Palace Coup: Deja Vu
AS SHELL-shocked Boro retreated in disarray from Selhurt Park, a dejected Tony Mowbray talked about a sorry sense of deja-vu.
Most of the 1,600 away fans who watched the horror unfold through their fingers from the stands will have certainly have felt they had seen it before. More than once.
Boro had been left tattered and torn after a bloody Palace coup that left any hopes of an end of season coronation hanging by a thread.
The boss admitted the abject display had been littered with individual and collective errors, a scenario that has become frighteningly familiar.
It was a wretched replica of the fragile empty shell of a show at Ipswich, a 4-0 thumping by the strugglers two weeks ago.
There were echoes too of the dismal dismantling at Derby, the first footing flop on New Year Day that signaled the annual nosedive.
Both those displays smarted but Palace was particularly painful, partly because the stakes were so high in a play-off six-pointer and partly because the meek surrender followed hot on the heels of a gritty, spirited scrap to beat Leeds that showed real steel.
At Palace, disorganised Boro were woeful at the back, over-run in a pedestrian midfield and toothless up front in a display lacking spirit.
Bar a 10 minute spell before the break the misfiring engine room had next to no possession and hence little chance to impose a shape or tempo that suited Boro, let alone threaten the Palace backline. And frontman Lukas Jutkiewicz was isolated and got little service while Mustapha Carayol, playing off him, barely featured.
But the defence, that is where the real problems lay. They conceded four for the second away game on the bounce and never looked capable of staving off defeat.
They struggled from the off as the Palace pace ripped them apart repeatedly with tormentor in chief Wilfried Zaha having free reign. Poor bamboozled Stuart Parnaby will be having dizzy nightmares about being spun around like a waltzer by the £15m Manchester United bound winger's bewildering step-overs. In them, he will be wearing clown shoes.
In mitigation, Parnaby was up against a red hot player in top form. And it wasn't just him that was floundering. The entire brittle back line was woeful, lacking shape, spirit and organisation.
Palace tore down either flank at will. Crosses rained in. Balls flashed across the face of goal and Glenn Murray - who got two - could have had a shedful if his legs were a few inches longer.
Time after time through balls carved them open and sweeper-keeper Jason Steele had to rush out of his box to clear. It was embarrassing.
Boro got a well worked late face-saver through Faris Haroun - set up by an excellent back-heel from much maligned Ishmael Miller - but Palace quickly hit back as OAP hitman Kevin Phillips sealed an emphatic win, using his zimmer frame to wheel round and fire in a shot that grazed the toe of George Friend.
Friend, who now looks unrecognisable from the rampaging Robocop that earned plaudits as a Premiership prospect four months ago got a touch on the opener too.
In fact, with all the deflections plus tackles, headers and screwed clearances that squirt the ball to opponents feet I think he probably has got unwanted assists on a third of the goals against Boro this term.
His slow shrinking from cavalier fans' favourite elect and top flight talent tip to looking every inch a bargain buy from a relegated side pretty much tracks Boro's withering over the winter.
So, deja vu. Tony Mowbray will no doubt look back to Ipswich (or Barnsley) and see the lapses of concentration and poor decision making that leads to the fatal mistakes.
Or maybe look back to Derby and see how his team is too easily thrown off kilter when faced with a revved up team that fly out of the blocks.
Or maybe there is a more striking precedent looking back to Black September when a poor run of successive away defeats ended as a sluggish and demoralised looking side were left in a bloody pulp after a good beating at Blackpool.
That game - a comprehensive 4-1 beating that could easily have been seven or eight - saw Boro monstered by another Ian Hollway side ruthlessly applying the same template.
That demolition was also based on a solid pair of holding midfield ball-winners lightening pace and quick diagonals down the flanks for zippy flankers to rip into and turn flat-footed full-backs and get the ball in the box quickly.
Boro must learn to deal the lessons of that frightening formula very quickly because opposition managers certainly will note their struggle.
To be fair, Boro responded with real zest and determination to the bruising at Blackpool and went on an impressive ten game run that saw them beat the then leaders, beat a top flight side in the cup and claw up to the automatic promotion spots. Hold that thought, omen fans.
So, deja vu. Many frustrated fans now believe they are seeing last season's second half slump being played out on a tape loop and fear the boss is powerless to prevent it.
There are uncomfortable but obvious parallels with 12 months ago when injuries to key players left Boro literally limping through a spring of struggle, slowly sliding down the play-off ladder until they slipped out of the reckoning.
Then, in quick succession, Nicky Bailey, Scott McDonald and Matthew Bates were crocked - Stephen McManus was brought back from a loan at Bristol City - leaving the squad threadbare and forcing some square-pegging and strange shapes.
Now Justin Hoyte is out and Jonathan Woodgate is intermittently injured at the back , McDonald is an absentee again up front and human shield Bailey is fit but has become a peripheral benchwarmer - and has become a totemic figure around which discontent has focussed.
What it shows is that for all the forward autumn momentum, the team is still a work in progress and lacks the strength in depth to make a sustain pushed for automatic promotion. But we knew that.
When fully fit and confident this Boro have shown can match the best of the division but patched up and with morale dented, the flaws and limitations show.
Incredibly, after an abysmal run of five defeats in six since New Year, Boro are still in a play-off spot which is both a searing indictment of the division and a reason for hope.
The season is not over, no matter if it feels like it right now. We need a fully fit team and a spark to reignite morale to regain momentum. And it can be done.
Meanwhile Deja vu fans may want to look back a bit further. On this weekend just gone in 1999 Boro had been crushed 5-0 at Everton - a fifth successive Premier League loss.
That run sowed the seeds of Bryan Robson's demise and fans split into pro and anti factions that drew up the battle lines for almost two years of bitter in-fighting.
And on this weekend back in 1996 Boro were battered 4-1 at Bolton, a club record EIGHTH successive defeat.
But it was early days for Robbo. The team had done enough early on to not be in trouble. The manager still had complete backing from the chairman, most fans were happy with progress over last few years and most could see the potential for the future. Deja vu.