NO ONE is going to write off a season before the middle of February. Increasingly, though, it looks as if Middlesbrough’s promotion prospects are going to fade away long before spring has truly sprung.

No home win since Christmas, only one set of back-to-back league victories since October, five points from the last available 15. Oh, and still no fit centre-forward either. Boro hardly have the feel of a team destined for a place in the Premier League.

Saturday’s home defeat to Bristol City was the latest setback to the Teessiders’ promotion hopes, extending a wretched run of being rocked by the Robins – Boro have won just two of their last 13 home matches against Saturday’s opponents – and leaving Michael Carrick’s side six points adrift of the top six, albeit with a game in hand on three of the four sides directly above them in the table.

More than simply the points difference though, it is Boro’s flatlining form that is the biggest worry, with performance levels having dropped markedly since the autumn. The malfunctioning attack can perhaps be excused given the lack of options in the absence of the injured Emmanuel Latte Lath and Josh Coburn, but the more Carrick tinkers with his midfield make-up, the less effective Boro’s central unit becomes, and when it comes to Saturday’s display, the less said about the defending, especially in the chaotic first-half spell in which Bristol City scored both of their goals, the better.

At the moment, Boro’s team feels disjointed and dysfunctional. So, for all that Carrick is understandably reluctant to throw in the towel when it comes to chasing a play-off spot, it is becoming increasingly hard to see how his current side can stage a repeat of last season’s top-six finish. There are multiple reasons for Boro’s backward step – the loss of so many key players last summer, building for the future, injuries, muddled team selection – but the undeniable reality is that the team has not progressed since Coventry edged May’s play-off semi-final.

“There’s still loads to play for,” countered Carrick, when asked about the remainder of the campaign. “We certainly won’t be letting anything drift away. We all feel a need to improve, and we know results definitely need to improve. But I still see a lot of good in the way that we play, there are just certain things we feel we need to do to make the next step and turn that into better results.

“There’s no chance we’ll be giving up. I don’t know what the league table looks like right now, to be completely honest. But whether you’re three points or nine points away at this stage, anything can happen.”


Be that as it may, Boro will not be achieving anything unless they address the attacking inadequacies that were once again apparent at the weekend. With Morgan Rogers and Matt Crooks having been removed from the squad, Carrick’s options in the final third are extremely sparse, with Coburn’s ongoing groin problem worsening rather than improving and Latte Lath still a couple of weeks away from a likely return.

Even so, there is increasing evidence that playing Sam Greenwood as the central striker is not the answer, for all that the Leeds United loanee was perhaps somewhat unfortunate to have had an effort ruled out for offside against Bristol City. Should Marcus Forss be given a run through the middle? Probably. Although for all that Boro’s reluctance to waste money last month was understandable, the failure to bring in a striker could well prove to have been the final nail in the promotion coffin.

“You’ve just got to keep making changes and having belief in the boys, which I’ve got 100 per cent,” said Carrick, in response to a query about Boro’s attacking issues. “I still feel there’s a lot of good things going into our game to be able to create those chances and get in those positions, and at some point, I know the boys are capable of taking them.

“They just need to keep giving themselves chances to do that, and believing it will turn, which I really do.”

At the other end of the field, Boro capitulated dramatically at the weekend, conceding two goals in the space of two first-half minutes as a Bristol City side that were without a league win of any description since Boxing Day forged a lead they were then able to cling onto during the second half.

Jason Knight opened the scoring in the 16th minute, breaking through a fragile Boro rearguard to reach Rob Dickie’s through ball and turning inside Lukas Engel before slotting home. Less than a minute later, and the Teessiders were two behind, with Hayden Hackney’s sloppy concession of possession in his own half enabling Matty James to break into the left of box before firing home via the inside of the post.

When Knight almost lobbed Tom Glover from the halfway line moments later, the mood inside the Riverside had turned increasingly mutinous, but to the home side’s credit, they at least dug in to prevent further damage and began to create chances of their own after the break.

In truth, they didn’t really amount to much, and it said much about the general lack of a cutting edge that when Boro’s consolation arrived in stoppage time, it came via an unwitting deflection off the back of substitute Sammy Silvera.

“We didn’t start particularly well, and in the end, that cost us,” said Carrick. “We didn’t quite look like us really, and paid the price with two quick goals. That gave them a massive start in the game, but I thought the boys showed a lot of character after that.”