Four for the Boys penalise Magpies
A game that could be the start of a wonderful romantic Cup run to Wembley or a pointless get it out of the way fixture that seriously put at risk a Middlesbrough squad that’s already numerically challenged. Whatever your point of view, tonight saw the visit of one of the Leagues oldest Football Clubs to the Riverside to compete in a match that in all likelihood neither Manager regarded as a “must win”. In the case of Tony Pulis however I’m sure it was secretly regarded as a preferably “not lose” game by the same token. The Magpies from the Trent do have form at the Riverside but I doubt there are many on Teesside who still harbour a revenge psyche from 2006 when they beat a Premiership Boro side 1-0. The most memorable event from a Boro perspective on that September evening was a debut from Robert Huth in the defeat.
Magpies Midfielder Andy Kellet was already announced as a definite starter 24 hours before Kick-off in a bold proclamation by Kevin Nolan who will also have had his eye on their forthcoming Friday night fixture against Yeovil who faced Villa tonight. Both sides were expected to rest the bulk of their starting eleven from recent games but with TP you equally knew that he could do what Bernie Slaven wanted and start with his best eleven, go three up, bring on Subs and as a Birmingham Journalist described Boro’s Saturday victory then go into “Sleeper Mode” to conserve and protect, seeing the game out.
The sides as expected were unrecognisable from the league campaigns to date and in Boro’s case ten changes made from Saturday with the welcome news that Dani Ayala was starting alongside the only survivor from the Brum game Dael Fry. As well as the fringe players and this seasons usual bench warmers Nathan McGinley and Enes Mahmutovic got a breakthrough start along with the younger of our two Veteran Goalkeepers; Andy Lonergen. As expected Grant was captaining this motley crew. No sight of Dimi surprisingly as Randolph was on the bench along with De Sart and Wood who if he made an appearance would become Boro’s youngest ever Player, that record currently resides with a certain Thomas Murray I believe from way back in 1905.
County’s game preparations didn’t exactly go to plan with their Keeper Pindroch who was one of eight changes made by Nolan injured himself during the warm up meaning that regular Goalie Fitzsimons had to take his place between the sticks. A slightly chillier Riverside than of late hosted a very sparse evening crowd of around 9,500 with the South Stand drummer echoing more than usual. County started steadily and looked composed without overstretching themselves whilst Boro themselves seemingly content to attempt to just build up some familiarity between themselves.
The first bit of real activity saw Harry Chapman crossing to Marvin Johnson whose header missed the intended target and then the injury prone wide man found himself upended, crashing to the ground painfully on his shoulder and earning a Yellow card for County Captain Duffy. Neither side were really controlling things but considering they both probably had a team list tucked in their socks to identify team mates it was hardly surprising. Most of Boro’s attacking intent was coming down the right with Mahmutovic overlapping Chapman.
First corner of the game came as a result of a rare Boro foray down the left with a move involving Johnson and Tavernier with Tav’s attempt tipped over for a corner. An immediate second corner saw Mahmutovic have a shot at Fitzsimons which was blocked. A County corner at the other end had to be retaken but whatever the tactic was it failed miserably as County’s players seem to bunch up England style but without the finesse. The set piece didn’t work on that occasion but it only took a few minutes later for another County set piece via a free kick to come in and Tom Crawford found himself free to direct the ball unmarked past Andy Lonergen to put the visitors one up on twenty minutes.
Boro had the wakeup call that they clearly needed as TP looked rather unimpressed on the touchline. Regrouped and refocussed Boro needed to up the stakes and a Johnson shot went out for a corner from which an Ayala goal bound effort was adjudged to have been handball. If at first you don’t succeed so the next Boro Corner saw Ayala again but this time flick the ball on to Ashley Fletcher who pulled the sides level with a tap in 1-1. Despite the goal TP was clearly unhappy with what was happening on the left side of the pitch with very articulate instructions for Johnson and McGinley.
Mahmutovic was linking up well with Chapman and the big lad was making his presence known and causing County plenty of problems. Just as Boro looked to have started to settle into the game County veteran Jon Stead swivelled and hit a low ball at Lonergen from the edge of the box which saw the Boro keeper creaking to the ground to no avail as the visitors went two one up in the 34th minute. An immediate response by Chapman nearly saw a quick equalising opportunity open up for Johnson who hit a volley which ended up awkwardly for Fletcher who couldn’t take advantage.
Chapman went down again clutching the same shoulder indicating that his game was up, a great shame for Harry who seems to be cursed with bad luck. Stephen Walker came on in place of the hapless winger to stake a claim up front with Fletcher with just a few minutes of the half remaining. In Harry’s absence his former right sided partner Mahmutovic who was now seemingly operating in a Ryan Shotton type role, drove into the box to meet a Johnson cross to pull the sides back level again 2-2.
