As new strains of Coronavirus began to break out around the world, the Capitol Building was stormed in Washington and Britt Assombalonga was included in the Boro team to face Nottingham Forest, there was a Carl Johnson inspired collective sigh of “ah shit, here we go again” across Teesside.
It felt like this year was already destined to go down in the history books in the same vein as 2020.
Then on Wednesday night, Middlesbrough came away from the City Ground with all three points. Maybe 2021 might be alright after all considering the last time that happened Boro’s season ended in promotion.
The City Ground, home to Nottingham Forest, has been a perennial bogey ground for us throughout the years and that has been particularly true in modern times. Since becoming Championship regulars following relegation in 2009, Boro have played away at Forest eleven times in the league, only winning twice.
There was even a double defeat there in 09/10 with a League Cup loss thrown in for good measure. Such is football superstition that “I’d take a point there” is the go-to answer whenever we make the travel down to Nottingham regardless of league position and form.
Familiarity breeds contempt and our poor record against Forest and a sense that they live off past glories a bit too much (Cloughie is one of ours, end of), combined with historical disdain for the scabs passed down from the miners’ strike of the 1980s has made fixtures against them particularly lively. It’s one you always want to win. Stick it right up ’em.
That was further intensified when in the summer of 2017 Boro prised away Forest’s star striker Britt Assombalonga for a club record fee of £15 million. Before the match on Wednesday, It hadn’t really done us any good in the games against them since. Assombalonga has looked completely rattled when facing his former club.
When the team was announced on Wednesday evening, plenty of fans could see the writing on the wall already. Britt’s skying a few sitters then they’ll nick a 1-0. Something like that. It was in the script.
Britt Assombalonga ripped up the script on Wednesday night.
In a mint performance by the entire team, orchestrated by Jonny Howson in midfield, Assombalonga led the attack and truly looked like the marquee number 9 he was signed to be.
With the team swiftly on the front foot, a welcome sight after a run of games where Boro had started sluggishly and found themselves having to come from behind, there was a sense of urgency throughout the side.
Marcus Tavernier was spinning Yuri Ribeiro inside out, Duncan Watmore was finding space out-wide and Marc Bola already had the clamps on dangerman Sammy Ameobi. Things were almost going *too* well and we were at the City Ground. A dodgy Forest goal seemed inevitable.
Fortunately, as he bustled past Joe Worrall to get on the end of Jonny Howson’s cross, Britt Assombalonga had other ideas. With the lanky defender waving for an offside flag, the Boro captain put the ball past Brice Samba for his fifth goal of the season and his first against his old team. It’s just a shame there wasn’t any Forest fans in the Trent End for him to give it big licks to.
He might not have an easier finish all season but it’s the type of goal Britt and the rest of our forwards don’t score enough of. Proper strikers goals in and around the six yard box. It looks like something Neil Warnock has been trying to address, especially when Marvin Johnson is on the pitch, by getting low crosses quickly into the mixer.
Britt was only denied a second through a combination of the post and Samba’s face after outdoing Forest’s other centre half, Scott McKenna, to stick a nut on Paddy McNair’s whip of a free kick. For a man that is often labelled lazy, the Congo international was certainly moving about and looked hell bent on overcoming his own Forest demons.
Another huge criticism of the striker and one that makes it so easy to become annoyed with him is his obsession with dropping to the floor whenever another player breathes on him.
No, he isn’t a big arse target man but he’s got enough about him not to hit the deck so often, usually to the detriment of an attack. So when a clearance from the Boro defence found Assombalonga backed up against Scott McKenna, a strapping Scottish defender, it seemed obvious what was about to happen.
Yet, as seemed to be the case all night, Britt wasn’t paying attention to any preconceptions. Instead of flopping down and hoping for a cheap free kick, he held off McKenna and flicked the ball to Marcus Tavernier, who slipped in George Saville to cap off a stunning counterattack and put Boro 2-0 up.
That wasn’t a one off, either. Assombalonga battled and bullied their defenders all night, letting out all of his Forest frustrations on the backline, then playing a major role in the sending off of Ribeiro that killed the game with the score at 2-1.
Still spun out his boots from Tav’s quick feet, the left back had been a ticking time bomb throughout the match having already gone head to head with Britt earlier on, before launching himself studs up into George Saville in the corner. As the skipper pulled Ribeiro away, they went head to head again, with Britt laying it on thick as if he’d been properly done over.
As the ref showed the red card, Assombalonga could be seen bearing his trademark cheeky grin right at the Forest player. To see someone who is usually so laid back and placid to be right amongst it all game and even get involved in a bit of shithousing was class. If he’s the captain, he should be leading by example after all and we are a Neil Warnock side.
The whinging of Forest fans afterwards online about him being a cheater and only acting up because the ground was empty made it even sweeter. Calm down, lads. You’re not famous anymore.
Whether Britt’s performance was a one-off, two fingers up at his old employers or the beginnings of the Warnock Effect taking hold is yet to be seen. Despite hitting double digits for goals every season he has been here, Assombalonga is always going to be a divisive figure on Teesside because of his price tag and his inconsistencies game to game.
He can’t help the fact we paid £15 million for him but he can certainly address the inconsistencies in his game. He needs to take the fire he showed on Wednesday night and keep going. As the gaffer said, when he plays like that he’s as good as anything.
If there’s one glaring drawback about Boro’s season so far it’s that the forwards aren’t scoring enough goals. Between Assombalonga, Watmore, Chuba Akpom and Ashley Fletcher they have scored 14 goals. That’s the same as Reading’s Lucas João has managed on his own and less than either Adam Armstrong and Ivan Toney.
Of course, some of that is down to rotation to deal with the congested fixture list, the injury to Ashley Fletcher and not having a top-notch creative presence in the team but it has to improve if Neil Warnock’s men want to challenge for the play-off place.
Assombalonga is capable of living up to that expectation when he plays like he did on Wednesday night and with his contract up at the end of the season, he needs to deliver consistently to secure his future. Whether that’s on Teesside or further afield is a conversation for another time.
For now, that’s more like it Britt. Keep it up.
Photo Credits: Teesside Live, Middlesbrough Football Club