A couple of months ago, the best most of us could expect was a place in the play-offs, sixth looked a decent deal then. Now here we are knowing that, if we can keep the levels raised in our final eight games, there’s a good chance we’ll finally escape a league that we thought might be a canny bit of fun but has since turned into a relationship from hell.
We’re going well now, making up for an iffy beginning to the season. ‘It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish’ is something we’ve all heard, so Francis Todd Malone takes a look back at a couple of occasions when we got it together after an iffy opening - with contrasting outcomes.
We didn’t start the season well following our relegation from the Premier League alongside Boro and Forest, losing three of our first four (including a shocker at Port Vale which still gives me night sweats if I’ve had a late peck at the cheese). We got it together a bit, until Boro turned us over at the Stadium of Light, then we got humped 4-0 at Reading. The uncovered away end at asbestos-friendly Elm Park was never much fun and reflecting on a fifth loss in our first 10 from there after we’d been pulled apart (Darren Williams’ sending off didn’t make a lot of difference) was a grim experience.
I’d love to know what sparks good runs. Just as Lee Howey’s goal had got us going a couple of seasons earlier, suddenly things came together after that butchering in Berkshire, as Reidy got another great tune out of us. We went 16 unbeaten, winning 10 of them, to first rule out any ideas of a relegation fight, then get us thinking of the play-offs, until a midweek setback at Norwich at the end of January. There was another defeat at Boro but the wins kept coming and there was genuine belief, particularly when the Smoggies wobbled a bit. It all looked like it was coming together in early March when we played Forest off the park at their place, winning 3-0. The Trent End scoreboard was a good support act, regularly spitting out updates from Loftus Road. ‘QPR 5 Middlesbrough 0’ was the final one, just a few days after the Smoggies had themselves gone down 4-0 at Forest. It made for a belter of an atmosphere in our end. It’s not an awayday you read about much but it’s certainly one that will long live in the memory of most of those of us who were there (the sober ones, anyway). Sadly, Merson and Gascoigne got Boro back together and our momentum was checked by QPR, who came from 2-0 down in the pissing rain at ours to earn a point. We led with two Quinny goals and were set for a vital three points but a dodgy Chris Makin backpass gifted them one back with 15 minutes to go. By now, our bums weren’t just squeaking, they were in full-on brass band mode. There had been a nervousness about the place for much of the second half, so when Sheron netted his second, in similarly shambolic fashion, before the end, two points had slipped from our grasp. Going back to arses, I can still picture one of the QPR fans landing on his as he scampered down the rain-lashed steps to celebrate their leveller with their players at the front of the South Stand. Talk about after pleasure there must be pain. They survived by a point, so it could be argued the draw at ours kept them up. However, Jamie Pollock’s magnificent own goal against them earlier in the season (Google it if you’ve never seen it) is rightly credited with doing the job, particularly as he was a City player – and they went down.
The late agony continued when Lee Hughes earned West Brom a 3-3 draw at West Brom - we trailed 2-0 but led 3-2 and looked set for another cracking trip home, until his late intervention. Those four dropped points hurt. The theme of the last few weeks of the season seemed to be 1) Rush back to the car. 2) Get the scores on. 3) Swear loudly on hearing confirmation of Forest and Boro wins. Only the privileged few had mobiles then, don’t forget. The top two weren’t relentless of course, simply we had too much ground to make up and were in permanent catch-up mode, wishing the season would be extended by a few games so we could break into the top two. We would have too, no doubt about that. We won three of our last four but a midweek trip to Ipswich always looked tough and we went down 2-0. After only three losses in 36 games, we’d missed out on automatic promotion by a point. There were some cracking trips (including the final one, the Swindon takeover) and some wonderful football – I genuinely think I enjoyed the second half of this season more than any other. But play-offs it was, and after beating Sheffield United over two legs, it didn’t end well at Wembley, thanks to Charlton and Clive Mendonca. No need to go any further, let’s move on swiftly...
The dismal 15-point season meant we found ourselves in the second tier again. Quinny was in charge and was resplendent in the dugout in shorts, white sports socks and sandals as we opened at Coventry, going 1-0 up and losing 2-1. It set the tone for his brief reign, with three more defeats following. We usually bounce back from the previous season’s disappointment strongly, but not this time. Only McMenemy could compete with such a shocker of a start and our Irishman knew he had to do something drastic, as talk came of a dreaded double drop, so he got another one in. The response to Roy Keane’s appointment was instant, with three wins to start, including fabulous awaydays at Derby and Leeds. The pace slipped, checking talk of promotion, until we got a glorious second wind. We took 51 points from the last 20 games and had a great time, with the only blemish a loss witnessed from another crappy away end (Colchester) that the previously impeccable Jonny Evans could do nothing to stop. Other than that, it was free-flowing football, goals and points aplenty – and the added bonus of all the teams above us dropping points as we kept on climbing. We wrapped our home fixtures up with a 3-2 win over Burnley, where Carlos Edwards scored THAT goal. But the best was yet to come. We won 5-0 on the final day at Luton to pip Birmingham (Brucie, Bendtner, Larsson and all) to the title, ensuring an ambitious bet as we climbed the table paid off handsomely for me. It wasn’t all good news for me though. Our timing may have been spot-on but mine was lacking. I’ve been lucky enough to be at most of the games we still talk about, but the Kenilworth Road match was one of the rare ones that work got in the way of.
I’ll do my bit though and say I’ll happily sign up to not being at the Northampton game if we go up. You too? Thought so.