Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Boro's stuttering form continued last night as Nigel Pearson's Leicester City stole victory in a dire match at a half empty Riverside Stadium. Having spurned several chances to take the lead, Boro then allowed Lloyd Dyer an obscene amount of time and space to score the crucial goal with just seven minutes to go.

Gareth Southgate made one enforced change to the side who threw two points away at Coventry on Saturday, with Tony McMahon replacing the hamstrung Justin Hoyte. Leicester made five changes, including introducing the fantastically monikered Frenchman Yann Kermorgant.

The first half was spectacularly awful. Boro were listless, justifying every single one of the 17,000 empty seats. Leicester were even worse, looking every inch a side just escaped from the barren wastelands. The most threatening effort on goal was an errant David Wheater passback that Brad Jones had to stretch to stop. The grinding monotony of the Championship was in full evidence here - rarely can such earnest endeavour from two sides have resulted in so little end product.

Boro at least perked up after the break, particularly when Leroy Lita and Mark Yeates replaced Emnes and Arca. Leicester keeper Chris Weale was still rarely tested, the only scare coming when Adam Johnson lobbed into the corner of the net from distance after Weale had conceded a throw. The referee called the action back, restarting with a Boro throw that saved Weale's blushes.

The keeper was finally forced into making a save from St Ledger as a Yeates free kick induced panic in the Leicester defence. It was from another free kick soon after that trouble began to brew in the home defence.

Brad Jones could not collect the initial shot and Jack Hobbs inexplicably smashed against the post with the net gaping. Boro failed to heed the warning, almost instantly ceding another chance for the visitors. From a simple throw in, Leicester were somehow allowed to find two men in the area with only Tony McMahon for company. Oakley sqaured for Lloyd Dyer and, although McMahon managed a partial block, he couldn't prevent the goal.

Boro did at least put Leicester under pressure in the dying moments but to no avail. Gareth Southgate was subject to the most vocal criticism heard from the Riverside crowd in some time. Several called for his head and optimstically joined in with the visiting fans' chants of "You're getting sacked in the morning".

There's no chance of that happening in spite of the growing body of evidence against Southgate. A superb player, inspirational captain and an honourable man, Southgate is unfortunately not a good manager. He may have been handed a difficult job but he has done little to inspire confidence that he can succeed. Boro looked depressingly toothless against a horrribly limited Leicester side. Even when they managed to build up a head of steam after the break, Weale was rarely tested.

The lack of defensive organisation that led to Leicester's goal was concerning. After four consecutive clean sheets at the start of the season, Boro haven't kept one since Robert Huth left for Stoke. There has to be a fear that the last three games are a truer reflection of Boro's abilities than the first five. The poisonous cycle of last season is being repeated again - rallying cry, soul-destroying defeat, "I can handle the flak", "Southgate demands response" rallying cry, defeat (repeat until you lose the will to live). How much longer can this go on before something gives?

Monday, 28 September 2009

Hearts and minds

Boro's promotion push continued to stutter on Saturday as a two goal lead was thrown away. Sean St Ledger and Rhys Williams' first goals for the club helped Boro into a 2-0 half time lead. However, with the home side applying mounting pressure in the closing stages.

First, with twelve minutes remaining, Clinton Morrison outmuscled Justin Hoyte to score from close range. Then, in the dying seconds of injury time, St Ledger failed to clear after a penalty area scramble, allowing Leon Best to poke an equaliser past the recalled Brad Jones.

Southgate and his team have an imminent opportunity to make up for the disappointment of the last two games, with former Boro skipper Nigel Pearson bringing his Leicester City side to the Riverside. The following article will be in tomorrow night's Fly Me To The Moon, available on all good street corners...


Just over a fortnight ago, the visit of Ipswich Town saw the first sub 20,000 crowd for a league game at the Riverside Stadium. There's a good chance that the expanses of barren red plastic will be greater still tonight. If Boro were beginning to enjoy life as a big fish in a small pond, the hammering at the hands of West Brom was a sobering dose of reality. Twelve years on, Roberto Di Matteo and Eddie Newton conspired to deliver another sickening kick in the knackers.

The consequences of that game could be felt for a long time. Despite the protestations that it was just a 'bad day at the office', it felt like the continuation of a recurring theme of Gareth Southgate's tenure. The expectation that is inevitable after moderate success seems to be encourage timid performances and complacency. For a team to get an important game that wrong, writing it off as bad day hardly seems an appropriate response.

The performance ten days ago had all the hallmarks of what may still be the nadir of Southgate's time in charge. The day when Cardiff became synonymous with FA Cup failure rather than Carling Cup glory. The excitement around town before that game was palpable. Beat a combination of lower league sides and/or a solid but unspectacular Portsmouth side and we could do it. The most glorious day in the club's history was tantalisingly close.

