Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Annus Horibilis

So ends 2009 – what a miserable twelve months it has been. The feeling of getting simultaneously slapped in the face and kicked in the balls by witless, spineless displays on a near weekly basis has long since developed a wearying monotony. Where once there was anger, there is now only despair and a poisonous, contagious apathy. The descent must be stopped promptly – if this freefall continues for another year, it doesn’t bear thinking about where we may be by the end of 2010.

The only thing consistent about Middlesbrough Football Club this year has been abject, weak-willed football and confused, muddied thinking. The year began with a series of crucial relegation battles – Sunderland, Blackburn and Wigan all visiting the Riverside in the first two months of 2009. With the situation far from irreversible, the onus was on Boro to take the initiative and take control of the club’s future. The three games brought no wins and a solitary home goal.

Away from home, the team began the year three games into a record-breaking run of consecutive away defeats. That became four with a heartbreaking capitulation at bottom of the league West Brom. It was the day relegation stopped being a danger and became a near certainty.

It was also clear warning that this group of players lack the mental courage to succeed as a group. Under pressure, basic, inexcusable errors were made at both ends. There was no raging against the dying of the light. The briefest glimmer of hope from embarrassing Liverpool was soon stamped out by capitulation at Spurs four days later. Boro slipped away into the sunset with barely a fight.

When the final whistle went at Upton Park in May, there were many emotions. More than anger, sadness or frustration, I felt relief. Despite the succession of soul destroying performances, we had somehow kept in touch with 17th place until the bitter end. The gnawing sense of hope meant that we could never quite accept the inevitable. But those moments – the scrambled opener at St. James’ Park, the rousing atmosphere as the first half ended against Villa – served only to make the drop that much harder.

The new season was supposed to be a fresh start. But without Robert Huth to steady the nerves and Tuncay to act as an unexpected plan B, the same cracks started to show. Sickening trademark concessions in the dying moments against Bristol City, Coventry and Leicester. Nervous, unconvincing home performances, especially utter humiliation against West Brom. The change had to come – the right decision was made but months too late.

Gordon Strachan may well be wondering what he’s got himself into. Shaky and unconvincing before his appointment, the wheels have since well and truly come off. For all the talk of one point from the top, Southgate’s legacy has been a horribly unbalanced and inadequate squad.

The malaise has also spread to the stands. Let down week after week, many have simply given up. The official figures of around 17,000 for the Cardiff and Derby games are bad enough without even taking into account the number of those who paid but did not want to attend. Those left struggle to rise above the gloom. The vacuum has been filled with nervous silence and the thoroughly depressing scapegoating of Brad Jones, whose cack-handed display at Newcastle will now provide the North Stand boo boys with months of ammunition.

The fans and the area need a lift. 2010 is unlikely to bring promotion. A team we can begin to feel pride in again would be enough.

From the Boxing Day Fly Me To The Moon

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Forest stump Boro

Gordon Strachan is still waiting for his first victory after another concerning afternoon at the Riverside. After a promising start, Boro reverted to bad old habits and were fortunate to escape with a point. Boro have taken just four points from the last six home games, failing to score in four of them.

Strachan made further changes to his team, replacing both full-backs, recalling Julio Arca and a masked Emanuel Pogatetz, pushing Rhys Williams into the back four and handing a debut to Dave Kitson up front. The reshuffle paid off almost immediately as Boro took an early lead. Adam Johnson found an unmarked Arca and, although Lee Camp managed to stop his shot, the Forest keeper's limp wristed parry gave Leroy Lita an easy chance.

For the opening half hour Boro looked comfortable, although clear-cut chances were still at a premium. Defenders snapped into tackles while Isaiah Osbourne and Gary O'Neil ferried the ball around midfield sharply and accurately. As half time dawned, Boro loosened their grasp on their game and were indebted to Brad Jones for maintaining the lead at half time. The oft maligned keeper blocked magnfiicently when Dele Adebola took advantage of a slip by Sean St Ledger to send David McGoldrick.

The limp end to the first half set the tone for a depressing second 45 minutes, during which Forest completely dominated. The equaliser had been coming long before the 73rd minute when Rob Earnshaw clipped a free kick into the gaping left-hand corner of Brad Jones' net. At the other end, Lee Camp was a spectator. Kitson and Lita were starved of service and struggled to hold the ball up - their replacements, Marcus Bent and Jonathan Franks, fared little better.

With automatic promotion an increasingly remote possibility, even the play-offs may be beyond Boro based on their current form. The points earned in the early weeks of the season, with a defence marshalled by former captain Robert Huth and an attack sprinkled with Tuncay cameos, have given the current squad an artificial position in the top half of the table.

Since the double sale to Stoke, Boro's record reads P13 W4 D3 L6 F16 A18 Pts15. Over the whole season, that kind of form would leave Boro two-thirds down the table at best, looking nervously over their shoulders. There are severe systemic flaws with the current team and Gordon Strachan is being left to perform major surgery mid-season after being parachuted in. It is going to take more than a few weeks on the training ground to sort out a nervy defence and tepid attack or the stodgy, unimaginative home performances that have pockmarked 2009.

When opponents can neutralise the threat of Adam Johnson, as Forest did by fair means and foul, Boro are worryingly limited. The vast turnover of players reflects the attempts of two managers to find short term solutions to underlying issues. Boro are wasteful, timid and uninspired on the ball, particularly at the Riverside, and have been for at least a year. Too many players make the wrong decisions at crucial moments at both ends. There is a fundamental lack of resilience and quality in the squad. Of the current top fifteen teams in the division, Boro have beaten only one (Swansea City, way back on the second weekend of the season).

It is a long road back to the Premier League from here.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Shuffling the pack

Having spent years throwing cash about with wild abandon, these are new and austere times at Boro. Gordon Strachan doesn’t seem too keen on the squad he’s been left with (with good reason, it should be added) and has already made attempts to spruce things up. Unfortunately, with the transfer window shut and funds sparse, the only option is to rummage through football’s equivalent of the reduced items shelf in the supermarket in the hope that, hidden behind a dubious looking slab of beef or a dented can of Stella, there may be a shop-soiled Dave Kitson lying about.

There’s always a suspicion about players clubs are willing to lend, something planted during my formative years. For every Uwe Fuchs, there was a Rab Shannon, a David Winnie and an Anthony Barness. And then there was John Gannon. Signed in late 1993, with the Lawrence era now firmly enveloped by a gentle but terminal haplessness, he only stayed for seven games but left horrible memories.

Boro now have five loan signings on their books, meaning Strachan only has a few weeks left to decide who has a future and who will be out on their arse quicker than John Eustace (Boro career: one two minute substitute appearance, one yellow card).

Sean St. Ledger seems to have the most secure future. Its unlikely that Preston would have agreed to release one of their key players without a guarantee there would be hard cash to come in January. It’s hard to gauge how good an idea this is without confirmation of the true cost. On the one hand, with Joe Bennett seemingly out on the naughty step already, St. Ledger is the only defender left who looks happy carrying and passing the ball. However, the partnership with David Wheater hasn’t been convincing, even if St. Ledger has increasingly looked the more composed of the pair.

