First of all, may I wish each and everyone of my readers a belated Happy New Year. I wasn’t able to make the New Year’s Day game at Sheffield Wednesday but I did get to see some of it. In the end it was a good point I thought especially as I felt the hosts should have buried a glorious chance in time added on; it would have been a heart breaker but had they won we would have had little cause for complaint as I thought they edged it but a point away is always welcome and so it was on to the next one. I would loved to have gone, as it sounds as if the atmosphere at the London Stadium was fantastic. Had we been allowed our full allocation, can you imagine the noise our lot would have made? By all accounts we out sang the home supporters with only 5,000 and from what I can see apart from a calamitous piece of goalkeeping in the second minute and Carroll getting a header in in the 93rd minute we looked as if we matched our Premier League opponents tooth by jowl but whilst it was a creditable performance, if we couldn’t win I’m glad we were spared the trouble of a replay to sap more energy and add more games to the legs of an already threadbare squad.
I had been hoping that my son, Jonny would join me for this game but he had plans come up at the last minute so it was ‘O Sole Mio’ down to Blackwater for the train which for once was bang on time giving plenty of time at Reading to grab a coffee and make my connection with no need to rush. I rang Chris and told him to expect me as usual at Coventry at 12.25. He eventually got back to me to confirm and having dropped me off at the Baginton Oak, I enjoyed a quiet pint of Abbott and read the paper whilst Chris went off to do a few chores. Chris told me to keep an eye out for Gordon, a retired policeman and lifelong Middlesbrough supporter who was to join us on our sojourn to St Andrews. The time flew by and we were all soon assembled; Chris, Gordon, little Jack and yours truly. We got to St Andrews at about 2.30 leaving us not quite enough time to get round to the George and the Abode was packed and we didn’t fancy it so we decided to go straight in and grab a pint and a box of braised beef, diced chips and crispy corn bread at the Cookhouse. Fortified, we headed for our seats.
It appeared that Krystian Pedersen was back from injury and returned to the left back berth with Maxime Colin reverting to the right in place of the unlucky Wes Harding whom I feel has represented Blues admirably these last few games but some one had to drop out and it was Wes sadly. Otherwise the team was as you were with Jota, Gary Gardner, Kieftenbeld and Maghoma across midfield and Che Adams and the Juke up front. Tony Pulis set Middlesbrough up in a 4-5-1 formation and it soon became obvious why they have only conceded 18 goals in the league. They are tough, uncompromising, solid as a rock with a back four that come from the old school thinking of ‘you can go by, the ball can go by but not at the same time!’ Much of the half was spent with each team in possession playing in front of their counterparts. It does not make for pretty football but I have to say that there were two occasions when the visitors could have scored with better finishing. Jordan Hugill sliced a good chance we’ll wide following a headed flick on by George Saville on the quarter hour how they didn’t score fifteen minutes later when Hugill and then Dael Fry both had goal bound shots cleared off the line following brave last ditch defending by the Birmingham rearguard. It was looking as if Blues had ridden the storm and the first half would peter out into a 0-0 stalemate when Middlesbrough took a deserved lead on 37 minutes. Jonny Howson who was becoming increasingly influential as the half wore on knocked a well weighted pass down the right wing channel to Dael Fry whose low speedy cross found Lewis Wing on the far corner of the six yard box for a left footed tap in. It had been coming and frankly the score line could have been worse. Blues for their part had played well enough but had created little themselves; a free kick from Jota narrowly clearing the bar and blocked shots from Pedersen and Morrison; a fluffed effort from an out of sorts Gary Gardner was all there was to show for the home side’s efforts and there was little argument that the visitors deserved their lead at the break.
The second half was better both from the entertainment point of view and from Blues’ perspective as they took the game to the visitors. On 55 minutes Che Adams picked up the ball on the edge of the area, turned his man and appeared to be felled as he went past his defender. It looked a clear penalty and I’ve asked several people who were nearer the incident and everybody questioned seemed to feel that the referee’s assertion that it was a dive was unjust. If officials adopt a peacocking, preening stance giving a free kick and flourishing a yellow card for diving, that’s fine, but it presupposes that the decision is correct and I’m not convinced it was. You can generally tell from the players’ reactions. Che Adams was clearly upset and furious that he’d been yellow carded and his team mates circled the official in protest. The Middlesbrough defenders sheepishly kept their distance. Blues were knocking on the door and were desperately unlucky not to equalise on the hour when following a free kick from Jota, Harlee Dean’s downward header thumped off the base of the post to safety. Jutkiewicz went close with another header on 65 minutes but couldn’t generate enough power from Adams’ flighted cross to beat Randolph in the Boro goal. The big man tested the keeper again a couple of minutes later from a well worked free kick from the edge of the box but the powerful drive was unfortunately straight at the keeper who saved well.
The pressure on the visitors’ defence was increasing and they did well to block attempts by Craig Gardner, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Jacques Maghoma before with 11 minutes to go, the goal that Blues had threatened for so long deservedly arrived. A headed knock down to Che Adams was brought under control and with a deft turn and flowing movement to get it out of his feet, his right footed drive from eighteen yards flew past Randolph. It was a beauty and reward for a lot of effort. Isaac Vassell made his long-awaited return at this point, coming on for Kieftenbeld whom I thought had had an excellent game. I think this change was about to take place anyway in search of the equaliser but having now obtained it some questioned whether the change should have been postponed a few more minutes. Gary Monk stated that he made the change to try and win the game which is laudable but unfortunately it was the visitors that undid all of Blues hard endeavour three minutes later having largely not been in the second half as an attacking force. A perfectly weighted through ball from substitute Stewart Downing to fellow sub, Britt Assombalonga put the speedy forward through between our centre backs. The Boro man made no mistake with a well timed chip past the advancing Lee Camp for an excellent finish and 1-2. Blues huffed and puffed to get back on terms but the die was cast. It was a harsh, unfair result on Blues who deserved to take something from this match but football is a cruel game and one of fine margins. Middlesbrough have a bit of an Indian sign over us at the moment but fate will turn eventually. Presently, they are a good side with a squad of depth and quality. They will be in the mix for promotion come May. Bad luck Blues, on to the next one; Norwich away next Friday – no pressure eh? 😀
I joined my friend Tim on the train back, joining him at Coventry. We met a new acquaintance and fellow bluenose, Athol who told us that like us he travels up frequently from distance. However, he trumps Tim and I for length of journey; this is dedication for you; he gets the 07.00 ferry to the mainland and then travels by train from the south coast to Birmingham. He did not expect to get back for his wife to pick him up from the ferry back until 11 pm! There are more intrepid idiots like me than I thought! It is dedicated fans like these that make our great and famous club what it is; they are the club’s soul. A picture of the three amigos is attached!
The Good: Three cracking goals, the company of Chris, little Jack and Gordon and of course Tim and Athol on the journey back. An excellent second half performance from Blues which deserved better than they got.
The Bad: The refereeing; Graham Scott seemed to have it in for our front two. He gave them nothing despite the fact that Jutkiewicz was mauled and man handled all afternoon and there were far too many blatant shoves in the back allowed to go unpunished; for both sides admittedly.
The Ugly: The Tony Pulis style in the way he sets up his teams. Middlesbrough are a reflection of this philosophy. They are tough, physical and masters of the dark arts but you have to say they defend with a stubborn ruggedness which is highly effective and when they do get ahead with the undoubted talent they possess, they are cussedly difficult to break down. It’s not pretty but it gets results. It may well result in promotion probably through the the play offs but how long the knowledgeable Boro fans will tolerate this negative style of play remains to be seen.
Birmingham City: Lee Camp 6, Maxime Colin 6, Michael Morrison 6, Harlee Dean 7, Krystian Pedersen 6, Jota 7 (Conor Mahoney 82, N/A) Jacques Maghoma 6, Mikael Kieftenbeld 7 (Isaac Vassell 80, N/A) Gary Gardner 5 (Craig Gardner 45, 7) Lukas Jutkiewicz 7, Che Adams 8.
Subs not used: Connal Trueman, Josh Dacres-Cogley, Wes Harding, Conor Mahoney, Viv Soloman-Otabor.
Goals: Adams 79.
Yellow cards: Kieftenbeld 29, Adams 55.
Middlesbrough: Darren Randolph 7, George Friend 7, Danny Batth 7, Daniel Ayala 7, Dael Fry 7, Muhamed Besic 6 (Stewart Downing 69, 7) Adam Clayton 6, George Saville 7, Lewis Wing 7 (Paddy McNair 87, N/A) Jonny Howson 8, Jordan Hugill 5 (Britt Assombalonga 70, 7)
Subs not used: Marcus Tavernier, Rajiv van La Parra, Andy Lonergan, Ashley Fletcher.
Goals: Wing 37, Assombalonga 82.
Yellow cards: Wing 56.
Referee: Graham Scott 4: I dislike having to have a pop at the bloke who earns the least of anyone on the field but just recently the refereeing performances have been poor at St Andrews to say the least. Mr Scott failed to discipline the wrestling tactics of the Middlesbrough defenders which crossed the line on a number of occasions. I understand that it is a physical game but there is a limit. Pushing a bloke in the back when he is jumping to head the ball is a foul and it was allowed to pass time and again especially against Jutkiewicz who uncomplainingly took a hell of a lot of stick all game and received no protection for fouls against him from the referee. I felt there was a question of an elbow to the face against one of our players in the early part of the second half which was arguably a red card and the cards against Kieftenbeld and Adams were harsh and wrong respectively; the latter looked a clear penalty to me but I’ve only seen it once from distance.