Boro's revival gives division a bad name

Dearth of quality means Teessiders still in play-off hunt despite wretched form, writes Jason Mellor
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The Independent Football

The humble Championship is regularly lauded for being everything its bigger, more brash cousin the Premier League isn't, in terms of its refreshing uncertainty of outcome and evenly matched participants.

That may be true, but there is also a strong case to be mounted for its paucity rewarding mediocrity if a side that has endured such a wretched run as Middlesbrough can still be strong play-off contenders.

The thought of Gordon Strachan welcoming a victory with anything other than open arms just a few weeks ago was utterly unthinkable, so it perhaps hints at the progress the Scot is finally starting to make that he felt compelled to haul his players over the coals in the wake of this latest win.

Middlesbrough mustered eight points from Strachan's first 11 games, and after falling into the bottom half of the table last month, by all rights their hopes of securing an immediate return to the Premier League should have been extinguished.

Yet such was the plethora of utterly average teams above them, four fruitful weeks and six unbeaten games later, Middlesbrough sit just two points outside the top six with a growing belief they can bring about a swift end their top-flight exile through the play-offs.

It's now 12 points from the last 18 after Barry Robson swept home an early Jonathan Franks cross. The Teesside club are back in the promotion mix, partly through a long awaited upturn in their fortunes, but in equal measure to the opportunity afforded them to eventually get their act together by those sides in the rump of the table who have been unable to exploit what had been a quite terrible run of form.

Victory didn't prevent Strachan from delivering a stern dressing down to his players for a sloppy second-half display that almost gifted Peterborough a share of the spoils.

Having worked with him at Celtic, the manager's reaction failed to surprise Robson. "It's not a bad thing if you're not at your best and come away with a win," the 32-year-old said after his first goal since moving from Parkhead. "I've worked with the manager for a few years now and he sets high standards which we never reached against Peterborough. We know we need to up our game."

Strachan felt his side lacked the necessary respect for bottom-of-the table Peterborough, needlessly relaxing to such an extent that only a goal-line clearance from David Wheater prevented substitute Josh Simpson ending the visitors' seven-game away losing streak in stoppage time. "There's more to football than three points," said Strachan. "We showed them disrespect after our goal, and the level of our play wasn't acceptable."

Some 12 points adrift of safety, Peterborough's chastening nine-month experience of the Championship is set to end, for the time being at least, in May. "Staying up is an almost impossible challenge," Jim Gannon, their third manager of a season that is still to see an away victory, conceded. "It would take something incredible over the remaining games."

Middlesbrough (4-4-2) Coyne (gk); Naughton, McManus, Wheater, Bennett; Flood, Robson, Walker (Hoyte 59), Franks; Miller (Aliadière, 56), McDonald (Lita, 74). Substitutes not used: Steele (gk), Taylor, Grounds, Williams.

Peterborough (4-4-1-1) Lewis (gk); Lee (Reid, 53), Bennett, Morgan, Williams (Simpson, 53); Frecklington, Rowe, Whelpdale, Livermore; Boyd; McLean (Mackail-Smith, 81). Substitutes not used: McKeown (gk), Mills, Griffiths, Geohaghon.

Referee: J Moss (West Yorkshire).

Man of the match: Robson.

Attendance: 18,412.