Friday, 30 October 2009

The Strachan Inbox; plus Boro get Bent

New Boro boss Gordon Strachan made his first signing today by securing Birmingham striker Marcus Bent on a two month loan. Bent goes straight into the squad for tomorrow's game against Plymouth and is expected to partner Leroy Lita in attack.

Strachan's immediate priorities are the subject of the following article, coming soon to a fanzine near you....


Drifting away from the Riverside after a useful but uninspiring victory over an abject Derby County, it certainly didn't feel like one of the most important nights in the recent history of MFC. The departure of Gareth Southgate was unexpected, most of all by the man himself. The Southgate era has come to a brutal end. If Gordon Strachan is to succeed where Southgate ultimately failed, he has some key issues to address.


Much was made of the attendance against Derby dropping below 50% of the Riverside's capacity. We know now that Steve Gibson's mind was already made before the game. Even so, a fractured, apathetic and disenchanted fanbase was clearly one of his reasons for removing Southgate. The club's finances have been steadied by the summer sales but the 6,000 fans who've disappeared since the Sheffield United game punch a big hole in the books. Gibson has called the bluff of many critics by removing the man perceived to be the main problem. There's still a long road to getting the Riverside bouncing an even 75% full on a consistent basis...


...and the main reason for that is a long run of insipid, unconvincing performances at the Riverside Stadium. The players often seem to find a home advantage more of a burden. Too many were tentative, wilting under the expectation of victory. The crowd have generally shown more patience than would be expected at many other clubs but that has its limits. Even when winning, Boro haven't come close to achieving the level of fluency at the Riverside that they have done repeatedly away from home. Outside of the Premier League, matchday income becomes a far greater proportion of the club's funding. Starting today, a few good home wins could be worth more than just three points.


Leroy Lita hasn't contributed as many goals as might have been hoped but has been impressive in recent weeks. His fitness is clearly getting better, he's a willing runner and he did show his potential with that terrific goal at Reading. Otherwise, its been slim pickings. Barring a freakish four days which yielded three goals, Jeremie Aliadiere hasn't convinced. Marvin Emnes is still too raw for regular first team football. Caleb Folan galumphed around for an hour against West Brom then twanged a hamstring.

In Adam Johnson, Boro are still far too reliant on a player who might be gone in three months. A new striker, even on loan, has to be a priority.


Two more points were thrown away in stoppage time at Preston last week. It happens far too often for comfort. Boro's habit of leaking late goals cannot be written off as bad luck or coincidence. It went a long way to relegating us last year and it will scupper our automatic promotion hopes at this rate.

David Wheater and Sean St Ledger are promising players in their own right but haven't totally convinced as a partnership. Wheater still seems to be pining for Robert Huth while St Ledger's generally positive have been blotted with lapses of concentration.

Nevertheless, this problem seems more like a reflection of mental weakness than any individual players. There might not be an easy answer – Southgate, at least, seemed powerless to find one.

Read this and more in tomorrow's Fly Me To The Moon

Monday, 26 October 2009

Strachan confirmed as new boss

A Keith Lamb-shaped man looks pleased with himself

Former Celtic manager Gordon Strachan was today confirmed as Boro's new manager on a three and a half year contract. Strachan's first game is on Saturday against struggling Plymouth Argyle at the Riverside.

"It's a special job. I don't have to be here, I don't need to be here, I want to be here," said Strachan. "My job is to make the players better technically, physically and mentally, as a group and as individuals."

"I know you get time here, and the stability of the club means you have the chance to develop things the way you would like to see them develop. Celtic was fantastic, and I hope it can be as enjoyable here."

Strachan has been joined by his long-time assistant Garry Pendrey but insisted he was happy to work with the existing staff. "I think you must try and keep the continuity at the club. I brought Garry Pendrey here, but he has been everywhere with me so it's a bit of a double act and I wouldn't feel comfortable without him being here."

Strachan said he hadn't thought as far ahead as the January transfer window but confirmed he had spoken with Gordon McQueen about "one or two priorites" - a new striker is likely to be one of those.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Boro throw away win again

Boro's old failings showed up again as an equaliser deep into stoppage time earned Preston an undeserved draw at Deepdale this afternoon. Boro twice took the lead but failed to defend a free kick, allowing Billy Jones to glance an equaliser past a static Brad Jones.