The remaining quartet may be less permanent figures. Caleb Folan (remember him?) has so far made the least contribution of all the strikers signed by Gareth Southgate. Half man, half ball repellent, Folan twanged his hamstring almost as soon as he’d removed himself from Jonas Olsson’s pocket. Still, at least he said some mean things about Phil Brown, so he’s not all bad.

The speed with which Strachan has moved for alternative options up front and in midfield doesn’t bode well for the previous incumbents. It’s too early to judge Isaiah Osbourne, Marcus Bent or Dave Kitson but they all now have eight games to make an impression before the transfer window opens. It doesn’t seem too long ago that Kitson was scoring on a regular basis for Reading in the top flight. Unless Stoke are prepared to write most of the £5.5m they spent on signing him last summer though, it’s probably best not to get too attached.

The new manager seems to be left with something of a dilemma come January. There seems to be a realisation that the current squad of permanently contracted staff isn’t going to be good enough to get the club back into the top flight. With a million or two seemingly set aside for the St. Ledger deal, there isn’t going to be a fortune left for other deals. The manager will have to choose between trying to inject much needed quality on a budget or sacrifice his left winger, best player and most valuable asset. Now where have we heard that one before...

From tomorrow's Fly Me To The Moon

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Grim start for Strachan

Gordon Strachan's reign as Boro boss has begun with dispiriting defeat. Plymouth Argyle, struggling in penultimate position in the Championship before yesterday's game, earned a 1-0 win as Boro once again laboured in front of their home fans.

An improved crowd of 21,141 turned up for the start of a new era but the all too familiar failings that cost Gareth Southgate his job were clear for all to see. If Strachan is to succeed, he needs to find some quick solutions to a defence prone to costly lapses of concentration and an attack incapable of breaking down opponents who sit deep.

The new manager struck a surprise by deploying Julio Arca on the right side of midfield, while Emanuel Pogatetz returned in place of the mysteriously absent Joe Bennett. New loan signing Marcus Bent was restricted to the bench.

The pattern of the game was quickly established. Plymouth sat deep but showed both defensive resilience and nimble counter attacking that belied their poor league position. Boro enjoyed greater possession and territory but, apart from an early chance for Marvin Emnes that was well blocked, Romain Larrieu was rarely tested. Indeed, the Pilgrims' attempts to exploit the rustiness of Pogatetz looked far more ominous.

Despite a long pause as Pogatetz departed with a nasty looking facial injury, Boro started the second half much better. While evidently unfit, Marcus Bent provided a much more robust presence up front than Emnes although he did head wide from an inviting cross. Even Arca briefly sparkled with one twinkle toed run teeing up Wheater for a scuffed shot that Larrieu eventually stopped.

An opening goal seemed inevitable. Unfortunately, it came in front of the largely deserted South Stand. A long punt upfield was met by Jamie Mackie, who somehow evaded David Wheater to slot past Jones. It was an appalling error of judgement by the Boro captain, whose lack of progress since his breakthrough year is a growing concern.

Wheater's partner Sean St Ledger enjoyed one of the better performances of his loan spell, frequently bringing the ball out of defence to try and spark a lethargic Boro side into life. There should have been an equaliser after one such surge, when the referee generously awarded a spot kick when St Ledger tumbled under pressure after playing a one-two with Leroy Lita. However, Adam Johnson failed to test Larrieu, his kick glancing the outside of the keeper's left hand post. Despite seven minutes of injury time, a Bent header glanced wide was the best Boro could muster. For the fourth time in five games, Boro left the Riverside with no points and no goals.

The defeat leaves Boro one spot outside the play-off zone and they could slip further before next weekend's trip to Crystal Palace. Boro's abject home form (seven goals and seven points from eight fixtures) is reaching crisis levels. Unless its solved, and solved quickly, even the play-offs could be beyond Gordon Strachan. If the new man wasn't aware of the task in front of him before Saturday, he surely will be now.

Friday, 30 October 2009

The Strachan Inbox; plus Boro get Bent

New Boro boss Gordon Strachan made his first signing today by securing Birmingham striker Marcus Bent on a two month loan. Bent goes straight into the squad for tomorrow's game against Plymouth and is expected to partner Leroy Lita in attack.

Strachan's immediate priorities are the subject of the following article, coming soon to a fanzine near you....


Drifting away from the Riverside after a useful but uninspiring victory over an abject Derby County, it certainly didn't feel like one of the most important nights in the recent history of MFC. The departure of Gareth Southgate was unexpected, most of all by the man himself. The Southgate era has come to a brutal end. If Gordon Strachan is to succeed where Southgate ultimately failed, he has some key issues to address.


Much was made of the attendance against Derby dropping below 50% of the Riverside's capacity. We know now that Steve Gibson's mind was already made before the game. Even so, a fractured, apathetic and disenchanted fanbase was clearly one of his reasons for removing Southgate. The club's finances have been steadied by the summer sales but the 6,000 fans who've disappeared since the Sheffield United game punch a big hole in the books. Gibson has called the bluff of many critics by removing the man perceived to be the main problem. There's still a long road to getting the Riverside bouncing an even 75% full on a consistent basis...


...and the main reason for that is a long run of insipid, unconvincing performances at the Riverside Stadium. The players often seem to find a home advantage more of a burden. Too many were tentative, wilting under the expectation of victory. The crowd have generally shown more patience than would be expected at many other clubs but that has its limits. Even when winning, Boro haven't come close to achieving the level of fluency at the Riverside that they have done repeatedly away from home. Outside of the Premier League, matchday income becomes a far greater proportion of the club's funding. Starting today, a few good home wins could be worth more than just three points.


Leroy Lita hasn't contributed as many goals as might have been hoped but has been impressive in recent weeks. His fitness is clearly getting better, he's a willing runner and he did show his potential with that terrific goal at Reading. Otherwise, its been slim pickings. Barring a freakish four days which yielded three goals, Jeremie Aliadiere hasn't convinced. Marvin Emnes is still too raw for regular first team football. Caleb Folan galumphed around for an hour against West Brom then twanged a hamstring.

In Adam Johnson, Boro are still far too reliant on a player who might be gone in three months. A new striker, even on loan, has to be a priority.


Two more points were thrown away in stoppage time at Preston last week. It happens far too often for comfort. Boro's habit of leaking late goals cannot be written off as bad luck or coincidence. It went a long way to relegating us last year and it will scupper our automatic promotion hopes at this rate.

David Wheater and Sean St Ledger are promising players in their own right but haven't totally convinced as a partnership. Wheater still seems to be pining for Robert Huth while St Ledger's generally positive have been blotted with lapses of concentration.

Nevertheless, this problem seems more like a reflection of mental weakness than any individual players. There might not be an easy answer – Southgate, at least, seemed powerless to find one.

