Monday, 13 August 2007

Roque horror show

Boro's patched up backline demonstrate the concept of marking

Boro kicked off the new season with a curious display, showing considerable promise in the first half before folding dismally after the break. The £20m worth of sidelined defensive talent was conspicuous by its absence as Blackburn broke Boro's brittle backline without a great deal of effort.

The impressions from the first half were positive. Gareth Southgate's pre-season claims that the team would play more pacy, attacking football seemed to be coming to pass. One particularly rapid break early on should have ended in a debut goal for the generally impressive Jeremie Aliadiere, or 'the French lad' as he has been tagged by half-cut Boro fans. His early link-up play with Tuncay ('the Turkish feller') bodes well. There were also good chances for David Wheater, who has already demonstrated the potent threat his colossal height presents at set pieces. Julio Arca and Stewart Downing provided the creative heartbeat, just as they did during last season's promising post-Christmas period. Even George Boateng showed attacking intent.

The problem was that, despite so many positives, Blackburn went in at half time with half a chance. The only goal came from Stewart Downing's free kick, which eluded Friedel's drive after pantomime villain Robbie Savage wimped out of blocking the shot. Few of Boro's chances fell to the largely ponderous Yakubu. We must hope that the Nigerian's equally voluptuous partner/replacement Mido will provide more presence up front.

The game changed after the break. Boro, having been so assertive and vibrant in the first half, grew passive. Tuncay, Aliadiere and Yakubu became increasingly peripheral. Blackburn also demonstrated a level of strength in depth that we cannot boast at this stage.

The equaliser came after Benni McCarthy made his first meaningful contribution to the game by inexplicably collapsing in the middle of the pitch. The South African striker went down after an innocuous challenge by Davies. He was replaced by debutant Roque Santa Cruz, a man widely mocked in Germany for his inadequacy during a splinter-inducing decade on the Bayern Munich bench. Within two minutes, Downing's feeble efforts to block the cross were matched by Riggott's marking and Santa Cruz nodded in.

The warning was not heeded. Matt Derbyshire soon replaced the hopeless Jason Roberts, ran onto the pitch and curling an absolute peach past Schwarzer without the merest hindrance from the home side.

Friedel did well to save Wheater's header during a late scramble but it was too little, too late. Defeat clutched from the jaws of victory after a truly alarming second half display. Home defeats such as this do not bode well. The lumbering presence of Titus Bramble on the horizon provides some reassurance. A repeat of last season's victory at the JJB would be a huge morale boost. With no particularly difficult fixtures until October, Boro cannot afford to write games off until the likes of Woodgate return.

Player Ratings

Schwarzer 6
Not a great deal to do. Not much chance for either goal.
Davies 6 Same as usual - defending solid, distribution awful.
Taylor 6 Solid as ever.
Wheater 6
Shows some promise despite occasionally betraying inexperience.
Riggott 5 As the senior partner of the two centre backs, just not good enough.
Tuncay 6 Bright in the first half but increasingly sidelined. No real end product.
Downing 7* Kept going when the team flagged. Looked on form.
Boateng 7 Surprisingly positive going forward. Energtic riposte to his critics.
Arca 7 Excellent before the break but struggled to maintain influence.
Yakubu 6 Looked disinterested. Passing was patchy.
Aliadiere 7 Showed promise and real pace.

Friday, 10 August 2007

One day to go....

Yakubu spots an unmanned exit at the Riverside...

There is just one day left until the start of the 2007/08 season. The excitement is palpable and the next 24 hours promise to drag in a manner even Jack Bauer would find unnerving. Tomorrow afternoon Blackburn arrive and Gareth Southgate and his side have their first opportunity to prove the critics wrong. Boro have been widely tipped for relegation, mainly by those whose knowledge of the team extends to the 30 seconds at the end of last year's Match of the Days showing Mark Viduka scoring. The mood of pessimism is contagious. Season ticket sales are at their lowest since the move to the Riverside. Despite the insistence of player, manager, chief executive, chairman and tea lady that Yakubu is staying, the reports that the, ahem, 24 year old Nigerian is on his way continue. The relief of finally having some football will be matched when the transfer window finally swings shut.

It would be very easy to join in the pervasive gloom surrounding the club. However, it would doing a disservice to a young manager who has continued to impress in difficult circumstances.

Gareth Southgate was hardly first choice amongst fans last summer. Even the man himself seemed surprised to be given the job. Nonetheless, after a difficult start, the team improved over the course of the season. The decision to employ Julio Arca in midfield, whether by luck or design, changed the dynamic of the team. Ultimately, the soul-crushing defeat in the FA Cup at the hands of twinkle toes Ronaldo and another compliant referee, coupled with Arca's injuries saw the team lose their way over the final weeks of the year. However, the opening months of 2007 finally saw a settled team that had Southgate's fingerprints on it. Maintaining the bulk of that line-up will be crucial.

It has been a difficult pre-season in that respect. The central defensive pillars Woodgate and Pogatetz start the season injured. The news that the colossal Pogatetz could be out until Christmas does not bode well, particularly with Robert Huth, the natural replacement, once again in residence on the treatment table. As Pogatetz demonstrated last year, such crises can be the making of fringe players. With Woodgate soon to return to a defence bolstered by a solid full-back pairing of Young and Taylor, this is the opportunity for the likes of Davies, Wheater and Riggott to emerge from the shadows, as Pogatetz did this time last year.

Things look a little better further forward. The perplexing sale of James Morrison notwithstanding, the midfield looks more balanced than it has for many a year. George Boateng was far from his best and looked off the pace a lot of the time. However, the captain's performances improved towards the end of the season. Boateng should be feeling pressure from Lee Cattermole. This has to be the year Cattermole makes his claim for a regular central position. Fabio Rochemback's Boro career seemed over in January but a strong finish to last year mean he has one more chance to prove that he is enigmatic rather than just a bit shit.

Julio Arca starts the season fit. Arca was the man, moreso than even Woodgate and Viduka, responsible for last season's post-Christmas resurgence. He is the heartbeat of the team, the one player in the middle with the skill and vision to cut the opposition open. He also megged Ronaldo. The cult hero now needs to stay centre stage.

Stewart Downing has enjoyed a good pre-season and will be joined on the flanks by Tuncay Sanli. The prospect of the unfairly maligned Downing and the tireless Tuncay pounding down the flanks promise to provide an attacking balance missing since the days of Ripley and Hendrie.

If Southgate can keep Yakubu content at the Riverside, we already have the 15 goal striker necessary to keep away from trouble. Aliadiere and Dong Gook Lee are somewhat less convincing but will be given a chance to make their name. Southgate is also pondering gambling on Spurs' Mido. Some say he is frequently overweight, moody and only turns it on when it suits him. He sounds like an ideal replacement for Mark Viduka.

It would be foolish to dismiss the prospect of the team struggling this year. There is no doubt that without Yakubu our forward line would like worryingly weak. However, there are enough reasons for optimism. Tuncay could well turn out to be one of the most astute signings of the summer. If Woodgate, Arca and Downing can be kept fit, there should be too much quality in the team to get embroiled in a relegation battle. If some of the unproven squad members can step up to the challenge, there is no reason why this club, the only cup winners outside the top four in years, European finalists only 15 months ago, can once again prove the critics wrong.

Prediction for tomorrow:

Boro 3 Blackburn 2

Some errant defending from a new defence causes worry but Tuncay steams in with a late winner.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Boroblog Predictions 2007/08

BoroBlog, earlier

With the Charity Shield days away and the final touches being applied to Boro's meticulous preparations for the new season it seems as good a time as any to scan an eye over the competition. The reasons why I don't agree that our 'out of his depth' manager will be leading us to Championship ignominy will be expanded upon before the season opener against Blackburn. For now, this is a unique chance to be rude about all of the rest of the Premiership in the same post.

Eyes down and don't look too hard at this come May:

1 Chelsea With last season's pantomine feuds seemingly put to bed and unquestionably the best squad in the league, they are the team to beat. They might even scrape a point at the Riverside this season.

2 Manchester United Fergie may well be more interested in Europe than another league title. Are these multi-million pound teenagers good enough to replace Scholes and Giggs?

3 Liverpool If they can keep in touch for the first 6 weeks of the season they have a chance. Recent history suggests not.

4 Arsenal Despite a difficult summer, the liberation from the ego of the increasingly overbearing Henry could be a blessing in disguise. Likely to be a tight squeeze though.

