Joe Nicholson's verdict: Middlesbrough's experienced players stood up in crucial Barnsley win
The term ‘must-win’ is often overused in football, yet if Middlesbrough hadn’t beaten bottom of the table Barnsley on Wednesday night it would have been hard to see where the next victory was coming from.
Ashley Fletcher’s second-half finish ended a 10-match winless run for Jonathan Woodgate’s side and gave the head coach some breathing space ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Leeds.
Imagine if the Teessiders were travelling to Elland Road without any sort of momentum. Now they at least have something to build on.
On paper this looked like the best possible fixture for Boro to break their wretched run – a home fixture against a side who themselves hadn’t won for 16 league games.
Yet conditions at the Riverside didn’t make it easy.
On a sodden pitch, in swirling wind and rain, the two sides wrestled for a foothold, literally, in the early exchanges.
And while both teams created chances in the opening 45 minutes, it was Barnsley who arguably constructed the better ones, with the visitors enjoying large spells of possession before half-time.
Boro needed their experienced players to stand up and be counted and they did exactly that.
Daniel Ayala was excellent in the heart of defence, supported by Dael Fry and makeshift centre-back Jonny Howson, who stood firm as a back three.
Britt Assombalonga and Fletcher worked tirelessly up front, while youngsters Marcus Tavernier and Hayden Coulson also provided energy and fight.
Admittedly it wasn’t the greatest performance in a game which often lacked quality – conditions played a part in that.
Yet this is where Boro are right now. Despite the proven Championship players in their ranks, this is an extremely young squad which needs to learn how to scrap and grind out results.
Excluding Adam Clayton, the average age of Boro’s outfield substitutes was just 19, while four of the seven substitutes haven’t even made a Championship appearance.
With Paddy McNair and Anfernee Dijksteel now doubtful ahead of the Leeds fixture, some of the youngsters made be thrown in at the deep end at Elland Road.
At least Boro and Woodgate have stopped the rot though.