The Championship is an unforgiving league to say the least, so it is best not to have many regrets come May. A lack of that elusive ‘killer instinct’ to finish a game off or squandered goal chances can always come back to painfully haunt a team, which Middlesbrough may experience at the end of the season.
Four consecutive 1-1 draws, failure to win in six games and an ever-growing injury list doesn’t look too promising for a promotion pushing side, who currently find themselves outside of the play-offs on goal difference. It’s only the fourth time this season that we haven’t occupied a top six spot, after slipping out following Blackpool’s shock 3-0 win over Southampton, but with just six games remaining, it is the worst possible time for the wheels to fall off the ‘Mogganaut’.
The ‘Mogganaut’, for those who don’t know, is the large metaphorical bandwagon driven by club legend and manager Tony Mowbray, with fans purchasing one way tickets to the Premier League. There is no denying that Mowbray has done a remarkable job since replacing Gordon Strachan in October 2010, taking the club from the relegation zone to genuine promotion contenders on a shoestring budget, but his job this season is far from over. For the former club captain, who helped his hometown club fight back from the brink of liquidation in 1986, the next month or so will be the most important of his Boro management career, and every single point is vital.
Our last four results include hard-earned away draws at promotion rivals West Ham and Brighton and stalemates with Bristol City and Ipswich Town. We had to rely on two spectacular goals in two games as an 84th-minute wonder goal from Bart Ogbeche at Upton Park and a fine strike from Malaury Martin at home to Bristol City rescued two points for us. We can’t rely on these sorts of goals and during both of these games we had a number of clear-cut chances to score that we definitely should have taken.
The biggest problem for Boro though seems to be holding onto a lead, as we went ahead and then conceded eleven minutes later in both of our last two games against Ipswich and Brighton. It has plagued us for season upon season but during this final run-in of crucial games, we simply can’t rest on our laurels. We have to attack from every kick-off and refuse to settle for just one goal, even if we have just gone ahead. Surprisingly, we actually have a number of players who can find the net in this league, which has always been an issue in years gone by. Marvin Emnes has been like a new player under Mowbray this season, scoring 12 league goals and receiving the player of the month award for August. We need Emnes to find some of his early season form if we are to stand a chance of gaining promotion and with a couple of strong strike partnerships available, he may just do that. Lukas Jutkiewicz was signed from Coventry in January for a fee in the region of £1.3 million and I have been impressed with him so far. It is about time we had another big, strong forward who can head the ball and hold up play and although he has only scored two league goals so far, his link-up play and teamwork is second to none.
As well as Emnes and Jutkiewicz there is also Scott McDonald, who has recently returned after two months out. Before going off with the knee ligament injury that was supposed to rule him out for the rest of the season, the Aussie striker was in fine form and had scored eight of his nine goals in his last 15 matches.
The three forwards had been developing a nice trio before the injury to McDonald which I am sure would have continued for a few more games, so it will be a boost to have them all back together. There are other injury worries however, especially in defence, as both first choice centre-backs went off against Ipswich at Portman Road meaning Stephen McManus, who was deemed superfluous, had to be recalled from his loan at Bristol City. Matthew Bates has suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury for the fifth time in his career and the crocked captain could face a minimum of six-months on the sidelines. Any chance he had of leading his hometown club out in a potential Wembley final is all but gone. To rub salt in his wounds, Bates had been attracting Premier League attention but was holding out until the end of the season for an improved deal at Boro as his current contract is due to expire.
It is really disappointing, especially for Bates, and in hindsight we should have tried to get a defender in on loan. We will just have to make do now and move on. As the promotion race enters the final strait, it is definitely too close to call, especially compared to previous seasons.
I think our hope for automatic promotion is out of our reach now with teams like Southampton, who we are yet to play at home, storming ahead. However, I would like to think that we will be main contenders in the play-off mix at the end of April, we deserve to be and anything less would be a huge disappointment. If we aren’t up there then there are definitely a few things that we should have, would have and could have done better. Hopefully the regret won’t haunt us for too long.