McCarthy: Third place will cause mental scars
Mick McCarthy has been round the block enough times to ensure it is worth listening when he expresses an opinion, especially when it comes to the difficulties faced in attempting to earn promotion from the Championship.
The 57-year-old has guided Sunderland and Wolves to the top flight and, with a seven-game winless run having ruled his Ipswich side out of contention, he is happy to pass comment on an increasingly intriguing three-way fight for a toptwo finish.
Middlesbrough, after drawing a blank at home for the first time in three months, are sandwiched between leaders Burnley and thirdplaced Brighton, with the trio level on points and only three between them in terms of goal difference. It could not be much tighter.
The Teesside club have the first opportunity to exert pressure on their rivals when they travel to Birmingham City on Friday, before the other two return to action next Monday.
Brighton’s final-day visit to the Riverside Stadium on Saturday week looks increasingly like a winner-takes-all ticket to automatic promotion, and McCarthy delivered a stark warning for whichever of the trio misses out. “They’ll be mentally scarred, no doubt about it,” he said.
“If you drop out at the last knockings, you’ll be sick and then it’s a difficult one to rally yourselves. Everyone will say you’ll be all right, you’re still in the play-offs, but it’s such a big disappointment.
“They are three good teams up there but you wouldn’t necessarily back the one that finishes third to go up because, on their day, any of the top six could go through. I don’t know what it is about football, it creates that pessimism in all of us, but at this stage, it’s about holding your nerve.” Drawing a blank: Boro striker Jordan Rhodes tries to fashion a chance
For Middlesbrough, who lost last season’s play-off final to Norwich City, the mental scars from missing out on automatic promotion would be perhaps even deeper. Jordan Rhodes, the £9 million forward, struck a post in spurning the chance of a hat-trick in a game of missed opportunities for the hosts, who are looking to end a seven-year exile from the top flight.
“We’re still in a very good position with two games to go, and it’s in our own hands,” Grant Leadbitter, the captain, insisted, echoing the positive sentiments of his manager, Aitor Karanka. The midfielder added: “It couldn’t be any tighter, but that’s this division all over, isn’t it? In the end, the best two teams will go straight up.”