Middlesbrough 2 Notts County 0
Middlesbrough’s five-match goal drought at the Riverside Stadium ended in their 2-0 third-round FA Cup victory but they needed a helping hand – or leg rather – from Notts County.
A 473-minute barren spell dating back to November 1 ended midway through the first half when Joseph-Desire Job’s cross-shot was diverted past Steve Mildenhall by County’s Ian Richardson.
Things got even worse for the visitors when captain Tony Barras hauled down Michael Ricketts and was sent off just after the half-hour.
On-loan Chelsea midfielder Bolo Zenden eased Boro’s passage to the next round with a 63rd-minute volley.
Second division County found the gulf of 52 league places too great – and rookie goalkeeper Brad Jones, 21, was given very little to do on his Middlesbrough debut after Mark Schwarzer was ruled out with a back injury.
The under-23s international had been recalled from an Australia Olympic qualifier because of the injury situation, and Boro boss Steve McClaren’s foresight proved well judged.
Job made his first appearance since September 27 after a knee injury – along with Jones, Szilard Nemeth and Stuart Downing as Brazilian midfielder Juninho was rested and Spain international Gaizka Mendieta was on a leave of absence back home.
County were without 10-goal leading scorer Paul Heffernan, who failed to recover from a groin strain.
Ugo Ehiogu’s fourth-minute foul on Clive Platt gave County their first attempt at goal. But when Darren Caskey picked out Richardson from 35 yards the defender headed into the side-netting.
Caskey’s 10th-minute corner dropped to Barras in space on the edge of the penalty area, but he ballooned his shot wide when he should have done much better.
Downing wasted Boro’s only opportunity in the first quarter-of-an-hour when he blazed well over with players in support.
Nick Fenton’s last-ditch tackle halted a flowing passing move involving Job, Ricketts and Downing – and the resulting corner came to nothing.
Then in the 23rd minute George Boateng’s chip picked out the unmarked Job on the left-hand side of the penalty area, and his cross-shot was deflected past Mildenhall by Richardson.
It was harsh on County, but there was no arguing with what followed 10 minutes later.
Ricketts out-muscled Barras to be through on goal only for the defender to bring him down.
Referee Mark Halsey did not hesitate to issue a red card, and from the free-kick right on the edge of the area Franck Queudrue’s curling free-kick struck the angle of post and crossbar and rebounded to safety.
Mildenhall kept his side in the game with a superb low stop from Ricketts’ volley following Downing’s cross and a good tip-over from Queudrue’s header late in the half.
The match was still lacking entertainment after the interval for the 15,061 crowd, and it said everything about the quality when the second-biggest cheer of the day followed Mildenhall’s slip after taking a goal-kick.
Mark Stallard then brought the first save out of Jones after turning England defender Danny Mills inside out just inside the penalty area
At the other end, Mills missed a sitter of a header from two yards when he directed Ricketts’ cross right across the face of goal.
County boss Billy Dearden’s decision to keep both his strikers on the pitch was justified by the fact that the visitors refused to give up despite their numerical disadvantage.
McClaren had seen enough in the 62nd minute and sent on £8million striker Massimo Maccarone and debutant teenager James Morrison for Ricketts and Job.
A second goal followed immediately, although the substitutes played little part.
When a poor defensive clearance looped towards the edge of the penalty area on-loan Chelsea midfielder Zenden raced in to smash a left-foot volley past Mildenhall.
County visibly tired, and the home side found much more space to exploit.
Richardson chopped down Maccarone to receive a 75th-minute booking, and Mildenhall just managed to avoid palming Queudrue’s in-swinging free-kick into his own net.
County almost had hope to cling to when Stallard’s snap-shot from just inside the area rolled agonisingly wide of the post, while at the other end Downing’s mazy run ended with his shot rebounding off a post into the arms of a grateful Mildenhall.