5 Tottenham Keep on improving but defence is a bit soft if (when?) King is injured.

6 Blackburn Well organised and should start well (hopefully after August 11th).

7 Everton Dreary to watch but hard to beat.

8 Aston Villa Its about time Martin O'Neill lived up to his reputation - if he can, Villa should emerge somewhere nearer the top of the mediocre midtable dross.

9 Portsmouth A lot will depend on Nugent. If he fires, they will be top half again.

10 Boro
Alright, maybe this is a bit optimistic.

11 Newcastle
They manage to get rid of Shepherd and Bramble in one summer and the fans still moan. Expect the pantomine to continue - a fiver says Joey Barton will be jailed before Christmas.

12 West Ham
Having escaped relegation in very dodgy circumstances, they look set to lose the man who kept them up single-handedly. They have also lost Benayoun and Reo-Coker, key players in their run to the 2006 cup final (bastards!). The replacements are overpriced, overpaid and a bit crap.

13 Manchester City
Sven has been splashing the cash far and wide but its hard to know how this obscure collection of foreigners will do compared to last season's woeful outfit. Bianchi has the whiff of the Corrado Grabbis about him.

14 Reading
Intelligently managed by Steve Coppell, they could struggle to replicate last season's efforts, particularly without Sidwell. Too good to go down though.

15 Bolton
With Fat Sam leaving in typically graceful fashion and Anelka threatening to do one, they will drop like a stone. Looked increasingly flakey last year, the departure of Ben Haim will not help.

16 Fulham
If you were going to pinch all the players from any national side, then Norn Iron would be pretty far down the list. Kamara and Healy are a big gamble.

17 Derby
Being written off will only increase the spirit of a side big on graft. Earnshaw has the potential to reach double figures and that could be just enough for survival.

18 Sunderland
Keane bought a shedload of Championship players last year and has bought two more, overpriced ones in Chopra and Richardson. May not be quite as amusing as the 19 point vintage but expect to be entertained and for Keane's overblown reputation to take a kicking.

19 Birmingham
Did not convince when getting promoted. Signings this summer have been based on quantity rather than quality. Don't expect Steve Bruce to survive past Christmas.

20 Wigan
Utter dross. Having miraculously escaped relegation due to the opposition's ineptitude last year, their luck must run out. Although the Bradford reign of Chris Hutchings and the entire career of Titus Bramble suggest they are making their own luck already.

FA Cup - Manchester United
Carling Cup - Arsenal

Monday, 23 July 2007

Southgate seeks Young blood

Boro's new right-back?

Having agreed a £2.5million fee with Charlton on Friday, England full-back Luke Young was at Hurworth today for a medical. Personal terms are yet to be agreed but Young looks set to make a swift return to the Premiership. Young would be Boro's fourth signing and should provide at least half of a solution to our problematic right flank.

There has been a surprising amount of unease amongst fans over the summer's transfer activity. Steve Gibson's 'spectacular' comments have already achieved infamy. Perhaps he felt it was necessary to boost morale after Mark Viduka's sickening departure, perhaps he had an eye on the season ticket deadline or perhaps some of those ridiculous rumours about Riquelme, Schweinsteiger and van Nistelrooy(!!) had a grain of truth in them. The fact is Gibson promised nothing and we can only guess who the club has tried and failed to sign this summer. This fixation with who the club haven't signed means many overlook the work which has been completed.

Gareth Southgate seems to be taking a more long-term view on how to take the team forward. This approach is long overdue. Bryan Robson's failure to match the mesmerising talents of Juninho, Ravanelli and Emerson with an even vaguely competent defence was catastrophic. The club have spent the time since over-compensating. The latter years of the Robson era may have brought top-flight stability but they also produced an overly defensive approach and some very short-sighted signings. Steve McClaren was left with a bloated squad that was too old, paid too much and had negligible re-sale value.

McClaren splurged the bounty of the Carling Cup victory on experience for the European campaign ahead. The successes - Hasselbaink, Zenden and Viduka - have not stayed long enough to have a team built around them. As for the Boro careers of Parlour and Reiziger, we may as well have just burned several thousand pounds at the start of the season and spared the Riverside crowd. Once again our new manager was left an unbalanced and ageing squad.

Southgate seems intent on a more considered approach. This summer we have continued to see clubs throwing startling amounts of money after bad players. A market in which you need over £10million to buy Kieran Richardson and Michael Chopra will never favour the buyer. The increase in spending power created by overseas takeovers and the new TV deal does not mean the standard of players available is any more impressive than it has been before. There are plenty of clubs willing to throw huge money at average players (although West Ham are doing enough for several on their own) - there is no need for us to join them.

Luke Young would be reasonably priced, the right side of 30 and committed, contractually at least, to the club for more than one or two years - just as Woodgate, Tuncay and Aliadiere are. The team should be fitter, faster and younger next year. This belated shift in approach may finally lead to the club achieving the league positions to match the investment made - it may not happen next year but, for once, the club seem to be thinking more than one year at a time.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Boro smash dismal Watford

Here we go, Rochemback scoring a goal!!

Many years of watching Boro tends to promote cynicism. The lack of enthusiasm amongst fans going into today's game was understandable. Last week's spineless defeat at West Ham, the absence of Woodgate and Arca and inept, bottom-of-the-league opposition seemed the perfect recipe for a 'typical Boro' performance and dropped points. Instead, the players inspired the fans for once and three valuable points were secured. The importance of the victory is only heightened by the sudden and unexpected competence now being displayed by West Ham and Charlton.
It already seems a common theme of this blog to state that the opposition were of previously unseen ineptitude. Charlton before Christmas were far more disorganised, clueless and spineless than the 2-0 scoreline suggests. Bolton were truly dreadful in January but it still felt like they may have escaped with a milder beating if they'd had someone better than the hopeless Nicky Hunt to mark Downing. Watford managed to beat all of these challenges to set a high (low?) standard in the battle for the title of most inept visitors to the Riverside this season. They did not just look like a Championship team - they looked like a bad Championship team.
It took just five minutes to forge a lead as, not for the last time, the bright, jinking play of Adam Johnson unsettled the visitors' defence. Johnson's cross was headed back across the goalmouth by Downing to set up an easy finish for Mark Viduka. Johnson's inclusion on the right wing transformed the balance of the side. With two genuine wingers on display, Watford's defence was struggling from early on.
The Hornets briefly levelled as the Boro defence switched off. Damien Francis smashed a flick-on past Schwarzer from close range. This seemed to spark the home team into life. Johnson deliberated before picking out George Boateng. The skipper's innocuous strike flicked off Chris Riggott's heel and speared into the top corner. The half-time lead was just about deserved.
After the break, Boro poured forward with Viduka and Johnson proving particularly dangerous. De Merit and Shittu were reduced to frequent shirt-tugging and the American was extremely fortunate not to concede a penalty while grappling with Viduka. Ben Foster demonstrated the benefits of a season's practice behind Watford's porous defence by superbly blocking a Rochemback follow-up, while Shittu bravely deflected a close range strike from Yakubu that seemed destined for the net over the bar. The breakthrough seemed inevitable.
With a little over fifteeen minutes left and a defence beginning to appear a little nervy, Viduka struck. Adam Johnson was again involved. His early run from a throw in flummoxed the Watford defence and Viduka eventually carved an angle to smash the ball into the top corner. Soon after, Yakubu harried De Merit out of possession and Viduka slid the ball into the path of Rochemback. The portly Brazilian controlled and poked the ball past Foster.
Overall, it was a surprisingly enjoyable afternoon which had seemed to promise only tedium and anti-climax. There were many impressive performances as a dismal Watford team were dispatched with confidence and flair. On today's evidence, only the commendable goalkeeping of Ben Foster is sparing Watford from total humiliation. They are team of such limitations it is practically impossible to describe them without becoming incredibly patronising. Nonetheless, these three points seem to have just about banished any lingering relegation fears, particularly with the unimpressive Aston Villa to follow next Saturday. Hopefully, this level of performance can be kept up and everyone can set off for summer holidays smiling.
Player Ratings
1 Schwarzer 6 Barely touched the ball. No chance with goal.
17 Xavier 8 Burst forward with attacking intent in second half. Crazy man, crazy hair.
33 Taylor 6 Not his finest afternoon but solid enough.
5 Riggott 7 Untroubled.
14 Huth 7 He kicks the ball very hard.
28 Johnson 9* Lively and positive. Attacking intent crucial for first 3 goals.
19 Downing 7 A constant threat.
10 Rochemback 7 Thrived against hopeless opposition. Well taken goal
7 Boateng 8 Dominated midfield. Classic Boat.
20 Yakubu 7 Direct running troubled defence.
9 Viduka 9 SIGN HIM ON!!!!!