Under the temporary management of Colin Cooper, Boro made one change with Marvin Emnes replacing the injured Jeremie Aliadiere. Boro dominated the first half and finally made their superiority count just before half time when Gary O'Neil's free kick somehow evaded the grasp of Andy Lonergan. Boro should have doubled the lead before the break but Adam Johnson shot wide with the Preston defence exposed.

North End equalised on the hour when a cross from the left caused panic in the Boro defence. Brad Jones managed one block but couldn't prevent Paul Parry from equalising. Parity didn't last long however after Adam Johnson took possession from Leroy Lita, darted into the area and drove superbly inside Lonergan's far post.

Boro looked comfortable in the lead and could have gone 3-1 up when Rhys Williams smashed a shot against the post. But having failed to put the game to bed, Boro were punished at the death when the defence failed to deal with a Preston free kick.

Boro remain 4th, three points behind new leaders Newcastle, and maintain their poor record for beating sides in the top half of the table, one of the factors cited by Steve Gibson for his decision to sack Gareth Southgate. Gordon Strachan is expected to be appointed as Southgate's full time replacement on Monday. On today's evidence, there may be cause for cautious optimism but there's still plenty for Strachan to work on.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Gibson swings the axe

There's been many points over last 12 months when it would have come as no surprise to learn that Gareth Southgate had lost his job. Finally, in the early hours of this morning, just hours after a 2-0 win over Derby County, a short club statement was released confirming Gareth and 'football consultant' Alan Smith had been "relieved of their duties".

There will certainly be comments raised about the timing. A relieved Southgate faced the media after the game last night, apparently unaware that Steve Gibson was already sharpening the axe. The cosy cabal of ex-players and managers who staff the punditry circuit never support the sacking of an English manager, regardless of circumstances. In this case, the fact that the three points earned last night took Boro to within a point of West Brom and Newcastle at the top will be used as a stick to beat a chairman previously renowned for seemingly unending patience.

But the current league position is too fragile to base any decision on. QPR are three points behind with a game in hand yet sit in tenth. Saturday's trip to Preston could just as easily toss Boro out of the play-off positions altogether as send them top.With the last three home games ending in dismal defeat with no Boro goals, the only sensible conclusion is that Gibson's mind was made up between the final whistle on Saturday and kick-off last night. Perhaps there is something to rumours sweeping Teesside earlier this week.

If there are questions over the timing, those who would query the actual decision are in a minority. As Gibson himself said, Southgate was handed a very difficult job, tasked with reshaping a squad on a reduced budget with the spectre of Eindhoven and the consequent rise in expectations hanging over the club. But the bald truth is, even allowing for that, Southgate did not do a good enough job in his last two seasons.

Good players were allowed to leave and their replacements were not up to scratch. For all the financial constraints, Southgate's abilities were under question from the point he wasted £20m the club couldn't afford to waste on Mido and Afonso Alves. By the end of a disastrous season, with barely a fight put up against relegation from a Premier League half full of terrible teams, the fans' support had been lost irretrievably.

Despite the growing feeling of impotence amongst a disgruntled crowd, it is the fans who have ultimately cost Southgate his job. Last night, the Riverside was officially half empty, and the actual attendance looked even less than the 17,459 announced. With no Premier League TV money to fill the coffers, Gibson may have felt, if he could ignore those booing and jeering at the ground, he could no longer ignore the thousands who no longer wanted to even turn up.

There should be no dancing on Southgate's grave however. This was the right decision but it was still a painful one. Watching a man who captained the club with such dignity and distinction subjected to a drawn out, public failure was thoroughly depressing. There can be no question that he gave his best to the club over 8 years on Teesside. Once the dust has settled, I hope people remember Southgate lifting the League Cup or punching the air in Rome rather than for the sad end to his first job in management.

When the new manager arrives, whoever he is, it should at least provide temporary relief from the poisonous atmosphere at the Riverside. The new man has to unite players and fans and remove the air of decline that has settled over the club. Steve Gibson has acted decisively and now must follow that up to restore a sense of momentum and win back disenchanted fans who have abandoned the club.


