Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Bouncing back?

If the Everton game was the footballing equivalent of driving to Dundee barefoot gorging on (medium-sized) Toblerones, then last night's 1-0 defeat to Manchester United was an important step on the path back to respectability. The figures still don't look good - one place outside the bottom three by virtue of superior goal difference, no wins in eight games, only two goals scored in six games and none in the last three.

It should also be remembered that this fixture is of trifling importance compared to the next two league games - at home to Sunderland and away to West Bromwich Albion. These fixtures, rather than trips to Old Trafford, will determine whether our flirting with the relegation zone proves a brief dalliance or a drawn out affair.

That there were changes to the side who struggled so grimly against Everton was unsurprising, even if Gareth Southgate's hand was forced in some areas. The cynics were given further ammunition by another groin injury for the apparently careless Mido, allowing Afonso Alves a starting opportunity. Only Chris Riggott and Emmanuel Pogatetz remained from the defence that creaked on Boxing Day, and even then the skipper reverted from the centre to left back. Matthew Bates and David Wheater replaced Tony McMahon and Andrew Taylor.

Despite the 4-5-1 formation, Boro were relatively purposeful. Under heavy pressure, the defence coped well. There were inevitably some scares - bete noire Cristiano Ronaldo spurned two presentable chances while Ross Turnbull made an excellent save from a stinging Wayne Rooney half volley. On the break, Boro were neat and patient with the ball without creating any clear cut chances. The main drama of the first half came in injury time as Pogatetz foolishly grappled with Ronaldo in the box. The Portuguese was not reticent in letting the Boro skipper and referee Martin Atkinson know of his displeasure.

The second half began in an encouraging fashion, culminating in Tuncay heading a Matthew Bates cross inches wide of the post. There could have been even better openings had Julio Arca and Stewart Downing showed more composure when given time and space in front of the United defence. Cruelly, Boro's strongest patch of the game was ended by the decisive goal. David Wheater failed to clear a cross and Dimitar Berbatov poked the rebound past Turnbull. While Paul Scholes did seem to foul Chris Riggott, any complaints should be muted given the referee's failure to punish Pogatetz for his earlier misdemeanour.

The visitors tired considerably as United played keep-ball for lengthy spells. There was only the briefest scare for the home team, coming in the closing seconds of injury time. The ball was clipped into box and Tuncay executed a spectacular bicycle kick. However, had the post not denied him, the linesman's flag would have.

Having put up a creditable display when nothing but defeat was expected, Boro now have to deal with the weight of expectation. Once the banana skin of Barrow has been negotiated, there's a derby with Ricky Sbragia's Sunderland. With the Mackems just two points away, a worthy performance will not be enough.

Man of the Match Ross Turnbull

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Sinking towards the abyss

Boro slumped to within one place of the relegation zone after a depressingly predictable Boxing Day defeat to Everton. 2008 began with a soul-crushing loss to the Toffees and, 12 months on, nothing much seems to have changed.

With an ominous trip to Old Trafford to come on Monday, all it would take is positive results for Blackburn and/or Stoke to see Boro end the year in the bottom three. It was less than two months ago when Boro won at high flying Villa to close in on the European places. After a run of seven winless games, our best hopes of continental action next season is a trip to Swansea or Cardiff.

The one-goal margin of victory flattered the home side. A team with the strikers or sense of style that Everton singularly lack would surely have run up a cricket score. The prospect of Manchester United against this team is truly terrifying.

Despite his repeated post-match insistence that 'lessons will be learned', Gareth Southgate continues to make the same mistakes. It has been some time since Andrew Taylor convinced at left-back. Once again, his lack of strength and positional sense were exposed.

The centre of midfield is a complete disaster without Didier Digard. Julio Arca's move to the centre has long since gone sour. His ponderous display was perhaps the worst of any home player yesterday (no mean feat), leading to several chances for the visitors. Gary O'Neil is a willing but limited partner.

Perhaps the biggest indictment of the manager's plans is the feckless attack. Stewart Downing looked a pale shadow of last season's top scorer, his performance making a mockery of a mooted £15m price tag. Tuncay may have been poor yesterday, but the withdrawal of the team's only maverick attacking talent ten minutes into the second half was mystifying.

Hopefully, Downing and Tuncay will stay long enough for Boro to benefit when their form does return. Adam Johnson is some way off being ready for a regular starting position. His attempt to win a penalty was shameful and rightly punished by the erratic Mike Riley, one of the few decisions he got right.

Mido charged around conceding free kicks, doing everything but his job as a target man. Afonso Alves made one good chance for himself but fell over. While Southgate does have some basis to refer to financial restraints making his job harder, it should not be forgotten that these two were both signed by him for a combined total of around £20m. Their contribution offers scant evidence that the manager should be trusted with any more money.

The price for injecting new blood into this side seems to be the unpalatable loss of one of the side's few assets. Its vital that if Southgate does remain as manager (and its highly unlikely there will be any change before the season ends), that he retains his conviction that he is the man for the job. The grim truth is that it is the current staff who will be responsible for ensuring the club's survival as a Premier League outfit.

Southgate was a player of such class that his attributes often hid the deficiencies of others. Unfortunately for him, he's now unable to rely on his players to prop up a ropey managerial record. The question anyone connected with the club must now be asking is how much worse things have to get before it gets better.

Man of the Match Ross Turnbull - retaining his form as all around him lose theirs. He'll need to be on top form at Old Trafford to keep things respectable.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Mark-ed man

Schwarz: The Bananaman years

The journey to Craven Cottage may be one of the longest trips of the entire season but Boro can be sure of a familiar face guarding the Fulham goal. Mark Schwarzer spent over 11 years on Teesside, joining from Bradford City in the midst of the mayhem of the 1996/97 season before eventually moving south during the summer.

During that time, there were some memorable moments. A sprawling save to deny Luis Cavaco was crucial in denying Stockport on Boro's run to a first major Wembley final. A stunning performance to resist Port Vale in the closing weeks of the 97/98 promotion push. A string of fine saves to redeem his horrific error in Cardiff. That penalty save at Man City to win a second crack at Europe.

Yet, despite those highlights and sticking with the club for such time, Boro's fanbase never really seemed to fully embrace the big Aussie. Despite occasional murmurs over his abilities, only the nostalgic romantics ever argued on this basis. Schwarzer is head and shoulders Boro's best post-liquidation keeper.

Some sceptics were never won over after the Schwarzer/Crossley schism of the 2001/02 season. With the Australian injured, Mark Crossley enjoyed an extended run in the team. The ex-Forest stopper put in a series of superb displays, keeping ten clean sheets in a 17 game spell. This would be an impressive record in any team, never mind one labouring in the lower half of the table.

Celebrating his finest hour - Eastlands, 15 May 2005

Convinced on the identity of his number 1, Steve McClaren immediately replaced Crossley on Schwarzer's return to fitness. Many fans were irritated by the decision, which smacked of a pig-headed refusal to acknowledge Crossley's fine form. It would be churlish to hold Schwarzer responisble for that decision but many chose to do so anyway.

More were turned off when Schwarzer handed in a transfer request in January 2007. On this occasion, McClaren did decide to omit his keeper after a series of ropey displays. Schwarzer's response did not befit such an experienced professional. Suggestions from his agent that his client fancied a move to Milan (the day before sitting on the bench at Nuneaton Borough) implied a distant relationship with reality. The spat was patched up fairly swiftly. Schwarzer made a valuable to domestic recovery and continental success in the following months. Yet the impression left was not of a man loyal to the club, but one who showed a startling lack of grace towards the fans and the club who'd paid him well for such a time.

That, however, would be an unfair appraisal who contributed much to the successes of the past decade. There may have been low points but these are surely outweighed by the positives. Both Gareth Southgate and new no. 1 Ross Turnbull have been quick to praise Schwarzer. As the manager points out, the transition has gone better than could have been expected. If Turnbull goes on to enjoy a career as fruiftul as his predecessor's, we we should all be grateful.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Patched up Boro defy Gunners

Ali counts how many goals he's scored this season

Are Boro Arsenal-lite? The Guardian's excitable north east correspondent Louise Taylor is not the first to draw parallels between Gareth Southgate's Boro and Wenger's Arsenal. There certainly some similarities - a priority for lean, young squads and disinclination for big money signings. Its typical of Boro that we chose to emulate a club at almost the precise point their capacity to win trophies disappeared.

