TONY Mowbray admits his Middlesbrough players will be battling against mounting anxiety levels as well as their opponents from Leeds United as they attempt to get their faltering promotion push back on track tomorrow night.
Boro slumped to their fifth Championship defeat in a row as they lost 3-2 to Barnsley at the weekend and are still to claim a single league point in 2013.
The Teessiders remain in a play-off place, but their wretched recent form is becoming a major cause for concern and Mowbray's players were booed off the field at both the half-time and full-time whistles at the weekend.
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Whereas a sense of optimism was apparent at the Riverside in the first half of the season, the general mood now is one of nervous edginess, and Mowbray admits the creeping negativity is having an effect on his players.
“There was an anxiety there that was compounded by the concession of an early goal,” said the Boro boss. “The place took off when we got 2-1 in front and everybody was bouncing, but the pin was put in the inflated balloon again by the goal we conceded. Then the anxiety returned.
“That's football and you have to deal with that, there's no magic way out of it. There's no magic formula, you just have to work hard and, as a coach, you have to hit the right balance between critiquing and analysing and demanding more of certain individuals who might be below their levels, but also encouraging and congratulating.
“You need big characters. But how do you get out of it? Individuals doing their jobs - the centre-forward ramming the ball in, the wide player crossing it, the midfield player winning tackles and breaking things up, the centre-halves keeping the ball out and the goalie making the odd save. There's no secret to it, you've got to do your jobs.”
Too many Boro players did not do their jobs well enough at the weekend as a Barnsley side battling against relegation overhauled a 2-1 deficit in the final quarter of the game.
Boro's players were the architects of their own downfall, with three defenders failing to deal with the Rory Delap long throw that enabled Scott Golbourne to score from close range before an untimely slip from Jason Steele contributed to Jason Scotland's close-range winner.
For the second game in a row, Boro conceded three goals or more to a side in the bottom five places in the table, but rather than bemoaning any defensive deficiencies, Mowbray was keen to highlight the misfortune his side are suffering.
Jim O'Brien's early opener took a huge deflection off George Friend, with Scotland's winner also looping off a prone Nicky Bailey. However, there was also an element of luck about both of Boro's goals, with Barnsley defender Stephen Foster forcing his own goalkeeper to make a save in the build-up to the second-half strikes from Mustapha Carayol and Curtis Main.
“It's normally managers who are at the bottom of the table who come in and talk about misfortune and things going against them, but we're in that sort of run at the moment,” said Mowbray. “We're the ones suffering from deflected goals and bad luck.
“We didn't defend a Rory Delap long throw and the absurdity of the third goal was apparent. I can talk about the huge deflection and all the bodies in front of the ball, the fact it ricocheted off the bar and in, but that's the way it's going for us at the moment and we have to just take it on the chin.
“I can't question the desire to win games, I feel their frustration and disappointment in the dressing room. We're giving everything we can to try to make sure we turn it around, but sometimes you feel as if it's one of those scenarios where things are going against you. But you have to dig in and keep going.”
Mowbray will have to decide who to start up front tomorrow, with Saturday's half-time withdrawal of a misfiring Lukas Jutkiewicz having been a tactical decision rather than a change forced by injury.
Main made a positive impression as he returned from a five-month injury lay off, and the former Darlington youngster could be handed only his second start of the season.
“Curtis brings something different,” said Mowbray. “He's got a bit of power and speed, a bit of everything you need as a striker. He's still young, with a long way to go, but his attitude helped make a difference. I thought we needed his ability to turn them around a bit and he did that in the second half.”
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