GARETH Southgate must start winning games – and fast – if he is to beat the boo boys.
The jeering at the end of Boro’s Championship curtain-raiser with Sheffield United was a political hand-grenade rolled under the dug-out. It is a taste of things to come in what may be a tetchy season of uncivil war in the stands. Tensions have reached critical mass. Very critical mass.
On the surface such a display of widespread discontent after the opener may seem a harsh and hasty judgement. Boro had fought out a goalless draw against exactly the type of physical team it was predicted would batter them at this level and shown a string of positives: a higher tempo than before, genuine width, a solid defence and the kind of passion, energy and – gasp! – tackling that, had it been seen in the final few weeks of last term may well have seen us kick off next week still in the Premiership instead of making the long trip to Swansea.
The team may have lacked a cutting edge but it certainly wasn’t lacking commitment, work-rate or endeavour, the normal prompt for jeering. On balance, a point against a side whose last game was a play-off final and who are among the promotion favourites again can’t be all bad.
But that was not what the booing was really about.
Neither was it about the players. No-one, not even the most cynical chicken-runner could seriously build a case for barracking rock solid Robert Huth and Wheater at the back; or new boys Mark Yeates and Danny Coyne who had excellent debuts; or makeshift midfielder Rhys Williams. Even scapegoat-elect Jeremie Aliadiere got stuck in. He even won a few headers. Against Chris Morgan! A press-room wag quipped Boro had pulled off a heart transplant that Christian Barnard would be proud of.
Neither is it just because there is a endemic boos culture gripping the game as a whole with impatient and overly demanding fans voicing anger at the drop of a point, as the gaffer has suggested, though there is undoubtedly some truth in that.
It is true also that some of the booing was the result of retrospective rage at Boro’s timid relegation. With no home friendlies this was the first chance at the Riverside to register a protest at the end of the Premiership glory years.
But what was central to the audible anger was the glaring lack of major change over the summer – on or off the pitch. On it the problems that most fans identified as the causes of relegation remain. Against the Blades there was plenty of pretty approach play but no teeth – two shots on target in 90 minutes at home – and simmering supporters are frustrated, mystified and angry this most pressing of issues has not been resolved and that has led them to question the entire direction and strategic thinking of the club.
But, and there’s no skirting around the issue – the key reason for the booing was that the key off the field change the dissidents are demanding has not been delivered: they want shot of Gareth Southgate. Nothing else will do.
And this is not the work of a small unrepresentative group of big mouth mavericks, nor of the radio moan-in ranters and bar room bores who are bitter and hostile as a default. It goes far wider and deeper and is now a potentially explosive part of the crowd.
There is now a large minority – at the very least – of supporters in the avowedly anti-Southgate camp who have decided that only his removal can put the club back on track. They do not accept the arguments about financial determinism, corporate restrictions and the boss having at least one hand tied behind his back, they do not buy into the notion of collective responsibility and reject the idea that Southgate should be backed ex-officio because he is Steve Gibson’s choice… and ultimately that is a direct challenge to the long established Boro status quo.
It must be stressed that the dissidents are loyal fans rather than habitual wreckers. They are sincere and passionate in their support of the club, many with a lot of years and several relegations behind them and often they are struggling with a role as reluctant rebels and the uncomfortable logic of opposing Steve Gibson. I don’t think anyone wants to slip into kneejerk Geordieism. I don’t expect any badly spelled banners.
The antis do not believe they are undermining the team by booing, just pushing the club and manager into a corner through the traditional mechanism of discontent, ultimately the only matchday muscle angry fans have ever had. It is a desire to save the club from itself that drives them and they find the loyalist position – the blind faith option – as being more damaging in the long run than speaking out. They think they are the real fans.
And there’s the problem. It is driven by strongly held beliefs underpinned by a firm commitment to the history and tradition of the club. When it comes to wild-eyed zealotry football fans are right up there with the Jesuits and the Taleban so having taken a stance they wlll not be easily swayed.
