THE UNITY of fans and team almost fractured into unseemly sniping for a minute there but don’t worry, it was just the boos talking.
For all the crunch time rallying cries and talk of sticking together through ten cup finals, when the pressure is on people will react emotionally. That was certainly the case against Portsmouth as fans voiced their dissent at a poor display – overtly and in code – and the manager responded with a post-match pop.
Wide sections of the crowd moaned and groaned and screamed in fury as the sloppily conceded Pompey opener went in and they booed the team off angrily at the break after a woeful first half.
They grumbled and fidgeted and shouted out in frustration as time ran out in the second half without any increase in tempo, zest or desire before finally sparking an outbreak of popular dissent by proxy that earned an uncharacteristic rebuke from the gaffer.
The Trojan horse discontent took the form of singling out one player for praise.
Talismanic Turk Tuncay’s sudden omnipresent Juninho-lite perpetual motion, powering a header at David James at one end then racing 30 yards to launch a sliding tackle at the other, making runs and snapping at Pompey players’ heels at the other, helped galvanise the rest of a languid team into a belated urgency and lit the fuse on an unlikely revival.
It also prompted a chant of “we’ve only got one man” from the North Stand – which given the run of one win in 17 in the league and the lowest goal haul in English professional football is hardly the most militant expression of angst.
There could have been widespread booing, attacks on the short-comings of individual players or outright calls for Southgate’s head. There could have been demonstrations with badly spelled bedsheets calling for a ‘boycoutt’.
At some clubs the crowd would have reached tipping point long ago but Boro fans have been incredibly patient. They remember Southgate was a great player who lifted the cup at Cardiff and led the charge through Europe and generally, understand the financial limitations he works under and that have left the squad so thin. There is a stockpile of goodwill there that has insulated him and his team during a bleak winter.
Besides, given the stakes no-one wants to further damage the fragile recovery or undermine the players’ morale going into a crucial run of massive games with indiscriminate booing.
Instead, there was highly political praise for one player that as a sub-text emphasised the perceived lack of industry and passion from the rest.
But that didn’t go down well with the boss.
“Some of the chants were disrespectful to the team,” said mildly miffed Southgate.
“I’m going to get slaughtered for this whatever I say so I am going to say what I believe: for them to say we have only got one player is hurtful.
“The crowd are right to laud Tuncay’s efforts but we win and lose as a team. The other lads may not have been as eye-catching but they made important saves, blocks and interceptions. We showed character and resilience to come from behind and get what could be a very significant point.
“We survive as a club and as a town by everyone pulling together. It looked for while as if some people had given up on us there. We need everyone behind us all the time.”
And Southgate does have some valid points. Tuncay was not the only one putting in the effort: Adam Johnson did his bit to change the game while the likes of Tony McMahon and Robert Huth also had an impact when it mattered.
And the team did keep going right to the death, they did pull something out of the bag to peg back a rival and they did keep their survival hopes alive. Slimmer, but alive.
And yes, the team will need everyone right behind them as the further twists and turns of the relegation battle work their way to a conclusion.
There will be set-backs along the way as we battle for top flight survival and we can’t collapse into collective anxious squealing at every one. It is a time for steely nerves and unwavering commitment off the pitch as much as on it.
It also needs pointing out that Tuncay is far from being a one man team. Not only was he as poor as anyone and guilty of some woefully misplaced passes in an ineffective first hour or so but he also disappeared for long spells in his winter hibernation when others carried the torch with their own less publicised endeavours. If blame for the current plight is to be apportioned at any point then the Turk must take his share.
But the boss also misses a major point, which is that Tuncay was singled out for praise because in a massive game that looked to be fizzling out into a costly defeat, the Turk was the one that stepped up the work-rate, chased and harried and looked to make things happen when other looked to have accepted the outcome.
It was a response to yet another occasion when, as with Sunderland, Blackburn and Wigan, the team appeared reluctant to try to win a game was there for the taking. Rather than protecting the hurt feelings of the team, the gaffer may better advised to rebuke them rather than the crowd.
There is no room now for half-paced, half-hearted displays and we can not rely on the opposition to retreat, stumble and collapse to gift us the points in every game.
And if they want to get the crowd rocking then they should go for the jugular from the off, as they did against West Ham and Liverpool.
If we stay up it will be through steel, fighting spirit and hard work and the sooner they realise it the better.
And there is no room for pique either. To say we need to all pull together is absolutely correct but to parcel that up with a veiled criticism of supporters who have stayed loyal throughout a dismal campaign – and longer back than that if we are to be honest – threatens that alliance.
If the boss thinks the players find the situation hurtful he should talk to some of fans left emotionally scarred by last term’s cup capitulation to Cardiff, who travelled to the mauling at West Brom and have been dragged along the slow-motion slide from the heights of Eindhoven to a widespread resignation that the club are going down – but who still shell out good cash to back the team every week.
It is never generally a good idea for manager’s or players to have a pop at the crowd. Ask Steve “they need to be educated” McClaren. At times of tension it is invariably seen as a provocation by the critics.
It may have been wiser to say nothing. Given the impact of the last attempt by the club to communicate its feelings to fans making noise that was off message and ‘driving people mad’ you would think he would have held his counsel.
We all need to take a few things on the chin right now: the crowd need to accept that not every game will be brilliant but that they still need to rally round while the players and the boss needs to realise that supporters must be given a real reason to cheer and to believe and that as the pressure rises in the run-in there will be times when frustrations and fears are directed the team’s way.
There are nine games left and although time is running out fast we are not yet cast adrift and survival is still in our own hands. We can still do this but the need for unity is equally pressing on both sides.
Keep the Faith.