Monday, 25 May 2009

Hammer blow puts Boro out of their misery

A desperate end to a desperate season. A relegation that has been on the cards for months was only confirmed on the final day of the season. Boro, ravaged by injuries, needed a minor miracle to stay up. With Hull and Newcastle obliging with defeats, it was inevitable that it was our own part of the equation that went awry. Boro went not with a bang, but with a whimper.

If few expected Boro to claw their way to safety, we had at least hoped for a fight. Sadly, Upton Park saw yet another timid display almost entirely bereft of aggression and purpose. Having knocked the ball around comfortably without ever giving Robert Green a hint of concern, it was yet another soft goal that saw Boro fall behind. The defence imploded allowing Carlton Cole to convert a cross from an unmarked position.

There was a flurry of resistance at the start of the second half. Parity was briefly restored after Tuncay fed Gary O'Neil. O'Neil drove across goal and into the bottom corner of Green's net. The scores only stayed level for seven minutes with West Ham back in front after a horrific error by Brad Jones. Junior Stanislas' optimistic shot was at least heading for the corner but lacked any other virtues. The ball somehow dribbled through Jones' inadequate dive and plopped pathetically over the line.

Once West Ham's lead had been restored, it was only a matter of time. By 6 o'clock, Boro were a Championship club for the first time since 1998. Only 35 points were needed to stay up. Its telling of the quality of the Premier League this season that after a pathetic season, yielding only 32 points (seven fewer than the tally that took us down in 1997), Boro still had at least half a chance of survival until half an hour from the end of the season.

A long and difficult summer awaits as the vultures circle. There doesn't seem to be much chance of a new manager coming in to change the mood so it will almost certainly be up to Gareth Southgate to clean up his own mess. Steve Gibson could face some difficult questions when he faces the fans tomorrow night on local radio.

For his own part, Gareth Southgate seems slightly dismissive of his critics. "I have to accept a large percentage of our supporters want a change of manager," said Southgate after the match. "The chairman will decide what happens ultimately. The newer supporters have not experienced this and they're the ones haranguing me and wanting change, but the majority of our fans will be aware that this club has been through a lot, lot worse than this."

Southgate would be foolish to continue to use past crises as an excuse for this season's ineptitude. A difficult history should make our club and our fans more able to take this relegation with more of a sense of context than our friends up the road at least. However, there is no escaping that Southgate and his team could and should have done much better this season. Its insulting to suggest that the only ones criticising the manager have simply been spoiled by eleven years of top flight football.

The "£83m" debt that has been Southgate's preferred fig leaf in recent weeks is believed to have been vastly reduced in practice. There has to be an end to a culture of excuses. The players and the manager haven't been good enough this season. Its important that Southgate accepts and understands the mistakes that have been made if he is to take the club forward.

There can be no doubt that massive changes are necessary. To reverse footballing cliche, we can't change the manager so we'll have to change the players. Southgate at least seems to have accepted this. There are some players who will almost certainly go - Tuncay being the foremost. Stewart Downing would have been considered the same before his foot injury but may well now be forced into staying until January at least. The likes of Jeremie Aliadiere, Gary O'Neil, Robert Huth, Didier Digard, Mido and Julio Arca are more than likely to go. Ross Turnbull and Matthew Bates seem unlikely to extend their contracts while Adam Johnson has only a year to go and seems reluctant to sign an extension.

Most of those, to be brutally honest, would not be greatly missed. A new Boro must be forged now - the attempt to be a Happy Shopper version of Arsenal has failed. The manager can afford to be a tad more pragmatic with his choice of player without turning Boro into another Bolton or Stoke. Build a defence around David Wheater and Chris Riggott. Start again with the midfield and attack. Southgate has built one team that has failed. He now has the good fortune of being allowed to build another one. We can but hope he gets it right this time.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Relegation party updates

Its been 12 years since Boro were last relegated

17:58 Its all over. West Ham win 2-1 and Newcastle's 1-0 defeat at Villa means they join Boro in the Championship next year. Hull and Sunderland survive despite defeats. A long and grim summer awaits

Gary O'Neil is lucky to get away with a yellow card for a horrible lunge at Diego Tristan. Newcastle and Boro heading down with West Brom at the moment.

Franks prepares to come on. West Ham look the more likely to score. Its only a matter of time now.

