Saturday, 24 January 2009

Window Watch: Farewell then, Mido (groin)....

One out...

After 18 frustrating months, Mido's Boro career is drawing to a close. The Egyptian striker has signed a loan deal at Wigan to replace Villa-bound Emile Heskey. Despite his undoubted talent, few will mourn his departure. After completing a £6m move from Spurs in August 2007, Mido made an immediate impression. If his debut goal owed more to comedy goalkeeping from Tony Warner, his second in two games created more of a stir. Having being subjected to the full scope of Geordie 'wit', Mido ran on to Fabio Rochemback's through ball to silence the visiting fans.

The Egyptian has been living off the goodwill from that game for some time. Injuries soon put an end to his good start and when he eventually returned for last year's 4th round tie at Mansfield, he was embarrassingly unfit and overweight. His only meaningful contribution was to help Boro towards the last eight of the FA Cup, scoring via the post and Paddy Kenny to end 200 minutes of turgid stalemate with Sheffield United. A red card at Arsenal brought a premature end to the season.

This campaign started brighter. Clearly in better physical shape, Mido came off the bench to score the winner against Spurs and then a thumping drive at Anfield seven days later. First starts in the league and cup also brought goals. Having made such a vocal case for regular first team football, things soon went sour. The past few months have seen niggling 'injuries' occur with suspicious regularity, regular moans in the press and an all-too-familiar weight gain. Mido may have all the technical attributes to make a big impression in the Premier League but until he learns to conduct himself in a disciplined, professional manner, his nomadic career is doomed to being a tale of wasted opportunities.


...and one in

Mido's replacement will be fomer Watford and Hull target man Marlon King, who has joined on a six month loan deal. King's signing has had a mixed reception, with concerns about his character almost as prevalent as those about his ability. King had spent the first half of the season on loan at Hull but that spell was curtailed after a dispute with manager Phil Brown last week.

Its not the first time King's spell on Humberside was tainted by controversy. In the past three months, King has been arrested after accusations of punching a 20 year old girl, banned from driving after doing 106mph in a 60mph zone and was involved in a bizarre scrap with team-mate Dean Windass in a Scarborough casino. His time with first club Gillingham was also tarnised by brushes with the law.

Although Gareth Southgate will no doubt be relieved to have removed the malignant influence of Mido from the dressing room, there has to be concern that the club have replaced one disruptive influence with another, less talented one.

Hopes of a second signing are receding with Crystal Palace midfielder Ben Watson set to opt for a move to Wigan. Boro had agreed a £2m fee with Palace but the move appears to have broken down over Watson's personal terms - with some reports suggesting the midfielder requested £25,000 a week. With Wigan presenting a more attractive alternative, based on current form at least, the move seems destined to failure leaving Southgate still desperately short of options in midfield. Its a depressing reflection of Boro's plummet down football's food chain.


Thrown to the Wolves

After a desperate defeat in West Bromwich last weekend, Boro will be hoping for a more rewarding trip to the Midlands this afternoon. Championship leaders Wolves host Boro for a place in the last sixteen of the FA Cup. Boro's last FA Cup tie at Molineux in 1981 proved to be a seminal fixture, defeat proving the start of the break-up of a young squad, relegation to Divison Three and almost the end of the club's existence.

This fixture is unlikely to provide such portents of doom. The hope must be that an escape from the growing pressures of the league campaign can liberate a squad whose confidence and togetherness is clearly damaged. With the home side looking set for promotion, its debatable which result would consititute a shock. Although Mick McCarthy's side have stuttered a little since loanee Michael Mancienne returned to Chelsea, they still possess some of the most promising players outside the top flight, such as winger Michael Kightly and striker Sylvain Ebanks-Blake.

In previous years, FA Cup runs have helped dragged the club out of trouble, providing some sporadic relief from the toil of a relegation battle. Whatever the manager may say about fixture congestion, Boro should be pleased if Wolves are brought back to the Riverside.

