Same Old Story or Step Forward?
After yet another disappointing goal conceded by Middlesbrough at the death, this time against Nottingham Forest on Tuesday, you begin to wonder whether Tony Mowbray’s men are making that much needed progress.
The 92nd minute Dele Adebola goal made it 14 points dropped by Boro after 84 minutes this season, which would have put the club in eighth place, three points outside of the play offs, and possibly in the FA Cup for at least another round.
Swansea, Preston, Burton Albion, Leeds, Doncaster and Portsmouth have all broken the team’s backline in the final minutes of games and with the club still just six points outside the relegation zone, it’s getting beyond a joke.
Boos rang out around the Riverside following Adebola’s smash and grab, and with dwindling attendances and lessening finances those Premiership giant killings are more than ever becoming a distant memory.
But should we be so downhearted after what was essentially a very good performance?
Mowbray’s men dominated possession, the shot count and looked by far the more enterprising side on a night when the defence had been decimated by injury and the midfield was not at full strength.
If anything, from a spectators point of view, Mowbray was a little naive in leaving the line-up, formation and general approach as it was for the final 20 minutes as Forest began to pile forward in numbers.
In fact it was only as the free kick that Adebola scored from was being taken, that Marvin Emnes and Maximilian Haas stripped off in preparation to come on and seal the victory.
The Boro backline has more recently been the focus of fan’s frustrations, with Seb Hines and Jonathan Grounds getting more stick than most, particularly after their last pairing in a back four when Boro let a 3-1 lead slip to go down 4-3 to Swansea City.
For the most part however, the pair dealt with seasoned Championship strikers, in David McGoldrick and Robbie Earnshaw, well although somehow the latter did win a few headers against Grounds.
This dominance was threatened by the aerial threat of Adebola however, who at 6ft 3in tall highlighted a lack of strength at centre back and to be fair to Mowbray, Haas doesn’t exactly look like the Terminator.
With options limited in defence, few could argue with the effort that was put in although this part of the pitch is clearly something in need of work.
Yet when Stephen McManus, Matthew Bates and Andrew Davies return, Hines and Grounds might be fortunate to feature on the bench.
Maxi Haas is continually being mooted as the perfect man to fit that centre back mould in recent weeks although his deal is understood only to run until the end of the season according to BBC Tees, with Boro having an option of a one year extension on that.
As a result Mowbray’s opinion of him at this point may well be an implication of whether he is likely to take up that option as Haas continues to look on from the bench.
However the front men, although hard working, could have been more clinical and killed the game off long before Forest equalised, with Scott McDonald and Leroy Lita among others failing to convert.
In all Boro scored just one of their 11 shots on target, as opposed to Forest’s three on target, which I suppose you could either put down to good goalkeeping or poor finishing on Boro’s part.
Despite this both McDonald and Lita’s work rates were fantastic although Lita’s at times frustrating approach of not playing to the whistle annoyed the home support, despite his uncharacteristic role as a header winning target man.
The 15,341 fans in attendance also gave a relatively good account of themselves, particularly during Boro’s more dominant stages towards the end of the first half and start of the second.
But understandably during the tenser moments, particularly during the first 15 minutes or so, the atmosphere resembled that of a reserve team match despite two staunch sections of diehards singing throughout at either end.
It is during these periods in games that Boro seem most vulnerable however, whether it be through conceding early, which the players seem to have a distinct lack of confidence in dealing with, or conceding late on when the opposition fans are willing their side on.
Whether it was the fault of Mowbray’s naivety, defensive frailty, poor finishing, good goalkeeping or wavering support, something that must be stressed is that this season’s objectives are now set.
Instead of there being a cheeky play off push in the making, Boro are all but certain to be in the Championship for a third season come May.
This period between now and then is vital in persuading the fans and players that next season will finally be Boro’s fight back year.
Time is running out on the club in terms of its fans’ patience, its ability to attract high quality players and quite possibly those underlying finances that the club are continue to be worryingly vague about.
One thing is for sure now however. That step forward will only come if Middlesbrough as a footballing town gets behind the Reds for the remainder of the campaign.
By next season, a stable line-up of committed and proud Boro players can hopefully turn that same old story into a different one entirely.