Back to square one. West Ham lead again and that must be that. Junior Stanislas' daisy cutter squirms past Brad Jones. That was a horrible error by Jones.

Matthew Bates flashes a speculative shot just over the bar. Hull and Newcastle still trail by a single goal but Kieron Richardson has equalised for Sunderland.

There is hope, there is hope. Tuncay slips it to Gary O'Neil who drives across Green into the bottom corner. 1-1.

We're off for the second half at West Ham. Josh Walker and Joe Bennett are on for Tony McMahon and Julio Arca. Stone the crows, after 46 minutes thats a shot on target at last.

Sunderland fans might be getting a bit twitchy after Nicolas Anelka scores a stunner at the Stadium of Light.

Howard Webb brings a dismal half to an end at Upton Park. With less than an hour to save Premier League status, Boro are losing the game they had to win. Abysmal defending allowed Carlton Cole a simple tap in. Despite plenty of possession, Boro haven't tested Robert Green at all. With Marlon King the latest player to drop out, Boro's attacking option on the bench is Jonathan Franks. Its a pathetic conclusion to a pathetic season.

Typically, the other results are going our way. Hull trail to a Darron Gibson howitzer at the KC Stadium while Newcastle trail after a barnstorming finish to the first half from Villa.

16:00 Its kick of at Hull, Villa and West Ham. Boro need to beat the Hammers to have any chance. If that happens, Newcastle and Hull lose and we can wipe out the Tigers' goal difference advantage, a miracle could happen.

West Ham team: Green, Spector, Ilunga, Neill, Upson, Noble, Kovac, Collison, Boa Morte, Stanislas, Cole.

Boro team: Jones, McMahon, Hoyte, Wheater, Huth, O'Neil, A Johnson, Bates, Arca, Tuncay, Emnes.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Downing injury could ruin summer plans

Stewart Downing's foot injury may have ended his season but it appears it may prolong his Boro career. It is widely accepted that Boro resolved the messy January transfer saga, when Downing handed in a transfer request, by agreeing to let the winger leave at the end of the season.

Initial reports suggest that the injury sustained after Stilian Petrov's clumsy challenge could rule Downing out for up to six months. The club are remaining coy but this summer's transfer plans will now be up for major revision.

Even if Boro somehow manage to evade relegation on Sunday, several departures are likely. Most observers expect Tuncay or Gary O'Neil to remain at the club next term, while relegation would surely curtail the Boro careers of high earners like Robert Huth. Ross Turnbull and Matthew Bates are out of contract and seem likely to move on other Premier League clubs.

Having received eight-figure bids from Spurs in January, the club were surely banking on receiving at least £10million for Downing this summer. That sum would have allowed the manager, whoever that will be, to add some new faces to the existing academy graduates to form the bulk of a squad to compete for promotion.

Having fought so long to keep Downing away from the White Hart Lane stalkers, the decision will be taken out of the hands of club and player if he is unable to pass a medical. With no transfer fee in the bank and Downing's top flight wages an unplanned presence on the books, the likes of David Wheater and Adam Johnson may have to be sacrificed to keep finances in shape.

When the final nail is driven into the coffin at Upton Park on Sunday, it will only be the start of a long and difficult summer. If Downing is forced into an unexpected cameo in the Championship, the task of rebuilding Boro will only become more complicated.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Staring down the barrel

They came for a wake but, for a while, it was a party. After the disappointment of Monday night, the picture seemed to be a little too black and white for comfort. Newcastle now had their destiny in their own hands and Boro needed two wins and an awful lot of luck.

Yet for a brief moment yesterday, hope flowed through Teesside veins again. The home team, so despondent on Monday night, had roared out of the blocks against an Aston Villa side in summer holiday mode. The opening goal was not long coming, Downing's shot blocked only to divert the ball to Tuncay. It was almost certainly the Turk's last appearance before the Riverside, in a red shirt at least, but his spectacular overhead finish is a fine memory to leave.

Ten minutes later, Gretar Steinsson's shot somehow squirmed through Boaz Myhill's grasp and Bolton were doing their part of the bargain. Surely Hull couldn't reverse their plummet now? When confirmation came just before the break that Fulham had taken the lead at St. James' Park, some twenty or so minutes before murmurs of such a score had spread in the stands, the Riverside was buoyant. The home team were roared off the pitch at the break, the 'Great Escape' belting out as players and public warmed to their task.

