The warm spring sunshine dictated that Middlesbrough treated fans to a pre-match funfair in the club carpark. Complete with bouncy castle, carousel, live music and food it made for a carefree atmosphere only mildly tarnished by the cautionary presence of an adjacent fleet of ambulances and an NHS health bus. By the final whistle, though, it was Steve Agnew and his Boro players who seemed most in need of oxygen as their failure to beat a Burnley side without an away league victory this season nudged them a step nearer relegation.
Mathematically all is far from lost but the Teessiders have not won a league game since December and, despite adopting a much more direct, attacking approach, this was the 16th match in which they had failed to score this term.
“Boro threw caution to the wind but we did enough to get the clean sheet,” said Sean Dyche, whose Burnley team are in effect safe, leaving Agnew deeply envious. “It was a game we should have won, we could have won and, of course it’s a missed opportunity,” said Aitor Karanka’s interim successor. “We’re six points adrift of safety but we’ve got a game in hand so I’m still positive.”
Agnew certainly cannot be accused of failing to press every available tactical button; he has played a different formation in each of his four games in charge, with 3-5-2 used here. Ben Gibson, AKA the left-sided component of that defensive trinity, found himself scrutinised by Gareth Southgate, the former Boro manager turned England head coach who was in attendance.
With Burnley pressing assiduously, Gibson and co were soon under pressure and looked on anxiously as Robbie Brady’s early free-kick brushed the bar.
If Stewart Downing offered Boro real width from left wing-back while Rudy Gestede succeeded in persistently ruffling Michael Keane and friends in Dyche’s backline, the Teessiders’ final balls were far too easily second guessed. Significantly, Tom Heaton was rarely called to arms.
Burnley generally proved well marshalled by Joey Barton’s midfield promptings and threatened sporadically on the break. Had George Boyd displayed a little more composure when an inviting shooting chance fell at his feet they could easily have assumed a first-half lead. Although Boro improved in the second period, they needed to speed up their passing; for all their virtues, Adam Forshaw and Grant Leadbitter are prone to dwell in possession when releasing the ball fractionally earlier might damage opponents.
Sensing a lifeline slipping away, Agnew introduced Álvaro Negredo. Almost immediately Downing’s clever trick and brilliant cross led to Heaton finally being stretched to the absolute limit to keep the Valencia loanee’s scissor-kick out.
On came Adama Traoré – startlingly sporting peroxide blond hair – to swiftly deliver a stellar cross into Adam Clayton’s path but, in a moment which seemed horribly emblematic of Boro’s plight, the midfielder shot tamely at Heaton. The sight of Sam Vokes failing to make the most of a similar opening at the other end possibly persuaded Agnew to play his final card, namely liberating Patrick Bamford from the bench.
Boro’s forgotten man after being placed in deep freeze by Karanka, Bamford swiftly assumed centre stage, surging on to a splendid through-ball before being brought down by Keane – the last man and another defender feeling the heat of Southgate’s gaze – on the edge of the area.
Contentiously – extremely so – Keane merely received a yellow rather than a red card before Downing’s free-kick was deflected away by Matthew Lowton. The ensuing corner led to Dani Ayala’s header being clear off the line, with Lowton once again Burnley’s saviour. Negredo then had an effort rightly disallowed for handball. As the teams trudged off, the pitch remained bathed in sunlight but an ominous haze clouding the view of the Cleveland Hills hinted at gloomy days ahead.