This will not go away. It is not a short term fit of pique that will fade with a win or two. For the dissidents the die is cast. Most have publicly declared themselves to friends and family, at work and in the pub and for them there is no going back on that. They want him out and will now agitate tirelessly for that end.
Southgate was told as much to his face during the live BBC Tees phone-in last month: “I haven’t renewed because of you and the club have no chance of achieving anything while you are in charge.” There was no mincing of words. Not a shred of embarrassment at talking direct to the object of the dissent. It was a political position in a nutshell.
The gaffer was articulate and reasoned in his response and respected the irate callers position and insisted he would do his best to win the refuseniks over. But he can’t. They won’t be won over. They won’t be won over by victory at Swansea or Scunthorpe because that is the bare minimum they expect.
But every defeat, every dropped point, every dismal display – especially at home – will be placed squarely at his feet, will strengthen their resolve and swell their numbers.
Every victory will be despite him, not because of him and will be credited to the players.
Victories will not win back a single one of the dedicated anti-faction, it will just buy a short respite until the next set-back when the battle will resume.
There is a large faction of fans who have been dead set against him from day one. Yet another rookie, no matter how popular a player, was not the ‘top drawer’ manager the chairman had promised in the aftermath of McClaren’s exit after the UEFA Cup final.
Others have gradually joined the fledgling opposition over the past three years as the post-Eindhoven hangover turned into a fully fledged post-Cardiff nosedive citing a crime sheet that includes “failure to manage big names,” “inept transfers,” “square-peggism”, “inability to motivate,” “clapping” and the damning inability to “learn lessons” and call for his own head in post-match interviews.
It is a depressing pattern we have seen here before with both Bryan Robson and Steve McClaren. Once people have made the conscious leap to publicly join the opposition they do not return. The political problem festers and spreads infects the body politic until the boil is lanced one way or another. It is the life cycle of a manager.
Robson ushered in an age of Wem-Boro-ley glory and brought in a string of world class stars to spark the euphoria of the Riverside Revolution but the early universal optimism quickly fizzled out as the pace of progress slowed and the last two years of his reign saw a situation develop that is very similar to the one Southgate finds himself in.
The crowd was split. It wasn’t quite the fisticuffs on the Holgate of the last days of Lennie Lawrence but tempers were running high. The fissure pre-dated mass internet access but the old pre-Rivals Fly Me To The Moon board had clear factions while Tim Lloyd’s excellent Hong Kong based mailing list (which brought the e-mail system and printer at the Gazette grinding to a halt most mornings as it spat out the previous night’s spleen venting) was divided into the Anti Robson Group and Pro Robson Group in an adversarial political fight to the death. There was little middle ground.
The arguments revolved around who would replace him. Should he be given a chance after what he had done up until then? Did he need a stronger, more experienced No2 (Ron Atkinson was the popular choice)? Was he only there because Steve Gibson had a misguided loyalty that would lead to disaster? Should we act or risk relegation?
Robbo was still in his job long after the critical mass had been reached because of Steve Gibson patronage but he was a lame duck after being booed on a final day ‘lap of honour’ following a 1-1 draw with Watford. That was the season before Gibbo started looking for Terry Venables’ number and that made match day atmosphere strained and fractious as every result, every selection, every training ground rumour and mooted transfer target set supporters squabbling amongst themselves again.
We went through the same cycle with McClaren too and his case even a trophy, a highest ever Premier League finish and successive ventures Europe could not stem the tide. Like Southgate he was up against it from day one and despite ushering a new era of scientific professionalism and success new layers of discontent were added regularly with his dour approach to tactics, his flirtations with first Leeds then Newcastle, his deliberate playing of weakened sides, a deadpan and dismissive media persona and digs at uneducated supporters who he appeared to regard as a neccessary evil. And to top it all he commited the cardinal sin of isolating talismanic Juninho and bundling him hastily through the exit door, a move which sealed his fate in PR terms.
Like Robbo the last two years of his reign were played out to a back-drop of booing and increasingly personal vitriol. It got the point where some supporters actively wanted Boro to lose games in the hope it would hasten his departure despite the chairman insisting that would not happen.
