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Downbeat Boro suffer another play-off blow
Final Score: Bristol City 2 Middlesbrough 0
FROM top to bottom there was an air of despondency hanging around the Middlesbrough camp at Ashton Gate.
Whether it was chairman Steve Gibson sitting in the directors’ box shaking his head, the sight of manager Tony Mowbray frustrated in the dug-out or the players trudging around, a defeat to a Bristol City team sitting bottom of the Championship felt like a pivotal moment.
A season once promising so much is no longer in Middlesbrough’s own hands – and everyone wearing the club crest is all too aware of that.
Having been unable to threaten Tom Heaton in the Robins’ goal over the course of 90 unconvincing minutes, it felt as if Middlesbrough’s campaign was already coming to a close.
Picking up just seven points from the last 36 has seen Boro drop from title contenders to outsiders for the play-offs.
But for all their problems since the turn of the year, with nine matches remaining Middlesbrough are still only three points shy of a play-off spot.
Perhaps the only saving grace with less than two months of the campaign left is that their rivals appear happy to keep dropping points to keep Middlesbrough in touch.
With 27 points still to play for, Mowbray must come up with a way of boosting his team’s morale over the next five days before another struggling team, Birmingham City, arrive at the Riverside Stadium.
Somehow, after a run of nine defeats from their last 12 league games, Middlesbrough’s squad have to recapture the sort of attitude and approach which looked capable of winning the Championship not too long ago.
Mowbray, after emerging from a despondent dressing room, said: “You have to put defeats behind you very quickly. The ambition would have been to finish first or second in this league this year.
But there is no reason why we should think we should get first or second.
“You think of the tide of a club without parachute payments, the tide of reducing high earning footballers ... We talked long and hard about the recruitment in the summer, so why should we be first or second, and yet we put ourselves in a very good position after 25 games.
“In football you can’t have it all ways. I am fully aware of supporters questioning this and that. As a manager you are the one who works with the players, you see how they react, the experience of some of them. You have to manage the dynamics of the dressing room.”
Rightly or wrongly Middlesbrough have been a victim of their own success earlier in the campaign. The mere fact they were in the running to claim an automatic promotion spot raised expectations after a summer of major rebuilding.
That said, Middlesbrough did show during that run that they have the players capable of achieving things this season.
Performances were not just one-offs, the form was good and the squad looked as good as the best the Championship had to offer.
Fast-forward to March and another defeat, at rejuvenated Bristol City, means the Mowbray/Gibson restructuring project now looks like it requires more time.
“Wherever we are as a football club, we have still been losing too many since Christmas,” said Mowbray.
“Whether this is the start of the season or the end, we can’t keep losing matches. When you make changes, if you still don’t get results you have to find the formula.”
Jonathan Woodgate was at the heart of a three-man defence with Kieron Dyer and George Friend operating as wing-backs, initially. Defensively Middlesbrough looked solid enough until Albert Adomah had been introduced.
Then, in the 32rd minute, disaster struck. Friend got caught out when one of his forward runs ended with a block deep in the Bristol City half.
Stephen McManus should still have dealt with a routine ball into the corner and when he did, at the third time of asking, his clearance was badly handled by Scott Mc- Donald near the centre circle.
The home team gained possession and the effective Neil Kilkenny’s diagonal pass found Adomah. The winger Mowbray admires was then allowed to cut inside Friend before scooping a precise chip over a crowded box and in off Jason Steele’s far post.
Middlesbrough should have had enough to come back into it. Instead they failed to create a significant chance and City extended their lead six minutes after half-time. Again there were errors.
Kilkenny’s quick free-kick from halfway was not dealt with, Stephen Pearson rolled a nice pass behind the defence for Steven Davies and the striker, with still a lot to do from a tight angle, struck a low shot that was poorly dealt with by Steele.
Mowbray, whose side could have conceded more after further errors at the back, said: “It was a little bit of ‘here we go again’. We huffed and puffed. We had plenty of the ball, there was not enough end product.
“It’s not a blame thing, we are a group. We just have to keep going. This time last Saturday we had beaten the league leaders, Cardiff City.
We will win games, are we going to win enough? Let’s wait and see.”
After back-to-back defeats at Huddersfield and Bristol City, Middlesbrough can ill-afford another when Geordieboy Lee Clark brings Birmingham to Teesside.