Friday, 6 April 2007

Boro need to swat Hornets

The Huth is back - Watford strikers should wear boxes

I'm back after an extended break caused by a wine-fuelled sojourn to Bordeaux and apathy after last Saturday's dismal yet utterly predictable defeat at West Ham. Tomorrow's game may not seem particularly appealing - the prospect of paying money to watch Stuart Parnaby play as a winger would surely dismay most people. However, with Monday's scheduled defeat at Liverpool postponed, the next two Saturdays provide two winnable home games which must be used to banish any lingering relegation fears.

Our last two league games have ended with defeats to Man City and West Ham, providing uncomfortable evidence of the paucity of our squad. Fortunately, colossal German lump Robert Huth is back to cover for the suspended Emmanuel Pogatetz. Julio Arca faces a fitness test - his groin is still causing problems. I would personally be happy to devote my Saturday to caressing his toned Latin upper leg if it means we are spared Fabio Rochemback or, God forbid, Jason Euell. I'm not sure it would help though.

Lee Cattermole completes a 2 game suspension while James Morrison is serving the second of three games for his highly amusing assault on Boro's rubber-legged, gimp-faced, greasy nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo. This will hopefully give Adam Johnson a chance to play. Plenty of managers seem prepared to play right-footed players on the left. Our balance would be best served by two natural wide players, even if they are both left-footed.

Prediction: A beautiful Bank Holiday weekend on the Tees riviera spoiled only by a grim game of football - 2-1 Boro.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Second Choice Steve? The McClaren Years - Part 2 (2004-2006)

England's boss tells the one about Steve Harrison, a cupboard and a pint glass

On Thursday, I discussed the early years of Steve McClaren's reign on Teesside, considering whether the widespread cynicism about his coaching talents was totally fair. It is fair to say that, despite some promise, the seeds of doubt had already emerged. Capturing the 2004 Carling Cup was a pivotal moment in McClaren's career, adding impetus to a team who appeared to be stuck in permanent mediocrity. The cup victory created exciting new opportunities for the club - whether McClaren took sufficient advantage of this is arguable.

In statistical terms, 2004/05 was McClaren's most successful season at Middlesbrough. 7th place in the league was the club's highest finish since 1975. For the first time ever, European qualification was achieved via league placing. McClaren invested heavily in the summer of 2004, reaping the Cardiff windfall to build a squad fit for Europe. Rockliffe press conferences seemed to be daily occurrences at points during those heady months. By far the most successful signings were the two experienced strikers poached to solve the team's long-standing ineptitude in front of goal. Mark Viduka (£4.5m from Leeds) and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (free from Chelsea) provided considerably more quality, experience and value than the near £12m pairing of Maccarone and Ricketts. McClaren had cut his losses with the lardy waster, dispatching him to newly relegated Leeds on a free. His 18 months on Teesside had cost £30,000 a week, £3.5m in lost transfer fee for a return of just 4 goals, two of them penalties. It does raise the question of what could have been achieved had McClaren invested in strikers of Viduka and Hasselbaink's quality at an earlier stage. Another free signing was the previous season's loanee Bolo Zenden, crucially on just a one-year contract. Returning to a Robson theme, McClaren padded his squad out with 'experience'. We can only hope that his much-touted investment in 'experience' in Tel Aviv tonight is rather more successful than the Boro careers of Michael Reiziger and Ray Parlour. Given that it seems an excuse to play Phil Neville, its hard to be confident.

From the early weeks of the season, hopes of a high finish were raised. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was a hit from day one, when he blatantly punched in a last-minute equaliser against Newcastle. Hasselbaink was a massive hit, scoring the first Boro hat-trick in some time during a 4-0 win at Blackburn where even George Boateng scored. The team even dabbled with the Champions League places on occasions. The inaugural European campaign began well. Banik Ostrava were the visitors for the Riverside's first continental fixture with the classy new strike pairing sealing a 3-0 win after a nervy start. In the group stages, two superb Bolo Zenden goals defeated Lazio 2-0. Despite losing 2-0 at Villarreal, Boro qualified for the knockout stages as group winners.

There were signs that European football was damaging Boro's league form. Generally playing consistently well, points were still being dropped on a consistent basis after UEFA Cup fixtures. The team struggled to reach the same fluency dropping points in bad-tempered, scrappy home draws with Bolton and Portsmouth, and lost without scoring at Everton and Tottenham. To put that in perspective, the only other defeats suffered before Christmas came against Arsenal (and that after going 3-1 ahead at Highbury) and eventual champions Chelsea.

Having raised hopes, the team's performances fell away after Christmas. Mark Viduka's injury in a dire Boxing Day defeat at Birmingham all but ended his season. On one of the few occasions early season goal-scoring form was recaptured, a 4-1 lead was inexpliacbly tossed away in the final ten minutes at doomed Norwich. The nadir came at the end of March when Peter Crouch ravaged our defence in a dismal 3-1 defeat at home to Southampton that saw the team slump to 9th. The European campaign was over by the end of March too. In the last 32, Boro squeezed past GAK 4-3 on aggregate despite the best efforts of Emmanuel Pogatetz. In the next round, the best efforts of Fabio Rochemback inspired Sporting Lisbon to a 3-0 lead at the Riverside. Two late goals from Job and Riggott weren't enough and an injury-ravaged sufferd a brave but terminal 1-0 defeat in Lisbon. This apparently amounted to the sum total of McClaren's scouting for the following season.

The team managed to scrape enouugh form over the last 8 games to sneak into Europe, based on the immaculate defending of the re-united Ehiogu and Southgate. Even so, it was a close-run thing. Spurs' European hopes were only ended with a deflected George Boateng goal during the penultimate game of the season and Manchester City would have stolen Boro's European place had Mark Schwarzer not saved Robbie Fowler's penalty in the season's final minute.

Despite earning another crack at Europe, there is a sense that more could have been achieved. The team played so well before the Christmas that Champions League hopes were raised. Despite playing dreafully most of the time after Christmas until April, we finished only six points behind 4th-placed Everton. That a team so one-dimensional could finish 4th after we had wasted so many chances to earn more points. With Liverpool distracted by the European Cup/total dross (delete as applicable), there has not been a poorer recent Premiership than 04/05 and no better opportunity for Boro to prove that they were actually capable of breaking the top four's monopoly. Despite the achievements, there was again some very poor football, particularly after Christmas, and with what was without doubt his best team during his time on Teesside, McClaren could have done so much more.

2005/06 proved to be McClaren's final season at the Riverside. It would match the double cup final and relegated vintage of 1996/97 as one of the most frustrating, exciting, disappointing and bizarre campaigns any team can have embarked upon. The 14th place league finish was the lowest in McClaren's five seasons, with a defence mainly marshalled by an ageing Southgate and an inconsistent Chris Riggott shipping goals at an alarming rate. The team struggled without Bolo Zenden, who had fled on a free transfer for the refuge of Liverpool's bench and an extra £10k aweek, and his supposed replacement, Fabio Rochemback, failed to replicate the Dutchman's impact. Emmanuel Pogatetz did not convince at left-back, with the increasingly sidelined Franck Queudrue growing unsettled. Yakubu Aiyegbeni scored the goals that a £7m price tag would suggest but not enough to compensate for a leaky defence. There were sporadic performances of excellence, most notably crushing Manchester United 4-1, but they were generally followed by dropped points. Only record-breaking Sunderland leaked more goals at home than Boro, with such inconsistency undermining any chances of breaking free from mid-table.

Injuries began to take their toll and the combined impact of a desperate 7-0 molestation at Arsenal and a soul-crushing 4-0 reverse at home to Villa led to vociferous calls for the manager's head as the team slumped alarmingly close to relegation. The stunning 3-0 win over the champions elect Chelsea that followed was hugely surprising but vital - with Stewart Downing back from a long-term lay-off and successive victories against struggling West Brom and Birmingham, Boro ended fears of demotion. That McClaren had failed to beat his lowest previous points tally with so many gifted players at his disposal and had the team producing some of the worst, most spineless displays under his tenure raised serious doubts over his abilities. This was undoubtedbly McClaren's team now and the league effort was nowhere near good enough.

