EFL Cup: Villa 0 – 2 Boro

Aston Villa Middlesbrough
Bamford 58′ (pen)
On target
On target

Bamford Brace empty Villa Cup hopes

Redcar Red reports on Boro’s victory at Villa Park…

A much changed look to both sides as Steve Bruce made 11 changes to Garry Monk’s 10 in front of a desolate looking Villa Park that had the atmosphere of a reserve match rather than a Cup tie with 11,000 attendees rattling and echoing around the famous old stadium. Wing and Tavernier were the biggest not so surprising surprise inclusions for Boro but probably not half as surprising as the involvement of the Championship’s forgotten goal machine, Ross McCormack who presumably had finally managed to either find the keys to his mansions gates or Steve Bruce’s heart. The desperado came on in the first half for the man who should have been suspended Henri Lansbury but based upon Lansbury’s forty minutes or so on the pitch Steve Bruce probably wished his red card hadn’t been rescinded after all.

It was Villa who first looked like they might get something from the game as a free kick drifted in from the left was headed by Elphick unimpeded into Dimi’s goal. Fortunately the eagle eyed linesman on the far side flagged for an offside to save Boro blushes. The first half itself was fairly uneventful, the best moment when Wing shrugged off the attention of three Villa midfielders to thread a ball out to Roberts wide right who advanced and crossed into the box for Bamford to rise up and hit the crossbar with a perfectly timed if not angled header. Had it gone in it would have been just reward as Boro were the more balanced, composed and threatening of the two “reserve” teams on display.

To think of where Wing and Tavernier normally play their football they did not look out of place and based on tonight’s performances from the pair of them they look ready to do duty in the Championship if called upon. Only Ben Gibson remained from Saturday’s line up against QPR and he himself was duly replaced/rotated with Dael Fry at half time to evenly share the exertions alongside Ayala who managed the full 90 minutes and who fancied a few chances at corners all evening. George was restored at Left Back with Roberts as mentioned previously on the Right side. Howson and Forshaw got more game time in midfield and to be fair looked comfortable throughout. It was that man Wing again from a similar position in the middle of the park who teed up Forshaw for a 25 yard speculative strike which was parried away by Steer in the Villa goal with Tavernier flashing the rebound into the side netting. Fletcher and Bamford provided the attacking threat though it was Bamford who looked by far the more likely to score.

In the second half it was that man Wing again this time feeding Paddy with a beautifully weighted 20 yard ball bypassing Elphick to send Paddy through leaving the despairing Villa CB with no other option than to execute a trip just as Paddy entered the box. It was a penalty and a second yellow for the ex-Bournemouth man as he had earlier received a caution for upending George. Cool as you like Paddy stepped up and a left footed dink down the middle was enough to open the scoring. 1-0 and Boro were well deserving of their lead. I said before the game slightly tongue in cheek that Paddy if given a start needed a hat trick to give Garry Monk something to think about. Just as it entered my mind obligingly this time Tavernier sent in a cross from the left with Bamford ghosting in at the back of the 6 yard box to rise and bag his second goal of the night. Whilst he didn’t quite make it a hat trick he came darn close enough with his first half header to have almost made it a reality.

Downing had come on previously to replace Wing who was looking tired understandably to a chorus of boos from the smattering of Villa fans to be buoyed by “He’s one of our own” from the few hundred Boro fans who should be given first choice of tickets should we eventually go on to achieve the ridiculous. Tavernier thought he had made it three for Boro when he had his close range effort saved on the line which looked about as far over it as Johnson’s cross did on Saturday so I guess some of them you win but I’m happy to not get the benefit when 2-0 up and cruising against ten men! Miller came on for the last ten minutes or so as Monk made his last substitution of the evening to give the lad a run out. Speaking of run outs by this stage apart from the Boro fans just about the entirety of the ground had run out when Boro’s second went in with the Holte end eerily deserted.

All in all a very effective evening which had a few perhaps overly confident Boro moments in the game which is really scraping the barrel when looking for something negative. This side tonight looked as though they could compete quite favourably at the top end of the Championship themselves especially Wing and Tavernier. MOM has to go to Paddy for his two goals and near miss but I wouldn’t put up a strong argument if Wing received the accolade. The Coach trip back North must have been a content relaxing ride for the squad as they now enter the last 16 of the Carabou Cup. Who Boro will draw will be revealed on Wednesday night when its probably drawn out of a Yaks intestine in a remote corner of the middle of nowhere with more entertaining “pairing” errors than a Sunderland back line.

Post-Match Summary

Werdermouth rounds up Boro’s cup progression…

Just over 11,000 turned up at Villa Park to watch last night’s Carabao Cup encounter, which was 15,000 down on the league game ten days ago. Boro witnesses were also thin on the ground with only around 300 estimated to have made the trip from Teesside. With no live feed available for the Diasboro faithful to observe the proceedings we were instead all ears as radio commentary became the medium of choice to stay in the invisible loop.

Ben Gibson was the only man to take to the pitch at kick-off who had also started at the weekend, Garry Monk made ten changes from Saturday’s victory over QPR and Steve Bruce swapped the whole eleven – the Boro boss would have no doubt done the same if Shotton hadn’t been cup-tied, so instead opted to give Gibson and Fry a half each.

It’s clear that the League Cup has become a fixture that clubs just want to negotiate and if you progress then that’s fine – but if not, then well that’s fine also. It was Boro however that were able to seemlessly change their starting eleven without losing their style, rhythm and teamwork. It’s a credit to Garry Monk and his staff that all the players in his squad know how he wants to play and can slot into their respective postions and almost look like they’re regulars.

It was also pleasing that some of the promising youngsters like Marcus Tavernier and Lewis Wing got another opportunity to show what they can do – the maturity of their performances had some observers declaring that they looked like some of the best players on the pitch. This game was also a chance for Patrick Bamford to demonstrate to his manager that he’s in form and can do a job – his two goals will have gone some way to prove his point, plus a calm chip over the keeper for a disallowed offside goal and a header against the bar could have almost given him a hat-trick.

In the end it was a comfortable victory for Boro, the dismissal of Tommy Elphick on the hour mark after he brought down Bamford in the box gained him his second yellow and gave us the lead after Bamford cooly beat the keeper. With Villa now a goal down and a man down it got worse just nine minutes later as Bamford met a Tavernier cross to head in the second at the far post.

Connor Roberts also put in a good display at right back and it wouldn’t weaken Boro if he was the regular starter. In defence, Ayala and Friend got a run out with a clean sheet to their name – plus with Howson and Forshaw getting a full game in the engine room, it means Garry Monk has plenty of match-fit options to call on.

After the match, the Boro boss was very pleased with the evening’s work and said “We did exactly what we wanted to, I thought we were excellent from start to finish. It was a really good team performance. There were changes, but you have to trust your players, and I do. I’ve been working with them since we’ve come in, and we know what we’ve got in terms of what we’re working with. They know exactly what they have to do when they go on the pitch, and exactly what we want them to do.”

All that remains now is for Kim Jong Un to pull us out of the bag and give us a home tie in the draw for the next round of the Carabao Cup ahead of his country being totally obliterated by ‘The Donald’ having a bad hair day (again). I’m just hearing that Kim Jong Un has apparently cancelled and the draw will instead take place in England of all places after the Manchester United versus Burton Albion game this evening – well there’s a novelty!

Match Preview

Werdermouth looks ahead to round 3 of the Carabao Cup…

The distraction of trying to win promotion is put to one side this evening as Boro head back down to Villa Park to see if playing with eleven men for the first hour will give them an edge. Such is the importance of the Carabao Cup that Garry Monk will use it to test out whether his second XI have what it takes to break into his Championship starting line-up.

Quite a lot has changed since those who took to the field against Scunthorpe in the hope of impressing the manager. Stuart Downing made his first appearance as a sub under Monk after being told he was not in the Boro boss’s plans – that 30 minute energetic cameo seemed to have convinced his manager that he was going to be an integral part of the team. If you look at the team for that second round match, it’s interesting to see who at the time was not regarded as a league starter in the previous three league games with five of those graduating to become regular starters (shown in bold) by the Aston Villa league game.

Prior to Cup (Games 2-4)
Scunthorpe Aston Villa
Darren Randolph Dimi Konstantopoulos Darren Randolph
Cyrus Christie Connor Roberts Cyrus Christie
Dael Fry Dael Fry Dael Fry
Ben Gibson Daniel Ayala Ben Gibson
George Friend Fábio Da Silva Fábio Da Silva
Adam Clayton Lewis Baker Lewis Baker
Adam Forshaw Adam Forshaw Adam Clayton
Jonny Howson Grant Leadbitter
(Lewis Wing 80′)
Grant Leadbitter
Patrick Bamford Marcus Tavernier
(Stewart Downing 64′)
Stewart Downing
Britt Assombalonga Ashley Fletcher
(Rudy Gestede 81′)
Britt Assombalonga
Rudy Gestede Adama Traoré Adama Traoré

As you can see from the list, Fabio has taken the left-back slot and Dael Fry has remained in front of a fit Ayala to become the main man in central defence. In the middle, Baker has played his way into being a regular starter as the attacking midfielder of choice and Grant Leadbitter has also been restored to the first eleven after his commanding performance in the Carabao Cup. We should also not forget that it was in the game against Scunthorpe that we started to see an Adama with an end product and he’s now regarded has a big miss because of his suspension.

It’s unclear whether some of the youngsters will get a chance tonight as there is also an EFL Trophy game at Accrington Stanley being played at the same time  – I guess it depends whether Garry Monk is serious about the prospects of Marcus Tavernier and Lewis Wing being involved in the first-team squad. I suspect he may feel he currently has enough options at his disposal to avoid disrupting the U23 squad.

