We knew that we never win on the opening day, we knew the squad was depleted, we knew Millwall were a tricky opponent. But we couldn’t have foreseen what would happen on Saturday afternoon at The New Den.
Last season Garry Monk’s brittle Boro side were outfought and outplayed at Millwall, but the hope was that Pulis’ new look side would have more steel about them. That certainly wasn’t the case for the first 75 minutes.
From the off, Millwall were causing problems for our makeshift side. The play was uncomplicated – direct balls to mobile forwards making life difficult for the unfamiliar central defensive pair of Flint and Fry. Boro were being well and truly out-Pulis’d.
Meanwhile, all Boro could muster was aimless long balls up to Britt and Braithwaite who struggled to hold the ball up. The midfielders couldn’t get on the ball and even the set pieces were aimless. Pulis must have been furious.
Millwall’s inevitable breakthrough eventually came from individual mistakes. The ball was given away in a dangerous area and Gregory was played in behind, allowing him to square for a grateful Aiden O’Brien, who somehow ghosted in between the two centre backs to fire home.
The second goal was just embarrassing for all involved, possibly even for the goalscorer Lee Gregory.
Ryan Shotton scooped a header straight up in the air, and Aden Flint tried to help it back to the keeper. But his header was too weak and fell into the path of Gregory, who bundled the ball past Randolph’s feeble attempt to save before coolly slotting home.
It looked like game over and could well have been early in the second half as Gregory just failed to get on the end of a dangerous cross, and a couple more crosses fizzed across the box. Millwall could have been out of sight by the time Boro finally started to wake up.
With 15 minutes to go, it didn’t look like Boro were capable of getting even a consolation goal. The Millwall fans taunted the Boro fans, with one in particular in the East stand showing his bare backside in our direction.
Even the announcer was advising the Boro fans to leave early and wait for the train, perhaps to save from further humiliation.
Slowly but surely, Boro did start to put pressure on. There was no real method to the madness though as Pulis just seemed determined to throw as many players forward as possible in the hope that something would fall for one of them. It was somewhat reminiscent of Steve McLaren’s tactics in the UEFA Cup.
Tavernier, Wing and Fletcher were thrown on to add a bit more energy, Martin Braithwaite seemed to play more centrally, and even Aden Flint was thrown up front. Shotton and Friend also appeared to give up on defending as more and more hopeful crosses were launched into the box.
A few half chances went begging before Boro finally got back into it. Tavernier wriggled free on the left before cutting back to Braithwaite who poked the ball between the keeper’s legs. A lifeline, but surely nothing more than a consolation?
Boro continued to pile forward but chances seemed to be slipping away deep into injury time. There were a few scrambles in the box, but nobody could get a clean strike and when a poor free kick was cleared into touch, it looked like that would be that.
But Shotton had one more chance to launch a long throw into the box. His throws hadn’t come to much so far in the game, and neither did this one. But it was only half cleared to Lewis Wing who set himself for a spectacular shot.
He instead scuffed it into the 6 yard melee, the ball ricocheted to Gorgeous George and he fired home to instigate full on pandemonium in the away end. Those fans who had left early must have heard the roar from the train station and rued their early exit.
It was a frantic, desperate, disorganised mess from start to finish. But somehow, Boro managed to show some fighting spirit to get back into it.
That, at least, is encouraging. As were the performances of youngsters Tavernier, Wing and Fletcher as well as the outcast Martin Braithwaite.
But Boro will know they can’t rely on miracles every week and huge improvements will be needed for the visit of Sheffield United on Tuesday.