Monday, 18 March 2013

Summer Of Tough Love Awaits For Dying – Or Should That Be Dead? – Moggalution

It's hard to believe that only a matter of months ago I was sitting amongst the bright lights and buoyant chatter of my favourite cafe in Derry-Londonderry, punching the air repeatedly beside my laptop and not caring what the people around me may think. Back then – November 3rd, to be precise, when we overcame a miserable first half showing to trounce Charlton at the Valley – it was very easy to take Boro wins for granted. And despite a typical post-Manager Of The Month slump, the team did enough by the end of the year to suggest that reaching the Championship play-offs would be a mere formality.

On Saturday, I found myself sitting amongst the bright lights and equally buoyant, if not quite as homely, atmosphere of a coffee house in the West Midlands. And hundreds of miles up north, the not-even-half-full Riverside Stadium now resembled a cauldron of doom, a pressure cooker. No matter what team our once untouchable manager put out, it felt that his job was on the line. That the fans could do a much better job in his position. That the players, no matter how many chances they created or how hard they tried, would be accused of not trying hard enough. It was as bad, if not worse, than the closing days of Gareth Southgate's reign, where mob rule ultimately forced Steve Gibson to relieve our former Captain Fantastic of his duties. (If you're getting uncomfortable déjà vu here, you're not alone.)

When I first glanced at the starting line-up against Birmingham, a smile spread across my face. Justin Hoyte, such an exciting and vital presence on the right this season, had returned from injury. The equally exciting and penetrative runs, passes and crosses of Sammy Ameobi and Adam Reach – one home-grown, one not-so-home-grown – would be seen on the pitch from the start. As would our top scorers this season, Scott McDonald and Lukas Jutkiewicz. Even Faris Haroun had popped up with the odd vital goal... on his good days. With a starting eleven like this, and the usually dependable back two of Woodgate and Bikey back in place in front of Steele, how could we fail?

And fail... we shouldn't have. Poor and nervy though we were – it comes with the territory when you're on a run like ours and are in need of a win, any win, to get the season going again – we had our chances. Scott McDonald had a goal disallowed, albeit rightly so, when George Friend went on a now increasingly rare run and Jack Butland could only parry a shot into an offside Scotty's path. Sparked into life, we forced seven corners early in the second half, with Friend heading onto the roof of the net, Woody having a header blocked and Reach firing just over. Even replacing Juke and Ameobi with Carayol and Miller respectively didn't make us any less determined to put things right.

Then... boom. It happened.

Giant Birmingham frontman Nikola Zigic had already been booked when he intentionally handled the ball; yet he stayed on the pitch. And yes, you've guessed. Shortly afterwards our entire backline was caught ball watching as Steele pushed out a Birmingham shot. Even then Haroun should have dealt with the loose ball easily, but remarkably, he lost it, and who else should be there to trundle the ball into the Boro net but Zigic? It was a sucker punch of the highest order, the worst kind of punishment for a team that had done virtually everything right on the day. The Riverside (and Twitter) were doom-laden by the time the final whistle was heard.

But, as always, did we really have anyone to blame except ourselves?

And I will still not join the "Mogga Out" brigade. What, after all, can the man do if his players don't seem to be showing any fighting spirit, and fail to adhere to the most basic attacking and defensive principles of the game when it matters most of all? I am not saying the man is blameless, but it doesn't need re-iterating that his crisis – strike that, our crisis – is little or no different from the numerous freefalls that we've gone through since we moved to the Riverside. If not before.

A greater worry is that even if Mogga and the team recover and finish the season on a high, another Summer Of Tough Love could await the club; and this time, we will not be so well equipped to deal with it.

* * * * *

I remember really thinking that the summer of 1997, following relegation, would be a really tough one, with an inevitable exodus of players. In the end, we got off lightly. Neil Cox's departure left the door open for Curtis Fleming to play in his natural right-back position, Paul Merson filled the breach left by Juninho, and Mikkel Beck, despite losing his touch in the second half of the season, no longer needed to play in imbalanced attacking tandem with Ravanelli. Even Merson's departure and Branca's career-ending injury in 1998 were hardly the crises we thought once Hamilton Ricard had found his shooting boots. The lack of new faces in 2003 was quickly rectified once Mendieta, Mills and Zenden joined on loan and several injured and suspended players returned.

And what of Gareth Southgate? What, indeed? Steve McClaren may have given us a taste of success, but he had left us with no European football, an even more crippling debt than ever before (that UEFA Cup run alone cost us £12 million) and an aging, disjointed and demoralised side by the time the final whistle had blown in Eindhoven and he had left for England. In other words, he had, as my colleague Mike Baker would put it about another ginger manager (no prizes for guessing who), taken a tremendous management opportunity, spent our money and sent us spiralling off in reverse. In retrospect, it's sort of impressive that, however unconvincingly, Southgate guided us to a mid-table finish and the FA Cup quarter-finals in his first season. That he did the same the following season despite the hindrances of no Viduka, no Yakubu, Mi-dough, Alves and Aliadi-almost-anywhere-but-the-net is sort of commendable too. (Let's just try and pretend the home embarrassments to Notts County and Cardiff never happened.)

2008 seemed like one Summer Of Tough Love too many for him. Losing two deadly forwards is one thing; losing five key players – Schwarzer, Young, Cattermole, Boateng and Rochemback – and inadequately replacing them is another. Things seemed to get even worse in 2009 when Huth and Tuncay were instrumental in the start of our 2009-10 "promotion campaign", and Southgate was forced to sell both at the end of August. But, despite ire from the fans, the cracks in both the team's set-up and the club's poor home record, he had the true emergence of one Adam Johnson (to date, he has never played better) and Boro's brilliant away record to keep him afloat. Or so he thought...*

Now, imagine what Tony Mowbray could be achieving if he had more of the rub of the green regarding both injuries, money, and the form & attitude of key players. He's survived losing, or selling, the likes of Leroy Lita, David Wheater, Gary O'Neil, Andrew Taylor, Tony McMahon, Joe Bennett, Matthew Bates and Barry Robson, among others, to keep Boro in the top ten throughout his two full seasons in charge. Season by season, the squad seems to be getting cheaper, weaker and less contented, yet we remain in with a remote chance of promotion even now.

I just wonder if, with Josh McEachran set to return to Chelsea, Zemmama, Ledesma & Emnes failing to fulfil their promise, George Friend and Rhys Williams losing their way, and the need to get players like Nicky Bailey and Scott McDonald off the wage bill (unless, of course, they're willing to take a cut), 2013 might be a Summer Of Tough Love too many for Tony Mowbray.

Is it a crisis of Southgatian proportions, or worse? Is the Moggalution set to die? Or, judging by Saturday, is it already dead?

* * * * *

* Ultimately, the end of Southgate's reign was marked by a series of very fine margins, if you forget the West Brom thrashing. What if Aliadiere had converted that chance at Ashton Gate? What if someone had picked up Leon Best at the Ricoh, instead of joining the rest of the defence in thinking we'd done enough? Against Watford, what if Sean St. Ledger's goal had stood and Tony McMahon's rocket had gone in? And are we also forgetting that the winning goal in that game was scored by Tom Cleverley, now a key component in the midfield of England's champions-elect? A little extra thinking time does help sometimes...

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