MIDDLESBROUGH’S biggest home crowd for three-and-a-half years saw the Teessiders move top of the Championship as Sheffield Wednesday’s Riverside malaise continued.
Second-half strikes from Ishmael Miller and substitute Lukas Jutkiewicz enabled Boro to take pole position for the first time in 14 months in front of a bumper attendance of 28,229 – their highest since returning to the second tier and biggest since losing to Manchester United in the top flight in May 2009.
The crowd was 13,000 above Boro’s seasonal average as Teessiders took advantage of a cut-price ticket offer.
Tony Mowbray’s side boast an unblemished record against the Owls at their home ground and that continued as the visitors slumped to their sixth successive loss here.
Well in the contest and threatening to halt the Boro juggernaut after Gary Madine cancelled out Justin Hoyte’s fine early opener four minutes after the interval, the hosts produced two telling moments to extend their unbeaten run to eight games.
It ensured Dave Jones – whose Cardiff side famously dumped Boro out of the FA Cup in a shock quarter-final success at the Riverside in March 2008 – could not don the role of party-pooper once more. The Owls remain without a win on Teesside since New Year’s Day 1991 despite a game display.
Wednesday made two changes from the side beaten by Blackpool in midweek, with Paul Corry replacing Rhys McCabe and Madine coming in for Chris O’Grady.
Mowbray was blessed with options – as is usually the way for managers whose teams are at the top end of the table – with Miller, Jonathan Woodgate and Marvin Emnes declaring themselves fit and starting.
Boro’s bench looked undeniably strong, with the likes of Kevin Thomson, Luke Williams and Adam Reach missing out altogether.
With a wall of noise greeting Boro in the opening stages, the hosts, utilising a fluid 4-2-3-1 system, started on the offensive with a couple of viciously swerving corners from Grant Leadbitter testing the reactions of Chris Kirkland.
Wednesday then fired their first salvo with Justin Hoyte blocking Miguel Llera’s effort following Jay Bothroyd’s free-kick before the recalled Boro full-back took centre stage at the other end on 13 minutes.
A slick move saw Emmanuel Ledesma play an astute pass invitingly into the path of the onrushing Hoyte and he fired home a wonderful curled effort with the outside of his right foot to claim his first goal since Christmas 2009 in majestic style – and just the fourth of his career.
The cries of “We are top of the league” soon rang out from the home faithful with a free-kick piledriver from Leadbitter thudding into Kirkland’s palms.
At the other end, livewire Michail Antonio, who looked the man most likely to unhinge the home rearguard in the first half, was denied by an offside flag after ghosting in and latching onto a fine ball from Ross Barkley.
Josh McEachran then showed why scores of Championship rivals beat a path to Chelsea’s door in the summer to try to land the prodigiously-talented midfielder on loan with a moment of magic.
Some bewitching close control in a sublime run saw the England Under-21 star beat four Owls players, but he was denied an early contender for goal of the season with Kirkland smothering his effort.
While that and the strike from Hoyte were true moments to remember, the Owls, to their credit, hung in and twice went close.
Antonio’s curling shot was parried by Steele before Llera was within inches of his fourth goal of the campaign, screwing an effort agonisingly wide after latching onto Madine’s header following a corner from Bothroyd.
This encouragement for the Owls led to tangible reward in the 49th minute.
Bothroyd’s cross was chested down by Antonio into the direction of Madine and while the Boro defence procrastinated, the recalled striker coolly dinked the ball past Steele for his first league goal this term – and first from open play since early April – while the hosts waited for an offside flag, which should have been shown.
Bothroyd fired wastefully wide when well placed before Boro, just before the hour mark, regained the lead with their first meaningful attack of the half.
Ledesma again producing an exquisite assist to send Scott McDonald clear with his touch past the onrushing Kirkland destined for the net, although Miller made sure by tapping home close in.
It was effectively game over on 76 minutes when Jutkiewicz, 10 minutes after going on, headed powerfully home following Leadbitter’s corner.
Madine almost ensured a nervy finale for the hosts with his effort in the final 10 minutes blocked by Steele as the hosts appealed for offside, but the night belonged to Boro.
Middlesbrough: Steele, Hoyte, Woodgate (Hines 45), Bikey, Friend; McEachran, Leadbitter; Ledesma, Emnes (Haroun 74), McDonald; Miller (Jutkiewicz 66). Unused substitutes: Leutwiler, Zemmama, Bailey, Parnaby.
Sheffield Wednesday: Kirkland; Buxton, Llera, Gardner, Jones; Semedo; Bothroyd (J Johnson 73), Barkley (McCabe 83), Corry (O’Grady 83), Antonio; Madine. Unused substitutes: Davies, Taylor, Mattock, Rodri.
Referee: C Boyeson (East Yorkshire).
League tables: Page 4.