Though since the League Cup has become somewhat of low priority in the grand scheme of things, the Boro manager will no doubt rest some players. An added bonus for the suspended Traore and Clayton means these EFL Cup games count towards their respective bans – so Clayton appears to have timed his fifth yellow card perfectly to miss the game that he was probably never going to play in.

I suspect Dimi will get the gloves, with probably a back four of Roberts, Ayala, Friend plus Ben or Fry stepping in for the cup-tied Shotton. In midfield, I can’t see Leadbitter playing after taking a knock against QPR, so Howson and Forshaw will probably get the nod. The tricky bit will be deciding on who plays in attack – Bamford is fresh after being overlooked recently and Fletcher probably could do with more pitch time but if Tavernier doesn’t get promoted then will Monk risk Johnson or Assombalonga? Braithwaite is training again but it doesn’t sound like he’s completely ready – so some players may be asked to play an hour and share the burden.

In the end the League Cup hasn’t been something Boro have had much of a go at in the last ten years or so. As you can see from the table below, other than the quarter-final in our promotion year, Boro have not shown much enthusiasm  for the competition. OK, we made the last eight in 2012-13 but that was mainly down to the luck of the draw, having faced only Bury, Gillingham, Preston and Sunderland before getting knocked out by Swansea.

Round Team Score
Notable Scalps
2016-17 2 Fulham (A) 1-2
2015-16 QF Everton (A) 0-2 Man Utd (4th round)
2014-15 3 Liverpool (A) 2-2 (14-13)
2013-14 1 Accrington Stanley (H) 1-2
2012-13 QF Swansea City (A) 0-1 Sunderland (4th round)
2011-14 3 Crytal Palace (A) 1-2
2010-11 2 Millwall (A) 1-2
2009-10 1 Nottingham Forest (A) 1-2
2008-09 2 Manchester United (A) 1-3
2007-08 2 Tottenham Hotspurs (A) 0-2

I’m sure Garry Monk would not fancy the prospect of having to stretch his resources by playing Europa League football next season if he was to gain promotion – so lifting the trophy may be a poison chalice he’s prefer to avoid. However, I’m sure the Boro manager would prefer to develop a winning mentality and is it a coincidence that our best run in the cup was also our promotion year? OK, the final is a long was off but collecting a scalp or two may be the tonic that galvanises a promotion campaign.

After the last 4.00am event at the top of a Beijing sky-scraper, I’m not entirely sure where and when the fourth round draw for the cup is being held this time. Perhaps it will be held in a missile silo in North Korea with Kim Jong Un drawing the home teams and his US basketball mate Dennis Rodman drawing the away teams – I just hope that when they press the button to release the balls they don’t hit the wrong one, otherwise all living creatures on the planet may bear a close resemblance to the iconic buffalo skull on the Carabao can!

So will Boro find having an extra man on the pitch makes it easier to arrest the progress of the Villains? or will we find ourselves being sent down and out as our silky skills remain on the bench. As usual, predictions on score, scorers and team selection – plus what does Patrick Bamford need to do to impress Garry Monk?


Boro 3 – 2 QPR

Middlesbrough Queens Park Rangers
Wheeler 2′
On target
On target

Slow starting Boro nearly shoot themselves in the foot

Redcar Red’s match report on how events unfolded at the Riverside…

The answer to the question on every Boro fans lips before Kick Off was Marvin Johnstone. The lad from Oxford got his first start as Adama’s replacement in the line-up. Rangers lined up at the Kick Off with a rather unconventional lopsided approach where they heavily loaded the right hand side of the pitch in a tactic more akin to the egg shaped ball than football. Whatever the logic was it certainly caused confusion with Boro as we started the game almost comatose and paid the price almost immediately and losing our home clean sheet record in the process. Ian Holloway had barely taken his seat when he had to jump up as David Wheeler (also making his first start) slipped in behind a sleeping Fabio to poke home from close range just outside the 6 yard box from a scuffed Freeman attempt. The goal came even quicker than Adama’s sending off on Tuesday night a consequence of very poor uncharacteristic defending from the midfield right through to the CB’s and Fabio.

Frustration set in quickly as Boro laboured away passing the ball around, invariably hanging onto it for too long, conceding possession and giving QPR reason for hope on far too many occasions. Hollway set his team up to chase, close down and not let us get into any stride and so we found ourselves scrambling back chasing hooped shirts when they picked off predictable. This wasn’t going to script and the frustration in the Riverside was building as gamesmanship was pushed to the limit seemingly unnoticed by Referee Darren Bond until the crowd started to boo, whistle and jeer every time a Rangers player rolled on the turf or took an eternity with throw ins with Smithies constantly supposedly undecided what side of the box to take his goal kicks from.

It was niggly and very scrappy which of course was exactly Ian Holloway’s game plan. There were long periods of head tennis which is ideal when you are playing against a Championship side having just spent £40 million thereby keeping the ball off the ground where skills may have more of an influence. It was typical Championship grind, lots of huffing and puffing with little class on display apart from Magic Marvin who lifted Boro hopes with a few darting runs to cause some consternation for Ranger’s defence. Just ten minutes from the half time whistle it was from such a run that Marvin carved an opening in the middle of the pitch and drove at the defence with Assombalonga just in front of him receiving attention but Johnson somehow noted the run of baker on the opposite side of the box and cut a tightly angled pass perfectly into the path on Baker who slotted past Smithies despairingly diving at his feet restoring some respect and allowed us to go again after the break.

The second half kicked off with a few substitutions from both sides with Fletcher coming on for Clayton who had earned himself a yellow in the first half besides his partnership with Grant just wasn’t working for us today. We were too slow and ponderous in the middle instead of the two of them breaking up and closing down we were getting picked apart and passing ourselves back into trouble. Fletcher would obviously add some much needed pace and an outlet to ping balls up to. As a tactic it made sense but once again we started with our heads still in the changing rooms. Inexplicably Gibson and Randolph were guilty of a comedic piece of defending as Gibson was waiting for Randolph to sprint out and clear it and Randolph I think was expecting Ben to hoof it cross field. The momentary hesitation was enough to induce panic and when Randolph did eventually make contact with the ball on the edge of his 18 yard box he hit it straight off Mackie who couldn’t believe it when the ball ricocheted back in front of him with a clear goal in sight. 2-1 and once again we had gifted a really soft stupid goal worryingly from the two players on the Pitch we would normally have the most confidence in.

Having given ourselves another mountain to climb and Ranger’s reverting back to time wasting and delaying tactics at every opportunity the afternoon was not going to plan and once again the frustration levels were building just as fast as the sun was dipping behind the West Stand.  The goal however seemed to galvanise Boro who then went for it and gone was the slow tempo build up that had been so evident in the first half to new levels of energy and pace which Johnson and now Fletcher offered. It was the latter of those two who latched his head onto a perfect left footed Christie cross to head home the equalizer for the second time this afternoon. 2-2 and the Riverside started to rock as belief started to grow that despite the opposition’s tactic’s class was beginning to show. 

Fletcher was making a difference not just because of his goal but his chasing and running was starting to put QPR on the back foot and now started looking vulnerable. Boro had their tails up for the first time in the afternoon but Grant had managed to crock himself in a 50/50 challenge forcing Howson to come on in place of him. It was strange and perhaps fortuitous that without our best midfield pairing Howson and Baker showed a lot more intent and positivity and we started looking the more likely to get something more than just a point from the game. For me both of them had their best games to date in a Boro shirt.

On the hour mark Magic Johnson flew down the left flank cutting into the box and with the ball bobbling on the by-line managed to lob a perfect cross onto the head of Assombalonga who headed home from nigh on the same spot that Fletcher had scored not long before. The theatrics from Holloway and his charges took tantrums to a new level. At this stage Boro should have went on and scored two more in what is now becoming a trademark for this side in missing gilt edged chances. Britt was clean through but blasted high and wide when scoring or at least getting it on target would have been much easier. A ball worked across the Rangers box seen chaos ensue with Fletcher coming in at the far post only to see his effort from two yards out get deflected off a last gasp defender on the line via the upright and away to safety. Rangers were rocking and ironically now started complaining vociferously to the Referee for Boro now starting to run the clock down. 

With Boro now taking the lead the Hoops did fight back trying to launch it via Robertsons long throw ins but Boro stood firm running the ball into the corners of the pitch in an effort to exhaust the six minutes of added time which had been as a consequence of Ranger’s earlier time wasting. Wszolek came close to nicking a point for the visitors but his effort crashed off the post with Boro hearts in mouths.  

A less than convincing performance with only a twenty minute second half purple patch giving Boro the required points to send us hurtling up the table (made all the sweeter with Leeds losing at the Den) closing the gap to top to only three points. The end result was the one we all desperately wanted before Kick Off but we made very hard work of it. The game was a mixture of the Wolves clanger times two and the Preston performance. These stodgy unconvincing starts need to be cut out with energy levels wound up before taking the pitch. Man of the match should go to Johnson but a special mention also for Assombalonga for his selfless running along with Fletcher for adding a credible bit of spirit, Cyrus Christie again was Mr Consistent and delivered dangerous balls in for the Strikers to feed off.  

Seven points from three games in a week with two of them away from home is a credible return but today was far from convincing for huge spells but the most annoying aspect was that not for the first time we put ourselves in that situation. If we can cut out shooting ourselves in the foot then we may smash this league after all. 

