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

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