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.