Match Preview

Werdermouth looks ahead to the visit of QPR to the Riverside…

After two games on the road Boro entertain Queens Park Rangers who are currently positioned just one place below in the table on goal difference. Garry Monk claimed in his press conference on Thursday that the Championship is probably one of the most competitive leagues in football and any team can beat any other – though his plan is to make the Riverside a fortress, which should come in handy if we see a similar display to the one witnessed by Sheffield United’s fans back in August.

The two teams look evenly matched on paper, though the Hoops have not won on their travels this season with just one point picked up at Sheffield Wednesday. However, in their last match QPR set a season’s record best with 31 shots on goal against Millwall, though only two of them troubled the scoreboard. Boro have yet to concede a goal at the Riverside so the supporters will be expecting to see all three points banked. In fact Boro have an opportunity to close the gap on their rivals above them with three home games from the next four in the league.

Middlesbrough Queens Park Rangers
Garry Monk Ian Holloway
P7 – W3 – D2 – L2 – F7 – A3 P7 – W3 – D2 – L2 – F10 – A9
Points per game
Projected points
Points per game
Projected points
Aston Villa (A)
Bolton (A)
Preston (H)
Forest (A)
Burton (H)
Sheff Utd (H)
0:0 (0:0) D
3:0 (1:0) W
0:0 (0:0) D
1:2 (0:1) L
2:0 (1:0) W
1:0 (1:0) W
Millwall (H)
Ipswich (H)
Cardiff (A)
Hull (H)
Norwich (A)
Sheff Wed (A)
2:2 (0:1) D
2:1 (1:0) W
1:2 (1:2) L
2:1 (0:1) W
0:2 (0:0) L
1:1 (1:0) D

Garry Monk has some decisions to make on who to play on Saturday, Adama Traore is starting the first of his three match ban for his over-exuberant block of a clearance in the opening minutes at Villa, which left the officials and the FA appeals panel unmoved on deciding it deserved a straight red – unfortunately Golden Globe nominee Conor Hourihane was not similarly unmoved by the Boro forward as our man attempted the tricky manoeuvre at full tilt on a slippy pitch.

Only three Boro players have appeared on the pitch for the duration this season, Randolph, Gibson and Christie – though Fry seems to have cemented his place as first choice partner for Ben after Ayala missed out through injury. Fabio has been given the left-back slot ahead of Friend but hasn’t been totally convincing and it may be that both will alternate until one of them finds some consistency.

You’d expect to see Leadbitter and Clayton continue in central midfield given their last two commanding performances and Assombalonga is probably nailed on to get the main strikers role. All of which leaves the decision of who will be selected in the three supporting forward roles. Surely Bamford will get his chance after missing out on the last three games, it seems something of a mystery given his displays prior to being dropped.

Downing has started the last two games but hasn’t really looked convincing and doesn’t appear to have made any major contribution – he may be the highest paid player on the books but that’s not looking good value at the moment. It’s quite possible that Johnson will get a start as Boro need some pace on the pitch in Adama’s absence and perhaps Baker will continue in his advanced midfield role – but again it’s still a work in progress for him and others so nothing looks cast in stone.

The table below shows the stats on the squad this season, players shown in red are unavailable, with those in yellow doubtful – indeed Braithwaite is generally leaning more towards unavailable but you never know if he could be a surprise inclusion on the bench.

Player Mins Starts Sub-On Subbed Goals Yellow Red
Darren Randolph 630 7
Mejías 0
Dimi Konstantopoulos 0
Cyrus Christie 630 7 1
Ben Gibson 630 7 1 1
Dael Fry 540 6 1
George Friend 415 5 1 1
Fábio 270 3
Daniel Ayala 90 1
Connor Roberts 0
Ryan Shotton 0
Adam Clayton 617 7 1 4
Jonny Howson 459 5 1 1
Lewis Baker 305 3 3 2
Adam Forshaw 216 3 1 3 1
Grant Leadbitter 168 2 1 1
Britt Assombalonga 611 7 2 4 1
Rudy Gestede 340 4 1 2 1
Patrick Bamford 311 3 3 2
Stewart Downing 144 2 1 2
Adama Traoré 143 2 2 1 1 1
Ashley Fletcher 104 1 5 1
Martin Braithwaite 90 1
Marvin Johnson 66 2 1

So will Boro be cock-a-hoop after claiming all three points to awaken our season or will we be left feeling our promotion chances are becoming nothing but a hoopless dream. As usual predictions on score, scorers and team selection – plus will the players be sporting blond hair with justice for Adama T-shirts in solidarity with the Boro’s derailed express train.

Brave Boro bruise beleaguered Bruce’s Boys

Monk went same again in an effort to keep the momentum from Bolton flowing and like Saturday the West of the country seeing some wild weather conditions. Boro started well and took the initiative with former Boro target Sam Johnstone saving a Ben Gibson header. Just as we looked to be settling into the game nicely Adama flew into a ridiculous sliding challenge wiping out Conor Hourihane on 3 minutes. From high hopes and expectations to despondency and despair all in 180 seconds as Ref James Linnington reached for his red card. Watching it again the decision seemed harsh but despite his stellar performance on Saturday Adama is susceptible to rash challenges and tonight that major flaw came back to haunt him and Boro. 

Two corners in quick succession then followed from Villa as Boro tried to clear their heads and reorganise their ranks. If Villa needed a boost it was now handed to them on a plate. Eighty seven minutes to go against 10 man Boro. If ever Villa were to have an opportunity to record a win then this was the night for them surely. 

Ten men Boro dropped deep in an enforced tight rearguard action, leaving Assombalonga playing a forlorn Negredo type role in isolation. Randolph was forced into serious action and pulled off a few great saves including a dubious penalty appeal as Lansbury went down feigning a trip as Randolph scrambled at the ball spinning on the wet grass in the six yard box. 

In a break out Christie delivered a pin point cross to Assombalonga on 38 minutes then Villa went down the opposite end, Snodgrass putting the ball into the far post as he danced into the Boro box for Bjarnasan only for the Icelander to put it wide under the close attention of Randolph. As the half was panning out Villa were desperate for an opener that their man advantage should have delivered but Boro stood firm and still looked like they could nick something on the break. Grant and Clayts were in the thick of it, tackling and breaking up attacks. The Birmingham air was heavy with desperation made all the more evident as an oversized “Ball Boy” ran onto the field of play to throw the ball to Randolph as Boro ran the clock down. 

In the last minute of the first half Fabio gave away a free kick 25 yards out which Snodgrass delivered over the wall and spun dangerously off the turf in front of Randolph who needed a second grasp to ensure safety. Villa continued to lay siege to the Boro goal as the White and Blue shirted defenders valiantly repelled the Villains. Finally the Referee blew his whistle to end the half to a chorus of boos from the home fans and sighs of relief from the travelling Teesside away support. 

The second half commenced with Substitutions for both sides with Hogan and Adomah on for Villa as Bruce decided to go for it while Monk added a bit of pace and an outlet by putting Johnson on for Downing. Boro started the half in the ascendancy with a close effort that went out for a corner that Baker fired in across the 6 yard box to rattle the Villa defence. Another silly free lick given away by Fabio in an almost identical position to the one at the end of the first half saw the resultant fee kick go over the Boro box and out to safety. Boro were dug deep and fighting as an effective unit as Adomah was looking lively and putting Christie under pressure as the ex Boro wide man let Cyrus know he was in for a hectic second half. 

Villa’s desperation and frustrations grew trying to breach the stubborn Boro defence with Snodgrass resorting to shameful theatrics on the edge of the Boro box, diving to the ground under Fabio’s attention. Thankfully the Ref was a little more circumspect than he was in the first half ignoring the claims that Fabio had fouled him.  Elmohamady burst free and his ball went across the Boro box causing an increase in Boro heart rates but from defence Marvin Johnston broke free for Boro with Britt charging up field to keep up with him and Lansbury scythed the ex Oxford man down from behind to see the second red card of the evening and with 25 minutes to go it was 10 v 10. The psychology of the game was about to unfold, who would remain calm and who would blink? 

Steve Bruce decided to go for it by sending on Kodjia in an effort to go for all three points. Garry Monk still had two subs to use to try and give impetus to the tired Boro legs and held his nerve. Just after Kodjias arrival Britt burst through the middle and shot on the edge of the 18 yard box to see Sam Johnstone palm away his effort and with it probably Boro’s best attempt of the evening. 

Grant then went off as Howson came on to hopefully give a bit of energy into the midfield. Another great Randolph save was then followed up by Scott Hogan inexplicably blocking a Hourihane follow up attempt as nerve levels were building. Christie then collected a yellow for a challenge and the resultant free kick ended up with a header over Randolph’s crossbar thankfully. Just afterwards Britt’s number went up as he was literally running on empty, attacking and defending as Fletcher came on to replace him. Kodjia then then almost immediately threw himself to the ground only to earn himself a yellow for diving rather than the penalty he wanted. Up the other end the fresh legs of Ashley Fletcher caused consternation in the Villa defence and then once the danger averted Villa came straight back at Boro. 

Five minutes to go and the home side were throwing everything they had at Boro and still they held firm with Fletcher back heading away a corner. Backs to the wall, we saw the clock tick down and the fourth Official held up four long minutes on the board. In the final minute a Snodgrass corner fell to Hourihane whose left footed volley skewed 5 yards wide to the relief of Diasboro. The final whistle went as Randolph dawdled over the following goal kick and the anticipated boos rang out from the Holte end as Boro kept another clean sheet in a Band of Brothers Boro performance. 