The cruel alignment of scores at half time only encouraged the gnawing sense of hope. A nervous, insipid second half display saw to that though. As has been the case all too often this season, taking the lead proved more of a burden than a platform for a side sorely lacking in belief. Tentative in possession and at the back, Boro let Villa back in the game and were now straining to resist the visitors' attacks. Ten minutes into the second half, a straightforward attack prompted familiarly calamitous defending. After several chances to clear were spurned, John Carew threaded the loose ball past Brad Jones.

Boro tried to rally and restore the lead but never looked up to the task. Only when Tuncay headed Justin Hoyte's cross just over Brad Friedel's crossbar did a second goal look likely. At the other end, Villa could easily have found a winner. Although Boro at least retain an arithmetical chance of staying up, the point earned was scant consolation. If Villa can beat Newcastle next week and Hull lose to Manchester United, Boro still need to beat West Ham and overturn a four-goal deficit on the Tigers' goal difference.

Boro never recovered after Stewart Downing's enforced replacement midway through the first half. Stilian Petrov's cynical challenge has most likely ended Downing's Boro career. Boro struggled to maintain shape and balance with Marlon King ineffective and Tuncay unable to pose the same threat from the centre of midfield. For all the effort that was put in yesterday, there was a distinct lack of quality. Villa's defence was rarely troubled after the opening flurry of Boro attacks.

Gareth Southgate seems intent on continuing as manager despite the disapproval of the crowd being made clear to him after the final whistle. The booing of the man who was integral to some of the most glorious moments in the club's history, as eleven years of top flight football draw to a close, was deeply depressing but completely understandable. The bald facts are that Southgate has taken the club from Uefa Cup finalists to relegation fodder in three years. No amount of cost cutting can conceal the scale of the plummet in Boro's status.

Steve Gibson has shown little sign that he's incline to make the changes that are surely needed this summer. Southgate's relationship with the fans has been irreparably damaged - the vast majority quite simply have no faith in the manager's judgement. The time for the chairman to make a difficult decision is drawing ever closer. With the future uncertain and thousands of disillusioned season ticket holders unlikely to renew, many clearly fear relegation might only be the beginning of Boro's decline.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Running out of time

It was a game that stuck out on the calendar for weeks, even months. Gareth Southgate put all his eggs in one basket, barely bothering to organise any resistance to Arsenal or Manchester United. Monday night's game at Newcastle was do or die. We didn't.

The last time Boro were relegated from the top flight, hopes were raised by defeating Aston Villa on the penultimate weekend of the season. Our plight now seems terminal and even a repeat of the 3-2 victory of twelve years ago may not be enough to drag the soul-sapping battle out for another week. The wrong result at the Riverside, St James' Park or the Reebok could confirm our relegation by 5 o'clock on Saturday.

If the fixture list has echoes of familiarity, there is little else in common with the doomed end to the 1996/97 campaign. The failings of the players and the management were concealed by a burning sense of injustice. The team had earned enough points on the pitch for 14th place and were undone by a draconian penalty. The consensus was that we did not deserve our fate. Whether that was true or not, it at least helped galvanise the club and the fans through the relegation battle and the subsequent promotion campaign.

The raw passion evoked by that season has been absent this term. Only the most blinkered could contend that, if and when relegation comes, we will not deserve it. As rival clubs got richer and our debts grew, it was always going to be harder to compete. Yet the efforts of recent months have been pathetic. There are some awful teams that are going to maintain Premier League status at the end of the season. Wigan, Stoke, Bolton and Blackburn are all safe or as good as now – can the club seriously claim we cannot compete with such teams?

The club has been overwhelmed with defeatism. You couldn't mount the stirring comebacks against Basle and Steaua, embarrass the Big Four so often or reach five cup finals in nine years without balls, ambition and aggression. However, you can certainly manage a record-breaking run of away defeats. Even after taking the lead against a dreadful Newcastle team, the impression was that no-one really believed we could hold on. Not the fans. Not the players. Probably not even the manager.

Gareth Southgate has been far too protective of a group of players who don't warrant such treatment. The attitude of some has been appalling while even those who have put in the effort have lacked composure. Few members of this squad can honestly say they have given of their best this season.

For his part, Steve Gibson must surely reassess his support for Southgate. It is grim watching a man who has given the club such sterling service tarnish his legacy with every passing week. His tactics and press comments have been increasingly erratic as the season has gone on. Gibson is the only man who has the power to put him out of his misery.