Arsene Wenger has been uncharacteristically gracious in his assessment of Southgate - perhaps he is trying to divert attention from the novice's unbeaten record against his team, which now runs to five games. Pools aficionados must also be in the Southgate fan club - this is the fourth of that run to end in a 1-1 draw.

Despite that impressive track record, expectation amongst a fairly sparse home crowd was not high. The post-Villa optimism seems distant already - the subsequent four games yielding just two points. The combination of another foul winter's day and the loathed lunchtime kick-off dampened spirits to something less than festive.

There was also concerns over the fitness of a makeshift backline. With Wheater suspended and both regular full-backs injured, Chris Riggott and Robert Huth stepped up from the treatment table, Emmanuel Pogatetz played through the pain barrier again while Tony McMahon made his first Boro start for some time. Real Madrid target Adam Johnson made a rare start while the manager's patience finally ran out with the struggling Afonso Alves.

Operating in an unusual 4-5-1 formation, Boro made a surprisingly purposeful start as Didier Digard flashed over a succession of dangerous corners. The visitors began to make an impression, one particularly ominous move ending in Robin van Persie narrowly missing. When their opener did arrive it came in a less stylish manner, Emmanuel Adebayor left to head home Fabregas' corner with disconcerting ease. There may be convincing arguments for using zonal marking systems but Boro seem to be undermining the concept with a particularly sloppy version on a weekly basis.

This Arsenal team may retain the passing verve of their predecessors but they lack the resolve of the Petit/Vieira side of the late 90s or the 'invincibles' of 2004. Boro were back level within 12 minutes and if there was fortune in the opportunity there was undeniable quality in the execution. Clichy's ricocheted clearance only found Tuncay, whose whipped cross was met with a superb stooping header from Jeremie Aliadiere.

Having threatened to run away with it at one point, Arsenal could perhaps consider themselves fortunate to remain level at half time. Didier Digard was an increasingly efficient and competitive presence in midfield. The revised defence grew in composure. Only an appalling decision by referee Peter Walton prevented Boro having a gilt-edged chance to lead after Gael Clichy clearly tripped Adam Johnson in the area.

In the opening periods of the second half, Boro continued to look strong. Several promising counter attacks fell just short of opening the Arsenal defence. When Julio Arca did breach the backline with a beautifully weighted pass, Boro were thwarted by Manuel Almunia. Stewart Downing, leaving Bacary Sagna in his wake, thumped a powerful effort that was sneaking inside the near post before the Spaniard's intervention.

Over the closing half hour, Arsenal's dominance of possession grew. The prodigious effort from the likes of Aliadiere and Digard left the side looking increasingly jaded. Yet the defence showed remarkable concentration - despite seemingly incessant pressure, Ross Turnbull was rarely forced into anything beyond the straightforward.

The gap between Boro and the bottom three remains uncomfortably slim but this was still a worthy point against Wenger's dangerous but fragile outfit. The performances of the resurgent Chris Riggott, the returning Tony McMahon and the increasingly assured Didier Digard offered real encouragement. Its unlikely either of these sides have the quality to achieve their stated goals this season. Both teams suffer from a lack of depth, questionable resolve and infuriating inconsistency. The wait for potential to become achievement continues.

Man of the Match Didier Digard

Saturday, 13 December 2008

A Striking Problem

In two of the last three transfer windows, Gareth Southgate has made late and expensive moves for strikers. Unless Boro's difficulties up front start to clear up, we may well be stopping up late on January 31st again. Despite the odd bit of tabloid tittle tattle, its highly unlikely Tuncay will be going anywhere. But the Turk will be much more effective given license to drop off a main striker and bring the midfield into play. He may run around like a demented rooster, but the Turk should still be more artist than warrior.

The problems with Mido and Afonso Alves are very different. Mido seems a more complex character than many give him credit for. Its not hard to see why he's been labelled a mercenary. In a professional career that is not yet ten years old, he'd already played for El-Zamalek, K.A.A. Gent, Ajax, Celta Vigo, Marseille, Roma and Tottenham before signing for Boro last year. His time at Ajax was fruitful on the pitch but fraught off it, the most noticeable indiscretion being an alleged scissor-chucking incident involving team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The recent Boksic-esque run of suspiciously late injuries before games, particularly away from home, does not help in this regard.

It would be a little harsh to brand Mido in the same way. The Croatian was the classic hired hand, unmoved in defeat or victory, with scant motivation beyond self-interest. In admittedly rare moments of fitness during his Boro career, Mido has shown a surprising capacity to inspire team-mates and fans alike. Its the story of his career – at his best, he's a hard-working, technically sound and physically imposing target man. Getting 'his best' out of Mido remains an enigma.

Articulate and intelligent (for a footballer anyway), Mido still seems to be his own worst enemy. “I have made mistakes in my career with some of my moves. I didn't stay and fight for my position," he said in September. "Now I have to learn from the past and think that it is not always an option to go somewhere else when I am not in the team.” You have to wonder how many more European clubs will be prepared to give him a chance if his time at Boro ends in all too familiar frustration with a wasted talent.

If many feared such issues with Mido, its fair to say the record signing of Afonso Alves in January met with something a lot closer to universal approval. Gareth Southgate's faith in the Brazilian remains strong but the doubters are growing in number and volume. A patchy start could be explained away with talk of time needed to adapt and achieve full fitness. A superb brace against Manchester United and a last-day hat trick in the 8-1 humping of City assuaged many concerns.

Instead of flowing, the goals have dried up this term – three in total and just the one from open play. Alves cuts an increasingly fraught figure, struggling to come to terms with the physical side of Premier League defenders and bereft of confidence in the penalty area. The harder he tries, the worse things seem to get. His insistence on retaining free kick duty against Newcastle was brave but the results were embarrassing. Fans in the upper rows behind the goal cowered in a fashion not seen since Stewart Downing last limbered up to take a penalty.

The £20m spent on these two dwarfs the investment made in other areas but its hardly new for expensive strikers to turn into injury-riddled, jelly-legged flops as soon as they arrive on Teesside. We can only hope that if the chequebook has to come out, the curse of Davenport doesn't strike again.

From Fly Me To The Moon 432 (Boro v Arsenal)

Friday, 28 November 2008

Just Typcial

There are many words, most unsuitable for a family fanzine, to describe last weekend's grim capitulation to Bolton. Surprising is certainly not one of them. The “typical Boro” tag is an infuriatingly negative attitude on the one hand yet sometimes it is hard to find suitable words to explain our consistent travails against the inept and the mediocre. I’m not suggesting it would be bad idea to start playing before the last half hour of home games or to start marking opponents on set pieces. Yet maybe we need to examine our expectations first.

Middlesbrough Football Club has changed enormously in the twenty years since this fanzine began. Having made my own Ayresome debut on New Year’s Day 1991, I’ve never been entirely sure whether I should consider myself fortunate or not to have missed the tumult of the 1980s. The number of fans who went to games and never returned, victims of violence and/or dilapidated stadia, is shocking. The responses from authorities were rarely anything other than depressingly reactionary. Squeezed by hooliganism on one side and a Thatcherite government on the other, the ‘80s cannot have been an easy time to be a football fan.

On top of that, its hard to imagine the club, the area or indeed the domestic game being at a lower ebb than was reached that summer. To achieve what Bruce Rioch then did would be remarkable anywhere, but to do so under such perilous circumstances is an achievement of scarcely credible magnitude. It was perhaps inevitable that, having achieved such rapid success, a small and youthful squad would feel the pressure. A cruel last-day relegation was almost followed by another.

Rioch achieved near miracles with a club with no money, no ground and barely a squad with a belief that things had to get better. Gibson dragged the club forward in the 1990s because he recognised that investment in new players and a new ground were essential if Boro were not to be left behind by the growing commercialisation of English football. In 1986 or in 1994, the goals were clear if ambitious - promotion in the short term, stability in the top flight in the long term.