None of this tumult seemed on the cards after a mundane victory over an awful Derby County side last night. An unremarkable match will now always be remembered by association with Boro's Night of the Long Knives.

Adam Johnson notched both goals. The first came from the penalty spot after Johnson went down a little too easily under Shaun Barker's challenge. The second was altogether more impressive, as he drifted free of three defenders before arcing a shot beyond the grasp of Steven Bywater.

With Derby decimated by injuries and without an away win all season, Boro needed nothing more than a workmanlike display. The play was still laboured at times, with Leroy Lita getting limited service in return for his admirable efforts in running the channels. Boro still need to move the ball quicker and with more purpose if they are to see off better teams than the Rams.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Boro stung by Hornets

The pressure on Gareth Southgate continues to build as Boro lost a third successive home game. Eviscerated by West Brom, mugged by Leicester and now stung by Malky Mackay's Watford, Boro have lost half of their fixtures at the Riverside this season. It does not bode well.

There was a certain amount of misfortune in this defeat with Scott Loach's goal living a charmed life at times during a frantic second half. That should not however deflect focus on another disjointed performance in front of another low crowd.

Boro did create some chances early on. Leroy Lita somehow headed wide from close range, although the linesman's flag was raised, while Adam Johnson was found in space on the right but took too long turning onto his favoured left foot.

Watford, however, started to exert more influence. Arsenal loanee Henri Lansbury was neat and tidy in midfield while former Boro striker Danny Graham led the line while. When Sean St Ledger was caught in possession, it was Graham who found the intelligent run of Tom Cleverley, another loan signing, who comfortably beat Brad Jones. The Hornets held their lead to the break and merited their advantage.

There was at least a response after the break. A flurry of corners should have lead to an equaliser but St Ledger's header was harshly ruled out. Watford continued to look tentative from set pieces but Boro were struggling to threaten from open play. The only time Loach's goal was threatened came when Tony McMahon launched a speculative long range shot which spanked the underside of the crossbar before bouncing to safety.

If there was a lack of quality in Boro's play, the effort remained intense. The final chance came from another corner in injury time. In desperation, Brad Jones raced up to supplement the attack but succeeded only in blocking an apparently goalbound header. The final whistle was greeted with the obligatory half hearted boos from three quarters of a sparsely populated ground.

Boro could easily have taken at least a point from the game. Had St Ledger's header stood, there would have been over half an hour to press for a winner against a side who looked shaky against aerial attack. But Watford could reasonably argue they deserved their win - during their time in the ascendancy, they passed the ball with a fluency that eluded Boro all afternoon. Their winning goal was a result of by far the slickest move of the game.

Boro were hampered by all too familiar faults. Individually, Wheater and St Ledger are promising players but both look they need a more senior partner. St Ledger's largely impressive display was again marred by a lapse in concentration. Further forward, the centre of midfield remains a constant concern. While Didier Digard was combative, his distribution was desperately poor at times and overall there was a real lack of movement. Leroy Lita and Jeremie Aliadiere were left isolated for large periods of the game.

There is, at least, not long to stew on this latest failure, with Derby County at the Riverside on Tuesday night. Boro fans will note the Rams' ominous away record, with Nigel Clough's men yet to record an away win this season. Home form is quickly becoming a blight which could ruin a season. Gareth Southgate must fix it before its too late.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Opinions Without Accountability

“Everyone has an opinion now. Its opinion without accountability. But I don't need mollycoddling. I'm a big bloke. I accept stick. I've got to.” So speaks Gareth Southgate, sounding more than a little bit like he fancies a spot of mollycoddling.

He may have an account on some Boro message boards, perhaps with “I'll learn lessons from this” as a signature, but its unlikely. Anyone can record their views for all to see – its the focus of modern media - but Gareth is Not A Fan.

To a large extent its possible to sympathise. The internet has democratised access for fans and too many abuse that by contributing ill-informed drivel laced with poisonous cynicism and aggression towards anyone who might disagree.

It allows half-truths and misinterpretations to become FACT. On the one hand, the club risks accusations of being secretive and aloof if Lamb or Gibson aren't wheeled out for the Gazette or Radio Brownlee every couple of months. On the other, you have to wonder why they bother when their words are so frequently skewed and turned against them.

