Rotherham 1-2 Middlesbrough: Dramatic evening filled with talking points on and off the pitch
At this point in the season, with little to play for and on the back of a few lukewarm recent exhibitions, you might have been expecting a rather disappointing and uneventful evening in South Yorkshire.
If so, you are wrong.
There was a nightmare start, a disallowed goal, a controversial red card, an Academy graduate making an extremely impressive debut and a comeback win, Boro’s first victory in six attempts.
That sums up the drama on the pitch, but talking points have also emerged, with a revealing team sheet providing the strongest clues yet as to who will – and won’t – be in Neil Warnock’s plans for. next season.
On Boro’s last visit to New York Stadium in 2019, Britt Assombalonga scored on the spot as Boro minded his business, but ultimately missed out on a place in the Derby top six.
Two years later, the Rams, embroiled in junk for survival, followed him from afar, as did Assombalonga, one of many notable absentees from a 16-person squad, including a bench in which the five players field had not played a single minute for Boro in the league.
On the back of Warnock’s scathing comments following the QPR loss, the roster at Rotherham was revealing, with Assombalonga, Ashley Fletcher, Djed Spence and Hayden Coulson all left out, though Watnock later confirmed Coulson was ill and stated that Spence had a slight concern. Darnell Fisher also missed with injury.
In the wake of team news, BBC Tees reported that Assombalonga and Fletcher had played their last game for the club, after being told in a meeting on Tuesday that their services were no longer needed.
That Assombalonga’s future lies elsewhere has been evident for months, and it has become increasingly clear in recent weeks that Fletcher is also reportedly on his way. They will leave together four years after arriving together as a £ 21million pair tasked with returning Boro to the Premier League.
In the seasons that followed, Assombalonga had 45 league goals in 152 appearances; Fletcher 19 of 91. There are extenuating circumstances to be discussed in a deeper analysis, but there is no denying that the pair were, on the whole, disappointed.
Not for the first time, a Boro roster has laid bare the task facing Warnock and the club this summer. Of the 16 players in Boro’s squad, three were ready, two are without a contract this summer and five were youngsters with no Boro appearing between them. That leaves six: Paddy McNair, Grant Hall, Marc Bola, Jonny Howson, Duncan Watmore, and Chuba Akpom. Add Dael Fry and Marcus Tavernier to the mix and this is the core that Warnock keeps talking about.
It’s unclear what the future holds for Yannick Bolasie and Neeskens Kebano, but they have shown their Premier League class here, both enjoying their best performance in a Boro shirt.
Granted, Boro had a male advantage for the most part and played against a team clearly exhausted from their busy schedules, but Warnock’s side absolutely deserved the points. They have played some of the best football we’ve seen from them this season and should have at least doubled the two goals they scored.
Warnock will be encouraged. He will be encouraged by the performance and goal of Chuba Akpom and the superb performance of debutant Connor Malley.
After another nightmare Boro quickly took control and after Rotherham lost Matt Crooks there was only one team.
Rotherham, understandably, looked perfect, and whatever was said in their pre-game clique clearly worked, as they were a goal with less than three minutes on the clock, Angus Macdonald climbing up to get home. a corner. It was too easy. Again. And Boro was punished for starting out slow. Again. It was the ninth time in 11 outings that Boro had conceded the first goal.
This is something Warnock will obviously be desperate to fix next season. Boro needs to stop giving teams a head start and giving themselves a mountain to climb.
Boro, however, responded superbly to the backhand start and should have been level within minutes when Watmore had the ball in the net, but was accused of fouling goalkeeper Viktor Johansson. It’s fair to say that Warnock disagreed.
Akpom came close twice, first in a wide direction, then having a clear shot from the line, with Bolasie shooting over the rebound. The game was only 15 minutes old and Boro could – should have – scored three.
Then came the challenge and the decision which infuriated both benches. Boro’s outrigger canoe was infuriated by Matt Crooks’ aerial challenge over Grant Hall, but Rotherham’s bench was equally angered by Darren Bond’s decision to flash a straight red. Replays showed that Crooks’ eyes were on the ball and it was a painful head-to-head clash that sent Hall sprawling across the bridge.
Warnock said in his pre-game interview with Sky that he wanted to give his inexperienced bench a few game minutes, but Malley didn’t expect to get the nod before the half hour mark.
With Hall unable to continue, the midfielder who spent the first half of the season on loan at Carlisle and whose last appearance was in a Papa John Trophy match against Aston Villa five months ago, has been introduced, Captain Howson replacing Hall in the back.
Boro couldn’t make his man advantage count against QPR but was tied within a quarter of an hour of Rotherham’s red with Saville hammering emphatically at the near post after careful work and a sharp cut of the excellent Kebano.
It was one-way traffic, Rotherham pinned back and Boro asserted his power play by running the hosts. They looked menacing every time they attacked, twice within inches of passing in quick succession when Howson first hit the bar with a ranged strike before Bolasie found the woodwork with his rebound as well.
Bolasie was the first to try his luck in the second half. His ranged effort was far off target, but Warnock loved the positivity and his message from the canoe was clear: “Next time …”
And the next time Boro attacked, they scored with Akpom in hand in the box to sweep McNair’s cross for his first goal in 17 outings. The first season has been difficult for the former Arsenal forward, but he has not been helped by a side that does not play with its strengths. Here, when Boro played some pretty cool stuff on deck, it wasn’t surprising to see Akpom so much more involved and threatening than in most of his outings this season.
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Game Rotherham didn’t drop their heads and had their moments, but it was Boro who went closest by Akpom. With Assombalonga and Fletcher now out of place, the ex-Arsenal man will look to build on that in the remaining three games. Just like Boro.
There was time for Warnock to give Josh Coburn his debut, the forward featured in place of Bolasie. One win and two Academy debuts, after a rough patch and a shocking start it turned into a good night.