Sunday, 30 August 2009

Late goal sinks Boro

A difficult week for Gareth Southgate ended with a first league defeat of the season at Ashton Gate yesterday afternoon. Bristol City striker Nicky Maynard struck his second of the game in injury time to secure a 2-1 win for Gary Johnson's side.

Robert Huth had captained the side and marshalled the defence impressively in the opening weeks of the season. With Huth and Tuncay departed to sit on the bench at the Britannia Stadium, a defensive reshuffle was necessary. Jonathan Grounds shifted to the centre of defence alongside new skipper David Wheater with Andrew Taylor remaining at left back. There were also recalls for Tony McMahon and Leroy Lita after Tuesday's Carling Cup defeat at Nottingham Forest.

After a goalless first half, it was the home side who took the lead after the break, Maynard taking advantage of Grounds' slip to curl past Danny Coyne. Boro were drifting towards defeat until Louis Carey handled Jeremie Aliaidere's cross with ten minutes remaining. Adam Johnson slotted the penalty home for his fifth of the season.

As on Tuesday night, Aliadiere then spurned a glorious chance to win the game, blazing over the bar from inside the area. As on Tuesday night, Boro were punished for it. With the ninety minutes up, Maynard secured a late, late win for the Robins with another composed finish.

Southgate doesn't have any time to start feeling sorry for himself. Two defeats in five days have shown the squad isn't as strong as the opening four games suggested. With just over two days to go until the transfer window shuts, Boro have still to find a buyer for Afonso Alves, the last of the real high earners.

The squad is also desperately thin across midfield and attack. If Southgate can't do any better than Danny Webber, Boro are unlikely to be able to keep up with the Championship pacesetters.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Double deal stokes fires of discontent

After weeks of speculation, the flurry of expected departures from the Riverside began in earnest today. Tuncay Sanli and Robert Huth have both joined Tony Pulis' Stoke City in a double deal reported to be worth £11m to Boro.

Tuncay's departure has been touted for some time - indeed, Gareth Southgate had expressed his amazement that the Turkish international was still available at the start of the season. A charismatic if inconsistent influence during his time on Teesside, it will be intriguing to see how the enigmatic Tuncay fits into Pulis' direct style. His touch, poise and generally high workrate were always likely to attract attention from a top flight side, although its hard to believe this is the move Tuncay had in mind at the start of the summer.

His disappearing act during the middle of last season seemed to be forgiven almost instantly. He will depart with the goodwill of most fans - when he was good, he could be very, very good.

The departure of Southgate's latest captain is more of a disappointment. Robert Huth had played a key role so far, leading a defence yet to concede a league goal this term. The club had seemed somewhat more optimistic about retaining his services but with Afonso Alves still an unwelcome drain on resources, Boro felt they had little choice but to accept the chance to get the well paid German of the wage bill. With Chris Riggott and Emanuel Pogatetz still to return to the squad, the manager clearly felt he had adequate cover in place.

The departure of Huth and Tuncay has led to some predictable bed-wetting from some more excitable members of the Boro fanbase. Although some will quibble the transfer fee received, it has to be remembered the damage done to Boro's position by relegation. It was never feasible to maintain a Premier League wage bill, even if it was one of the lowest in the top flight. The departures of Stewart Downing and Mido (and that only on loan) were never going to be enough.

After growing accustomed to life at English football's top table, some fans don't seem to have grasped the consequences of demotion to the Championship. Stoke may not be regarded as a particularly large or glamorous club but they do have Premier League money and that, along with the increased exposure in World Cup year, is the crucial factor. Indeed, it would be naive to think that it was anything other than that source of income that brought Huth and Tuncay to Teesside in the first place. The club can't offer the money and exposure that Stoke can - its that simple. Neither player should be condemned for treating football as a job.

Much of the criticism of last season's relegation that has been aimed at the club is fair. But to suggest that today's sales are a further error is wilful ignorance. It is an inevitable consequence of last season's events. The need to balance the books cannot be ignored. The holes in the club's finances have to be plugged and if that can be done without the sale of academy products like David Wheater and Adam Johnson then all the better.