Read this and more in tomorrow's Fly Me To The Moon

Monday, 26 October 2009

Strachan confirmed as new boss

A Keith Lamb-shaped man looks pleased with himself

Former Celtic manager Gordon Strachan was today confirmed as Boro's new manager on a three and a half year contract. Strachan's first game is on Saturday against struggling Plymouth Argyle at the Riverside.

"It's a special job. I don't have to be here, I don't need to be here, I want to be here," said Strachan. "My job is to make the players better technically, physically and mentally, as a group and as individuals."

"I know you get time here, and the stability of the club means you have the chance to develop things the way you would like to see them develop. Celtic was fantastic, and I hope it can be as enjoyable here."

Strachan has been joined by his long-time assistant Garry Pendrey but insisted he was happy to work with the existing staff. "I think you must try and keep the continuity at the club. I brought Garry Pendrey here, but he has been everywhere with me so it's a bit of a double act and I wouldn't feel comfortable without him being here."

Strachan said he hadn't thought as far ahead as the January transfer window but confirmed he had spoken with Gordon McQueen about "one or two priorites" - a new striker is likely to be one of those.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Boro throw away win again

Boro's old failings showed up again as an equaliser deep into stoppage time earned Preston an undeserved draw at Deepdale this afternoon. Boro twice took the lead but failed to defend a free kick, allowing Billy Jones to glance an equaliser past a static Brad Jones.

Under the temporary management of Colin Cooper, Boro made one change with Marvin Emnes replacing the injured Jeremie Aliadiere. Boro dominated the first half and finally made their superiority count just before half time when Gary O'Neil's free kick somehow evaded the grasp of Andy Lonergan. Boro should have doubled the lead before the break but Adam Johnson shot wide with the Preston defence exposed.

North End equalised on the hour when a cross from the left caused panic in the Boro defence. Brad Jones managed one block but couldn't prevent Paul Parry from equalising. Parity didn't last long however after Adam Johnson took possession from Leroy Lita, darted into the area and drove superbly inside Lonergan's far post.

Boro looked comfortable in the lead and could have gone 3-1 up when Rhys Williams smashed a shot against the post. But having failed to put the game to bed, Boro were punished at the death when the defence failed to deal with a Preston free kick.

Boro remain 4th, three points behind new leaders Newcastle, and maintain their poor record for beating sides in the top half of the table, one of the factors cited by Steve Gibson for his decision to sack Gareth Southgate. Gordon Strachan is expected to be appointed as Southgate's full time replacement on Monday. On today's evidence, there may be cause for cautious optimism but there's still plenty for Strachan to work on.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Gibson swings the axe

There's been many points over last 12 months when it would have come as no surprise to learn that Gareth Southgate had lost his job. Finally, in the early hours of this morning, just hours after a 2-0 win over Derby County, a short club statement was released confirming Gareth and 'football consultant' Alan Smith had been "relieved of their duties".

There will certainly be comments raised about the timing. A relieved Southgate faced the media after the game last night, apparently unaware that Steve Gibson was already sharpening the axe. The cosy cabal of ex-players and managers who staff the punditry circuit never support the sacking of an English manager, regardless of circumstances. In this case, the fact that the three points earned last night took Boro to within a point of West Brom and Newcastle at the top will be used as a stick to beat a chairman previously renowned for seemingly unending patience.

But the current league position is too fragile to base any decision on. QPR are three points behind with a game in hand yet sit in tenth. Saturday's trip to Preston could just as easily toss Boro out of the play-off positions altogether as send them top.With the last three home games ending in dismal defeat with no Boro goals, the only sensible conclusion is that Gibson's mind was made up between the final whistle on Saturday and kick-off last night. Perhaps there is something to rumours sweeping Teesside earlier this week.

If there are questions over the timing, those who would query the actual decision are in a minority. As Gibson himself said, Southgate was handed a very difficult job, tasked with reshaping a squad on a reduced budget with the spectre of Eindhoven and the consequent rise in expectations hanging over the club. But the bald truth is, even allowing for that, Southgate did not do a good enough job in his last two seasons.

Good players were allowed to leave and their replacements were not up to scratch. For all the financial constraints, Southgate's abilities were under question from the point he wasted £20m the club couldn't afford to waste on Mido and Afonso Alves. By the end of a disastrous season, with barely a fight put up against relegation from a Premier League half full of terrible teams, the fans' support had been lost irretrievably.

Despite the growing feeling of impotence amongst a disgruntled crowd, it is the fans who have ultimately cost Southgate his job. Last night, the Riverside was officially half empty, and the actual attendance looked even less than the 17,459 announced. With no Premier League TV money to fill the coffers, Gibson may have felt, if he could ignore those booing and jeering at the ground, he could no longer ignore the thousands who no longer wanted to even turn up.

There should be no dancing on Southgate's grave however. This was the right decision but it was still a painful one. Watching a man who captained the club with such dignity and distinction subjected to a drawn out, public failure was thoroughly depressing. There can be no question that he gave his best to the club over 8 years on Teesside. Once the dust has settled, I hope people remember Southgate lifting the League Cup or punching the air in Rome rather than for the sad end to his first job in management.

When the new manager arrives, whoever he is, it should at least provide temporary relief from the poisonous atmosphere at the Riverside. The new man has to unite players and fans and remove the air of decline that has settled over the club. Steve Gibson has acted decisively and now must follow that up to restore a sense of momentum and win back disenchanted fans who have abandoned the club.


None of this tumult seemed on the cards after a mundane victory over an awful Derby County side last night. An unremarkable match will now always be remembered by association with Boro's Night of the Long Knives.

Adam Johnson notched both goals. The first came from the penalty spot after Johnson went down a little too easily under Shaun Barker's challenge. The second was altogether more impressive, as he drifted free of three defenders before arcing a shot beyond the grasp of Steven Bywater.

With Derby decimated by injuries and without an away win all season, Boro needed nothing more than a workmanlike display. The play was still laboured at times, with Leroy Lita getting limited service in return for his admirable efforts in running the channels. Boro still need to move the ball quicker and with more purpose if they are to see off better teams than the Rams.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Boro stung by Hornets

The pressure on Gareth Southgate continues to build as Boro lost a third successive home game. Eviscerated by West Brom, mugged by Leicester and now stung by Malky Mackay's Watford, Boro have lost half of their fixtures at the Riverside this season. It does not bode well.

There was a certain amount of misfortune in this defeat with Scott Loach's goal living a charmed life at times during a frantic second half. That should not however deflect focus on another disjointed performance in front of another low crowd.

Boro did create some chances early on. Leroy Lita somehow headed wide from close range, although the linesman's flag was raised, while Adam Johnson was found in space on the right but took too long turning onto his favoured left foot.

Watford, however, started to exert more influence. Arsenal loanee Henri Lansbury was neat and tidy in midfield while former Boro striker Danny Graham led the line while. When Sean St Ledger was caught in possession, it was Graham who found the intelligent run of Tom Cleverley, another loan signing, who comfortably beat Brad Jones. The Hornets held their lead to the break and merited their advantage.