In 2008, those goals have been comfortably achieved. Premier League status has been maintained since 1998 without any major scares. Most of you reading this have seen Boro win a trophy and play in a European final. The club operates on a different level - where painful defeats in the latter stages of the FA Cup used to occur once a decade, they now seem to happen once a season. That is progress of sorts. Having come so far, what counts as success now?

Safely positioned in mid-table Premier League, you could reasonably argue Boro are now just battering their head against a glass ceiling. Looked at soberly, this is a golden era, even if it may not have felt that way last week. There may not be much more distance this club can travel upwards. Having grown accustomed to rapid progress, you don’t need to look far at the Riverside on a match day to find fans harbouring unrealistic expectations. There is a danger when a club’s image of itself becomes divorced from reality. We need only look at today’s visitors for an example of how self-defeating this approach can be.

There’s nothing wrong with ambition in itself but if it becomes unconstrained, that can be counter-productive. We shouldn’t abandon hope but we must accept the next chapter could be Boro’s hardest yet.

This article is from Fly Me To The Moon 431 - the 20th birthday spectacular

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

A painful lesson

Yes Gary, you probably should have tried to tackle him

Gareth Southgate may have an endearing humility that his predecessor never possessed but his 'lessons will be learned' mantra is wearing as thin as Steve McClaren's blinkered post-match appraisals. Boro's patchy start to the season took a severe turn for the worse on Saturday as Chelsea molested Southgate's side 5-0. A hefty chunk of the 29,221 crowd left long before the end. Those that stayed to the bitter end can only have done so through a combination of morbid fascination and paralysing rage.

No mistake should be made about how dismal a display this was. Its hard to recall a more feckless, feeble performance in nigh on 18 years watching Boro. Southgate's selection and tactics were abysmal but the eleven chosen implemented his misguided plans with a staggering lack of poise and commitment.

Much was made before the match of Chelsea's list of absentees, but their reserves were still head and shoulders above anyone in a red shirt. More telling was how Southgate moulded a side missing Huth, Pogatetz and Tuncay. Scolari's team ruthlessly exploited Boro's makeshift defence. Jonathan Grounds, an inexperienced centre-half cum left-back, was on a hiding to nothing at right back. If it was unfair to ask Grounds to perform an unfamilair role against such skilled opponents, there could be no such excuse for Andrew Taylor on the opposite flank. Taylor simply appeared hopelessly out of his depth while David Wheater looked jaded by every single one of the pointless air miles incurred by his midweek sortie to Minsk.

Things looked little better further forward. The centre of midfield has been a concern all season and was simply abject. Gary O'Neil's distribution was desperate to the point of embarrassment, Didier Digard fared little better while Mohammed Shawky's influence was neglible. Julio Arca was rightly derided for his form last season but will surely get another chance if he can regain fitness. The status quo cannot just remain until the January transfer window.

On the flanks, Adam Johnson left Boro's struggling full-backs exposed while playing on either flanks. Stewart Downing seems a million miles from the star man of last season. The decision to burden him with the captaincy and deploy him in a multitude of positions in the same 90 minutes is perplexing. Downing's great strength is his ability to provide telling crosses and goals from a wide position. Southgate deserves credit for the way he has cajoled greater consistency from Downing since becoming manager. Unfortunately, his current plans seem to be having no impact on Downing's shattered confidence.

Nor has the early season theme of expansive, attacking football translated into a flurry of goals. Boro have scored seven times in eight league games, and only three times in five matches since the end of August. Mido's early season form has evaporated as the Egyptian has dropped ever deeper to prop up a failing midfield. Afonso Alves should be ashamed that he was justifiably considered not good enough to start in a team that played so poorly.

Chelsea are always difficult opponents, particularly given the attacking vibrancy Scolari has added to the side. Yet there can be no excuse for the total failure to give ourselves the best chance possible. Deploying so many players outside of their natural position would be risky with experienced professionals. To do so with such a callow, creaking squad was inviting disaster.

The manager has his work cut out to revive spirits before Saturday evening's trip to Blackburn Rovers. Emmanuel Pogatetz should return to bolster a flagging defence. Tuncay's return is looking unlikely and even so, an unreasonable level of expectation is being laid on the Turk's return. He won't be able to fix a leaky defence or a porous midfield. Several players need to show Southgate's faith in them is justified. Sadly, the pre-season concerns about the midfield and the lack of experience or sheer numbers in the squad are coming home to roost.

The manager's judgement and reputation are on the line now. His pre-season planning met with far from unanimous agreement. Those who silenced their doubts after a bright August have no reason for such reserve now. With seven games between now and the end of November, the next six weeks will have a crucial bearing on whether there will be another winter of discontent as we peer nervously over our shoulders. Southgate's credibility is barely over the bruising of last season's shameful defeat to Cardiff. Many more debacles like Saturday, and the damage could be terminal.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Boro squeeze past Stoke

"Oh s-hoyte..."

It might not have been pretty but Boro confirmed their best start in nine seasons by beating Stoke City on Saturday. Tuncay Sanli ensured that this week it was Gareth Southgate's side who stole all the points in the closing minutes.

Tony Pulis' Potters were a different proposition to Liverpool or Spurs. Boro had looked dangerous in their opening games against teams who were prepared to pass the ball and occasionally commit men forward.

Stoke's style was somewhat different. Rory Delap must be the first footballer selected as a specialist throw-in taker. While his mammoth throws did cause the odd moment of uncertainty, Delap's clumsy, leaden footwork was embarrassing. Fuller and Kitson provided a muscular if uncomplicated threat up front while Liam Lawrence was busy in midfield. For the opening half hour, the visitors looked fairly comfortable as Boro struggled to assert their technical superiority.

The game changed after Amdy Faye's two footed lunge on Mohammed Shawky. Faye received a thoroughly deserved red card and Afonso Alves arced the resulting free kick into the top corner. Stoke keeper Thomas Sorenson was reduced to joining the bulk of the 27,627 crowd in slack-jawed appreciation.

Jeremie Aliadiere was bright down the right flank again, crossing for Tuncay to screw a simple finish over the bar. Further frustration came after Griffin tripped Alves in the penalty area. Stewart Downing, scorer of 2 penalties last season, could only smash the ball against the crossbar.

Hardened Boro cynics began to fear the worst. Sure enough, Stoke equalised on a rare excursion into enemy territory. Liam Lawrence curved an inviting cross to the far post beyond the grasp of Ross Turnbull. With Kitson playing close attention, Justin Hoyte deflected the ball into the gaping net for Boro's third own goal in three league games.

Frustration grew on and off the pitch. A clearly irked Mido finally made it onto the pitch with thirteen minutes left as Afonso Alves was surprisingly withdrawn. A reprieve came after another mishit Didier Digard shot. Just as against Spurs, the Frenchman inadvertantly found a red shirt in the area. This time, it was Tuncay who had the space to take the ball down and poke past Sorenson. Stoke looked in vain for a flag - replays showed the Turk was definitely onside.

Boro held on to secure an important if unconvincing win. Despite looking prone to the old insecurities, they showed enough resolve to see off Stoke's resolute challenge. To some extent, some sympathy is due to Stoke who put in a prodiguous effort for no reward. Yet, their tactics limit any such niceties. Their direct style and throw-in fetish is acceptable is unappealing. However, the number of late challenges, often when the ball was no longer in play, was indefensible. Its hard to imagine them lasting more than a year in the top flight. Few will miss them.

Player Ratings

Turnbull 6
Little to do
Hoyte 5 Nervy
Pogatetz 6 Doesn't look entirely comfortable at full back
Wheater 7 Strong in the middle and at right back
Huth 7 Stood up well to Stoke's physical approach
Aliadiere 8 Very bright - constant threat
Downing 7 Awful penalty seemed to hit his confidence a little
Shawky 6 Ineffective before the break. Improved but struggling to resist Digard's challenge
O'Neil 6 Struggled to impose himself
Tuncay 7 Tireless running and composed finish at the death
Alves 8 Beautiful free kick was the high point of a classy display.


Digard (for Shawky) 7
Much more assertive presence in the middle
Taylor (for Hoyte)
Mido (for Alves)

Friday, 29 August 2008

Boro Must Harry Potters

Be afraid

In the increasingly homogenised Premier League, its not very often we get to welcome a new team from outside the cabal of perennial yo-yo clubs. Yet you have to cast your mind back to August 1997 for Stoke City’s last visit to the Riverside.