Steve Gibson and Gareth Southgate made mistakes last season and have admitted as much. Given the choice, this writer would have changed the manager in January and, given the chance, at the end of last season too. But to use every action the club takes as a stick to beat them with isn't healthy for anyone. To question the motive of either man is ridiculous - both deserve better. Their competence can and should be subject to scrutiny but some of the most vocal critics need to accept the reality of the club's position.

Most important now is using the belated arrival of funds to strengthen the squad. The mooted signing of goal-shy Sheffield United reject Danny Webber does not inspire the least bit of confidence. Rob Hulse is an even longer term target - an offer to Derby may finally be made. It promises to be a hectic bank holiday weekend, with the game at Bristol City almost relegated to a sub-plot.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Boro crash out of Carling Cup

Boro suffered their first set back of the season last night as Nottingham Forest earned a place in the third round of the Carling Cup. Forest won 2-1 after extra time with Polish midfielder Radoslaw Majewski sealing the win in extra time.

Gareth Southgate made three changes from Saturday's side, replacing Tony McMahon, Jonathan Grounds and Leroy Lita with Justin Hoyte, Andrew Taylor and Jeremie Aliadiere. Boro looked good to continue their winning run when Adam Johnson completed a neat move by sweeping past Paul Smith just before half time.

The defence was breached for the first time this season early in the second half. Boro failed to clear a corner kick and Danny Coyne could not keep out Luke Chambers' shot. Forest's influence grew after Billy Davies introduced Nathan Tyson and Dele Adebola. Adebola was involved in the winning goal, squaring for Majewski to score in the 103rd minute.

The Carling Cup exit may yet prove to be a timely reminder of the limitations of Boro's squad after a strong start to the season. It is clear that any additions to the squad can only be made after players have left. There may finally be some progress in this regard, with Southgate confirming he omitted Tuncay from the squad as he "didn't feel he was in the right frame of mind for the game".

There will continue to be plenty of distractions until 5pm next Tuesday. What shape Boro's squad is in by then will dictate how successful a season lies ahead.


Boro's exit was far from the top of the Carling Cup agenda after a night of depressingly predictable violence at West Ham. It is cliched in such instances to point out that the troublemakers represent a minority of West Ham and Millwall fans - in this case that minority is still far too big to be ignored.

A man lies in hospital today after being stabbed. More were injured. Local residents endured a night of terror. For this to happen over a football games isn't just wrong, it is absurd.

Its hard to think of anyone who comes out of last night untarnished. The majority of the blame has been apportioned to the West Ham fans but the visitors are hardly unblemished. There were widespread reports of monkey chants towards Carlton Cole and fights with police and stewards.

As well as widespread violence before and after the game, Hammers fans invaded the pitch on more than one occasion. Junior Stanislas' mindless goading of the away fans after his equaliser is not a moment to be proud of either.

After a traumatic week for the club, there may have been a forlorn hope that some semblance of dignity would descend on the occasion. Calum Davenport's career may well have been ended by a horrific stabbing at the weekend. Midfielder Jack Collison's father died a day after Davenport and his mother were stabbed. The contrast between Collison's quiet dignity and the brainless louts on the Boleyn Ground pitch could not have been starker.

The most depressing result of last night is that the inevitable consequences will hurt normal, civilised people more than the morons who instigated the trouble. Many of those in attendance were already the subject of banning orders and it seems naive to think many of those were even bothered with the match as a sporting contest.

The reasonable bulk of West Ham's fans will be the ones to suffer if their club is penalised by expulsion from the competition or are ordered to play behind closed doors. Wider still, it seems the frequently heavy-handed treatment of away fans will not be going away.

There's few other spheres of social life where the kind of profiling and restriction of movement that travelling fans can face would be tolerated. Such a high profile instance of public disorder at a football game will only encourage a safety first, guilty until proven innocent approach.