McClaren salvaged his reputation with cup success. The League Cup run ended in the quarter-finals with an abject defeat to Blackburn. Progress in the FA Cup came slowly and painfully. Boro were embarrassingly held to a draw by Conference North Nuneaton Borough in the third round, needing a replay to defeat the non-leaguers and Coventry in the next round. Two Yakubu goals polished off Preston in an impressive away win next before an exquisite Mark Viduka goal helped eliminate Charlton at the second attempt in a 4-2 quarter-final replay win. This set up a semi-final against West Ham at Villa Park.

In Europe, progress was comfortable. Six successive clean sheets aided comfortable progress past Christmas as group winners again. An impressive 2-1 win in Stuttgart and an unimpressive 1-0 defeat in the second leg helped Boro into the last 16 on away goals. There we faced a Roma team who had just set the then Italian record of eleven successive league wins. On a sodden night at the Riverside, a penalty converted by Yakubu and won by a typically dramatic Hasselbaink collapse decided a tense game. Hasselbaink made an equally important and more admirable intervention in the second leg, looping a superb header past the keeper to silence the Stadio Olimpico. Just as Boro's travelling fans had weathered violence and intimidation, the team held off a Roma fightback to record an away goals victory. Mark Schwarzer may have been beaten twice but made some astonishing saves to complete one of the proudest evening's in the club's history. The task against Basel seemed simpler but a 2-0 defeat in Switzerland seemed to have ended the cup run, a feeling compounded when they went 1-0 up at the Riverside. The astonishing comeback to seal a 4-1 victory in the last minute somehow kept the Uefa Cup dream alive.

Boro faced successive semi-finals during a key spell in April 2006. In the first game, at Steaua Bucharest, a patched up defence marshalled by Ugo Ehiogu and Matthew Bates held firm as Boro escaped from a battering defeated by just one goal. Then came the trip to Birmingham to face West Ham. Inexplicably, McClaren changed to a 3-5-2 formation, deploying Stewart Downing centrally rather than directly against Lionel Scaloni, the man widely recognised as the Hammers' weakest link. Despite dominating possession, the team struggled to make chances and were defeated by a late Marlon Harewood goal. The depression that created only deepened as Boro's nervy defending handed Steaua a two goal lead. Once again, however, a desperate gung-ho effort to claw back into the game ended with last minute success. Massimo Maccarone was the hero again, sealing another 4-3 aggregate win a thumping far-post header. McClaren's attempts to deploy the same response after falling behind in the final were less successful. Sevilla ruthlessly exploited the gaps left, winning 4-0. Even if that scoreline seemed harsh, there was no doubting Boro had been outplayed and outthought on the big night in Eindhoven.

Overall, its seems hard to argue with the general scepticism towards McClaren. He did demonstrate an ability to get Boro playing well on the big occasion, with memorable victories over Manchester United, Chelsea, Lazio and Roma. However, he struggled to get the team playing with any consistency and lacked ambition against mid-table sides, often clinging to the counter-attacking style that worked much better against better sides. His tactical meddling went a long way to ending hopes of an FA Cup final and almost did for the Uefa Cup run too. His transfer record was decidely patchy - Zenden, Yakubu, Southgate, Hasselbaink and Viduka have all been excellent players but the money spent on the likes of Ricketts, Maccarone, Parlour, Rochemback, Wilson and Reiziger was for the most part simply wasted. McClaren's biggest downfall, however, was himself. His claims that fans needed 'educating' after tactical criticism smacked of outrageous arrogance from a man who could only manage one top-half finish in five attempts despite generous backing from Steve Gibson. His enthusiasm for taking the vacant positions at Leeds (in 2002) and Newcastle (in 2004), of all clubs, hurt his credibility among fans increasingly suspicious of his commitment. His angling for the England job while the team laboured in the lower or middle reaches of the league seemed ridiculous and, once again, arrogant. That he somehow got the national job still seems perplexing. The enthusiasm shown towards Gareth Southgate this season despite achieving similar results shows the benefits of a manager showing some humility and genuine passion for his club. McClaren often seemed to be treating Boro like a stepping stone when his results did not suggest he deserved any better job. Sadly for those who priorites lie with England not Boro, the national team have got a manager whose qualities matched those of his Boro teams - capable of moments of inspiration but ultimately not good enough to succeed at the highest level.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Second Choice Steve? The McClaren Years - Part 1(2001-2004)

The England manager and his teeth

A week that began with Boro's new boss being criticised from all angles ends with his predecessor taking England's national team to Israel on Saturday. If Gareth Southgate has had a tough week, then the pressure that Steve McClaren, the man the nation certainly didn't want, has been put under puts that into perspective. His honeymoon period just about survived a 4-0 friendly win over European champions Greece but the knives were quickly drawn after a mind-numbing 0-0 draw with Macedonia and a farcical 2-0 defeat in Croatia. McClaren's departure hardly provoked dismay amongst Boro fans and he was far from being the people's choice. Despite his shiny new teeth and the help of Max Clifford, 'Second Choice Steve' can hardly look to the media to protect his reputation - which is surely a major reason why Fleet Street darling Terry Venables was appointed assistant manager. I can't help but feel that the man being pilloried from all angles is not quite the clueless buffoon he is widely portrayed as.

McClaren's first season on Teesside was in many ways his most impressive. With an impressive reputation from a spell as No. 2 at Manchester United, Boro had to compete with West Ham to secure McClaren's signature in the summer of 2001. The task in his first manager's job was steep. The previous season had seen Bryan Robson turn to Terry Venables to bale him out. In December, Boro looked doomed to relegation and had yet to win a home game. Venables completed a highly effective short-term job, tightening the defence by deploying the hitherto unused Paul Okon in the middle and galvanising the mercurial Croat Alen Boksic to some impressive performances, with stunning goals securing memorable wins at Newcastle and Leicester. Nonetheless, Robson nominally remained manager and his tenure only ended when he was booed off the field after the final game of the season. Venables depressingly decided that hanging around with Bob Wilson and Ally McCoist in an ITV studio was more attractive than managing Boro. We had stayed up but were burdened by a bloated squad packed with too many thirtysomethings on big contracts with little or no re-sale value.

McClaren's luck did not seem in as we crashed to 4 straight defeats to start the season. His first game, at home to Arsenal, ended in a harsh 4-0 defeat - Boro trailed by a single goal until the last five minutes when an Ashley Cole dive saw Ehiogu sent off and the home defence implode. Away defeats at Bolton and Everton followed before a thoroughly depressing derby defeat that seemed to suggest McClaren's luck was out. Colin Cooper gave Boro an early lead but another controversial red card led to a 4-1 loss. Two identical penalties were awarded in quick succession at opposite ends - Shay Given somehow escaped with a yellow to save Jonathon Greening's piss-poor kick before Shearer(pen) inevitably registered with Schwarzer sent off. After such a dreadful start, many expected Boro to fold but the side showed impressive resilience over the course of the season even if the quality of football was low. Many of Robson's squad were moved on and McClaren made some astute signings including Gareth Southgate, Franck Queudrue and, ahem, Allan Johnston. The back four of Stockdale, Queudrue, Southgate and Ehiogu provided a solid base for league recovery and some limited attacking flourish was added by a rejuvenated Noel Whelan and loanee Benito Carbone, to supplement the erratic Boksic. Boro finished comfortably in mid-table, amusingly scuppering much of Manchester United's domestic hopes. A 1-0 win at Old Trafford in March practically ended any title hopes while United were knocked out of the FA Cup, 2-0 at the Riverside. That FA Cup run only ended at the semi-finals, a Gianluca Festa own goal sealing another cruel Arsenal win. However, the cup run had achieved much, eliminating a lot of the negativity that built up amongst fans during the meandering later years of the Robson era. The atmosphere at Old Trafford was electric as fans took pride in a team that was finally showing real spirit and desire. There was no doubt the team lacked quality - that semi-final line-up included such luminaries as Johnston, Mickael Debeve and Luke Wilkshire - but McClaren did a superb job in taking such base material to build a mid-table team, 90 minutes from an FA Cup final, while trimming much of the fat from the squad.