Boro had an underwhelming victory over Charlton under their belts before that depressing afternoon. Paul Merson was still making a very sluggish start to his brief Riverside career. Fabrizio Ravanelli marked his final appearance in a Boro shirt with a display of breathtaking lethargy that went unmatched until Yakubu’s leisurely stroll around the JJB twelve months ago.

There had been difficult moments during the relegation season when goals were hard to come by for Rav, chiefly away games and when it was a bit wet. However, he’d still retained enough motivation to deliver the occasional stream of vitriol at passing linesmen or Mikkel Beck. Even Wendy’s belated appearance couldn’t goad Rav into life.

It was the kind of flaccid, bloated display that crept up with alarming regularity through the Robson era. We were horrifyingly, gruesomely bad. Inevitably, with half an hour to go, Paul Stewart scored the only goal. He managed a further two goals that season. In the six years that had passed since leaving Spurs, Stewart’s goal count had barely crept into double figures. His incompetence had stood out in a Liverpool squad containing such luminaries as Torben Piechnik and Istvan Korma. Even Sunderland had washed their hands of him.

It was a fairly unremarkable game but it had a profound influence on me. I’d seen dross before - one of my earliest games was John Gannon’s infamous corner-taking master class against Tranmere. I’d seen ludicrous defeats to cloggers before - it was barely a year since Bolton had scored their only away win of a dismal relegation season with a preposterous 4-1 win at the Riverside. Yet, through a mix of youthful naivety and a blind refusal to accept facts, I’d been able to write them off as isolated incidents.

But this time, as that greying doyen of mediocrity tucked the ball past Ben Roberts, I wasn’t surprised. I half expected it - this was ‘typical Boro’. I’d turned into a miserable old gadgie at the age of 13.

Since then, the ‘inner gadgie’ has never left. I approach games such as today’s with blind panic. Over the years, the list of unexpected nemeses has grown - for every Paul Stewart, there’s another Trevor Benjamin, Gavin McCann or Luke Moore. I really don’t like the look of Richard Cresswell, although that may be to do with more than just the football. I’m also disproportionately concerned by Rory Delap. Sure, we can keep Fernando Torres quiet, but what about a gap-tooted simpleton launching endless throw-ins in the vague direction of goal?

The optimism generated over a bright start to the season only heightens the distance from which we can fall flat on our faces. The battering of Yeovil on Tuesday was a good start - it does suggest some progress when you recall the Notts County fiasco in Southgate’s first season in charge. I’d love to be able to leave my irrational fear of the inept and mediocre behind. After all, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t win comfortably today. Is there?

This article will appear in FMTTM 425.

You can read more of my drivel at http://b17mb.com/articles/2008/08/28/a-striking-problem/.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Anfield of broken dreams

"Nice goal Mido. Now, nothing daft for the last 20 minutes lads..."

Well that was a sickener. Boro still haven't won at Anfield since 1976. Its hard to believe we've come much closer to breaking that depressing record in the last 32 years.

Still, there is still much to be optimistic about. For 85 minutes, Boro did a perfect job. Solid at the back, industrious in midfield and sharp up front, the team looked comfortable. Fernando Torres was marshalled far more effectively than in either encounter last season while Steven Gerrard was anonymous for large periods. Liverpool's widemen needn't have bothered turning up such was the scant attention paid to them by their team mates.

Once Ross Turnbull, a late replacement for finger-knack victim Brad Jones, had made a comfortable early save from Kuyt, Boro grew more assured. Andrew Taylor almost broke the deadlock with a stinging half volley athletically diverted over the bar by Jose Reina. Gary O'Neil's ceaseless running in the centre was crucial in disrupting Liverpool's flow. Even when Torres managed to squirm away from Huth, David Wheater was on hand to make an excellent intervention.

Having got to half time with the deadlock unbroken, Boro grew in confidence after the break. Mido's introduction in place of Afonso Alves prompted a period of ascendancy. One left wing cross from the Egyptian found Tuncay, back to goal and fifteen yards out. The Turk beat Jamie Carragher with an outrageous turn but unfortunately his finish was not off the same stellar quality.

That was not a problem for Mido twenty minutes from time. With the home defence retreating to the 18 yard box, the substitute launched an exocet of a shot past a helpless Reina from a good 25 yards. That lead could have been doubled had Jeremie Aliadiere shown more composure after rounding the onrushing goalkeeper.

Boro still looked in total control before Jamie Carragher took a potshot six minutes from time. The ball careered of Emanuel Pogatetz past a hapless Turnbull for a thoroughly undeserved equaliser. Worse was to follow in the dying embers of injury time. Wheater failed to gain purchase on his clearing header and the ball ricocheted into Gerrard's path. With depressing predictability, Gerrard lashed the ball unerringly into the top corner.

It was a fine performance despite the result. If Gareth Southgate can keep the bulk of this team fit and confident, it could be a memorable season. Two home games in five days against Yeovil Town and Stoke City are a big test. If these less glamorous opponents are despatched efficiently, then maybe we can all start to believe we've taken a step forward.

Player Ratings

Turnbull 8
No chance with goals - dealt with everything else with composure and authority.
Wheater 7 Solid again
Taylor 7 Tenacious display and almost scored a stunner
Pogatetz 7 Committed
Huth 6 Dominant in the air but cumbersome at times
Aliadiere 7 Prodigious running but lacked composure in the final third
Downing 7 Wasteful at times in good positions
O'Neil 8 Ceaseless running was crucial
Shawky 6 Solid without exerting much influence
Tuncay 7 Excellent workrate and some sparkling touches
Alves 6 Peripheral

Sub - Mido 8 Superb goal. Changed the game again.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Mido's touch downs Spurs

The Wheat goes on

For the first time in seven years, Boro have made a winning start to the Premier League season. Pre-season optimism will last into a second week after a 2-1 win over Tottenham. David Wheater and Mido scored the goals to earn a deserved three points.

Boro had the best of an opening half against a Spurs team who failed to convert their impressive ball retention with any serious goalscoring threat. It was a combination of profligacy and refereeing ineptitude which kept the scoresheet blank at half time. Afonso Alves should have opened the scoring after Tuncay broke clear but the recovering Benoit Assou-Ekotto managed to make a decisive block.

Referee Martin Atkinson then came to Tottenham's rescue. Wheater evaded the attention of Michael Dawson to head past Heurelho Gomes but Atkinson inexplicably ruled the goal out. Replays clearly showed the only possible infringement had been committed by the visiting centre-half.

The threat to a new-look back line increased when Spurs belatedly introduced the mercurial Dimitar Berbatov to a mixed response from the 3,800 visiting fans. It was Berbatov's touch which sent Jermaine Jenas through on goal but the much-maligned Brad Jones responded with a fine stop.

Belief had begun to drain but Jones' intervention reinvigorated Boro's spirits. The breakthrough came with twenty minutes to play. Downing's corner was only partially cleared but the winger's second effort caused more problems. Afonso Alves' near post shot was superbly turned onto the bar by Gomes only for the ball to rebound to Wheater. The makeshift right-back, positioned a yard from an unguarded net, could not miss.

The lead was doubled four minutes from time as Boro's two substitutes combined. The impressive Didier Digard screwed a shot across the face of goal and ex-Spurs man Mido turned the ball home. A buoyant home crowd took the opportunity to ask Jonathan Woodgate to confirm the scoreline.

A tiring Jeremie Aliadiere wasted a chance to make it 3-0 before Robert Huth's glanced own goal gave Spurs a consolation in the dying embers of stoppage time.

It was an uplifting start to the season, an exciting, high-quality game in front of a healthy crowd. Whether that optimism can survive a trip to Anfield remains to be seen but, for now, there seems much to loom forward to.