We all know it didn't work out as planned. Boro blew it in soul-destroying fashion, a spineless, witless, slow-motion car crash of a performance. The context was everything – to lose the game was bad enough but the anticipation made the fall so much worse. Southgate lost a huge chunk of the fanbase that day and there's plenty of hardened opponents who have never been won back.

The commendable efforts the club has made with ticket pricing helped keep numbers healthy last year. But the Riverside has rarely been an enjoyable place to be over the last year or so. Last season took on a tiring monotony – successive home game where insipid, negative football sapped all the passion from a crowd which game after game tried to lift the team and saw little response.

No-one seemed to see the West Brom debacle coming but maybe we should have done. Before the game, the general sentiment was that people were looking forward to the game much more than normal. A chance to go top of the table, two solid victories and positive news on the club's finances and ability to recruit seemed to have put the bad feeling about the Huth/Tuncay deal firmly in the past.

The team and the manager couldn't handle it. The lunatic fringe of vociferous critics of Gibson and Southgate have another axe to grind. More damagingly, the moderate centre of match to match attendees have been given a convincing reason to stay away. Winning back their trust and filling the empty rows at the Riverside will not be done easily.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Bouncing Baggies demolish awful Boro

On Saturday, there was a noisy Gay Pride march through Middlesbrough. Always keen to keep in touch with the local community, Boro tapped into the mood by bending over to receive the mother of all shaftings from West Bromwich Albion. All the promise of successive wins over Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday evaporated as Boro were simply eviscerated by Roberto Di Matteo's men. The 5-0 scoreline, if anything, flattered the home side.

After a bright start, Boro began to labour. Rhys Williams and Julio Arca struggled to keep tabs on Youssuf Mulumbu and Graham Dorrans in the Baggies midfield. The opening goal was fortunate - a very generous free kick was given against Williams and former Boro trainee Chris Brunt's innocuous shot was transformed by a deflection off Arca. Danny Coyne was stranded and the visitors led. A poor start but there was still hope the home side, emboldened by a perceived injustice, would carry the fight to the league leaders.

In fact things got much worse. The second goal could not be blamed on the referee as Brunt exposed some abysmal defending. A simple ball over the top almost sent Luke Moore free and, although Coyne managed to get the ball first, the keeper could only shank his clearance straight to Brunt, who returned it with interest into the gaping net. An awful half was ended with a third goal, Albion toying with a ragged defence before Mulumbu met Dorrans' cross with a superb, looping header.

West Brom took their foot off the pedal after the break, sparing Boro an even greater humbling. There were still two more goals as Roman Bednar and Jerome Thomas exposed more feckless, powderpuff defending to beat the helpless Coyne.

Its hard to pick out the worst players after such a performance but I'll try anyway. With due credit to Mark Yeates, who displayed an almost comic inability to pass to his team-mates, the finger has to be pointed at Tony McMahon. With little assistance from the hapless Yeates, McMahon was tormented by the visitors. By the end of the game, he was struggling to get within five yards of his man. And even by his own low standards, McMahon's distribution was appalling.

The rest of the team ranged from the inept to the anonymous. Jon Grounds had a torrid afternoon on the opposite flank while the old problems in midfield returned. Julio Arca was given a chasing, substituted before he was sent off while Rhys Williams was emasculated by an early booking. Given this total absence of protection, the fledgling centre back pairing of Wheater and St Ledger could be given limited sympathy.

Quite where we go from here is unclear. There's a good chance Danny Coyne will carry the can, with Southgate favourite Brad Jones fit again. While Coyne could only be faulted for one goal, such a move, while understandable, shouldn't negate changes in the real problem areas - full-back and centre midfield.

Ground has done well enough to be given another chance but surely the time for McMahon to be dropped has arrived. Yesterday was by the far the worst of three shaky performances in the space of a week. Justin Hoyte may not be the most appealing alternative but he must at least be given a chance.

Midfield remains a mess, with Gary O'Neil sorely missed. Williams looked every inch a makeshift solution against Albion's assured passing while Arca fared little better. After a couple of promising displays, Arca was miles off the pace, reverting to the dismal form of the past two seasons. And while the goals scored column might ward off strident criticism of the attack, you have to wonder what role the clumsy Caleb Folan has in it.

The biggest questions have to be asked of the manager. How on earth could Boro get such a big game so horribly wrong? Having been unable to instil confidence last season, the suspicion is that Southgate allowed confidence after some encouraging but hardly earth-shattering results to turn into complacency. It is of course naive to expect a team not to have bad days and be well beaten from time to time over a 46 game season.

