The grinding wins against Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City on freezing cold days and nights in January ending with the team perched nicely in the top two of the division feel like the perfect prelude to an FA Cup fourth round tie against the current champions of England, Manchester City, on their own turf.
It is a daunting prospect but hope is offered in the shape of Manchester City losing 2-1 at home to Wigan Athletic at the quarter-final stage of last season’s competition as well as their recent squandering of a 2-0 lead at home to Burnley, whilst even Gus Poyet’s “rubbish” Sunderland side managed to score twice at the Etihad Stadium on New Year’s Day. Throw in a potentially destabilising mid-season jaunt to Abu Dhabi for a meaningless kickabout with Hamburg, as well as the fact that of the forty-four teams in the top two divisions only Southampton have conceded fewer goals than the Boro this season, and you have several ingredients to suggest that Karanka’s Boro can unsettle the champions on their own patch and return to Teesside with a positive result under their belt.
At this stage of a campaign which is fully geared up towards winning promotion, there are those people who worry about the number of games the players will have to play if we are to progress in the FA Cup but it should be pointed out that the promotion-winning team of 1991/92 played 60 games with a smaller squad than the one Karanka currently has at his disposal. Bruce Rioch’s team of 1987/88 played 57 matches en route to winning promotion to Division One via the play-offs and Bryan Robson’s 1997/98 side played 55 games as we won promotion and reached Wembley for the third time in two seasons.
Of course, the demands on the modern-day player are very different to those of twenty or so years ago but the modern-day player doesn’t have to play a third of the season on mud and you could also add that, when things are going well, a tightly-knit group of players such as the current Boro squad will relish playing in as many games as possible and are less likely to feel a knock or a niggle in the coming weeks than they would be if we were coasting along in the middle of the table.
The circumstances surrounding a game such as this one also affords Boro fans the opportunity to think back to successful promotion campaigns of yesteryear and the games that immediately spring to mind aren’t necessarily the run-of-the-mill league matches that ensured promotion but the games that brought about memorable cup runs. Back in 1991/92 it is the Rumbelows Cup semi-final meeting with Manchester United and a mud-splattered Jamie Pollock that stand out, or knocking First Division Manchester City out of both cup competitions, or the pitch invasion that greeted Wilko’s winner at Hillsborough and Ripley’s wonder-goal against Peterborough United. Even the final league game of the season against Wolves at Molineux had the air of a cup tie about it.
1997/98 evokes memories of Steve Baker’s master-class in man-marking at Anfield and Marco Branca’s debut goal in the return leg at the Riverside, whilst the games that possibly best define the spirit of the Rioch era are not only the play-off ties against Bradford City and Chelsea but the cup meetings with Everton and Aston Villa.
It would be churlish to suggest that promotion is not the main aim for Boro this season but there is nothing to say that we have to sacrifice a good run in the cup in order to achieve it, as Boro teams of the past have shown that it is eminently possible to do both.
With those things in mind, why would any Boro fan not want the club to have a real go at the FA Cup this season?