By the time we're back here in August, we'll have another long season, most likely in the league originally known as Division Two. We don't want to follow the same path as Charlton, Norwich and Southampton. We need a team with passion and belief that the fans can rally around. We need a team we can feel proud of again.

Read this and more in Saturday's relegation party edition of Fly Me To The Moon

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

On the brink

That, surely, is now that. It will take the most unlikely turnaround to avoid a return to the second tier of English football for the first time since 1998. Gareth Southgate gambled on last night's Tyne-Tees derby to save Boro's season and came out empty handed.

It all started so well. Tuncay wriggled into space and while Steve Harper managed to block his shot, he could only deflect it into the shins of Habib Beye. The ball, almost apologetically, rolled into the empty net. Several miles away in the clouds, there was bedlam. The visiting fans had come more in hope than expectation, particularly having learned of rare starts for Mohammed Shawky and Marvin "The Project" Emnes.

Once again, it didn't last. Despite the warning of Mark Viduka hitting the post, Newcastle were allowed to equalise with a goal of sickening simplicity. Danny Guthrie took the corner, Steven Taylor ran unchecked and Boro's lead disappeared after all of six minutes.

It was a contest of stomach-churning tension. It was impossible to relax for a moment - both sides displayed the nervousness and wretched incompetence that had left the clubs pegged on a pathetic 31 points with three games to go. As half time approached, despite the departure of Afonso Alves with a broken foot, Boro were looking the more composed on the ball. Marvin Emnes was the biggest surprise - a bright if somewhat erratic presence up front. After Harper blocked his first shot, for a millisecond it seemed Emnes would restore the lead. Instead, he fed his shot inches wide.

The second half continued in a similar vain. Neither side seemed to have the composure or belief to assert superiority. Boro again looked more composed on the ball but lacked purpose going forward. The crucial slip came soon after Alan Shearer withdrew the insipid Michael Owen. His replacement Obafemi Martins squirmed clear of Matthew Bates and shot past Brad Jones. It was a crucial blow.

Adam Johnson joined Jeremie Aliadiere from the bench as Boro pushed for an equaliser. The tide had turned though and Boro struggled to take advantage of Newcastle's tentative defending. With gaps being left at the back, there was always a risk of a third concession. With six minutes to go, Peter Lovenkrands turned in a cross from the right and the contest was effectively over.

In the biggest game of the season, all the familiar failings cost Boro. There was a failure to capitalise when we were on top, with Marvin Emnes missing a wonderful chance to make it 2-1. Then, when Newcastle managed to apply some pressure, Boro could not cope. Once again, defending on set pieces was simply not good enough.

Gareth Southgate highlighted the poor tackle on Alves by Nicky Butt, questions of offside over the second goal and the unfortunate absence of Didier Digard and David Wheater. Yet there can be no excuse. We're heading for the Championship because its where we deserve to be. This team lacks the belief needed to stay in this division. Only those who believe in miracles can have any confidence of Boro starting next season in the Premier League now.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Day of Destiny

Robert Huth was the hero last year with an 88th minute equaliser

Its still four days away but the nauseous feeling is already rising in the pit of my stomach. On Monday night, Boro make the short trip up the road to St James' Park to take on Newcastle in a game which both sides are banking on winning. The consequences of defeat are stark.

Thanks to Setanta's intervention, the rest of the Premier League's stragglers can crank the pressure up before the Tyne-Tees derby. Blackburn or Portsmouth have the chance to confirm another season of top flight football when they go head to head at Ewood Park. If Sunderland could win at Bolton, they would be tantalisingly close to doing the same.

The biggest game though surely involves fourth bottom Hull City. They host Stoke City, a more presentable opportunity for three points than their other games, at Bolton and at home to champions elect Manchester United on the final day. As last Saturday proved, even a watered down United line up is a colossal test for a struggling side. A win would leave Hull on 37 points and any loser on Monday almost out of reach. Anything less and a draw at St James's would leave both teams to fight another day.

Bearing in mind Boro's goal difference is seven worse than the Geordies, Gareth Southgate mustn't entertain thoughts of playing for a draw, as he has done against so many of the division's lesser lights this season. Finishing level on points with Hull or Newcastle will not be enough unless, like last season, there is a victory of freakish proportions in store at the end of the season.