The Sweat and rain soaked white shirts went over to the travelling fans enabling a show of mutual appreciation with Albert repeating his Bristol at the Riverside act of acknowledging his former fanbase. A Man of the Match is impossible to award to an individual and it has to be awarded to the team as a whole for their battling, scrapping, resilient defiance for almost the entirety of the match. Like Britt at Forest a few weeks back, Adama at Villa couldn’t control his anxiety and desire and the game should have been over as a contest but this Boro side showed real determination and fought their corner to hold out for a well-deserved draw. It was only a point in the end but the result was a great bonding session which long term will bring benefits over the remainder of the season.

All bets on hold as pre-season promotion favourites meet

OK, it’s not quite the early doors top-of-the-table encounter the bookies had lead us to believe it would be, but nevertheless the outcome of tonight’s game will potentially leave the respective supporters waiting on the promotion platform to declare their season is either full-steam ahead, safely on-track or completely derailed. Boro will be optimistic of getting a result tonight but maybe we’re getting ideas above our station after seeing off the bottom club at the weekend – though Villa only shared a goalless draw at home to second-bottom Brentford on Saturday and have won just one game this season, 4-2 at home to Norwich after losing their previous two against Cardiff and Reading.

A second successive away win for Boro could put them on the edge of one of the automatic spots and seven points ahead of their potential promotion rivals – leaving the Villa board to enter the much over-booked claret and blue, panic-button adorned bunker, recently vacated by the Palace chairman and ahead of the not so happy Hammers decision makers waiting in the queue. However, a victory for Villa would put them just one point behind Boro as both clubs would find themselves coupled together in mid-table like a pair of slow coaches waiting for a head of steam to materialise.

Steve Bruce has seemingly managed once again to get off to the kind of start his club were neither expecting or wanting from him. Perhaps he just neglected to read the Villa club badge since he arrived – which simply proclaims ‘Prepared’ – though it doesn’t state what they are prepared for, failure? disappointment? You wonder if he’ll be given much longer as the supporters appear to have run out of patience on the forums I glanced at. Some had even suggested he’ll be jettisoned after they are beaten by Boro with one less than optimistic individual predicting a 6-0 win for us, which I’m quite willing to accept as our part of the deal.

Anyway, Boro’s current red hot property Adama Traore returns to his old club tonight, though apparently he only actually made one league start before being injured and out of the picture – so it won’t be that familiar surroundings for him. No doubt he will be keen to show them his new found collection of skills, such as passing, looking up and assisting. One hopes he doesn’t do an ‘Assombalonga at Forest’ and lets the occasion cloud his new found judgement – but in the end Adama only really has one gear – Fast and furious with the turbo on max!

There’s no point in Garry Monk trying to out-think or out-bluff Steve Bruce with regard to Traore as the only plan to stop would involve double, tripple or quadruple marking him. Which is fine, even if it works it will leave gaps for our other forwards to exploit instead – besides, Bolton failed to stop him on his first assist with five players left in his wake.

However, we shouldn’t get carried away and expect Adama will be blasting away defences every week – Boro need to also build on their more solid feel against Bolton, though the Trotters still had three decent chances to score and the Boro manager needs to ensure we don’t get caught out so often. Incidentally, Boro have the third meanest defence in the league with only Leeds and Preston conceding one fewer goal with two each – so for all the talk of attacking players it’s business as usual in terms of a solid base.

Although Downing is potentially up against one of his old clubs, I’d be tempted to avoid the sentimental return and opt for Bamford instead. It may well be that clever mind of Bamford can exploit the space that may result from Villa trying to shackle Adama – plus he hasn’t really deserved to be left on the bench for the last two games. No doubt Assombalonga will keep his place and perhaps having Johnson on the left would give them something else to worry about other than Traore – the left side for Boro at the weekend was greatly ignored for much of the game until our new signing came on and perhaps we shouldn’t over rely on one weapon. Though that would mean Baker dropping out in favour of Bamford playing in the more conventional number ten role if Marvin get the nod on the left.

It would be no surprise to see Clayton and Leadbitter resume where they left off as I can’t think Monk will make a change on that successful pairing any time soon (OK when Clayton gets booked). As for defence, Monk may be tempted to rest Fry and give Shotton his first taste of action but that would be a big call if anything went wrong as there doesn’t appear to be a pressing need to disrupt the central pairing. George was replaced by Fabio at left-back at the weekend and whilst the Brazilian looked better going forward, Friend does seem to me to offer more in own box when we are defending – it may depend on the game-plan as to which one starts.

So will Boro start like an express train and shunt Villa towards the relegation places or will our promotion hopes be on a replacement bus service heading towards mid-table. As usual, your predictions on score, scorers and team selection – plus will Adama score his first goal for Boro against his old club?

Terrific Traore terrorises traumatised Trotters

Prior to this afternoon’s game I was reading an article on one of Bolton’s greatest, the legendary Nat Lofthouse who used to  get up at half past three in the morning to catch a tram to work an eight hour shift underground then after clocking off he would make his way to Burnden Park to play ninety minutes of football. A far cry from todays pampered, petulant professionals complaining about fifteen days of sunshine which was in very short supply as torrential downpours drenched supporters on their way to the Macron Stadium. 

Boro started positively with intent but Bolton settled and started to get a bit of domination in the game with Randolph being forced to pull off what is now becoming his customary one handed save from Madine on eight minutes. The warning signs were there that if we didn’t step things up we could be in for a difficult afternoon. 

Traore then broke free on thirteen minutes and was manhandled to the ground, bounced up almost weeble like and took the two Bolton defenders on again, skinned them, then the third, sprinted down the line leaving them all for dead and put in a perfect right footed cross to Assombalonga jumping seven yards out and headed home with aplomb to give us a 1-0 lead. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had the Chumbawamba lyrics enter my head “I get knocked down but I get up again” on seeing Adama’s determination. 

Five minutes later and Traore was at it again on the edge of the Bolton box and jinked past two defenders, got another cross in that was cleared only to fall to Baker who blasted it over.  Boro started to look like they were a class above, passing fluidly and playing keep ball despite the bouncing rain. Key for me was that the experience of Grant, Clayts and Downing were bossing the middle of the park. 

In a rare Bolton foray a deflected shot led to a corner which brought a brilliant reflex header from Fry to save Boro blushes from Madine to go out for another corner which saw the resulting decision in Boro’s favour for an infringement on Randolph. The ball was skipping off the surface as players were sliding into challenges and some were having trouble keeping their feet including the ball boy who unceremoniously ended up on his posterior as he went to kick a ball back into play. 

Anthony Robinson was probably facing his worst nightmare as Traore seemed to have the ball glued to his feet, able to run past the Bolton defence at will. Just after a scuffed shot from Adama went wide he predictably and recklessly gave away a silly free kick which seemed at this stage to be the only way that Bolton would find a way back in. When the ball was cleared upfield Baker found himself near the corner flag, nutmegged Darby who then threw an arm across his throat up-ending the Chelsea youngster but neither the Lino nor the Ref deemed it a foul. 

Clayts “chested” down a shot in his own box with a suspicion of handball albeit “unintentionally intentional”. Downing then fed Traroe who crossed to the far side of the box but the ball then broke to Grant who fired a Thunderbastard that was deflected out for a corner. Just as the Sun started to break through the leaden Lancashire skies, the last minute of the first half saw another clumsy Traore tackle that looked initially like a high kick but replays confirmed it to be more of a coming together of knees with Morais whose theatrics saw a yellow card for Adama. Boro were by far the classier and more composed team but Bolton were still a threat and with the second half looming the solitary goal felt too slender for comfort. 

Overall a satisfactory first half performance from Boro and in particular from Adama Traore who singlehandedly peaked Andrex sales in the Greater Bolton region but had the Clayton decision gone against us the half time team talk could have had a very different theme. As it was we looked on course to record a first away win since Sunderland. 

At the start of the second half Stephen Darby was removed for West Ham loanee Reece Burke presumably in an effort to try and shackle Traore. Almost immediately on the restart Bolton nearly levelled it as Madine knocked the ball back to Pratley who shot wide fortunately. Phil Parkinson had clearly fired up his charges as they came out far livelier. 

Leadbitter was back to his best tidying everything up with well-timed and judged tackles. A Boro corner was cleared out by Wheater straight down the pitch to Clayton in his own half who cheekily played a 40 yard through ball straight back down the middle for Assombalonga to chase. Moments later Assombalonga ran through on goal in a tussle with Wheats who did just enough to increase the angle allowing Ben Alnwick to palm Britt’s shot wide conceding a corner. An hour had gone and Boro looked far more likely to come away with all three points but Bolton were still in it noticeably via a much improved 2nd half Robinson performance and Gary Madine. Randolph was forced to palm away a shot from Morais as Bolton upped their intensity and a reminder that this game wasn’t won just yet. 

On sixty three minutes Assombalonga put a cross in as Baker was pulled back chasing into the box for what should have been a definite penalty. That was Boro’s main effort in the second half to date and the away end giving a rendition of your’re going down with the Makems as news filtered through of them losing at home. Things were not entirely going to plan, Traore was quiet and after another careless free kick given away from the Spaniard it took an alert Britt Assombalonga to chase down Noone who sprinted to the edge of the box in a training ground routine to cut out the danger.  

Marvin Johnson joined the fray in place of Baker. Johnson went wide left as Downing went central in place of Baker and almost immediately played a ball out to Traore to work his magic seeing his twists and turns lead to a corner from which Ben got clattered from Alnwick. Seconds later Traore intercepted a ball on the half way line, broke away from three stunned white shirts and then left poor Wheater in his wake as he ran to the by-line, crossed to Assombalonga who slotted home from twelve inches out. 