McClaren spent heavily the following summer, bringing in Juninho, George Boateng, Massimo Maccarone on big transfer fees and loaning Geremi from Real Madrid. A nasty case of pre-season knee knack sidelined Juninho until March but Boro started brightly with the returning Joseph Job becoming a surprise hit in Juninho's attacking midfield position. The early signs were promising, with a stunning 3-0 win at Spurs probably the most impressive performance. Home form remained impressive throughout the campaign with only two defeats and another victory over Manchester United, 3-1 on Boxing Day. However, the general promise of autumn did not last. Massimo Maccarone, so impressive in the opening weeks, increasingly looked uncomfortable with the physical nature of the English game and the folly of spending a club record £8.15m on a player with no top-flight experience was beginning to become apparent. An unfortunate habit of losing 1-0 away from home was developed, with some players, most notably Geremi, seeming thoroughly disorientiated when removed from the confines of the Riverside. Another solid mid-table finish arrived but some frustration was beginning to grow, particularly over the ineptitude of the expanding (literally in Michael Ricketts' case) pool of strikers. While the deadline day Derby double of Riggott and Christie does not seem such a terrible move now, the decision to splash £3.5m on Ricketts so soon after spending big on Maccarone has led to serious reservations regarding McClaren's judgment.

The 2003/04 season proved to be a watershed in McClaren's reign. The signs before Christmas did not look promising. Gaizka Mendieta arrived amid much fanfare but struggled to match the contribution of goals and assists Chelsea-bound Geremi had provided. Danny Mills arrived on loan, and while he was a tenacious presence at right-back, he did little to alter a team whose problems were further up the field. Chelsea loanee Bolo Zenden came to play on the left wing, and did so with little success. Juninho had returned to full fitness but McClaren struggled to accomodate him. Playing him behind two strikers proved more attacking but left the defence exposed, as the 3-2 defeat to Leeds early season demonstrated. McClaren increasingly opted for 4-5-1 with Juninho behind either Ricketts or Maccarone, who both looked woefully out of their depth. Fans were beginning to grow restless with the first serious complaints about a lack of entertainment and goals emerging. From November 8th to Boxing Day, Boro played four games containing a combined tally of a single goal . That came as Sun Jihai put through his own net in a 1-0 win at Manchester City that contained no shots on target from McClaren's side.

Things improved after Christmas as Boro began to score more freely and rose to the familiar surroundings of lower mid-table. Joseph Job found some consistency in the sole striking role while Zenden began to flirt with a central midfield position that suited his talents much better than the wing. Hilariously, Boro beat Manchester United yet again - two Juninho headers(!) and a superb 15-pass move expertly finished by Job secured a memorable 3-2 win at Old Trafford. By the far the most important development was the Carling Cup run. McClaren was certainly pushing his luck - defeating Everton on penalties, then doing the same at Spurs after Michael Ricketts scored a priceless 90th minute equaliser to keepn the tie alive. Juninho's goal earned a 1-0 win at Arsenal in the first leg of the semi, before Bolo Zenden ended 60 minutes of tension to double the advantage in the second leg. There was a brief scare after Edu scored but debutant Jose Reyes comprehensively beat his own keeper to seal a place in Cardiff and McClaren's first major final. Job scored before McClaren could reach his seat and then the Cameroon striker won a penalty which Zenden converted with something short of composure, slipping as he ran up and striking the ball with both feet, much to the chagrin of eagle-eyed ref baiter Fat Sam. Despite a horrible error from Schwarzer to take the score to 2-1 and a strong claim for a Bolton penalty in injury time, Boro held on and McClaren had become the most successful manager in Boro's 128 year history by default. He had won the trophy that had eluded all of his predecessors.

After such a commendable effort in his first season, Steve McClaren's Boro career seemed to be heading nowhere by late 2003. The £20m spent in the summer of 2002 had failed to provide the improvement fans had hoped for and expected. Having finished 12th with 45 points in the first campaign, two successive 11th placed finishes on 49 then 48 points did not suggest progress was being made. Moreover, the sterile football that had been tolerated at first was starting to grate. It was one thing to play such negative football when he was working on a small budget and trying to shift Robson rejects from the wage bill. 2 years later, there could be no such excuses. The impotence in front of goal was a real problem and troubling given that the thick end of £15m had been spent on Maccarone, Ricketts and Christie. In retrospect, the run to Cardiff seems marked with particularly good fortune - Everton or Tottenham could have easily eliminated us before the competition really got serious. Whether he could have survived another mid-table season and the inevitable rancour of disgruntled season ticket holders is debatable. By winning the Carling Cup, McClaren had earned himself a spectacular reprieve. This represented unchartered territory for the club and certainly had a huge impact on the club's fortunes for the remainder of McClaren's reign. That he could, and maybe should, have achieved more off the back of that achievement raises further doubts over whether his coaching talents merit the elevated status he now enjoys.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Cancel the Cup final

"Was it something I said?"

Its certainly been a busy couple of days with Gareth Southgate taking flak from all angles as Cristiano Ronaldo, a man fast becoming our nemesis, ended any FA Cup dreams with another highly dubious penalty. The abject defeat against Manchester City on Saturday also earned the scorn of Sheffield United's much loved Neil Warnock. Colin's bizarre rant suggested that Southgate lost the game as a 'favour' to his friend Stuart Pearce. Warnock clearly has few friends among his Premiership counterparts, as they all seem to beating his side on a regular basis.

There was little about Saturday's turgid match that hinted at the flurry of controversy to follow two days later. Southgate did field a weaker team than in recent weeks with Mark Viduka benched and Jonathan Woodgate left out of the 16. Julio Arca was also missing, although the growing army of critics of the team selection should note that Arca needed a fitness test before yesterday's game and only lasted 70 minutes. Abel Xavier slotted into Woodgate's central defensive role and acquitted himself reasonably well. Emmanuel Pogatetz lasted just 9 minutes before departing in some pain - fortunately the injury has proved nowhere near as serious as it immediately seemed. The other changes were somewhat less successful. Lee Dong-Gook struggles on his full debut, constantly being outmuscled by Distin and Dunne. He did not emerge after half-time. Inexplicably, Jason Euell lasted over an hour. The ex-Charlton midfielder, a bizarre £350,000 signing on deadline day, has done little to raise fans' expectations since. He still managed to underwhelm with a dismal display. It was telling that his one significant contribution - solidly blocking a well-hit Dietmar Hamann shot - was followed by cheers as he collapsed to the floor. By the time Viduka replaced the lumbering Euell, it was almost too late.

Stewart Downing had threatened to rouse the soporific Riverside at points in the first half. Isaksson had to stretch to save a smart right-footed effort and three superb crosses were wasted with awful headers by Lee, Euell and Xavier. Fortunately, City's Belgain forward Emile Mpenza appeared equally hapless, heading yards wide with the goal at his mercy. That fortune was not to last. With Downing's frustration growing and any attacking momentum evaporating, City took the lead after the break. Pitiful efforts at clearing a corner were punished as Sylvain Distin demonstrated the class that led to him demanding £50,000 a week from Boro in the summer, proving lethal at belting the ball past the keeper from an unmarked position five yards out. The goal failed to rouse the home team, whose performance declined to the point that the abysmal Mpenza managed to score. Cattermole was dispossessed and Mpenza poked the ball in off a post as Schwarzer and Xavier closed in.

The remaining home fans mustered a half-hearted boo and everyone filed home, hoping to forget one of the worst games of football I have personally ever had the misfortune to endure. The game did manage to make an impact on the Sheffield United management however. On Monday, Colin proved the anagram correct with a bizarre rant, which can be perused in full here. Warnock is generally a rich source of entertainment, opening his mouth without applying the merest filter to the nonsense swirling in his mind. There is neither the time or space to fully consider every single point of Warnock's whining here. I was particularly puzzled by a few comments though. What could he possibly mean by being "disgusted" by disrespect from a "club like Middlesbrough"? Presumably he is not bothered at disrespect from more established clubs - explaining his tepid response to his side being bent over, so to speak, by rotated Liverpool and Chelsea teams in recent weeks. The other especially odd statement was "They play West Ham on Saturday, that's another pal of his, so they'll probably not bother there". What happens if we win at Upton Park now? Does that mean he has fooled Southgate with cunning mind games into winning a game he didn't want to? Utter, utter bollocks.

Not that Warnock was alone in taking an unlikely interest in such a tedious game. Alex Ferguson, who incomprehensible slurring and bizarre facial colour suggests bottles in brown paper bags hidden all over Old Trafford, also took the opportunity to have a cheap shot at Southgate. For someome who is widely depicted as mild-mannered and even "naive" according to Ferguson, our dear leader seems to be remarkably unpopular amongst his fellow managers. Quite why they are so offended at their competition being managed by a completely unqualified rookie has never been clear. It is typical of the bad blood that has grown between the two clubs all year, stemming from United's highly controversial 2-1 win at the Riverside before Christmas. Two blatant dives from Ronaldo were rewarded with a penalty and a free kick rather than the two yellows they deserved. The feud was hardly ended by a 2-2 draw in the original, when another unfortuante penalty denied Boro a semi-final place.

