Burnley’s Matt Lowton denies Middlesbrough late on in tame draw
The warm spring sunshine dictated that Middlesbrough treated fans to a pre-match funfair in the club carpark. Complete with bouncy castle, carousel, live music and speciality food it made for a carefree atmosphere only mildly tarnished by the cautionary presence of an adjacent fleet of ambulances and an NHS “health bus”.
By the final whistle though it was Steve Agnew and his Boro players who seemed most in oxygen as their failure to beat a Burnley side without an away league victory this season nudged them a step nearer relegation.
Mathematically all is far from lost but the Teessiders have not won a league game since December and this was the 16th match in which they had failed to score this season. At least Agnew cannot be accused of failing to press every available tactical button. Indeed Aitor Karanka’s interim successor has played a different formation in each of his four games in charge with 3-5-2 here the latest to be showcased.
Ben Gibson, aka the left-sided component of that defensive trinity, found himself scrutinised by Gareth Southgate, the former Boro manager turned England coach looking on from the directors’ box.
With Burnley pressing assiduously, Gibson and co were soon under pressure and looked on anxiously as Robbie Brady’s early free-kick brushed the bar. Heeding that warning, Adam Forshaw, a midfielder Southgate is said to admire, began helping to readjust the power balance with some intelligent promptings and Agnew’s players increasingly dominated possession.
Considering that Grant Leadbitter – like Forshaw recalled to the first XI on a day when Alvaro Negredo, Adama Traoré and Marten De Roon all dropped to the bench – was also doing well in midfield and Antonio Barragan and Stewart Downing, the home wing-backs, were providing real width, the homes fans had reason for optimism.
Yet although Rudy Gestede succeeded in persistently ruffling Michael Keane and friends in Sean Dyche’s backline, Boro’s big problem was their final balls were far too easily second guessed, leaving Tom Heaton relatively untroubled in goal.
Alarmingly for Agnew, Burnley looked sporadically threatening on the break and might have taken the lead had George Boyd displayed a little more composure when an inviting shooting chance fell at his feet.
As half-time approached it had all turned a little underwhelming with the principal talking point an unseemly off-the-ball scuffle involving Barragan and Stephen Ward. The second period highlighted Boro’s need to speed things up; for all their virtues Forshaw and his team-mates are prone to dwelling overlong in possession when releasing the ball a fraction earlier might hurt opponents.
Sensing a potential lifeline slipping from his grasp, Agnew introduced Negredo. Almost immediately Downing’s clever trick and brilliant cross prefaced Heaton finally being stretched to the limit to keep the Valencia loanee’s acrobatic volley out.
On came Traoré – startlingly sporting peroxide blond hair – to swiftly deliver a stellar cross into Adam Clayton’s path but, in a moment which seemed horribly emblematic of Boro’s plight, the midfielder shot tamely at Heaton.
Another, chance, at the other end, saw the substitute Sam Vokes fail to make the most of a similar opening before, playing his final card, Agnew liberated Patrick Bamford from the bench.
Hitherto Boro’s forgotten man, Bamford swiftly made an impact, surging on to a splendid through ball before being brought down by Michael Keane – the last man – on the edge of the area. Contentiously – extremely so – Keane received a yellow rather than a red card before Downing’s free kick was deflected away for a corner which precipitated Dani Ayala’s header being cleared off the line by Matthew Lowton.
Negredo subsequently fired beyond Heaton only for that “winner” to be disallowed for handball. At the final whistle the pitch remained bathed in sunlight but the ominous haze clouding the view of the Cleveland Hills from the main stand hinted at gloomy days ahead.