TWENTY eight points and 12 places is the gap separating Middlesbrough, who had genuine eyes on promotion at the start of the season, and a top two place in the Championship, with just five matches remaining.
It is a significant divide and one which will require great work during the summer for Boro to return to the Premier League stage for the first time since 2009. This afternoon, at Turf Moor, they will face one of the two sides seemingly destined for the top-flight once more.
Despite a general perception that Burnley’s squad is not as talented as the likes of Queens Park Rangers, Wigan or even, according to Jonathan Woodgate earlier this week, Middlesbrough, they can seal automatic promotion this afternoon by defeating Boro.
The goalscoring form of 40-goal duo Danny Ings and Sam Vokes, who have been sidelined through injury recently, has been a major part of the Clarets’ success story this season, but it is also the ability of Sean Dyche to form a team with great togetherness and desire to collect points which has left others trailing.
At Middlesbrough, where there has been a change of manager half way through the season, they have been on a cycle of being poor, stuttered before improving. That cycle has cost them hopes of a sustained charge towards the Premier League.
“We know we are more than capable of being up there because we have shown what we can do,” said midfielder Jacob Butterfield. “When you get to this stage of the season, you see that Leicester have gone up and Burnley are knocking on the door.
“We will then see which teams end in the play-offs in a few weeks and if we don’t make it is disappointing because we are playing now like we know we can. We believe we could have been right in there, right in the mix for a top six spot had we been playing like this more regularly.
“We have been on a few good runs through the season. We just haven’t been consistent enough. That’s been our problem throughout the year. We have had too many bad spells in terms of mistakes, giving goals away or not being able to score enough.
“The consistency is what it is all about. You just need to look at Burnley and Leicester to see that. Burnley go away and grind points out. A lot of times they have picked up a point on the road, sometimes three, we haven’t been able to do that enough.
“At times we are throwing points away and haven’t been good enough to grind out a point here and there. They all add up at the end of the season. We are eight points off the play-offs at this stage and a few draws here and there would have made the difference. We will see what happens.”
There is an acceptance around the Riverside that finishing in the play-offs is merely a fanciful dream now. With eight points to make up from the remaining 15 points available to them, it would take an incredible run of results from the teams above them to see Aitor Karanka’s team sneak in.
What the situation has enabled in the last few weeks, however, is for the players to play with greater freedom, without the extra pressure of having the time and games running out to close the gap to the top six.
“It’s just the way it has been around here,” said Butterfield. “When we have won a couple of games we have got everyone thinking we might make the play-offs, when we have been losing everyone has been disappointed.
“All we can do is keep going and see where we end up. If we keep winning games and then the other teams around us drop points, which they have been, then the gap will get shorter and shorter.
“We just have to keep going game by game. It’s probably going to be difficult for us now. We just have to keep focusing game by game and see what happens. We can’t think about the play-offs, we just have to go out and play our own game.”
When Butterfield agreed to move to Teesside from Norwich City last summer he expected to be in a promotion battle this season. Not only has that not been the case, he has also suffered personal frustration along the way.
The 23-year-old has only started 17 games in the Championship for Middlesbrough, but he returned to the starting line-up for the midweek win over Birmingham when he scored a brilliant 22-yard half volley in the 3-1 win.
“It’s frustrating to be in and out of the team,” said Butterfield. “As most players are, I’m a confidence player. I like to feel good about myself. That’s when I show my best football. It is frustrating when I’m in and out of the team. “I want to be a first eleven player next season, when I get the chance I need to show the manager, the staff and the manager what I can do. I want to be in their plans. That’s the incentive for me when I get the game time, I need to show them all what I can do and build on from Tuesday night.”