MIDDLESBROUGH have finally stopped the rot in 2013.
Curtis Main’s late header ended Leeds United’s Teesside reign and put Boro back on the promotion track.
Boro had failed to pick up a point in the new year before last night and had seen their play-off place come under increasing threat from a number of chasing clubs, which Leeds considered themselves to be one of.
But with United struggling with form issues of their own and finding themselves in the midst of another confusing takeover bid for the second time this season, they were unable to present a consistent threat and suffered their first defeat at the Riverside since it opened in 1995.
Come the end their fans were chanting “Warnock, time to go” at their under-fire manager Neil Warnock, while in the opposition dugout Tony Mowbray was left celebrating, even in spite of Main’s dismissal four minutes after his 81st-minute goal.
The striker’s back-post header from Ishmail Miller’s cross was reward for Middlesbrough’s second-half improvement, although they had to weather a slight first-half storm as Leeds impressed early on.
It was Boro’s first win over Leeds at home since 1992 and their first ever at the Riverside, although the significance of a victory at all dwarfed the gaining of local bragging rights.
“It’s nice to get a win, it’s been a while for us in the league and we need to keep the points ticking along,” manager Tony Mowbray said, no doubt buoyed by Brighton’s 1-1 draw with Blackburn which hands his men a four-point buffer over the play-off chasing pack.
“It’s nearly 20 years since we won at home against Leeds.
“It’s a good achievement for this team and we deserved to win.
“We competed against a team that you have to compete with and on the balance of play it was right we came out on top.
“Other games can be more of a football game but Leeds put you under pressure – they don’t allow you to keep the ball and it becomes more of a physical battle. But we came out on top of that.”
Rhys Williams should have put Middlesbrough in front with a fourth-minute back-post volley after a Grant Leadbitter free-kick put him clear, but Leeds started to take control after that.
David Norris hit wide and then warmed the palms of Jason Steele after some neat interplay between Ross McCormack and Steve Morison, while the in-form Luke Varney also drove away from goal after cutting in from the left.
The home side managed to steady themselves somewhat after that, but were so nearly the architects of their own downfall 28 minutes in.
Paul Green played a hopeful long ball forward that was Steele’s all day long but he got his feet wrong and slipped, leaving McCormack with an open goal six yards out. The Scotland international dallied, though, and when he got a shot away, Jonathan Woodgate had recovered sufficiently to deny his former club on the line.
That proved to be Leeds’ last chance of the first half and they should have been behind by the time the interval came.
Although not as clear a chance as McCormack’s, Faris Haroun got clean through in injury time off Josh McEachran’s defence-splitting pass, but Paddy Kenny was quickly off his line to deny him on the edge of the area.
The first half had hardly been an end-to-end affair but it was in comparison to the start of the second, which was attritional at best.
Woodgate provided the best moment, showing impressive pace and awareness to block off McCormack’s run to goal, only for injury to force him off midway through the half.
Leadbitter, the game’s other class act, then curled an edge-of-the-box free-kick just wide of Kenny’s right-hand post and that brought about a mini period of drama with Leeds forced to defend for their lives with 17 minutes left.
Kenny did well to deny Leadbitter down to his right and then combined with Sam Byram to deny Williams on the follow-up, with the keeper then darting across his line to pouch a McEachran header that should have been a forgone conclusion.
Boro seemed keen to take the initiative, though, and by bringing on Miller they took it. With nine minutes left his cross hung enough for Main to put a header back across Kenny’s goal and into the top right-hand corner.
Main was then dismissed for a combination of dissent and kicking the ball away but, even though Steele had to deny Habib Habibou, Boro held on without him.