A 1-0 victory for Burton Albion sees the League One club through to the last four of the Carabao Cup, casting further doubts on Pulis’ Middlesbrough reign
“People have talked about tonight’s game being an opportunity”, manager Tony Pulis said in his programme notes ahead of tonight’s home quarter-final tie against lower league opposition, before reminding everyone “not to underestimate the challenge we face”.
Yet, that opportunity was not grasped by those wearing red, the warning not heeded.
Burton’s Jake Hesketh was to grab the only goal of the game, his low shot from the edge of the area finding the corner of Darren Randolph’s net in the 48th minute.
And with defeat extending Boro’s winless streak to 5 games, the 17,000 or so loyalists who had come to witness what might have been a defining act in the season were left to contemplate the gathering “clouds that lowered” at their home on the Riverside.
Six changes fail to address Boro form slump
Pulis elected to ring the changes for tonight’s match, with Leadbitter, Besic, Dry, Wing, and Batth all earning a start, with the trio of Ayala, Assombalonga, and Saville dropping to the bench following Saturday’s 2-1 humbling at the hands of the Queen(s Park Rangers).
But it was surely the inclusion of Danish striker Martin Braithwaite from the start that would provide the most intriguing sub-plot for tonight’s performance, after being banished to the sidelines for apparent transfer disloyalty.
On another night, Braithwaite could well have been the hero of the half-hour, with the Machiavellian Danish striker set free on goal from a sumptuous Downing pass, only to squarely pass up his opportunity to an onrushing but never nearer Jordan Hugill.
It might be opinioned that a striker secure in their surroundings would have taken a decisive blow themselves given the situation again. Many will draw their own conclusions that he didn’t.
A worthy successor to his Father’s throne
Yet it would be amiss of this tale of North-East footballing woe not to herald the leader of the Albion and his gallant men in yellow.
From a family name well known in these parts, Clough II is continuing to make a name for himself in the game his father once ruled both on home soil and in Europe. One can only imagine what the late great would make of Brexit.
Still, his progeny continues to build the legacy.
Now into his third year of a second spell in the Pirelli Stadium throne, Nigel Clough was understandably delighted at the club’s Carabao Cup renaissance following his side’s relegation from the Championship last term.
“92 clubs went into the competition and now we’re into the last four, its absolutely remarkable”.
But where as many statisticians will inform that this is the first time in the club’s history it has reached the semi-finals of the League Cup, this only tells half the story.
For this is a club that was founded as recently as 1950, beginning life in the Birmingham & District League and making its way through the football pyramid to achieve full league status in 2009, meaning that this feat has been achieved in only the 10th season Burton Albion have been eligible for the League Cup competition.
Resolute defence and a bit of luck
“You always need a bit of luck in any cup competition”, Clough began as he answered the post match interviews, “but I thought we deserved our luck tonight.”
And it was clear that Boro’s faithful were in agreement with that sentiment, as the magnanimous home fans applauded the Burton Albion players from the field at the final whistle.
The bit of luck that may still have been on Clough’s mind after the game was surely the moment where Aden Flint inexplicably passed up Middlesbrough’s best chance of the match, late in the game.
Following a cross from the left, one of far too few that beat the first defender, the ball would find its way to Flint, 3 yards out, with the goal at his mercy.
Quite how the former Bristol City defender went on to direct a powerful header wide of the left-hand post from there, only Flint will know?
But a late equaliser would have been harsh on Burton, who were full value for their win and clean sheet.
A resolute team defensive performance was typified and led by the stalwart trio of John Brayford, Ben Turner, and returning skipper Jake Buxton – who at a combined age of 93 continuously blocked, kicked, and headed balls away from danger.
When that wasn’t enough and lines were breached, up stepped Chelsea loanee goalkeeper Bradley Collins.
Showing a maturity beyond his youthful years, bravely commanding his penalty area and beyond, Collins also made several crucial saves at key moments in the game.
Asked by reporters for comparisons in the performance with that of his late Dad’s teams, with a quick look above and a knowing smile Clough responded:
“I think he would have been proud of our clean sheet tonight.”
“We were so sloppy”
Post-match, Pulis ruefully reflected on his side’s missed chances in the match:
“We’ve had four opportunities where we’re through with just the goalkeeper in front of us
“What summed it up was Flinty’s miss. How we missed that, goodness knows.”
However, in a match where Middlesbrough enjoyed 63% possession, they were only able to convert this superiority into eight shots on goal, with just three of those finding the target.
In comparison Burton managed 11 shots, hitting the target twice.
This, of course, included Hesketh’s crucial strike for Burton at the start of the second half, after winning a challenge with Besic on the edge of the area when contesting for a ball that had rebounded off the post, moments before following good work by the impressive Marcus Harness.
Asked about the start of the second half and goal conceded, Pulis was frank:
“The first 10 minutes of the second half were shocking, we were so sloppy.”
Asked whether he was concerned by the supporters reaction, Pulis responded, “I’m always concerned when we’re not winning”.
Now, almost 12 months on from following Gary Monk, what fate lies in wake for Tony Pulis’ reign as Middlesbrough manager following this latest result remains to be seen.
However, football fans only have to look as far back as this morning to see that even a ‘special one’s’ time can come to an abrupt end.
Middlesbrough Side: Randolph, Fry, Batth, Flint, Friend, Leadbitter (C), Besic (Tavernier 63), Wing, Downing, Braithwaite (Fletcher 72), Hugill (Assombalonga (63)
Burton Albion Side: Collins, Brayford, Buxton, Turner, Hutchinson, Quinn, Allen, Hesketh (Fox 81), Harness, Fraser, Akins
Goals (1): Hesketh