Thanks to the actions of some who choose to associate themselves with these two clubs, the rest of us will all suffer. Sadly, you really don't need to wonder if they'll be proud of themselves for very long.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Boro march on

Another Championship fixture brought three more points and a fourth successive clean sheet for Boro. Gareth Southgate's side rarely had to work to ease to a comfortable 2-0 victory over Doncaster Rovers at the Riverside. The win took Boro to the top of the table for 24 hours before Cardiff thumped next Saturday's opponents Bristol City.

The developing partnership between Leroy Lita and Marvin Emnes was interrupted early on during the game. After a bright start, the Dutchman was stretchered off after being clattered by Rovers keeper Neil Sullivan. The ex-Wimbledon veteran must have considered to himself fortunate that his recklessness was punished with only a yellow card.

It was Emnes' replacement who made the breakthrough for the home side. Tuncay ran onto Lita's deft flick to fire confidently into the bottom corner.

Neither side managed to build any attacking momentum on a warm summer's afternoon. The visitors enjoyed their fair share of possession but their attacks floundered on the imperturbable partnership of Robert Huth and David Wheater.

For their own part, despite the occasional glimpse of class from Tuncay and Adam Johnson, Boro struggled to create a great deal of chances. However, any fears of a Doncaster comeback ended with twenty minutes remaining, when Lita controlled Tony McMahon's cross smartly before blasting the ball past Sullivan from close range. Lita earned a yellow card for his enthusiastic celebrations, a nonplussed Tuncay trotting some thirty yards behind carrying the discarded no.9 shirt

It was not a performance to quite dispel all the concerns over the ongoing difficulty to achieve attacking fluency at home. Nonetheless, it was a largely positive afternoon. Despite an often underwhelming display, Boro still won comfortably. The defence, led impeccably by Robert Huth, looks a class above at this level. Adam Johnson looks confidence and the early indications are that Danny Coyne and Mark Yeates are solid additions to the squad.

Nottingham Forest tomorrow night could well prove a stiffer challenge, even if Billy Davies' side have not started the season as well as had been expected. With the heavy 46 game schedule in full swing, Gareth Southgate may well be tempted to use some fringe players with Saturday's game at Bristol City in mind. His side have started well - only 42 more games to go...

Video highlights of Saturday's game here (UK only!)

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Johnson on the spot

A second away win in four days sent Boro into second place in the Championship table last night. Adam Johnson claimed both goals in a pulsating encounter at Glanford Park, with Scunthorpe providing a sterner test than Paulo Sousa's Swansea City side.

The Boro line-up was unchanged from Saturday's game at the Liberty Stadium, with Tuncay Sanli again on the bench. As at the weekend, the opening goal was scored by Adam Johnson, although if the goal at Swansea was a shade fortuitous, no such claims could be made last night. Johnson latched onto Gary O'Neil's flighted through ball to lob a stranded Joe Murphy.

The game exploded into life early in the second half in a flurry of yellow cards. The controversy started when Boro were awarded a dubious penalty when Michael O'Connor was adjudged to have fouled Rhys Williams. Johnson's penalty was parried by Murphy but the keeper immediately brought the winger down as he beat him to the loose ball. After sustained protests from the home side, Johnson converted the second spot kick with comfort.

Tempers flared as Paul Hayes and Robert Huth clashed soon after as Scunthorpe piled on the pressure. David Wheater cleared one from the line while Danny Coyne's emerging cult status was boosted by some strong saves.

The result leaves Boro trailing only Cardiff City in the early season table and the only side in the division yet to concede. Saturday's opponents Doncaster Rovers have earned a reputation for progressive, passing football under Sean O'Driscoll. Early indications suggest such an approach should suit Gareth Southgate's side. After two positive performances to banish an apalling run of away form, Boro must now maintain this momentum in front of a Riverside crowd starved of excitement in recent times.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Boro sink Swans

Boro picked up their first win of the Championship season this afternoon with a convincing 3-0 victory at Swansea's Liberty Stadium. Paulo Sousa's side never recovered after Adam Johnson opened the scoring.