Even so, the manner of yesterday's defeat was shocking. It was the very worst of a series of witless, spineless performances that have occurred far too often under Southgate. It was another gruesome sequel to the horrors of C-A-R-D-I-F-F. There was no fight nor any sign that the players were  still battling for any semblance of pride even when the game was lost. West Brom could have scored as many as they want.

Not for the first time, Boro have crushed the fragile shoots of optimism amongst the fans. Its further evidence for the lunatic fringe amongst the fanbase and further justification for the ex-season ticket holders. This wasn't just any defeat, it was a loss that has knocked thousands off the gate for months to come. The manager has no choice but to try to pick his team up again. How many more times he will be allowed to take us to these depths, you can only wonder.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Folan agrees loan deal

Gareth Southgate made his second signing of the week after the three month loan of Hull striker Caleb Folan was confirmed. Ireland international Folan goes straight into the squad for Saturday's table-topping clash with West Brom. Like Sean St Ledger, who made his debut in Tuesday's 3-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday, Folan has arrived on a temporary deal with a view to a permanent move.

St Ledger's signing bodes well with fans, team-mates and manager ruing his departure from Preston. Folan arrives without such a ringing endorsement - Hull manager Phil Brown stating that he "didn't really look like scoring" this season. Folan's less than prolific scoring record at his previous clubs does little to inspire confidence.

Boro maintained second position in the Championship after last night's fixtures. Newcastle missed the opportunity to return to the top of the table, losing 2-1 at Blackpool. Former Boro midfielder Jason Euell struck the winning goal for Ian Holloway's men.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Owls can't stop Boro

Boro moved back into the top two of the Championship, for 24 hours at least, with an impressive 3-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday. Gareth Southgate's side had to recover from the early setback of Luke Varney's spectacular goal but ended the game comfortable winners.

Southgate made one change to his line up, with Jeremie Aliadiere's two goals against Ipswich earning him a start in preference to Leroy Lita. After completing a three month loan deal (with a view to a permanent move), Sean St Ledger was named on the bench.

It was Brian Laws' Owls who started quicker. Varney skipped past a flat footed Tony McMahon and slammed the ball home via the underside the crossbar. Boro were now faced with the task of coming from behind to win for the first time since a FA Cup tie at Bristol City in January 2008.

Boro's equaliser came with some assistance from the home team. Towering centre half Darren Purse tried to deal with Adam Johnson's curling cross but succeeded only in glancing beyond the grasp of Wednesday keeper Lee Grant. Johnson may have given Boro the lead before the break but his effort was ruled out for offside.

The visitors stamped their supremacy on the game after the break. Gary O'Neil intercepted a sloppy free kick and passed to Emnes, allowing the Dutchman to pick out Jeremie Aliadiere's surging run. The Frenchman beat the closing Grant with a composed left foot finish for his third goal in four days. Boro continued to pile on the pressure and could have sealed the game with another goal. However, Grant somehow managed to keep his side in the game with a superb tumbling save from Seb Hines' header.

Wednesday came back into the game, enjoying greater possession without building any penetrative attacks. Boro continued to look a threat on the break with Adam Johnson jinking past defenders at will. It was Johnson who secured the points for Boro with a third goal five minutes from time after some neat build-up. Aladiere latched onto Rhys Williams' pass into the channel and ferried the ball back to Gary O'Neil, who picked out Johnson at the far post. The winger cut inside and fired his sixth goal of the season into the bottom corner of Grant's goal.

Once again, Boro may have lacked fluency but were still too good for mediocre opposition. Johnson is quite simply a cut above the vast majority of players at this level and even derided squad members like Aliadiere and Julio Arca appear to be much more comfortable at this level. The young defence may have had the occasional wobble but still defendly stoutly for the most part. That department will be bolstered for the next three months at least by the proven Championship quality of St Ledger.

The Preston defender may only be the start of this week's recruitment. Widespread media reports suggest Gareth Southgate will increase his attacking options by signing Hull targetman Caleb Folan and/or injury-prone Everton youngster James Vaughan on loan.

West Brom's visit on Saturday will provide the sternest test of the season so far. For the time being, Boro seem in good shape for the battle ahead.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Boro plough on past Tractor Boys

Boro got their promotion push back on track yesterday, defeating Roy Keane's struggling Ipswich Town side 3-1. Victory was a welcome boost after two successive defeats and the departure of Tuncay and Roberth Huth to Stoke. The growing pessimism amongst fans was reflected by a sub-20,000 crowd - the first time this has ever happened for a league fixture at the Riverside.

