Monday 6 April ~
A rumour circulated on Friday that Middlesbrough might be about to go into administration. It was said that the money put into the club over the past few seasons by chairman Steve Gibson had been in the form of bank loans secured against his assets and that he could no longer repay the money that was owed. Happily this turned out to be untrue. But even if Middlesbrough won't be starting next season with a ten-point penalty it seems increasingly likely that the nearest thing they'll have to a derby in 2009-10 will involve teams from South Yorkshire, or possibly Leeds.
Saturday's 4-1 defeat to Bolton leaves Boro five points adrift of safety. But it has not been a season-long struggle. At the time of the previous fixture between the two sides in November, Middlesbrough were eighth, having gone five matches without a defeat, a sequence that included a 2-1 win at Villa Park. Since Bolton's 3-1 victory at the Riverside, however, Gareth Southgate's team have won only twice in the League, the last time being a 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at the end of February.
It's understandable that managers of teams on a long winless run will be asked what is going wrong for their team. It's just as understandable that the question will leave them stumped – if they knew for certain they'd have been able to do something about it. Southgate makes a laudable effort to avoid cliche but he is now having to find new ways to express his bafflement each week. After a ninth successive away defeat on Saturday, he sought to reassure supporters that he wasn't about to jack it in, using the most discouraging metaphor imaginable: "Resignation is a bit like committing suicide. I'm determined to keep fighting until there's no air left."
A comparable tone of weary fatalism tends to be employed in many match reports of Boro defeats in the national press because reporters would like to see the articulate and personable Southgate do well. There have been no opinion-pieces exulting over his recent struggles and little adverse comment about him in general – aside from some disquiet expressed about his lack of coaching qualifications when he first took the job. For Southgate is another example of the former international player given an opportunity to manage at the top level, rather than finding out whether he had an aptitude for the job lower down the divisions.
He has been given plenty of time to learn by a famously patient chairman who stuck by another ex-England player in his first management role when Boro were last relegated in 1997-98. That was a lopsided team with a couple of international stars in Fabrizio Ravanelli and Juninho alongside locally produced journeymen. An £85 million debt has inhibited spending and Southgate's one big signing, the £12m Afonso Alves, has been a notable flop. Even so, the current Boro squad is better overall than the one that Bryan Robson took down and ought not to be drifting away from safety in a mediocre bottom half. Boro fans will be dismayed at the thought of playing in the Championship but it looks to be about the right level for their manager.