Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Gibson backs Southgate

Gareth's the man for Gibbo

Steve Gibson today gave Gareth Southgate his firm backing. The Boro chairman accepted the team's form was a cause for concern but said he had no plans to sack the manager in a statement published on the club's official website.

With relegation a bigger threat than it has been at any time since 1997, questions over Southgate's future have inevitably arisen. Gibson's levels of patience with his managers is well known and it seems unlikely the chairman will be doing anything to change that image any time soon. Hopes/fears Southgate would retain the job next season even in the Championship can only be heightened by Gibson's words.

While acknowledging the growing unrest amongst fans, Gibson stated "the magic wand in our situation isn't sacking Gareth Southgate...if I was to sack Gareth now, how would it help the situation?". Gibson does have a partial point - having stuck with Southgate through the bulk of a tough campaign, there would be little to gain from bringing in a new man with little time to work with the team and no scope to recruit new players. Even if Southgate were to go, the choice would be limited. It would be virtually impossible to attract a manger already in employment. Even those without a job may baulk at a taking over a team staring relegation in the face.

Whether Gareth is the man to lead us through a challenging future is harder to argue. Southgate has been under strain in recent weeks with the growing crisis having visible effects. With Stewart Downing almost certain to leave in the summer, and others likely to follow, whatever division Boro are in next season promises to be another difficult campaign.

If the great escape is pulled off, the manager will have to remodel a squad which has struggled for months into one capable of winning Premier League matches with minimal resources. Turnover will be even higher in the event of relegation, with vital importance attached to building a new squad to tackle a gruelling 46 game campaign. Unlike last time, there will not be £5m to blow on a talisman like Paul Merson. The final eight games of this season will not be the end of these challenging times.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Running out of time

Boro are now four points from safety at the bottom of the Premier League after a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat to Stoke City yesterday. Ryan Shawcross glanced Rory Delap's long throw past Brad Jones to give the Potters victory with six minutes to go. With just nine games to save Premier League status, three against members of the current top five, the situation is becoming desperate.

Yesterday's game was typical of so many this season, particularly away from home. There were glimpses of passing and movement that showed promise but we failed to capitalise when we were on top. Boro haven't scored an away goal since Tuncay's tap in at the KC Stadium on 6 December. Then, when under pressure, defending our area in the dying moments, we cracked. Shawcross' header was the 12th goal Boro have shipped in the last ten minutes of league games this season. Those goals have cost 12 points - the difference between battling for survival and aiming for Europe.

The most damning reflection of Gareth Southgate's management is that the same mistakes are being made time after time. Despite getting the team to pass the ball nicely at times, a tally of 21 goals in 30 games is asking for trouble. The repeated defensive lapses late in games and against set pieces do not suggest the manager or his coaching team are able to exert any significant influence over performance.

The future looks bleak. Fulham may have succeeded in what seemed a hopeless cause last season but there's little evidence that Boro are capable of the same. The team simply doesn't score enough goals and seems to lack the inclination or personnel to take a more attritional approach to collecting points.

There is no guarantee that replacing the manager would have improved performance or the chances of staying up. However, its becoming harder to argue that making a change could make things any worse. Boro have scored fewer goals than any other team in England or Scotland, won once in eighteen league games and lost eight successive games on the road. Those statistics cannot be argued with.

Its hard to blame those who are now turning on Gareth Southgate and even Steve Gibson. It doesn't feel like the club has done all it can to succeed in a relegation scrap that has been on the cards for months. The failure to bolster midfield looked a bad move even before Lee Cattermole ended Didier Digard's season. Even if those talking of the 'death' of the club are being ludicrously melodramatic, the gaggle of Premier League alumni at the bottom of the Championship hints at difficult times to come.

That said, Southgate deserves much better than some of the stick being dealt out by keyboard warriors. The man lifted our first trophy, was a hero in Cardiff and Rome. A man with no previous connection with the area who has represented the club since 2001 with great dignity and genuine commitment. We should never forget that. His competence as a top flight manager has to be questioned - the dire position we're in and the run that has got us there demand it. His attributes as a man cannot.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Stay of execution

Marlon King gets Boro out of jail...

Somehow, some way, yesterday's relegation battle with Portsmouth didn't end in defeat. There's scant encouragement to be taken from another insipid performance that did absolutely nothing to suggest Gareth Southgate's team have enough about them to avert the drop.