Prediction: Wolves 2 Boro 1

Friday, 9 January 2009

Window Watch: No Go For Gary O

Stewy: I love this club

'Downing to Spurs - Day 4,629': The already frosty relations between Boro and Tottenham Hotspur will not be getting better in a hurry after Gareth Southgate's latest press statement. The Boro manager stated his belief that if Stewart Downing does leave the club, it should be for a better side than Spurs. That may seem a fair point given Spurs are only above Boro on goal difference but its unlikely to foster a friendly atmosphere in the boardroom when the teams meet at White Hart Lane on March 4th. Although it was a bit of a cheap shot, its a measure of how much Spurs' conduct has irritated Gibson, Southgate and Lamb.

It now seems likely that Downing will be involved against Sunderland - both manager and captain have pleaded with the Riverside crowd to lay off Downing. Despite their best efforts, anything but a convincing home win is likely to see at least sections of the crowd turn on the no. 19.


After much speculation, Portsmouth yesterday confirmed they had made an unsuccessful bid for Gary O'Neil. The bid was described as "equating to £4.5m" with a fair chunk of that fee covering installments almost due under the deal that brought the midfielder to Teesside in 2007. That move had been initially agreed to cost £5m until O'Neil failed a medical, leading to the deal being restructured with £2.5m dependent on appearances. It is believed O'Neil is only a few games away from triggering the appearance-related payment. Even so, Boro seem intent on sticking to their pledge not to sell any senior players this month.


Barely a week ago, many Boro fans would have been content to give Mido a piggy back to his preferred destination after 18 months riddled with injuries, weight problems and precious few appearances. However, the temperamental Egyptian seems more appealing by the hour given the replacement strikers being mooted in the press. Mido is apparently furious that Gareth Southgate has discussed a swap deal with Newcastle involving perma-knacked goal-shy midfielder/striker/substitute Alan Smith. He won't be the only one - even the Marlon Harewood rumour seems comforting compared to Southgate's inexplicable fascination with Smith.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Boro dig their heels over Downing

The Stewart Downing saga rumbles on. Boro reiterated their vehement intention not to sell any senior players this month in a terse statement this morning. Reports this morning claimed Spurs had upped their offer to £14.5 million but chief executive Keith Lamb denied the offer had even been made. Suffice to say, it seems Downing has underestimated the determination of the club to keep the squad together until the end of the season or at least drive the price up.

With the growing realisation that the transfer is unlikely to happen this week, attention has turned to Downing's potential involvement in Saturday's vital derby match against Sunderland. Captain Emmanuel Pogatetz has already pleaded with fans not to turn against the winger. This seems somewhat optimistic. While many fans seem to sympathise with his frustrations, at least as many have been angered by the nature and timing of his request. The small minority who have vocally criticised Downing throughout his Boro career have been given license to step up the vendetta.

Gareth Southgate has a difficult decision to make as to whether to involve Downing at all. The fear will inevitably be that the benefits of having his talents available on the pitch will be outweighed by a negative response in the stands. With no league win since early November, the team simply can't afford to have the crowd's ire focussed on one of their own, particularly considering the strained atmosphere that pervades most fixtures at the Riverside.

January always promised to be a challenging month and the first seven days have been hard going for the club and its supporters. The fear remains that things could get much worse.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Cup is empty vessel for Boro

Downing's last game?

Boro won for the first time since November 9th against Barrow on Saturday but its still been a grim few days for Gareth Southgate. The 2-1 win over the Blue Square Premier side was not always convincing but any joy at progress to the 4th round of the FA Cup was tempered when Stewart Downing handed in a transfer request.

Firstly, the on-field action. There were some postives to be taken - Afonso Alves getting two much-needed goals, Josh Walker's tidy full debut in midfield and a bright showing from Downing, whose invention in a central position was marred by some terrible finishing.

Nagging concerns remain though - Downing was far from the only guilty party in front of goal. Barrow should have been out of sight by the time Jason Walker pulled one back for the non-league side. Boro's defending of set pieces was ineffective yet again and the creaking defence was grateful when the referee finally signalled the end of seven minutes of injury time. If a side in 20th place in the fifth tier of English football can cause so much discomfort, it does not bode well for the upcoming six-pointers against Sunderland, West Brom and Blackburn.