Marvin Emnes smashed a second shortly after the break before substitute Tuncay sealed the points in the closing stages. Swans keeper Dorus De Vries failed to collect Mark Yeates' corner and the Turk headed home.

The result brings to an end a club record run of 12 consecutive away defeats. Boro are up to third in the embryonic league table after the biggest away win of Gareth Southgate's tenure. Today marks the first time Boro have won an away game by three goals since Pogatetz, Parnaby and Hasselbaink scored in a 3-0 win over Sunderland in January 2006.

Boro can now look forward to Tuesday's trip to League One play-off winners Scunthorpe United. The Iron also earned their first win of the season today, with an impressive 3-2 triumph against Derby. With 2,000+ fans travelling to Glanford Park, its a real opportunity for Gareth Southgate to finally build some positive momentum.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Blades stalemate can't hide lack of progress

The new season kicked off with a whimper on Friday as Boro earned a point from a turgid goalless draw with Sheffield United. An increasingly disgruntled fanbase saw little evidence that Gareth Southgate has been able to solve the glaring flaws that led to relegation last season.

It was a game that will have reminded many of the visits of Blackburn, Sunderland and Wigan earlier this year. In each of those games, Boro struggled to create any attacking impetus and settled for a point. Few teams have ever built success on the back of home draws.

Sheffield United's game plan was simple but effective. The Blades' style may be attritional but its a formula that has worked consistently at this level. The home side showed little idea of how to counteract the physical advantage enjoyed by Chris Morgan and Matthew Kilgallon or the extra protection provided by the visitors' five man midfield.

There were moments of promise from the widemen. Mark Yeates showed a neat touch and a willingness to test the keeper on debut. Adam Johnson looked to have the beating of both full-backs but again his decision making at the crucial moment left plenty to be desired. Johnson has some way to go to match the standards set by Stewart Downing.

Both deserve some slack considering the difficulties of linking up with a powder-puff attack. The enigmatic Marvin Emnes struggled to make much of an impact but could still consider himself unfortunate to be replaced by a clearly unfit Leroy Lita. Jeremie Aliadiere's continued selection is depressing and mysterious. The Frenchman has a goalscoring record that would make Lee Dong Gook blush and its far from clear what else he offers. Morgan and Kilgallon can barely have had an easier evening, required to simply mop up the mindless long balls punted towards the anaemic attack.

There was at least more cause for optimism further back. Rhys Williams looked combative and tidy in possession playing obligatory defender-in-central-midfield role. David Wheater and Robert Huth were very comfortable at the back and Danny Coyne made some smart saves, although there were a few nervy moments against the crossed ball.

The damning reflection of the game is that all of last season's criticisms are still valid. The attack was insipid and the service to them generally witless. The visiting keeper was largely a spectator. It was near impossible to see where one goal was coming from never mind the two a game Southgate claimed as his target for the season. At this stage, Boro are a million miles away from achieving the stated goal of promotion.

There is only limited time to fix Boro's unbalanced squad. For all the speculation, the departures of the likes of Gary O'Neil, Tuncay and Afonso Alves are still just the subject of speculation. The likes of Rob Hulse may be sensible target but time is becoming an issue. By the time funds have been raised by selling players, there will not be long until the window shuts. Southgate will be left with a choice between pursuing players whose clubs are reluctant to sell, with the according risk of ending up with no-one, or recruiting second choice players. For a club that's become rather too accepting of mediocrity, that is a real concern.

If Sheffield United could be hailed as promotion rivals, there will nothing to qualify criticism if Boro fail against Swansea and Scunthorpe. Two away games in four days come far from the glamorous environs Boro had grown accustomed to. Impressive in the first season in the Championship, the Swans have been sorely weakened by the loss of Jason Scotland, Jordi Gomez and manager Roberto Martinez to Wigan. They lost their opening game at promoted Leicester City.

After the trip to Wales, its the shorter trip to Glanford Park. Scunthorpe, last season's League One play-off winners, are one of the favourites for the drop and began the season with a four goal caning at Cardiff.

