A potential giant-killing that looked to have fizzled out as Middlesbrough cruised into a two-goal half-time lead instead evolved into the kind of knife-edge drama that the much maligned FA Cup happily remains capable of scripting. Despite the laudable efforts of a skilful opponent to make light of the two-division gap between these sides, two errors handed Boro every opportunity to work themselves the easiest of passages into the last 16.
But it would have been an injustice to the quality of Gary Johnson's League One side, whose football was both constructive and pleasing to the eye, had the Premiership team prevailed without a fight and two goals in the first 14 minutes of the second half earned City the unqualified respect of their opponents and a replay at the Riverside on 13 February.
"For 30 minutes in the second half they outplayed us," the Middlesbrough manager, Gareth Southgate, said afterwards. "We were probably guilty of a bit of complacency after going two goals up but Bristol City deserve a lot of credit for the way they played. All the good things we did in that first half we stopped doing after the break and City took advantage.
"We have been on a good run but your attitude has to be right in every game and you cannot take your foot off the pedal whoever you are up against. We have learned that lesson today and thankfully we are still in the competition." Yakubu and Malcolm Christie had given Boro the cushion that should have been enough to guarantee their place in the last 16, capitalising on mistakes the City manager, Gary Johnson, conceded had been "schoolboy errors" by an inexperienced back four.
It undermined a good first half by the League One side, although, Johnson lamented, "without an end product". Yakubu tapped in from close range after the goalkeeper Adriano Basso had spilled a shot by the England winger Stewart Downing, although it was the misplaced pass by full-back Liam Fontaine that had put his side in trouble. Christie took advantage of similar carelessness to turn in James Morrison's low cross for the second.
There had been plenty of energy from City, for whom Lee Johnson - son of the manager - and the promising Cole Skuse were full of movement and invention, supplemented by some decent work on the flanks by Scott Murray and James McAllister. The Premiership team were pushed back enough to suggest the League One side might gain some reward. Their best chance of the opening half fell to Skuse inside the box but his shot was too close to the goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.
But against the backdrop of a traditional English ground, giving the occasion an old-fashioned atmosphere of the kind that has been lost in some of today's modern stadiums, the home side drew on the impassioned support of a 19,000 Ashton Gate full house to mount a stirring comeback. The end result was that, for the second time in this season's competition, Boro surrendered a comfortable lead, although the quality of the home side's response fully deserved the tipping of the balance.
City's first goal stemmed from a beautifully delivered free-kick by Johnson, whose cross left Schwarzer in two minds whether to stand his ground or try to win the ball. In the end he did neither and Richard Keogh's looping back-header gave the home crowd hope. Johnson's team pushed forward again, winning another free-kick from which to test the resilience of Southgate's players. Schwarzer was decisive this time, punching the ball a long way out to the right. But in doing so he left himself stranded and Murray, in a moment of inspired opportunism, thumped it right back at him, its trajectory taking it over the head of the Australian goalkeeper and in at the far corner.
Moments later, as Boro tried desperately to regain some semblance of a grip, there could have been a winner as Fontaine almost turned from culpable to heroic as his header was cleared off the line by Downing. "I don't like to slaughter people for mistakes but it was through a couple of schoolboy errors that we were behind," Johnson said.
"But I stressed to them at half-time that we needed to show that little bit more determination and aggression. I reminded them that they were on a highlights show in the evening but they had not produced any. I told them to show more determination, more bottle and have the confidence to make something happen.
"These players have a passion for each other and they did not want to be remembered for a couple of mistakes costing us and some of what they did in the second half, with the crowd at full volume, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up."Reuse content