Keith Lamb's comments about Teesside eventually getting 'the club it can afford' were a classic case. It was a perfectly reasonable comment – as we're all painfully aware now, there is no way a club attracting crowds in the mid 20,000s could maintain Premier League expenditure without borrowing or a benefactor. No club can rely on such factors forever. Instead, this interview is frequently cited as a stick to beat the club with, “afford” replaced with “deserve”.

Similarly, 'the club earns more from walk up sales than season ticket holders' and 'we earned more from TV than we did from ticket sales' become not simple economic facts but a slur on those who commit money up front for another 9 months of punishment.

This does all of us a disservice. When Steve McClaren had the team halfway up the Premier League and playing in Europe, it was easy to dismiss the grumblers as a lunatic fringe. Southgate might like to draw a line under it but it was a matter of months ago that the club were relegated, breaking the club record for consecutive away defeats and scoring fewer goals than any other team in the country. If that doesn't legitimise a certain amount of protest then what does?

The manager, chairman and chief executive all subjected themselves to trial by phone-in over the summer, which they deserve credit for. The ever-growing band of militant opponents might not have got the public self-flagellation they demanded but all three politely defended their position in the face of some vehement criticism that missed the target more often than Afonso Alves bearing down on goal.

Southgate's comments were a cop-out, an attempt to deflect dissent by smearing all critics, whether valid or not, as jaundiced and irrational. Under any other chairman than Gibson, to openly claim that “it doesn't matter what the fans think about me” would be tempting fate. He shouldn't be worried about the fans booing him as much as the thousands who are now staying at home.

But when genuine insight and valid comment from fans is buried under bile and invective, it just the excuse needed to dismiss criticism. Fans have contributed to the tone of debate, taking polarised views on complex, nuanced issues and allowing senior figures to wriggle off the hook by repeating urban myths. Until that changes, as fans of the club, we'll get the level of scrutiny we deserve.

This article will be also be available from men with fluorescent Evening Gazette bags in Saturday's Fly Me To The Moon. 

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Southgate fights back

Its been a tough week for Boro boss Gareth Southgate and at times the pressure has started to show. The manager was the target of abuse from sections of the Riverside's smallest ever league crowd after the defeat to Leicester on Tuesday night. Southgate's response was somewhat prickly. "I don't think what the fans think about me matters," he told the press. "Clearly my relationship with some supporters has changed. I have my own feeling on that but I'll keep them to myself."

"Everyone has an opinion now," continued Southgate. "It's opinion without accountability. But I don't need mollycoddling. I'm a big bloke. I accept stick. I've got to."

The manager was probably therefore entitled to a smile after a 2-0 triumph at Reading yesterday, extending the Royals' winless run in front of their home fans to an epic 14 games. Its a sequence that puts Boro's Riverside wobbles into context. It was Boro's fourth away win of the season, with the team having taken 13 points and scored 13 goals in six games, as Southgate always likes to say, "on our travels". 

The deadlock was broken in a similar manner at the modestly titled Madejski Stadium as it had been in the previous away game at Coventry. Adam Johnson swung in a corner from the right, which was emphatically met by Sean St Ledger. Leroy Lita claimed the last touch without convincing neutral observers.

The recalled Lita, warmly welcomed by fans of his former club, was the undisputed scorer of the second. Twisting into space in the middle of the pitch, Lita burst clear of the defence and lashed a shot into the bottom corner.

Southgate pointedly praised the "incredible" support of the 1,500 travelling contingent. With Newcastle being held, Preston and West Brom sharing a goalless draw and Sheffield United unable to defeat Doncaster, Boro were able to make back some ground on promotion rivals. Boro are now third in the table, a point behind the Baggies.

With two weeks off for the international break, Southgate now has plenty of time to figure out how to tackle his problems closer to home. Boro haven't kept a clean sheet at the Riverside since the victory over Doncaster in August and failed to score or pick up any points in the last two home fixtures. Boro will be under pressure to take six points from back-to-back games against Watford and Derby - as a point of comparison, it should be noted Cardiff City have beaten both sides this week, scoring ten times in the process.

Its a task that may be undertaken with the help of a new striker. Caleb Folan has managed just one substitute appearance since arriving on loan from Hull and will now be out for six weeks with a torn hamstring.