Middlesborough 0 Manchester City 0: Gloom engulfs Middlesbrough as supporters vote with their feet

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The Independent Football

Middlesbrough achieved at least one objective. Gareth Southgate said he wanted fans off their seats, and with five minutes left most had followed his instructions and headed for the hills.

Flowing entertainment rather than dour attrition was more what the captain had in mind as the causal factor, but his post-match candour hinted at the dark mood enveloping the Riverside. "We sometimes feel we're up against it with the fans," he admitted after a sixth League game without victory left his side precariously placed four points above the bottom three.

"I can understand their frustration, but we must make sure we're not affected by it. Supporters are entitled to criticise because they pay a lot of money to watch, but it isn't helpful."

Middlesbrough remain in the Uefa and FA cups, but on current form a continued run in either is flimsy ground on which to pin too much hope. Certainly, they will improve when Stewart Downing and George Boateng return from injury, but by definition the season of a horribly inconsistent side is two defeats away from being nothing more than a battle for survival.

After four years of sustained improvement, stagnation is hard to stomach. Southgate is eager to welcome 2006, the first fixture of which sends Middlesbrough to North-east neighbours Newcastle today.

They might have had a first-half penalty when Sylvain Distin brought down Mark Viduka, but more pertinently they were indebted to a fine late save from Mark Schwarzer to earn only a third point in half a dozen games.

"For each of the past four years we've progressed," Southgate added. "This year we're down on where we want to be and it's been one to forget." Middlesbrough failed to heed the warnings of a lacklustre pre-season, and Southgate added, "We struggled towards the back end of last season and clawed our way into Europe. We've struggled from the off this time."

Keith Lamb, the chief executive, issuing a stark warning at the weekend over the adverse consequences on future transfer market activity caused by the continued downward trend in crowds, hardly lightened the mood.

He said: "We will have to cut our cloth accordingly. Eventually, Teesside will have a football club the town's resources can afford."

If Middlesbrough's world view is strictly of the half-empty variety, that of Manchester City is more half-full. "It's a massive positive and something to take into the new year," was the gushing reaction of David James to something as seemingly mundane as a clean sheet, one he accomplished thanks to a fine first-half save to thwart Yakubu.

It is a mindset that is difficult to avoid when you are managed by someone as can-do as Stuart Pearce.

While some of his counterparts struggle to coax their players to participate fully in the festive programme, Pearce has the opposite problem. "I've got a few with niggles and at this stage, maybe it'd be easy for them to turn round and say, 'I've done my shift'.

"But the only one who didn't make it for this game was Ben Thatcher, and I had to stop him playing. He told me on the morning he was fully fit. Just as he limped past me."

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Parnaby (Bates, 80), Riggott, Southgate, Queudrue; Morrison, Doriva, Mendieta, Pogatetz (Maccarone, 85); Yakubu (Hasselbaink, 80), Viduka. Substitutes not used: Jones, Cattermole.

Manchester City (4-4-2): James; Onuoha, Dunne, Distin, Jordan; Sinclair, Barton, Jihai, Sibierski (Ireland, h-t); Cole, Vassell (Wright-Phillips, 80). Substitutes not used: De Vlieger, Sommeil, Croft.

Referee: M Atkinson (W Yorkshire).

Booked: Manchester City Onuoha.

Man of the match: Schwarzer.

Attendance: 28,022.