Match Ratings

Jones 7
Only flapped once and made a crucial save from Jenas
Wheater 8 Fine effort in an unusual full-back role and a huge threat from set pieces
Taylor 6 Competent without being totally convincing
Huth 7 Own goal was an insignificant blot on a solid display
Pogatetz 7 Commanding
Aliadiere 7 Lively presence down the right
Downing 8 Dangerous as ever. Quality service.
O'Neil 7 Energetic if a little wasteful on the ball
Shawky 7 Solid
Tuncay 8 Never gave the visiting defence a moment's rest
Alves 8 Showed his class and a deft change of pace

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Gareth Luke-s elsewhere for right-back

Luke Young makes a break for it

Boro today accepted an offer from Aston Villa for right-back Luke Young. While the amount hasn't been disclosed, Gareth Southgate described it as too good to turn down. "Sometimes an offer can be one that makes it very difficult to turn down," he said.

Given that the offer is reported to be somewhere in the region of £5-6m, the financial logic of the decision is clear. Young cost £2.5m from Charlton only 12 months ago, and at 29 with two years remaining on his contract, its unlikely such an offer would be forthcoming in the future. It is also possible that the occasional rumours about the full-back being unsettled on Teesside may have had a factor.

Nonetheless, it is still a surprising and disappointing move. Boro's callow squad is about to lose one of its most consistent and experienced members. With huge doubts over goalkeepers and central midfield already, Southgate now has to deal with another problem position just nine days before the opening game of the season. The manager worked very hard to convince Stewart Downing and David Wheater of the club's ambitions during last year's contract negotiations. How Boro's better and more ambitious players will view the sale of one of last season's most impressive performers is worth considering.

Southgate has promised to move quickly to sign a replacement, although the early rumours about the execrable Justin Hoyte are deeply concerning. Its likely a chunk of Villa's cash will be invested in filling the gaping hole in the centre of the field, meaning Young's replacement may well come on the cheap. For all the improvements made to the squad's attacking talent, Southgate seems to be almost wilfully weakening his back line by allowing Young to leave and failing to replace Mark Schwarzer.

The wisdom (or not) of Southgate's decisions will only become apparent in a few months' time. In the meantime, he's testing the faith of the fans. We have to hope he's right - if his gamble goes wrong, it could be a sobering autumn.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Prediction time

Gareth can't believe I said Derby would stay up

The barren summer months are coming to end - another thrilling season of two-thirds down the table mediocrity is almost upon us. I made some predictions this time last year that were somewhat patchy - my faith in Derby County was utterly preposterous. However, its nice to see the circus up the road did not disappoint.

Undeterred, I'm bravely taking a stab at how the next ten months will unfold in the crazy, roller-coaster world of the Premier League:

1 Chelsea (2nd last season) After an underwhelming interlude from Avram Grant, Chelsea have opted for another outspoken presence in the dugout. Scolari's squad has unparalleled depth. If Carvalho stays fit to marshal the defence and Bosingwa performs consistently enough to keep Essien in midfield, it could be a long time until we see John Terry blubbing for our amusement again.

2 Manchester United (1) Its hard to see the double winners dropping far of the pace despite a summer dogged by the most tedious transfer saga since, er, last year. Nevertheless, they only just edged out Chelsea last year despite the autumnal shambles at Stamford Bridge. It'll be considerably harder this time round.

3 Liverpool (4) Rafa Benitez has never put together a convincing title challenge at Anfield and thats unlikely to change this year despite investing a slightly perplexing £20m in Robbie Keane. The midfield lacks the creativity and width of the very best teams meaning they often drop points against sturdy but limited opposition. Their challenge will be in tatters by the time the leaves change colour, just like last year and the year before...

4 Arsenal (3) It could be a trying year for Arsene Wenger, a man who seems to have grown into the belief that winning trophies is a bit too vulgar for his tastes. The midfield looks barren although Flamini will be a more significant absence than Hleb - Arsenal should be able find another amusement arcade to deposit out wide and shoot twice a season easily enough. There's enough talent to do much better than 4th in this team, as was shown for much of last year, but the suspicion that they lack the necessary mental fortitude remains.

5 Portsmouth (9) Droopy has splurged a healthy chunk of last season's FA Cup bounty on Peter Crouch, who he correctly acknowledges as a triffic, triffic player. How much progress Pompey make rests on how Crouchy links up with Defoe-y. James and Campbell provide a very solid base and Krancjar and Diarra add a sprinkling of class to midfield.

6 Aston Villa (6) Poor old Martin O'Neill has not had much of a summer. His holiday in the Alps was spent next to Alan Shearer, who spent a solid month spouting inanities, his modesty barely concealed by gonad-hugging shiny trousers. He then returns home to the ball-aching tedium of the Gareth Barry saga. It seems safe to assume that Barry will finally leave although Steve Sidwell should form a respectable midfield partnership with Nigel Reo-Coker. Villa could still have a job on moving up the table as O'Neill had little spare time to strengthen the weaker areas of his squad. Despite a total dearth of full-backs, he's only just got round to giving Luke Young the gladeye.

7 Tottenham (11)
It wouldn't be this time of the year without talk of revolution at White Hart Lane. Juande Ramos has replaced several members of last year's entertainingly madcap outfit. Several fringe players have been offloaded, largely to Sunderland. There is the potential to push back towards the fifth place Spurs claimed in 2005 and 2006. However, with Keane gone, Berbatov's future uncertain and a defence reliant on the fitness of King and Woodgate, there is also plenty of scope for problems.

8 Manchester City (9) After a very peculiar 2007/08, its hard to judge how Mark Hughes will fare in his first campaign in the employment of the Premier League's most popular deposed dictator. He's spent a healthy chunk of Thaksin's legitimately acquired cash on the Brazilian striker Jo. If he and the returning Valeri Bojinov can provide a more potent goal threat than Vassell and Mpenza then City could improve on last year. Drawing some consistency out of Elano and retaining the services of Vedran Corluka would help too.

9 Everton (5) Its been a turbulent summer at Goodison. David Moyes has held off signing his new contract in an attempt to prize more funds out of the board without success. The Toffees have lost a chief executive and almost all their central midfielders without any significant recruitment. With Andy Johnson almost out of the door, the pressure on Yakubu to deliver will increase. That all too familiar transfer request could be winging its way on Moyes' desk sooner than he thought.

10 West Ham (10) The Hammers were calcified in tenth place from sometime around October last year and its unlikely they'll move very far. There's been no significant alterations to the playing staff. Despite the rumours of belt-tightening, Alan Curbishley won't be deviating far from his trademark mid-table finish.

11 Newcastle (12) Whether it was Joey Barton's imprisonment, Sam Allardyce's managerial reign, an 11-1 aggregate thumping from Man U or just Alan Smith, Newcastle never seem far from humiliating themselves. Its hard to believe it'll take too long this year. Surely an emotional Keegan resignation is on the cards sooner rather than later?

12 Boro (13) Better than last year - but not much.

13 Sunderland (15)
Roy Keane's expensively assumbled collection of Irishmen and Spurs reserves should avoid the bottom three comfortably enough. Still, its hard to identify where the class or creativity to break out of the confines of lower mid-table is going to come from.

14 Blackburn (7)
It doesn't look too promising for Rovers. Paul Ince did a sterling job for the evil overlords of Milton Keynes but he hasn't made the most convincing start - Robbie Fowler on a free is unlikely to reverse the damage caused by the loss of a manager and arguably the team's two best players in Friedel and Bentley. Roque Santa Cruz needs to maintain last season's form, particularly if Benni McCarthy does likewise.

15 Fulham (17) After last season's freakish escape, Roy Hodgson has gone for quantity more than quality in his attempt to stave off "wewegation". Jimmy Bullard revitalised the Cottagers in the closing weeks while we know well enough that Schwarzer is a safe pair of hands for a mid-table team. Its hard to see Hodgson's side escaping too far from the bottom three.

16 Wigan (14) Steve Bruce has a mixed reputation as a boss after an inconsistent time at Birmingham and a history of dugout sluttiness. He did, however, galvanise a side tanking horribly under Chris Hutchings and fully deserves a spotter's badge for the acquisition of Wilson Palacios. Wigan should be OK but their summer signings and Emile Heskey's fitness record mean its unlikely they'll break out of the division's bottom quarter.

17 West Brom (P) Tony Mowbray has made an impressive start to his managerial career, creating fluent attacking sides at Hibs and West Brom. Although doubts persist about the defence, the Baggies should have enough firepower to give themselves a chance of survival.

