*Before anyone points out the title, it is deliberate. It’s how Boro spelt his name when the line ups were shown.
Middlesbrough, a bleak land of smoke, a big blue bridge and palmos. A city which could arguably benefit from what I can loosely call a make over. That said, it was a really good away day last time out and with it being a gloriously sunny Sunday lunch time, it promised to be another.
Since Neil Warnock took over at Leeds United, the transformation at the club has been as sizeable as it has been instantaneous. His straight-talking, no nonsense approach to the very basics of football has had instant results in terms of performances and today was the culmination of the hard work and the coming together of all it deserved.
Leeds have yet to lose at Middlesboro’ since they moved to the Riverside from Ayresome Park and despite the promise the last four matches, I was never confident. Boro had won four of their last five and settled comfortably in the play-offs but I was one of very few to feel less than confident about the match.
Warnock brought in Aidy White and Paul Robinson for his debut to replace Danny Webber and Danny Pugh in possibly Leeds’ strongest starting XI; the same can’t be said for the bench however but Warnock ensured it wouldn’t be an issue.
From the off, it was clear that Leeds would continue with a high pressure game, containing Boro’ at all times with Michael Brown running the show in midfield.
The sunny conditions brought a big away following which outsung the home fans throughout the match and it could have hardly stated better as Leeds took the lead. Darren O’Dea’s free kick round White in his new role on the right wing after a neat through pass to Rob Snodgrass whose shot squirmed under Jason Steele.
Boro were soon two down as Justin Hoyte’s mis-kick allowed Ross McCormack to center for Luciano Becchio finish from a few yards as Leeds asserted themselves further.
Leeds continued to maintain a tempo which starved Boro’ of possession, the excellent Brown showing the kind of precision tackling and passing which Warnock knew so well from their days at Sheffield United while Becchio was giving the Boro’ defence a torrid time. Warnock wasn’t wrong about Becchio winning headers and it is no exaggeration to say he won the large majority of them again today.
Barry Robson gave Andy Lonergran something to think about as he sent a stinging shot straight at the Leeds stopper before his goalbound corner was headed away from under his own crossbar by Robinson.
Tony Mowbray briefly got his side into the 2nd half; Rhys Williams with a header into the side netting from a freekick while at the other end, Adam Clayton and Brown sent shots off target.
As Boro huffed and puffed, Robson stupidly reacted to a crunching tackle from Clayton which resulted in the former getting his marching orders and really putting paid to Boro’s challenge.
So, job done for Leeds United; even though the result still leaves us in 10th in the league, it means we are ‘only’ four points off the play-offs, although having played at least a game more than most of the teams above us and those in contention below us.
The mood has changed drastically though. Even after the Doncaster game, it was still largely felt that this season was dead rubber, and when we’re being totally realistic, it is probably beyond our grasp to even sneak into sixth. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hardly beyond the realms of possibility; the league is so unpredictable and everyone is capable of beating anyone and the last few performances have given plenty of fans to be overly positive for the visit of West Ham next week.
We shouldn’t obviously get too carried away. For starters, the squad is a few players short of a promotion challenge and our lack of strength in depth is reflected by those who took their places on the bench today.
Warnock has now said in most, if not all of his interviews about bringing a few extra players in but for now, he’s getting the best out of what he has. Under Simon Grayson, the likes of Brown and O’Dea struggled to assert themselves in the hurly-burly manner we’ve seen in recent games.
Tom Lees seems to have matured about five years and even ‘steady’ Paul Connolly looks, well, steady. The fact that Brown was making more tackles and caressing touches (of the BALL!) not to mentioning making bursting runs, yes RUNS, into the box shows just how good a motivator Warnock is.
Captain Snodgrass was once again running himself stupid but the only point I’d make against Warnock at this point is that White should be left on the left wing, and Snods on the right/floaty around position. It works, don’t change it!
For the first time probably since we won promotion, or beat the Scum at their place, for the fans there is real pride in the team again because every player is giving their all. For 90minutes, Warnock has every player fearing for the well-being of their testicles, such is the desire and urgency in his game plan.
Grayson, for all he did at Leeds, never solved the problem of our leaky defence but in four games under Warnock, Leeds have conceded just one goal, and that was against the league leaders Southampton and although its taken a few games, the strikers are back on form.
Thankfully, we made it past the worst attempt at fencing away fans in – take note Boro’, Hesco Bastion do compounds properly; and over the bridge, not without getting a sizeable proportion of the city’s benefits chucked at us before escaping towards the ahem, open hills. Left to consider West Ham next week, it can only be said that the trepidation is thankfully not akin to the usual bowel-emptying nausea one might have faced if Grayson had been in charge…
ON ON ON!