Downings final contribution was a twenty yard shot that went over the bar as Bamford came on for Boro and Le Fondre for Bolton. Just after Bolton threw their last roll of the dice Marvin Johnson broke free with Fabio overlapping but instead of feeding the Brazilian out wide Marvellous Marvin went through himself and shot from the edge of the 18 yard box, his left foot effort squirming under Alnwick at his near post, 3-0 and the Macron started to empty. 

In a triumphal switch Traore was subbed for Fletcher on 81 minutes to rapturous applause from both the travelling army and some fair minded sporting home fans as the ex West ham man returned to the ground where he used to support the Wanderers as a lad.  

With three minutes of the ninety remaining on the clock Madine had a fierce shot brilliantly saved by Randolph to keep the all-important confidence boosting clean sheet.  That was all Bolton had in their locker as Boro fans “Ole’d” a serious of passes which almost resulted in a third for Britt. As soon as the 4th Official had put up the board to indicate three more additional minutes Assombalonga again went one on one with Alnwick who deflected his shot onto the far post.  

Three nil it ended and for the first time this season Boro looked to be too good for their opponents in every department. The line-up had a few of us asking questions before KO and whether Monk was looking like a tinkerman in the making but in fairness it worked and a three nil scoreline has to be congratulated. For me there were three stand out differences from previous games. Traore was unplayable and destroyed Bolton whilst Assombalonga had his shooting boots on but for me accepting Adama was the heroic MOM it was Grant Leadbitter that anchored and held the middle together that made the biggest overall contribution.  

It’s nice to win but has to be noted that Bolton are bottom for a reason and that this time last season some early away day euphoria at Sunderland was a false dawn. I’m sure that this Boro side in this league has much better to come and at the time of writing sitting 6th in a play-off spot is better than where we were this morning.





Monk heads back to drawing board to chalk up away win

After the disappointing display at home to Preston last time out, Garry Monk has had plenty of time over the international break to revisit his mental chalkboard and envisage what his most effective combinations on the pitch are. Surely Boro will see a trip to the bottom-of-the-table Trotters as an opportunity to flex (or reflex) their promotion credentials as the players go fishing for points in an attempt to address their year-long empty haul on the road. Whether it requires a back to the drawing board approach for the Boro manager or a return to the system that was working in most parts with just a tweak or two is the call that needs making.

The foamless fingers pointed after the last home game by the supporters were squarely aimed at the apparent hasty change in formation with an awkward unbalanced team selection. It didn’t appear on first reading to play to the strengths of the squad and there was little in the performance to suggest it had been something worked on to any significant degree. Most would be happy if the manager’s experiment before the break was simply filed away under cunning plans that even Baldrick would have dismissed.

Up until Preston there were embryonic signs that a front three of Assombalonga, Bamford and Gestede each offered something different with the ability to link-up together for periods during games. However, it is the midfield which has proven to be a difficult berth to fill, with Forshaw and Howson often starting but not really delivering any oomph. It appeared to leave Clayton to fill the breach and try to tidy up, as well as providing cover in his occasional back-three slot. In the process of executing this role he has been picking up cards faster than blackjack croupier on a busy night in Vegas, with four yellows in five games. If this cautionary trend continues he is on course for a theoretical recording-breaking 36 cards this season – a total that will only be curtailed by the lengthy bans he’ll incur along the way as he becomes well acquainted the disciplinary panel.

It’s entirely possible that Monk may be tempted to re-introduce the familiar double-act of Clayton and Leadbitter once more in a bid to shore up the midfield – but whether it will be in their historic roles of a midfield shield is debatable and perhaps two weeks on the training pitch may have resulted in more creative options. Lewis Baker has shown that he’s comfortable on the ball and an advanced midfield playmaker role looks to put him ahead of other possibilities – especially given his two-footed attributes and ability to strike a ball.

Though one change in attack has been forced upon Monk with news that Rudy Gestede has suffered complications from a ‘freak’ dead-leg and is facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines. The big Benin forward has featured prominently this season with four starts after coming on as a sub in the opening game and there is no obvious physical like-for-like replacement unless Dimi has developed some additional skills while waiting for his chance to wear the gloves again.

It may be hard for many who grew up with the culture of the dead-leg being the playground retribution of choice for minor slights and indiscretions from those who ran the dinner-money extortion rackets – though I’ve no recollection of it being a long-term injury that kept a fellow classmate out of action for more than an hour. Indeed it seemed infinitely preferably to a one-sided game of ‘bloody knuckles’ with a fresh pack of playing cards for the enforced entertainment of the rather bored school psychopath Smudger ‘Giz-a-penny’ Smith on wet Monday lunchtime.

So I suspect with Gestede we’re not talking about the innocuous dead-leg of our youth, but given the need for him to have had a minor op, my fully unqualified internet doctor’s diagnosis is that it’s perhaps more likely a Grade 3 Intramuscular Quadriceps Contusion, to give it the full medical seriousness. Basically, the muscle is crushed against the thigh bone causing a soft-tissue tear within the sheath and the swelling will persists for more than 2-3 days as the fluid is unable to escape (other more expert second opinions are available). The prognosis for such an injury is between 3-12 weeks for full recovery along with a lot of pain and discomfort – so let’s wish Rudy a speedy recovery and he may now regret not handing over his dinner money to that discreetly unnamed team-mate with the rather bony knee.

Luckily Boro have a good depth to their squad to compensate for the loss of players – though there’s always the risk that having too much competition for places may ultimately give an undue edge to training as fringe players try to impress the boss. Perhaps with nearly two-weeks of an international break for the players to experiment with novel ways to kill time some may have drawn inspiration from the pre-silicon chip pastimes of a bygone era. Still, at least there was no news of any missing toes due to an over-exuberant game of ‘knifey’ as the conditioning team perked up the groin-stretching exercises with some retro bonding – though one wonders what the missing digit count would be if the wayward throwing Barragan hadn’t have been shipped out.

For the uninitiated, the game involved throwing a knife towards your opponents legs so that it stuck in the ground. The opponent then moves their foot to the point the knife was stuck (nicely working those hamstrings) and then threw it back in an attempt to make it stick in the ground outside the reach of the opponent. The game ended when the opponent simply wasn’t able to spread their legs to reach the knife or the often partially rusty sharp projectile missed the ground and stuck in the opponent. Perhaps on reflection MFC’s health and safety regime would possibly frown on such innovations to warm-up routines.

So does the loss of Gestede and the still injured Braithwaite require a major rethink at the sharp end? There have been calls in some quarters for Bamford to reprise his role as Boro’s number nine and in theory he’d be a good finisher – but I believe there is now a much more creative element to his game that perhaps would be under-utilised leading the line. Though ideally some form of rotation among the front three (should it remain a front three) would allow Paddy to continue in displaying his range of talents. It’s possible that new signing Marvin Johnson may get the nod on the left attack – though there are plenty of options still available with either Tavernier or even Downing capable of the role.

Whether Adama has got his head cleared after his Preston no-show is unclear – though much will depend on what if anything is actually going on in his head when he takes to the pitch. He must realise that opportunities to impress will need to be taken and he was almost starting to look convincing before he stuck his head out of the transfer window and took a little breath of Lille air. Will he be another Gaston with his mind elsewhere? if so will we notice the difference? Incidentally, the former Uruguayan spoke of the Teesside climate in a recent Italian interview, claiming there were perhaps 15 warm days during his stay at Boro – clearly an exaggeration that does him no favours as from my recollection such a sustained heatwave hasn’t been witnessed since 1976.

Something else that may need explaining to Traore is the concept of the shoulder charge – I’ve noted on several occasions his propensity to flatten an opponent by thrusting his ample deltoid muscle between their shoulder blades, leaving them to gingerly wipe away the grass stains from their forehead whilst he turns innocently to the ref pointing repeatedly at his shoulder. A shoulder charge is meant to be shoulder to shoulder – it’s not your shoulder against any part of your opponents anatomy. Though, he’s not alone in giving away unnecessary fouls – Boro have been on the high end of fouls conceded and many of those have been due to needless challenges with no hope of winning the ball in areas of the pitch that were no threat to our goal. These fouls have often given the opposition time to regroup, relieve the pressure and wind down the clock – we just need to show a bit more patience and composure.

Our opponents on Saturday have not had a good start to the season and have lost both of their home games narrowly to Leeds and Derby, picking up just two draws on the road at Millwall and Birmingham. You would think if Boro put them under pressure and got an early goal the crowd would start to murmur and their players would feel the pressure. Though this is the Championship and we still need to avoid complacency as despite the Trotters being thumped 4-0 at Hull last time out, they’ve always been in the other games. Manager Phil Parkinson won promotion last season as Bolton finished runners-up and the club are perhaps still re-adjusting to the next level – plus old boys David Wheater and Andrew Taylor will no doubt be keen to impress and show that Stewie is not the only academy veteran with something more to give.

It may well be that Garry Monk will surprise us once more as there is often a inclination for managers to over-think if given enough time in which to do it. Perhaps the arrival of Shotton will have emboldened the Boro boss to go for his three at the back and use Christie and Johnson as genuine wing-backs. The risk for Monk is that he can’t afford another botched tactical change so soon after Preston and in theory Boro should be able to out-class Bolton without the need for anything new or fancy. He may first revisit his 4-3-3 and try to bank some points before opening his playbook – it’s going to be a long season and he may choose to keep the powder from his chalkboard dry for now.

