While being in the Premier League has a million advantages (well, ninety million actually) there are still enormous pressures for manager, players, board and supporters alike. The unbelievable financial returns make survival enormously important to the club’s hierarchy and we supporters really can understand why. But from our point of view the need to stay with the big boys has become the catalyst for the kind of football that puts caution over bravery, defence over attack and a reluctance to do anything that might jeopardise our membership of the ‘Gravy Train.’ The result has been some pretty uninspiring performances since promotion.
Perhaps the only contradiction to that has been the emergence of Adama Traore. His amazing speed and wonderful turn of foot has lit up the Riverside every time he’s appeared and most of us feel he justifies the admission money alone. Yet even he has become brainwashed by the Karanka insistence that every player’s foremost responsibility is to defend and that allowing them to get forward to threaten the opposition is something of a luxury. Adama has already shown he can’t defend and, to be fair, after his totally unnecessary barge into the back of Phil Edwards to give Oxford the free kick that gave them so much stimulation I wouldn’t let him anywhere near our own penalty box. It really isn’t what he’s there for.
That he was – in most of our opinions – substituted prematurely against Oxford – was the reason for the boos that rang around the Riverside as he trudged off. They most certainly started long before Christian Stuani made his way onto the pitch so were in no way directed at him personally. Which is just as well because Stuani went on to score yet another vitally important goal for us. Regardless of what people may think about his overall performances he has scored a number of vital goals at very vital times. Brighton in May last year and Sunderland earlier this season are typical examples!
I’m writing this an hour or so after we were drawn against Huddersfield or Manchester City in the quarter finals of the F A Cup and to be honest I think we’d be better off with City. How nice would it be if we could repeat some of our more memorable performances against them. That wonderful away day in 2006 when we won 1-0 to be promoted to the Premiership after Mark Schwarzer’s excellent penalty save springs to mind. As does the 8-1 drubbing on the last day of the season in 2008. Our 2-0 away win in the FA Cup in 2015 is still a fond memory while the most recent reason for confidence was the 1-1 draw at their place in November. All reasons to be cheerful and also reasons to think that another trip to Wembley is not impossible. Are you listening Mark Lawrence?
But, at the time of writing, the most important ninety minutes of our season so far will be at Crystal Palace and once again there is a feeling of inevitability about the outcome. Their recent record has been appalling and because we have certainly picked up in our last few performance the bookies will probably make us favourites. And that, unfortunately, is usually a recipe for disaster where ‘Boro are concerned. Three points would be a huge return, though and with other games against the bottom few sides rapidly following there really is a chance to make some kind of headway up the table. And that could be vital with winnable games against Stoke, Sunderland, Swansea, Hull, Burnley and Bournemouth all scheduled in our next eight fixtures. Failure to open a gap could be crucial, however, with Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal big challenges in our last six games!
It promises to be a nail biting end to the campaign and both Steve Gibson and Aitor Karanka surely deserve a second season in the Premiership where the team can hopefully kick on again and create further improvement. Promotion from the Championship has always been a huge step but those teams that make it through their first season have shown that it is possible to ultimately establish themselves. The likes of West Brom, Stoke, Watford and Southampton have all achieved that over the past few years. We did it ourselves for that wonderful eleven season run in the top flight and it really is to be hoped we can survive and cement another spell of Premier League football.
The excellent crowds so far this season show that the Teesside public are able to support a top flight team. Fingers crossed they can continue to do so well into the future.