Tony Mowbray’s 154th game as Rovers manager saw him have a mixed return to the Riverside Stadium as his Rovers side were pegged back level, 18 minutes after taking the lead, in a game that won’t live long in the memory of either set of supporters due to its lack of fluidity.
The team that the gaffer selected on his return to his hometown side saw one change to the team that beat Queens Park Rangers 2-1 in midweek. The injured Joe Rothwell departed the side, which allowed his replacement, Joe Rankin-Costello to make his first start for the club. It was a day of celebration for Ryan Nyambe who, with this start, managed to secure a century of league appearances for Rovers.
As the atmosphere around a rejuvenated Riverside Stadium got louder as the buoyed home crowd looked on in the hope that their side could increase their unbeaten home run to nine games, with their last defeat on their own turf coming in October against West Bromwich Albion, it was Rovers – in their third kit – who got the ball rolling as they tried to continue their own good run of form, following back-to-back wins against Sheffield Wednesday and QPR, respectively.
On the fourth minute, returning favourite Stewart Downing managed to avoid a booking from referee Matt Donohue after the veteran chopped down on-loan Manchester City forward Lukas Nmecha, just outside the penalty area. Luckily for Downing, his blushes were spared on his Riverside return as Lewis Wing’s low free-kick edged wide of the near-post.
Lewis Holtby and Sam Gallagher combined well on the seventh minute as the former thread through the latter, who had most of the Boro half to himself. Gallagher did well to keep control of the ball and move towards the home side’s box, however he couldn’t get the ball out of his feet quick enough in order to get a clean strike at goal, as his shot was hooked away from goal by the home defence.
From their clearance, Middlesbrough managed to break forward quickly through Lukas Nmecha who skipped past a couple of Rovers challenges before sliding through Ashley Fletcher. The forward managed to sneak past Darragh Lenihan and get a shot off from the byline which forced Christian Walton into a parry back into the area. From that parry, Rovers failed to clear as both Marvin Johnson and George Saville had attempts blocked before Rovers managed to get the ball away to safety.
The 13th minute saw Rovers’ first chance materialise as Gallagher showed his pace and power to burst down the right-hand side. The forward managed to clip a delightful ball into the box which saw Holtby leap up with Boro’s ‘keeper Aynsley Pears, but the goalie managed to take the ball off the head of the German, before several attempts by Rovers were blocked before Boro cleared the ball out for a throw. The restart from Rovers’ throw saw Downing pick up the ball before his cross was nodded away by makeshift centre-back Jonny Howson. The former Norwich City midfielder’s clearance was only nodded out as far as Adam Armstrong who had two consecutive attempts which Pears and his defence managed to block in order to keep the score goalless.
On the 21st minute there was a lengthy stoppage after Joe Rankin-Costello and Aynsley Pears collided following a cross. Pears emerged unharmed, however Rankin-Costello was left with a cut on the head and had to sport a Terry Butcher-style bandage for the rest of the game, as play continued a few minutes later.
With half-an-hour gone, Walton showed his awareness after he burst off his line to pinch the ball off the toes of Johnson, who was played clean through. Luckily for Rovers, their ‘keeper managed to bail them out after their lack of defensive concentration.
Following numerous stoppages, Lewis Holtby felt he was unable to continue after he clashed knees with a Middlesbrough man on a Rovers corner. After numerous attempts to get Holtby back into the stride of the game, the German was withdrawn on the 36th minute and replaced by Elliott Bennett, which shuffled Rovers’ pack as Bennett took up a position on the right whilst Armstrong moved back into the attacking midfielder role allowing Gallagher to become the lone forward.
The closest chance of the game came the host’s way on the 40th minute as a freak effort by former Manchester United utility man, Paddy McNair crashed a cross against the crossbar from the wide area. Boro played a corner short which gave McNair a better crossing angle. That angle proved to be an attractive one for McNair whose lofted ball into the box curled towards goal and crashed behind off the crossbar, as Walton was left back-peddling into his net, as Rovers were awarded a goal-kick.
As the 45th minute ticked over, six minutes were added onto the end of what was a forgettable first-half, as a result of the numerous stoppages for injuries. Despite the six minutes, neither side could get a psychological edge over their opponents heading into the break as the half-time whistle was soon blown.