There was at least a response after the break. A flurry of corners should have lead to an equaliser but St Ledger's header was harshly ruled out. Watford continued to look tentative from set pieces but Boro were struggling to threaten from open play. The only time Loach's goal was threatened came when Tony McMahon launched a speculative long range shot which spanked the underside of the crossbar before bouncing to safety.

If there was a lack of quality in Boro's play, the effort remained intense. The final chance came from another corner in injury time. In desperation, Brad Jones raced up to supplement the attack but succeeded only in blocking an apparently goalbound header. The final whistle was greeted with the obligatory half hearted boos from three quarters of a sparsely populated ground.

Boro could easily have taken at least a point from the game. Had St Ledger's header stood, there would have been over half an hour to press for a winner against a side who looked shaky against aerial attack. But Watford could reasonably argue they deserved their win - during their time in the ascendancy, they passed the ball with a fluency that eluded Boro all afternoon. Their winning goal was a result of by far the slickest move of the game.

Boro were hampered by all too familiar faults. Individually, Wheater and St Ledger are promising players but both look they need a more senior partner. St Ledger's largely impressive display was again marred by a lapse in concentration. Further forward, the centre of midfield remains a constant concern. While Didier Digard was combative, his distribution was desperately poor at times and overall there was a real lack of movement. Leroy Lita and Jeremie Aliadiere were left isolated for large periods of the game.

There is, at least, not long to stew on this latest failure, with Derby County at the Riverside on Tuesday night. Boro fans will note the Rams' ominous away record, with Nigel Clough's men yet to record an away win this season. Home form is quickly becoming a blight which could ruin a season. Gareth Southgate must fix it before its too late.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Opinions Without Accountability

“Everyone has an opinion now. Its opinion without accountability. But I don't need mollycoddling. I'm a big bloke. I accept stick. I've got to.” So speaks Gareth Southgate, sounding more than a little bit like he fancies a spot of mollycoddling.

He may have an account on some Boro message boards, perhaps with “I'll learn lessons from this” as a signature, but its unlikely. Anyone can record their views for all to see – its the focus of modern media - but Gareth is Not A Fan.

To a large extent its possible to sympathise. The internet has democratised access for fans and too many abuse that by contributing ill-informed drivel laced with poisonous cynicism and aggression towards anyone who might disagree.

It allows half-truths and misinterpretations to become FACT. On the one hand, the club risks accusations of being secretive and aloof if Lamb or Gibson aren't wheeled out for the Gazette or Radio Brownlee every couple of months. On the other, you have to wonder why they bother when their words are so frequently skewed and turned against them.

Keith Lamb's comments about Teesside eventually getting 'the club it can afford' were a classic case. It was a perfectly reasonable comment – as we're all painfully aware now, there is no way a club attracting crowds in the mid 20,000s could maintain Premier League expenditure without borrowing or a benefactor. No club can rely on such factors forever. Instead, this interview is frequently cited as a stick to beat the club with, “afford” replaced with “deserve”.

Similarly, 'the club earns more from walk up sales than season ticket holders' and 'we earned more from TV than we did from ticket sales' become not simple economic facts but a slur on those who commit money up front for another 9 months of punishment.

This does all of us a disservice. When Steve McClaren had the team halfway up the Premier League and playing in Europe, it was easy to dismiss the grumblers as a lunatic fringe. Southgate might like to draw a line under it but it was a matter of months ago that the club were relegated, breaking the club record for consecutive away defeats and scoring fewer goals than any other team in the country. If that doesn't legitimise a certain amount of protest then what does?

The manager, chairman and chief executive all subjected themselves to trial by phone-in over the summer, which they deserve credit for. The ever-growing band of militant opponents might not have got the public self-flagellation they demanded but all three politely defended their position in the face of some vehement criticism that missed the target more often than Afonso Alves bearing down on goal.

Southgate's comments were a cop-out, an attempt to deflect dissent by smearing all critics, whether valid or not, as jaundiced and irrational. Under any other chairman than Gibson, to openly claim that “it doesn't matter what the fans think about me” would be tempting fate. He shouldn't be worried about the fans booing him as much as the thousands who are now staying at home.

But when genuine insight and valid comment from fans is buried under bile and invective, it just the excuse needed to dismiss criticism. Fans have contributed to the tone of debate, taking polarised views on complex, nuanced issues and allowing senior figures to wriggle off the hook by repeating urban myths. Until that changes, as fans of the club, we'll get the level of scrutiny we deserve.

This article will be also be available from men with fluorescent Evening Gazette bags in Saturday's Fly Me To The Moon. 

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Southgate fights back

Its been a tough week for Boro boss Gareth Southgate and at times the pressure has started to show. The manager was the target of abuse from sections of the Riverside's smallest ever league crowd after the defeat to Leicester on Tuesday night. Southgate's response was somewhat prickly. "I don't think what the fans think about me matters," he told the press. "Clearly my relationship with some supporters has changed. I have my own feeling on that but I'll keep them to myself."

"Everyone has an opinion now," continued Southgate. "It's opinion without accountability. But I don't need mollycoddling. I'm a big bloke. I accept stick. I've got to."

The manager was probably therefore entitled to a smile after a 2-0 triumph at Reading yesterday, extending the Royals' winless run in front of their home fans to an epic 14 games. Its a sequence that puts Boro's Riverside wobbles into context. It was Boro's fourth away win of the season, with the team having taken 13 points and scored 13 goals in six games, as Southgate always likes to say, "on our travels". 

The deadlock was broken in a similar manner at the modestly titled Madejski Stadium as it had been in the previous away game at Coventry. Adam Johnson swung in a corner from the right, which was emphatically met by Sean St Ledger. Leroy Lita claimed the last touch without convincing neutral observers.

The recalled Lita, warmly welcomed by fans of his former club, was the undisputed scorer of the second. Twisting into space in the middle of the pitch, Lita burst clear of the defence and lashed a shot into the bottom corner.

Southgate pointedly praised the "incredible" support of the 1,500 travelling contingent. With Newcastle being held, Preston and West Brom sharing a goalless draw and Sheffield United unable to defeat Doncaster, Boro were able to make back some ground on promotion rivals. Boro are now third in the table, a point behind the Baggies.

With two weeks off for the international break, Southgate now has plenty of time to figure out how to tackle his problems closer to home. Boro haven't kept a clean sheet at the Riverside since the victory over Doncaster in August and failed to score or pick up any points in the last two home fixtures. Boro will be under pressure to take six points from back-to-back games against Watford and Derby - as a point of comparison, it should be noted Cardiff City have beaten both sides this week, scoring ten times in the process.

Its a task that may be undertaken with the help of a new striker. Caleb Folan has managed just one substitute appearance since arriving on loan from Hull and will now be out for six weeks with a torn hamstring.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Boro's stuttering form continued last night as Nigel Pearson's Leicester City stole victory in a dire match at a half empty Riverside Stadium. Having spurned several chances to take the lead, Boro then allowed Lloyd Dyer an obscene amount of time and space to score the crucial goal with just seven minutes to go.

