Middlesbrough 1 Birmingham City 0: Akpom fires Boro to a much-needed win

Chuba Akpom
Chuba Akpom

IT is hardly the solution to all of Middlesbrough’s problems, but at least it is a start. The post-Chris Wilder era began with a much-needed victory last night, and while whoever replaces the recently-sacked boss will inherit a side with obvious issues, he will also be taking over a team that should be nowhere near the Championship’s bottom three. From such a low base, the only way should be up.

Boro’s first-half display against Birmingham highlighted the attacking qualities that Wilder never quite managed to successfully harness, while their second-half performance showcased the kind of determination and resilience that had disappeared under the former boss. Marry the two together for the next seven months, and there is still plenty of time in which to salvage the season.

A much-needed third win of the campaign was secured courtesy of Chuba Akpom’s first-half strike, with Boro clambering out of the bottom three as a result. Remarkably, given their struggles so far, the Teessiders find themselves just five points adrift of the play-offs.

Leo Percovich’s celebrations at the final whistle were reciprocated in the stands, and if nothing else, this felt like a night when the various elements that make up Middlesbrough came together. That hasn’t always been the case in the last 12 months.

There was a certain irony about Akpom being the player that settled things given that Wilder’s treatment of the striker was one of the episodes that suggested both his judgement and man-management were flawed.

At the start of the summer, the Boro boss was openly briefing that Akpom had played his final game for the club and would not be part of the first-team squad. Three or four weeks into the campaign, and he had U-turned so dramatically he was suggesting the forward’s injury was threatening to derail his side’s season.

While he might not be a stellar striker, Akpom did not deserve to be treated so dismissively, and having been restored to last night’s starting line-up, he swept home from inside the six-yard box midway through the first half after Ryan Giles’ corner had sparked a scramble in the Birmingham box.

Akpom’s opener came in the midst of a ten-minute spell that saw a bright and purposeful Boro side repeatedly threaten their opponents’ goal. Hayden Hackney, whose selection for a first league start almost certainly owed much to the prompting of academy boss Craig Liddle, swept a decent effort just wide of the post, Matt Crooks saw a shot saved by John Ruddy and Paddy McNair hammered in a strike that was blocked by Auston Trusty as the Teessiders produced some of their most incisive attacking play of the season.

They more than merited their first-half lead, although they had two lucky escapes that might well have resulted in the game panning out differently had things not gone their way.

Just 15 minutes had gone when McNair clipped Scott Hogan’s heels as the Blues striker raced on to a pass from Krystian Bielik. Michael Salisbury could easily have reached for his red card and concluded that McNair was the last man, but instead, he deemed that a yellow was sufficient. The Riverside breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Hearts were also in mouths ten minutes before the break, when Anfernee Dijksteel’s ill-advised back-pass sent Hogan racing clear. The striker directed an angled low drive towards goal, but Zack Steffen produced a superb save with his feet.

Hogan swept a first-time effort over the bar after Tahith Chong pulled a free-kick into his path shortly before the hour mark, and Boro were forced to defend as Birmingham pushed for an equaliser in the second half.

Steffen made his second significant save to keep the home side in front just after the hour mark, tipping Emmanuel Longelo’s free-kick over the top, and unlike on a number of occasions this season, when Boro have crumbled, the hosts dug in to hold firm.

They almost made life easier by scoring a second goal at the other end, but Rodrigo Muniz thudded a header from McGree’s cross against the crossbar.