Final Score: Middlesbrough 4 Hastings United 1
IF there is some truth in the notion that a cup run can harm a promotion push then somebody forgot to inform the Riverside Stadium.
Middlesbrough are up and running again and believe staying in the FA Cup could boost the push for a Premier League return.
Not content with reaching the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup already this season, the Championship promotion hopefuls have designs on staying in another competition after sealing a fourth round place by overcoming Ryman Premier League side Hastings United 4-1.
Hastings, as focused as they were on competing with opponents sitting 131 places above them in the football pyramid, might not have represented much of a first hurdle in this year’s FA Cup.
But the afternoon provided further evidence Tony Mowbray has a squad capable of coping on a couple of fronts – even if securing a top-flight return remains the priority.
Earlier in the campaign Middlesbrough showed an ability to tinker with personnel to juggle pushes in a couple of competitions and now there is a real desire to repeat the trick.
“The League Cup run helped our league form, there’s no reason the same won’t happen if we stay in the FA Cup,” said Middlesbrough goalkeeper Jason Steele.
“The cup can give you a bit of momentum. It gives chances for one or two lads who aren’t getting games in the league to come in and stake their claim.
“We had to make a few sacrifices in terms of injuries with the League Cup run, tired limbs and stuff like that, but I think there are more positives than negatives with cup runs.
“The fourth round is the furthest I’ve been in the FA Cup when we took Sunderland back to our place and lost in extra time last season. Whoever we have in the cup, they won’t fancy coming here to the Riverside.
We’ve got a good home record in the competition.”
Given Mowbray’s tendency to tinker, more fixtures is a good way of keeping his players happy.
The visit of Hastings was a slightly different case in point, given how 12 injuries – excluding both Faris Haroun and Scott McDonald who only made the bench after late recoveries – restricted the manager’s planning.
But those players who were called upon turned in effective performances; sufficient enough to get Middlesbrough over the line against an opposition eager to make the most of their big day out.
While Bradley Goldberg’s stunning consolation goal 21 minutes from time reduced the arrears to 3-1 before Ishmael Miller added a fourth, the team sent out by Mowbray did its job.
Now the focus will turn back to Saturday’s visit of Watford, when Middlesbrough need to win to keep up the pressure on the Championship’s top two.
Leaders Cardiff are nine points clear of the Teessiders, who are two shy of second-placed Hull City.
The Premier League is the only serious target, but Middlesbrough are determined to make the most of what comes their way in the FA Cup too.
When Miller’s tame penalty after quarter of an hour was comfortably gathered by Hastings goalkeeper Liam O’Brien – only signed on loan from Barnet on Friday – doubts could easily have started to creep in.
Steele, who spent much of the first half untested and as an onlooker, said: “When he saved that penalty I’m thinking ‘oh no, it’s going to be one of those days’. I’m looking at the other end thinking he’s going to be a FA Cup hero and we’re on the end of a shock.”
But seven minutes later, with Hastings struggling to adapt to the occasion, such fears were erased. A move which started left, moved right then ended up reaching Merouane Zemmama standing just left of centre.
The Moroccan teed himself up with his first touch by controlling Kevin Thomson’s pass before curling a perfect rightfoot chip high in to O’Brien’s top left corner from 22 yards.
After a couple of strong tackles from player-boss Sean Ray on Miller, Hastings started to grow in confidence and had a goal ruled out for offside when Goldberg rounded Steele shortly before half-time.
But moments after the restart Luke Williams’ corner dropped kindly to the unmarked Andy Halliday, playing as a centre-back for the first time in his career, and he turned in his first goal since April 2011 when he was a forward.
Before another long range effort from Zemmama took a wicked deflection to find the net there had been further solid stops from young goalkeeper O’Brien.
And Steele, an England Under-21 shot-stopper, said: “He’s a young lad, just 21 and when he saved that penalty, what more can you expect on your debut? But he then made more saves!
“Obviously, he’s let four goals in but I don’t think you could blame him for any of them.”
Immediately after Zemmama’s second, Goldberg pulled one back with a fantastic strike of his own and celebrated by the 1,068 travelling supporters like it had sealed a trip to Wembley.
That, though, is not in Middlesbrough’s minds right now, even though they added a fourth six minutes from the end. By then Mowbray had introduced 16-year-old Bryn Morris along with fellow academy prospect Jordan Jones, 17, for debuts, although it was the other substitute who created the goal.
Haroun rolled a pass in to Miller’s feet. The striker, on loan from Nottingham Forest, side-stepped his marker before clinically dispatching his shot in to the bottom right of O’Brien’s net.
The start of another cup run?
Mowbray hopes so.