Gareth Southgate made one enforced change to the side who threw two points away at Coventry on Saturday, with Tony McMahon replacing the hamstrung Justin Hoyte. Leicester made five changes, including introducing the fantastically monikered Frenchman Yann Kermorgant.

The first half was spectacularly awful. Boro were listless, justifying every single one of the 17,000 empty seats. Leicester were even worse, looking every inch a side just escaped from the barren wastelands. The most threatening effort on goal was an errant David Wheater passback that Brad Jones had to stretch to stop. The grinding monotony of the Championship was in full evidence here - rarely can such earnest endeavour from two sides have resulted in so little end product.

Boro at least perked up after the break, particularly when Leroy Lita and Mark Yeates replaced Emnes and Arca. Leicester keeper Chris Weale was still rarely tested, the only scare coming when Adam Johnson lobbed into the corner of the net from distance after Weale had conceded a throw. The referee called the action back, restarting with a Boro throw that saved Weale's blushes.

The keeper was finally forced into making a save from St Ledger as a Yeates free kick induced panic in the Leicester defence. It was from another free kick soon after that trouble began to brew in the home defence.

Brad Jones could not collect the initial shot and Jack Hobbs inexplicably smashed against the post with the net gaping. Boro failed to heed the warning, almost instantly ceding another chance for the visitors. From a simple throw in, Leicester were somehow allowed to find two men in the area with only Tony McMahon for company. Oakley sqaured for Lloyd Dyer and, although McMahon managed a partial block, he couldn't prevent the goal.

Boro did at least put Leicester under pressure in the dying moments but to no avail. Gareth Southgate was subject to the most vocal criticism heard from the Riverside crowd in some time. Several called for his head and optimstically joined in with the visiting fans' chants of "You're getting sacked in the morning".

There's no chance of that happening in spite of the growing body of evidence against Southgate. A superb player, inspirational captain and an honourable man, Southgate is unfortunately not a good manager. He may have been handed a difficult job but he has done little to inspire confidence that he can succeed. Boro looked depressingly toothless against a horrribly limited Leicester side. Even when they managed to build up a head of steam after the break, Weale was rarely tested.

The lack of defensive organisation that led to Leicester's goal was concerning. After four consecutive clean sheets at the start of the season, Boro haven't kept one since Robert Huth left for Stoke. There has to be a fear that the last three games are a truer reflection of Boro's abilities than the first five. The poisonous cycle of last season is being repeated again - rallying cry, soul-destroying defeat, "I can handle the flak", "Southgate demands response" rallying cry, defeat (repeat until you lose the will to live). How much longer can this go on before something gives?

Monday, 28 September 2009

Hearts and minds

Boro's promotion push continued to stutter on Saturday as a two goal lead was thrown away. Sean St Ledger and Rhys Williams' first goals for the club helped Boro into a 2-0 half time lead. However, with the home side applying mounting pressure in the closing stages.

First, with twelve minutes remaining, Clinton Morrison outmuscled Justin Hoyte to score from close range. Then, in the dying seconds of injury time, St Ledger failed to clear after a penalty area scramble, allowing Leon Best to poke an equaliser past the recalled Brad Jones.

Southgate and his team have an imminent opportunity to make up for the disappointment of the last two games, with former Boro skipper Nigel Pearson bringing his Leicester City side to the Riverside. The following article will be in tomorrow night's Fly Me To The Moon, available on all good street corners...


Just over a fortnight ago, the visit of Ipswich Town saw the first sub 20,000 crowd for a league game at the Riverside Stadium. There's a good chance that the expanses of barren red plastic will be greater still tonight. If Boro were beginning to enjoy life as a big fish in a small pond, the hammering at the hands of West Brom was a sobering dose of reality. Twelve years on, Roberto Di Matteo and Eddie Newton conspired to deliver another sickening kick in the knackers.

The consequences of that game could be felt for a long time. Despite the protestations that it was just a 'bad day at the office', it felt like the continuation of a recurring theme of Gareth Southgate's tenure. The expectation that is inevitable after moderate success seems to be encourage timid performances and complacency. For a team to get an important game that wrong, writing it off as bad day hardly seems an appropriate response.

The performance ten days ago had all the hallmarks of what may still be the nadir of Southgate's time in charge. The day when Cardiff became synonymous with FA Cup failure rather than Carling Cup glory. The excitement around town before that game was palpable. Beat a combination of lower league sides and/or a solid but unspectacular Portsmouth side and we could do it. The most glorious day in the club's history was tantalisingly close.

We all know it didn't work out as planned. Boro blew it in soul-destroying fashion, a spineless, witless, slow-motion car crash of a performance. The context was everything – to lose the game was bad enough but the anticipation made the fall so much worse. Southgate lost a huge chunk of the fanbase that day and there's plenty of hardened opponents who have never been won back.

The commendable efforts the club has made with ticket pricing helped keep numbers healthy last year. But the Riverside has rarely been an enjoyable place to be over the last year or so. Last season took on a tiring monotony – successive home game where insipid, negative football sapped all the passion from a crowd which game after game tried to lift the team and saw little response.

No-one seemed to see the West Brom debacle coming but maybe we should have done. Before the game, the general sentiment was that people were looking forward to the game much more than normal. A chance to go top of the table, two solid victories and positive news on the club's finances and ability to recruit seemed to have put the bad feeling about the Huth/Tuncay deal firmly in the past.

The team and the manager couldn't handle it. The lunatic fringe of vociferous critics of Gibson and Southgate have another axe to grind. More damagingly, the moderate centre of match to match attendees have been given a convincing reason to stay away. Winning back their trust and filling the empty rows at the Riverside will not be done easily.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Bouncing Baggies demolish awful Boro

On Saturday, there was a noisy Gay Pride march through Middlesbrough. Always keen to keep in touch with the local community, Boro tapped into the mood by bending over to receive the mother of all shaftings from West Bromwich Albion. All the promise of successive wins over Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday evaporated as Boro were simply eviscerated by Roberto Di Matteo's men. The 5-0 scoreline, if anything, flattered the home side.

After a bright start, Boro began to labour. Rhys Williams and Julio Arca struggled to keep tabs on Youssuf Mulumbu and Graham Dorrans in the Baggies midfield. The opening goal was fortunate - a very generous free kick was given against Williams and former Boro trainee Chris Brunt's innocuous shot was transformed by a deflection off Arca. Danny Coyne was stranded and the visitors led. A poor start but there was still hope the home side, emboldened by a perceived injustice, would carry the fight to the league leaders.

In fact things got much worse. The second goal could not be blamed on the referee as Brunt exposed some abysmal defending. A simple ball over the top almost sent Luke Moore free and, although Coyne managed to get the ball first, the keeper could only shank his clearance straight to Brunt, who returned it with interest into the gaping net. An awful half was ended with a third goal, Albion toying with a ragged defence before Mulumbu met Dorrans' cross with a superb, looping header.

West Brom took their foot off the pedal after the break, sparing Boro an even greater humbling. There were still two more goals as Roman Bednar and Jerome Thomas exposed more feckless, powderpuff defending to beat the helpless Coyne.