So will Boro Chalk up their first win on the road this season and put themselves back in contention or will Bolton run their fingers down the tactical blackboard and fray our nerves as our promotion aspirations screech to a halt. As usual your predictions on scorer, scorers and team selection – plus will Clayton be left with a five-card trick and an early ban.

Can We Really “Let It Go”?

The past isn’t always in the past for the Boro faithful. Simon Fallaha examines moving on in football, highlighting forgiveness, acceptance and re-acceptance in periods of transition for clubs

There was a moment in Boro’s largely dire return to the Premier League in 2016-17 that stood out, for this fan and analyst, as equally exhilarating and devastating. When news that Marten De Roon had gotten his head to a cross in the last minute score his first Boro goal, earning the team a point at the Etihad and sending the travelling fans wild, I was absolutely overjoyed, as any Boro fan in the moment would be.

This could, and still can, be remembered fondly. But not what directly followed. Before I knew it, the joy had subsided into sadly bitter vindication as I thought: “That ought to shut the moaners up.”

The “moaners” I was thinking of were those who, instead of simply embracing a good run of form from Adam Forshaw at the beginning of the season – which, like Boro’s season itself, fizzled out disappointingly fast – took the opportunity to have a pop at the manager, contemplating what would happen to him once De Roon was fit again.

Mutterings that then new fan darling Forshaw was only playing due to injuries and that they “knew” he would make a difference all along were pretty common. Too common, actually, especially in light of Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton’s proven partnership.

And rather extreme. It felt that seeds of toxicity that we thought we’d left in the past, along with that infamous weekend at Charlton, were being sown again, between perceived managerial favourites and perceived fan favourites. And worse, that De Roon, along with Victor Valdes, Alvaro Negredo, Antonio Barragan and later Bernardo Espinosa, did not seem fully welcome despite their clear efforts to fit in. Memories of calls for Valdes to leave after a solitary start are still frighteningly fresh.

In my view, this was hardly right and fair for any of them. The acceptance of new faces was proving extremely difficult. But – and this is true of both players and managers – is that an instance of toxicity, or reality?

It may seem churlish to dedicate plenty of angry and frustrated sentences to the dismissal of one coach, the omission of one or two players, one defensive minded substitution and two points dropped in one game when there is a club and squad that depends on support throughout an entire season.

It may seem ridiculous to believe a player isn’t up to it before he has even played a game. Giving newcomers the benefit of the doubt, after all, is part of the transition that happens all the time at every club in football.

And it may seem cruel to forever hold a grudge against a successful coach or player for a past misdemeanour that he would no doubt attempt to write off as a one-off, an unfortunate incident even.

I look back to Aitor Karanka’s tears following promotion, and can’t help wondering, albeit with hindsight, that they, a bit like my own unfortunate reaction to De Roon’s equaliser, were out of bitter vindication. At bouncing back from having his authority undermined and being spurned by naysayers for no good reason other than trying to make amends.

A bitter vindication that he almost certainly carried forward to 2016-17 in a failed attempt to show that Charlton was no more than a “storm in a tea cup” and all was well.

But was it always no more than a “storm in a tea cup” to him? It’s not stretching things to think that he had a “you’re all being a bit dramatic over one game, substitution or player when we’ve a whole squad and season to think about” attitude towards the fans whenever something went wrong or wasn’t to their liking. The supposed “little” things at the time? They all add up in the end. They were actually crucially reflective of the negative aspects in his character, his approach, and ultimately in the players he most regularly selected to play in the team. Every decision has a consequence and every quirk sparks a reaction. One cannot hope to be forever “saved” by the right results.

A manager can be successful and a player can do his job well, but if the character of either rubs a fan the wrong way then there is no point trying to change his or her mind just because a feeling of unity would seem nicer for all of us. Briefly, theorise how patronising the final ten games of 2015-16 might have come across to some: the managerial saviour, hung out to dry by the “heretics” who wouldn’t believe in him anymore, relishing in being magically resurrected just in time to lead Boro to the Promised Land. A triumph that looked less professional and more personal.

For some, what a player or manager did, does, can do or might do on the pitch may be enough, but for most, I gather, it might not be. The rapid fall from grace of Gaston Ramirez has left an arguably irremovable stain over all the magical qualities he showed us on top of his game, and Stewart Downing has stood out – rightly or wrongly – as a symptom of a strong collective crashing and burning. More than that, Downing, for whatever reason, simply hasn’t delivered what his fee, wages and status promised. For his sake and ours, these are things that we must be willing to overlook if he is to be wholly re-accepted into the fold under Garry Monk. Personally, I still believe he has a part to play – but does everyone?

The consequences in the aftermath of Rudy Gestede’s wrongly allowed equaliser and the celebrations that followed have had serious ramifications for several who were at the Riverside that day in November 2014. To his credit, Gestede has knuckled down, acclimatised to his still relatively new surroundings and clearly won a series of fans over with his commitment. Unfortunately the scars still linger for those most affected three years ago, and we have to accept and respect that. Not everyone is in the position of being able to appreciate his form from a distance.

There is a compelling argument that analysis should be confined to footballing arguments and that the efforts of those on the pitch should not be undermined and embarrassed by exalting those off it. Strong and fair though it sounds, it misses the point that fandom and analysis are separate entities. The reflective analyst, for example, can dress up a combative draw as part of rebuilding, an adjustment period, or a learning experience for a player or a team. The emotive fan, psyched up by a momentary knee-jerk response, is much, much less likely to. Subjective passion overrules objective rationality in the heat of competition, at sometimes terrible costs, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.

Of course, it’s not always personal. Some have welcomed Marvin Johnson’s potential and Ryan Shotton’s usefulness, others are not so sure about either player. I’m in the former camp myself, but I understand why some would be in the latter: the difficulty of the “benefit of the doubt” approach is that points may be dropped and confidence lost during the time it takes for the new faces to adjust.

And what of Britt Assombalonga? There is a feeling in some quarters that Patrick Bamford is being hard done by while our mostly misfiring Congolese marksman starts every game up top. From a distance, one can appeal for patience as he finds his way and hopefully, eventually, comes good. From closer up, frustration may be felt. Or worse, perhaps, an inkling that Monk is exhibiting what appears to be a common managerial trait, standing by his marquee signing until he silences the doubters or has absolutely no justification for starting him anymore. If it pays off, great – if not, we, as a club, will be paying many a price.

That is one of the many risks and realities that comes with accepting and integrating new arrivals – and it is the manner of how everyone accepts and deals with them that will determine how Boro move forward as a club today.

Garry Monk hoping for a quiet deadline day at the office

The excitement is over and Boro supporters straining their necks to catch a glimpse of a last minute shock transfer should move along – there’s nothing to see here! It seems the club have all but concluded their business for this summer’s transfer window as squad tidying-up deals for central defender Ryan Shotton and Oxford winger Marvin Johnson are being finalised at Rockliffe. Whether Steve Gibson believes he has got a League-smashing squad is perhaps something he may be pondering and it’s not unusual for the Boro chairman to present his manager with a late gift on deadline day – wanted or otherwise! Perhaps there still is that mystery signing he’s keeping a secret from the local media.

New recruit Shotton has been no doubt pulling his exuberant hair out waiting for the signal to wash and go from Harry Redknapp for a few weeks now as the Birmingham boss has made him wait until the eleventh hour after they finally signed a replacement – so let’s hope he’s worth it!  Johnson however appears to have been off the radar of most Boro watchers and at around £2-3m the 26-year old may not be of the expected stature most had desired – though he at least does have some quality tattoos to rival Clayton. It may well be that both are joining the party (promotion or otherwise) as options for cover rather than likely starters.

As it stands with 24 hours left to the shutters coming down over the transfer window, Garry Monk and the club have moved on Martin de Roon, Gaston Ramirez, Christian Stuani, Viktor Fischer, Bernado Espinosa, Antonio Barragan, Alex Baptiste, James Husband and Carlos de Pena – to add to the already departed Victor Valdes, Brad Guzan, Alvaro Negredo and Calum Chambers – plus the Jordan Rhodes loan became a permanent deal. In doing so they have banked not an inconsiderable sum of money – perhaps as much as £40m and no doubt substantially trimmed the wage bill too. With all the new additions this has still left the Boro manager with a sizable first-team squad of around 24-26 players – will the club try to squeeze another one into the dressing room?

Player Nationality Notes
Darren Randolph Rep. Ireland from West Ham – £5m
Dimi Konstantopoulos Greece new 12 month Contract
Tomas Mejias Spain
George Friend (LB) England
Fábio (LB/RB) Brazil
Ben Gibson (CB) England
Daniel Ayala (CB) Spain
Dael Fry (CB) England
Ryan Shotton (CB/RB) England from Birmingham – £3m
Cyrus Christie (RB) Rep. Ireland from Derby – undisclosed fee
Connor Roberts (RB) Wales from Swansea – loan
Grant Leadbitter England
Adam Clayton England
Adam Forshaw England
Adlène Guedioura Algeria training with U23s
Jonny Howson England from Norwich – undisclosed fee
Lewis Baker England from Chelsea – loan
Stewart Downing England
Marcus Tavernier England promoted from U23s
Adama Traoré Spain
Marvin Johnson England from Oxford – £2.5m
Patrick Bamford England
Martin Braithwaite Denmark from Toulouse – £9m
Ashley Fletcher England from West Ham – £6.5m
Rudy Gestede Benin
Britt Assombalonga DR Congo from Forest – £15m

So has the business and all the cobwebs left by the last regime been done and dusted? There may still remain a few loose ends that need either tying up, untethering or firmly and tightly binding to the Riverside gates. Brentford’s Jota appeared to have been strongly linked with Boro until rumours that his wife seemingly preferred the shopping of Fulham and Chelsea rather than that catered for at Teesside Park – though the temptation of a special deal on leggings at Sports Direct has not provided much sway in the Jota household. Does that mean Boro no longer need a playmaker? Well with Bamford, Braithwaite and possibly Downing now eyeing the number ten role, perhaps it may have been too much competition for places to keep a happy squad – though Bamford and Braithewait have other positions they can be kept happy in, plus Downing knew he was not Monk’s first choice anyway. Though with Jota only valued at £5m by Boro, it didn’t really shout that he was to be the missing piece in what looks like jigsaw without a definite picture. If the team was missing such a vital component then I suspect it would have been addressed far earlier in the window – perhaps Jota was just a desirable option to add to the plethora of other attacking options that Monk needs to quickly make sense of as a unit.

