Town go down by three on Teeside
Two goals from former Town striker Scott McDonald succumbed Town to its seventh defeat of the season at Middlesbrough on Tuesday evening.
The Australian bagged two goals from close range in either half as Middlesbrough outclassed Town at the Riverside – the lively Emmanuel Ledesma grabbed Boro’s other courtesy of a well struck free-kick.
Town – who were missing two front line strikers and two midfielders – struggled to impose themselves on Boro and rarely called Jason Steele into action.
Simon Grayson was forced to make two changes to the team that earned a point at Charlton on Saturday, for his side’s clash with Middlesbrough.
Both Keith Southern and Adam Clayton were missing through suspension, paving the way for Scott Arfield and Anton Robinson to start in the heart of the Terriers’ midfield.
Elsewhere, Danny Ward and Simon Church provided the width for Town’s lone striker Lee Novak; at the back, Captain Peter Clarke made the 450th start of his career in all competitions.
In horrendous conditions at the Riverside, Town started well – and almost broke through in the first minute when Seb Hines misjudged a long ball allowing Novak to dart towards goal; thankfully for Boro left-back Andy Halliday provided great cover and stopped the striker in his tracks.
Danny Ward then fired wide – following good play from Arfield – as Town continued to impress in the open stages.
At the other end, Middlesbrough thought they had a good shout for a penalty when Richard Smallwood went down in the box, but referee Scott Mathieson was having none of it. However, their shouts for a foul were answered in the 11th minute when Emmanuel Ledesma went down just outside the box; the former Walsall loanee took control of the free-kick, but curled over his effort.
Town weren’t having as much luck with the referee, though – and felt aggrieved when Arfield went down under a heavy challenge 20 yards out, after the midfielder had done brilliantly to wriggle himself free from two Boro midfielders.
As Boro began to dominate, former Town striker Scott McDonald was handed the best opportunity of the game to date in the 21st minute courtesy of some poor defending from the Terriers; thankfully for Town the Australian dragged his shot wide of Alex Smithies’ goal.
However, he didn’t make any mistake seven minutes later when he reacted first to Lukas Jutkiewicz’s low cross to prod home from four yards, past a helpless Alex Smithies.
The home team grew with confidence after its opener and had it not been for Smithies they would have been gifted a second; the stopper showed superb reactions to parry away Peter Clarke’s sliced clearance.
As the half neared its close Town enjoyed a decent period of possession and forced Jason Steele into a neat save from Arfield’s shot – the Scotsman had been Town’s best attacking threat throughout the first 45.
Simon Grayson changed to a more attacking formation at the start of the second half with Simon Church moving forward to support Novak in attack – Arfield moved on to the right wing as a result.
Town’s attacking ambition almost cost them a goal within the first five minutes of the restart when Jutkiewicz – who was enjoying himself against his former team – bundled through Norwood then cut inside Clarke before forcing Smithies in to another fine save from point blank range.
Town’s response was to make more attacking changes; on 54 minutes Chris Atkinson and Adam Hammill entered the fray at the expense of Anton Robinson and Oliver Norwood.
Boro kept on coming at Town and they wasted a good opportunity on the hour mark when McDonald drilled a shot wide, when he had options in the middle.
The home team’s pressure eventually told in the 67th minute when Ledesma curled home a well struck free-kick from 25 yards out, after he had been fouled by Paul Dixon.
Town introduced Alan Lee with just over 20 minutes remaining, but even the big man struggled to trouble the Boro defence.
Jutkiewicz’s effort in attack for Middlesbrough deserved a goal – and had it not been for Alex Smithies we would have definitely got one. With 15 minutes remaining Town’s stopper produced another full length save to deny the tall striker’s header.
The home side put the icing on the cake with five minutes remaining when McDonald grabbed his second of the evening from close range – despite Town’s Jack Hunt being down injured following an earlier collision.
Town’s team (4-5-1):
Alex Smithies; Paul Dixon, Joel Lynch, Peter Clarke (c), Jack Hunt; Danny Ward, Scott Arfield, Oliver Norwood (Chris Atkinson, 54), Anton Robinson (Adam Hammill, 54), Simon Church; Lee Novak (Alan Lee, 68)
Ian Bennett, Calum Woods, Anthony Gerrard, Murray Wallace
Bookings Boro: Justin Hoyte, 79