IS BORO’S current success by accident or design? Certainly the season has not panned out as it was intended. The Red Book renewal spin stated emphatically that we were aiming at the top six and beyond but back in January suddenly we were deep in the brown stuff and it was time to start digging. That wasn’t in the script.
I raise this not to muddy the waters before our UEFA Cup moment of truth but because, well, HE started it. Gareth Southgate is a player to be admired for his insight and integrity and willingness to answer a question honestly. Some people may suspect his timing is questionable after he started picking at the barely healed scabs of January in the Sunday Times but we shouldn’t forget where we were at back then.
“Well, there was so much going on behind the scenes,” he recalled. “The chairman deserves a lot of credit because at that point it looked as if important players were going, and he put a block on that. Otherwise weÃ¢ÂÂd have lost Mark Schwarzer, Ugo Ehiogu and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, who have all played significant parts in our revival. The manager wanted to bring in new blood and felt he had to sell those three to do that … It was the dressing room, as much as the manager, that put things right.”
There was a lot going on behind the scenes in January? It was absolute bloody chaos with manager, players and club chiefs all seemingly briefing against each other in the media. The club appeared to be tearing itself apart.
Overly dramatic? Well, maybe. But remember, December had yielded two points from six games, January started with a late sucker punch at Newcastle, crowds were in free-fall and Boro had slipped into the dangerzone. “It was always going to be a season of consolidation,” said the boss.
Then the shadow dancing began. There was transfer money available then there wasn’t. Loan signings were coming in then they weren’t. Players were openly touted around clubs by their agents but nothing happened. “I was a Baggie in my head” said Ugo. Schwarzer had slapped in a transfer request six months after signing a new deal. From day to day McClaren changed his position on signings, then after it was agreed that there was to be no activity came a deadline day bid for Joey Barton that the boss appeared not to know about .
Meanwhile there were stories of dressing room unrest, apparently confirmed by fisrt Jonathon Greening, then skipper Southgate. “There a few things not right in the dressing room,” he said. We couldn’t believe such a media savvy individual could drop a hand-grenade like that. It must be a mistake, a misquotation, surely. Then he repeated it a few days later. Clearly it was calculated. Had McClaren lost the dressing room?
Then, with the squad on a sunshine break in Spain, Keith Lamb went live on the Three Legends and gave a less than spirited defence of his boss. He conceded there were problems, agreed the football was far from entertaining and admitted “no one at the club expected it to be a season of consolidation”.
On balance he said there were more good things on Mac’s CV – the cup, Europe, the kids coming through – than bad things… but in making than analogy he seemed to suggest that the situation was actively being weighed up and that the scales could tip the other way with just a few more mistakes.
He also admitted that Southgate had called a squad meeting to blast the senior squad and console the kids. Hold on, said tens of thousands of Boro fans, isn’t that the manager’s job?
Then as a parting gesture Lamb took a call from a suspiciously well informed mystery man – not Graham Fordy talking through a bunched up handkerchief, no siree – and admitted “No, Steve McClaren has NOT signed his contract” then ripped off his headphones and dived into a revved up car before his bombshell could be discussed.
I took the revelation to be part of some dark political machinations and suggested it was not good for Mac’s employment prospects. He appeared to agree. Two days later “sources close to McClaren” told Louise Taylor of the Guardian that the boss was “furious at being publicly undermined.”
Now in newspaper speak “sources close to” means one of two things: a) he told me but told me not to tell you it was him; or b) I’ve made this up. Surely if it was b) she would be banned by the club or at least face the cold shoulder from Mac. But no, there she was at Friday’s press conference/ contract signing circus laughing and joking with Mac as he beamed and waved around the paperwork we had been told was sealed six months earlier.
That weekend Boro were thumped 7-0 in a humilating display at Highbury. “Any team would lose against Arsenal with ten men,” said the boss, even though Doriva had been pedalled ten minutes from time with Boro six down. The defeat at home to Wigan was spirited but still a defeat, then there was a lacklustre FA Cup draw at Coventry. Then Boro went to whipping boys Sunderland and the consensus among the cognescenti – and that includes members of the club staff who I won’t name – was that defeat would mean the chop, new contract or not. They won
Then came the Villa match. There is a separate detailed piece to be written about the Villa match, a novel even: Mac’s body language, the spineless capitulation, Cattermole’s tears, Mark Davison throwing his season ticket and getting a standing ovation as he was carted off, the angry bust-up between Viduka and fans after the game and then Steve Gibson addressing the disillusioned gathering two hours after the game and refusing to accept the Red Books surrendered by a disillusioned supporter.
What happened next we can’t know. The reaction of the fans – not only the season ticket chucking but also the rousing rendition of ‘You Are My Boro’ straight after – and the reaction of Cattermole must have hit home to the players. Riot acts must have been read, in the dressing room and in the boardroom. The club had hit rock bottom.
Boro beat Chelsea next – and I dread to think what would have happened if Petr Cech had saved the first one – then won away in Stuttgart and the season was galvanised. The hope returned. The goals returned. George Boeteng returned. Suddenly we were flying in the cups and glory beckoned.
But looking back just three months, prompted by Sir Gareth, shows exactly how fragile footballing success can be. One result can shape a season and define an era. When we play Bucharest in a UEFA Cup semi final on Thursday – yes, UEFA Cup semi-final, I can’t say that enough – it will show us how far we have come as a club. Not just in the dramatic 20 years since liquidation but also since January.