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Boro's promotion bid is all but over
MATHEMATICALLY Middlesbrough's promotion bid isn't over yet, but judging by the atmosphere at the Riverside on Saturday supporters have already resigned themselves to another season of Championship football.
It is looking increasingly unlikely Boro will end their fourth-year stay in the second tier in May after a third successive league defeat to Birmingham City left Tony Mowbray's men five points adrift of Leicester City in sixth.
The Boro boss has already conceded his side will have to win at least six of their remaining eight games to stand a chance of finishing in the top six, but when you look at their current form it's hard to see exactly where their next three points is coming from.
And staggeringly, if results don't pick up soon there is every chance the Teessiders could finish outside of the top ten, something that seemed a million miles away at the turn of the year when they sat third.
A visit to relegation threatened Wolves follows a two-week international break for Boro with Hull City, Brighton, Nottingham Forest and Bolton - all vying for a play-off place - coming up too.
In a game they simply had to win, Boro limped out the traps against Lee Clark's side and they never looked convincing in their quest for victory.
The manner of Boro's spectacular fall is hard to fathom, especially given the fact it is largely the same group of players that were playing with an air of belief, confidence and authority only a matter of months ago.
Now, they look drained, susceptible to silly mistakes and devoid of any creative ideas and the fact some fans left the Riverside Stadium as early as the 70th minute - when the score was goalless - suggests they don't see a way back.
However, while everyone else around them seems to have thrown the towel in, the squad refuses to give up and until it is mathematically impossible, they aren't closing the door on a top six finish and defender George Friend has called for fans to share the same feeling.
"It can be hard to stay positive when everyone else isn't, but I think that's part of our job," said the left-back.
"We've got to stay positive and go into every game in that positive frame of mind and I certainly believe personally we can beat anyone of our day.
"We even gave Chelsea a game in the first half, but it doesn't really enter my mindset if I'm honest, because I'm quite a positive person and I think there is a lot of the others exactly the same in the dressing room.
"The message is we haven't given up so why should anyone else? I'm sure they've seen darker times here at Middlesbrough than just missing out on the play-offs so if they can get behind us and make it a magical end to the season then it would be nice.
"With eight games left you got to believe that if it is mathematically possible that we can still do it. That's the mindset but obviously we're disappointed we didn't win, there's no doubt about that.
"We can't lose to teams like Birmingham, or anyone, especially when there's only eight games left so we're massively disappointed and we just have to be better."
There was little to separate the teams before the Blues took the lead, but Clark's men were by far the more positive, probing side. Nathan Redmond was a constant threat down the right, while Wesley Thomas and Ravel Morrison also made life difficult.
Boro were lacking the spark Redmond offered Birmingham and unlike his debut against Cardiff City a fortnight ago, Newcastle loan man Sammy Ameobi had no impact. He was completely outshined by Adam Reach on the opposite flank, who at least ran at the full-back and sent a number of dangerous crosses into the box.
Jack Butland saved from Scott McDonald - who had seen an earlier effort rightly ruled out for offside - before he scrambled to clear a Reach cross that was sneaking inside the far post.
The game looked destined to fizzle out and finish a stalemate, but when another Newcastle loanee - Shane Ferguson - was allowed to run freely into the box and cross, Nikola Zigic was waiting to bundle the ball home on the line.
That sparked a mass exodus from the already sparse crowd and those that did stay until the end wasted no time in voicing their anger.
The Boro squad know exactly what they have to do between now and the end of the season and Friend insists they are not thinking about finishing outside the top ten.
"We're not looking over our shoulders. We're definitely looking up towards the play-offs.
"I know we keep saying it, and we said it with 15 games left, but this league is crazy and four wins on the bounce can change everything.
"We can do it, but we have to wait and see. It's in our hands and we know what is at stake.
"Whoever the opponent could be they're all going to matter at this stage of the season, but it happens to be the Forests, the Hulls, team that are around us and in the play-offs. They're all going to be important, but if the fans get behind us and make it a hard place to come we can overturn the deficit."