Any worries about the performance were put into perspective, however, when reports began to circulate on Sunday that Stewart Downing was preparing to hand in a transfer request. The grim news was confirmed this morning, his father and agent citing a lack of investment in the squad as the major motivation. While the timing of the request is remarkably inconsiderate, few fans would dispute that the club has stagnated (at best) since reaching the Uefa Cup final in 2006. This evening Boro have confirmed that Downing's request has been rejected.

Steve Gibson also issued an angry insistence that no players will be sold. There's no doubt the immensely hypocritical conduct of Tottenham has irritated both Gibson and Keith Lamb. Spurs' interest in Downing has been common knowledge for some time, with Lamb publicly condemning the Londoners' tactics as long ago as August 2006.

If their transfer tactics were unscrupulous before, it can be no surprise that matters have got even worse since Harry Redknapp became manager at White Hart Lane. Lamb's words on Sunday were very similar to those said two and a half years ago. Having used the media to unsettle Downing and his other target, Jermain Defoe, Redknapp feigned innocence when again talking about other clubs' contracted players in a press conference today.

Only goal difference separates the two clubs in the table and the club are understandably loath to sell to a relegation rival. Perhaps the biggest question the club should be asking is why Downing now seems so desperate to make a move.

Despite lurching from one crisis to the next for what has felt like years, Spurs retain huge ambition. Deluded, unrealistic ambition, but ambition nonetheless. Downing has recognised his hometown club are sleepwalking to the Championship. Results have fallen away in line with costs. No amount of bravado or angry press statements can disguise that uncomfortable truth.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Barrow boys on their way

From Holker Street... the Riverside

Cliche fans should have their loins girded - its FA Cup 3rd round weekend. Boro have a chance to end a winless run thats approaching two months against a Barrow side struggling themselves. The Cumbrian side are just outside the Blue Square Premier relegation zone while co-manager Dave Bayliss threatened to replace the majority of the team within a fortnight after defeat at Forest Green Rovers. Its not just the home team looking forward to a break from league troubles. Win, lose or draw, a crowd bolstered by almost 7,000 Barrovians is a timely financial boost for the non-league side.

Gareth Southgate is expected to name a strong side and has confirmed Josh Walker will make a full debut in midfield. With Mohammed Shawky, Gary O'Neil and Julio Arca all unavailable, the welcome return of Didier Digard alongside Walker seems likely. Southgate has also confirmed Brad Jones will get a rare outing at the expense of Ross Turnbull. Tony McMahon is available again. Unsurprisingly, Mido (groin) isn't.

Despite the gulf in league places between the teams, it could well prove a difficult afternoon. While a hefty beating is a possibility, its far from a certainty. Boro's recent record against non-league opposition hardly inspires confidence. It was Southgate himself who conceded a late penalty at Nuneaton Borough three years ago allowing Gez Murphy to force a replay.

In 1997, there was also a real scare in a 4th round tie with Hednesford Town, switched to the Riverside. Joe O'Connor made a name for himself by scoring twice and giving Hednesford an early lead. A Boro side containing luminaries such as Juninho, Ravanelli and Alan Moore belatedly went in front when Jan Aage Fjorfoft scored with four minutes to go and were grateful for a 3-2 win.

Prediction Boro 2 Barrow AFC 0

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If Boro are the big boys tomorrow, the opening of the transfer window has shown our position in the Premier League pecking order. The club seem to have decided against letting Stewart Downing move on at this moment. Nonetheless, Southgate's words do create the suspicion the sale has been vetoed on the grounds of timing rather than principle.

Its been made clear that the transfer window fund is at best next to nothing. Yet the press seem to have exaggerated the club's willingness to sell over the next month. With Portsmouth and West Ham looking likely to be forced into multiple sales, holding our nerve for this window could be crucial in staving off relegation.

There will still almost certainly be some departures. Mido seems the most likely to go and few would mourn the loss of a talented but infuriatingly unreliable player. The suggestion remains that Gary O'Neil still hasn't settled on Teesside so a return to Pompey can't be ruled out. Yet if either or both of these players do go, its possible that some careful re-investment or loan signings could leave the squad in a stronger shape.

Its much harder to make that argument about selling Downing or Tuncay. Whatever the fee on offer, there is little value in letting the major assets go.