Boro's first half display was amongst the worst seen in a grim season at the Riverside. Boro were toothless up front, anonymous in midfield and nervy at the back. Niko Krancjar wandered unencumbered around the middle of the pitch, free to pick out his fellow forwards time after time. Even when David Nugent hit the post, Boro did not heed the warning.

Emmanuel Pogatetz screwed a clearance horribly out for a corner, the nadir of an execrable first half from the skipper, who was mercifully withdrawn at the break. The home defence was half asleep as Portsmouth teed up Peter Crouch to volley past an unsighted Brad Jones.

After the break, there was some improvement but this was almost inevitable after the opening 45 minutes. David James was at least forced into action, saving well from a Tuncay header and a Taylor volley. Pompey's threat on the break was eroded by fatigue and tactical conservatism. Matty Bates' embarrassing red card worked to Boro's advantage, galvanising a tetchy and irritable crowd.

With Bates dismissed and the ineffective Arca withdrawn, Tuncay dropped back to midfield and lifted the team into one last charge. Haring all over the pitch like a hyperactive schoolboy, the pressure began to grow. The home fans drew an unflattering comparison between the Turk's efforts and those of his team-mates, much to Southgate's chagrin.

Finally, in the fourth minute of added time, Boro earned a reprieve. Adam Johnson's corner was turned back across the face of goal by Robert Huth. David James did magnificently to parry Tony McMahon's header but the rebound was unmissable, even for Marlon King.

Having evaded a potentially catastrophic defeat, it could and should have gone even better. With seconds left, substitute Afonso Alves ran onto Johnson's superb through ball. The Brazilian's tentative finish was typical of his frustrating spell on Teesside.

Despite the point saved, it was still a deeply concerning performance. The lack of poise and ability shown in the first 45 minutes was frightening. Even if the effort in the second half was unstinting, the quality was still not much better. Few teams would let superiority slip as meekly as Portsmouth did in the closing stages.

Off the pitch, a crowd of just 24,000 were reduced to grumbling for much of the game. If the manager was right to point out that some of the criticism was self-defeating, he really is in no position to test the patience of fans who are reaching breaking point. If his team could defend set pieces with the half the tenacity the manager defends his under-performing 'group', there wouldn't be an issue. Whatever the wisdom of terrace chants, they are borne out of an understandable anxiety about the future. Faith in Southgate's ability to safeguard our top flight status erodes with every passing week.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Final Countdown

Its quite commonplace to denigrate the FA Cup as a “distraction” these days even if it doesn't really convince. Complaining that the extra games would be an irritant after busting a gut in an attempt to get through rings hollow. Either way, with a rush of blood from Jones and a flick of Fellaini's bouf, our season is now distraction free and we are free to revel in the relentless, soul-sapping grind of a survival battle.

Its certainly been a curious few weeks since the cathartic defeat of Liverpool. Its always been a trait of the Boro that straightforward incompetence just won't do. Not when you can raise the hopes of your long-suffering fanbase, let them just begin to believe that everything will work out before turning round and kicking them square in the chaps.

The last fortnight is Middlesbrough Football Club in microcosm. Unexpected, heroic, raucous victory against all expectation. Months of negativity washed away with a performance that finally revealed the potential concealed over those bleak, winless months. People left the stadium smiling, feeling better than when they entered. It couldn't paper over all the cracks but at least we could enjoy the renewed optimism while it lasted.

Which was precisely four days. Where Spurs were supposedly floored by a gruelling 2 hours at Wembley, we had momentum for the first time in months. It didn't work out like that – Droopy managed to rustle tens of millions worth of fresh, cup-tied players from his unbalanced, bare bones squad while we never looked capable of emulating the Liverpool performance. Robert Huth displayed mobility befitting the 'Berlin Wall' nickname. The manager and players seemed shell shocked afterwards. We should have known better.

Last Sunday, there were signs that we might be able to save ourselves but bitter reminders of this team's failings. It takes impressive resilience to bounce back from the humiliation of White Hart Lane and take the ascendancy in such a tricky fixture. Everton were tentative, the fans nervous – the half time lead was merited. If those levels could be maintained, we should have no problems collecting enough points over the next ten games.

