As soon as I opened my eyes this morning, clocking the early-morning slither of sunshine making its way into the bedroom on account of the lazily-closed blinds as I did, I knew it was going to be a good day. Sometimes, you just know. The aforementioned slither of sunshine allowed me to venture out into the garden to smoke a cigarette(a mistake, in hindsight, as you shouldn’t be smoking before noon should you, not these days, what with everything that’s going on) and contemplate what Aitor Karanka’s first home game as Boro’s Head Coach might bring. And Shay Given as well! Wow, Saturdays just don’t start better than that do they. Even the pre-match stroll through North Ormesby felt better, more exciting somehow, littered as it was with fellow match-goers instead of the usual assortment of startled old people and stray animals.
Once the pre-match welcome of Mr Karanka had settled down, and the referee had taken care of the relevant admin, it became immediately clear that both sides had set themselves up with pretty much identical formations; we both had four men across the back-line, three men in the middle of the field with two pacey lads on the flanks and one orthodox striker. It made for an almost nondescript first-half, if truth be told, with neither side making anything like a genuine chance on goal and neither goalkeeper having to do anything more than collect the odd cross or boot it up the field every now and then. Both teams were ponderous in possession, faffing on and on as they did, with Jacob Butterfield unable to find the space to bring Adomah and Carayol into the game for us and Darren Pratley doing likewise for Bolton. And even when Butterfield did find a yard of space he seemed unable to get it under control and any momentum, albeit it relatively laboured momentum, we’d built up was lost. It was half where almost nothing happened, and perhaps the most interesting moment came when the whistle went for half-time and we got Franck Queudrue out for a round of applause.
I think the things that stood out, for me anyway, during the first-half was the number of forceful tackles our lads put in; Rhys Williams made three or four really strong tackles, as did Grant Leadbitter, and that was a refreshing change to what’d gone on in previous games at home, where we’d allowed teams to settle into their stride and start zipping the ball around our immaculate surface a la 90s Milan. We looked more drilled, more professional, more solid, and we gave the impression that we were doing much more to defend our goal than we had been in previous games. The defence was more of a unit, as was the midfield, from a defensive point of view, and keeping things as tight as possible, for as long as possible, before bringing on an Emnes or a Main to try and pinch it seemed to be the order of the day.
The second-half started in much the same fashion, with no real attacking quality on display despite the best efforts of those involved. Indeed, it was Bolton who started to grow in belief as the minutes ticked-by, though, again, they didn’t create anything of note. Karanka had seen enough, it seemed, and decided to bring on Curtis Main for Muzzy Carayol. I was surprised at the time because I expected Emnes to come on first but it turned it to be a relative master-stroke, of sorts, as he pushed Kamara out onto the left-hand side and put Main through the middle. It was as if he was giving Bolton a few minutes to ponder on what we’d changed and once they’d got to grips with it he immediately replaced the ineffective Butterfield with Emnes. This was the change that definitely made the difference for us, as Emnes drifted around between their defence and midfield, with none of their lads seeming completely sure of who was supposed to be picking him up, and his movement and a couple of exquisite first-touches and turns generated some real positivity for us.
It was Emnes who managed to turn his man in the area with about ten minutes left to play, with his progress halted by an agricultural-looking tackle from Tim Ream; it was a moment reminiscent of a young Joseph Job turning his man in Cardiff all those years ago before he too was brought down in crude fashion. It was Leadbitter, who’d not long since played Shay Given into trouble courtesy of a dreadful back-pass, who did what all good professionals do and stepped up to the mark to coolly send Andy Lonergan the wrong way. The relief was palpable, but so too was the feeling that we would somehow contrive to throw it away at the death, as has been our way so often this season. It came as no surprise, then, when Leadbitter and Williams were involved in a daft little mix-up in a semi-dangerous position which resulted in Williams hacking down his man to give away a penalty with two or three minutes left on the clock. You could sense it coming, as soon as Williams made the decision to go to ground you knew it was coming and the referee had little choice but to blow for a spot-kick. But we knew he would miss, we all knew it. I was absolutely certain that the effervescent Shay Given was going to save it, I even said as much to the stranger sitting next to me, but it turned out we didn’t need any heroics from Given as Beckford took his penalty with all the finesse of a blindfolded Chrissy Waddle. What made that moment even more satisfying was that Beckford should’ve probably had a penalty earlier on in the half, when Williams seemed to carelessly bundle him over and into our net as a cross came in.
So, we held on. A win is a win, we probably deserved it really, in truth; Gibson, Main and Friend all had decent efforts on goal, Kamara won almost everything in the air, Emnes caused them no end of problems in the ten or fifteen minutes immediately after coming off the bench and Adomah whipped a great cross in that was begging to be stuck away not long after half-time. Curtis Main did himself no harm at all with a nice little cameo and Ben Gibson looked more assured than Daniel Ayala has done during the last two outings. And when Bolton did try and step it up in the last few minutes, we remained pretty calm about our business and did what needed to be done.
Two shots on target from both teams sums the game up; whether it was a genuinely poor game or whether it was just two average second-tier sides simply cancelling each other out for very long periods is open to debate, but the vital thing to emerge from proceedings was that we’d dug in and come out 1-0 winners in the sort of game we’d have probably lost six to eight weeks ago. That the game itself didn’t live up to expectations in terms of quality couldn’t really be of any less relevance right now as we did what we had to do. And that’s a huge positive for Karanka and the lads to work with as they build towards Wednesday evening’s 3-2 win at Steve McClaren’s Derby County…