Brighton Breezy: Battling Boro Resist Seagulls Storm
SOMETIMES you just have to dig in and defend. Sometimes you have to surrender the ball and initiative and soak up the pressure.Sometimes you have to block and tackle and hustle and harry, chase and close down quickly and head away a barrage of crosses and corners; sometimes you have to drop back in numbers, charge down the shots and scramble away dangerous balls into the box.
And if you can nick a goal and plunder the points, preferably with a spawny slice of sarcastic fortune, all the better. It was a perfect away day mugging by a battling Boro side that showed they have the silk and steel to flourish in this league.
Grinding out vital victories in game when you are under the cosh for long spells is an important ingredient for any team with aspirations to success. Especially in this attritional division.
And Boro did just that. The 1-0 win away at Brighton wasn't always pretty and it made for a tortuous experience for the fantastic 1,200 travelling Tees army watching an absorbing if uncomfortable game through their fingers at the Amex.
Brighton were good. The played a polished and patient passing game, picking and probing to try to find space behind the defence. They played an unhurried game with confidence and backed by a full house of fans on a high after two excellent years.
There was a very tense finale as an hysterical home crowd screamed angrily (but quite politely) at the referee - a few strange decisions had gone Boro's way and they felt they should have had a penalty and seen Jason Steele pedalled for handball... good old Andy D'Urso - and they urged on a Brighton side pressing forward. Edgy Boro fans meanwhile wrestled between the need for vocal endorsement of our heroes spirited and dogged rearguard action and the icy fear of an imminent equaliser.
But there were no nerves out on the pitch. A determined and focussed Boro team never wavered, not even during the relentless Brighton onslaught towards the end. The defence deserve plaudits for a steely show.
Most Boro fans will have finished the game soaked with sweat and minus their finger-nails but silky skipper Jonathan Woodgate insisted after the game that for all their possession he never felt that Brighton would score. That's easy for him to say. He was the calmest person not only out on the pitch but in the entire stadium.
Cultured Woodgate and man mountain central defensive partner Andre Bikey played a blinder at the heart of a Boro defence that was tested to the limit by an inventive Seagulls side that stretched play, passed it patiently and looked and put the ball into the box.
The pair complement each other well. Woodgate has an innate spatial awareness, a positional sense that gives him an edge in the box and allows him to react almost before a ball is played to intercept and snuff out danger.
That natural ability combined with a deft touch and an intelligent reading of the game gives him confidence and composure and buys him the luxury of time to play the ball out calmly no matter how crowded and chaotic the box. He does not readily resort to the Championship default of Row Z.
No surprise then that he has brought the best out of his partners at the back in his spells at Boro. It is no coincidence that Chris Riggott and Emmanuel Pogatetz enjoyed their best and most error free spells alongside Woody.
Brickwork Bikey has an imposing physical presence, patrolling the penalty area with a sense of purpose and power, brushing aside the most solid of challenges with contempt and powering away headers for fun.
Bikey can play a bit too. He did a Cruyff turn to lose a marker on his debut and has showed some sublime touches at times.
But he also has an all too obvious self-destruct button and a low boiling point. He has been lucky to escape a string of penalty shouts in recent outings and his suicidal languid back pass to set up Watford's opener after 26 seconds was repeated at Brighton but went unpunished because Seagulls striker Craig Mackail-Smith was sluggish to react.
But alongside Woodgate, Bikey looks a far more solid and composed player and barely put a foot wrong. It was his best game for Boro so far. It was probably Woodgate's best too. Especially considering he has been out for three weeks and has hardly trained.
It is hard now to say exactly who Boro's first choice central defensive pairing would be when everyone is fit. On this showing Rhys Williams may struggle to get back in at the back, Seb Hines heart must sink as yet another chance to establish himself goes begging and poor Matty Bates will feel sick as his bargaining position is undermined by the thought of being fourth choice if he can fight his way back and earn a contract.
But it wasn't just that pair that excelled in the pressure cooker of a Brighton barrage. Stuart Parnaby came in for his first league start for over 18 months and played superbly.
Out with a dislocated jaw he was drafted in because of an injury to Justin Hoyte and confessed beforehand he was a bit wary of aerial clashes but he got stuck in with a series of crunching tackles, sliding blocks and brave headers, including one stooping one that blocked a goal-bound shot.
And I have the phrase "Steele saved superbly" on a hot key ready to cut and paste into match reports. The superlative shot-stopper, who incredibly was being booed by the hard-of-thinking during the warm-up a year ago for the crime of not being Carl Ikeme, has been in awesome form all season.
On the rare occasions the defence was breached he was there to go full-length to save, get down to parry, quickly block at his post or come out and punch away in a crowd. He has been Boro's player of the season so far.
There was one scare when he had to rush out to beat Mackail-Smith and collect a chip over the defence and his momentum took him outside the box but he was alive to the danger and dropped the ball quickly and hoofed it away with the home fans screaming for a red card for hand-ball.
Of course it wasn't all about the back-line. It was a solid if far from spectacular team performance. The engine room did their share too, tracking back and closing down and working hard to disrupt Brighton's slow and patient passing while up front Marvin Emnes always offered an out-ball and his pace and trickery kept Brighton occupied all day.
But the defence deserved the plaudits. They showed steel, composure, athleticism and concentration under relentless pressure. They take the brunt of the flak when hard-fought games slip away - especially when it happens late on - so it is only fair they get some hard-earned recognition when they hold out to earn the points.
It was a great result in Mogga's 100th game. And a good day out: a fantastic and friendly stadium and a great atmosphere - the Boro fans were fantastic again - and the local press corps were very complimentary about the way Boro had approached the game and stuck to football. They gave the thumbs up to the 1,200 plus away fans too, the Amex's biggest ever travelling contingent . And they added that we were the best team there last year as well. Nice. Especially when you leave with the points.
The results nudges Boro quietly up the table to joint fifth (and up the Football League Show running order to just before midnight) and puts us in a great position with back-to-back home games coming up. What could possibly go wrong?