With Woodgate, Arca and Viduka restored, we were a much more resilient outfit last night. Mark Schwarzer made two outstanding saves to thwart Wayne Rooney and one superb Jonathan Woodgate tackle denied Alan Smith a certain goal after Ronaldo evaded Andrew Taylor. Defensively, Boro had to work very hard at the start and end of the first half. However, there were signs for optimism. Mark Viduka arrowed a shot just wide and more chances came as we gave as good as we got in the second half. Viduka twisted and turned and set up the lively Stewart Downing but the Boro winger sliced the opportunity wide. Yakubu failed to control a incisive Xavier pass with sufficient deftness to test Tomasz Kuszczak. The home side appeared to be growing frustrated before Ronaldo did what he does best.

A long-ball caught the Boro defence out and Woodgate had to scamper to close on the Portuguese. Befitting a man who seems to believe football matches are decided by tallies of free-kicks and penalties won as opposed to goals scored, Ronaldo charged towards the touchline, waited for the defender to get within a few yards of him and then went down with minimum encouragement. Once again, the referee was conned. Predictably, Ronaldo's media apologists excused him. It is depressing to see such unjust decisions defended with lazy comments such as "there's contact so he has the right to go down" or any sentence prefaced by "in the modern game". Ronaldo is the worst but far from the only example of those players who treat going down as a "right" rather than a natural consequence of a contact sport. That he has decided two games against Boro this season with such simulation is hugely frustrating - Gareth Southgate was not wrong when he suggested that many more people would have loved to have hacked down the No.7 as substitute James Morrison did (about 2 minutes into above clip). Morrison's frustration was no doubt heightened by a referee who was suckered by Ronaldo's diving and Rooney's time-wasting antics in injury time. Quite how the petulant Scouse brothel frequenter evaded a red card while George Boateng was booked for being pushed is hard to comprehend.

Until such diving is widely condemned, it will continue. At the moment, the rewards make the risks worthwhile, particularly when so many seem keen to excuse diving on the player's behalf. The previous clip demonstrates the nauseating sycophancy and apologising for the self-proclaimed 'Big 4' that is prevalent in modern football coverage, as well as the fact Ferguson claps like a retarded child (5:47). Jamie Redknapp is paid an extortionate amount of money to spout bland cliches and did little to disappoint last night. His comment that Ronaldo is a "credit to the Premiership" makes relegation seem appealing. His partner Ray Wilkins is little better. Wilkins was known as 'The Crab' during his playign days, probably due to his fondness for passing sideways, although it may be because he hung around seasides scaring children. Richard Keys appears to be a strategically shaved and particularly unintelligent chimp. At least Paul Merson wasn't there.

The United management responded to the night's events with customary reserve and good grace. Carlos Queiroz reacted angrily to Ronaldo being labelled a cheat by the Boro bench - I wonder how much angrier he would be on the end of similar tactics as those displayed by his player. Boro are far from the only victims of Ronaldo's play-acting and Southgate's comment that Ronaldo was "good at what he does" was commendably reserved. None the less, Ferguson launched another crude rant at Southgate and Boro, blaming a "guilt complex" for "putting a stigma against the boy that he doesn't deserve". This represents remarkable if unsurprising hypocrisy from a man who, before a clash with Inter in 1999, stated that "When an Italian says its pasta, I check under the sauce", warning of "scheming, diving, referee-baiting - the full repertoire". Ambiguous comments about a cheat are a "shame" in Ferguson's mind, yet slandering an entire nation is acceptable. This is the flexibility of an extraordinary manager - to make Mourinho and Chelsea seem almost an appealing alternative is some achievement.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

In praise of...Julio Arca

All we need is Julio Arca

Gareth Southgate made few transfer moves during the summer but rescuing Julio Arca from his mackem hell has got to be one of the most inspired moves by any manager last summer. Arca had been known as Sunderland's best player, as dubious an honour as any footballer could be given. While Arca had demonstrated excellent technique and, gallingly, impressive free-kick taking skills, most expected him to fill in as cover down the left-hand side. Like Boudewijn Zenden, the man we have so struggled to replace, Arca has provided an accidental yet compelling solution to the central midfield conundrum.

The opening games of Arca's Boro career did not bode well. His debut was something of a disaster, breaking his foot in the early stages and struggling desperately to contain Reading as they erased Boro's two-goal advantage. With defeat clutched from the jaws of victory, Southgate and Boro struggled in Arca's absence. He returned for a truly awful 2-0 defeat at Watford, that possibly represented the nadir of Boro's dismal pre-Christmas form. Arca filled in on the left wing against West Ham in a crucial six-pointer at the Riverside. Although Massimo Maccarone (remember him?) scored a late winner, Arca struggled to make an impression. His lack of pace was being exposed on the flank.

Arca was shifted into one of three central midfielders at Villa Park - the result was a much improved performance. A solid away point and a more suitable role for Arca's undoubted talents had been found. The idea of Arca as a central midfielder had arose in Gareth Southgate's mind while watching reserve matches. Patience was surely running out with Fabio Rochemback, who could generously be described as mercurial (although most people have setttled on crap). Arca moved into the middle and with every game has looked more assured. The team have not looked back.

Julio seems such a natural central midfielder, it seems bizarre that anyone would have considered playing him anywhere else. While Rochemback seems capable of losing the ball from the simplest of situations, Arca has an uncanny knack of emerging from a tangle of legs with the ball somehow under control. His fleet of foot in front of his own area may put a few hearts in mouth but reflects a desire to never waste the ball. Playing alongside the increasingly erratic George Boateng, that can be no bad thing. While lacking pace by Premiership standards, an impressive speed of though and slight of foot enables Julio to wriggle his way out of tight corners. His vision has brought the best out of his attacking colleagues. Mark Viduka has reaped the benefits of more quality service into feet. The pass which cut apart Manchester United's defence to set up Stewart Downing's early chance demonstrates his ability. He has even been able to weigh with a couple of goals, including one in the vital 3-1 win at Charlton in January.

Most contemporary Premiership players seem to be selected on the basis of pace and physical power. This is what makes Arca such a refreshing change. To paraphrase Alan Hansen: pace, power, height - this boy's got f*** all. What he does have is increasingly rare qualities - vision, technique, control and tenacity. His immense quality on the ball and competitive spirit is proving a successful combination. While Woodgate, Yakubu and Viduka are regularly singled out for Boro's huge improvement in 2007, fewer plaudits have been directed at Arca. This does him a disservice. One incident against United summed up Arca's qualities, as he chased back, harried Ronaldo before dispossessing him, beating him with a sublime nutmeg and picking out a team-mate. Efficient, practical but very stylish - exactly why the man who only a year ago was sporting mackem colours is quickly becoming the Riverside's new favourite player.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Archive #2: Manchester City

Alun Armstrong before terminal knee-knack set in

Boro 1 (Armstrong) Manchester City 0

Stuart Pearce visits the Riverside on Saturday, with rumours suggesting a defeat would spell the end of his tenure of relegation-haunted Manchester City. City visited Teesside under such pressure in April 1998, in a game which went a long way to assuring both team's exit from Division One, although in opposite directions.

With Nottingham Forest comfortably clear at the top of the division, Boro were locked in a battle with Sunderland and outsiders Ipswich in the battle for the last automatic promotion spot. Boro's run to a third successive Wembley final (inevitably accompanied by another defeat to Chelsea) had threatened to de-rail the promotion push. After the semi-final success against Liverpool, a four goal defeat at Forest rapidly followed by an inexplicable 5-0 reverse at QPR had gone a long way to ending title hopes. After the final, crucial away defeats at Sheffield United and West Brom had put promotion in the balance. City were in desperate trouble at the other end. After relegation in 1996, City had failed to impress in their first season in Division One but struggled even more in 1997/8. They went down on the final day, only just scraping their way out of Division Two with penalty victory over Gillingham in the next season's play-offs.

With Mikkel Beck and Paul Merson creaking under the pressure of firing Boro to promotion, Bryan Robson splashed the cash on three new strikers in early 1998. Stockport's Alun Armstrong, impressive in the previous season's League Cup clash and Inter's wily veteran Marco Branca arrived for around £1m each. Colombian striker Hamilton Ricard was also signed. On the eve of the cup final, Bryan Robson splashed out £3.5m on Rangers' Paul Gascoigne, far from his only expensive mis-judgement. City arrived with a combative pair of Teesside-born midfielders Michael Brown and captain Jamie Pollock. Stockton-born Pollock had been a regular in the early 1990s, popular for his hard tackling, which covered his major technical shortcomings. After a brief spell with Osasuna, Pollock had returned to England and ended up at Maine Road. Pollock received a warm welcome that quickly evaporated.

