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Friend seeks the support of Boro's stay-away supporters
GEORGE Friend is hoping Wednesday's spirited display against Chelsea persuades wavering Middlesbrough supporters to return to the Riverside for tomorrow's crucial Championship game with league leaders Cardiff City.
Almost 28,000 fans packed into the Riverside as Boro crashed out of the FA Cup at the hands of the European champions this week, comfortably the club's biggest home attendance of the season.
Fewer than 16,000 supporters watched last weekend's league defeat to Millwall, with Boro's average home attendance having hovered around that mark for the majority of the campaign.
Saturday's defeat sent the Teessiders tumbling out of the play-off places, and while Tony Mowbray's side still have 12 games to turn their faltering season around, tomorrow's home game with Cardiff is of crucial importance.
With that in mind, Friend is urging the fans who returned on Wednesday to make a repeat trip tomorrow afternoon.
"It felt like a big game with a big crowd in the stadium and that really gave us a boost," said the full-back. "It does make a difference when the supporters turn out like that.
"It was nice to see a bigger crowd here. That definitely gives the players a lift and if they carry on coming in the last couple of months of the season, that would be great.
"Hopefully, this can kick-start something special with 12 games of the season still left, and it would be great if some of the fans decided to return to try to help us through."
While Boro were unable to secure an FA Cup quarter-final at Manchester United, Wednesday's spirited showing at least represented a marked departure from some of their more recent below-par displays.
There was an energy and enthusiasm to Boro's pressing play that has not really been evident since the turn of the year, and the hosts' defensive organisation was sufficiently successful to restrict Chelsea to a handful of openings.
The challenge now is to translate that to tomorrow's Championship challenge. The Teessiders have claimed just one league victory since the turn of the year, but Friend insists that promotion remains a realistic ambition.
Earlier in the season, Boro strung together an eight-game unbeaten run, a sequence that proves what the squad is capable of when things go to plan.
"We still believe the Premier League is an attainable goal," said Friend. "Have you seen this league? It's absolutely nuts. You can go out one week and lose, and then the next week thrash a team that's higher in the table.
"Any team can do that. We've done it previously in the season, when we were on a cracking run, so we can do that again, no problem.
"Things can change very quickly in this division. If you look at Nottingham Forest, everyone thought they were down and out, then suddenly Billy Davies' comes in and within the space of a few matches, they're just outside the play-offs.
"Bolton and Blackburn have found form, and Watford have suddenly propelled themselves into the top two. There are 12 games left, and that is quite a lot of matches. In fact, for this league, 12 games is a massive amount."
The first of those dozen games pits Boro against a Cardiff side boasting an eight-point advantage at the top of the table.
The Bluebirds beat Boro 1-0 in south Wales earlier this season, but Friend denies that Malky Mackay's side are significantly better than any other team in the division.
"Cardiff have a very solid back four," he said. "I think they've had the same back four bar one or two games for the whole of the season. That makes a big difference. Most successful teams keep continuity in that area of the field, and that's a big thing for them.
"They're a counter-attacking side and they remind me of QPR when they went up - when they score, they don't really let anyone through.
"That's what they're about, but they're not particularly pretty and when we played down at their place, we were the better side.
"I was surprised by how little football they actually played and how direct they were. I definitely feel confident we can beat them."