Hull City 2 Middlesbrough 1
THIS is not a good time to be suffering an uncharacteristic run of form. Yet, despite watching Middlesbrough head in to a deserved halftime lead at Hull City, that is exactly what Tony Mowbray still has to contend with.
With four matches remaining, Boro will have to find an immediate end to the worst sequence of results under Mowbray’s management if fading hopes of finishing in the play-offs are to remain alive.
After delivering the perfect away performance in the first half at the KC Stadium to gain a lead through Marvin Emnes’ 17th goal of the season, the Middlesbrough boss had to look on in frustration as his team pressed the selfdestruct button.
After gifting Hull City the equaliser through Josh King 12 minutes after the restart, there was further damage inflicted when Matty Fryatt made the most of more space to grab a winner with just two minutes left.
At this stage last season, a trip to Hull proved to be the start of a four match winning run which ensured Middlesbrough ended a campaign to forget on a high. How Mowbray could do with such a finish now.
Middlesbrough, who would have returned to the top six had they built on Emnes’ opener, are now without a win in eight matches ahead of remaining games with Derby, Doncaster, Southampton and Watford.
After the disappointment of the home defeat to Cardiff just two days earlier, there was a need for the trip to Hull to right a few wrongs following such an insipid display.
That seemed on the cards before the interval.
Travelling had not really been a problem for Middlesbrough this season. In fact it has been their away form which has kept them in the thick of things in the race for a play-off place.
And with that in mind, the four changes Mowbray made to the team that lost to Cardiff sparked an instant freshness and looked like delivering the right result again away from Teesside.
With the exception of more goals, he could not have asked for much more from a first half in which they could have been a couple of goals up.
Jason Steele, the Middlesbrough goalkeeper, was faced with a couple of early threats on goal. Firstly, he was thankful to a clearance off the line from Seb Hines when Fryatt was played in by Robert Koren.
Then Steele himself got down low to turn King’s effort behind for a corner following an almost identical move.
But on the whole, Middlesbrough looked the most dangerous.
The decision to play Barry Robson behind the front two of Emnes and Scott McDonald was crucial, certainly initially.
In soaking up the advances Hull did make with a tight midfield, Middlesbrough turned defence in to attack quickly and regularly. Time and again they made the most of some hesitant defensive play from the Tigers.
Hull tried to move out together to look for offside.
More often than not they were caught out by the clever ball over the top.
It was that route, exploiting the defensive weaknesses of makeshift full-back Richard Garcia, which led to the first goal. Robson, picking up a position just inside the Hull half, picked out the runner from deep on the left.
After picking up possession, Emnes cut inside. Instead of rolling to McDonald, who was unmarked alongside him, he applied the sweetest of right-foot finishes inside Vito Mannone’s far post.
The Humberside crowd gradually got more frustrated with how regularly Boro broke the non-existent offside trap. Middlesbrough, however, failed to make the most of their best chances.
The most clear cut was when Hines, once again effective at the back, directed a long ball for Emnes to run on to. When it seemed he would increase the lead, Mannone dived to his right to turn for a corner.
There was also a moment just before half-time when Robson fed the Dutch striker down the right. After beating his first man, he failed to deliver the return pass to Robson when a second goal would have been just reward for a competent first 45 minutes.
Almost immediately after the restart, Hull signalled their intentions. It took them just 30 seconds to create an opportunity to level, only for Corry Evans to somehow fluff his lines.
Evans was effectively stood on the line when Fryatt’s cross from the byline got beyond Steele. Yet Evans could not react quickly enough and, with the whole goal to aim for, Middlesbrough cleared after his poor first touch.
That was enough to give Hull the encouragement that they could cause real problems down the Middlesbrough flanks.
And when Hoyte, playing left in the absence of suspended Joe Bennett, dawdled on half way, King’s powerful challenge won him possession.
He then had the space in front of him to run in to, paving the way to drill the equaliser beyond Steele’s outstretched left hand.
After that Middlesbrough occasionally pressed but Hull always looked the most likely winners. Yet it was further sloppiness on the flank that proved to be Middlesbrough’s downfall.
Bailey missed a header near the touchline, King was allowed to bring it down instinctively before moving the ball inside to Fryatt.
The former Leicester striker then brushed off the attention of Hoyte before slipping the finish underneath Steele to secure all three points.
Hardly the happy Easter those at Middlesbrough had been hoping for.