Johnson cannot shake off Boro’s relegation blues

Middlesbrough 0 Sheffield United 0
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The Independent Online

First, for Middlesbrough, the good news. They sit proudly atop the Championship this morning, albeit briefly and only by courtesy of alphabetic order.

It failed to prevent them being jeered off by a significant minority of their supporters, and on the evidence of this inspiration-free 90 minutes, the hangover continues. Both clubs ended last season at a low ebb, and this subdued stalemate to provide a largely forgettable curtain-raiser to the new campaign suggests the scars remain.

Sheffield United were losing the Championship play-off final in May as Boro came to terms with surrendering an 11-year top flight tenure. Those two traumatic events were clearly still prominent in thought and deed, as a safety-first mentality from each side ensured the have and hold approach superseded the search for what would have been the decisive goal in an encounter sparse on chances.

Despite the hosts' increasing grip on possession as the contest wore on, it was the Yorkshire club who created the majority of what few openings there were, those in a first-half where their muscular methods unsettled Gareth Southgate's side, but not sufficiently to see them ship the first goal of the embryonic campaign.

"As an away side we were very positive, because this is a very tough place to come," Kevin Blackwell, the Sheffield United manager said, after watching his side continue the impressive away form of last season that brought them 10 victories on the road.

Ched Evans, a late substitute, was among five debutants but the number of new faces failed to prevent United posing the major attacking threat. Blackwell added: "We looked stronger than last season, more accomplished, so overall I'm pretty happy." What will make him less happy is news that Lee Williamson, the midfielder, faces an operation on a back injury.

Middlesbrough's two full debutants – a third, Leroy Lita came off the bench – stood out. Mark Yeates impressed in midfield, forcing Mark Bunn into his only save midway through the first half.

That Danny Coyne had ample opportunity to prove his worth in his first appearance will be of more concern to Southgate, who would prefer his goalkeeper to be rather more under-employed. It took a smart low save to block an early effort from Keith Treacy, skipper Chris Morgan going close with a typically robust header from the resulting corner. Stephen Quinn was denied shortly before the interval with an equally agile stop.

"We didn't work their keeper enough,' conceded Southgate, who concurred with referee Lee Mason's decision to ignore Adam Johnson's second-half penalty claims, after the midfielder's half-hearted dive over the out-stretched leg of Kyle Walker.

"It was a decent performance and a clean sheet was important, but we're a bit flat because we've not won," Southgate added. "People questioned whether we could stand up to the physical challenge, but we did."

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Coyne; McMahon, Wheater, Huth, Grounds; Johnson, Williams, Digard (O'Neil, 43), Yeates; Emnes (Lita, 65), Aliadière. Substitutes not used: Steele (gk), Hoyte, Andrew Taylor, Arca, Franks.

Sheffield United (4-4-1-1): Bunn; Walker, Morgan, Kilgallon, Andy Taylor; France, Montgomery, Quinn, Treacy (Cotterill, 63); Howard (Evans, 69); Henderson. Substitutes not used: Bennett (gk), Reid, Bromby, Sharp, Little.

Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).

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