GARETH Southgate won’t be short of character references if Middlesbrough’s impending relegation severs his eight-year association with the club.
Another weekend, another opposition manager tripping over himself to praise Southgate’s integrity, decency and potential. This time it was Martin O’Neill, echoing the sentiments of Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and Alan Shearer when he hailed Southgate as an “excellent manager in the making”.
Spot the difference? All of those tributes have come after their teams have taken points off his ailing Boro. And that is why neutral sympathy for Southgate no longer extends to the people who have sat through 19 mostly joyless games at the Riverside.
Booed off and heckled by the supporters who once revered their Captain Fantastic, it is a long way back for Southgate and Boro as they consider a return to Championship football and the treacherous route back to the Premier League.
Mathematically, they are still alive. But drawing with Aston Villa means it will require a minor miracle to keep them in the big league – defeats for Newcastle and Hull and a win at West Ham that can overturn the Tigers’ goal difference advantage of four.
It would have been so different if familiar failings hadn’t manifested themselves at a subdued Riverside.
Requiring a forceful riposte after that limp Tyne-Tees derby performance, Boro supplied it with a rip-roaring start against an apparently disinterested Villa. Stewart Downing looked England-class on the right wing, created two clear cut chances and nearly scoring himself, before supplying the deflected cross that was guided into the net by Tuncay Sanli’s exquisite overhead kick.
But when Downing departed – the victim of a cynical Stilyian Petrov challenge – Boro lost their momentum. The fact that his replacement Marlon King couldn’t get a game for Hull before Christmas speaks volumes about the perils of trying to do things on the cheap.
Sure enough, Villa came back into it against a tiring Boro in the second half. John Carew hooked home an equaliser after some shocking defending, and Southgate’s men couldn’t respond.
Still in it – but even Boro’s boss was allowing thoughts to turn to next season. He’d met owner Steve Gibson immediately after the game, and received some assurances that he was still considered the man for the job – if he wants it.
Southgate maintains he does, perhaps aware of the burden on him to make up for the mistakes he’s made.
“I do believe that amid the emotion of things it’s easy to make quick decisions that are wrong,” he said.
“I expected an adverse reaction if we didn’t get a result today, I expected it to come towards me – I’m the manager, I have to take responsibility, and I’m glad it came to me and not the players because I can handle it.”
Southgate has certainly made mistakes. Why has it taken so long for Marvin Emnes to be handed his Premier League debut, for example? The Dutchman looked excellent again, enterprising and inventive against Villa in the first half before fading slightly in the second.
And why were Boro not pushing forward and more offensive in the dying minutes of the game? A draw was not enough, yet Southgate wouldn’t divert from his 4-4-2.
But some of the decisions he’s made have come because of financial restraints that have been imposed on the club to keep it alive. “We know that whatever happens at the end of the season, certain players will leave; we know that this football club will still exist and many of the decisions that we’ve taken this year have been to keep this football club alive.”
The Villa supporters, chided the home fans with a chorus of “We’ll Meet Again” as the final whistle approached. Nothing – as the newly reviled Southgate would testify – is guaranteed.
MIDDLESBROUGH: Jones, Bates, Wheater, