11 March ~ Five weeks ago Tony Mowbray suggested that Middlesbrough's season was at a crossroads. A run of poor results had seen them slip from just below the top two to temporarily outside the play-off places, flirting with mid-table mediocrity. There were reasons – injuries to Barry Robson, Scott Mcdonald and Nicky Bailey severely weakened Boro both as an attacking threat and in dogged defence. The run of just three points from six games, including defeats at struggling Coventry and at home to Burnley, suggested that Middlesbrough’s promotion push had run out of steam. Mowbray wasn't ready to make excuses. With his usual display of calm assurance he suggested to the media that he still believed in the squad.
No doubt he spoke to the players in slightly less measured tones but whatever the reason a dramatic turnaround in form has ensued. Four wins from five games – punctuated only by a defeat from in-form Reading – have pushed Boro back into the top four. More importantly they are scoring goals, averaging two a game in the current mini-run. Fans can start believing that promotion is a genuine possibility.
It has been helped by the return to action of Barry Robson but Mowbray must take a large part of the credit for some of the decisions he has made. Lukas Jutkiewicz has emerged as an excellent signing, while Mowbray has also thrown teenage striker Curtis Main into first-team action far sooner than he had hoped. The gamble paid off and Boro fans have two new striking heroes. The loan signing of Wolves winger Adam Hammill could prove equally inspired if he can provide the guile to unpick defences in tight games in the run-in.
Some might say a win is vital against Leeds today but in a season in which no Championship side seems ready to pull away from the pack, a point may be seen as a reasonable return – and the three points may be hard to come by. The two most recent home wins have come against average Barnsley and Forest, 2-0 victories that have, if anything, flattered Boro, who once again displayed a worrying inability to break down teams.
Facing Neil Warnock-drilled opposition Boro will have a tough afternoon. Since he took over Leeds have struggled to score but they have tightened up at the back and earned themselves a hard-won point at Hull last time out. Throw in the fact games between Middlesbrough and Leeds are often feisty – in the reverse fixture earlier in the season there were three cards in the first hour of the game – and it may be a match to endure rather than enjoy. Charles Walford