The game was played on a Friday night for the TV cameras. The floodlit Riverside added tension to the occasion. A desperately poor game sparked into life before half time. Branca, having been a revelation since scoring 4 minutes into his debut, was injured late in the first half. Despite an aborted Premiership comeback, this injury ultimately proved to be career-ending. Branca's legal wrangles with the club soured what had once seemed destined to be a prolific spell on Teesside. Armstrong replaced him and swiftly opened the scoring, firing home in the area after smart work from Gascoigne outside the area (not often I got to say that). City were handed a lifeline just before the break. Steve Vickers, a man so timid he often appeared in fear of the ball, the crowd, the opposition and the concept of football itself, was sent off for violent conduct. Although it was barely even conduct - Vickers squared up to City lump Lee Bradbury, making a vague head movement in the striker's direction. Vickers' forehead never got closer than a yard to his opponent, yet Bradbury collapsed in a heap. After lengthy discussion, the referee dismissed Vickers - why he took his long to say 'get off' is not clear.

As the players went into the tunnel before half time, a melee broke. Fans rushed to peer down the tunnel to watch a scrap that was largely caused by Pollock's inexplicable attack on a bemused Alun Armstrong. Pollock's typically feisty tackling had undermined the crowd's initial goodwill. His half time fisticuffs, further suggesting some kind of hormal imbalance, turned this into outright abuse. It was hardly surprising though - the unthinking combination of passion and clumsy violence had been a hallmark of Pollock's career. It seems bizarre that this was the same man that could score a goal of such class that he was made Time's man of the century by QPR fans.

Little happened in the second half. Ten-man Boro lacked the inclination and City lacked the quality to attack convincingly. Boro held on for a vital three points. This may not have been a great game but it did turn out to be an extremely important one.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Manchester, so much to answer for

This man is charging £45 to watch John O'Shea - no wonder he's happy

As if Saturday's penalty equaliser wasn't bad enough, Manchester United today added insult to injury with a price structure for tickets for next Monday's replay. One of the richest clubs in the world is intent on fleecing Boro fans. Its policy is little more than a naked attempt to limit the number of fans we take to Old Trafford. United are a club that has recent history of blatant rule-breaking. The spirit of the rules is clearly not a concept that resonates with Ferguson's team.

To put this into context we should consider the treatment meted out to United's substantial travelling support at the Riverside, some of whom came from as far away as Hartlepool. United fans were given the whole of the South Stand (around 5,000 seats) and charged £20 - just like home fans. This was a reasonably priced game and the club. Given reductions in allocations for United in recent years due to the constant standing of their fans, it was a generous deal. As much as the crackdown on standing fans is generally misguided and unfair, there really could be no cause for complaint.

United, a club whose income dwarves Boro's, play in a stadium more than twice the size of the Riverside. Therefore, it would logically follow that Boro would be entitled to at least 10,000 tickets if they so wished. While it is unrealistic to expect that many to travel on a Monday night to a game played at short notice, it seems fair to assume that at similar prices, Boro would probably take at least 3,000 fans. United, however, are effectively trying to cap our following at 1,860. In a bizarre pricing policy, the prices of seats in the away section will change depending on how many have been tickets have already been sold. There is no indication that the more expensive seats are in a different section.

The first 1,860 tickets will be sold for £36, a massive and completely unreasonable hike on Riverside prices. The next 590 tickets will be sold for an astonishing £42, more than double the equivalent ticket from the first game. Inexplicably, the remaining 600 will (theoretically) be sold at £35. Like most fans, I was of the understanding that away clubs in FA Cup ties are entitled to 15% of the ground's capacity if they so wish and must agree prices with the home club. This does not put Boro in a flattering light, despite claims that this bizarre and insulting arrangement was insisted upon by United. If they privately agreed to this situation, then the club are guilty of treating their own fans with utter contempt - not words I ever thought I could use to describe Gibson's Boro. If they were reluctantly pushed into acceptance, then they are at least guilty of being spineless. Few fans would have grumbled about ticket details being delayed if they knew their club were standing up to United's outrageous requests.

As a football fan, I have got used to being treated like shit as a rule. Going to an away game, you are treated as a potential criminal on a regular basis. Ticket prices nationwide are generally nothing short of an absolute piss-take. I desperately wanted to go and support my team in the most important game of our season but I cannot afford those prices. Even if I could afford it, I'm not sure I could stomach handing over such a sum to such an unworthy organisation. Those fans who do go deserve to be commended for their commitment. I would hope they would not criticise those who choose (or are unable) to attend because of United's approach. They are most likely not part-timers nor lacking commitment. They probably feel, as I do, that after being so regularly treated with a contempt that would be unthinkable in any other form of entertainment, that this is just one step too far.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Paying the Penalty

So near....

....yet so bastard far

A crushing sense of disappointment envelopes Teesside tonight. Despite the fact that Manchester United outplayed Boro for most of tonight’s FA Cup quarter final, there is a sense that Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty killed our best hope of making the last four.

I can only hope that the BBC cameras managed to miss my truly pitiful attempts at waving a big blue-and-black flag by the touchline before kick off. I’m still not sure why I was picked on for this task. My only defence is that I was (and still am, if I’m being honest) quite drunk and it was very windy. I thought I was doing quite well till it flew off the end of the pole. The ball boy looked at me with a real sense of pity.

While the news that Julio Arca and Lee Cattermole had shaken off injuries picked up at the Geordie morgue last week was a boost, we were far too tentative in the first half. Given the number of humiliations we have dished out to Ferguson’s lot in recent seasons it was a surprise and a let down how we stood off the visitors in the opening 45 minutes. When Woodgate missed an interception and Wayne Rooney collected the ball, evaded defenders and expertly placed the ball in Schwarzer’s bottom corner it was no surprise nor less than United deserved. Yakubu threatened to redress the balance when he controlled Viduka’s flick, rolled his marker and thumped a left foot shot which Kusczak did well to stop. The Polish understudy fared less well just before half time when he clawed at a cross unconvincingly. Julio Arca’s placed header was taken on the chest by Lee Cattermole, who finished with a panache and poise that did not fit the 43 minutes that had preceded it.

The second half began rather better than the first. I was still climbing my way up to row 37 having downed the regulation pint of swill when George Boateng evaded any marking and powered a header past Kusczak. The Riverside was finally jumping. The scent of blood was in the air. We were ready to wreak a glorious vengeance for Ronaldo’s play-acting. The army of plastic Mancs were silenced at last. Whoever put up that Hartlepool flag in the away end ought to be ashamed of themselves. Danny Wilson has built a team to proud of – these trophy-hunting cretins deserve no respect.

Just as Boro finally seemed to be controlling the game, United were awarded a penalty. George Boateng was perhaps foolish to have his arms raised but it credits him with better reactions than he has displayed for most of this season to suggest it was deliberate. Given that the cretinous Rob Styles had been handed the whistle, there was little chance of a spot kick not being awarded – we should consider ourselves grateful to finish with 11 men. It was galling to see our semi-final dreams dashed by a proven cheat. That Ronaldo paused his run up only proves that he still has the capacity to break the rules even when taking a set piece. The game fizzled out to a draw. The replay suits neither a crestfallen Boro or a big pot-chasing United. We can only hope that they are lethargic in the replay – sadly, it seems our best chance has gone now.

Man of the Match: Julio Arca – showed superb technique and composure again. Bonus marks for megging Ronaldo.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Archive #1: Manchester United

What better way to warm up for the weekend's game than remembering classic victories? Fortunately, there is healthy choice of Boro successes against Manchester United to select from and we start with a FA Cup 4th round tie from 2001/2002.

Noel Whelan plays spot the fan

Boro 2 (Whelan 85, Campbell 89) Manchester United 0

The desperate scramble for tickets this week on Teesside is a pleasing contrast to the last time Manchester United visited in the FA Cup. Just over 17,000 attended this stunning victory which came early on a surprise run to the semi-finals of the 2002 FA Cup. Steve McClaren's successes in guiding a hugely limited side to within a sliced own-goal of the final have not perhaps earned enough credit. With current managerial duo Southgate and Cooper manning the defence, Boro grimly defied their attacking ineptitude before the mercurial Laurent Blanc provided the key to opening the defence. That it took almost the full game to crack a backline including two Nevilles and Mickael Silvestre is telling.