Its hard to pick out the worst players after such a performance but I'll try anyway. With due credit to Mark Yeates, who displayed an almost comic inability to pass to his team-mates, the finger has to be pointed at Tony McMahon. With little assistance from the hapless Yeates, McMahon was tormented by the visitors. By the end of the game, he was struggling to get within five yards of his man. And even by his own low standards, McMahon's distribution was appalling.

The rest of the team ranged from the inept to the anonymous. Jon Grounds had a torrid afternoon on the opposite flank while the old problems in midfield returned. Julio Arca was given a chasing, substituted before he was sent off while Rhys Williams was emasculated by an early booking. Given this total absence of protection, the fledgling centre back pairing of Wheater and St Ledger could be given limited sympathy.

Quite where we go from here is unclear. There's a good chance Danny Coyne will carry the can, with Southgate favourite Brad Jones fit again. While Coyne could only be faulted for one goal, such a move, while understandable, shouldn't negate changes in the real problem areas - full-back and centre midfield.

Ground has done well enough to be given another chance but surely the time for McMahon to be dropped has arrived. Yesterday was by the far the worst of three shaky performances in the space of a week. Justin Hoyte may not be the most appealing alternative but he must at least be given a chance.

Midfield remains a mess, with Gary O'Neil sorely missed. Williams looked every inch a makeshift solution against Albion's assured passing while Arca fared little better. After a couple of promising displays, Arca was miles off the pace, reverting to the dismal form of the past two seasons. And while the goals scored column might ward off strident criticism of the attack, you have to wonder what role the clumsy Caleb Folan has in it.

The biggest questions have to be asked of the manager. How on earth could Boro get such a big game so horribly wrong? Having been unable to instil confidence last season, the suspicion is that Southgate allowed confidence after some encouraging but hardly earth-shattering results to turn into complacency. It is of course naive to expect a team not to have bad days and be well beaten from time to time over a 46 game season.

Even so, the manner of yesterday's defeat was shocking. It was the very worst of a series of witless, spineless performances that have occurred far too often under Southgate. It was another gruesome sequel to the horrors of C-A-R-D-I-F-F. There was no fight nor any sign that the players were  still battling for any semblance of pride even when the game was lost. West Brom could have scored as many as they want.

Not for the first time, Boro have crushed the fragile shoots of optimism amongst the fans. Its further evidence for the lunatic fringe amongst the fanbase and further justification for the ex-season ticket holders. This wasn't just any defeat, it was a loss that has knocked thousands off the gate for months to come. The manager has no choice but to try to pick his team up again. How many more times he will be allowed to take us to these depths, you can only wonder.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Folan agrees loan deal

Gareth Southgate made his second signing of the week after the three month loan of Hull striker Caleb Folan was confirmed. Ireland international Folan goes straight into the squad for Saturday's table-topping clash with West Brom. Like Sean St Ledger, who made his debut in Tuesday's 3-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday, Folan has arrived on a temporary deal with a view to a permanent move.

St Ledger's signing bodes well with fans, team-mates and manager ruing his departure from Preston. Folan arrives without such a ringing endorsement - Hull manager Phil Brown stating that he "didn't really look like scoring" this season. Folan's less than prolific scoring record at his previous clubs does little to inspire confidence.

Boro maintained second position in the Championship after last night's fixtures. Newcastle missed the opportunity to return to the top of the table, losing 2-1 at Blackpool. Former Boro midfielder Jason Euell struck the winning goal for Ian Holloway's men.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Owls can't stop Boro

Boro moved back into the top two of the Championship, for 24 hours at least, with an impressive 3-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday. Gareth Southgate's side had to recover from the early setback of Luke Varney's spectacular goal but ended the game comfortable winners.

Southgate made one change to his line up, with Jeremie Aliadiere's two goals against Ipswich earning him a start in preference to Leroy Lita. After completing a three month loan deal (with a view to a permanent move), Sean St Ledger was named on the bench.

It was Brian Laws' Owls who started quicker. Varney skipped past a flat footed Tony McMahon and slammed the ball home via the underside the crossbar. Boro were now faced with the task of coming from behind to win for the first time since a FA Cup tie at Bristol City in January 2008.

Boro's equaliser came with some assistance from the home team. Towering centre half Darren Purse tried to deal with Adam Johnson's curling cross but succeeded only in glancing beyond the grasp of Wednesday keeper Lee Grant. Johnson may have given Boro the lead before the break but his effort was ruled out for offside.

The visitors stamped their supremacy on the game after the break. Gary O'Neil intercepted a sloppy free kick and passed to Emnes, allowing the Dutchman to pick out Jeremie Aliadiere's surging run. The Frenchman beat the closing Grant with a composed left foot finish for his third goal in four days. Boro continued to pile on the pressure and could have sealed the game with another goal. However, Grant somehow managed to keep his side in the game with a superb tumbling save from Seb Hines' header.

Wednesday came back into the game, enjoying greater possession without building any penetrative attacks. Boro continued to look a threat on the break with Adam Johnson jinking past defenders at will. It was Johnson who secured the points for Boro with a third goal five minutes from time after some neat build-up. Aladiere latched onto Rhys Williams' pass into the channel and ferried the ball back to Gary O'Neil, who picked out Johnson at the far post. The winger cut inside and fired his sixth goal of the season into the bottom corner of Grant's goal.

Once again, Boro may have lacked fluency but were still too good for mediocre opposition. Johnson is quite simply a cut above the vast majority of players at this level and even derided squad members like Aliadiere and Julio Arca appear to be much more comfortable at this level. The young defence may have had the occasional wobble but still defendly stoutly for the most part. That department will be bolstered for the next three months at least by the proven Championship quality of St Ledger.

The Preston defender may only be the start of this week's recruitment. Widespread media reports suggest Gareth Southgate will increase his attacking options by signing Hull targetman Caleb Folan and/or injury-prone Everton youngster James Vaughan on loan.

West Brom's visit on Saturday will provide the sternest test of the season so far. For the time being, Boro seem in good shape for the battle ahead.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Boro plough on past Tractor Boys

Boro got their promotion push back on track yesterday, defeating Roy Keane's struggling Ipswich Town side 3-1. Victory was a welcome boost after two successive defeats and the departure of Tuncay and Roberth Huth to Stoke. The growing pessimism amongst fans was reflected by a sub-20,000 crowd - the first time this has ever happened for a league fixture at the Riverside.

Keane has certainly stamped his mark on the Suffolk club - they may be without a win all season but they could generously be described as committed. They picked up five bookings, an unsurprising tally given a string of clumsy lunges, including a challenge by Damien Delaney on Gary O'Neil that was so late it hasn't started yet.

The returning O'Neil started strongly and was heavily involved in the opening goal. He seemed to be fouled as he was baring down on Richard Wright but the referee waved away Boro's appeals. The reprieve didn't last long - Gareth McAuley dithered, allowing Marvin Emnes to return the ball back in the area where O'Neil had regained his footing in time to steer a looping header beyond the grasp of Wright.

