Boro struggle to find a way out
In a week where England suddenly decided the Europa League was fashionable, Steaua Bucharest's visit to Chelsea this week stirred memories of the Romanians' last trip to England. The UEFA Cup semi-final second leg at the Riverside Stadium in April 2006, when Massimo Maccarone's last-ditch goal took Middlesbrough through to the Eindhoven final against Sevilla, was the pinnacle of a thrilling European campaign for Steve McClaren's team.
It seems like a long time ago. Boro have been through worse, as the Ayresome Park gates set outside the stadium and the 'Spirit of '86' banner inside it remind us, but times are tough. Now in their fourth season in the Championship following relegation under Gareth Southgate in 2009, Boro are a stark warning of what getting stuck in the second tier can mean. This campaign has started well, and they were third at the turn of the year, but 2013 has begun in nightmare fashion.
A limp loss to Birmingham City made it just seven points taken from a possible 39 in this calendar year. The sense of resignation in the Riverside's stands was such that when the public address announced a minimum of four minutes of added time for Boro to chase an equaliser, the streams of spectators to the exits thickened, as if that much longer of frustration was too much to suffer.
Boro started the game in ninth, but only three points away from the play-off zone. A better perspective on their recent fortunes was perhaps provided by the sight of Bolton Wanderers ahead of them on goal difference, weeks after their boss Dougie Freedman faced press questioning on how the Trotters would cope with a relegation battle.
Manager Tony Mowbray was a player during the pre-Steve Gibson, near-bankruptcy era, and even if he's been through worse, he feels the current difficulties intensely. "I've supported this club since I was a boy of six or seven," he said after the game from behind tired eyes. "And as a manager there is that sense that the buck stops with you, so you take it hard."
Mowbray's opposite number Lee Clark, a man as familiar with the nuances of north-east football as any, had sympathy. "You could tell today they're a different team today in terms of confidence," he remarked. "When we played them at home [in November], they were one of the very best teams in the division, and they haven't changed ability-wise."
Clark has been through the wringer himself in this campaign. Birmingham have eased their own fears of the drop of late with an excellent run of just two defeats in 14 games, but their fans have been through their own seven circles of hell since relegation followed a League Cup win in 2011. Owner Carson Yeung's arrest on money-laundering charges turned an intermittent funding tap clean off, with Clark left to forge the next stanza of his managerial career in sparse conditions, after he was surprisingly fired by Huddersfield just over a year ago.
He was rightly proud of his side for this performance. If the game itself lacked quality, it was Birmingham who showed the greater composure and cohesion in the opening half, benefitting from good contributions from Wes Thomas, Ravel Morrison and Nathan Redmond, the trio who turned around a losing position against Derby last week after coming off the bench.
"Sometimes when you leave players out they get a bit of a sulk on, " Clark smiled, "but they didn't. They give us energy and pace, which defenders don't like to play against. I told them [before the Boro game] to just perform and stay in the team for the last nine games."
Morrison had a pair of shots from distance saved by Jason Steele, with the second at the genesis of Birmingham's 81st-minute winner. When the ball came out, Faris Haroun pontificated on the ball too long and Wade Elliott exchanged passes with Shane Ferguson before crossing for Nikola Zigic to scuff home.
There is no more conspicuous monument to Birmingham's previous boardroom folly than the continued presence of Nikola Zigic, Yeung's 2010 'present' to then-boss Alex McLeish. Picking up a reputed £60,000 weekly salary, he continues to be a drain on a tight budget, though he is back in Clark's good books after a recent dressing-down for his poor attitude in training.
"Since that situation, he's performed very well," Clark said. "It's water under the bridge. He's doing his job and doing it well, as they all are." Other Premier League relics - "the experience" in Birmingham's side, as Mowbray put it - were useful here during a second half in which Boro started to up the pressure on the visitors, and captain Curtis Davies was a particularly strong presence.
It was impressive given that Birmingham had to readjust early on, after Haroun's heavy challenge in the game's first ten seconds ended Jonathan Spector's involvement for the day. Unfortunately for Mowbray, there was little inspiration to match the undoubted perspiration from a side looking to an inexperienced loanee in Sammy Ameobi for attacking inspiration.
Ameobi the younger was a rare beacon of confidence in the home side's line-up, alternating from right wing to left and dropping into central areas to pick up the ball in an attempt to make things start to happen. Substitute Ishmael Miller headed the home team's best chance just wide after a rare fluent move, started off by another fleet-footed burst in enemy territory by Ameobi.
Mowbray has not yet written off the play-offs, and made an encouraging stab at positivity. "We've got important games against teams right around us after the international break," he pointed out. "Brighton, Forest, Bolton... if you win them, you're right back in, but if you lose, the gap becomes too big."
Given that a fine win over Cardiff is the sole highlight of recent months, maybe a big occasion is required to raise the team and lift the gloom. The cautious Clark emphasised that his team still have "to be aware of what's going on behind us", but at least his side appear to be pulling in the right direction.