Gordon Strachan will not give up hope of reaching the Championship play-offs but knows that he is playing a longer game. The Middlesbrough manager brought in seven players during the January transfer window, will be active again when the market reopens this summer and believes his work at the Riverside Stadium has only just begun.
"Am I close to what I want to do with the team?" Strachan said after Saturday's draw with the Championship leaders. "No, I'm not. I'm nowhere near where I want to be."
On this evidence,however, Strachan is progressing. Middlesbrough played some sparkling football, were inventive in midfield and would have won but for some defensive naivety and lack of a cutting edge.
Boro's best performers were two of the quintet of Celtic players Strachan recruited in January. Scott McDonald kept the Newcastle defence on the back foot, while Barry Robson, on the right of midfield, was the source of Boro's most threatening attacks.
Robson's wickedly curling left-foot crosses, one of which set up McDonald's first goal for the club, repeatedly troubled the visiting defence, while his own strike was a beauty. After a clever exchange of passes with McDonald on the edge of the penalty area, Robson struck his shot so well that Steve Harper, the Newcastle goalkeeper, hardly moved.
Strachan, who admits that Middlesbrough's promotion chances are becoming "slimmer by the week", believes that taking four points from their last five matches has not been fair reward. "We're getting punished for everything," said, referring to his young defence's occasional lapses.
As for Newcastle, having been outplayed for an hour, despite a promising start during which Jonas Gutierrez's defence-splitting pass enabled Peter Lovenkrands to open the scoring, they stuck to their task. "They worked very hard and they got something from the game," Strachan said.
Only eight minutes remained when Andy Carroll, given too much space, scored from eight yards after a Ryan Taylor cross. "We're never out of a game," Newcastle's manager, Chris Hughton, said. "There's a real desire in this group of lads not to give up."
The result ended a run of four successive victories in which Newcastle had scored 15 goals. With a game in hand and a lead of nine points over third-placed Nottingham Forest, Hughton's men should secure their immediate return to the Premier League well before the end of the season, though their upcoming matches will not be without challenges.
With Mike Williamson out for up to four weeks after breaking a bone in his hand and Fabricio Coloccini a doubt for Wednesday's match against Scunthorpe United after limping off here, Hughton's defensive resources will be tested. Should Newcastle falter over the next two weeks the visit of Forest to St James' Park a fortnight today could be interesting.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Coyne; Naughton, Wheater, McManus, A Taylor; Robson, Williams, O'Neil, Arca; McDonald, Killen (Miller, 87). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Hoyte, Riggott, Lita, Bennett, Franks.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Harper; Simpson, Hall, Coloccini (R Taylor, 50), Kadar; Pancrate (Best, 78), Nolan, Guthrie, Gutierrez; Carroll, Lovenkrands (Butt, 70). Substitutes not used: Krul (gk), Sanchez Diaz, Routledge, Ranger.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).
Booked: Middlesbrough McDonald; Newcastle Hall, Simpson, Kadar, Carroll.
Man of the match: Robson.
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