Plymouth Argyle 0 Middlesbrough 2
Plymouth Argyle 0 Middlesbrough 2 FOR one North-East team, relegated on the final day of last season, yesterday represented the final point along the road to redemption. For the other, however, it was further proof of what might have been. While Newcastle started their promotion party at St James' Park, Middlesbrough were at the opposite end of the country grinding out their first away win since the end of January at Plymouth. But with Swansea, Leicester and Blackpool all winning, the Teessiders remain six points short of the play-off places with just four games to play. Yesterday was too little, too late, and for all that Gordon Strachan can claim to have made improvements since his appointment last October, the seven places that separate Newcastle and Middlesbrough should be a source of considerable embarrassment in the corridors of power at the Riverside. Yes, the two clubs are cut from different cloth in terms of the financial clout their average attendance affords them, but Boro have underachieved chronically this season and, despite the comfortable nature of their latest win, promotion is surely beyond them. Goals from Stephen Mc- Manus and Jonathan Franks extended their unbeaten run to seven matches five draws and two wins but the tenuous nature of the Teessiders' play-off ambitions was evident before kick-off as skipper Gary O'Neil left the field in his club tracksuit just as the rest of his team-mates began their warm up. Had the Riverside hierarchy regarded promotion as a realistic possibility in the final month of the season, they would surely have sanctioned the midfielder's 100th Middlesbrough appearance, a landmark that automatically triggers a £1m payment to his former club, Portsmouth. As it was, he was not even in the squad yesterday, a situation that is not expected to change in the final four matches of the campaign. The fear is that such stringent cost cutting is a sign of things to come ahead of the opening of the summer transfer window. Strip the likes of O'Neil, Emanuel Pogatetz, David Wheater and Jeremie Aliadiere out of the current Boro squad, and Strachan will need a considerable transfer fund if he is to mount a viable promotion push next term. It would help if he could hold on to McManus, a scenario that appears increasingly unlikely following Tony Mowbray's departure as Celtic manager. Along with compatriot Barry Robson, the Scot has been one of the few successes of the second half of the season, and yesterday's display, which oozed both composure and class, was arguably his best in a Boro shirt. He was solid in defence, making a succession of interceptions with a minimum of fuss, and also proved his worth at the other end of the field with the 22nd-minute header that fired the visitors into the lead. Robson curled over a freekick from the right touchline, and McManus stole ahead of a static Plymouth defence to glance a powerful near-post header past former Darlington goalkeeper David Stockdale. Boro merited a goal at that stage as Robson had come close to breaking the deadlock himself with a 25-yard freekick that struck the outside of the left-hand post, and Leroy Lita had caused a succession of problems with some intelligent movement to the flanks. Plymouth had also had chances however Wheater was forced into two excellent last-ditch tackles to deny first Jamie Mackie and then Bradley Wright-Phillips and there was no real surprise when the hosts were handed an opportunity to equalise three minutes before halftime. Literally handed as it happened, with Justin Hoyte blocking Alan Judge's longrange strike with his arm. Judge stepped up to take the spot-kick himself, but Brad Jones flung himself to his left to keep the ball out. The Australian has his fair share of detractors, but no one can have any complaints about the way he has conducted himself since replacing Danny Coyne five games ago. Jones was certainly more solid than his opposite number in the Plymouth goal, and Stockdale was almost left with egg on his face three minutes after the interval. The Pilgrims goalkeeper never looked like reaching Kyle Naughton's free-kick as he came haring to the edge of his area, but Lee Miller's header looped harmlessly wide of the target. Stockdale made amends for his mistake on the hour mark, turning Robson's fierce low drive around the post, but Boro remained on top for the majority of a strangely lowkey second half and would have deservedly doubled their lead had Miller not fired into the side netting with 20 minutes left. Reda Johnson forced Jones into his second smart save of the match at the other end, but Plymouth's attacking was every bit as ineffective as you would expect from a side that will almost certainly be playing in League One next season. And Boro made the points safe in stoppage time. Stockdale went upfield to contest a corner, and after Robson played in Franks, the substitute lobbed into an empty net from 30 yards. Match facts Goals: McManus (19mins, 0-1), Franks (90, 0-2) Bookings: Lita (41mins, dissent), Hoyte (42, deliberate handball), Robson (75, ungentlemanly conduct), Duguid (75, ungentlemanly conduct), R Williams (85, foul) Referee: Scott Mathieson (Stockport) 4 Attendance: 11,770 Entertainment: PLYMOUTH (4-4-2): Stockdale 5; Duguid 6, N'Gala 4, R Johnson 5, Bhasera 4; Judge 5 (Fallon 74), D JOHNSON 6, Clark 5, Mason 6; Mackie 4, Wright-Phillips 5 (Bolasie 62, 4). Subs (not used): Larrieu (gk), Barker, Eckersley, Folly, Cooper. MIDDLESBROUGH (4-4-2): Jones 7; Hoyte 7, McMANUS 8, Wheater 7, Naughton 6; O'Shea 6 (Franks 83), Robson 7, R Williams 6, Arca 5; Lita 6 (McDonald 64, 5), Miller 4 (Killen 77). Subs (not used): Coyne (gk), Grounds, Bennett, Pilatos. MAN OF THE MATCH STEPHEN McManus scored with a well-taken header and defended superbly throughout.
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