|Pos. 18th (37 pts)||SATURDAY 15 FEBRUARY 2020||Pos. 23rd (30 pts)|
SHOTS (on target)
Hatters Tees Party
The last time we played Luton at home was our final game at Ayresome Park back in April 1995 where we won 2-1 in front of a crowd just under 24,000. The visitors will have well and truly had to hang onto their hats during their visit North to the Riverside with storm Dennis menacing the UK. This afternoon’s game was a must win for both sides as we approach the final quarter of the season with games and therefore opportunities to collect points now running out. Ten points behind Boro after their galvanising win over Wednesday on Wednesday evening, Luton would come into this game in a rare optimistic mood having only won five games all season yet still scoring four more goals than their Liverpool-lite opponents this afternoon.
The opening evening reverse fixture was almost prophetic in that it foretold what the season ahead had in store for Boro, all except the goals scored that is. Letting soft goals in and often late ones at that, missing sitters and penalties and never truly taking a game by the scruff of the neck. Those three Boro goals on that opening evening are almost ten per cent of our tally all season despite having almost £30m worth of striking “talent” in the squad.
Yesterday’s team news was that Boro still had Dijksteel and Ayala some weeks away while Luton would be without Galloway and O’Kane. Dael Fry was declared “fully fit” and Shotton and Friend were now back in contention. Fast forward just over 24 hrs to 2.00pm today and Fry was no longer fit with Friend starting in his place and Spence returning as we looked to revert to three CB’s and two Wing Backs. Saville and McNair would be doing the dirty work centrally breaking up and starting attacks allowing Nmecha, Wing and Fletcher the freedom to put the ball in the net. Adam Clayton was missing entirely from the bench whilst Assombalonga and Gestede were both deemed worthy of a seat. Luton Manager Graham Jones had brought in former Boro man Martin Cranie to make a return to the Riverside sitting in front of the Luton backline.
With Luton’s appalling travel sickness this season the Boro faithful were optimistic of seeing their first Riverside victory since Boxing day and even more hopeful of adding to those sparse sixteen Boro goals seen at home all season. Australian Referee Jarred Gillett’s whistle signalled white shirted Luton to kick off towards the North Stand. On the minute mark Howson looked to be confused by the ball as he needed to adjust quickly on the “D” with the ball seemingly held up by a gust. Probing, Boro had a Djed Spence cross cut out for a throw in the third minute. McNair collected the ball and went towards the by-line but instead of cutting back to advancing red shirts he played it square and straight at Luton Keeper Sluga. A Luton break ended with a woeful ball overhit going out near the edge of Pear’s eighteen-yard box as quality thus far was in short supply. Another attempt down the Luton right wing from the lively Lua Lua was gently crossed into Pears’ welcoming open arms.
On six minutes a Boro cross was routinely headed clear with neither side imposing themselves. A Luton Corner on eight minutes was sent in by Berry, as it was headed clear by Howson the Ref saw a generous infringement giving Boro a free kick. Twelve minutes in and so far neither Keeper had been tested although Moukoudi had us momentarily nervous when he was fouled trying to play the ball out from the back.
Advancing down the left wing, Coulson went down as he tried to round Pearson in a hopeful claim for a free kick which was waved away by the Ref. A brief display of head tennis saw Luton win then build up an attack but again the end ball was aimlessly hit to nobody on the far side of the Boro box. On fifteen minutes Wing speculatively tried his luck from twenty-five yards but it went well over. Another bout of head tennis ended this time with Lua Lua finding Potts whose well weighted cross evaded attackers and defenders alike allowing Ryan Tunnicliffe to react quicker than Coulson and stroke the ball home on seventeen minutes. So far Boro had started as they had in too many games this season, slow, lacklustre and unconvincing and they paid the price for it yet again
Boro restarted and pushed up the pitch replying with two quick crosses. The first easily cleared as Nmecha swung at it and the second from the opposite flank from Spence was low and ended in the arms of Sluga without menace. Twenty minutes gone and the home fans were comforting themselves with the knowledge that we were now becoming adept at coming from behind. Our attacking intent seemed to consist of unconvincing crosses from wide into the box with little to no precision. A lack of joined up thinking was being portrayed before us.
Lewis Wing had some sort of issue with his boots in what was probably the most noteworthy event from Boro in the opening twenty-five minutes. A jittery clearance in a packed Boro box didn’t look at all convincing as Luton tried to quickly double their lead via a Potts delivered free kick finding Pearson out on the far left of the box seemingly targeting Coulson. It was Coulson however a minute later who ghosted in between two Luton defenders to win our first corner but as is standard for our set pieces Sluga tipped it over his crossbar for a second Boro corner. Delivered this time from the opposite side it was deftly floated in to nobody on the far side of the box and going out for a Luton throw.