18 Hull (P) Hull's rise through the divisions has been rapid. However, its hard to be optimistic about their chances of making their stay in the top flight permanent. George Boateng showed last year that he remains fiercely committed even if his powers are undeniably on the wane. In Myhill and Turner, Hull do have players who could step up another level. However, they haven't replaced Frazer Campbell and its unlikely they'll be able to score enough goals.

19 Bolton (16) Gary Megson has never been the most convincing manager and his decision to spend much of the Anelka bounty on Johan Elmander is curious to say the least. Another long hard season is in store.

20 Stoke (P) The new Derby. Nowhere near good enough.

FA Cup
Manchester United
Carling Cup Chelsea

Friday, 21 March 2008

Delving Into The Annals: Boro 6 Derby 1

The Class of '97

Derby may be staring demotion from the Premier League down the barrel but it was Boro who were teetering on the brink of catastrophe when the Rams made their first trip to the Riverside. A dismal 3-1 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday four days earlier had left Boro rooted to the bottom of the table. In contrast, newly promoted Derby were safe in midtable. There was still a mental advantage to fight for, with Boro travelling to the Baseball Ground for the FA Cup quarter-final three days after the league encounter.

It wasn't long before the Derby defence began to creak but they were given an astonishing reprieve when Fabrizio Ravanelli contrived to steer the ball wide when presented with an open goal ten yards out by Mikkel Beck. Its suprising Wendy didn't take the rare opportunity to give Rav a fully merited bollocking.

Still, the White Feather's blushes were spared soon after by the calamitous Derby keeper Russell Hoult. Vladimir Kinder cut in from the left flank and hit a speculative shot, which bounced three times and stopped to wipe its feet on the way to the bottom. Hoult gave the ball the kind of cursory glance passers-by might use on encountering a drunken tramp.

Derby might have equalised early in the second half when Mark Schwarzer made a smart stop at the feet of Dean Sturridge. Given how quickly his career evaporated afterwards, its perverse to think Sturridge was once viewed as one of England's most promising strikers, linked with a move to Arsenal. Although I suppose it should be remembered the era of Chris Kiwomya and Glenn Helder was barely over at this point.

Hoult soon settled any Boro nerves. Wandering idly in the penalty area, he remained oblivous to the incoming Ravanelli until it was too late, able only to dive over Rav's shot. When Craig Hignett evaded the Derby defence by cunningly standing still fifteen yards from goal with twenty minutes left, the finish was cool and the floodgates open.

Ravanelli returned the earlier favour by presenting Beck with a chance he couldn't miss - he didn't. Juninho was now taunting Derby's threadbare defence, teasing them with the ball before spiriting it away to a team-mate. A dismal attempt at an offside trap allowed Ravanelli a second. A third goal in four minutes followed, Rav suspiciously offside as he collected Juninho's pass and poked past the hapless Hoult.

There was still time for Derby sub Paul Simpson to curl an exquisite free kick past Schwarzer in injury time. It was no consolation for Jim Smith. Always dangerous at 1-0, they folded in the face of a rampant Boro. Juninho and Ravanelli were truly in their pomp. Even with Hoult ditched, the pair still managed memorable goals as Boro won 2-0 in the ensuing cup tie. For a few weeks, confidence growing after this emphatic win, the great escape seemed on. Progress in the cups was incessant. What could possibly go wrong now?

Boro: Schwarzer, Fleming, Kinder (Cox), Festa, Pearson (Blackmore), Mustoe, Emerson (Stamp), Hignett, Juninho, Ravanelli, Beck. Subs not used: Moore, Roberts.

Goals: Kinder 24, Ravanelli 54, 82, 85, Hignett 70, Beck 81.

Derby: Hoult, Rowett, Powell, Stimac, Laursen (McGrath), Dailly, Carsley (Simpson), van der Laan, Asanovic (Willems), Ward, Sturridge. Subs not used: Flynn, Taylor.

Goal: Simpson 90.

A vague sense of doom

I've started writing here. Enjoy...

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Crime & Punishment

According to the FA, this...

...is not as bad as this man's girly slap

In an uncharacteristic deviation from sensible judgement, the FA today extended Jeremie Aliadiere's suspension to four games, ruling Boro's appeal as "frivolous". Therefore, Aliadiere is now receiving a more stringent sanction for his ludicrous mitted slap than Martin Taylor has for his amateurish attempt to amputate Eduardo's ankle. The Frenchman's ban starts tomorrow night against Sheffield United.

There are doubts over the Boro defence for the crucial FA Cup replay with Robert Huth still doubtful and David Wheater suspended. Jon Grounds and Seb Hines are likely to plug the gaps. Elsewhere, there could be a belated chance for Afonso Alves to make his full debut after a couple of bemused substitute appearances.

There was at least the welcome news that Stewart Downing's new five year contract has finally been signed. Inexplicably maligned by many, including at times a disturbingly vocal minority of his own club's fans, its not any coincidence that again Boro's best form has been inspired by an on-song Downing. Lets hope he's left to prosper at the Riverside for some time yet.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Fernando gives Boro Torr-id time

Its Torres again - bugger

An afternoon of promise at Anfield ended in defeat yesterday. Abject defensive errors allowed Liverpool to steal all three points in a game where Boro had looked comfortable leaders. However, at the risk of sounding like Paul Collingwood in the aftermath of another England pounding, there were plenty of positives to be taken from the game.

As Gareth Southgate himself states, the real disappointment at not taking at least a point is a measure of the progress made in recent months. The team posed a real threat against a nominal member of the self-styled 'Big 4'.

Liverpool's patchwork defence was quickly exposed. A pitiful offside trap failed, leaving the returning Tuncay Sanli at the head of a queue of Boro players to nod past Reina. Thereafter, Boro seemed in total control, composed at the back and busy in midfield. The home side were growing frustrated, their passing wayward. Steven Gerrard displayed an uncanny knack of picking out the bloke in row five with his endless Hollywood balls.

Boro's serenity was broken by a horrible error by the increasingly erratic Julio Arca. A ludicrous attempt to head the ball back to Schwarzer sent Fernando Torres clean through and the Spaniard's composed finish was inevitable. Much the same as it was when he was left a free shot twenty-five yards out. Advantage to deficit in one torrid minute.

A composed start to the second half was undone by another calamitous error. Wheater dithered over a long ball while Schwarzer inexplicably raced from his goal. Torres rolled the ball into a forlorn, gaping goalmouth to comeplete his hat trick. Having performed strongly for much of the opening hour, Boro trailed 3-1 and were in danger of a dicking.

The response was pleasingly resolute. Boro stuck at their task and Arca played a magnificent pass to cut open the correct defence this time. Stewart Downing capped another strong display with a well-taken goal. Any chance of an equaliser was undermined by Jeremie Aliadiere's foolish dismissal. While the contact was minimal and no worse than Mascherano's provocation, Aliadiere gave the referee a decision to make, and at Anfield, they tend to go one way.

Player Ratings

1 Schwarzer 6
Solid enough save for howler for Torres' third.
2 Young 6 Dealt with lively Babel well for the most part.
40 Grounds 8* Another solid display. Promising.
31 Wheater 6 Could have closed down Torres for second goal.
6 Pogatetz 7 Can't be faulted for Liverpool goals.
4 O'Neil 6 Struggled to make an impact.
19 Downing 7 Once again, Boro's most potent attacking threat.
10 Rochemback 6 Tidy rather than influential.
3 Arca 6 Excellent pass for Downing's goal but too many errors.
17 Tuncay 7 Very bright first half. Faded.
11 Aliadiere 6 Hard running but struggled to make an impact. Stupid red card.

Its Sheffield United in the crucial FA Cup replay next. Another obstacle cleared on the path to Wembley and the disappointment of Anfield will be forgotten. Wheater and Aliadiere will be suspended but with Robert Huth returning and Mido and Afonso Alves waiting in the wings, Boro should be able to absorb those losses.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Blades drawn for Robbo

Robbo in happier times (looking surprisingly like Gareth Barry too)

Its FA Cup time again this weekend. Nearly 6,000 Boro fans will be making the short trip to Bramall Lane on Sunday, hopefully bereft of balloons. With at least 3 lower league teams guaranteed to be in the draw for the quarter-finals, dreams of a first trip to Wembley are growing.

