe Besic’s stupidity may earn him a recall.
Shotton returning was a huge plus and his re appearance today was both timely and impressive. Hugill and Britt looked a handful together and whether it was because of the ten men mentality or just the additional body to create a foil up front, for the first time they looked a real formidable and credible offering. Besic should be under strict instructions to track no further back than the half way line, his self-belief is several levels greater than his actual ability. MOM for me was Ayala with Shotton a hairsbreadth in second spot but Dani did stop a few nailed on opportunities in both halves without which we would have been dead and buried. Before Kick off all 22 of Boro’s league goals this season have come inside the box, Britt’s was the first from outside ending the dubious only 100% such record in the Championship.
Plenty to be cynical about but also plenty to be grateful for and under the circumstances it was a good result.