As for Stewart Downing, well he was initially shown the door when the Boro manager arrived at the club, but after nearly two months clinging to the transfer window-ledge by his fingertips with Harry tugging at his ankles, Monk has seemingly been impressed by his desire to hang on at Boro and has re-opened the door and pulled him back inside the fold. Following a late introduction in the Carabao Cup, the new improved dynamic Downing’s rehabilitation was completed when he came off the bench against Preston and manifested his desire with an energetic cameo that had been lacking from his team-mates.

Whether all that was merely window dressing to encourage the not so flush poker-faced Redknapp to show his hand and accept the deal on the table seems unlikely at this late stage. In fact the Boro manager may feel the former academy graduate may still offer his team something extra in the short to medium term. Interestingly, the strategy of including players in the first XI in order to encourage potential suitors to find their voice and match Boro’s valuation has proven successful with both Gaston and de Roon having appeared from the outside to be integral to Monk’s plans until the buyer cleared their throat and coughed up.

However, recent noises from the club seem to suggest that the laws-of-physics-defying Adama Traore is not the latest to have been showcased in the first team to remind those who coveted his lightening speed that he’s the real deal and not a simulation. Football’s closest facsimile to a Matrix character has been leaving his opponents trailing behind in his blurred pixels with his more recent cameos and there have been signs that our very own cyberpunk is secretly developing a end-product too. Whilst Boro have stopped short from having him warm-up in a full-length black leather coat, it appears the club may have consulted the Oracle to ask whether he is the ‘One’ or if selling him would be a slow-motion bullet dodged.

Though I’m sure many of the Riverside faithful would be sorely disappointed to lose their adrenaline fix if a move was sanctioned just at the point those bio-electric signals underneath his blond mane appear to have engaged with other like-minded footballing synapses. If everything clicks into place for Adama then Boro won’t be fending of the likes of Lille with their raised bid of 15m Euros or even Pounds Sterling – it will be Europe’s big guns with their even bigger wallets who will come calling next as Teesside becomes the centre of a bidding war.

In the meantime, the Preston absentee has apparently been told to ‘knuckle-down’ (perhaps different words were actually used) and forget about moving to this ‘once-grimy industrial metropolis’ (as Lonely Planet described Lille) in northern France and concentrate instead on getting the club from a once-smoggy industrial metropolis in northern England promoted. Anyway, it’s not as if Boro have had any previous bad experiences after rejecting a £15m bid for their Spanish-speaking mercurial talent who had failed to turn up for a game towards the end of the transfer window? Hang on, I think I’ve just had that deja vu feeling again…

One player who definitely won’t be leaving is Ben Gibson and as we speak Garry Monk has no doubt been practising his range of knots as he hopes to bind his defensive linchpin to the club to deter late bidders. The club have emphatically declared Ben is not for sale and will hopefully resist all possible scenarios to weaken their resolve… Excuse me, Citeh have offered how much? No way that doesn’t even get Tony Pullis a ‘thanks for your enquiry’ before Steve Gibson hangs up… Say again, Citeh have upped their bid to as much as that? Still there absolutely no way we’ll be selling him… What’s that, Citeh have found another £20m? We’d always planned to let Ben leave for a top six side for the good of his career and we’re confident that Ryan Shotton will be a more than adequate replacement – OK, whilst it’s not ideal that Ayala broke down in training this morning but we’re going to do our best to bring in two centre-backs in the next hour before the window closes… Yes we’re pleased to announce Woody has decided to come out of retirement and is looking forward to the challenge!

So the summer has seen a radical overhaul of the Boro squad and on balance it’s been a very good window for the club as they’ve realised the value on their salable assets and moved on most of those that were surplus to requirement. OK, Guedioura remains and unless he suddenly attracts the attention of a stalker who is prepared to track him down on Algerian international duty, then in the Boro U23s he shall remain. As for Downing’s aborted exit, it seems Monk blinked first (or was persuaded to blink by his advocates) – Stewie didn’t want to make it easy to be shifted and once the manager had brought him back and actually played him, he knew there was an opportunity to see out his contract at his home-town club. The reality now is only a bid by a Premier League club would make him even entertain a move away from Teesside.

There are still doubts on the overall make-up of the squad and whether it has enough creativity, width or pace. But it would be a big ask to have addressed every issue at the same time as moving on a dozen players and replacing them all with ideal candidates. There surely is enough talent in the squad for Boro to at least make the play-offs, but should we expect our new manager or indeed any manager to oversee such change and blend a team together in a matter of an instance? Even the great managers needed time and Garry Monk is certainly not had anything like a managerial career to qualify for such accolades as yet. Five games into his tenure some supporters are already doubting Garry Monk’s ability as the right man for the job after a stuttering start – but until Boro hire the genius of all managers who can make over 20 changes to his squad and start off by winning every game I expect we’ll have to put up with an imperfect world.

Anyway, will we get a pleasant surprise on deadline day or perhaps a nasty shock is awaiting us instead? Many, including the manager, would probably settle for a rather boring day at the office with nothing major to decide on other than tea or coffee. We shall no doubt see what awaits but feel free to speculate up until the transfer clock stops ticking!

Monk’s tactical step change leaves Boro wrong-footed

On a warm Riverside afternoon hopes were high that we may see Boro step up another gear to match the performance of the second eleven on Tuesday night. The glaring squad omissions of Forshaw and Traore provided debate and opinion in the concourses before KO. Forshaw it seemed had paid the price for slow sideways and rearwards passing while Traore’s absence was a shock considering he had just put in his best performance and looked like he might be finally making some progress with his game. The overwhelming conclusion and rumour which won the day was that the Lille offer had tipped his mind-set and a winter in Northern France was preferable to Northern England, the rolling stone may have played his last game. 

The team selection when announced provided some raised eyebrows, George and Fabio in the same side and no Bamford meant the creativity had to be Baker’s responsibility. We lined up with George as a left sided centre Back with Gibbo central and Dael on the right. Our start to the game unsurprisingly wasn’t great yet again. Preston showed spirit, fight and fire in their bellies and proceeded to show the same desire all afternoon much to the tactical torpor of Monks men. The three at the back just wasn’t working as Preston dissected our defence with ease. The three man rear-guard was hurriedly rearranged in a 442 line up which meant we had an unbalanced midfield of Clayton, Howson, Baker and Fabio with only Fabio capable of offering width and a bit of pace. It didn’t look right, it didn’t feel right and the players looked uncomfortable with all their previous garnered synergy learned to date lost and back to square one. 

We had chances; Fabio hit the side netting after Christie had sent him through into the box. Assombalonga went on a charging, storming run through the middle which fizzled out with Maxwell diving at Britts feet before he could get any kind of effort away.  Gestede met a cross with a glanced header that went well wide but in reality Preston were very unfortunate to see Randolph get down to an effort and see the ball career up off the upright to deny them what would have been a deserved opener. Speaking of Randolph he was getting irate at the shoddy workmanship in front of him as Preston continued playing at home away from home by pushing up the field and closing Boro down preventing us getting any cohesion or a grip on the game.  

When we just needed to dig in and scrap Championship style we were subjected to fancy flicks, turns, dummies and back heels that just weren’t coming off. We looked tired and jaded but with nine changes on Tuesday and Dael one of the better performers on the day that excuse was about as lame as Garry Monk’s tactical masterclass. As a game of football the first half was heavy going to watch with little to excite and the away fans definitely felt more upbeat come the half time whistle. 

Surprisingly there were no changes at half time despite players in unfamiliar positions and a distinct lack of service to the front two. Baker wide right wasn’t making headway, Christie behind him was pushing up but in doing so allowing Preston to get in behind him and cause problems. George on the left had struggled badly in the three man defensive unit early on and even when restored to a conventional Left Back in a back four fared little better. Monk then decided enough was enough and to alter the balance of the team he put Fabio Left Back and brought Friend off for Bamford to add some impetus further up the pitch. Paddy provide an option when trying to play the ball out as we switched formation yet again this time to a 433 but Boro still looked very confused and at odds with one another and by this time Preston had confidence on their side. We had Randolph to thank once again as he got low down to turn a Maguire effort wide and just immediately after the ex-Hammer yet again managed to somehow keep out a point blank header. Despite Bamford’s arrival Preston were determined to keep the pressure up and Boro were looking edgy and disconcerted. Gone was the flamboyant passing attacking fluidity that we had seen fifteen or twenty minute glimpses of in some games. 

