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.

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