Timing Is Everything
IT'S ALL ABOUT timing. Boro have just fought out a goalless draw against a side with the fifth best defence in the division, generally had a real go and attacked with pace and movement and only been thwarted according to script by a former player. Yes, they were a few little wobbles at the back and Fulham hit the woodwork but on the whole Boro bossed the game. It would have been a decent display back in September.
Now, with time and games running out fast it is hard to salvage too many positives.
On the up side there are two ailing teams within three points and two goals of us and Boro's form - especially at home where we are unbeaten in all competitions this year - is the best in the bottom six. On the down side big boys Arsenal and Manchester United are up next, Boro are terrible away and the two most realistic games to save out status - the nine pointer at Newcastle and the last day at West Ham - are both on the road.
There were boos at the end which was probably harsh after a game in which Boro beavered away, played at a high tempo and put together some excellent passing moves as they looked to get forward in numbers at every opportunity and carved out some good chances against a well organised side that were light years ahead of Hull.
Once again Boro played with spirit and passion. Once again it was scrappy and nervous at times. Once again there were flashes of brilliance from the 'big' players but only in patches and too often not in the areas where it could hurt. Once again chances went begging. Once again the opposition keeper took the plaudits. Same old story.
But if Boro do go down, it won't be because they could only draw against Fulham. It will be because they have lost nine away games on the bounce, have failed the likes of Blackburn, Sunderland and Portsmouth at home and because they can't score.
Now, it is a case of double or quits. Having failed to win this one the stakes are doubled at Newcastle. Before kick-off the safety formula was beat Fulham and don't lose at Newcastle with the balance carried forward to a win or bust gamble at West Ham. Now we are two points behind schedule, we must beat Newcastle - and possibly pick up a "typical Boro" bonus elsewhere - before we go to Upton Park. Some observations:
Find Us Keepers: You don't know what you've got until its gone. Mark Schwarzer had a poor season last year. He was stale, seemed incapable of stopping any shoot from more than 20 yards and clearly needed a new challenge. Invigorated at Fulham and behind a well organised, stable defence the 'greatest Australian hero since Ned Kelly' has kept 13 clean sheets and is rated by number crunchers Opta as the third best keeper in the Premier League.
He always divided opinion at Boro between those who thought he was rubbish and those who were indifferent. Hence his lukewarm greeting on his return. You would think a bloke who played at Wembley, Cardiff and Eindhoven for Boro would generate at least a respectful round of applause rather than the muffled ripple peppered with booing.
How many of those who though he was rubbish were left eating humble pie as he stretched to claw away Tuncay's powerful header, instinctively bundled a Downing shot over the bar and reacted well to parry McMahon's angled drive? And how many who said he was no better than what we had on the bench still though so as Brad Jones fumbled a simple catch then came diving out to skittle over Dempsey outside the box?
Clearly Schwarzer has not been adequately replaced. If the club thought either Jones or Turnbull were the man to step into his shoes they would have offered them contracts back in August. Instead they decided to suck it and see and now the more commanding of the two looks set to leave on a free after being dropped for not signing the deal on the table while the one that opted to stay has proved himself a capable shot-stopper but has a potentially fatal clanger-a-game average coming off his line. Whatever division we are in next season this remains a problem position.
That is not to use Schwarzer as a stick to beat the club. He wanted to leave, or at least wanted too long a deal on too much money for a fading and ageing keeper and his exit wasn't the problem. The problem was nor resolving the issue immediately.
Turkish Terrier: Tuncay combines exquisite artistry with aimless energy and that makes him a delight to watch but also very frustrating. On the one hand he is the Heston Blumenthal of football, needlessly not only over-egging the pudding but adding flicks and flourishes that were never in the traditional recipes and serving up dishes that look brilliant beyond belief but don't always deliver the goods.
On the other he dashes and darts and snaps at heels like a yapping Jack Russell chasing a ball in the park, a trait that always brings indulgent laughter and praise for the zest and sheer determination on show but rarely wins possession and too often his maverick marauding leaves big gaps in his wake, gaps that ask a lot of makeshift midfielder Matthew Bates to cover. Still, he is great to watch.
Crowded Out: Once again the Boro fans were magnificent. Despite the stark statistics and bleak prognosis Teessiders have rallied round the team and kept the faith. Today's crowd was close to being the biggest turn out of home fans all season but while Hull brought 3,750 and demanded a response, Fulham brought barely two coach loads and so the lopsided dynamic demanded more - which Boro fans delivered. However this season pans out, no one can point a finger at the supporters.