Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Drifting into the abyss

Another week and another defeat. Boro's 2008/09 season is descending from difficult to disastrous, from failure to farce. By any measure, the team's form is disastrous:
  • No win in 13 Premier League games
  • The lowest scoring team in the not just the division but the entire league
  • No goal in 4 league games
  • One goal scored in 8 league games
  • One clean sheet in 10 league games
There may have been equally disastrous spells in the past but rarely has the mood surrounding the club been so depressing. There's paranoia in the dugout and growing apathy in the stands. The club are so deeply entrenched in their position that it barely seems worth to effort to voice dissent. Gareth Southgate has made it clear he won't walk. Keith Lamb has made it clear he won't be sacked. They've been rather less clear on what they will do to save the club from relegation.

Saturday's defeat at Manchester City barely raised a grumble. The home side may have spent a great deal of money but the likes of Nigel de Jong, Wayne Bridge and Craig Bellamy, able as they may be, should not inspire dread. City are an erratic and largely mediocre side. The winless run may well have been ended if Afonso Alves had taken even one of four presentable chances. But once City were in front, they were rarely troubled.

Its a sign of how expectations have gone through the floor that defeat with the merest semblance of fight is now deemed acceptable. The last game at the Riverside against Blackburn saw the lowest crowd of the season. Bar five minutes baiting pantomime villain Sam Allardyce, there was barely a sign of life in the stands. Defeat on Saturday was met with troubling ambivalence. Its hard to believe a Boro crowd has ever taken defeat at the hands of Craig Bellamy this lightly.

The fans cannot be blamed. Criticism has no impact. The drastic action taken at Chelsea and Portsmouth this week will not be replicated at the Riverside, regardless of results. If 13 winless games and an increasingly inevitable relegation don't make the manager's position untenable, its tempting to think that nothing will. The club's hierarchy clearly feel showing doubt would be an unacceptable sign of weakness. Yet this stubborness is now the biggest threat to Boro's Premier League status since promotion in 1998.

Saturday offers a break from the dreary monotony of the league campaign but its hard to see the afternoon offering much in the way of rewards. Gianfranco Zola's West Ham (Zola's for the time being at least) are a resilient and compact side who must be strong favourites to reach the last eight. Less than a year ago, Southgate was castigated for the feeble perfomance against Cardiff, the failure to sprinkle a dash of glamour and excitement into our stodgy existence in the middle third of the Premier League. Most people connected with the club seem past caring about the FA cup any more.

A glance at the foot of the Championship table makes sobering reading. Of the bottom seven, only Doncaster Rovers have never played Premier League football and there's plenty more top flight alumni lolling around midtable with little sense of purpose. Last time Boro went down, the promotion campaign was spurred on by a burning sense of injustice. If relegation does come this year, there can be no excuses. We must hope that there will at least be a fight.

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