Gareth Southgate needs to convert his pre-season words into results if there is any hope of salvaging his reign. If the run of twelve successive away defeats becomes fourteen, it may already be too late.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Championship Preview

With two days to go until kick off, its time to assess the competition. Unlike the stagnant top flight, this season Boro will be taking part in a hugely competitive division that has chewed up and spat out plenty of Premier League alumni in recent years.

Pushing for promotion

Gareth Southgate will be aiming for promotion but there are plenty of teams hopeful of napping one of the automatic promotion spots or at least a place in the play-offs. West Brom may have finished bottom of the Premier League but look well equipped for a promotion push. New boss Roberto Di Matteo enjoyed relative successive in his first year taking the MK dollar, while new striker Simon Cox was hugely prolific for Swinon last term.

Last year's play-off finalists and Friday's opponents Sheffield United will also expect to put up a strong challenge. The Tevez money should offset the end of parachute payments and several solid signings should offset the loss of Kyle Naughton to Spurs and Paddy Kenny to the naughty step. Cardiff will also expect to be around the top six if they can put last season's late collapse behind them. Reading will be feeling more nervous having lost their manager and several players, including Marcus Hahnemann, Kevin Doyle and Boro new boy Leroy Lita. New boss Brendan Rogers needs a good start.

Roy Keane's changes at Ipswich Town have been relatively low key so far but the millions of elusive chairman Marcus Evans should bolster a stronger challenge from Suffolk. Derby County will also be hoping for to push for the top six in the first full season for their owners and manager Nigel Clough.

Newcastle have to be considered as potential promotion candidates despite the farcical summer on Tyneside if Mike Ashley abandons his one-man mission to take the club to new depths of ridicule. The resources should be there to win this division but big changes need to come fast if the Geordies are not to suffer another year of embarrassment.

Loitering in the middle

There are several teams who could emulate Burnley's unexpected run to promotion last season. Crystal Palace have struggled to achieve consistency for much of Neil Warnock's reign but have made some promising signings such as West Ham youngster Freddie Sears. Preston North End will fancy their chances of troubling the play-off places again, despite adding only Paul Parry to their squad. After a summer of extensive recruitment, Billy Davies will expect to guide Nottingham Forest back towards the top end of the table. Having raised expectations with by reaching the play-off final in Bristol City's first season in the Championship, Gary Johnson will be expect to challenge again.

Since Flavio Briatore became QPR chairman, the focus has been more on extravagant ticket prices and the new owners' plans to build a "boutique club" than any solid results. The appointment of Jim Magilton and the summer's transfer dealings have done little to remove doubts over whether Rangers are ready for a promotion push.

Sheffield Wednesday can begin to look the future after the arrival of new chairman Lee Strafford in January but are unlikely to put up as strong a challenge as their city rivals. Local rivals Doncaster Rovers put a slow start behind them last season and will be hoping for a more comfortable mid-table finish.

Former Boro skipper Nigel Pearson led Leicester City to the League One title last time out and will be hoping the likes of Matty Fryatt can keep up that form. Peterborough United joined the Foxes in the promotion spots last year and have momentum from successive promotions under the stewardship of Darren Ferguson.

Battling the drop

There's no such optimism at Coventry City where Chris Coleman faces a tough task coping with the loss of key players like Scott Dann and Danny Fox. Swansea City earned a reputation for their passing football last year but face similar difficulties having lost manager Roberto Martinez, Spanish loanee Jordi Gomez and top scorer Jason Scotland to Wigan.

Having defied expectation to maintain Championship status even after the departure of Simon Grayson, Blackpool will again be amongst the favourites for the drop.

With money tight and a new, inexperienced manager, Watford face a gruelling season. Perennial strugglers Barnsley and Plymouth Argyle will also be wary of the drop.

League One play-off winners Scunthorpe United earned the thanks of many neutrals by emergy from an unholy pool of semi-finalists including Leeds, Millwall and Milton Keynes. However, it will take a concerted effort from Nigel Adkins' team if this season isn't to end the way of the Irons' last, brief, stay in the Championship.