BINARY Boro have just rattled off a 1-1 1-1 1-1 1-1 scoreline sequence that probably sets off alarm bells in computer code. Even if you can’t read a PC program it is still a deeply worrying series of numbers, especially at this stage of the season.
The Maths of the Day finally swung against Boro at Brighton as they failed to make their fractional advantage in the game count while other outcomes just slightly tipped the wrong way. It was inevitable it would happen one week.
But despite being squeezed out to seventh, Boro are still in the play-off equation.
It was frustrating that despite a good result – a draw away to a side above you who are in red hot form is always a good result – and a heartening performance Boro still found themselves squeezed out of the play-off places.
Not by much. They are part of a four way tie of teams on 63 points but the goal difference weighs heavily against them. Birmingham in fourth are 18 goals better off – three of them plundered from Boro – and that is as good as an extra point.
Four draws in a row have seen Boro make glacial painful progress towards the target tally of 74 or so that will hand them a golden ticket to the play-off lottery.
Factor in two damaging defeats to Leeds and Birmingham before that and it adds up to a frightening meagre return of just four points from a possible 18.
Boro’s hopes of extending the season are in the balance. With six games left and some tough encounters looming – Cardiff and Hull next up, Southampton as the last home game – it will go right down to the wire.
But despite the recent stutter Boro are still very much part of the play-off permutations. The four successive stalemates were not a disaster. Or at least, three of them weren’t.
The dismal home draw with Bristol was a costly set-back and a blow to morale. Failing to put limited but hard-working teams to bed at the Riverside has been the hallmark of the season. There’s no denying that.
But while Boro may have lost ground they can take heart after putting in three spirited shows in a series of very tough away games.
They travelled to West Ham and dug deep to soak up some early pressure then came from behind to level with a sizzling strike from Bart Ogbeche. And they could easily have won all three points in a fizzing finale as Lukas Jutkiewicz hit the bar then Ogbeche had a goalbound pile-driver bravely headed away a yard of the line.
That result was a bonus point for Boro, pegged the Hammers back and turned up the heat on the jittery pre-season title favourites and grumpy Sam Allardyce.
Then Boro went away to an Ipswich side that had won five in a row at Portman Road and somehow survived a bruising early defensive injury crisis and enforced reshuffle to come away with a point.
Matthew Bates limped off with a cruciate injury and Seb Hines was laid flat out and seeing stars for a second successive season in East Anglia before going off at the break leaving no centre-backs on the pitch but Boro dug deep to get a creditable draw as Jutkiewicz stabbed home.
Then, on Saturday, Boro went to Brighton, an in-form side with an enterprising approach and an awesome home record. They have lost only three at the Amex Stadium all term and none since Christmas. They have won 11 and drawn six of their 20 games and have scored 33 goals playing expansive attacking football with confidence.
But Boro more than matched them. You don’t get points for plaudits but many of their local press men and fans said after the game that Boro were the best side they had seen there all season – and that includes both Newcastle and Sunderland who they have beaten in the cups.
It was disappointing to leak a late leveller to a sloppily defended set-play once again but nevertheless there was much to be pleased by and despite the statistical set-back I came away from the game with renewed optimism.
Boro played some excellent football, closing quickly at the back to deny them room down the flanks – both full backs Justin Hoyte and Joe Bennett were excellent – while tackling machines Nicky Bailey and Richie Smallwood shackled their trump card Vicente and stopped them playing through the middle and the armband powered Barry Robson provided drive and direction without the counter-productive snarling.
Brighton’s few speculative chances were thwarted by increasingly impressive Jason Steele – really growing into his role in recent weeks – and some alert and disciplined defending with match fit Stephen McManus adding height and strength and Hines a classy presence growing more composed and confident by the week.
While up front bubbling Boro looked much sharper than in recent weeks, carving out some good chances before Marvin Emnes finally glanced home a header and then soon after Jutkiewicz thundered against the post.
Boro were passing and probing and were fluid in the opposition half with busy Scott McDonald, back in action off the bench for the final flourish, adding a much missed link with midfield as he buzzed around demanding the ball.
So the result was a set-back – the players and staff were certainly gutted not to have won – but the performance offered reasons for optimism in the testing weeks to come.
While Boro fans may be depressed and worried by the recent points yield and form, the rest of the play-off pack are also struggling. The sides immediately behind – Cardiff, Hull and Leeds – are in the bottom six of the form table and have shown no signs of any sudden spurt to worry us from behind (although Watford are gathering ominous momentum just beyond them).
And the teams just above Boro are not much better. They are all drawing too many games and squandering . They are all under pressure, nervous and making errors and some have tough fixtures in the run-in. There are no shoo-ins.
Ironically, while Boro’s points return has shrunk in recent weeks, there are hopeful signs that their game has expanded. The full-backs are functioning again, Bailey is back and slowly playing his way back into the game, Robson is back and bubbling, Steele looks solid, there are options in midfield and up front and at Brighton there was a zest not seen since December.
There is nothing to be scared of. A play-off place is there for the taking. It is still in Boro’s hands- but they must start winning games. We can’t afford draws now. Even ‘good’ ones.