30 September ~ Following Middlesbrough's draw with Leicester on Wednesday night, a fan on the local radio station – whose pundits were excited at the team's continued unbeaten run – pointed out that Boro fans have been bitten a little too often in recent seasons. He was responding to the question posed as to why fans are staying away from the Riverside, but he could equally have been admonishing the pundits for getting a little too carried away with the season so far. Any optimism is understandable – going into October unbeaten and with the best defensive record in the Football League, the team is sitting second in the Championship only on goal difference. But Boro's results are open to interpretation.
They are yet to lose at the Riverside, but one win in five at home is not promotion form. Are two 0-0s in a week a sign of an inability to score goals, or are they valuable points picked up against potential title rivals? Only time will tell. What is beyond reproach is an away record of four wins from four, with only one goal conceded, and no reason to believe that it won't become five from five at the Madejski Stadium this weekend.
The main reason for Middlesbrough's differing fortunes at home and away is the team seems set up perfectly to play on the counter-attack. Matthew Bates and Rhys Williams in the centre of defence, who are emerging as Premier League-quality players, provide a strong core, along with Barry Robson and Nicky Bailey in midfield (both ironically Gordon Strachan signings) providing energy, industry and no little creativity. With these four providing a solid platform, the likes of Joe Bennett bombing down the left and Marvin Emnes up front provide pace. Emnes has in fact been little short of a revelation this season having regularly been among the goals too.
After the forced sales in the summer to trim down the wage bill, there were fears over the depth and quality of the squad. Pessimists will point out that there little depth with no one to provide goals if Emnes is out or struggling with injury (as he was on Wednesday), while the replacements in midfield (Thomson and Julio Arca) are players feeling their way back from injury. What has emerged, however, is a tight squad of players, who all seem to have improved as footballers under Tony Mowbray's stewardship. One thing is for sure, after the Gareth Southgate struggle and the best-forgotten reign of Strachan, the confidence and optimism that had drained away from fans on Teesside in recent years is slowly returning. Charles Walford