UNLESS the rules change significantly, no team – especially in the Championship – wins the league before Christmas.
Middlesbrough know this all too well. It was they who were flying high in the division this time last year, before a festive hangover effected a slide down the table from which they would ultimately not recover.
Meanwhile, Reading, who seemingly had no chance of going up before the packed Christmas schedule, put a run together which gathered such pace that they had the Championship title wrapped up before the end of the season.
Middlesbrough captain Jonathan Woodgate, the calm head of the dressing room, the one who has played enough football to know these things, is not getting carried away.
He skippered his side to a 3-2 victory at Peterborough at the weekend in a game that seesawed from Boro looking unassailable at 2-0, to the hosts turning the game around and appearing most likely to gain victory at London Road.
But Woodgate, who saw Ishmael Miller fire a 76thminute winner to put Boro third, knows that there is a long way to go before the champagne can be purchased, let alone put on ice.
“They all count, we’ve got the three points and we’re moving up the table,” said Woodgate, who came back into the team after a three-week absence. “We’re third now and that’s the most important thing when you play in this league – it’s an inconsistent league and the most consistent team goes up.
“We’re third, so we’re not wobbling – a team who wobbles is a team who goes from third to seventh, from seventh to tenth, and from tenth to 15th. We’ve stayed up there so it’s no wobble, “The mentality of the team is too strong to worry about going on bad runs of five or six games without a win.
We’re a strong team and unit.
“You hear the press looking at the statistics, saying we haven’t won in three games, it’s no wobble. You listen to your manager, and he says what we have to do – and we do that.
“He works us every day in training and he’s always on about your mentality and how you keep on going and never give up.
“It will be tight, but I think we’ll go up – even automatically. It’s important to believe it, because there’s no point in believing you’ll finish fifth.”
Boro had raced into a twogoal first-half lead through Faris Haroun, who had recovered from a calf injury to make the line-up on Saturday, but Posh fought back with a brace of goals from Dwight Gayle either side of half-time before Miller struck.
Middlesbrough looked out of sight by 20 minutes in. Haroun opened the scoring for the visitors on nine minutes with Emmanuel Ledesma the architect.
The Argentinian found Scott McDonald wide right with a sublime crossfield ball from deep, McDonald nudged inside for Haroun, who burst into the box and clipped a leftfooted shot into the bottom right corner of Bobby Olejnik’s goal.
Two minutes later, Haroun went close again, with his shot deflected over the crossbar, then McDonald brought a smart save out of Olejnik from Stuart Parnaby’s cross.
But the Belgian stole in front of his marker on 20 minutes to sidefoot home from Parnaby’s cross. Again, Ledesma was involved in its build-up, with his trickery releasing Marvin Emnes who provided Parnaby with the ball.
Middlesbrough were cruising at this point, and there seemed no way back for their beleaguered hosts.
However, Posh gained in confidence from two halfchances provided by George Thorne and Lee Tomlin, and they found a way back in on 37 minutes when Gayle scored his second in two games, expertly turning Woodgate and rifling past goalkeeper Jason Steele.
Posh could have been level going in at the interval, when Thorne’s long-range shot whistled past Steele’s post.
And Posh got the equaliser seven minutes after the restart, when Gayle bundled home Michael Bostwick’s corner from Tomlin’s corner.
The corner had been given after Gayle had forced a decent save out of Steele after the striker’s surging run into the box.
While it was the confidence of Middlesbrough that had Peterborough on the rocks in the early stages of the first half, the tables had completely turned in the second when a Posh attack left the visitors rocking on their heels. Tommy Rowe’s shot fell just wide of the post from some slick attacking interplay.
However, a single act of brilliance put Boro back into the lead. Ishmael Miller, on as a substitute, received the ball 20 yards out, shifted it onto his left and rifled past Olejnik.
There was controversy a minute from time when Ledesma, Boro’s brightest spark on Saturday, was brought down 40 yards out, but instead of playing an advantage from which Miller netted, referee Carl Berry brought play back for a freekick – Ledesma’s shot deflected over.
There was time at the end for two penalty shouts from Posh and Boro – both denied – while goalkeeper Olejnik made a fine double save from Miller and Ledesma at the death.
Woodgate praised Miller for taking his chance from the bench.
“It was a great strike for the third goal,” said the Boro skipper.
“He has done well, he was on the bench today but he came on and produced a good first touch and that’s what you want from your substitutes.
“It wasn’t an easy victory, it was a scrappy game, but we got the three points on the board. I don’t think we were cruising when we went 2-0 up “I think Peterborough were dominating when we scored the goals – we hit them on the counter-attack, and that was the plan to do that.
“Peterborough concede a lot but they score a lot too. So our plan was to get them on the counter and that’s what we did.
“At half-time we were very positive and we got ourselves together and we got the third goal which was the most important.”