A FORTNIGHT ago the news had just broken that Gareth Southgate had been handed the manager of the month gong, Boro were celebrating their best start in the Premiership for nine years and there was some awkward shuffling at the unaccustomed media love-in. Now it is scapegoat city.
Our best and most creative player is starting to get stick after two average games in defiance of his out-standing contributions in recent years; Hoyte has been written off after a couple of hours action in exactly the same way Luke Young was last year just before he stepped up a gear to become the most consistent performer of the season; Alves is being slated for not being up to it even though he scored six in six at the back end of last term; Jinky – who became an icon and saviour in waiting by not playing – is now being denounced as not up to the job; it is open season on Aliadiere; Digard, prematurely pronounced a proto-Zidane so recently is now a water-carrier; and cult hero and leader by example Pogatetz has been downgraded to a headcase again…. on no, we’re all going to die.
That bickering is a reflection of how fragile the belief in Boro is. The questions raised in the summer about the depth of the squad “by design” – Tom Craddock was on the bench at Old Trafford – are back with a vengeance while a lot of people are back-pedalling furiously as they are embarrassed after getting a bit too carried away after the good start and they are now trying to rebuild their credentials as dyed-in-the-wool Teesside cynics by putting the boot into a random victim.
Which makes the visit of West Brom a politically crucial encounter. After a wobble and three defeats in a row on the road (all courtesy of two late goals leaked) it is vital that Boro get back on track at home. If the Riverside record of three wins in three is dented too the jitters will really kick-in.
And West Brom also come with ready made sticks to beat Boro with. Mogga has long been regarded as a manager in waiting and a yardstick against which Southgate will be measured in some quarters and if he tactically out-thinks the gaffer it will not go down well while many believe James Morrison should never have been sold, that he was a better bet on the right than any of the makeshift widemen used there last term and that he would be more creative and score more goals from that position than Aliadiere. And Jonathan Greening… the concourse consensus was that he was rubbish when he was here so if he were to hurt Boro it would set off alarm bells. Those judgements may not be correct but in the current climate there is no doubt that they message boards will be crackling with them if the result goes the wrong way.
THIS may be as late as Rodrigo Possebon’s attempts to get out of the way of Middlesbrough’s tough tackling skipper’s lunge, but here’s some observations about the way the Emanuel Pogatetz story developed.
First it must be said that I don’t condone “horrific”, “disgraceful” or “vicious” assaults – take your pick of the emotive descriptions used in the tabloids – and I winced just like everyone else but the ball was there to be won and Pogatetz had every right to go for it. Yes, it was an uncompromising challenge but it is a contact sport and it is a central feature in the game, and one that fans and managers prize highly. To say every challenge where somewhere gets hurt is reckless and build a retrospective case that it is somehow evil and unacceptable is to edge further down the road towards a de facto ban on tackling.
Secondly it must be said that I am biased: Emanuel Pogatetz is the nicest man in Europe and that’s official. They held a poll and Poggy beat a former nun in Belgium that bakes cakes for local orphans and rescues kittens to the title. When you talk to him one on one you are instantly drawn into an envelope of warm, sincere, good-humoured and engaging niceness. You want to take him home for tea and to introduce him to your mam. Southgate in defending him rightly said he was “a good human being,” a moral measure which we should perhaps all aspire to even if very few achieve.
When the tackle first went in, in real time, the immediate press box consensus was that the sending off was ‘harsh.’ A few people did that ‘ouch, glad it wasn’t me’ laugh/wince we do when a bone-juddering tackle flies in. Writing a live runner on the gazettelive website I said: “Boro were dealt a blow on 67 minutes when skipper Pogatetz was sent off. As the ball rolled loose just inside the Boro half the defender went flying into a crunching 50/50 challenge with Possebon and although he took the ball he sent the United man spawling and needing several minutes treatment for a gash to his leg.”
I stand by that. That is what happened. All the hyperbole and moralising about intent and the Poggi backstory was added in the feeding frenzy that followed.
When the monitors showed the replays it looked a bit more robust, especially from some angles. Possebon was clearly injured and those who had said ‘harsh’ quickly upgraded it to ‘a bit naughty’ then when the red card was flashed the ball started rolling. Everyone in the press box has a laptop and internet access so immediately started googling Pogatetz for some background and the first things that popped up helped colour the way the story unfolded: the story of the 24 game world ban from the leg-breaking tackle in Russia, the nickname ‘Mad Dog,’ the pictures of our hero grappling with Kevin Davies with blood smeared across his face. The impression was clearly that he was an animal. If you Google him now they have been pushed right down to page 17 behind the welter of hysteria over the Old Trafford horror.
“So how many times has he been sent off for Boro?” was the question buzzing around the national lads and we had to disappoint them (and surprise ourselves I must say ) by scratching our heads, having a bit of a think and then checking Soccerbase and saying ‘er…none’. He had an extensive collection of yellows for the usual occupational hazards of being a centre-back but not a single red in domestic football. But that didn’t sit well with the story that was developing.
