Not one to live long in the memory, as competitive and even as it was. If I was editing the highlights for the Football League show tonight, I’d include a header from a corner from them in the first half that their guy probably should have put the right (for them) side of the post, the Bikey-Amougou incident (when some irrational Boro fans made a daft claim for a stray elbow), the Bulot effort that came back off the inside of the post, the sending off, and the late chance for Wilson that might have won the game but for the foot of their keeper. Otherwise I suspect most neutrals would have written it off as a 0-0 well before half-time. It was a game that needed a goal from somewhere to open it up, or better a Bikey-Amougou header at the death to win it. Now that would have raised a grin.
Over the full game I doubt that anyone would argue that a draw was fair, just the feeling that if it had gone on another 10 minutes we may well have won it as Boro, down to 10 men, were increasingly happy to settle for the point. If there was disappointment it was that having been handed that advantage, with by then a more attacking formation than we began with, we didn’t really seize the initiative to win the game. It was a case of a need to appreciate the possibility and up the intensity as the game had changed and we didn’t really manage to do that, the late chance for Wilson notwithstanding.
We started off with Bulot utilised as a second forward/in the hole, with Tucudean on the bench alongside Ahearne-Grant and Moussa rather than Church. Otherwise the team was as expected. Cautious for sure, but see how it plays out. In the event both sides pretty much negated each other through a competitive but scrappy and one-paced first 20 minutes or so. Boro seemed big enough but not obviously blessed with either the pace or trickery to really unsettle us, while we struggled to create anything in the final third. The exception was Vetokele playing in Cousins in space on the left, but quite understandably the guy doesn’t have the instincts of a winger, to either motor at the defender or make a telling cross. Not his fault.
Henderson had a routine shot to save, one deflected effort went over the bar, but the only moment of real danger in the first half was a straightforward header from a corner which their guy probably should have converted. We did start to look more threatening when Gudmundsson switched sides with Cousins, but that didn’t last long as shortly before the break Gudmundsson turned awkwardly and went down in a heap. Looked like it might be a bad one. He was replaced by Moussa, who filled in on the left side.
At the break it was a case of plaudits all round for the efforts but no idea where a goal for either side might come from. Perhaps both sides would go for it more in the second, once we’d got through the unwelcome nonsense of our apparently new half-time ‘entertainment’, an experiment which hopefully will prove short-lived.
Instead the game continued much as before. Moussa had one or two decent moments, but it was time for a change and with about 20 minutes left Tucudean made his appearance, coming on for Jackson with Cousins moving inside and Bulot out wide. That did make a difference, just by giving their defenders more to think about than just trying to contain the lively Vetokele, and hopes did rise that we could go on to win it, with Boro pretty well contained aside from one moment when Henderson had to come out smartly to smother the ball.
Indeed, shortly after one of their guys picked up a yellow (which was to prove important before long), we fashioned our first real chance of the game, with a decent ball into the box from the left just behind Bulot, who managed to get the shot in. It wasn’t a clean strike, but it beat the keeper only to come back off the inside of the post.
We then had the Bikey-Amougou incident. He contested a ball with one of their forwards and played it back to Henderson, only for their guy to go down clutching his face, followed shortly after by Bikey himself. I honestly didn’t see anything as my eyes followed the ball, but it was right in front of the linesman and after consultations the ref took no action. It did nevertheless seem to unsettle the ref, who had seemed edgy throughout, with some curious interpretations of what was and what was not a bad challenge, plus some excessive fussiness. I mentioned to a mate that he was gearing up to send someone off – even though the game had been played with no signs of animosity - and the opportunity arose not long afterwards as their guy on a yellow went in a bit late on Wiggins. I thought at first the ref had strangely penalised Wiggins, and/or booked them both, but when the dust settled it was a second yellow and off their guy went.
That was surely the cue for leaders on the pitch to raise the tempo and press for a win. Indeed, Wilson came on for Bulot to perhaps provide extra impetus and direct play. We did indeed create that one more chance to win it, with the ball laid on for Wilson to run onto inside the box before their defender could get to it. He hit it cleanly enough but not quite wide enough of the keeper and it came back off his leg. And that pretty much proved the end of it.
Wish the report could have been a bit livelier but it wasn’t that sort of game. In the end it was a fair reflection of where we currently are: competitive and playing decent stuff, solid defensively, but lacking a bit of daring and drive and sufficient support for Vetokele where it matters.
Henderson: 8/10. No complaints at all. Did all he had to and came out well to smother a dangerous moment in the second half.
Solly: 7/10. Decent enough game. Still gives the impression to me that he’s not yet back to where he was, not quite the swagger and assuredness and less inclined to bomb forward, but that will hopefully come.
Wiggins: 7/10. Also sound enough defensively, just not the influence going forward that we’ve seen before, possibly due to new partners in front of him on that side.
Ben Haim: 8/10. As before, calm and assured. Attempts to break forward didn’t exactly come off, but good marks for trying.
Bikey-Amougou: 8/10. That’s on the assumption that the Boro fans and bench were deluding themselves that he did anything wrong.
Gudmundsson: 7/10. Thought he was starting to have more of an influence on the game when he got injured. Hopefully not a lengthy spell out.
Jackson: 6/10. Not a marked impression on the game, the combination with Buyens keeps us solid but does limit us as an attacking force.
Buyens: 6/10. Less impressed with him today than previously. Thought he was a bit more casual and lethargic than I’ve seen before. Undoubtedly quality, need him really on his game.
Cousins: 6/10. I’m not going to mark him lower playing a position that doesn’t suit him.
Bulot: 6/10. Can’t say that using him as a second forward was a resounding success, although if his shot was a centimetre to the left he would have been the match-winner (playing wide). Clearly has ability and look forward to seeing him play wider.
Vetokele: 7/10. Was a threat throughout, despite being up against two big guys. Didn’t happen for him today, but not for want of trying.
Subs – Moussa (6/10 – had a full half to strut his stuff, some decent bits but nothing decisive); Tucudean (6/10 – didn’t really do much I remember but his presence did help to tilt the balance of play in our favour); Wilson (6/10 – not on for long but he too almost won us the game).