There were 24,084 fans at The Riverside on Tuesday evening.
24,084 pairs of eyes watching the same game; the same players, chasing and kicking the same ball. However, once you factor individual expectations, perceptions and allegiances, it’s clear that we can see things very differently.
City’s visits to Teesside are always amongst the first dates I look for once the fixture list is released. My family are Boro season ticket holders and it’s become a Cook tradition to get together whenever the two sides meet.
Over the years, we’ve probably shared the spoils overall; both sides enjoying periods of top flight success interspersed with spells of abject mediocrity. A reflection perhaps of an inherently similar stature and status within football’s hierarchy.
We witnessed the City come-back in the 4-4 draw at FCR in 2005, after which my auntie inadvertently incurred the full wrath of my cousins by suggesting ‘a draw would leave us all feeling happy’. We were there home and away three years ago, when Boro did the double; a 4-0 trouncing on a freezing cold November evening in Teesside, followed by a 1-0 win in Norfolk during the run-in which would ultimately take both sides to Wembley Way.
With Boro installed as the bookies’ pre-season favourites (and the MFW tipsters’ choice) to win the league, I didn’t relish the thought of another midweek trip up North. However, I took solace in the prospect of catching-up with the family and grabbing a parmo, and grateful that the fixture list had this time spared us from winter’s chill.
Whether it’s the natural pessimism and caution of the football supporter or something deep-rooted in the Cook genes, the family from ‘both sides’ were less than bullish about our respective chances. Boro, like Norwich, spent the summer rebuilding under new management, albeit City’s ‘Farkelife’ is in sharp contrast to Gary Monk’s overhaul at Middlesbrough.
A foreign legion of expensive imports and Premier League flops were jettisoned to finance a squad of home-grown talent, including bringing a certain pigeon-loving midfielder back to his Yorkshire roots. The ‘Northern Cooks’ were keen to point out that despite the transfer figures involved, ‘big-spending’ Boro had actually broken even on their summer dealings.
With expectations set pretty low and City conceding possession in the opening exchanges, Maddison’s 13th minute ‘worldy’ genuinely took me by surprise. But even as I celebrated, I didn’t truly entertain the prospect of a first Norwich win on Teesside since 1988 and our first ever at The Riverside.
City’s high defensive press was abandoned, in favour of solidity and shape; Tettey and Trybull patrolling the space in front of the back four; happy to concede possession and invite the hosts to break us down.
Boro’s flying winger, the distinctive Traore with his bleached mohawk, seemingly had the beating of his ‘ex-Husband’ down City’s left, and through my yellow and green tinted glasses, his every foray into the City half carried genuine menace.
Surely it was just a matter of time?
And so, it continued into the second-half. For those of us who have quickly become accustomed to watching City dominate possession, the sight of Boro working the ball around in City’s half, probing the defence was more than enough to fray the nerves. So too, a referee who was seemingly so responsive to every protestation from the home crowd, gifting the Teessiders a number of dangerous free-kicks and opportunities to threaten the goal.
With the minutes agonisingly counting down, Monk changed formation and tactics; Bamford and Braithwaite joining Assombalonga; £37million of collective striking options trying to make the break through. Thoughts turned to Paul Lambert and his cavalier changes which so often paid dividends.
It was the former Forest striker who came closest, aiming a free-header straight at Gunn with the goal at his mercy.
Five minutes went up on the injury time board.
“Five f***ing minutes – where’s he got that from!?”
The gnawing fear that Boro would grab an equaliser was not apparently shared by the home support who started leaving in droves.
“What game are they watching?” I thought to myself.
The final whistle, when it came, brought elation and relief from the 428 in The Riverside, no doubt echoed by all of those watching the beam-back at Carrow Road. The players huddled in victory, Jonny H came over to us in a show of mutual appreciation, followed shortly after by the entire City squad.
It was marvellous.
An hour or so later, as we headed back south on the A1, we got a text from my uncle;
‘Thought your boys were very organised, and after were gifted an opportunity which was well taken, were always hungry and generally first for the ball. Boro were a disorganised rabble… reflecting a confused mind of an over-hyped manager. Norwich will finish above Boro this year, and because of your tactics and organisation, might emulate Boro under Karanka….grind out sufficient points for a punt at the play offs.’
It was only then, I reflected and realised that far from the nerve-jangling ‘smash and grab’ job it seemed at the time, City had delivered the classic away performance. To a man, they were disciplined, hard-working and executed Farke’s game-plan perfectly.
Boro’s substitutions were not the tactical masterstrokes I feared, but a sign of increasing desperation from a side who were unable to break down our defences and on reflection, the half-chances Boro created didn’t merit the angst I put myself through.
But when it comes to watching your football team, the eyes can sometimes play tricks on you.