Ipswich did have their moments, forcing a string of corners midway through the first half, one of which required David Wheater to clear McAuley's effort from the line. Despite lacking fluency, it was Boro who looked a more potent threat - a linesman's flag spared McAuley the embarrassment of an own goal while a sparkling run from Adam Johnson ended with an lamentable attempt to win a penalty, which led to fully deserved booking for the winger.

The pattern continued after the break as Ipswich struggled to convert possession into real chances while Boro offered sporadic incision. Two men often derided had a key influence. Julio Arca wrested control of the midfield, winning the ball well and prompting attacks intelligently. But it was the unlikely figure of Jeremie Aliadiere who provided the greatest influence on the outcome of the game.

Shortly after replacing the ineffective Leroy Lita, Aliadiere met Johnson's inviting cross with a deft header past Wright. A second followed when the Frenchman showed smart footwork to create space to drill into Wright's bottom corner. He should have also been credited with an assist - having linked smartly with fellow sub Mark Yeates to set up Emnes, the young Dutch striker missed the ball completely.

Boro couldn't hold on for a clean sheet as Ipswich became the first visiting side to score this season in the dying seconds of the game. Adam Johnson risked a second yellow card with a silly foul and again by getting involved in a frank exchange of views with penalty taker Jon Walters. Walters managed to regain his composure to beat an irritated Danny Coyne.

Not for the first time this season, Boro showed that they didn't need to achieve a great deal of attacking fluency to see off a limited side, overly reliant on set pieces and physicality. Even on a mediocre afternoon, Adam Johnson possesses more invention than most Championship defenders can handle.

The games come thick and fast over the next few weeks, starting with Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday night. Brian Laws side have made a decent start to the season and the Owls can be expected to provide more of a threat than an uncomplicated Ipswich side.

Off the field, there is growing expectation that highly rated Preston defender Sean St Ledger will soon move to the Riverside on a loan deal with a view to a permanent deal being completed in January. Goal-shy lump Caleb Folan is also the subject of heavy speculation, with a loan move to either Boro or Newcastle seemingly imminent.

With last season's relegated sides already congregated at the top of the league, the gap between the top two division is already being highlighted. The early suggestion is that this may turn out like Boro's last season in the second tier. Then, Forest, Boro and Sunderland dominated, with the mackems amusingly missing out on promotion despite accruing over 90 points. In such context, next week's match against second placed West Bromwich Albion takes on increased importance.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Boro end window empty handed

With the transfer window shut, barring any late and unexpected announcements, Boro's squad remains unchanged. Gareth Southgate's attempts to revitalise his pool of strikers appear to have failed.

Afonso Alves' mooted £7million move to Qatari club Al Sadd has not yet been completed. Amidst an afternoon of hilariously overblown coverage, Sky Sports News claimed the Middle Eastern side are in no rush to complete a deal with their transfer window remaining open for a further two weeks. The suspicion remains that the Brazilian was less than keen on the move from the start.

The search for a target man goes on, with Derby County confirming an unsuccessful bid was made for Rob Hulse, widely believed to have come from Boro. That deal seemed to be reliant on Alves' departure in any case.

Boro still have the option of recruiting free agents or loan signings which Southgate may take up if the Alves deal does belatedly go through. Unfortunately, that only heightens the possibility that the only attacking addition to the squad, if indeed any is made, will be Danny Webber.

A disgruntled fanbase will now be asking serious questions of the club's hierarchy. The departures of Downing, Tuncay and Huth have brought in over £20million and shaved a considerable amount off the wage bill. If Alves does still leave, that would bring another £6-7million in and relieve Boro of their obligation to honour his £40,000 a week contract.

In return, Boro have signed Danny Coyne and Leroy Lita on free transfers and Mark Yeates for around £700,000. The club's stated ambition of winning the Championship has certainly been hindered by a transfer policy that has seemed short-sighted and ambitious. The only explanation is that the club's finances are worse than most believed at the start of the summer. Either way, uncertain times lie ahead.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Late goal sinks Boro

A difficult week for Gareth Southgate ended with a first league defeat of the season at Ashton Gate yesterday afternoon. Bristol City striker Nicky Maynard struck his second of the game in injury time to secure a 2-1 win for Gary Johnson's side.

Robert Huth had captained the side and marshalled the defence impressively in the opening weeks of the season. With Huth and Tuncay departed to sit on the bench at the Britannia Stadium, a defensive reshuffle was necessary. Jonathan Grounds shifted to the centre of defence alongside new skipper David Wheater with Andrew Taylor remaining at left back. There were also recalls for Tony McMahon and Leroy Lita after Tuesday's Carling Cup defeat at Nottingham Forest.

After a goalless first half, it was the home side who took the lead after the break, Maynard taking advantage of Grounds' slip to curl past Danny Coyne. Boro were drifting towards defeat until Louis Carey handled Jeremie Aliaidere's cross with ten minutes remaining. Adam Johnson slotted the penalty home for his fifth of the season.

As on Tuesday night, Aliadiere then spurned a glorious chance to win the game, blazing over the bar from inside the area. As on Tuesday night, Boro were punished for it. With the ninety minutes up, Maynard secured a late, late win for the Robins with another composed finish.

Southgate doesn't have any time to start feeling sorry for himself. Two defeats in five days have shown the squad isn't as strong as the opening four games suggested. With just over two days to go until the transfer window shuts, Boro have still to find a buyer for Afonso Alves, the last of the real high earners.

The squad is also desperately thin across midfield and attack. If Southgate can't do any better than Danny Webber, Boro are unlikely to be able to keep up with the Championship pacesetters.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Double deal stokes fires of discontent

After weeks of speculation, the flurry of expected departures from the Riverside began in earnest today. Tuncay Sanli and Robert Huth have both joined Tony Pulis' Stoke City in a double deal reported to be worth £11m to Boro.

Tuncay's departure has been touted for some time - indeed, Gareth Southgate had expressed his amazement that the Turkish international was still available at the start of the season. A charismatic if inconsistent influence during his time on Teesside, it will be intriguing to see how the enigmatic Tuncay fits into Pulis' direct style. His touch, poise and generally high workrate were always likely to attract attention from a top flight side, although its hard to believe this is the move Tuncay had in mind at the start of the summer.

His disappearing act during the middle of last season seemed to be forgiven almost instantly. He will depart with the goodwill of most fans - when he was good, he could be very, very good.

The departure of Southgate's latest captain is more of a disappointment. Robert Huth had played a key role so far, leading a defence yet to concede a league goal this term. The club had seemed somewhat more optimistic about retaining his services but with Afonso Alves still an unwelcome drain on resources, Boro felt they had little choice but to accept the chance to get the well paid German of the wage bill. With Chris Riggott and Emanuel Pogatetz still to return to the squad, the manager clearly felt he had adequate cover in place.

The departure of Huth and Tuncay has led to some predictable bed-wetting from some more excitable members of the Boro fanbase. Although some will quibble the transfer fee received, it has to be remembered the damage done to Boro's position by relegation. It was never feasible to maintain a Premier League wage bill, even if it was one of the lowest in the top flight. The departures of Stewart Downing and Mido (and that only on loan) were never going to be enough.