It seems like aeons since our last trip to Sheffield United, in the bleak early weeks of Gareth Southgate's tenure. It was just 18 months ago but so many players in key roles have already been consigned to Boro history - Woodgate, Yakubu, Viduka, even Gaizka Mendieta managed 10 minutes in that game.

Your trusty correspondent was suffering very painful six-a-side related knee knack at the time so even Yakubu's equaliser was not so much a moment of joy as a desperate struggle to remain upright. Phil Jagielka sealed the Blades' first Premier League win with a thumping injury time strike and a long winter seemed ahead. Since then, things have got a lot better before getting worse then better again.

Poor old Bryan Robson. Things just seem to keep getting worse for him. The much maligned former Boro boss has been dismissed, a sop to the mutinous Bramall Lane crowd. If the abuse Robson receives for his work at Boro and, to a lesser extent, West Brom is a little harsh, its hard to dispute Blades fans' grievances over a dismal season. Promotion was expected but United languish 16th in the Championship. In their last home game, bottom-of-the-table Scunthorpe played all but the opening ten minutes a man down but still emerged with a point from a goalless draw.

This all makes it hard to judge how the mood will be on Sunday. Its hard to know if the brooding discontent of the home fans will be erased by removing Robson or to judge how well ex-assistant and former Leeds boss Kevin Blackwell will be received. This all suggests that scoring the opening goal could be the killer blow, puncturing fragile self-belief.

This could be easier said than done, with more pressure on the increasingly impressive Jeremie Aliadiere. Tuncay Sanli is still a week or two from fitness while Mido is a month and several pounds from such a state. It seems like Afonso Alves' introduction to the English game will continue to be gradual. That leaves Lee Dong Gook. Bugger.

Still, with solid away form intact and no defeat since New Year's Day, Boro should have the confidence and ability to pass this test.

Prediction: Sheff Utd 0 Boro 1

It seems the Boro taste for ludicrous Uefa Cup performances lives on in northern Scotland. On-loan midfielder Josh Walker scored against Bayern Munich, and Aberdeen held on for 2-2 having led twice!

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Boro win; Alves signs

Its been a tense but productive week at the Riverside. Wigan were eventually dispatched on Tuesday night in a crucial relegation head-to-head before Boro completed the record signing of Brazilian international striker Afonso Alves for a reported £12m.

The Alves saga has dominated the transfer window and rumbled on until 11:30 on Thursday night. The bleating of AZ president Dirk Scheringa suggests there may still be more to come, although it seems unlikely anything will result from the Dutchman's posturing. While there is an undoubted gamble in investing an eight figure sum for the first time in a player with no Premier League experience, hopes are high that Alves can provide the cutting edge the team have been missing. With a goal scoring record in the Eredivisie that beats Ronaldo, Romario and van Nistelrooy, Alves has the potential. Its clearly enough to convince Gareth Southgate to stake his managerial reputation on Alves delivering.

Alves was at the Riverside on Tuesday and must have been pleased at the creativity his new team mates showed. For the opening half hour, Wigan were repeatedly carved open. Tuncay Sanli's deft turns and twisting runs were as thrilling as his finishing was awful. Doubtless spurred on by Fabio Capello's presence, Stewart Downing tormented Wigan down the left. It was Downing's flighted ball over the top that allowed Jeremie Aliadiere to notch a belated first goal at the Riverside, emphatically beating Kirkland with a firm left footed shot.

Once again, Boro suffered from not taking their chances while on top. Wigan should have been out of sight by half time but clung on to make it a nervy second half. Boro were indebted to Mark Schwarzer for a terrific save from Emile Heskey's header that sealed three points.

Its a trip to Newcastle tomorrow, up the world's largest staircase for the worst view and most fascist stewards in the Premier League. No doubt they'll be turning a deaf ear to the inevitably droll paedophilia jibes from the home crowd. If Mido plays, expect more political commentary, the Toon Army having been outraged by the way the Egyptian took their racist abuse with good humour at the Riverside. With Alves without his visa and Tuncay's hamstring thoroughly twanged, it seems likely Mido will have a role to play.

The Keegan 'revolution' seems to coming off the rails already, with the farcical recruitment of Dennis Wise and no goals scored in three games under the liberating, attacking influence of the (latest) Geordie messiah. With Boro's impressive recent away form, this could be the year to do something about our depressingly poor record at St. James' Park.

Prediction: Newcastle 1 Boro 1

Monday, 28 January 2008

Stag Party

Its been a very busy few days with progress in the FA Cup, more rumour-mongering and a crucial relegation clash on the horizon. How the club negotiates the rest of this week will have a huge bearing on the remainder of the season.

1. Up for the Cup

One concrete development over the last few days was Boro's progress to the last 16 of the FA Cup. Mansfield may be in deep trouble at the foot of League 2 but the passage to the fifth round was far from easy. Gareth Southgate decided to ring the changes and few of the players who came in excelled.

In a truly staggering development, Dong Gook Lee opened the scoring, rifling in from close range after Adam Johnson's corner. Sadly, the Korean reverted to type afterwards, his existence barely registering. He also managed a trademark miss with an open goal after clever play from Aliadiere on the right flank. The Frenchman's performance was full of intelligent running that was undermined by the failure of his colleagues to provide adequate support.

The midfield stand-ins failed to make a case for the removal of O'Neil or Downing. Cattermole's display was charcterised by typical ill-discipline while Adam Johnson's twisting runs were too often curtailed before a telling contribution could be made.

Despite a couple of scares, victory was rarely in doubt although it was not until the dying moments before a second goal sealed the game. Buxton's own goal came after one of the few moves of Premier League quality Boro managed.

Its the short trip to Bramall Lane for round five and a clash with Bryan Robson. We must be wary - 'Balloongate' suggests he's developed much more tactical ingenuity since his Boro days.

2. Woodgate to Spurs

It seems the tide has turned with Woodgate's relations with the Boro fans. With rumours circulating of Newcastle's interest on Saturday, a significant minority of Boro's travelling fans at Field Mill were vocal in their condemnation. Despite Keegan's intervention and a rumoured bid from Arsenal (denied by Arsene Wenger), it seems Woodgate is heading to Spurs.

Few Boro fans believe the decision to allow Woodgate to leave has been made on a football or financial basis. Whether we'll ever know how much truth is in the murmurings of Woodgate's off-field conduct is doubtful. Southgate's pointed comments about Woodgate having to decide 'whether he wants to be part of what we're doing' confirm suspicions Woodgate's attitude is the problem. Its a brave decision but only time will show whether its the correct move.

3. Downing's Mr. 10%

Football agents generally enjoy the kind of public respect and affection afforded to paedophiles and murderers. And with good reason. Odious Geordie parasite Ian Elliott has again been mouthing off about Stewart Downing. Today, Elliott launched another self-serving rant in his continued feud with Boro's management. It seems the refusal to sanction Downing's departure, denying Elliott a major payday, has riled the Geordie leech into claiming Downing will not sign a new contract at the Riverside.

Despite Elliott's shameless hawking of his client this month, there's been no interest beyond Spurs' muted approach. The fact remains Downing is rated much higher on Teesside than elsewhere, so his immediate future is unlikely to be anywhere else. Whether Elliott will be so welcome at the club is doubtful. Steve McClaren's agent may be able to tell him how Steve Gibson prefers to deal with truculent agents.

4. Afonso near, yet so far

The official site is reporting that the appeal hearing for Afonso Alves' work permit application will be held on Wednesday. Thats on the basis that a deal has been concluded with Heerenveen and Alves. Reports claim this will be done in the next 24 hours. As they have for the past fortnight...

5. There is a game tomorrow...

Amidst the excitement over the FA Cup and the endless transfer tittle-tattle, the fact Boro have a crucial Premier League fixture tomorrow has almost been forgotten. Wigan visit the Riverside two points in arrears on an evening packed with clashes between the league's strugglers. Gary O'Neil and Tuncay Sanli should be back in contention for the game, although Jonathan Grounds may once again be pressed into action if Emmanuel Pogatetz is ruled out.

Prediction: Boro 2 Wigan 1 - anything less than 3 points can't be contemplated.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Woodgate on his way?

