BACK-to-basics Boro put in a rock solid shift to stop the rot at Burnley.
They ground away at the back, sweated and laboured and threw themselves into blocks and tackles and headers and while at times it was chaotic they claimed a precious point and a welcome clean sheet.
It was only Boro’s second goalless game this season – and only the third draw in total – and it was the first clean sheet on the road since the previous double blank at Nottingham Forest in early November.
A goalless draw at a wobbling Burnley may be no great shakes in the wider football firmament – no one is suggesting we saw the top off a double-decker – but after the recent catastrophic collapse it has to be counted as a good point gained.
The hard earned draw ended a traumatic travel sick slump of six successive away defeats that has rolled marbles under the studs of Boro’s faltering promotion charge.
Boro had lost at Swansea, Leeds, Derby, Leicester, Ipswich and Palace on the spin – with performance levels declining along the way. Before that they had only just scraped a 3-2 win at then bottom Peterborough. And that followed defeats at Birmingham and Cardiff.
Boro had conceded 20 goals in those nine games and morale and momentum was seeping through the leaks that had sprung in the defence. And what had started as a trickle had turned into a deluge with four flying in at lowly Ipswich then another four – and it could easily have been more – at rampant Palace.
Heads were dropping on the pitch and anger was bubbling over off it at the frustrating malaise that had seen Boro slip from second before New Year to clinging on to the last play-off spot and looking over their shoulders anxiously.
So plugging the gaps was of utmost importance. And Boro succeeded in doing that.
It wasn’t a classic but it was gritty and resilient and may just have helped pull Boro out of a fatal away day nosedive.
Boro went for a clean sheet and got it. They set out to be solid with Stephen McManus restored to the team alongside Andre Bikey and George Friend nudged back out to the left in his most convincing position as a full back while Nicky Bailey was drafted in to answer the injury crisis at right.
It wouldn’t be most fans’ first choice line up but given the casualty list there was little choice. There wasn’t even a spare defender on the bench.
That Big Mick was begrudgingly brought back from his lonely stool by the exit door shows the depth of the crisis – but the Scot was in his element.
Incidentally, McManus, out of contract in the summer, has not been on a losing side for Boro this term. His only previous league game was the win at Watford and he also made two early round League Cup appearances.
He may not be the fastest or cultured ball playing stopper but when it comes to a sleeves rolled up ruck and aerial combat he ticks a lot of boxes.
And the makeshift defensive unit did well. They were clunky at times and Burnley found plenty of space down both flanks but hard work and real spirit saw Boro through.
And after being torn open by Championship hot shot Glenn Murray at Palace they did well to shackle the second most prolific striker Charlie Austin.
Burnley bombarded Boro with crosses and won an economy sized sack of corners but the central pair nodded them away relentlessly and when the ball came back in the team as a whole threw their bodies in the way to block.
It was frantic stuff at times. Jason Steele had to make a good full length save from hod-carrying hitman Austin and then clawed away a powerful Dean Marney header from the near top corner and a couple of other efforts sizzled wide, were charged down in a crowded box or flew over.
The first half was one way traffic best watched through your fingers. Boro offered nothing. They didn’t have a shot. Not even a hopeful 30 yarder that drifted wide. In fact, they didn’t have a corner. And they only made very rare forays past the half-way line.
Boro’s midfield was a cautious affair. Rarely can Boro have fielded a midfield with so few goals between them. Rhys Williams was in a holding role behind the central pair of Grant Leadbitter and Josh McEachran with Richard Smallwood and Andy Halliday on the flanks but sitting deep to protect the full-backs.
There’s parking the bus then there is working in the Cleveland Transit depot.
We were watching Burnley keeper Lee Grant closely. His greatest danger was nodding off. He must have been so bored. He may as well have sat down and got his phone out to play Angry Birds. His first touch of the ball came on 41 minutes – seriously – and even that was to casually return a back-pass.
But having blunted the Clarets attack with sheer labour, Boro started to show more ambition after the break – and they may have snatched it in the end.
The fightback started slowly as Boro first slowly pushed the still scrappy scrum into the middle third then tentatively started to probe forward.
Having weathered the storm at the back Tony Mowbray made some creative changes as in quick succession frontmen Mustapha Carayol, Ishmael Miller and Curtis Main came on and Boro started to attack.
The first real effort came on the hour as Carayol was chopped down to win a free kick 25 yards out and after a touch back from Bikey, Leadbitter rammed it through the wall and just wide.
That signalled a slow shift in the balance of power as Boro gradually pressed forward and started to ask the questions – although chances were still at a premium and Grant, while he had been forced to put his phone away, still never had to make a serious save.
And Burnley broke out to fashion the best chance of the game as a quick ball sent Austin streaking into the box but eight yards out he cracked his angled drive over the bar.
But Boro finished with a final flourish as they piled forward and applied some genuine pressure as Williams fired over, McEachran rifled wide and then at the death hero elect Curtis Main had a chance to repeat his Leeds sucker punch and settle it dramatically but an acrobatic mid-air hook over his shoulder looped up and into the roof of the net.
So it ended all square on a night when the cushion beneath Boro was whittled down to two points. Some won’t be happy with that. Our lofty ambitions jut a few months ago did not include celebrating a goalless draw at Turf Moor.
But it was a gritty display that showed exactly the spirit, graft and solidity missing in the bruising sorry surrenders at Ipswich and Palace.
It has ended a nightmare run, stopped the goals flying in, propped up flagging morale and kept a potential rival at arms length. Away from home, it was a decent point.
It wasn’t one for the purists but it ticked a lot of boxes.
Now, to build on that and regain play-off momentum, Boro have to show the same spirit and add goal and beat Millwall on Saturday.