Alen Boksic in 2001 - Boro's last win in Geordieland

Calling this game is not going to be straightforward - neither team has shown anything to inspire confidence in recent games. It is the resistible force against the movable object. Watching Boro's timid surrender against Arsenal and then Manchester United, there doesn't appear to be much evidence of fight left in the team.

Yet despite a more experienced and expensively assembled squad and the latest return of a departed messiah, Newcastle have arguably been even worse. A combination of sloppy finishing and the crossbar denied Liverpool a cricket score at Anfield last week, where Newcastle barely registered a shot. On top of that, Joey Barton dragged the club's name even further into the gutter with a sterling afternoon's work. Having been sent off for a pointless lunge at Xabi Alonso (a man who seems have replaced Pedro Mendes as the country's premier magnet for footballing violence), Barton topped it off by rowing with Alan Shearer after the game, pronouncing himself the club's best player and branding his manager "a prick" and "a shit manager".

Anything seems possible. A dismal 0-0 draw. A thumping home or away win if one side bottles it. A panic-ridden goalfest. Recent history would suggest honours being even. The last four meetings at St James' Park have ended in draws - the last time Boro lost at Newcastle, there was the consolation of the Carling Cup win eight days later. Boro haven't won at Newcastle since Alen Boksic's brace in 2001. With relegation as big a danger as its been since Terry Venables' salvage job, the time to end that record has surely come.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Going down with a whimper

For the second week in a row, faced with opponents amongst the best four in the league and the last four in Europe, Boro caved. The reputation earned for tweaking the nose of the rich and powerful seemed farcical as a half interested Manchester United cruised to three points with insulting ease.

Just as at the Emirates last Sunday, the entire gameplan was based on deep defence and hoping a goal could be plundered on the break. There were sporadic glimpses of attacking intent in the opening stages yesterday - John O'Shea did well to clear at the back post with Stewart Downing looming while Jeremie Aliadiere hit Ben Foster's legs with a tame effort. However, once Ryan Giggs had expertly slotted the ball into the bottom corner through a statuesque defence, the game was up.

If Boro had at least competed before the break, the second half performance was abysmal. United passed the ball round with an almost embarrassing ease. A simple run from Park Ji-Sung and a probing reverse pass from Wayne Rooney were enough to split the home defence wide open. Park didn't give Brad Jones a chance.

The rest of the game amounted to little more than a training exercise. United seemed able to score as many as they wished and merely settled for two as sufficient to complete the day's task. Rooney tormented Tony McMahon down the left before the full-back was withdrawn, and his replacement Matthew Bates stopped a third with a desperate block.

David Wheater battled manfully in the centre but was given little assistance by the alarmingly ponderous Robert Huth and an overworked midfield. Tuncay offered composure on the ball if little in the way of tactical discipline, leaving Matthew Bates to shuttle fruitlessly as Berbatov, Scholes and Giggs ferried the ball around the middle.

As an attacking force, Boro barely registered. Stewart Downing looks increasingly jaded by the responsibility of leading such an insipid, feckless outfit. Gary O'Neil is so patently disinterested it is a damning reflection on the rest of the squad that he is still selected. Marlon King was anonymous and Jeremie Aliadiere simply dire. Afonso Alves' second half appearance was his Boro career in microcosm - one twinkle-toed run ending in a stumble and a fall, one injury time free kick blasted woefully, embarrassingly off target.

With the club stubbornly sticking with a coaching staff and a set of players who have failed week after week, there seems little stomach for the fight. Its hard to see where the next goal is coming from, let alone the six or seven points that will surely be needed from the last three games to achieve an unlikely escape. The sense of enjoyment has evaporated from a crowd wallowing in muted resignation. When the club possesses neither the ability to win games nor the wit or intent to do anything to change matters, dissent seems pointless.

As Southampton, Norwich and Charlton contemplate life in League One, there can be no doubt the Championship can be tough going for Premier League alumni. With the club clearly no longer in a position to throw money at fixing the team, the fear is that, no matter how monotonously depressing this season has been, it may only be the tip of the iceberg. Whatever division we start next season in, there seems little hope of the drastic changes that are clearly needed.

Next Monday's game at Newcastle looms large on the horizon. A last chance to save ourselves, a game where failure would surely condemn Boro to relegation and maybe even give the barcoded hordes enough momentum to stagger to safety. After the meek performances of the last eight days, the worry is not whether we can win that fight, its whether we put up any fight at all.