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.

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