Following such a lacklustre first period, both managers would have had similar messages that they wished to convey to their players at the break.
Home boss Jonathan Woodgate, although would have been impressed with how his side had suppressed the division’s best early starters in Rovers, the former Real Madrid centre-half would have been annoyed that his players had lacked the cutting edge in the final third to create a consistent number of chances, given their home advantage and their recent good run of form on Teesside.
A similar message would have been said in the Rovers dressing room as Tony Mowbray would have been annoyed that Rovers had been unable to convert one of the few opportunities that they had created during the opening 45 minutes. The gaffer would have also been annoyed at the injury to Lewis Holtby, particularly given the lack of activity within the January transfer window, which would have added to the frustration of Joe Rothwell’s injury from Tuesday. In terms of the second period, Mowbray would have been outlining a gameplan that would help Rovers break down Boro’s three at the back system; a system that Rovers haven’t faced much this campaign.
With both sides aware of the instructions from their respective managers, the players reappeared for the second-half with Boro primed and ready to get the proceedings back underway. The home side and their support would have been optimistic that they could find a way to get three invaluable points in order to help their push towards mid-table. Although there was no change in personnel for Rovers as the second-half was kicked-off, the system was reverted back to the 4-2-3-1 that Rovers started with as Bennett filled in behind Armstrong, with Gallagher and Rankin-Costello either side of the substitute.
The first attempt of the second period fell to the hosts, on the 49th minute, as Marcus Tavernier did well to shimmy past a few challenges before breaking into the box and releasing a weak shot that Walton easily picked up at his near-post.
A Jonny Howson attempt on the 54th minute came a whisker away from giving the home side the lead their second-half dominance deserved. A Boro throw-in fell to Howson who was allowed the time and space to cut inside on his left and release a shot that was yards away from beating a lethargic Walton and curling inside the left-hand upright.
Moments later, Nmecha had a chance of his own as his half-volley from just inside the penalty area was skewed wide of the target.
Rovers soon managed to craft an attack against the run of play, following Walton’s goal-kick which led to the opening goal of the game, courtesy of Lewis Travis on the 56th minute who grabbed his second of the season. Stewart Downing and Travis combined well to win the ball back in the centre of the park before Downing laid the ball off to Travis who broke forwards. As the midfielder burst forwards, he laid the ball off to Armstrong who had come deep for the ball, before laying it back first time into Travis’ unblocked path. After the goalscorer took a solid first-touch he was able slot the ball past the on-rushing Pears to give Rovers the 1-0 lead, just before the hour mark.
On the 61st minute, Jonathan Woodgate reacted to his side conceding a goal by sending on Britt Assombalonga, who recently returned from injury, in-place of Marcus Tavernier.
Rovers responded with a change of their own on the 67th minute when Joe Rankin-Costello departed after an encouraging first league game, as Danny Graham replaced him.
A second Boro change was made on the 71st minute as Hayden Coulson was introduced, replacing George Saville.
Coulson had an instant impact only four minutes later, as he managed to draw his side level at 1-1 with his first senior goal. Rovers were forced back into their own penalty area after a period of dominance by Boro which led to Lewis Wing trying his luck from just outside the penalty area. Wing nearly added to his impressive tally of scorchers for Boro, however Walton did well to deny the midfielder. Unluckily for Rovers and Walton, the on-loan ‘keeper wasn’t able to keep hold of the ball, as he parried it right into the feet of Coulson, who only had the job of stroking the ball into the empty net before wheeling away in celebration of the equaliser.
Rovers reacted immediately from the kick-off through Sam Gallagher, whose shot across the face of goal skewed narrowly wide of Pears’ far upright.
The 81st minute saw Boro apply their dominance as the home side, as they mounted a chance that nearly saw them take the lead. The first Boro cross evaded everyone in the box, however the return ball was more accurate as Assombalonga did well to bring the ball down before an audacious overhead kick from yards out flew over the crossbar, much to Rovers’ relief.
Both sides soon made their final substitutions of the game. Rovers brought on Bradley Johnson for Stewart Downing – who received a heart-warming standing ovation and rendition of ‘He’s one of our own’ from his former supporters – whilst Boro threw on former Rover Rudy Gestede in place of loanee Lukas Nmecha.
