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.

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