JANUARY will decide.
It will decide where we are going as a club, whether the small town cloth cutting, getting the team we can afford model of prudence can provide us with a team that can survive and flourish in the Premiership; it will decide whether the management team have the nouse to jiggle the assets and reshuffle the squad to fill the gaps and make it stronger on a credit crunched budget; and, crucially, it will decide whether Gareth Southgate can retain the support of a Riverside crowd now very close to pressing the panic button.
Boro were out-fought and out-thought by Everton in a woeful and limp display. The Blue Scousers are a very good side, well organised and hard-working and with an excellent away record but Boro more than matched them at Goodison five weeks ago and since then Everton have suffered a string of injuries that have left them striker light. Boro, in theory, should have been galvanised into scrapping for survival as the sands shift beneath them and should have set out to take advantage of their structural imbalance.
In fact Boro got it wrong on almost every count: the team was disjointed, lightweight and lacked bite. The sluggish midfield duo was over-run by Everton’s high-tempo three. Boro lacked penetration down both flanks. There were poor performances by some key players: Stewart Downing and Mido were ineffective, Julio Arca a spectator and Gary O’Neil very rusty . The defence – a unit that seemed almost perverse given that Wheater and Huth were sat dejected on the bench – failed miserably to cope with a string of dangerous dead balls. And up front Boro remain blunt and unconvincing.
The substitutions worked to an extent as Adam Johnson injected pace, creativity and willingness to get into the box but that fizzled out before Boro could take advantage while Afonso Alves managed to get into the danger zone a few times but still hesitates and looks shorn of confidence when he gets into a shooting position. And in truth the game was long gone well before they were introduced.
It was a poor performance and it was not a one off, and that is what has left legions of Boro fans now deeply worried. Seven without a win, bottom of the form table and looking laboured, low on confidence and incapable of hurting teams. Out of the drop spots on goal difference alone and with a full programme on Sunday that features Blackburn v Man City, West Brom v Spurs and West Ham v Stoke and which could plunge Boro into the bottom three before they go to Old Trafford.
Meanwhile other teams – teams who at the start of the season who may well have written off as more limited but who have a bit of bottle – have started to pick up wins and one by one have clawed above a Boro side that look increasingly fragile. West Ham and Portsmouth may have fire sales in January – but so could Boro. It is squeaky bum time.
Supporters are starting to worry that this could be the year that Boro’s annual bout of trapdoor dancing comes unstuck and that the high-risk strategy of going into the season with a thin inexperienced squad is now coming back to bite our bum with avengeance.
That unease has been reflected in the now overt and strident expressions of anti-Southgate sentiment bubbling through the cracks of what had been a solid platform laid down in the sunny early months of the season. The buzz in the underpass, in the pubs and clubs and on the angry message board suggests the knives are out and that even the loyalists now have growing doubts.
Now January looms and with it the bigger than ever threat of key players leaving. The smoke signals from Hurworth suggest that every player has their price as the new reality of club belt tightening continues and a willingness to wheel and deal asserts itself. If you were to believe the tabloid tittle tattle then any of Downing, Mido, Tuncay and O’Neil are on the verge of leaving and it is far from certain that any departures in January can be replaced with sufficient quality to improve the team, that the players we want will be sold on a relegation battle or that any new arrivals will have time to bed in.
So January will be massive politically for Southgate and strategically for Steve Gibson and the whole strategy of careful husbandry and a low cost base at Boro. The laudable and logical ethos of prudent house-keeping depends on the supporters buying into it, sharing the vision and – most importantly – seeing results on the pitch. If the team is losing and playing badly then the whole thing could unravel. Sensible budgeting will be hard to sell – as will season tickets – if Boro are playing in the Championship next term.
Boro now face a massive month. Putting the trip to Old Trafford aside for a minute, Barrow in the FA Cup is a massive banana skin in waiting. Boro will be expected to win but the pyramid part-timers will be bring 7,000 fans and could well outnumber the home supporters and will be fired up for it. Defeat in that will be a huge blow to public confidence and could also send the team into crunch basement battles at home to Sunderland then away at West Brom under a cloud and mounting pressure. Then after a trip to Chelsea it is Blackburn at home. Three six pointers in a watershed month.
Ideally Boro need to win the two home games to buy breathing space and strengthen their hand in the transfer window. At the very least they can’t afford to lose them. And they must also go to West Brom and make amends for the costly 1-0 home defeat back in September when we were still bubbling with optimism, playing enterprising if sometimes naively open football and creating chances by the lorryload.
Many have already made up their mind on Southgate but we have not yet reached critical mass in the crowd. We are used to bleak runs, especially over Christmas and most realise that the boss can only play with the hand he has been dealt with and that the slimline squad is not his choice but part of a wider strategy – but patience and confidence is evaporating quickly to be replaced with an icy fear.
For my part I think Boro will survive, but only just. I’d take 17th now if I was offered it. The past two seasons we have stayed up on the penultimate day and the squad has been filleted of expereince since then so there is little reason to expect anything other than a lower half scrap and there are other clubs out there looking every bit as vulnerable.
Given the budget, the squad size and profile and the parameters the gaffer is working too that may represent success. The danger is that fans will not see it that way and once the boss loses the fans it is almost impossible to turn the tide.