Your mid-thirties are a very strange time. Mortgages, responsibility and a decade or two of that creeping disease known as adulthood suggest that you shouldn’t drink like Oliver Reed in his prime and wake up on a Sunday morning, head thumping like the ghosts of the Sheffield Wednesday Kop band have taken up residence. But very occasionally, you do. Where on earth am I? What happened last night? A glance at the papers at least helped to stem the tide of unease and confusion.
“Benitez and Wenger unite to stop the cheating!”
A smile and a welcome sigh of relief, a sign of normality. The tabloids are still making up farcical fairy-tale style nonsense then. I ask you — Benitez and Wenger against diving?! Whatever next? “Big Brother winner shuns publicity and pop career!”? “Bush — genius IQ test results beat all-time record!”? No, then it all got really stupid.
“Chelsea ship three as Boro run riot!”
Christ. In an Arthur Dent-esque ‘your house is about to be bulldozed and the Earth is about to be destroyed’ kind of way, the last headline hit home. Waves of alcohol swept in memories of a deeply unpleasant Saturday afternoon and the sense of utter disbelief that followed. It was true; we had been beaten by one of the worst teams in the country. Not just beaten. Hammered, tonked, whipped, outclassed, shafted, stuffed and routed. The conquerors of Liverpool and champions elect had gone down, limp and deflated, like a hard-on at the thought of Jackie Stallone naked and buttered and it was even less pretty to look at than the image that is now putting you off your coffee.
With mild hysteria setting in at the impending crisis and seismic shift in football that was our third defeat in sixty-four league games under Mourinho, I switched on the TV in search of further comfort. I half expected to see Jeff Stelling and the Sky Sports News team, bleary eyed and sipping Alka Seltzer in a wrecked studio, streamers and empty champagne bottles strewn over pools of vomit and partially clad bodies groaning from the fallout of the almighty party held in celebration of Saturday’s momentous events. But they all seemed rather, well, normal (this is all relative, obviously) and business-as-usual in their manner, with hardly a mention made of the Riverside Massacre. I double-checked our current situation. Twelve points clear at the top of the league. An FA Cup fifth round tie with Colchester next week and a renewal of hostilities with those Catalan chaps in the Champions League a few days later. That is normal these days, isn’t it? Those precious words of advice given to Arthur Dent came to mind; don’t panic.
Dealing with hangovers these days is like dealing with Chelsea defeats; it’s seriously hard work because it just doesn’t happen that often. The Boro result puts it all into sharp focus but is oddly easier to cope with than our other losses in the league under Jose. No? Bear with me then. The dodgy 1-0 defeat, complete with fluffed chances and iffy refereeing decisions is the football equivalent of your girlfriend leaving you for the spotty guy with NHS specs, an orthopaedic shoe and bad breath; so many questions, nagging doubts, what ifs and whys. Saturday’s result was your girlfriend sticking her head around the door during Match of the Day and saying “Darling, it’s been great but Brad Pitt’s downstairs on his knees begging me to run away with him and — well, sorry, but you know how it is…” You can’t really argue too much about the nature of the defeat; comprehensive being the operative word.
From our point of view, Jose summed things up perfectly. No Benitez style “For sure, we dominated possession and deserved to win…” puff-chested ramblings, no complaints about the opposition’s tactics or the referee; he’d seen his team deservedly beaten and he knew it. It is without question that the players knew exactly what he thought about it too. Complacency had crept in; whilst last Sunday’s win over Liverpool was the title decider on paper, the players had let it slip from their minds that there were still eight wins between them and back to back Premiership trophies. It was encouraging to hear the boss bemoaning the week off before next Sunday’s FA Cup clash with Colchester. Getting the players back out onto the pitch and not dwelling on our worst result under his stewardship was clearly the medicine he prescribed for a rather off-colour looking team.
If there is one question which has yet to be answered, it is that of our current full back merry-go-round. Allowing Wayne Bridge out on loan when doubts still hang over Del Horno’s ability to fill the left back role was for many a questionable decision; Gallas’s versatility has seen him ably filling in the gaps but his absence through injury, along with Ferreira’s lack of fitness and the unresolved Del Horno issue gives the back four a less-than-invincible air with Barcelona on the horizon. That there was no fit left back available for selection was hardly reason to start baying for blood, but in the cold light of day it was a mistake nonetheless.
On the Boro side of things, the result also showed exactly why the recent “McClaren for England” cries are so preposterously wide of the mark. Yes, the 4-0 thumping of Brazil in the final group game of World Cup 2010 under his guidance would be magnificent; knowing that it made no difference to England’s early exit after defeats to the Galapagos Islands and Vatican City wouldn’t. Boro have now beaten United, Arsenal and Chelsea up at the Riverside; given the rest of the season’s form (Villa at home, conceding seven at Arsenal) they are surely one of the most schizophrenic teams in Premiership history. Gareth Southgate’s polite, Home Counties take on the Shakespearian “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war…” rallying call, irate fans lobbing season tickets about and the speculation about McClaren’s future are clearly what was needed in such troubled times. With an eight point gap between them and the drop zone at the final whistle on Saturday, their season started to look a little brighter. Boro were excellent; the midfield resilient, the defence far sturdier than ours. Yakubu battered his way through the game, Drogba style, alone up front and they were more than worth their win. Whether Steve Gibson, who in terms of his managers is as patient as his neighbour Freddie Shepherd is impetuous, asks questions of the manager and his team as to why Boro are effortlessly capable of such jaw-dropping mood swings is another matter entirely.
It is strangely comforting to see repeats of Boro fans losing it, partying like a very mediocre Jekyll-and-Hyde season didn’t matter for a moment and leaving the ground shaking their heads in sheer disbelief; football at its very best (as long as you aren’t on the receiving end, of course!). This is how we felt not so many years ago when we racked up victories against United or Liverpool; another measure of how much things have changed in such a relatively short space of time. They had taken a scalp, beaten the champions and reminded the world that no matter how big the difference between them and us in terms of trophies collected and league positions, that David and Goliath is sometimes a little more than just ancient mythology.
Seeing the celebrations brought to mind the Blues’ 5-0 slaying of a recently treble-winning United side at the Bridge in October 1999. English football’s all-conquering heroes, just four months on from ‘that night in Barcelona’ (Â© Clive Tyldesley) allowed Chris Sutton and Jody Morris to score on a day that was the one of the highlights of our season, along with Galatasary away and the humbling of a Figo and Rivaldo powered Barcelona at the Bridge. United eventually strolled to the title, some eighteen points clear of Arsenal in second place. We won the FA Cup, but finished fifth with a point less than we have now and qualified for the UEFA Cup (now that did include some shocking defeats…). Boro’s win was a well-earned small victory in the big scheme of things; similarly it was, we hope, an aberration on the way to the title as far as we are concerned.
A week of chuckling about Chelsea being stuffed might actually make a change; it reminds everyone that football is as gloriously unpredictable as it has always been, despite many reports to the contrary. A bit of ribbing and gloating from the football community about a result like this is better than the hypocritical whining about Robben’s callous invention of diving, Roman’s billions and all the usual recycled anti-Chelsea guff as it can be easily rammed back down their throats with the next game. The two forthcoming fixtures will be interesting and a true test of the team’s mettle; there can be no deflection of criticism, no hiding place for the players who will be well aware that their performance was not good enough. Saturday was our first loss in eighteen games since Old Trafford in December, and a humiliating one at that.
Beware the wounded animal? I certainly wouldn’t want to be part of the next team facing Chelsea. And for those enjoying the spectacle, just remember that you’re still a long, long way behind…