Improving Bristol City beat Middlesbrough to build crucial momentum in fight for Championship survival
Middlesbrough manager Tony Mowbray gave a fascinating insight into the tumultuous maelstrom of emotions that characterises everyday life in the ultra-competitive environment of the npower Championship.
Addressing the media in the post-match press conference deep in the bowels of the Atyeo Stand, the former West Brom defender spoke of optimism, drive and belief.
But on the flip side of that particular coin, he also talked about the debilitating effect of depression and negativity.
Three points off the play-offs and fast approaching the business end of the season, Boro should have every reason to view the immediate future through rose-tinted spectacles, while Bristol City, still entrenched in the regelation zone and fighting for their second-tier status, could be excused were they imbued with the stifling negativity that Mowbray referred to.
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Yet all is not as it first seems in the weird and wonderful world of the Championship.
Their lofty position notwithstanding, Boro’s players, staff and supporters are the ones riddled with anxiety following a dramatic downturn in fortunes that has seen them blow their chances of automatic promotion and put at risk their prospects of reaching the play-offs.
In stark contrast, it is relegation-threatened City who are approaching the decisive final nine games of the campaign with a spring in their step, united in the belief that they can pull off professional sport’s equivalent of the Great Escape and secure Championship status against all the odds.
Resorting to psycho-analysis, Mowbray argued: “If you had been in mid-table obscurity all season and then found yourself within three points of the play-offs with a few games to go, you would be full of optimism, drive and belief that you were going to get there.
“We were second at Christmas and looking like we were going to secure one of the automatic spots – there was a lot of positivity back then.
“For whatever reason, things have changed, we have dropped away dramatically and we are now talking about depression, negativity and the fact we have dropped out of the play-offs and appear to be slipping. We are searching for a reason and we are searching for the answers.”
Under new head coach Sean O’Driscoll, City’s players have been finding the answers in ever greater profusion.
In the space of a few weeks, the former Nottingham Forest and Doncaster Rovers manager has not only stopped the rot that characterised the final months of his predecessor’s reign, but also rendered the team hard to beat and instilled self-belief and hope where before there was only fear and dark despair.
O’Driscoll explains his revolution in simplistic terms, repeatedly extolling the virtues of organisation and hard work. Certainly, his message has successfully transmitted itself to players who, to a man, now appear to know and appreciate exactly what it is that is required of them.
Proving that a team is often greater than the sum total of its parts, City have, in the space of the last 10 days, collected their first point on the road in 2013 at Blackpool, earned a notable 0-0 draw against a Brighton team that has received plaudits for its attacking style and seen off fellow play-off contenders Middlesbrough with consummate ease.
Just as they did against Brighton four days earlier, City made lofty opponents appear ordinary, so effective was the game-plan hatched by the head coach and his staff and superbly executed by players have bought into his ethos totally.
Under previous manager Derek McInnes, there lurked a constant fear that City were never far from being on the wrong end of a drubbing, such was their defensive fragility. Such has been the transformation wrought by the new regime, that City no longer look likely to be rolled over by anybody in the second tier.
Certainly, a Boro team blessed with myriad attacking options struggled to find a way through the massed ranks of red shirts and, having scarcely mustered a shot on target, they appeared utterly confounded long before the final whistle signalled City’s fifth win in six games at Ashton Gate.
Although City’s game-plan involved conceding possession in the interests of maintaining shape, they remained far more effective than their opponents whenever they had the ball, creating numerous goal-scoring opportunities and posing a more or less constant threat on the counter-attack.
To their credit, City coped well with the reshuffle occasioned by the groin injury that forced striker Jon Stead to limp off early in the proceedings and his replacement, Albert Adomah, made the most of an unexpected opportunity by giving City the lead with a left-foot shot from the edge of the 18 yard box.
If Adomah’s goal was as much down to luck as it was to judgement, it was also deserved and, from that moment onwards, City never looked back.
O’Driscoll’s decision to deploy Adomah in a withdrawn role behind Steven Davies, rather than in his more familiar position on the wing, proved a shrewd one and the Ghana international saw a lot of the ball, providing a team under pressure with a necessary outlet.
Demonstrating equally impressive flexibility, Davies also took a change of role in his stride, ceaselessly working Middlesbrough’s startled centre-halves after moving up top to fill Stead’s shoes.
His persistence and brute strength paid dividends shortly after half-time, the former Derby man accepting a pass from Stephen Pearson and shooting early to beat Boro keeper Jason Steele from 15 yards out.
Thereafter, City saw the game out with few scares, further evidence, if it was required, that they are growing in confidence and stature with every game.
Unlike Boro, who are experiencing free-fall, the Robins now have crucial forward momentum going into the final nine games and have good reason to view next weekend’s showdown against relegation rivals Wolves with a degree of optimism few inside Ashton Gate would have thought possible during the dark days of January.