The Championship's biggest disappointments
Ashton Gate, Bristol
Back in the sunny days of pre-season hands up supporters of Bristol City and Middlesbrough who thought Saturday's match at Ashton Gate would have more to do with avoiding relegation than winning promotion.
City started the campaign as many observers' outside bet for promotion. They had the wily and experienced Steve Coppell in charge and had signalled their ambition by pulling off the sensational signing of England goalkeeper David James.
Boro had been rebuilt over the summer by manager Gordon Strachan, his side shaped around players forged in the Old Firm rivalry of Celtic and Rangers. The Scottish Premier League's record goalscorer Kris Boyd had arrived - a transfer to rival James's as the stand-out signing of the summer. As they prepared for their second season in the Championship, Boro were the bookies' favourites to win the division.
Fast forward to Saturday's fixture and survival was the buzzword as the two teams met under the leaden skies at the old but atmospheric Ashton Gate. Boro went into the contest one point above the bottom three, while City were perched in the relatively heady heights of 17th. The visiting team ended the contest 4-0 winners, in the process recording their biggest victory of the season and inflicting on City their heaviest defeat.
Bristol City boss Keith Millen watched his side's horror show unfold from the edge of his technical area. Afterwards he kept his players locked in their dressing room for the best part of an hour. Around the ground there was the unmistakeable fear of a return to the disasters of the early part of the season.
The Robins lost their opening game 3-0 at home to Millwall and Coppell stunned City by walking out after the Carling Cup defeat at the hands of Southend the following Tuesday. Millen was swiftly put in charge but a dreadful serious of results followed, with City mustering just one win in their opening 11 Championship fixtures.
City were bottom through most of October and Millen's position was under scrutiny. Thankfully, Robins chairman Steve Lansdown is not prone to the sort of panic, knee-jerk decisions that we have seen so often already this season and stood by his man. He was rewarded with a run that, until Saturday, had seen City lose just their three of their previous 14 Championship fixtures. Millen was manager of the month in December and before Saturday his team were unbeaten in eight Championship home games.
Mowbray (left) and Millen have had their struggles this season
Millen, who had a brief spell as caretaker manager towards the end of the previous campaign, has so far shown sound judgement in the transfer market. Towards the end of August he brought in strike duo Jon Stead and Brett Pitman, both of whom have enjoyed good seasons. Steve Caulker and Danny Rose arrived on loan from Tottenham and have also impressed.
By the turn of the year it was starting to look as though City had withstood those punishing early season blows and, with eight points separating them from the top six prior to kick-off on Saturday, even had a puncher's chance of a play-off place.
But Saturday's defeat came a week after they were dumped out of the FA Cup 3-0 by League One Sheffield Wednesday and Millen is keen to impress on his players that their league situation still remains perilous.
"I've told the players that this must be the low point of the season, we cannot afford to be this bad again," said the City boss after Boro's win.
"Maybe we are guilty of believing our own hype. I want us to be tougher, stronger and more aggressive both with and without the ball.
"We turned it around after our poor start and we have got to remember how we did that."
Prior to Saturday's game I asked City fans on 606 what they had made of their club's season and several were quick to point out that although it has been disappointing it was unrealistic to expect their side to win promotion. The arrival of Coppell and James led to a surge in publicity and expectation but the squad lacked the overall depth to mount a serious challenge.
Nicky Maynard, the club's record signing who scored 21 goals last season, has been injured since the summer, while the side has recently been ravaged with injuries in defence. Kalifa Cisse, a midfielder brought in by Coppell, played in the centre of defence on Saturday and had a torrid afternoon. He scored an own goal and was repeatedly caught out of position before he was withdrawn after 65 minutes.
Having conceded seven goals in their previous two home games, City now face a crucial trip to third-from-bottom Crystal Palace next weekend. A victory at Selhurst Park should ensure they put their recent blip behind them and progress towards the welcoming security of mid-table. Lose against the Eagles and the hard work over recent months will continue to unravel.
Boro's season has arguably been more traumatic than City's. The Teesiders lost 3-1 to Ipswich on the opening day and won just three of their first 14 league fixtures, including a sequence of six defeats in seven matches that ended with a 2-1 home defeat against City - Tony Mowbray's first match in charge. Strachan had admitted defeat by mid-October, ripping up his contract and walking away without asking for compensation.
Nobody was more emblematic of Strachan's failure than Boyd. He has been dreadful all season and now looks likely to return to Rangers. He has scored a meagre five goals in 23 Championship appearances and was awful on Saturday. His movement was virtually non-existent, his work rate poor and he had the look of a man who would rather be anywhere else other than the Championship.
At first glance, Boro do not appear to have improved all that much under former fans favourite Mowbray, with five wins in 13 league games as well as an ignominious FA Cup exit at League Two Burton. However, the 47-year-old former West Brom and Celtic manager is adamant that there has been a definite improvement in the general standard of play from his team.
"The performance on Saturday was par with what we have been producing for the last couple of months," said Mowbray.
"The team has been playing pretty well over that period but you might not have noticed that if you had not seen us for a while. Hopefully the goals at City will give us the confidence to score a few more."
Conceding costly late goals in recent matches against Burton, Leeds and Doncaster has undoubtedly skewed the picture, but there have been many positives since Mowbray arrived. He has adopted a more attacking approach than Strachan, tried to deploy players in their natural positions and rebuilt the confidence of players such as midfield duo Julio Arca and Nicky Bailey.
I asked Boro fans on 606 what they thought of Mowbray. Djarchard was typical of many when he noted that the commitment of the players has improved. However, he also argued that the defence will lack height and presence if David Wheater, rock-solid on Saturday, is sold in the January transfer window. The uncertainty surrounding Wheater is a good example of the problems that Mowbray still faces. The defender is out of contract at the end of the season and has been the subject of an offer from Bolton. Mowbray does not really want the defender to leave but he needs to reduce the wage bill. As such, he would rather cash in now than lose him for him for nothing in the summer.
"It is a complicated one but the sooner we redress the finances and sort out the bottom line, the sooner I can start to rebuild the club," added Mowbray.
Boro's next three fixtures are against the bottom three sides. If they continue the form they did at Ashton Gate then they could end the month in a much healthier position and spare their fans a tense end to the season.
"It is telling how far we have had to lower our expectations that staying up would now be seen as a reasonable achievement," said tylergomez on 606.
Boro have been the most disappointing team in the Championship this season, while City have also failed to deliver on expectations, even if they were slightly over-hyped. Sheffield United are another club for whom the campaign has been distinctly under-whelming, while fans of Ipswich and, increasingly, Derby may feel the same way.
Almost half the season remains, yet for plenty of supporters it cannot end quickly enough.