GEORGE FRIEND is urging his Middlesbrough team-mates not to allow the club’s current goalless run to become a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes it impossible for them to turn their season around.
Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Watford was the fifth game in a row in which the Teessiders have failed to score, a barren sequence that will pass the nine-hour mark if there is not a goal in the opening 16 minutes of this weekend’s home game with Leeds United.
The lack of goalscoring success has dealt a major blow to Boro’s promotion ambitions, with last weekend’s latest reverse having dumped them back into the bottom half of the table.
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Friend is not attempting to downplay the damage caused by such a lengthy spell of not scoring, but with 15 games of the season to go, the full-back is hoping the psychological fall out does not derail any lingering play-off hopes.
“Sometimes, the more you go searching for a goal, the more the pressure builds,” said Friend, whose overlapping runs down the left-hand side have helped to set up some of Boro’s best chances in recent matches. “That can make it harder for our attacking players because the anxiety increases and things can get rushed.
“It’s about keeping a level head about things and not getting too carried away by a bad run. It was the same at the other end of the field for the defensive players when we were conceding a lot of goals.
“It snowballed in that period and became much harder to draw a line under it. We did that though, and defensively we’ve been very good recently. That just shows that you can turn things around.
“The manager is looking at it because he obviously wants goals as well. We’re doing a lot of shooting drills in training and covering everything we need to.
“I’m sure the goal will come. I’ve got every faith in our attacking players and I’m sure it’ll happen. We’re creating chances, they’re just not quite falling right.”
In their last home game, against Blackburn Rovers, Boro carved out a succession of opportunities, only to see their attacking efforts thwarted by a combination of poor finishing and inspired goalkeeping from Paul Robinson.
At Vicarage Road, chances were at more of a premium, yet Jonathan Woodgate had a goal controversially disallowed for offside and Danny Graham should perhaps have done better with a stoppage-time header.
It would be wrong to state that Boro are devoid of attacking intent, although there is an obvious need for additional support to Graham in his role as a lone striker.
Perhaps it would be better for Aitor Karanka to switch formations and play with two centre-forwards against Leeds, or at least play a more naturally attacking midfielder in the hole behind the centre-forward? Either way, the hope is that once the first goal arrives, more will quickly follow.
“The fact we’re so close to clicking adds to the frustration,” said Friend. “But it also encourages you that you’re not far away. Imagine if we didn’t have any shots on target or weren’t creating any chances at all. That would be a completely different story.
“I’ve played for a Doncaster team where we didn’t really look like scoring a goal, and despite our recent record, that’s definitely not the case here.
“Back then, Billy Sharp got one goal and then everything seemed to click. That’s sometimes the way it happens, and I’m sure that if Danny (Graham), Kei (Kamara) or Curtis (Main) could just get one, it would be exactly the same.”
At the other end, Boro had kept a clean sheet in five of their previous six games before travelling to Watford, but their hopes of recording another shut-out disappeared when Ben Gibson conceded a penalty at the start of the second half.
Gibson compounded his error when he was dismissed for unsporting behaviour eight minutes later, but while the 21-year-old apologised to his team-mates as soon as they returned to the dressing room at Vicarage Road, Friend insists it would be wrong to be too critical of the youthful centre-half.
“The dressing room was frustrated because we know we’re a better team than Watford,” he said. “They were in and around us in the table, so it’s frustrating.
“Ben’s devastated because it means so much to him. He plays with his heart on his sleeve, and that’s probably why he gave away the penalty.
“He’s the most committed guy I know and he’ll be so upset for a few days, I’m sure. It means a lot to him. No one’s mad at him, but he held his hands up and we respect that.”