The thing is, we’ve been here before. Not in exactly the same circumstances – there aren’t that many fourth-minute red cards – but in plenty of similar situations.
Brentford away. QPR at home. Norwich away. Jordan Rhodes delivers. Time and again in the happier days of the Karanka era, Middlesbrough were made to toil and scrap, sweat and strain, roar and fist-pump. Good old-fashioned, backs to the wall stuff away from home. It was painful, but it got us promoted.
The good news is that it doesn’t seem like Boro have lost those qualities. The worry when Garry Monk was brought in was that his more expansive style might come at the expense of the defensive steel that has served iron-clad Boro defences so well over the last couple of years.
The last few days have shown that one does not necessarily have to come at the expense of the other. A frighteningly exciting performance in the spanking of Bolton was supposed to light the touchpaper for Boro to go on a swaggering run, but instead Monk and his side have sent a more important message to the rest of the league, if at the expense of a couple of points.
Whether you want to go toe-to-toe on the dancefloor or the boxing ring, Boro will be there. They can be beautiful, and they can be ugly. That’s hugely promising.
It probably isn’t a huge coincidence that this return to form – at least, we hope it’s a return to form – has come with the restoration of the Grant Leadbitter/Adam Clayton midfield axis. They have been sensational.
I should admit, upon seeing the teamsheet for Saturday’s match at Bolton, I wasn’t thrilled to see Leadbitter back in the side. I was probably not alone in thinking the captain is past his best, better suited to a role based more on shouting at people than running the match from the centre of the park.
I stand corrected. If Boro are to mount a successful promotion challenge, the hard-as-nails, come-and-have-a-go-if-you-think-you’re-hard-enough, get-up-Snodgrass trio of Clayton, Leadbitter and Ben Gibson will be as important as anything else. They’ve been there and done it, had a bitter taste of the big time, and are eager to earn another chance. It helps that they’re all still extremely good at what they do.
What Boro were missing in the good old days of Daniel Ayala stabbing in undeserved tap-ins at Griffin Park was the creative spark of a player like Adama Traoré. We’ve moaned about that for years and now that we’ve finally got one, let’s cut him a bit of slack.
The challenge against Villa, red card or not, was probably a stupid one. With the decisions we saw in the Premier League over the weekend, he shouldn’t be giving a referee a chance to use the phrase ‘endangering an opponent’, whether it was a harmless slide challenge or not.
But we’ve seen now what he’s like when he’s got a bit of confidence in him. For 90 minutes at the Macron, 4,000 Boro fans replaced Messrs. Karanka, Adomah, and Ramírez in the Seven Nation Army chant with Traoré, and he absolutely loved it. When he comes back after a spell on the naughty step, welcome him back to the side with open arms. Don’t give him any stick and, while we’re at it, afford the same basic decency to Stewart Downing.
His Boro career was over a month ago, and his performances since coming back into the side have been very respectable. His passion and experience are a huge asset this season.
So. It might not have been the three points we were hoping for, and it might be another step back behind some of our promotion rivals. But in the space of the last few days, Boro have shown so many of the attributes they will need this season that it is impossible not to be optimistic.
QPR up next – it took a 93rd-minute Leadbitter penalty to oust them from the Riverside last time around. Hopefully it won’t come to that this weekend, but if Boro need to dig the trenches and fight, they can do it. Of that there is surely now no doubt.
By Sam France, @sjakef