In Traore’s absence Christie went on a surging run down the right cutting into the edge of the 18 yard box beating 4 or 5 white shirts en route but instead of feeding Assombalonga he just kept on running into a sea of defenders like Adama in slow motion. Assombalonga himself had a break on the left flank but with fellow Red shirts arriving late he attempted a lob come cross come shot that sailed over to the far side of the pitch. The Gestede/Assombalonga/Bamford thing wasn’t working. Gestede was more reminiscent of the player from last season when the ball bounced off his head rather than a deliberate and delicately placed header. Britt was getting possession but backing into players, holding the ball up but nothing was coming off as he was invariably crowded out.  

Realising that his tactics were continuing to splutter Monk turned to Downing to try and liven things up. Stewy took to the pitch accompanied by a few moronic boos that were deliberately and successfully drowned out by the Boro faithful cheering and clapping with a chorus of “he’s one of our own”. The tide turned slightly on his arrival as Downing was taking on defenders, driving forward and getting balls whipped in and providing Christie with an option. I’m not going to claim Downing was MOM material but he did have an effect on the game including getting an important block and challenge in on the edge of his own 18 yard box probably to the frustration of those who still hanker and haven’t moved on from Negredo, Valdes and Ramirez. Not liking a player for whatever reason be they for factual or just emotive opinions I get but to boo and try and put off someone who has come on to try and turn the game leaves me ashamed at thankfully a decreasing minority in the crowd. He had arguably our best and from memory our only attempt on target as a low ball into Maxwell’s left hand side was tipped around the post late on. 

It wasn’t a great day for Garry Monk or for Boro. The tactics were a shambles from the off with George still charging up field gung ho totally forgetting he was a CB and not a wing back leaving exploited gaps. Baker was busy trying Cryuff turns and clever stuff which never came off, losing possession and in general there were far too many misread balls into the next phase of play which in fairness is to be expected from players still getting used to their new team mates. We knew August was in all likelihood going to be a gelling month and not to expect to hit the ground running but tactically today frustratingly was an error by a Manager learning his trade who got things badly wrong. In doing so he created unnecessary confusion in his ranks by worrying too much about the opposition instead of building on what he had created so far.  

Two weeks now to regroup, sort out who is staying and who is finally going and coming in and get back to what they were doing well. Today’s tinkering was unhelpful and disruptive; in all honesty Tuesdays team probably would have given a better account of themselves. Lessons learned I hope and September when it comes should be the dawning of a new Riverside era. 

Monk refuses to pander to league smashing expectations

Whilst it may have been the briefest of briefings at just under six minutes, Garry Monk dropped a bombshell in his Preston pre-match conference yesterday that left many who were there stunned – in answer to a seemingly innocent question from a none-Gazette journalist he calmly announced that ‘smashing the Championship was not possible’. Yes the chairman’s dream is over before he’d barely had time to allow his alpha-wave inducing extra-cheese parmo to kick in. Instead, the iconoclastic manager simply said they ‘want to do well’ with a deadpan delivery deader than dead buffalo on a can of Carabao, which belied the enormity of what he’d just said. Though what possessed him to crack under the intense media scrutiny at only question two is unclear and it no doubt will set pavlovian alarm bells ringing at the club as they nervously begin to anticipate the early warning signs of a Karanka-esque style meltdown.

It seems those carefully crafted chants together with the 30m long banner proclaiming ‘We’re gonna Smash the League’ that the Red Faction have so painstakingly produced will need to be binned – to be replaced instead by the hastily penned ‘We’re gonna do well! we’re gonna do well! EI-EI-EO We’re gonna do well’ which will thankfully be more in tune with Monk’s sentiments. All of which means the issue has been finally put to bed and we can now all concentrate on not by how much we should win the league but by whether Boro are on track to be possible contenders.

As Monk learns to deal with the forensic grilling from the media pack that are normally reserved for zoo keepers with a potentially pregnant panda in their care, he will perhaps regret not holding out for a freedom of information request before spilling the beans on his lack of a plan to smash the Championship. Incidentally, it’s reassuring to see our democratically elected friends north of the border using their full legislative powers to ascertain the possible expectant nature of a panda – the Scottish people will no doubt sleep safely in the knowledge that they are being governed with such diligence. Though perhaps it probably won’t be too long before Boots see the market opportunity and start stocking the ‘Freedom of Information Home Pregnancy Kit’ so that ordinary people can be similarly informed and avoid an unnecessary faux pas when they are unsure whether the neighbour across the road has just overdone it with the Ben and Jerry’s.

Despite Boro still not firing on all cylinders, particularly in the engine room, there are indications that there is a very good team gradually being assembled and tuned by those at the club. There can be few complaints at the skill in which the unwanted have been moved out and replaced by players that meet Monk’s more dynamic requirements. Neil Bausor and his team have performed almost faultlessly in obtaining good value for those that needed to be moved on and have used their financial muscle astutely to secure their main targets. On top of that the manager and his coaching team seem to have helped transform players like Gestede, Bamford and Adama into more rounded individuals that work well with those around them. Whether they have been enthused by his more pragmatic approach to playing the game is a possibility but we now see players on the pitch with a smile on their face. Though to be fair the regular sight of Negredo’s countenance last season would have made most people unwilling to express anything other than pain and suffering out of respect to his grief at being 50m away from his nearest team-mate.

Such is the strength of the Boro squad that has been assembled, Gary Monk has the kind of selection problems that most managers in the Championship lie awake at night wishing they could only dream of. His near enough second string XI put in the kind of performance last Tuesday against Scunthorpe that would have left some wondering if his main priority was indeed to smash the Carabao Cup and lift the iconic Bufflo-skulled green ribbon adorned trophy – providing the organisers remember to bring it back from the top of a Beijing sky-scraper or wherever the shiny object is being flaunted in front of cash-rich Asian businessmen of course.

So the problem now faced by Monk is whom amongst his two teams should he select for his First XI? We can start from the back in making that judgement, primarily because it’s easier. Randolph is an easy pick and there is no reason not to continue with Ben and Dael either, as Fry has looked assured in every game. Christie has some defensive issues but they are outweighed by his attacking ability and he also has a dangerous long throw that Barragan would have given his right arm for (the loss of which would probably have had limited effect on his overall throwing ability). Fabio put in his usual energetic performance in midweek and seems to offer more than Friend – but despite George’s lack of end product he has shown signs of improvement and it may be premature to bench him just yet.

It’s in the midfield where the real decisions need to be made, Forshaw has not looked anything like the player he started last season as (when he was even being touted for an England call-up) and he seems to still have a Premier League hangover and suffering from incurable square-pass syndrome. The new recruit of Howson has also not seen him really impose himself on a game yet and is not quite fulfilling the dynamic midfield role required from him. Chelsea loanee Baker has looked better with each game and his performance in midweek with his well-taken goal indicates he’s ready for a start. Also starring midweek was Leadbitter, back to his dominant best and by most accounts ran the show – Boro need this leadership in the middle of the park and although doubts over his age and fitness have been muted, he’s still only 31, which is not exactly ancient. Besides, losing a bit of pace is not a bad thing if it encourages a player to seek out a pass rather than go it alone.

Clayton seems integral to how Monk wants to play with him dropping back to make a back three when the fullbacks push forward and also covering a run from any of the centre-backs. However, set-piece duty is not his forte and one wonders if he only got the job because he mastered the hand signals – though to the uninitiated observer many of the gestures appear to be a portent of what is come – the single raised hand (sorry guys), the two raised arms (easy catch for the keeper) and my particular favourite the holding of the head with both hands (this is going to be embarrassing). At least with Leadbitter and particularly Baker on the pitch he can ‘share’ the load and concentrate on his covering duties.

Attack is an area where Boro have an embarrassment of riches and a lot of pace and power to boot and discussing the merits of each candidate would probably be an article in it’s own right – so I’ll stick to my preferred option, which I’ve probably changed my mind about twice while typing this sentence. If Adama plays anything like his last two appearances then he’s going to frighten defenders to the point they won’t stray far from their box – plus he’s his own warm-up act for the crowd too. Assombalonga will score and should have scored a hat-trick last week but for the occasion – so no point in not picking him at home to a beatable team. Also if Bamford’s fit then he’s shown he has the potential to be our new Gaston with plenty of tricks and flicks to open defences to add to the power of the other two. Gestede could easily have been among the three but then it depends how you play as to who you leave out instead. I don’t envy Garry Monk the decision on who to select but basically every manager in the league will envy his problem.

As for our opponents on Saturday, well Preston have started pretty solidly and their four games have only seen three goals with two 1-0 home victories over two of last season’s playoff contenders in Sheffield Wednesday and Reading – they also lost 0-1 away to Derby thanks to a penalty and drew 0-0 away to Leeds. Their manager Alex Neil appears to have organised his team pretty well and Boro will need their fire power on song if they are to claim the points. Their last game against Reading saw them with just over 40% possession but they still managed 21 goal attempts with 8 on target – compared to Reading’s 7 shots with only a single attempt hitting the target. So they seem to create chances but are difficult to break down and Boro and their supporters may need to be patient and definitely not complacent.

Garry Monk confessed to not having looked at the table yet as it was still too early – that trend of not looking may well continue if Boro fail to beat Preston as they will most likely be in the bottom half and a potential 9 points from the summit. We’re not at the must-win stage yet but a win should see Boro in a playoff place and enjoying the international break and plotting how to negotiate some pretty tricky away games on the resumption of the season – with three away trip at Bolton, Villa and Fulham in the next four games.

So will Boro show their true colours and continue to crank up their goal machine at home as they scare the points off the opposition or will we be a pale reflection of ourselves as The Lilywhites prove to be the ghost in our machine as we are haunted by missed chances. As usual give your predictions on score, scorers, team selection and attendance – plus will we see a new hand gesture from Adam Clayton!