Final Score: Middlesbrough 1 Watford 2
WHEN Tony Mowbray sits in his seat in the Riverside dug-out, he is less than ten yards away from an advertising hoarding plugging a live version of “Horrible Histories” at the Billingham Forum.
After Saturday's setback to Watford, the Middlesbrough manager could be forgiven for reflecting on a number of his own club's unhappy experiences in the past.
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It used to be a standing joke that Boro came down with the Christmas decorations, and while it is much too early to start getting too alarmed by the potential for a new year slump this season, successive league defeats is hardly the way Mowbray would have chosen to start 2013.
Twelve months ago, the Teessiders kicked off 2012 in exactly the same way and eventually went five league matches without a victory, a run of form that saw them slip six places in the table.
So far, they have dropped two positions in 2013, but with Friday's televised fixture taking them to Leicester to face the most in-form side in the league, there is clearly potential for further damage.
“Leicester are a good side, but we've know that all along,” said Mowbray. “They've spent some money and have some good players. Particularly at home, they have a fabulous goalscoring record. It'll be a huge test for us on Friday night, but it's one that we have to try to rise to.”
Momentum is always such a key factor in a league as tight and demanding as the Championship, and after benefiting from it in the first half of the season, Boro cannot afford to remain on a downward trajectory for too long.
Have there been any fundamental changes since the turn of the year to explain the mini-slump? Not really, indeed, if anything, the return from injury of the likes of George Friend, Rhys Williams, Josh McEachran and Emmanuel Ledesma should have made the Teessiders stronger than they were in the closing weeks of 2012.
The New Year's Day defeat at Derby was the result of a rare bad day, but Saturday's reverse was arguably even more frustrating because Boro only had themselves to blame as mistakes proved extremely costly.
The hosts dominated throughout the first half, but spurned the two decent chances that came their way as Seb Hines headed over from the edge of the six-yard box and McEachran inexplicably attempted to play in Lukas Jutkiewicz when he was extremely well-placed himself just eight yards from goal. For all his obvious strengths, McEachran's failure to score a single goal this season is a major blot on his copybook.
His poor decision-making proved costly on the stroke of half-time when an even more uncharacteristic error from Williams handed Watford their opening goal.
The centre-half attempted to chest Marco Cassetti's cross back to Jason Steele, but only succeeded in presenting the ball to Matej Vydra, who calmly swept it home from close range. It was a desperate error, and Williams' reaction as he slumped to the floor with his head in his hands proved he instantly knew as much.
“The defenders didn't really have anything to do in the first half, but if you want to be top players, it's all about concentration,” said Mowbray. “You can't make mistakes like that, and ultimately it probably cost us the game because of the nature of the team we were playing against and the counter-attack quality they possess.
“The longer it stayed 0-0, I'd have been confident we would have gone on to win the match. We beat ourselves. We were in control in the first half, so to put their goal on a plate for them was really disappointing.”
Watford's counter-attacking capabilities were always going to make the second half difficult for Boro, and so it proved, with only the 56th-minute introduction of Adam Reach adding any real drive or purpose to the home side's attacking.
Steele made two excellent saves from Vydra to keep his side in the game, but the newly-crowned North-East Young Player of the Year was unable to prevent the Czech Republic international doubling Watford's lead with seven minutes left when he raced on to Troy Deeney's through ball and slotted home.
Scot McDonald grabbed a consolation in the final minute of stoppage time, glancing home Reach's left-wing cross to claim his tenth league goal of the season, but any hopes of a meaningful comeback had long since been extinguished.
“It was a frustrating day,” admitted Mowbray. “ It was important not to give them a cheap goal, but ultimately that's exactly what we did. We shot ourselves in the foot at the worst possible time.”