Battling Boro's Thinner Red Line
BATTLE-scarred Boro took a big, big point with a spirited away day display at in-form Ipswich - but at what cost?
With two centre-backs crocked before the break at Portman Road and Marvin Emnes limping out in the second half, the rising body count is deeply worrying. Not just the number of the injuries but the position specific nature will have Tony Mowbray pulling his hair out.
With Matthew Bates the biggest worry - there are fears that he has damaged his suspect cruciate again - the Thin Red Line at the back is in danger of cracking.
It was a difficult night. While Emnes left the ground limping heavily and with an ice pack on his knee, it is the bumps at the back that will be giving the gaffer nightmares.
Matthew Bates is set for a scan today and is braced for a bad news. The skipper was shielding the ball out and was given a little nudge by Michael Chopra and stumbled awkwardly on the hard Astroturf strip alongside the pitch and twisted a knee.
It looked innocuous enough but after climbing to his feet gingerly and testing it he shook his head and limped off down the tunnel. Given his history - four cruciates - every time he takes a knock on his knee or goes down heavily under a challenge I wince inside.
Another one would be a massive blow to the team but a personal nightmare for the player. He is out of contract in the summer and was expected to be courted by Premier League sides but a fifth reconstruction operation would make that seem very unlikely. Who would take a chance when he has so many dead men's tendons inside his suspect joints? There was a possibility of joining Swansea last summer but he opted to see out his deal at Boro. That could yet be a decision that will haunt him.
But it is too early to speculate on that. Let's see what the scan shows. Fingers crossed. The worst case scenario doesn't bear thinking about but even a relatively routine ligament injury could sideline him for a month - that's the the rest of the season. Even a few weeks out, a few games, could leave Boro with a huge headache.
As if that wasn't bad enough, soon after poor Seb Hines was given a bruising reminder of why Portman Road is not his lucky ground.
In this fixture last season Hines, then enjoying a good run of form, was clattered in a crowded Boro box and suffered a badly broken jaw and lost three teeth to boot. After being patched-up and cleaned down on the pitch he soldiered on for 10 minutes and even put in a couple of headers before limping out for the season.
There were familiar cartoon tweeting birds and stars for him last night again as he was caught full in the head as the advancing Ipswich keeper came out to punch powerfully when the defender went up fully focussed on attacking a Hammill free-kick.
He crashed to the turf in a heap and looked to be spark out. Both physios and the Ipswich club doctor were quickly over to treat him - a touch of post-Muamba caution possibly? - and it was several minutes before he was up to make it groggily to the break before being replaced.
There were no centre-backs on the bench ready to step into the breech. In fact, there are no spare centre-backs at the club right now. Help!
Rhys Williams, first choice partner to skipper Bates before being pushed into midfield while Nicky Bailey was out on crutches, is crocked, out with a knee ligament injury, possibly for the rest of the season. The club were making optimistic noises recently that he would be back by the end of the month - but unless Boro make the play-offs the campaign ends on the 29th of April anyway.
Stephen McManus, who started the season as a key component of the defence that recorded five clean sheets on the bounce, is out on loan at Bristol City (and carrying a slight knock) while Jonathan Grounds, well down the pecking order but at least with first team game time under his belt, is on loan at Yeovil.
The only other player on the books with the briefest glimpse of senior experience in the role is Ben Gibson who is on loan at York City and out injured and on crutches.
Having already served 28 days of their loans, all can be recalled - providing the standard clauses are included in the deal. No doubt Big Mick will be back on his way to Teesside as we speak, no matter how much Bristol want him to stay or what the impact it will have on plans they had for a full time switch in the summer.
Having spent much of the loan deadline day last Thursday trying to bring in one of a string of fringe Premier League stoppers he knew that he was hostage to fortune. In fact, he admitted he was "terrified" at the prospect of an injury at the back. It was a fine example of "Sod's Law" then within days both his current pairing were crunched.
Boro played the second half at Ipswich with a makeshift central defensive pairing of Tony McMahon and Nicky Bailey who did incredibly well in difficult circumstances.
McMahon at least has some experience. He started out as a centre-back in the Academy and was only nudged out the right by the emergence of David Wheater and Matthew Bates but he hasn't played that role in the senior side.
He has played as part of a back three but will be the first to admit that it is a different and more demanding discipline altogether in a conventional pairing - especially when your temporary partner is a player who arrived at the club as an attacking midfielder.
Versatile Bailey - described on twitter as Boro's "ginger human Swiss army penknife" for his ability to do any job - was an obvious choice to drop back after the injuries. He has become a pivotal figure in the team as an industrious tackling machine shielding the defence and in effect was playing the same role but 20 yards deeper.
The pair did incredibly well and coped with one of the most mobile and experienced attacks in the division and, in the latter stages, with the height and power of Jason Scotland too.
The defensive injuries and how to deal with them will dominate the debate as Boro prepare for a six-pointer at Brighton and as the play-off chase comes to the boil.
But they shouldn't be allowed to completely over-shadow the highlights of a spirited show, especially in the second half, that took what could be a useful point.
Ipswich had won five in a row at home so a draw was a decent result. Especially when you consider we looked set to get battered in the original frozen off fixture. The players and boss were disappointed not to have won having weathered a storm and created some good chances to seal it - Jutkiewicz missed a sitter - but given the scale of the injuries and the enforced reshuffle we should be reasonably happy.
There were some great individual displays, not least from some players who have been attracting unfriendly fire from terrace snipers over recent weeks. Joe Bennett - 22 today - had his best game for months and was focussed and effective at both ends of the pitch, Justin Hoyte was impressive (again) and after a couple of incisive crosses in teed up the goal for Lukas Jutkiewicz, - 23 today - while bad boy Barry Robson was back and didn't even get booked and Jason Steele pulled off a superb penalty save.
So a good point... but there is no getting away from the pressing need to record a win soon. We need to win at least three and probably four of the last seven. It has been five without victory now and the last three results for binary Boro have been 1-1, 1-1, 1-1 - "good" draws at West Ham and Ipswich either side of a poor one with Bristol City. That is a poor return for a side with play-off pretensions.
Yet despite that run and a threadbare look to the squad, Boro are still in there. The rest are equally inept. Boro have only won two games in eight - but the play-off pack behind are squandering even more points as the jitters set in. Hull have won one in 10, Cardiff one in eight and Birmingham one in seven.
The current play-offs Phoney War can't continue. One or two of those teams in the pack WILL go on a run and string a few wins together in the final straight. We have to make sure we are one of them. By hook or by crook.
Brighton next, level on points in fourth - and they've only won two in seven. That's a massive game. With injuries mounting and the odds stacked against us.
Bring it on.
Highlights of the live and interactive #borolive cyber-terrace bite-sized babble from the game plus a link to the goals is available via my round-up on Storify. Look here.
And by popular demand (well, a couple of people anyway) ... here's your chance to print out and play with the Gazette's exclusive almost scientific fill-in and fret-over Play-off Predictor Panel