MIDDLESBROUGH’S faint hopes of the Sky Bet Championship play-off look finally over after a controversial late Nottingham Forest leveller.
The end of Boro’s goal drought on Saturday against Ipswich briefly raised optimism that their season still had some life left in it.
But Boro were denied a club clean sheet record and precious victory thanks to a disputed 80th-minute Darius Henderson goal.
Aitor Karanka’s side went ahead early in the second half with a well-crafted goal from Mustapha Carayol.
They were on course for an eighth successive shut out at home when Henderson bundled home an equaliser 10 minutes from time – the first Boro had leaked at the Riverside in 11 hours and 54 minutes.
Boro claimed the goal had gone in off the striker’s hand and both keeper Dimi Konstantopoulos and closest defender Ben Gibson chased referee Roger East to protest.
Karanka insisted that his players’ reactions told the story.
“I could not see it and the replays are not conclusive,” he said. “It is for the Forest player to explain if it hit his hand or not.
“But I think it was handball, for sure. You could see from the reaction of my players that they thought it was.
“These are not players who would normally chase the referee to complain and if they thought it was handball then 100 per cent I believe them.
“It was close to the record of clean sheets, yes, but I don’t want to be speaking about records, only about wins and performances.
“We haven’t played well last night but we had two or three good chances to win this game against a very good side who are in the play-off places.”
Middlesbrough pressed in the opening minute as Emmanuel Ledesma got down the right to cross and Danny Graham glanced a header wide of the far post.
They went close to scoring 14 minutes in when an inswinging corner from Grant Leadbitter was missed by goalkeeper Karl Darlow and dipped to the far post for Carayol to head goalwards, but Jamaal Lascelles nodded off the line.
Forest threatened after 32 minutes when Djamel Abdoun crossed from the right for Simon Cox six yards out, but his downward header was well saved by Konstantopoulos.
Increasingly dangerous, Forest were looking menacing again after 37 minutes when Abdoun cracked in a stinging 25-yard effort that again brought a good diving save.
Soon afterwards, Radoslaw Majewski controlled well on the edge of the penalty area and sent a shot screaming just wide.
Boro broke out of their own half to threaten just before the break as Nathaniel Chalobah sent Carayol weaving forward to check inside a Forest defender and rifle a low shot just wide.
Almost immediately, at the other end, Forest went close as Majewski sent a low 25-yard effort skidding narrowly off target.
The breakthrough came when Albert Adomah broke down the right and squared across the edge of the box to pick out Carayol who curled a shot just inside the foot of the far post from 15 yards.
Forest had a good chance soon after as a good move took Cox into the box but Ben Gibson arrived with a good blocking tackle as he shaped to shoot, and Jamie Mackie screwed well wide from 10 yards.
The hosts almost netted a second goal similar to the opener after 69 minutes as Grant Leadbitter sent Carayol down the inside left channel and again he cut into the box curled a 15-yard shot, but this time it drifted a fraction wide.
Forest levelled out of the blue when sub Andy Reid crossed from the left for unmarked Henderson to stab goalwards.
Konstantopoulos blocked his first effort but Henderson bundled home the rebound with home fans appealing for the referee to give handball against the visiting forward.
The former Pools keeper even chased after East to protest but the Wiltshire official was not going to yield.
There was almost a winner. Middlesbrough’s Kei Kamara nodded on a George Friend free-kick and after a scramble the ball fell to striker Graham six yards out, but his stabbed effort cannoned off the post.