After being rescued from the brink of extinction, Notts County fancied themselves to write an FA Cup fairytale against the side with the poorest attack in the Premiership but found no ally in fate at a half-empty Riverside Stadium.
Against their relegation-threatened Second Division visitors, Middlesbrough did not advertise themselves as a side likely to progress far in the competition but, helped by an own goal and an opponent sent off before half-time, comfortably reached round four after Bolo Zenden doubled their lead in the second half.
The Boro manager, Steve McClaren, was happy enough with the outcome to be magnanimous in victory. "The sending-off spoiled the game a bit but credit to County for keeping going with 10 men," he said. "But for their keeper and the woodwork, we might have had a hatful."
Sadly for the visitors, still desperately in need of cash despite the 11th-hour takeover that took them out of administration last month, Boro fans did not heed McClaren's call for a coffer-swelling turn-out to aid their plight. At 15,000 the crowd was only half the stadium's Premiership average.
County's plight was largely determined by a 10-minute period in the first half from which they would tend to conclude that their luck was out. First, Boro took the lead, a feat they had not managed at the Riverside since they met Wolves on 1 November. When George Boateng found Joseph Desiré Job with a chipped pass to the left, the Boro striker - a surprise starter after 14 weeks sidelined by a knee injury - had time and space to take aim. Even so, it took a deflection off the boot of County defender Ian Richardson to beat Steve Mildenhall.
Next, however, came arguably a bigger blow as the County captain, Tony Barras, was sent off, judged to have brought down Michael Ricketts from behind. The decision was correct, but the foul was little more than a clip of the heel rather than anything more calculated.
After that, the Second Division side were happy to reach the interval still only a goal behind as Boro subjected them to a barrage. Franck Queudrue hit the bar from the free-kick conceded by Barras and only a fine save by Mildenhall denied Ricketts, with another one turning a Queudrue header over the top.
For County, Darren Caskey, once of Tottenham, made a good impression in midfield and went close with a couple of long-range free kicks. Otherwise, any result other than a home win rarely looked likely even before Zenden rocketed home Boro's second on 63 minutes, the Dutchman's clinically executed 20-yard left-foot drive giving Mildenhall no chance.
From then on, the home side remained in charge and Brad Jones, the 21-year-old Australian given his debut in Boro's goal after Mark Schwarzer pulled out with a back injury, had a trouble-free afternoon. Indeed, although Mark Stallard went close to a late reply for County, McClaren felt comfortable enough to give a debut appearance also to the 17-year-old England youth midfielder James Morrison.
"The sending-off was a little bit harsh and Tony Barras is disappointed because he is a Teesside lad," the County manager, Billy Dearden, said. "But considering we had 10 men for nearly 60 minutes against a Premiership team I felt we did all right."
Middlesbrough 2 Notts County 0
Richardson og 25, Zenden 63
Half-time 1-0 Attendance: 15,061
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