Unfortunately, the only consistent run we've achieved all year was that horrific, epic run between Villa Park in November and the Riverside in February. Maintaining concentration and standards have hitherto proved beyond this set of players and coaching staff. It has been a very long time since we achieved the kind of consistent run that we now need to stay up. Survival hopes realistically hinge on the next few weeks, with games against Stoke, Bolton, Hull and Fulham after today. If we're not moving clear of the bottom three by then, it will be a tall order to save ourselves over those tricky final five games.

The recurring weakness to aerial attacks has cost countless points already. With the exception of Roy Hodgson's team, the tactical approach of all of our opponents during this key run is tailor-made to expose this frailty. With every passing week, the pressure builds, the grim consequences of our current position cloying every minute of every game. Our habitual mid-table comfort zone has been abandoned. There are no more second chances.

Read this (including original typos) and more in Saturday's Fly Me To The Moon.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Boro come unstuck against Toffees

Boro's fourth successive FA Cup quarter final ended in defeat on Sunday, another lead thrown away with Gareth Southgate's men unable to resist Everton's second half fightback. Having merited a half time lead against the nervy Toffeemen, familiar failings ended dreams of a first trip to the new Wembley with both Everton goals coming from straightforward balls into the box.

Any optimism created by the unexpected triumph against Liverpool was comprehensively squashed by Wednesday's dismal capitulation at Spurs. The defensive solidity of recent weeks evaporated at White Hart Lane and the paralysing failure to resist set pieces had made an unwelcome return. Despite the heavy defeat, Gareth Southgate decided to entrust the same starting eleven with the task of reaching the last four of the FA Cup. The best hope seemed to be that the weight of expectation overcame David Moyes' team as it did so painfully to Boro twelve months ago.

If that seemed unlikely pre-match, hopes began to rise throughout the first half. The home crowd were quickly silenced as the visitors made a confident start, keeping the ball well high up the field. There could, and maybe should, have been an early lead when Jeremie Aliadiere shanked a presentable opportunity over the bar.

With their striking options limited and their only inventive midfielder out for the season, Everton looked anything but a top six side. The frustration in the home stands was palpable. If Goodison Park, with its wooden stands and restricted views, is a relic from football's past, it befits the views of a fanbase that gorged on success in the 1980s but hadn't enjoyed an FA Cup semi-final since 1995. Belief amongst those in red, on the pitch and in the stands, crept higher.

Just before half time, the home defence could only partially clear a free kick idiotically conceded by Leon Osman. Matthew Bates swung the ball back in and Tim Howard's efforts to repel David Wheater's header were somewhat less than convincing. In the Bullens Road Stand, it was bedlam. The whistle went - for fifteen minutes we were going to Wembley.

When the teams re-emerged after the break, roles were reversed. Everton re-jigged midfield, dropping Tim Cahill back and introducing Louis Saha to spearhead the attack. Once Aliadiere's efforts to add a second had been thwarted, Boro never looked capable of protecting the lead. Just five minutes in, the defence was breached. For once, Marouane Fellaini escaped the attentions of Robert Huth and with Brad Jones in the midst of an ill-advised dash from his line, the ball plopped depressingly over the line.

Having made his first error since being recalled, Jones looked increasingly nervous and the defence in front of him seemed little better. A further five minutes passed, Boro didn't clear a right wing cross, Osman retrieved the ball and Saha evaded Jones and Wheater to nod his centre home. Capitulation seemed a real danger as Leighton Baines spanked a free kick against the crossbar.

Despite Jones' jitters, there was still time for a late rally. Marvin Emnes and Adam Johnson ran at a tiring defence and Stewart Downing got greater joy on the right wing up against Baines. The nerves consumed the home team again, Tuncay almost equalising from a horribly miscued clearance and then Tim Howard spilling a free-kick from Gary O'Neil, the rebound cleared from the tips of Emnes' toes. A manful effort but in vain - a blast of the whistle sparing Everton from one final corner, leaving Boro with nothing to play for but survival.

