An annus horribilis

Date published: Wednesday 30th December 2009 5:11

Dan Gilgan reflects on a miserable 2009 at The Riverside

As we move into a new year, I thought I would spend a few moments looking back on 2009: Middlesbrough Football Club’s very own ‘annus horribilis’.

It is hard to believe that this time last year Middlesbrough were an established Premier League club. We were halfway through our 11th consecutive season in the top flight and were 14th place in the league table. The following months saw an alarming collapse in the team’s performances that would result in the ultimate humiliation of relegation as the lowest goal scorers in the entire 92-club league.

Gareth Southgate had set a strategy of building his team around youth and pace. This was partly due to a need to cut costs, but was clearly Gareth’s preferred plan regardless; he hoped to be the new Arsene Wenger. Experienced stars such as Fabio Rochemback, Luke Young, Lee Cattermole and Geogre Boateng were replaced by the likes of Dider Digard, Justin Hoyte and Marvin Emnes. His team had started the year well and it’s a staggering fact that he actually won the Premier League manager of the month for August 2008!

As the autumn turned to winter, the team slowly lost any early momentum and a December horror show at Craven Cottage saw us lose 3-0 to Fulham. That spineless capitulation would set the tone for the year ahead Southgate’s ‘youth first’ policy had left us devoid of any experience, leadership or fight.

January saw a similar 3-0 thrashing at bottom of the league West Brom, as the club slipped into free-fall. Many fans thought this should have been the end for Gareth but Steve Gibson stubbornly dug his heals in and stood by his man. Around this time Portsmouth sacked Tony Adams and Blackburn sacked Paul Ince, both men were replaced by experienced managers who ultimately staved off relegation.

It was becoming clear that Gareth’s appointment had been a terrible mistake but Gibson was now compounding his initial error by burying his head in the sand. There were enough warning signs by now to realise that Southgate was way out of his depth.

Humiliation

As the season went on it became clear that the manager had no answers to our lack of goals, lack of fight and creaking defence. His post-match interviews became painfully repetitive as he vowed to “learn lessons” after each humiliation. We received a real footballing lesson at the Emirates Stadium, towards the end of the season, in a one-sided mis-match. The 2-0 defeat flattered Middlesbrough and showed that a pacy, youthful team cannot be successfully built on the cheap. Southgate’s managerial naivety had been cruelly exposed.

No surprise then that we crashed out of the Premier League with a limp last day defeat at West Ham. The surprise to many Boro fans was that Gibson again decided to back Gareth Southgate as the right man to lead our promotion campaign. I found this decision staggering. The manner of our relegation had been so gutless: the lack of goals, the inability to defend a lead, the lack of fight. Add to that the Riverside crowd’s disillusion with the manager and Gibson’s decision seemed like blind loyalty.

Relegation had necessitated a fire sale of our international players, Steward Downing, Alfonso Alves and Mido were all sold. Adam Johnson starred in some good attacking wins, especially away from home, and for a short while it seemed that Southgate may be able to redeem himself. But the bright start to the new season was undermined when Tuncay Sanli and Robert Huth joined the ‘sold’ list at the end of August.

All that early optimism collapsed in a 5-0 thrashing at home to West Bromwich Ablion. Ten days later we lost at home to Leicester and the Riverside crowd turned on Southgate. Boos rang around the stadium followed by chants of “out, out, out”. This must have been the final straw for Gibson; Southgate would be sacked a few weeks later when a replacement was lined up.

I was delighted when Gordon Strachan was named as the new manager. The landscape had changed at the club, we were in a new era of limited spending and prudence but at least we now had a manager with a proven track record of success in these circumstances. Strachan introduced a tough new regime of training and discipline, he had clearly decided to take the club in a new direction. He wanted to shake things up and stamp his authority on the club.

The obvious problem was timing. Taking over part way through a season is far from ideal and he was only able to bring in a few loan signings. This seemed to leave the new boss in a difficult position. It is clear he does not like many of Southgate’s players Emnes, Taylor, Shawkey, Grounds and even Yeats, but with the transfer window closed until January, Strachan’s hands have been tied.

Uncertain

The result has been a rather messy transition that has seen the team slide down the league, amid rumors of dressing room unrest. It seems some of the players who helped us to relegation have not enjoyed a much-needed kick up the backside.

The new manager has only two wins from 10 games and has sometimes seemed uncertain with team selection and substitutions, not then the bright start we were looking for, and a frustrating time for the fans, some of who have already started to grumble at Strachan’s appointment.

It is my absolute belief that Strachan will turn this situation around. Gibson has indicated that funds will by made available for the manager to bring in his own players and no doubt much of Southgate’s dead wood will be shipped out. The manager is making plans for the long term and it is my opinion that we are experiencing a small step backwards in order to take large strides forward.

After our terrible demise under the previous manager, major surgery is needed. Gordon has not even had a chance to perform the operation yet and patience is the key to this healing process.

Middlesbrough fans have been spoiled over the last 15 years and need to realise that the days of punching above our weight are over. For that reason, I think Strachan is the right man; he has guile and the ability to develop players.

I will be ready to judge the new boss this time next year when he has had time to sort out the mess he inherited. Until then we fans are going to need patience and perseverance. Change doesn’t happen overnight.

Do you agree with Dan’s reflections – and share his optimism under Gordon Strachan? Let us know and we will publish the best of your views…

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