Middlesbrough suffered the worst possible outcome during their make or break Easter weekend. Two defeats at the hands of two play-off rivals has left our season hanging in the balance as we linger in eighth place. With just four games to go, our play-off chances seem as fragile as ever.
The whole 2011/2012 campaign for Boro has been geared towards finally gaining promotion and fulfilling our potential in this league. That often recurring tagline, which seemed to follow us, stating that we were a “Premier League club in the Championship” has faded quite fast. It feels like this could be the last season before we are doomed to playing second-tier football for eternity, following our reduced parachute payments and declining crowds. Until recently, it did seem like we were in with a good shout of getting back into the Premier League having spent the majority of this season in and amongst the top six. However, a string of unacceptable performances and bad results has seen us slide away.
Reflecting on my last blog, I said that Boro needed to pick up at least four points from Cardiff and Hull to stay in the play-off race. This would have seen us in good stead as we would now occupy the 6th and final play-off spot, rather than 8th. For Boro to pick up no points whatsoever from either of the games is truly terrible, which can also describe the performances we put in.
Cardiff had probably the easiest 45 minutes of their season at the Riverside on Saturday. The Bluebirds were 2-0 up and cruising by the 20th minute and the away fans were already mocking every pass their team made with a cheer. I have not seen such a disjointed, lacklustre and feeble performance from Boro since Mowbray has taken charge. As the half-time whistle blew there were deafening boo’s and I understood why some home fans were heading for the exits. It was by far our worst half of football this season, including the Leeds home game. There were massive improvements in the second though but Boro just couldn’t find the net. We managed to hit the woodwork three times and squandered even more chances. “On another day”, that popular commentator’s cliché, they would have all found the back of the net. The loss made Monday’s clash with Hull even more important than it already was.
The 3,000 travelling fans who made the short journey to the KC stadium were optimistic. Our away form during the past couple of seasons has been a huge contrast to performances at home. We have won nine times on the road this season, only bettered by the three league leaders and Burnley. On this occasion however, Boro fell apart again. We did somehow manage to go in front through a well taken Marvin Emnes goal meaning we led at half-time but it didn’t give a true reflection of the game. Hull eventually won the game 2-1 thanks to an 88th minute goal from Matty Fryatt. A win for them after five straight defeats and as painful as it is to say, they deserved it.
The most disappointing aspect of both of the weekend’s games was the manner in which we conceded. We practically gifted our opposition all of their goals by wayward passing, not challenging their players in good time and poor organisation skills. It’s hard to believe that we have a former defensive rock as a manager with our frailties at the back. The injuries to Matthew Bates and Rhys Williams haven’t helped our cause but the biggest problem seems to be our full-backs. This ‘modern wingback’ type player, as they are referred to as, doesn’t bode well if the players can get forward at every opportunity to support the attackers but forget their defensive duties in the process, which Joe Bennett and Justin Hoyte seem to do.
Travelling home on the bus from Hull, it was hard to find any positives from a weekend that could have put us well and truly on track for a visit to Wembley. Even now I am struggling to have any optimism or write something positive, even with the rallying calls from Boro players and manager alike, saying that we are “still in with a shout” and “it is not over yet”. They are technically right because as it stands we are currently just two points from play-offs, so all is not lost yet.
However, there are thirteen teams who could still mathematically finish in 4th, 5th and 6th, depending on fixtures and results. Some of the top teams still have to face each other so it’s still too early to call. You would think the likes of Cardiff and Birmingham will be in there and that it is probably too late for Derby County and Watford, who we still have to face. Leeds United will play three other play-off contenders in Blackpool, Cardiff and Leicester meaning the Whites will play a major part in deciding the make-up of the final six.
Realistically, will one of the teams be Boro? Only time will tell. It’s just a matter of taking each game as it comes now and hoping for the best. If results do go our way and the right teams are eliminated from the play-off race then our chances will increase. At this moment in time though, our season hangs in the balance. Fingers crossed it swings in the right direction.