AND SO the pendulum swings back the other way – for a week at least – as schizophrenic Middlesbrough’s metronomic season continues. The crucial win at Reading on a day when our chief promotion rivals all faltered helped Boro claw back lost ground in the table and earned the gaffer some political breathing space after a week of sustained fire had him on the ropes.
Some, but not much. Those with foam finger fume poisoning may well now feel vindicated for their brave stance against the midweek mob but the rusty bedsprings faction who hoped for defeat today won’t go away. It was after all only Reading. And third is not an automatic spot. Nothing has changed. It is just double or quits carried forward onto the next game with a fortnight off to lick wounds, grind axes and generally simmer before things swing back their way.
I didn’t go today, Big Phil T baggsied this one pre-season because it was a new ground for him. It was the first match I have missed since Wolves away in the FA Cup what seems like eons ago so naturally was listening to Ali and Gilly (isn’t that a different experience from the polar opposites Punch and Judy show when Bernie was on?) while watching Jeff Stelling and the boys and following developments on here, Fly Me and the Beeb via the lap-top. So a bit of a busmans’ holiday then.
[Incidentally I noticed there was a few people posting on the blog during the match… is there a viable audience for me trying live quip-by-quip coverage in some form?]
It was interesting to note after the game that Gareth resumed the high-risk assertive defence of his position that he had mounted in the Thursday pre-match presser. Then he had answered questions about the booing at the Leicester game by having a pop at the booing culture at the Riverside and dismissing the concept of “opinions without responsibility.”
This time he edged towards a divide and rule strategy by bigging up the away fans. Now, the away fans have been magnificent this season and have impressed both in numbers and volume, of that there can be no question but it would be naive to think that Venn Diagram-wise there is no intersection between those hardy travelling hardcore of loyalists and the tetchy thousands who have roasted him at the Riverside.
Nevertheless, it suits his political ends to draw attention to the superb support away from home and the team’s impressive results on the road in contrast to the more impatient, demanding and disgruntled home fans who he says have piled pressure on the team. After the game he said:
“We had incredible travelling support today. It’s a hell of a long journey to come down here, I know we have a lot of support in the south but when you can reward that travelling support, that’s great. We want to reward our home support as well and being together as a group is going to be crucial.”
Asked why Boro have played with zest away from home but have struggled at home, Southgate said: “I don’t know what to make of it if I’m honest. It’s something that as club we’ve got to think about. We’ve got two important home games coming up and we’ve got to have the strength of character to win there.”
That last phrase is the most important. It he wants to take the heat off the team and himself Boro MUST start winning at home. That the away fans have seen goals aplenty and a couple of superb performances is a fantastic reward for the miles and hours they put in but home turf is a far more important political constituency and the vast majority who only see the team at the Riverside have had to endure a grind against Sheffield United, the pummelling by West Brom and the purgatory of the first hour against Leicester need to be given compelling reasons to stay on side. Or at least not join the overt opposition.
After a bitter and damaging week in which Boro fans have marked out their territory, nailed their colours to the mast and been identifying and insulting members of the rival factions Southgate may have got a dig in – which is fair enough, his detractors have been free enough in making political capital from results – but he also added a note of sober reason to the debate.
“We were very professional about how we went about it and how calmly we played it out and we were solid as a team,” he said. “But we won’t get carried away with it, in the same way as we didn’t with previous results. Other scores today show the topsy-turvy nature of this league.”
Which is true. After battering Boro there were plenty on here who suggested that the engraver may as well get to work on the trophy that hey had already awarded to West Brom. Since then they have lost two and today could only draw. Boro, written off after the 5-0 gubbing, are now just a point behind them. Newcastle, still reeling at Jason Euell scoring in Blackpool’s win have also drawn two in a row. Neither will run away with it. Boro are third, a point off an automatic spot and are averaging almost two points a game.
There is a long way to go yet. Boro’s best chance of promotion is sticking together when things get sticky, as from time to time they will. But there is no point in appealing for unity on some abstract point of principle when the crowd are divided. The only way the fractured alliance can be kept together is by Boro continuing to win. Especially at home. Over to you lads….