Preston Panned In Deepdale Deluge
WELLY-wearing Boro aquaplaned to a splashing League Cup victory at a rain-lashed Deepdale. It was a hard-earned win over a spirited Preston wrung out of a soggy night that had 'slip up' written all over it.
It was all set up for a 'giant-killing'. The visiting big boys had bravely made 11 changes from the team who won at near-by Blackburn for a one-off encounter against a spirited side that was rattling goals in at home and really fancied it, especially in a game staged on a pitch that was tidal.
Right from kick-off there was a questionmark as to whether it would last the 90 minutes. From the off it was clear that the surface was very, very wet. The rain had been Biblical in the area for three days and never let up throughout what was a half-decent game and largely entertaining game. Two hours before the game ground staff were in action out on the pitch, forking it and clearing small puddles and at kick-off it looked fantastic.
But the deluge continued and the pitch was problematic and for the referee it must have been touch and go at times. In places the ball would zip and slither and in others it would suddenly stop rolling as it hit wet and sticky spots.
Boro won a string of early corners and as Emmanuel Ledesma swung to make contact there was a spectacular spray thrown up around. It looked great but must have made the referee at least start to build a case for a possible postponement.
There were slips and skids and splashes and several times sliding tackles went on for yards throwing up an impressive wash in their wake, although luckily none led to the kind of crunching contact that would have raised concerns about player safety. But I'm sure at two up I wasn't the only one inwardly groaning at the inevitability of the impending abandonment on 37 minutes, Ipswich o'clock.
And the same fears returned in the closing stages as, with Boro two up again and firmly in control after weathering - literally and metaphorically - the Preston storm either side of the break, the pitch started to cut up, the slithering aquatics became more pronounced and the relentless rain intensified.
But we made it to the whistle, splashed into the last 16 and now await anxiously to find out who we are away to in the next round... an eleventh successive away tie in the League Cup is nailed on isn't it?
Chelsea or Manchester United at home would be a nice way to break the double digit short-haul sequence and may put bums on seats (as would Sunderland but you'd prefer a big team) - but ominously Swindon and Southampton and Swansea are still in the hat for tonight. If we are to be away please make it Bradford. The easier the better. We can save the glamour clash for Wembley.
It was a job professionally done in difficult conditions. Even on a clement night if would have been tricky. Tony Mowbray had made himself a hostage to fortune as he made a sweeping 11 changes to his line-up.
Such radical surgery had not been seen since Steve McClaren turned out an Academy side with an average age a shade under 20 at Fulham the week before the UEFA Cup final at Eindhoven in 2006.
Eleven changes meant vital and welcome pitch-time for some fringe figures and benchwarmers and the chance to nudge back towards fitness for Nicky Bailey - but his absence was a stark reminder of exactly how far out in the cold Scott McDonald is. Or how warm he was back home on Teesside.
The all change approach was a risk: it meant, not for the first time this season, that whole departments needed introducing to each other before kick-off and had Boro slithered out - which was possible as Huddersfield and Palace had both crashed out at Deepdale this term - then Mogga would have been blasted as an over technical tactical tinkerman.
Had Boro lost the boss would no doubt have carried the can having changing a team who did so well at Blackburn. Particularly at the back there was the potential for danger.
Swiss keeper Jayson Leutwiler was almost literally thrown in to the deep end. He was making his competitive debut wearing waders, had to deal with a greasy ball and a slippery surface and in front of him was a unit that had never played together before including the forgotten figure of Stuart Parnaby a rusty right-back in serious action for the first time in 16 months.
And, it must be said, there were some scary moments at the back, some weak punches leading to frantic scrambles in the box and in a bewildering sixty seconds early in the second half three shots were charged down in the box by defenders then the keeper twice in quick succession made great saves at the near post as the chaos continued.
But, in horrendous weather, both sides played some neat football on the ground. That will have helped Boro. Had Preston gone long and direct and put the ball in the box - the default for lower league sides playing a 'footballing' outfit' - the treacherous conditions may have been a far bigger factor in the game.
And, in spells, Boro were enterprising and attacking with Ledesma standing out in an early wave of creativity, surging down the flanks and running at players and cutting inside to either pick out team-mates breaking forward or having a pop.
Boro's brightest got a breakthrough opener that lead to confusion as three players appeared to be simultaneously claiming the goal.
Ledesma swung in a corner that hit the far post and bounced down - and in - and although it was clawed out the linesman was already flagging to indicate the goal.
But back in the box there was an on-going chaotic scramble in the six yard box and first Nicky Bailey bundled it goalwards - and it again appeared over the line before Andy Halliday slammed it home to make sure.
All three made rival claims loudly, sincerely and with absolute belief in their legitimacy: it was the kind of scenario that caused medieval wars of succession over the throne.
Pretender Halliday was initially credited with the goal by some news agencies before slo-mo replays showed the corner had gone in - but he didn't let that stop him.
Coming out at half time he was badgering and cajoling the referee in a bid to persuade him of his claim and then switched his spin to the lino, trying to undermine Ledesma's. He was still recruiting forces to his tattered banner after the whistle and continued tweeting all the way home on the coach.
There was no confusion over the second, Zemmama cracking home after a neat ball in from Richie Smallwood - who having learned his trade on the exposed pitches of the Teesside Junior League was in his element. "They were my conditions," he said beaming after the game. "I've played in worse out on the back field."
The third also had an element of farce about it, the Preston keeper forced into making a brilliant save from one of his own defenders after a powerful backward header then Dormanstown Destroyer Smallwood stuck it away at the second attempt.
So it was a soggy job well done on a splashing night. It wasn't the wettest game ever - that remains the Rumbelows Cup semi-final at Manchester United in 1992, played in a monsoon when building work at Old Trafford meant there was no roof narrowly ahead of a game at Blackburn five years ago when it was bouncing and possibly Portsmouth at home in last term's opener - but it was close.
It was a night when the only thing that mattered was getting through - not just through the game but also to the venue and then home again.
Boro players and management left Deepdale wondering how - and if - the coach could get back to their own cars parked up at cut off Hurworth. All but Ledesma and Arca who had made their own way, not having managed to reach Rockcliffe in the first place. All the post match talk was off tortuous routes home and traffic updates on the Ipad.
And it wasn't just the players scouring roadwatch sites and phoning home for flooding updates as they planned their return . About 500 fans made long trips on awful roads along a Byzantine neural network of rain sodden routes. We went via the bleak spray shroud M62 rather than brave Blubberhouses but the concourse chatter revealed a logistical ingenuity borne of years on the road that put 'The Knowledge' to shame.
The fans deserve credit. Given the weather it was a fan-tastic turnout for the third trip over the Pennines in a week, and after good shows too for the battering at Blackpool and a televised Friday night clash at Blackburn it shows admirable loyalty and tenacity.
The Boro web site awarded them a collective Man of the Match. I'll go with that.