A fizzing cross from Pearson was stepped over by Lua Lua and Pears’ had to get down sharpish to smother the ball. So far only one side looked to be seriously making a competition of the game and it wasn’t the home side. Sluggish and almost comatose best described Boro so far, we have notoriously started slowly previously but this was something else entirely. Moukoudi summed up the home fans frustration with a wayward ball out to Coulson to his left with a somewhat lackadaisical clearance come pass conceding a cheap throw in to Luton. That phase of play ended with a cleverly rehearsed corner taken out of the box to Tunnicliffe who smashed in a thirty-yard shot. Another Luton corner quickly followed with Boro struggling to clear their lines. Based on this performance Luton looked to be anything but relegation fodder. Where they really that good or were we really that bad?
On thirty-three minutes another Luton corner this time wasted much to Boro’s relief and the fans were starting to murmur and shake heads. On thirty-five Friend won a corner whilst overlapping, which went out via Pearson for a second Boro corner but again nothing of note as Luton headed clear far too easily. A Cranie challenge on Saville earned him a yellow as he slid in to try and win a mis-controlled ball from himself. The resulting Boro free kick was telegraphed and when it was played short to Wing he was closed down immediately. Clearly Luton had watched the Wigan highlights and as a consequence of their anticipation we lost possession and conceded a free kick on the edge of the Luton box.
Fletcher won the ball deep in his own half, charged forward, played it wide to Friend but rusty George misplaced his pass and back Luton came to increase their corner count. It was delivered in to the far side of the Boro box but had too much on it thankfully for us. On forty minutes Friend got down the line and put in a cross that was just too high and always going out but in another sign of how dysfunctional Boro had been all of this half. A minute later Fletcher ran through the Luton box lifting hopes but Sluga collected the ineffective cross come shot. Approaching forty three minutes now and Berry collected a yellow for complaining to the Ref for an earlier Moukoudi challenge which had left Lua Lua rolling around needing the magic sponge, something that he seemed quite keen to do all game.
A minute of the half remained and McNair smashed in a cross which was greeted with moans and groans as it went nowhere where it was intended to go and with some gusto to boot. Two minutes added time came up on the fourth officials board. A last minute scrapped and hard-fought Spence cross cut right through the Luton box but there was no Red Shirts coming in to meet it. The whistle sounded to a chorus of boos which in fairness was probably not as loud as that inept showing deserved. The team that had lost eleven straight away games went down the tunnel a goal up against what had been a terrible Boro showing which had lacked identity, cohesion, energy and bereft of understanding.
Nmecha and Fletcher had looked totally disconnected from their team mates. Coulson was being targeted defensively but he was at least also a threat and getting down the wing creating. Spence was taking the game to Luton down the right when he could but our midfielders where nowhere to be seen and our two Strikers had struggled to outsmart the Luton defence mainly as a result of our build up being so slow and limited. That was as dire a Riverside performance as had been witnessed for some time and other incoming half time results were not helping the mood. Luton to their credit were by far the better side so far and Woodgate needed to seriously up the workrate and tempo from his charges in the second half.
Surprisingly no changes in a brave decision by the Manager as Boro got the half underway. Pears didn’t enjoy the best of starts as he sliced a routine clearance. Coulson then gave away a free kick with Friend looking nervously on having just prior got away with a challenge on the same player in the box as he had commenced his fall. That Luton free kick was cleverly played to the “D” where an advancing midfielder despatched it to see it blocked by a crowd of red shirts and looking suspiciously like it came off a red sleeve. A minute later Lua Lua twisted and turned Coulson on the edge of the box feeding the ball backwards to the edge of the Boro box for Tunnicliffe to fortuitously blast it well over.
Lua Lua then claimed he had been clattered by Saville and then Moukoudi, his envious artistry being one of the few bits of entertainment all afternoon. A Luton corner on fifty-five minutes saw Berry fire it in low this time, cleared, but and again it was fired back into the Boro box from the edge of the 18 yard box. Ten minutes of the second half had expired and Boro actually looked worse than they had in the first half.
The fourth anniversary of Ali Brownlee’s passing at least gave the home fans something to applaud in the 57th minute with a rendition of “one Ali Brownlee”. On the 59th minute Assombalonga was brought on for Saville as not for the first time this week we went top heavy with strikers when the supply route was the problem. Coulson in understandable frustration rugby tackled Lua Lua to concede yet another free kick to the visitors near the touch line. The ball came in low and straight to a red shirt but it took several poor clearances in a bit of keystone cops defending before Pears collected it and threw it out to relieve the pressure, setting up an attack in the process. That rare Boro foray ended with the ball going across from left to right finding Spence who earned a throw in. He immediately then earned a corner which was delivered into the middle of the Luton box where Potts headed clear as George Friend coming in from behind flattened him bringing the game to a halt.
