Middlesbrough 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0
Middlesbrough 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0 IN many respects David Wheater's season mirrors that of Middlesbrough Football Club. A stunning start to life in the Championship followed by a period of disappointment before ending in resurgence. It remains unlikely that Wheater's improvement will end in a play-off contest for his hometown club, but lessons have clearly been learned and progress made since the turn of the year. With the exception of Gordon Strachan and the men he has brought in, everyone connected with Middlesbrough has every right to be frustrated at their inability to compete with Newcastle United and West Brom in their first season outside the Premier League. While the Baggies followed Newcastle in sealing automatic promotion over the weekend, Boro were relieved to have secured the marginal 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday that maintains slim hopes of a top six finish. Deficiencies remain in the Boro system, with a lack of invention likely to be addressed in the summer, but arguably the most important trait required for Championship football has already been found: character. Suddenly Boro's squad has it in abundance. Many of the younger players, like Wheater, who lacked such resilience and drive, have found themselves responding to having the right men around at each other at times. But they've come in and shouted at everyone, they don't care. We lost our experience. We've now got it back in the shape of the Scottish lads, who've played Champions League and internationals. That's what us younger lads needed, said Wheater. Earlier this season we'd have been in front but wouldn't have known how to see it out. These more experienced lads have come in and helped us hold on. Wheater was a key member of the team that led Middlesbrough to the top of the Championship in August, but after a few sales their slump is highlighted by a statistic that still stands this morning. To hammer home Wheater's point, if matches finished at half-time Boro would probably be top of the Championship. They have led in 21 of their 43 matches at the break. Yet somehow, with three matches remaining, Boro still trail the play-off zone by four points, despite McDonald's fortunate winner against the Owls, extending an unbeaten run to eight matches. We should be at least in the play-offs with the players we have here, or even already up, said Wheater, who struggled to adapt initially to life after Gareth Southgate's departure in October. We've not adapted as quickly or as well to the Championship as we should have. It hasn't been the best of seasons for us but we're making a late charge and can still get in there. Hopefully we'll end up in the play-offs, win those and then the season would be a success. It is an indication of the gulf in quality between the three clubs that Boro are 25 points short of West Brom and 31 adrift of Newcastle, who also have a game in hand. It is the smaller gap to sixth-placed Swansea the Teessiders are having to concentrate on. Strachan had set his players a target of four wins from the remaining matches and his demands were met at the first phase, even if League Onebound Owls felt they should have earned something. In reality Boro goalkeeper Brad Jones hardly had a save to make. After the Aussie had recovered from a poor punch from Darren Potter's volley inside seven minutes to deny Marcus Tudgay on the rebound, Jones was commanding and comfortable. Luke Varney's near post header from Potter's corner in the second half bounced off the crossbar, sparking plenty of forward play from the visitors, but Jones was in control of his area. And it was McDonald's winner five minutes before halftime that proved the difference, even if Wednesday goalkeeper Lee Grant had to be alert to deny Leroy Lita on a couple of occasions and the energetic Kyle Naughton had come close to capping a promising display with a goal late on. Naughton was involved in the winner. After Jones fed the Tottenham man down the left after an unsuccessful freekick, the young defender cut inside before rolling to Mc- Donald. The £3.5m striker, who has three goals in his first nine appearances for Boro, was afforded too much space to run in to and his shot from 25 yards deflected off Mark Beevers and dropped into Grant's bottom right corner. We just have to keep winning and make sure this season goes right to the end so we can get back into the Premier League, said Wheater. All we have to worry about is winning, losing is not a option. We have won ugly and have won a couple of games like that. If we can do that until the end of the season, we'll be promoted. Match facts Goals: 1-0: McDonald (40, left foot shot from distance hit Beevers and bounced into Grant's bottom right) Bookings: Robson (37, dissent); McManus (60, foul) Referee: Jon Moss (Leeds) time and time again he seemed to make wrong decisions with his assistants 4 Attendance: 19,942 Entertainment: MIDDLESBROUGH (4-4-2): 7 Jones: One nervy first half moment was forgotten after a show of strong handling and decision making; 7 Hoyte: Looks more composed, more relaxed and more comfortable than he has before in a Boro shirt 9 WHEATER: A solid first half display was followed by an outstanding performance after the restart 7 McManus: Had more than matched Wheater until he was booked for a foul on Johnson 7 Naughton: Drove from fullback regularly after the restart and also defended strongly 6 Franks: The brightest player early on but he soon quietened down 5 Robson: Certainly never shirked his workload but never reached the highs he has reached so far 6 Williams: Given a difficult afternoon but coped well and looks a certainty for an Aussie World Cup spot. 6 Arca: Frustrated with a couple of stray passes, but he was often Boro's biggest source of supply 6 Lita: Actually had better chances to score than McDonald but found no way past Grant. 6 McDonald: Fortunate to see his hopeful shot deflect in to seal the winner. Subs (not used): Coyne (gk), Miller, Grounds, Taylor, Killen, O'Shea, Bennett. SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY (4-4-2): Grant 7; Nolan 5, Purse 7, Beevers 6, Spurr 6; Soares 5, POTTER 7, O'Connor 6 (Esajas 77), Varney 5; Johnson 7, Tudgay 4. Subs (not used): O'Donnell (gk), Hinds, Jeffers, Simek, Gray, Bodin. MAN OF THE MATCH DAVID Wheater has recaptured the sort of form that is worthy of being seen in the Premier League.
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