After 45 games, 9 months, a managerial change, millions of pounds spent, cheers, beers, boos and thousands of miles travelled, it all comes down to 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon.
That’s one of the things that makes football the greatest melting pot of emotion and drama. We kid ourselves for months that the league is a marathon not a sprint and that meritocracy reigns supreme because football isn’t a one-off event yet every single year something like this happens.
The finish line is in sight but the doorway to the next stage is a tight one. It doesn’t matter who has been in the lead for the longest, it’s about who can put the hardest elbow into the ribs of their nearest competitor and squeeze themselves into the play-off party.
All of the success, the glorious weekends underscored by victories, the great memories and good times are put onto one final roll of the dice before the curtain comes down on the league season.
That’s the situation Boro find themselves in tomorrow. Chris Wilder is at the table, the chips are down and we’ve gone all in. It’s all or nothing, do or die, win and in (with an asterisk).
For a manager tasked with the medium and long-term improvement of this football club, Wilder’s short-term success and the plans on how to step forward next season hang on ninety minutes of football in Preston.
Everybody knows the permutations (mint word that innit, you only use it for football) by now. Boro MUST WIN and hope that either Sheffield United lose or Luton drop points. A Sheffield United draw against Fulham also opens up the door for Boro, if they can win by three clear goals. Their 7-0 battering at the home of this years’ champions on Monday means that a draw is not enough for Luton should Boro win.
Chris Wilder and his team will be backed tomorrow afternoon by 5700 Reds in the away end at Deepdale, alongside those undercover Teessiders in the home end, which will make for a fitting send-off if it proves to be Boro’s final match of the campaign and while tomorrow will be filled with nerves and apprehension it should also be a time of celebration regardless of the final outcome.
While making the play-offs would be a fantastic marker mere months into what is hopefully a long and distinguished reign for Wilder, he and his team have already made great improvements to the football club which have to give every Boro fan reason to be optimistic for the future.
The football is a marked improvement on anything we’ve seen during the past five years. When this team is in full flow, it’s a joy to behold. Think about the way they swatted aside Forest and Huddersfield *chefs kiss*.
We have one of the most exciting players in the league in Isaiah Jones and quality littered throughout the side with Dael Fry, Paddy McNair, Anfernee Dijksteel, Tav, Crooksy and more. Josh Coburn is making strides and memories, Jonny Howson and Sol Bamba are defying the grasps of Father Time and Riley McGree is flashing some brilliant ability.
Wilder, Alan Knill and the backroom staff have reinstalled some much-needed Teesside grit and steel within a team whose confidence was completely shattered earlier in the season. There was a brief period after Christmas and into the new year where Boro seemed unbeatable as they were able to pull off consecutive comebacks against Blackpool, Mansfield and Reading.
Most importantly, through those performances which have married resilience and thrilling football, Chris Wilder and this team have brought a buzz back to the Riverside.
The place has been absolutely rocking more often than not during the manager’s tenure and while some of that credit lies with the fans, reenergised and displaying a new mentality towards supporting the team, it would not happen without the on-field successes.
So, regardless of the result on Saturday, the team and coaching staff deserve to be celebrated. This season has been a turning point in the long-term future of this football club and that doesn’t change if they miss out on the play-offs.
While the goal at the start of the season was to challenge for promotion in some shape or form and Boro have spurned opportunities to secure a place in the top six before this weekend, it doesn’t automatically mean that Steve Gibson will stamp a gigantic F on this season’s folder when handing out end of year reports and we shouldn’t either.
Of course, missing out on the play-offs is a missed opportunity especially given that we had it within our grasp but the successes of this season can’t be clouded over by the gloom of the campaign being over if results don’t go our way.
There will be plenty of time during the summer, where Kieran Scott and Chris Wilder get their first *real* crack at a transfer window, to analyse and discuss any shortcomings or needed improvements.
That’s not to say that I don’t want us to win tomorrow and feel the hubbub trickle through the crowd as news breaks that Reading or Fulham have done us a favour.
Course I want to make the play-offs and have another set-piece fixture to look forward to at the Riverside and another march down the motorway as part of the travelling Red Army. The demons of Wembley need to be exorcised, with Grant’s steely-eyed stare being replaced by the beaming smile of Matt Crooks. That’d be fucking immense.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much we can do in the situation we find ourselves in. Fulham are already champions and Reading are a poor side featuring a number of players who will be leaving at fulltime. We just need to go out, enjoy it and do ourselves proud.
There’s also the fact that some of our own lads are out of contract at the end of this season, whether that is tomorrow or further down the line. There’s the loanees of course who’ll certainly be saying goodbye, but perhaps more importantly the likes of Jonny Howson, Sol Bamba, Lee Peltier and Neil Taylor are all scheduled to be free agents in the summer as things stand.
Most Boro fans would especially like to keep hold of Howson and Bamba but there are no certainties in football. If this is the end for them as Boro players they deserve a thunderous send-off as does every player that has helped reconnect the town with its football club again this year.
Play-offs or not, tomorrow should be a celebration of how far we’ve come so far and how much we’ve got to look forward to. Let’s turn the away end at Deepdale into a sea of red, bring a scarf and make some fucking noise; for Wilder, for Howson, for Bamba, for this team and for Steve Gibson.
Above all else, let’s celebrate Middlesbrough Football Club, ’cause we’re heading in the right direction.
Photo Credits: Teesside Live, Tom Banks (banks_photo), Middlesbrough FC