References to Cup quarter-finals on Teesside against lower-division opposition are enough to make Middlesbrough supporters break out in a cold sweat, further reinforced by last night’s similarly desperate events at a chilly and unforgiving Riverside.
In days of yore, Boro, then in the top flight, infamously squandered cherished opportunities to reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup after failing to beat second-tier Orient (1978) and Cardiff City (2008) on home soil.
Those results took on a fair degree of notoriety, as last night’s exit to League One outfit Burton unfortunately will, albeit in a different competition.
Boro – stilted, static and one-paced in a quite awful second-half which plumbed the depths –paid a heavy price on an occasion when Brewers manager Nigel Clough returned to his late father Brian’s hometown and enjoyed a famous evening.
A statue of Clough’s dad is resident in Middlesbrough’s Albert Park and while his son may not receive such an accolade yet in Burton, his feat in taking a third-tier side to the semi-finals of this competition for the second time in five seasons after matching his achievements with Sheffield United in 2014-15 is worthy of high praise.
The breakthrough arrived on 48 minutes through Jake Hesketh’s crisp low finish and few could deny Albion their moment – on an evening when they received the claps on offer from home supporters still present at the final whistle – with some lusty boos reserved for those in red by contrast.
The bitter developments made a fraught month look a whole lot worse for Boro and manager Tony Pulis, with the woeful second-half performance evoking memories of the final days of Garry Monk’s muddled era last December. The opening of the January transfer window simply cannot come soon enough on last night’s damning evidence.
Boro were thirty-three places above their Staffordshire rivals in the Football League, but it looked the other way around for the entirety of the second half as the hosts’ winless run extended to five matches.
Despite making six changes, there was no dilution in seniority in a strong looking home line-up, which saw Martin Braithwaite handed back his creative attacking brief in a bid to inspire blunt Boro at the sharp end of the pitch.
In the event, it was Stewart Downing – 35 next summer – who provided the ingenuity and moments of class on show in the first period – only to fade on the restart..
The highlight was a lovely reverse pass to slot in Lewis Wing, who tested the reactions of keeper Bradley Collins, who tipped over a stinging 12th-minute shot after Boro overcame an early bout of edginess.
The Albion keeper later had to be alert to keep out Downing’s sweetly-struck free-kick and showed agility to beat away a fierce angled effort from Jordan Hugill with Jake Buxton’s follow-up block being equally timely.
Boro’s inability to conjure a breakthrough, allied to pockets of sloppiness, were more than enough to keep the Brewers interested and their best chance arrived moments before the break with Marcus Harness tamely fired over after the hosts were opened up.
Boro’s minds were willing, but their ability to move through the gears smoothly and speedily in the attacking third was self-evident and provided further evidence of their difficulties on the goalscoring front this term.
Their lack of confidence took a further beating soon after the restart as Burton produced an incisive opener. Scott Fraser sent Jamie Allen racing clear and after his low drive shuddered the post, Hesketh kept his composure admirably to steer home the rebound from ten yards.
It was the cue for audience angst among home fans, whose mood almost soured further when Harness’s curler deflected just over with Boro creaking.
The visitors feasted on the hosts’ uncertainty and suddenly looked a yard quicker and a foot taller as Boro laboured horribly in their endeavours to cast off an atrocious start to the second period.
It was terrible stuff, with three attacking changes made by Pulis failing to arrest Boro’s malaise. It took until the 81st minute for a second-half moment of quality to arrive with a superb left-wing cross headed wide from point-blank range by Aden Flint.
It rather summed up Boro’s painful evening and lack of ruthless attacking edge all season.
Middlesbrough: Randolph; Fry, Flint, Batth, Friend; Leadbitter, Wing, Besic (Tavernier 63); Downing, Hugill (Assombalonga 63), Braithwaite (Fletcher 72). Substitutes unused: Lonergan, Ayala, McNair, Saville.
Burton Albion: Collins; Harness, Brayford, Buxton, Turner, Hutchinson; Hesketh (Fox 81), Allen, Quinn, Fraser; Akins. Substitutes unused: Evtimov, McCrory, Wallace, Hodge, Sbarra, Miller.
Referee: M Oliver (Northumberland).