Keane has certainly stamped his mark on the Suffolk club - they may be without a win all season but they could generously be described as committed. They picked up five bookings, an unsurprising tally given a string of clumsy lunges, including a challenge by Damien Delaney on Gary O'Neil that was so late it hasn't started yet.

The returning O'Neil started strongly and was heavily involved in the opening goal. He seemed to be fouled as he was baring down on Richard Wright but the referee waved away Boro's appeals. The reprieve didn't last long - Gareth McAuley dithered, allowing Marvin Emnes to return the ball back in the area where O'Neil had regained his footing in time to steer a looping header beyond the grasp of Wright.

Ipswich did have their moments, forcing a string of corners midway through the first half, one of which required David Wheater to clear McAuley's effort from the line. Despite lacking fluency, it was Boro who looked a more potent threat - a linesman's flag spared McAuley the embarrassment of an own goal while a sparkling run from Adam Johnson ended with an lamentable attempt to win a penalty, which led to fully deserved booking for the winger.

The pattern continued after the break as Ipswich struggled to convert possession into real chances while Boro offered sporadic incision. Two men often derided had a key influence. Julio Arca wrested control of the midfield, winning the ball well and prompting attacks intelligently. But it was the unlikely figure of Jeremie Aliadiere who provided the greatest influence on the outcome of the game.

Shortly after replacing the ineffective Leroy Lita, Aliadiere met Johnson's inviting cross with a deft header past Wright. A second followed when the Frenchman showed smart footwork to create space to drill into Wright's bottom corner. He should have also been credited with an assist - having linked smartly with fellow sub Mark Yeates to set up Emnes, the young Dutch striker missed the ball completely.

Boro couldn't hold on for a clean sheet as Ipswich became the first visiting side to score this season in the dying seconds of the game. Adam Johnson risked a second yellow card with a silly foul and again by getting involved in a frank exchange of views with penalty taker Jon Walters. Walters managed to regain his composure to beat an irritated Danny Coyne.

Not for the first time this season, Boro showed that they didn't need to achieve a great deal of attacking fluency to see off a limited side, overly reliant on set pieces and physicality. Even on a mediocre afternoon, Adam Johnson possesses more invention than most Championship defenders can handle.

The games come thick and fast over the next few weeks, starting with Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday night. Brian Laws side have made a decent start to the season and the Owls can be expected to provide more of a threat than an uncomplicated Ipswich side.

Off the field, there is growing expectation that highly rated Preston defender Sean St Ledger will soon move to the Riverside on a loan deal with a view to a permanent deal being completed in January. Goal-shy lump Caleb Folan is also the subject of heavy speculation, with a loan move to either Boro or Newcastle seemingly imminent.

With last season's relegated sides already congregated at the top of the league, the gap between the top two division is already being highlighted. The early suggestion is that this may turn out like Boro's last season in the second tier. Then, Forest, Boro and Sunderland dominated, with the mackems amusingly missing out on promotion despite accruing over 90 points. In such context, next week's match against second placed West Bromwich Albion takes on increased importance.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Boro end window empty handed

With the transfer window shut, barring any late and unexpected announcements, Boro's squad remains unchanged. Gareth Southgate's attempts to revitalise his pool of strikers appear to have failed.

Afonso Alves' mooted £7million move to Qatari club Al Sadd has not yet been completed. Amidst an afternoon of hilariously overblown coverage, Sky Sports News claimed the Middle Eastern side are in no rush to complete a deal with their transfer window remaining open for a further two weeks. The suspicion remains that the Brazilian was less than keen on the move from the start.

The search for a target man goes on, with Derby County confirming an unsuccessful bid was made for Rob Hulse, widely believed to have come from Boro. That deal seemed to be reliant on Alves' departure in any case.

Boro still have the option of recruiting free agents or loan signings which Southgate may take up if the Alves deal does belatedly go through. Unfortunately, that only heightens the possibility that the only attacking addition to the squad, if indeed any is made, will be Danny Webber.

A disgruntled fanbase will now be asking serious questions of the club's hierarchy. The departures of Downing, Tuncay and Huth have brought in over £20million and shaved a considerable amount off the wage bill. If Alves does still leave, that would bring another £6-7million in and relieve Boro of their obligation to honour his £40,000 a week contract.

In return, Boro have signed Danny Coyne and Leroy Lita on free transfers and Mark Yeates for around £700,000. The club's stated ambition of winning the Championship has certainly been hindered by a transfer policy that has seemed short-sighted and ambitious. The only explanation is that the club's finances are worse than most believed at the start of the summer. Either way, uncertain times lie ahead.