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

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