Potts needed some lengthy treatment and as the game restarted Boro earned a few corners in quick succession but as usual badly rehearsed and delivered to no avail. Spence was then brought off for Gestede as Woodgate incredibly piled on another Striker in total abandonment of any remnant of high pressing, fast tempo football. Twenty-two minutes remained as Coulson delivered in a corner which was headed clear by the decidedly concussed looking Potts. A few minutes later he eventually had to retire with Bree coming on in his place with Luton now taking the pace out of the game. Well I use the term “pace” lightly and not to be taken too seriously as there was very little of it on display from a very laboured looking Boro all afternoon.
Nmecha and Fetcher were now out wide with Gestede and Britt central. Nmecha won a corner which came in, was cleared and then fed back in by Coulson which Britt attacked and missed and put Gestede off following in, too many cooks and all that. Cranie then decided to kill a few seconds as he sat on the turf presumably feeling the aches after a rare start and in doing so delaying the restart.
Lua Lua cut the ball back from the by-line in a failed Hatters attack and as Boro broke out Nmecha cut inside and had an effort that was somewhat less than the optimistic sum of its build up. Graham Jones then brought Cranie off with a quarter of an hour remaining. Sluga took his time in delaying taking a free kick for an offside much to the home fans frustrations. Mpanzu was then yellow carded for delaying a throw in claiming he wasn’t the teams throw in expert as he passed it to a colleague. A cross from Fletcher was aimed at the far side for Britt but his effort in getting off the ground seemed on a par with the earlier grounded EasyJet flights today.
A great Howson ball on seventy-nine minutes was just tantalisingly waiting for someone to get on the end of it but despite having no less than four strikers on the pitch nobody in Red was chasing play far enough up, anticipating to attack it. A very delayed Luton free kick on 82 minutes cleared the Boro wall but also Pears’s crossbar. Lua Lua then went off for Izzy Brown with seven minutes left of normal time. Berry then took Friend out in a rash challenge and was fortunate to avoid a card but Boro’s delivery from the free kick was merely lamped down the pitch and in doing so we conceded possession and Luton set off again down our right flank.
A Moukoudi challenge on Berry allowed another few seconds of set piece delay for the visitors from which Brown crossed and a cut back from Mpanzu hitting unwittingly off Coulson’s arm with the away fans screaming for a penalty. Mpanzu then had acres of space and time just outside the Boro 18 yard box to hit over unchallenged with two minutes left. A late Boro cross to Fletcher had height but looped too far over and behind for him to be able get anything on it.
Six minutes of added time came up on the fourth officials board but Boro looked no more like scoring had sixty years been held up. Luton were at ease containing Boro, believing they had enough in their solitary goal to hang on for all three points and in fairness it certainly looked like they were safe as we rarely threatened with anything remotely close to troubling Sluga. Into added time Luton were pushing Boro into their own corner areas with throw ins and keeping possession, eating away precious seconds. On 93 minutes we even had two balls on the pitch as Boro tried far too late to get some urgency and momentum.
Sluga came out at the feet of Fletcher to collect and slide down taking his time to regain his upright posture. Coulson was forced to concede a corner from Mpanzu. Luton took it short and Brown earned another time absorbing corner off the shins of Coulson this time. Another short one saw Brown nutmeg Friend but Coulson behind cleared for a throw in which was worked back towards the corner flag where Brown held it up again. Taking “ownership” Wing unceremoniously and frustratingly upended Brown starting a tussle rolling around on the floor which suited Luton in killing even more of those remaining seconds. The whistle went shortly after to boos ringing around the Riverside apart from the away corner who were quite rightly and deservedly euphoric.
That wasn’t a performance from Boro it was very poor in every respect, disheartening to experience and we got exactly what we deserved from our one shot on target. Tony Pulis was derided for his dull, boring anti-football and before him Karanka received plenty of negative feedback but that game just about trumped anything as dire as those two conjured up.
On a positive we didn’t concede a late goal but Gestede coming on to rescue us just had heads shaking. “Clueless” was often thrown at Pulis but today took that to a whole new level. Even the ball boys who have always been ominous by their sheer collective absence in an ability to retrieve balls seemed to have been underwhelmed by the same inspirational tactics as the players.
This afternoon had a distinct whiff of the late Strachan era around the Riverside. Looks of despondency and indifference from many sufferers were difficult to disguise. MOM were the fans in the South Stand who provided a great show of support for Grant Leadbitter.