The position of his opposition became at times perverse, refusing to acknowledge his tangible success to the point where the real highs were trashed and debased in an attempt to square the ideological circle: the Cardiff triumph was ‘papering over the cracks’ and only achieved because Arsenal put out a reserve side in the semi, Eindhoven was only reached because of a crazy last throw of the tactical dice and besides, we should never have had to come from three down, the real measure of a team was the league where his had struggled blandly against the drop -although that measure was not enforced the year before when the team had finished seventh; that year the yard-stick was ‘entertainment value’ which was deemed close to zero .
For the anti-Macs the catalyst for the success in the UEFA Cup was not the manager, nor even the inspirational skipper who proved his leadership credentials by calling clear the air squad meetings in what was seen in some quarters as a dressing room coup. No, it was a tipsy terrace terrorist who beat the stewards and shot a Red Book at the dug-out and became the boo boys pin-up.
The entire UEFA Cup run was not celebrated with the unfettered joy it should have been because the crowd had gone beyond critical mass and many were watching the games grudgingly and looking for sticks to beat the manager with. The crowd had become dysfunctional and divided and estranged from the club hierarchy and arguably has yet to recover fully . There has been little since then to unite and galvanise us.
And now we are very close to tipping point again. The tide of discontent is rising and it threatens to over-shadow what is a watershed season. The booing will become an institutionalised feature as it was in the last dark days of the previous two incumbents and the post-match debate will not be about the match action or player performance or the potential for next weekend but instead will be about holding the manager to account. Even after wins. Every week will bring new demands for his head.
The anti-Southgate positions are entrenched. There is little point in trying to win those over. If the gaffer is to survive he must maintain and strengthen his support among the middle ground waverers and persuade his own bosses that he is still a viable prospect to take the club forward. He needs to buy time and to do that his team must win games.
While the declared dissidents are dominating the debate in the pubs, the phone-ins and on the message boards the battle is for the hearts and minds of the silent majority… if the undecided are still a majority. While there are now very few advocates willing to passionately argue Southgate’s corner most of those floating voters will be quietly willing and hoping to be persuaded quickly by results that the gaffer can deliver.
And he must. Relegation has heaped the pressure on the boss. At the lower level there is no wriggle room over our inability to compete financially. Now it will come down purely to results. Southgate must put a team out that are organised, motivated and, most importantly, successful.
Boro must start to win games and win them emphatically. Especially at home. A draw at home to Doncaster, say, will not easily be explained away as one against the beaten play-off finalists.
Promotion is the bare minimum needed to stave off a full scale revolt. And it must be achieved with Boro leading from the front. We must be up in the play-off places – at least – from off and stay there. A slow burn start will not be tolerated. The worst possible scenario is Boro doing just enough to stay in touch with the leaders but not enough to keep the waverers on side, deepening the divide and drawing out the agony.
It is down to the boss to silence the boo-boys and get the crowd back on song.
**THE ABOVE is an extended Chickenrunnaz remix of this week’s gazette Big Picture column.
**HERE are a few of the stories and snippets that have caught my eye this week and I think some of you lot will be interested but I haven’t had time to discuss at length. I have been pointing browsers at the links via the trendy/nerdy medium of Twitter. If you sign up and “follow” my “tweets” there is loads of this stuff for you to read when you really should be working.
*Proper journalist Simon Kuper reckons he could lead Manchester United into the Champions League as he argues it’s money and not managers that deliver success in the Financial Times.
*When Saturday Comes looks at the post-Seadogs squabble as former fans of Scarborough get bogged down in a pyramid civil war.
*Football and culture site ‘Sport is a TV Show’ explore how full blooded five-a-side sessions helped fuel the post-punk tour de force that was the Clash epic album London Calling
*And from the same site, a brilliant four letter peppered spoof of David ‘Damned United’ Peace previewing the new Premier League season.
All this and more plus 140 character long signposts to Boro ephemera available daily on the Untypical Boro twitter feed which you can find here.