McClaren's first season in charge at the Riverside was a real trial. Left an ageing and unbalanced squad by Bryan Robson, McClaren struggled desperately at first. A cruel 4-0 defeat to Arsenal on the opening day, including three goals in the last five minutes, set the tone. Ashley Cole went down very easily (steady on) to earn a penalty and a red card for Ugo Ehiogu. The blend of misfortune and ineptitude left Boro in relegation trouble after Christmas. Given the high prices, live TV coverage and dismal standard of football seen previously, the sparse crowd became understandable.

A glance at the team sheet shows the general lack of quality in the home side, with the exception of a solid defensive unit that was the basis of our fine second half of the season. On one wing lied Allan 'Magic' Johnston. Johnston, previously a Sunderland favourite, arrived earlier that season to a carnival atmosphere reminiscent of Juninho's arrival as fans openly quaffed Vaux lager in the streets. Possibly. Sadly, Johnston failed to live up to the ankle-high expectations of Boro fans during his mercifully brief stay on Teesside. Johnston was often deployed on the left despite being right-footed, presumably because he normally played like a man with his legs on the wrong way round.On the opposite flank, lay the enigmatic and supremely ugly Carlos Marinelli. A Bryan Robson signing from Boca Juniors, Marinelli possessed mesmerising close control, an absymal attitude and the inevitable and ill-deserved 'New Maradona' title. The duo somehow lasted until half-time as Boro grimly refused to leave their own half in a display all too familiar to home fans.

McClaren re-organised Boro into a 3-5-2 in the second hald, aware that playing that poorly again against United would be punished. Inexplicable Old Trafford reject Mark Wilson came into midfield and gangling Irish lunk Jason Gavin slotted in at centre-back. Boro forced their way into the game and an increasingly worried Ferguson threw on Giggs and van Nistelrooy. With the wingers abandoned, Boro were more solid but still struggling to make chances. It took the unlikely combination of Mark Crossley and Laurent Blanc to break the deadlock.

Crossley's goal kick somehow evaded the calamity-prone Frenchman and Noel Whelan, enjoying a surprisingly successful stint up front, clipped the ball past Barthez and gave Boro a late lead. More gallic consternation was to follow. Whelan was withdrawn after receiving an unintended punch in the face from an over-excited fan during the goal celebrations. His replacement was Andy Campbell, a man who makes Carlos Marinelli look like Jude Law. Campbell lasted a bizarre amount of time at the Riverside, as managers focussed on what they no doubt termed his 'genuine pace'. Unfortunately they tended to overlook his equally genuine inability to maintain control of a football. Nevertheless, even Campbell couldn't miss when Dean Windass landed a cross on his forehead. A side containing true giants of the European scene such as Luke Chadwick and Ronnie Wallwork had been humbled by McClaren's clueless, negative cloggers. The magic of the FA Cup and that.

Boro: Crossley, Stockdale, Queudrue, Cooper, Southgate, Greening, Mustoe, Johnston (Gavin), Marinelli (Wilson), Windass, Whelan (Campbell).

Man Utd: Barthez, P Neville, Silvestre, G Neville, Blanc, Wallwork (Giggs), Keane, Butt, Chadwick (van Nistelrooy), Scholes, Solskjaer (Yorke).

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Lazy YouTube list!!!

George Weah wishes he was me!

What better way to celebrate the new functionality of this blog than a lazy, derivative selection of YouTube clips. Lets not set the bar too high early on...

1. The preposterous UEFA Cup comebacks vs Basel and Steaua Bucharest.
2. The only cup final we have ever played whose memory does not evoke physical pain.
3. Beating Chelsea 3-0 in February 2006 and again in August. So much fun we did it twice.
4. When George Weah picked up the ball in the penalty area against Verona, he dreamed of emulating John Hendrie's classic against M illwall. He almost managed.
5. A montage of goals from Emerson and Juninho. Strangely, I couldn't find any montages featuring Whyte, Vickers, Cox or Liddle.
6. Deserving a special mention, Emerson silences the mackems.
7. Rubber-legged Joseph Job strikes a spectacular if ultimately pointless goal against Sporting.
8. Compilation of stunning Viduka goals - that Charlton cup replay goal justifies enduring the 'Wizard of Oz' soundtrack.
9. Viduka's former partner Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
10. A couple of legendary Ayresome Park headers from Tony Mowbray against Everton and Villa.

BoroBlog IT problems resolved!!!!!

We have finally discovered the route(r) of all our technological problems.

I no longer have any excuse for not updating this blog on a regular basis. Keep your eyes peeled.

Bye bye now.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Interesting Korea move

Reports today claim that Boro have agreed a fee with Pohang Steelers for South Korean triallist Lee Dong-Gook. Lee has 22 goals in 64 appearances for his national side and is only awaiting a work permit to complete his move. He will be something of an unknown quantity - injury prevented him from appearing in the last 2 World Cup finals and a previous European sojourn with Werder Bremen proved unsuccessful. Lets hope the man they call the 'Lion King' can provide much needed back-up for Viduka and Yakubu. Either way, his signing should ensure enough shirt sales in Seoul to fund a replacement if he fails to make the grade.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Boro fans enter license fee debate

Never let it be said that Boro fans lack culture or an interest in current affairs. It was stirring to see support thrown behind the BBC’s flagship programme ‘Panorama’. With a new editor and a prime time slot, it is an uncertain time for staff and it was heartwarming to see Teesside come out and loudly proclaim its backing for top quality investigative journalism.

Surprisingly, visiting manager Fat ‘Sam’ Allardyce did not seem interested in such an important debate. Perhaps he is too busy investigating what Gary Speed thought he was doing in front of his own goal or compiling the mammoth calculation needed to work out just how much of a twat El-Hadji Diouf is. Either way, he was not the only one flummoxed as Boro fans tried to think of the last time a visiting team had been so obliging. Even Les Reed’s lot put a bit of a fight for five minutes or so. Not content with scoring the opening goal for us, Bolton neglected to mark Abel Xavier as he powered a superb header for 2-0. Quite how they failed to notice a man as extravagantly coiffured as Xavier is a mystery.

Stewart Downing had a field day against Nicky ‘Dirty F***ing’ Hunt, bending a cross with the outside of his foot to pick out Mark Viduka for the third. The optimist in me hopes Viduka maintains this form when he signs a new contract – and that the contract is at the Riverside. Downing capped an eye-catching first half display with a belting right-foot drive to render Kevin Nolan’s goal irrelevant.

The second half was a tad anti-climatic after the deluge of goals before the break. Boro added just one to their tally, as Lee Cattermole’s tireless grafting was rewarded by Ricardo Gardner’s ineptitude. Hartburn’s finest set up Viduka for an easy fifth. The second 45 minutes was more notable for a cruel but nonetheless amusing assault on Fat Sam’s character. His dubious approach to business ethics and his larger than the average head were targets as well as the aforementioned support for the BBC’s current affairs output.

Player Ratings

Schwarzer 7 Not a lot to do – no chance of saving Nolan’s goal.
Xavier 8 – Colossal. Mooched well for opener, towering header for his first Boro goal. Inexplicably crazed celebration.
Taylor 7 Must be the easiest afternoon’s work in his short career.
Woodgate 8 If Fat Sam is still looking for Anelka, he might want to try Woodgate’s pocket.
Pogatetz 8 A violent man. Took the fight to Bolton. Residual bonus marks for last season’s Davies taunting.
Cattermole 7 No messing.
Downing 9 Best game for ages. Tortured Hunt. Reminded us why Martin Jol has wet dreams about him after sinking 15 pints of Grolsch, eating loads of Edam and retiring to his windmill.
Arca 8 Not bad for an Argie Mackem.
Boateng 8 Echoes of the bygone era when he was not a complete liability. More of the same please.
Yakubu 8 Some days he looks lazy and clumsy. Today he was a powerhouse.
Viduka 10 A man who knows he is in the shop window. Immense. Sign him on quickly.

Bolton(the lot of them) 0 Absolute gash hammock. Without even mentioning Diouf’s dismissal.

Good news for regular readers (hi Dave), BoroBlog’s library will be uploaded soon with the acquisition of a memory stick and a well-aimed, Cattermolian kick at my PC.

Bye-bye now.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Welcome to BoroBlog

BoroBlog is a brand new blog following the (mis)fortunes of Middlesbrough FC.

Expect exciting developments (or a load of tat) to follow soon...