When Isaiah Jones’s cross bounced off both John-Joe O’Toole and Elliot Hewitt and into the Mansfield net in injury time on Saturday afternoon, it didn’t just spare Middlesbrough’s blushes after a rousing fightback from lower league opposition.
It didn’t just put them into the next round of the FA Cup and set up a mouthwatering tie away at either Aston Villa or Man United (Villa, don’t be selfish tonight). It didn’t just stretch Boro’s unbeaten run to 7, with 6 wins in that time, and keep the momentum rolling on Teesside.
What Middlesbrough’s win against Mansfield did was create another entry into the first chapter of Chris Wilder’s Big Boro Story that was firmly underlined by an ability to bounce back and fight through difficult conditions.
Wilder might have got this team playing offensive, exciting football quickly but something that he hasn’t really been given credit for yet is helping this side believe in themselves again.
They’re tricky, they’re on the front foot, they create chances and get in your face, but above all else Chrissy Wilder’s Red and White Army are resilient.
That inner belief and ability to turn games round when you aren’t getting the rub of the green or the odds are against you is often the difference between achieving promotion or making the play-offs and finishing mid-table in the Championship. That’s what drives a winning mentality and gives life to that spirit of togetherness.
It’s that invisible force field that encompasses a stadium and makes it a daunting place to go. It’s the coal that fuels the fire of a raucous home or away crowd that keeps backing their team until the end and makes their team feel invincible.
It’s a quality that helped to create memories during Aitor Karanka’s reign and it was something that had begun to haunt Neil Warnock’s final months in charge. It filters through the support and you’ve either got it or you don’t.
For as much as the players never gave anything less than 100% for Neil Warnock, they didn’t believe in themselves and it made them fragile. They lost 3-2 to 10 men against QPR after leading and then levelling the scores at 2-2. They surrendered an early lead in a 2-1 defeat against Blackpool.
They gifted Hull their first win since the opening day by conceding two in the last ten minutes on a day where the Boro could’ve easily put the game to bed twice over.
When we thought they’d turned the corner with three wins on the bounce, Warnock’s team fell to Birmingham in a disastrous second-half spell that saw Brum score twice in three minutes and then came the pathetic collapse at Kenilworth Road.
With a 1-0 lead at halftime, Boro let Luton stick three past them in five minutes following the restart as they all looked round in confusion at each other while Harry Cornick ran riot.
The most damning statistic from the first portion of the season is that if only the first 45 minutes of a game counted, Boro would’ve accrued 34 points but second-half collapses meant they only had 22.
34 points would’ve had Neil Warnock’s team sitting in 3rd place but they were 14th when the news came through that the club had decided to release him from his duties. Awarding us that 12 point difference now would put us top of the league.
That lack of confidence from the players to bounce back and Warnock’s inability to truly galvanise the squad beyond a one or two game run while also refusing to change things up tactically was what ultimately cost the 73-year-old his job.
That fragility spread into the stands with times earlier in the season when the final whistle, in games we actually won, was met with a sigh of relief as much as celebration for the victory.
Compare those terrace jitters and, frankly, lack of backbone on display to the attitude that has pulled Boro to 6 wins out of 7 and the atmosphere around the club that has been fostered from it.
Back to back last minute winners after conceding late on ourselves? Dismantling the form team? Winning at home and away simultaneously? Skating round Typical Boro banana skins while letting everyone know that he is indeed Slovenian? This is the Middlesbrough Football Club that we’ve become accustomed to.
Of course, some of that comes down to the tactical shift under Chris Wilder. Playing on the front foot and to the strengths of the playing squad gives us a punchers chance as we’re not limited to one golden opportunity a game.
For all the deficiencies his game, you wouldn’t try and force Deontay Wilder to box smartly and fight defensively. Play to your strengths first and foremost. Don’t attempt to cover your weaknesses at all costs because when that fails there’s nowhere else to turn. Football players can’t just flick a switch on the controller and turn the style on.
Maybe being trusted to actually play to their strengths has helped to give the players some of that belief back. They’re able to express themselves and it must be as fun to be on the pitch as it is to be in the stands cheering them on at the minute.
Whatever Chris Wilder has done is working because since he came in, the team have show a level of resilience at every turn.
Even in their sole defeat under the new manager in a game they really should have won, Boro were able to drag themselves up and not let any self-pity infect the spirit of the camp. Instead they dusted themselves off, headed to The John Smith’s Stadium, and played some absolutely liquid footy.
Then they handled two sides in Swansea and Bournemouth whose own styles were major tests for a side still getting to grips with their new manager’s system, with a point at Stoke sandwiched in between.
Joel Piroe, Tyrese Campbell and Dominic Solanke, fantastic strikers at this level, all came close to scoring in those games but Boro didn’t wilt and stand aside to let them score because they started to pile the pressure on as they might have done earlier in the season. They got on with the job and believed that eventually someone would crack and that wouldn’t be us.
Boro didn’t crack against Forest either. One of the form sides in the league with just the one defeat in fifteen under Steve Cooper, in front of an expectant bumper crowd on Boxing Day? Aye, no problem lads you might as well stay in the changies because we’re going to play you off the park anyway. Jog on.
Conceding a stoppage time equaliser to a Blackpool side stripped to the bare bones by COVID with over 3000 Reds in the away end staring down the barrel of another Typical Boro moment? Nah, Isaiah Jones is going to run down the wing, make the Boro sing and give it to Duncan Watmore to roll in so we can all go to Walkabout and get on the pitchers of Woo Woo.
And despite the poor second-half performance, the resilience and desire they showed against Mansfield has to be praised. Lower league teams shocking weakened higher-level sides to knock them out of the cup is what makes the FA Cup special.
It happens every year yet our 11 boys in red on the pitch decided they didn’t want to join Newcastle, Reading, Blackburn, Birmingham, Blackpool and AFC Wimbledon in an embarrassing cup exit this weekend.
When Anfernee Dijksteel blazed over shortly before Hewitt’s own goal, that *should* have been the last chance and Boro should have been preparing for extra-time but they went again with Jones managing to force the own goal and saving his teammates from an unneeded extra 30 minutes on a cut up and soggy pitch.
Success breeds confidence and there’s nowhere more evident of that than in sports, especially football. One good run of games and you’re the best team in the world. Boro are currently riding the crest of that wave and now they need to show resilience to deal with the pressure that comes with winning.
When the weekend rolls around and Wilder’s men welcome Reading to the Riverside, they’ll do so as overwhelming favourites, with the Royals currently 3 points outside of the relegation zone. A positive result on Saturday would then surely bring a “six-pointer” buzz for next Monday’s televised clash with Blackburn Rovers in the Mogga Derby.
Us, as supporters, have to be resilient too. It’s easy to create a brilliant atmosphere as there has been in recent home games and on the road when the team is winning but it’s when our backs are against the wall where we need to be heard.
Let’s keep the momentum rolling on our end and that’ll only help the lads. Similarly, one loss or a slip in performances doesn’t make Wilder a “fraud” or mean that the honeymoon period is over. Don’t let the ghosts of Boro past creep in. Let’s do this together, as one.
2022 got off to a good start. Let’s keep it going now and make this year the best one possible.
UP THE BORO.
Photo Credits: The Northern Echo, Teesside Live/The Gazette, Banks Photo