AFTER the highs of Wednesday night’s stabilising victory over Birmingham City, the cold hard reality of their suffering season to date swung back around and slapped Middlesbrough hard in the face in South East London.

For a side that were billed as Championship heavyweights less than two months ago, it has been a fall beyond many fans expectation. A second tier Goliath has now assumed the role of David and if performances don’t change, it’s going to need a Goliath style effort to steer the club away from a relegation battle. The words ‘relegation battle’ are ones that no one expected to be muttered in the same breath as Boro this season.

Perhaps the clearest indication of Boro’s current predicament was interim boss Leo Percovich’s admirable attempts to cling onto the positives that surround the club’s current situation.

He said: “I feel the togetherness, I feel the disappointment of today, and in football you can go up and down so quick. But we started in the relegation position and we finish above that, so we have to take the positive of that to then handover to the next manager.”

One shred of comfort is that they have time on their side still and wholesale turnarounds can be made as we’ve seen in recent history with Nottingham Forest as Steve Cooper’s side climbed almost the length of the Championship table last season. But over a quarter of the season has come and gone and Boro find themselves at a crossroads moment.

There is an urgent need for change and with Boro chiefs watching on from the stands, the pressure to make the right choice was staring at them in the face as new head coach looks almost certain to be installed this week. Leo, who has offered a steady hand in times of need, seemingly assumed the responsibility of formulating a handover for the incoming boss after the game.

As you might expect, Percovich was still in defiant mood about the season’s prospects. When asked directly about the positives he can pass on to the new manager, he replied: “The group. When people are talking about the expectation, I think this is a very good season for us. It has started bad but that does not mean that the season is gone. It’s not finished.”

The Northern Echo: Dael Fry challenges Tom Bradshaw for a header at the Den.Dael Fry challenges Tom Bradshaw for a header at the Den. (Image: Newsquest)

For him, he has attempted to obtain much needed results and to his credit, he and alongside his coaching trio of Craig Liddle, Mark Tinkler and Lee Cattermole have been there in times of need for Boro. “How can you build a style or a philosophy when you need to win first? In these moments you need to win and then from there, with the confidence and the positives from the win, then you build the next one” he continued.

However, there is little input the four of them could have made for the way Boro rolled over and seemingly accepted their fate after conceding the second goal. During the season when we’ve seen revivals from the team after falling behind namely in games against QPR and Cardiff City, this was the complete antithesis.

In fairness to Boro, little could be done about the Lions opener when Zian Flemming’s fifth minute free-kick took a wild deflection off the wall, wrong footed Zack Steffen and trickled into the far corner.

Boro did show glimpses of providing a fightback with chances from Matt Crooks and Rodrigo Muniz. Crooks lashed a half volley over the bar before Muniz free header at the back post was glanced off target.

Steffen got Boro out of jail with a double save to end the half but he could do little to prevent Flemming doubling his tally for the day. Some lapse defending from a set piece into the box was Boro’s downfall as Jake Cooper nodded down to the Dutchman who slammed the ball home. From there, the result was effectively rubber stamped with 40 minutes to go as Boro barely mustered up a response. Matthew Hoppe tested the palms over keeper George Long late on but the travelling support headed back up the A1 with little to cling onto.

Widespread condemnation of Boro’s performance, particularly in the second half at the Den, was reverberated all across Teesside with the BBC Radio Tees Sport post-match phone-in red hot with anger and the proverbial smoke pluming out of the message boards.

Talk of Chris Wilder’s successor has naturally been rife this week but whoever comes in, it will be a mighty task to turn fortunes around based on the aftermath of being slowly put down at the Lions’ Den.