The 84th minute saw the game’s first booking fall to Lewis Travis, after the midfielder clattered into Coulson out on the left-hand side.
From the subsequent free-kick, a lofted ball into the box saw an unchallenged Assombalonga head wide from close-range, which left the Boro coaching staff with their heads in their hands.
The game’s second booking soon came minutes later, as Darragh Lenihan did his part in taking down the lively Coulson, but also earned his eighth league booking of the campaign in the process.
The 88th minute saw the Rovers fans and coaching staff with their hearts in their mouths but were saved the fury of conceding a late winner courtesy of a fabulous reflex save from Christian Walton. The wide free-kick which resulted from the Lenihan foul saw Rudy Gestede get on the end of the cross with a thumping header that looked destined to nestle into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal but for Walton’s strong right-hand that pushed it behind for a corner. Although Gestede was marked, it was a relative mismatch against Amari’i Bell, which allowed the forward to gain half-a-yard on the Rovers defender. That edge allowed the former fans favourite to sneak free of his man and angle his header towards the bottom corner, however Walton’s concentration proved to be top of the range, as he denied the substitute the winner and was forced to concede a corner which Rovers dealt with.
As the clocked ticked over into the 90th minute, referee Matt Donohue added an extra three minutes onto the end of the game, however that extra time proved to be unnecessary, as both teams stuck to the unattractive stodgy theme of the game, with neither side creating any meaningful opportunities prior to the full-time whistle.
Although Rovers didn’t play their best football, with Boro having most of the game, specifically after they equalised, the failure to crumble under such intense circumstances towards the end will no doubt be a positive for Mowbray, the players and the fans who travelled to Teesside. In terms of the game as a whole, neither side were able to create a flowing rhythm which could have easily seen the game end goalless, however given the balance of how poor both sides were for large spells of the tie, a draw is a fair result with neither side really creating enough to stake a claim for all three points. Lewis Travis, despite not having his best game defensively, with many of his tackles mistimed and his passing slightly awry was able to show that he is still capable of making an impact in some respect, given his goal. Although the second-half didn’t muster much for Rovers bar the goal, the first-half efforts of the attacking quintet of Armstrong, Gallagher, Rankin-Costello, Bennett and Holtby (when he was on) were encouraging however the injuries to Holtby and Rankin-Costello proved to be critical for Rovers’ attacking prowess. The side defensively, taking the goal out of it, continued their fine recent defensive efforts as they were able to stifle many forays forward by the home side, however the goal resides as a unworthy blemish on a good, but not idea defensive display.
With the transfer window now behind us, Rovers will have to make do with the players at their disposal. Hopefully the injury to Lewis Holtby isn’t as bad as one would fear, given the expected prolonged absence of Joe Rothwell. If both playmakers are deemed to be unfit to play for extended periods, then the likes of Dominic Samuel, Ben Brereton and John Buckley will have a great opportunity to stake a claim alongside the already seemingly established Joe Rankin-Costello, in the Rovers attacking unit.
The standings, after gaining just a point, leaves Rovers in the same spot they were at kick-off; 10th with a positive goal difference of six. Whilst there are still 16 games of the campaign left, Rovers only find themselves six points away from the playoffs which will no doubt be encouraging for the side, given the busy February they have to face in the upcoming weeks. Whilst Rovers’ unbeaten run now stretches to four games after this result, the supporters especially will be hoping their side can keep up their form and put last February’s collapse to the back of their minds.
As noted, Rovers have a busy February which next seems them host promotion-chasing Fulham, next Saturday (8th February) at Ewood Park at 3pm. Following that affair, they cap off consecutive home games by welcoming the now Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki-less Hull City to East Lancashire – (after the pair left on deadline-day). Grant McCann’s side will be at Ewood Park on Tuesday 11th February with kick-off pencilled in for 7:45pm. Four days later, Rovers’ fourth February fixture sees them hop on the bus and head down to London, where they will face Charlton Athletic at the Valley on Saturday 15th February at 3pm, in the hope of exacting revenge for the opening day defeat inflicted by the Addicks back in August.