As the manager admitted, the frailties which cost cup progress on Sunday are the very reason why the league season has turned into a grim battle for survival. That task looks increasingly difficult - another four wins seems a minimum requirement and the time left to get them is running out. As crushing a disappointment as Sunday was, if its the worst thing to happen to Boro this season, we should all be relieved.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Back down to earth

Brad does his jazz hands to no avail

Well that didn't last long, did it? The goodwill created by last week's victories over West Ham and Liverpool was all but erased by last night's 4-0 humping at White Hart Lane. The frugality of recent weeks disappeared as a rampant Tottenham took at aim at a horribly exposed Brad Jones. Boro conceded as many goals in ninety minutes last night as in the last seven matches.

Perhaps things may have been different had Tuncay not been the victim of a marginal offside decision with the score at 1-0. But that cannot conceal a desperate defensive display, which Gareth Southgate made no attempt to excuse. The first goal was the result of familiar failings from a set piece and two more goals came before half time after missed tackles left Jones helpless. Robert Huth, the stalwart of last week's clean sheet hat trick, had a miserable evening and did not emerge for the second half. The table makes for worrying reading, with only the unexpected three points accrued on Saturday keeping Boro in touch with the pack.

With ten games left, points need to be accrued fast. With 26 points on the board, its likely a minimum of four wins will be required. The best chance will come over the next five games - home games against Portsmouth, Hull City and Fulham sandwiching trips to Stoke City and Bolton Wanderers. Its imperative that a position of relative comfort is achieved by teatime on 19th April as the final five game look foreboding. The run-in includes only two home games - against Manchester United and Aston Villa - plus a trip to Champions League chasing Arsenal. The 'easier' games are at Newcastle and, on the last day, at West Ham - neither being particularly fruitful venues in the recent past.

With such a crucial time coming up, the fact that we're 90 minutes from playing at Wembley seems almost incidental. It still seems some way off - Everton are in resolute form and must be heavy favourites to win Sunday's quarter final. Its a stark contrast to 12 months ago, when Boro caved under the weight of expectation against Cardiff. Defeat when it almost certainly comes will at least be low-key and thoroughly predictable. That's consolation, of sorts.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Green shoots of recovery (plus Brad Jones: an apology)

It was a hell of a long time coming but it was almost worth the wait. Liverpool's title challenge may be suffered a terminal blow but Boro's fight for survival may be a fight after all. For the second time in four days, a rejuvenated Riverside revelled in post-letter liberation, saluting a second 2-0 triumph. At long last, there is hope.

Of course, it would be foolish to get carried away after one game. The league table still makes sobering reading, with only Stoke and West Brom sitting below Gareth Southgate's side. Only the most blinkered could deny the assistance given by the profligacy of Nabil El Zhar and Dirk Kuyt. And performing against Liverpool is no guarantee that Southgate will be able to resolve the issue of insipid displays against more limited opposition.

Nevertheless, there were several encouraging signs. Robert Huth managed to complete three games in eight days and was a colossal presence in all of them. Huth seems to be having a becalming influence on his colleagues too with David Wheater beginning to recover from an indifferent run. Matthew Bates has helped to buttress a once leaky defence. The troublesome right flank has been bolstered by the return to fitness of Justin Hoyte and Gary O'Neil. Stewart Downing looks every inch an international quality footballer. The reinstatement of the Tuncay-Aliadiere strikeforce has added graft, flair, pace and two goals from the Turk.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the form of oft maligned keeper Brad Jones. Some ill-qualified observers may have questioned his abilities but he's yet to turn in a below par performance this season. Assured in the air, smart reactions in the box and assertive in distribution, he's justifying Gareth Southgate's faith and proving the doubters, myself included, very wrong. Long may it continue.

Most encouraging of all was the collective resilience shown. The team has wilted in the closing stages of too many games this season but on Saturday it was Liverpool's spirit was broken. Carragher and Gerrard made sullen departures, passes began to drift out of play with increasing frequency while Boro grew in confidence. Rafa Benitez must at least be grateful for the finishing of Marlon King, who really should have heightened Liverpool's embarrassment during a clumsy cameo appearance.

Attention now turns to Tottenham tomorrow night. With the likes of Cudicini, Chimbonda, Palacios and Keane cup-tied on Sunday, the impact of Sunday's gruelling Carling Cup final is unlikely to have a huge effect on the game, however much Harry Redknapp protests. With the bad blood over Spurs' protracted efforts to recruit Stewart Downing still fresh (never mind the departure of Jonathan Woodgate last January), victory tomorrow would mean more than just another three points.