After growing accustomed to life at English football's top table, some fans don't seem to have grasped the consequences of demotion to the Championship. Stoke may not be regarded as a particularly large or glamorous club but they do have Premier League money and that, along with the increased exposure in World Cup year, is the crucial factor. Indeed, it would be naive to think that it was anything other than that source of income that brought Huth and Tuncay to Teesside in the first place. The club can't offer the money and exposure that Stoke can - its that simple. Neither player should be condemned for treating football as a job.

Much of the criticism of last season's relegation that has been aimed at the club is fair. But to suggest that today's sales are a further error is wilful ignorance. It is an inevitable consequence of last season's events. The need to balance the books cannot be ignored. The holes in the club's finances have to be plugged and if that can be done without the sale of academy products like David Wheater and Adam Johnson then all the better.

Steve Gibson and Gareth Southgate made mistakes last season and have admitted as much. Given the choice, this writer would have changed the manager in January and, given the chance, at the end of last season too. But to use every action the club takes as a stick to beat them with isn't healthy for anyone. To question the motive of either man is ridiculous - both deserve better. Their competence can and should be subject to scrutiny but some of the most vocal critics need to accept the reality of the club's position.

Most important now is using the belated arrival of funds to strengthen the squad. The mooted signing of goal-shy Sheffield United reject Danny Webber does not inspire the least bit of confidence. Rob Hulse is an even longer term target - an offer to Derby may finally be made. It promises to be a hectic bank holiday weekend, with the game at Bristol City almost relegated to a sub-plot.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Boro crash out of Carling Cup

Boro suffered their first set back of the season last night as Nottingham Forest earned a place in the third round of the Carling Cup. Forest won 2-1 after extra time with Polish midfielder Radoslaw Majewski sealing the win in extra time.

Gareth Southgate made three changes from Saturday's side, replacing Tony McMahon, Jonathan Grounds and Leroy Lita with Justin Hoyte, Andrew Taylor and Jeremie Aliadiere. Boro looked good to continue their winning run when Adam Johnson completed a neat move by sweeping past Paul Smith just before half time.

The defence was breached for the first time this season early in the second half. Boro failed to clear a corner kick and Danny Coyne could not keep out Luke Chambers' shot. Forest's influence grew after Billy Davies introduced Nathan Tyson and Dele Adebola. Adebola was involved in the winning goal, squaring for Majewski to score in the 103rd minute.

The Carling Cup exit may yet prove to be a timely reminder of the limitations of Boro's squad after a strong start to the season. It is clear that any additions to the squad can only be made after players have left. There may finally be some progress in this regard, with Southgate confirming he omitted Tuncay from the squad as he "didn't feel he was in the right frame of mind for the game".

There will continue to be plenty of distractions until 5pm next Tuesday. What shape Boro's squad is in by then will dictate how successful a season lies ahead.


Boro's exit was far from the top of the Carling Cup agenda after a night of depressingly predictable violence at West Ham. It is cliched in such instances to point out that the troublemakers represent a minority of West Ham and Millwall fans - in this case that minority is still far too big to be ignored.

A man lies in hospital today after being stabbed. More were injured. Local residents endured a night of terror. For this to happen over a football games isn't just wrong, it is absurd.

Its hard to think of anyone who comes out of last night untarnished. The majority of the blame has been apportioned to the West Ham fans but the visitors are hardly unblemished. There were widespread reports of monkey chants towards Carlton Cole and fights with police and stewards.

As well as widespread violence before and after the game, Hammers fans invaded the pitch on more than one occasion. Junior Stanislas' mindless goading of the away fans after his equaliser is not a moment to be proud of either.

After a traumatic week for the club, there may have been a forlorn hope that some semblance of dignity would descend on the occasion. Calum Davenport's career may well have been ended by a horrific stabbing at the weekend. Midfielder Jack Collison's father died a day after Davenport and his mother were stabbed. The contrast between Collison's quiet dignity and the brainless louts on the Boleyn Ground pitch could not have been starker.

The most depressing result of last night is that the inevitable consequences will hurt normal, civilised people more than the morons who instigated the trouble. Many of those in attendance were already the subject of banning orders and it seems naive to think many of those were even bothered with the match as a sporting contest.

The reasonable bulk of West Ham's fans will be the ones to suffer if their club is penalised by expulsion from the competition or are ordered to play behind closed doors. Wider still, it seems the frequently heavy-handed treatment of away fans will not be going away.

There's few other spheres of social life where the kind of profiling and restriction of movement that travelling fans can face would be tolerated. Such a high profile instance of public disorder at a football game will only encourage a safety first, guilty until proven innocent approach.

Thanks to the actions of some who choose to associate themselves with these two clubs, the rest of us will all suffer. Sadly, you really don't need to wonder if they'll be proud of themselves for very long.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Boro march on

Another Championship fixture brought three more points and a fourth successive clean sheet for Boro. Gareth Southgate's side rarely had to work to ease to a comfortable 2-0 victory over Doncaster Rovers at the Riverside. The win took Boro to the top of the table for 24 hours before Cardiff thumped next Saturday's opponents Bristol City.

The developing partnership between Leroy Lita and Marvin Emnes was interrupted early on during the game. After a bright start, the Dutchman was stretchered off after being clattered by Rovers keeper Neil Sullivan. The ex-Wimbledon veteran must have considered to himself fortunate that his recklessness was punished with only a yellow card.

It was Emnes' replacement who made the breakthrough for the home side. Tuncay ran onto Lita's deft flick to fire confidently into the bottom corner.

Neither side managed to build any attacking momentum on a warm summer's afternoon. The visitors enjoyed their fair share of possession but their attacks floundered on the imperturbable partnership of Robert Huth and David Wheater.

For their own part, despite the occasional glimpse of class from Tuncay and Adam Johnson, Boro struggled to create a great deal of chances. However, any fears of a Doncaster comeback ended with twenty minutes remaining, when Lita controlled Tony McMahon's cross smartly before blasting the ball past Sullivan from close range. Lita earned a yellow card for his enthusiastic celebrations, a nonplussed Tuncay trotting some thirty yards behind carrying the discarded no.9 shirt

It was not a performance to quite dispel all the concerns over the ongoing difficulty to achieve attacking fluency at home. Nonetheless, it was a largely positive afternoon. Despite an often underwhelming display, Boro still won comfortably. The defence, led impeccably by Robert Huth, looks a class above at this level. Adam Johnson looks confidence and the early indications are that Danny Coyne and Mark Yeates are solid additions to the squad.

Nottingham Forest tomorrow night could well prove a stiffer challenge, even if Billy Davies' side have not started the season as well as had been expected. With the heavy 46 game schedule in full swing, Gareth Southgate may well be tempted to use some fringe players with Saturday's game at Bristol City in mind. His side have started well - only 42 more games to go...

Video highlights of Saturday's game here (UK only!)