A CLINICAL STRIKE twenty minutes from time from Jamie Ward finally breached Fortress Riverside and knocked Middlesbrough off the top of the Championship table in the process as Nottingham Forest stunned the high-flying hosts.
The former Sheffield United forward fired low past Dimi Konstantopolous to become the first visiting player to score in the league on Teesside in 921 minutes - just over fifteen and a half hours since Brentford’s Lasse Vibe netted on September 15.
As well as scuppering Boro’s hopes of a tenth successive home clean sheet in the Championship, Ward’s goal inflicted the first league loss at home on Boro since August 22 and knocked Aitor Karanka’s side off pole position - with Hull City the grateful beneficiaries.
It was a performance when Boro’s lacked attacking fluency, despite some sporadic moments of danger particularly in the second half.
Forest, for their part, produced a consummate away performance, showing defensive and tactical discipline before producing the game-breaking moment.
Boro monopolised possession somewhat in the first half, but struggled for cutting edge in the final third with well-organised Forest, with Michael Mancienne policing the area just in front of the back four, doing a good job of protecting Dorus de Vries, who had little to do.
At the other end, the visitors failed to trouble Dimi Konstantopoulos, despite one or two promising situations.
But by and large, it was half which Dougie Freedman will have been satisfied with.
Boro, who made one change from the side who lost 1-0 in a last-gasp reverse at Bristol City seven days earlier with David Nugent replacing Kike Garcia, did have an early sniff of goal with Dani Ayala heading wide following Stewart Downing’s outswinging corner.
They also threatened eight minutes before the break, when a rare moment of offensive precision and quality saw Cristhian Stuani just fail to connect with an excellent centre from Emilio Nsue, with the full-back being Boro’s best attacker in the first period.
Boro were forced into a change on when George Friend, feeling the effects of an shoulder injury suffered early in proceedings, was replaced by Tomas Kalas, who moved into the centre of the back four with Fernando Amorebieta moving to left back.
The Teessiders also made an interval change, with Downing, who had a frustrating first half, was replaced by Adam Forshaw, who took up the ‘number role’ just behind Nugent.
But it was Forest who almost broke the deadlock early in the second period, with the visitors within inches of breaching Boro’s backline in the league for the first time since mid September with Jamie Ward slipping in Ben Osborn, whose fierce rising shot hit the inside of the post with Konstantopoulos beaten.
It was Boro’s turn to knock on wood in the 55th-minute with a delightful free-kick routine instigated by Albert Adomah seeing Leadbitter strike the bar with a rasping volley with De Vries beaten - after the visitors were penalised for a foul on Forshaw.
It was proving a ‘nearly’ afternoon for Boro, underlined when Stuani bundled wide at the far post after a deep Adomah cross.
A similar opportunity arrived midway through the second half, with Nsue, whose run was untracked, spurning a great chance to net a relieving opener for the hosts, heading over with the goal at his mercy following a telling Adomah cross.
That miss was massively compounded not long after, with Forest stunned the bulk of the Riverside crowd with an opener.
Slick play saw the ball engineered out to Ben Osborn and with Boro stretched, his low cross from the left was clinically fired home by Jamie Ward, with the diminutive striker breaching fortress Riverside.
The development represented a huge test of character for the leaders, while providing something for Forest to cling onto.
Despite seeing plenty of the ball, Boro couldn’t unlock the door, with only brief scare for the visitors seeing Forshaw fire a long-range strike wide.
Stuani glanced a half chance off target, with Forest managing to see out the game fairly comfortably and even having a couple of half-chances to extend their lead with Dimi denying Oliveira twice.
Aitor Karanka bemoaned Middlesbrough’s second-successive defeat.
“Losing at home is disappointing but it’s not just the game today it’s the last three games now,” said the Spaniard. “They have been really poor.
“We have two weeks to work in the office and two weeks to work on the training pitch.
“We’ve lost two games but we’re still in the top two and I’m really optimistic.
“I know the reason for the problem but I prefer to fix it on the training ground. I know the reason and I can fix it. The problem is when you’re in a bad run and don’t know why but I know the reason.
“With these players we’re at the top of the table. We’ve been together the last six months. We’ve got two weeks to work and I want to transmit a positive message.
“It’s not by chance we’re near the top of the table.”