No wonder Scott Parker said this fighting draw at the Riverside Stadium was the proudest he’d been of his Fulham players. The Whites battled hard to claim a point in the north east – playing more than seventy minutes with ten men after goalkeeper Marek Rodak was sent off for handling the ball outside his penalty area.
Such was Fulham’s resolution that Rodak’s replacement in goal, the recently dropped Marcus Bettinelli, was only forced into one serious save – when he gathered Paddy McNair’s drive in the final minute of stoppage time – and the visitors might feel aggrieved at leaving Teesside with just a point having created the clearer chances despite their numerical disadvantage. Aleksandar Mitrovic missed a good opportunity from a couple of yards out in the first half and should have done better than head over Joe Bryan’s inviting cross after the break, while Tom Cairney fired just wide.
This was a second successive goalless draw for Jonathan Woodgate’s Middlesbrough, who looked toothless in attack as they dropped into the Championship relegation zone. Their profligacy in front of goal was on show before Rodak’s early departure as Ashley Fletcher steered wastefully wide after Marcus Tavernier had led a lightning quick counter-attack following a Fulham corner.
Fulham showed their own intent with captain Cairney extending Aynsley Pears with a swerving strike from distance and Dael Fry bravely blocked a drive from Mitrovic, who was looking to pick up from where he had left off against Luton in midweek. But the Londoners’ fortunes took a turn for the worse after Rodak’s ill-advised dash from his box saw him beaten to Lewis Wing’s through ball by Jonny Howson and the Slovakian was red carded as he blocked the former Norwich midfielder’s finish with his hands.
That forced Parker into a quick reorganisation with Josh Onomah’s first start for Fulham seeing him replaced by Bettinelli, but the visitors were still looking threatening on the break. Nine minutes before the break, Ivan Cavaleiro and Bobby Decordova-Reid combined well down the right and Mitrovic somehow failed to supply the finishing touch to a low cross with the ball deflecting away to safety.
Boro saw plenty of the ball but struggled to fashion clear-cut openings with the closest the hosts came to a goal before the break seeing Britt Assombalonga head harmslessly wide after drifting inside Denis Odoi to reach a dangerous cross from Wing. The second half followed a similar pattern, with Fulham happy to try and blunt Boro’s ambition, but Parker’s side were by no means content to simply sit down behind the ball.
They carved out the first chance of the second period when some clever interplay between Cairney and Bryan released the Fulham full back behind the Boro defence but Bryan lacked the belief to go for goal himself and his low cross flashed through the six-yard box and away to safety. Bryan provided an even better opening a quarter of an hour later when he floated into a lovely cross for Mitrovic, but the Serbian striker headed over from four years out. A man of his quality should have done better.
By now, the Riverside natives were getting restless. The home fans were less than impressed with their side’s lack of ruthlessness as twice good crosses from Howson and Hayden Coulson were not vigorously attacked by men in red. Boro’s best opportunity came from a dead ball when Wing was unlucky to see his low strike cannon back off the outside off the post after Harrison Reed had crudely halted a threatening run from McNair.
The former Manchester United utility man provided Boro’s only shot on target in the final minute of added time but his deflected strike was easily held by Bettinelli. The draw felt like a missed opportunity for Middlesbrough to shake off their recent malaise and extended their scoreless run to more than four and a half hours.
Fulham would have been targeting a rare away victory prior to kick off, but Parker was delighted both by his side’s character after the sending off and a first clean sheet in six games. ‘This is the proudest I have been of this team,’ he said afterwards. ‘I have been in this role for 6 months and we top many of the division’s stats charts. Whether that is possession, whether it is that we produce the most shots on target. We concede the fewest shots on our goal. But what the players showed me today you can’t measure. They showed desire, passion, effort and a real mentality about us. What we showed today is going to define us. This is a massive moment for us and a certainly a massive moment for me.’
MIDDLESBROUGH (3-5-2): Pears; McNair, Fry, Ayala; Howson, Coulson (Johnson 67), Wing, Saville (Brown 64), Tavernier; Fletcher, Assombalonga. Subs (not used): Mejias, Dijksteel, Clayton, Bola, Liddle.
BOOKED: Tavernier, Coulson.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Reed, Onomah (Bettinelli 19), Cairney; Cavaleiro (Le Marchand 84), Decordova-Reid (Knockaert 81), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): S. Sessegnon, McDonald, Johansen, Kamara.
BOOKED: Odoi, Reed.
SENT OFF: Rodak (17).
REFEREE: Peter Bankes (Merseyside).