THE John Smith’s Stadium may have proved an accommodating venue for Middlesbrough in recent times – but the emotions of the troubled Teessiders veered between frustration and relief last night.
Hosts Huddersfield Town will also have had some sympathy.
After a poor second-half when they would have been punished by a more confident opponent – while also being let off by a contender for miss of the season from Ashley Fletcher – Danny Cowley will have been grateful for at least seeing his side extend their unbeaten sequence to five matches.
From where they were when he and his brother Nicky first arrived in September, it represents a laudable achievement.
But on a night when the incentive for Town was a juicy one – when victory would have seen them leapfrog Boro and move out of the relegation zone, they could not grasp the nettle.
For Jonathan Woodgate, there was a sense of satisfaction in the organisation, work-rate and solidity shown by his side in marked comparison to their awful last away performance at Birmingham. But at a ground where they had secured keynote road victories on their last two visits in the autumn of 2014 and 2015, there was not an encore.
Remaining out of the bottom three of the Championship for the first time since December 2010, was at least something, even if their run without a league success extended to six matches.
It was an evening when much of the drama arrived before kick-off when inspection of the team sheet was conspicuous by the absence of regular keepers in Kamil Grabara and Darren Randolph, while £15m striker Britt Assombalonga was dropped by Boro.
Town loanee Grabara was absent through illness, with a bug having affected some Huddersfield players ahead of the recent trip to Blackburn Rovers. A muscle strain saw Republic of Ireland No 1 Randolph miss his first league game since joining Boro in the summer of 2017 – ending a sequence of 104 consecutive Championship appearances.
The duo’s replacements Ryan Schofield, 19, and Aynsley Pears, 21, son of Boro great Stephen, were handed league debuts and on an inauspicious evening, they could at least reflect on the prize of a cherished clean sheet.
With two greenhorns in goal, all bets were off regarding quite what to expect, but in the event, both young custodians were not overly troubled. Schofield had the most nervy moment when he flapped at an excellent inswinging corner early on from Paddy McNair and Daniel Ayala almost punished that indecision by bundling the ball home early on.
At the other end, Pears did not have to field anything of note, although his goal was afforded a couple of genuine close shaves in the first half.
It may only be October, yet the game still assumed a high bit of importance to both sides at the wrong end of the table and that was reflected in a tight and attritional first-half. Town had their moments, chiefly at the feet of Elias Kachunga, Karlan Grant and Adama Diakhaby who showed vigour, while McNair’s well-executed set-plays constituted the main source of danger for Boro.
Top-scorer Grant went close with an early header which flew over with Boro later relieved to see George Saville get in the way of his goalbound shot in the nick of time. But the Terriers’ most threatening moment arrived ahead of the break with Diakhaby showed sublime technique to curl a free-kick inches wide.
Ploughing a lonely furrow up front, Fletcher’s neat shot on the turn which almost crept past Schofield in the lead-up to the interval represented Boro’s best chance from open play. Boro upped the intensity on the resumption and a huge moment saw Fletcher fire over in front of an open goal after Schofield made a fine reaction save to turn away a stinging low free-kick from Marvin Johnson. Spotting the signs, Cowley turned to his recent game-changer from the bench in Juninho Bacuna, but it was not the precursor to an upturn.
The set-piece route soon went agonisingly close to yielding an opener for Boro, with Ayala failing to bundle in under pressure from Tommy Elphick after McNair’s corner. Fortunate to still be level, Town persevered with Bacuna firing wildly over after a presentable chance on the break.
Suitably chagrined at being benched, Assombalonga was afforded his chance of redemption when he was sent clear by Saville, but his lack of confidence was all too obvious as he dallied, allowing Jaden Brown to recover.
Huddersfield Town: Schofield; Simpson, Elphick, Schindler, J Brown; Chalobah (Bacuna 55), Hogg; Diakhaby (Campbell 64), O’Brien, Kachunga; Grant. Unused substitutes: Coleman, Mbenza, Mounie, Stankovic, Hadergjonaj.
Middlesbrough: Pears; Fry, Ayala, Shotton; Howson, McNair, Wing, Saville (Clayton 90), Johnson (Coulson 76); Tavernier, Fletcher (Assombalonga 64). Unused substitutes: Mejias, Dijksteel, Browne, Liddle.
Referee: T Harrington (Cleveland).