County were certainly not in awe of the two league difference in the sides and Ashley Fletcher rescued Boro blushes by conceding a corner from another County set piece as the first half ran down. The Ref’s whistle went to bring a conclusion to the first 45 minutes in what looked more like a frantic, hectic and ragged pre-season friendly rather than a Cup Tie. High point for me was Enes Mahmutovic who looked like he wanted to make an impression on Pulis.
The second half kicked off with the remaining daylight diminishing and the floodlights to the fore except that the Ref seemed to have a problem with either an earpiece or a whistle as the kick off was momentarily delayed. Grant indicated the general tone of the half time team talk with a succession of challenges that saw a familiar yellow card for the Boro Captain. Walker and Tavernier were the main threats for Boro in the opening stages as both sides continued as they ended the first half.
Nolan was first to blink as he took his carded Captain Duffy off for Brisley either through a knock or more likely with an eye on Friday night. The game entered a stodgy phase with neither side seriously looking to get a stranglehold in the game and as much as some of Boro’s move’s looked classy there was nothing to show for it. With sixty minutes gone TP was warming up his Subs with the intention either to motivate or to make changes. After seeing Johnson miss another half chance TP used the gap in play to make Boro history as 16 years and 75 days old Wood came on to replace Dani Ayala. Just a few minutes into Woods arrival he headed clear but the follow up from Jon Stead lead to another goal for the blue shirted visitors to make it 3-2 with claims for offside from the red faced red shirts.
Dael Fry then went off seemingly and worryingly carrying a knock for ex Fulham lad Djed Spence to come on for Boro and take a place on the right side of defence with Mahmutovic now moving to CB. Nolan also made a change of his own with Husin coming off for Patching. Walker was lively since his introduction and along with McNair added some hope for Boro. A low ball came in towards Walker but he just missed to connect with it much to the angst of the home fans. Boro were starting to apply some pressure now and with just over fifteen minutes remaining McNair and Walker were still upping the tempo and a cleared ball out from the back by Wood eventually arrived at Walker who with a clever drag over sent the County defender the wrong way and set Ashley Fletcher up to hit the back of the net 3-3.
A planned substitution by Nolan was temporarily delayed in the immediate aftermath of the goal much to the annoyance of Pulis who wanted the game to get started again quickly sensing his side were in the ascendency. With his confidence levels high a twenty yard shot from Fletcher had Fitzsimons scurrying and then the ball immediately went down the opposite end only for Mahmutovic to get a well-timed challenge in as the game hung in the balance.
A well worked series of play between McGinley, Johnson, Tavernier and Walker set up McNair whose shot went out for a corner. Grant whipped the corner ball in which went immediately out for another corner which saw Johnson crash in a shot which hit the bar. Walker and Tavernier again applied pressure and won another corner for their endeavours with McGinley just missing the resultant Grants ball in. With the clock ticking down and now less than five minutes remaining penalties were now looking the likely finish to the evening despite a long range Johnson effort which was well covered by Ross Fitzsimons in the County goal.
Another desperate McNair effort flew across the six yard box after Spence and Walker had set the Northern Irishman up. Bizarrely six minutes were flashed up on the fourth official’s board presumably because of all the substitutions rather than the game being stopped. A late corner cleverly won by Stead off Wood saw a volley bravely blocked by McGinley. Another County corner came in from the left by Jones which found Brisley but his header was poor and went out for a Goal Kick. Ex Poolie Lewis Alessandra then had a half opportunity in the dying moments when Boro broke again with McNair and Spence but the final whistle sounded meaning penalties were looming.
County were first up with Andy Lonergen playing mind games and pointing to Stead’s preferred side and rolling back the years he saved from ex Makem Jon Stead. Grant next to coolly fire the ball past Fitzsimons to put Boro 1-0 up. Now Alessandra sent Lonergen in the opposite direction 1-1. McNair hit the same spot as Grant had just scored from 2-1. That’s four penalties with three ex Makems and one Poolie involved.
County up next and scored with Hawkridge 2-2. Walker stepped up for Boro who despatched with aplomb making it 3-2 to Boro. Patching then calmly put it into the corner for County making it 3-3 with Tav up next. A little bit of gamesmanship from Fitzsimons in goal didn’t work as the youngster blasted it high into the roof of the net, 4-3 to Boro and now with a penalty advantage. Jones was up next for County knowing that a miss was curtains, Lonergen got down to the bottom right, getting a hand to it to keep it 4-3, sealing the evening and snatching the victory.
The game was definitely not one for the purist but it was entertaining and one that you couldn’t take your eyes off. Leaving the tactical error strewn car crash out of it for a moment, Mahmutovic for me was outstanding in the first half and very good in the second. McGinley grew into the game and Tav was a constant threat along with Johnson (once the WD40 started to seep in). Walker when he came on was superb and will have given TP the right sort of headache. Wood’s appearance was a fairy tale and Lonergen saved two penalties but overall I think Fletcher just edged things for his two goals.