Jonathan Woodgate finds the door. What happens next?

Jonathan Woodgate's days at the Riverside seem numbered after Boro reportedly accepted a £7m+ offer from Tottenham for the defender. Its a move that has divided opinion.

There are convincing arguments for striving to keep Woodgate at the club. Fully fit and on form, he's the best defender at the club. Selling an England international will hardly mollify those fans and players who feel the club lacks ambition. With the team tottering two points above the drop zone, this should be a time of adding to the squad rather than selling off a talented player.

However, it seems Gareth Southgate has been swayed by the arguments for selling Woodgate. Centre back is one of the few areas where the squad has real strength. Robert Huth has excelled since his return from injury, David Wheater has been the find of the Premier League season and Emmanuel Pogatetz won player of the year last season from the heart of the defence. Woodgate has been struggling to justify a first team place in recent weeks. With other areas of the team in need of urgent reinforcement, the decision to cash in on Woodgate becomes more understandable. There are quality alternatives in our squad; and there's Chris Riggott too.

Woodgate has failed to maintain last season's imperious form since making his move from Real Madrid permanent. For the vast majority of 06/07, Woodgate exuded composure and class, producing impeccable perfomances on a consistent basis. Sadly, this year has seen displays ranging from the average to the inept. There's been the odd reminder of his talents, such as at Portsmouth, but they've become all too rare. Most of his displays have been competent but spoiled by lapses of concentration. Some have been frankly awful, with the Villa molestation at the Riverside probably the worst. Woodgate's efforts to prevent Gabriel Agbonlahor's third were embarrassing.

Its hard to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong. Woodgate has struggled for fitness this year, never looking fully recovered from his summer operation after being pitched in against Newcastle in August. However, Woodgate has had an apalling fitness record throughout his a career, and barely trained during his successful run last year, yet has rarely struggled for form when available.

His attitude has been increasingly questioned. Some reports have suggested the decision to make Julio Arca skipper after Boateng's demotion irritated Woodgate. His recreational history is too long and potentially libellous to go through here but its safe to say hopes he'd come back from Spain a reformed character seem somewhat naive.

Its impossible to know how accurate the murmurings about Woodgate's fitness and behaviour are. That makes its very hard to judge whether Southgate would be right to let Woodgate go. The fact that the club seem to have decided to allow him to move on without much of a fight may be telling.

One thing for certain is that this transfer window is shaping up to be a defining period of Gareth Southgate's stewardship. The McClaren fingerprints are being quickly erased from the line-up. The decision to let Woodgate go would be a huge gamble. There is a fair chance that Juande Ramos, an obviously shrewd manager, could revive Woodgate's form provided he can maintain fitness. That would leave Spurs with a bargain and Southgate looking foolish.

That said, the passage of time may show that Southgate has picked the correct moment to cash in on a player who is approaching 30, injury prone and in dismal form. The protracted Afonso Alves saga finally seems to be inching to a conclusion, and if a £12m deal can be sealed, that would be as momentous a decision as that regarding Woodgate's future. Southgate can't afford to get it wrong.

**Its Mansfield Town, 91st in the Football League, tomorrow lunchtime in the 4th round of the FA Cup. Gary O'Neil and Mido remain doubtful but Julio Arca should be back. Lets hope Gareth remembers the Notts County farce of his early managerial days and plays as strong a side as possible.

Prediction: Mansfield 0 Boro 2

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Boro rue missed chances

Wheat as a nut

Boro contrived to take only a point from yesterday's trip to Ewood Park. Having spurned a succession of openings, Blackburn inevitably equalised from one of their very rare attacks to gain a richly undeserved draw.

Its just one defeat from seven games on the road for Gareth Southgate and it wasn't hard to see why. Mark Schwarzer was unruffled and barely active as the back four again defended with aggression and composure. Luke Young quelled any threat from the anonymous Morten Gamst Pedersen, whose stock continues to fall after another vapid display. Despite the continued absence of Jonathan Woodgate, Jason Roberts and Roque Santa Cruz were comfortably contained by Robert Huth and David Wheater. Indeed, Wheater proved to be a more potent threat than the strikers on either side.

It was Wheater who gave Boro an early lead with a firm back-post header from Stewart Downing's free kick. If Blackburn could consider themselves unfortunate to concede that free kick, their luck improved after the break.

Fabio Rochemback replaced skipper Julio Arca, who took a kick and failed to emerge for the second half. The Brazilian made an impact immediately, arcing the ball over the Blackburn defence twice for the onrushing Aliadiere. On the first occasion, he dragged his shot wide of Friedel's far post. Sent clear again, he opted to slide the ball across the goalmouth for Tuncay. The Turk inexplicably miscued when presented with an open goal.

Wheater was extremely unlucky not to have a second goal, his header smashing against the crossbar from Gary O'Neil's flighted cross. Boro's profligacy was becoming farcical and the home side punished this wastefulness in one of their rare forays into red territory. Roberts' mishit shot screwed across the area allowing Matt Derbyshire, perennial goalscorer against Boro, to once again inflict pain with a simple finish.

Despite the frustration of losing the lead, Boro continued to push. Jeremie Aliadiere had the pick of the late chances in injury time but failed to hit the target with a close range header from Rochemback's centre.

Once again, Boro came out of a game feeling robbed. Despite turning in a performance worthy of the Premier League's better teams, the lead over the bottom three is a precarious two points. Few teams at the arse end of the division are capable of the quality shown yesterday but relegation will remain a concern until performance is turned into points, particularly at home. With Wigan, Fulham, Reading and Derby next up at the Riverside, the opportunity to improve our dismal home form is there. Several difficult away fixtures remain so victories on Teesside will be imperative to hopes of climbing the table.

Man of the Match: David Wheater

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

See you in court

Alves on a pitch - but not the Riverside

The relentless Afonso Alves transfer saga continues to rumble on, with a Dutch FA hearing the latest hurdle to be cleared. Alves is believed to have agreed personal terms with Boro and negotiations over the fee are ongoing, according to reports. He certainly was at the Riverside, as a weekend of paintstaking detective work on Boro's message boards eventually established despite a hurculean cover-up attempt.

The interest of Heerenveen's Eredivisie rivals AZ Alkmaar continues to muddy the waters. A hearing will be held at 7:30pm tomorrow (Wednesday) to determine the validity of AZ's claim on Alves' signature. Its unclear whether Keith Lamb is flying over with his best Ally McBeal-esque pencil skirt to make an unconventional intervention. Its an enduring image though.

A fee of €18million was apparently agreed between the Dutch clubs and AZ claim that Alves agreed a contract. However, it seems Heerenveen haven't signed anything to confirm the deal. Some reports have suggested that the whole deal was a pre-contract which was invalidated after the January 5th deadline. Its safe to say we never had to bother with these complications signing Jason Euell.

Elsewhere, The Independent was still insisting Lyon's Brazilian striker Fred is destined for the Riverside yesterday morning, despite most other sources insisting he will choose between PSG and Spurs. The Gazette has claimed an official approach for Portsmouth's out-of-favour Matty Taylor. There's barely time to mention the mooted move for Motherwell's young forward Ross McCormack. No, me neither.

The rumour mill is still suggesting Stewart Downing's days at the Boro are numbered. His Mr 10% Ian Elliott released an embarrassingly crude 'come-and-get-me' plea to Tottenham outside St James' Park yesterday. Its unclear whether Downing actually wants a move or a substantial increase to his contract, which still has 2 ½ years to run. Either would explain Elliott's nauseating drivel. Elliott is a Newcastle season ticket holder and also represents Downing's understudy Adam Johnson...

Reports have suggested that Spurs are attempting to chuck cack-handed buffoon Paul Robinson into the deal. Fortunately, it seems Boro have no interest in solving their goalkeeping problems with a reject from a side whose defensive record betters only Reading and Derby.

This has already feels like Boro's busiest January window yet, depsite the only confirmed deal being Andrew Davies making his loan at Southamption permanent. Keeping up with the latest story is like a full time job (which probably explains why I'm barely doing my full time job). Its understandable that Gareth Southgate is already looking forward to February 1st. If the club can pick its way through the January minefield, we might even have something to look forward to beyond then.