My experiences of live football have been mainly limited to the old League Division 4, and (after moving away from York to live in Gateshead in 1980s) the Conference; so yesterday’s visit to the Riverside to watch a Premier League game alongside 32,000 other people was definitely unusual, and slightly surreal.
Manchester United provided the opposition for Middlesbrough’s first fixture following the departure of Aitor Karanka. The man placed in temporary charge of Boro was Steve Agnew, whose previous association with both York City and Gateshead presumably makes him the ideal choice for saving Boro from the drop….
I had a really good seat, just a few rows from the front and about ten yards away from the halfway line—but literally right next to the travelling supporters. Well I say “travelling”; I’m assuming only a handful actually lived in Manchester; but in fairness, they made a lot of noise and backed their team for the whole ninety minutes.
After watching the Man United players warming up right in front of us, the respective line-ups were announced (the odd jeer here and there for a couple of the Boro squad…?), the two teams took to the field and, soon after, the afternoon’s entertainment was underway.
The visitors were quite happy to sit back and let Boro have plenty of possession, but the build-up play was deliberate and one-paced, and all-too-often, the final ball lacked any real quality. In contrast, United were lightning quick on the break. Michael Carrick was calmness and assurance personified in front of the defence, Juan Mata was clearly the classiest player on the field, and the speed of Lingard and Rashford caused the Boro defence plenty of problems.
Victor Valdes made a couple of excellent saves in the first half, but United carved open the defence on four or five occasions, yet only found the net once—courtesy of Marouane Fellaini’s far-post header from a pin-point Ashley Young cross.
Boro played with a lone striker (Alvaro Negredo). He was starved of decent service, and despite his best efforts in holding up the ball, support was simply too slow to arrive. For all their possession, Boro just didn’t look like unlocking the visiting defence, and it was no surprise when United extended their lead in the second half.
Much as it was a wonderful run and even better strike from Jesse Lingard, the home defenders just kept backing off and almost invited the shot, which simply rocketed past a motionless Valdes into the top corner.
Lingard is obviously an outstanding athlete; and when he chose to stay on his feet, he looks a really talented and exciting footballer. He does have a tendency to go down very easily; but let’s face it, he’s hardly alone….
Steve Agnew brought on Adam Traoré and Rudy Gestede, whose introduction alongside Negredo along with the real attacking impetus provided by Traoré sparked Boro’s best period of the game. Their pressure was rewarded when an error from Chris Smalling gave Gestede the chance to reduce the arrears from close range. The volume inside the stadium increased and it looked like the stage was set for an enthralling final ten minutes….
But in truth, Boro rarely threatened to equalise. They battled well, and hopefully the closing half hour or so may prove the catalyst for some positive results in the closing weeks of the season; yesterday though, I felt Manchester United were composed, in control, and the result really never looked in doubt.
If the home fans were praying for a dramatic stoppage time goal, they got their wish; but sadly for the Boro faithful, it happened at the wrong end, and the goal itself was down to an absolute howler from Victor Valdes, who lost his footing as he prepared to clear the ball downfield, allowing the onrushing Antonio Valencia to dribble the ball into the empty net.
It was harsh on Valdes, who’d had a decent game until that point, but the final scoreline was probably a reasonable reflection of United’s performance over the ninety minutes.
Overall it was an enjoyable afternoon; a good three points for Manchester United, some positives for Boro; but more importantly a last minute winner for Gateshead over Woking on Saturday kept the Tynesiders in the play-off positions. Seven wins and a draw from their last eight games for Neil Aspin’s men—what Steve Agnew wouldn’t give for a run like that…?