The press corps at Old Trafford was represented by writers who usually cover United and the big four rather than the North-east contingent who were all on their home patch covering Sunderland. These lads were not familiar with Poggi and had never interviewed him so don’t know he is a ‘good human being.’ They just saw the Mad Dog, some kind of shaven headed psychotic agricultural hatchetman from a no-mark side.
Even before the final whistle the word went around that Possebon’s leg was broken and the keys started to tap with self-righteous fury (these are remember men who every other week praise Terry, Vidic, Rooney, Eboue and Gerrard for similar whole-hearted tackles, label them ‘hard but fair’ and laud the perpetrators as committed competitors with a commendable will to win) as the deadline loomed. Most of the early editions were written at this point, full of colourful condemnation but short on detail or quotes.
After the game Alex Ferguson was indignant and lashed out angrily. But he doesn’t talk directly to the written press but instead issues his post-match edicts via MUTV and so the scribes were instead forced to stand in an undignified scrum holding dictaphones aloft to the monitors constantly tuned to the in-house propaganda machine. In a normal press conference reporters have the chance to question a manager, ask him to elaborate on incidents and pick him up on some on the contradictions raised in his bluster.
More pertinently they could maybe ask him to maybe compare the offence with some his own players had committed in the past, like say, the Roy Keane retribution dished out to Alf Inge Haarland, an incident of which Ferguson said his man – who admitted in his autobiography it had been deliberate – had no case to answer.
As Ferguson spoke immediately after the game his comments framed the debate. He got to set the parameters of the story. He said it was horrendous, which most people probably agreed with having watched it a dozen times in slo-mo by then, divorced from the context of the action but each time looking worse. He said “the thing about challenges like that is that the opponent always claims he has done nothing wrong,” incorrectly giving the impression that Poggi was callously denying it was a foul or refusing to accept responsibility and adding to the sense of moral outrage. He also said Southgate had apologised and understood it was an absolutely terrible tackle thus painting the Boro boss – at that time still down in the tunnel area talking to BBC Tees and the MFC website – into a corner.
Hilariously and hypocritically he also said Poggi should just have ‘walked’. What, like a United player would? Poggi was more surprised than outraged with the decision and was protesting his attempts at playing the ball (football’s universal mime symbols were employed) but he was not berating, insulting or intimidating the ref. And Boro players rans over to add some mitigation but they didn’t form an angry mob around the ref, jostling him, pushing him or screaming in his face, a practice United have form for.
While the situation developed on the pitch red-faced Fergie was down in the Boro technical area making his own contribution to the ‘Respect’ campaign, jumping up and down with steam coming out of his ears and furiously pointing and bellowing at Colin Cooper. Did he think Coops had done it? Did he think such a confrontation would somehow make the injury less painful to his lad in some mystical, shamanic dance of deflection? Was he advocating some kind of Nazi-style collective punishment, that anyone wearing a Boro kit was somehow a legitimate target for retaliation, their families should be rounded up and banned from football for life and their houses reduced to rubble? He had to be dragged away by the fourth official before his emotional incontinence got the better of him and boiled over. Chill grand-dad.
That was the air of hysteria that had set the agenda. In that atmosphere no one in the press room was going to suggest that “he was only going for the ball”, or that “we’ve seen worse”. No clearly this was the crime of the century. Worse than Matt Taylor on Eduardo. Worse than Guthrie. Worse than Barton. Worse than Keane on Haaland. There were people tapping out demands that the FA ‘throw the book at this thug’ and ridiculous musing about a ban as long Possebon was on the sidelines. Utterly ridiculous kneejerk responses by people swept along on a wave of hysteria.
By the time Southgate got up to the press room most of the stories were written and Sky Sports News had their little snippet of footage on a permanent tape loop of condemnation. The next day it quickly became clear that Possebon’s leg wasn’t in fact broken so the really vicious follow-up articles demonising Poggi that would no doubt have followed in the Saturday and Sunday supplements were never written – but don’t expect any sober re-assessments though.
The incident is now added to Poggi’s poison pen-picture and will be wheeled out again on his return (and Possebon’s return) and with every yellow card for the next year. The danger is that it also colours future official’s perceptions too and that his first red card card in domestic football won’t be his last.
There is no getting away from the fact that, even if it was made in good faith and with no intent other than to take the ball, it was a crunching tackle that verged on the reckless and that when the follow through sent Possebon spinning through the air Poggi was always going to get sent off.
And the really worrying thing is that if it was Vidic on Johnson, Fergie would still have shaped the story only it would then have been a vindictive blast at a weak referee who had never played the game and didn’t know a firm but fair tackle when he saw it, that he only reacted because their lad was injured and a paranoid moan that if it was Terry or Gerrard it wouldn’t be a red. And the press would still have reported it uncritically.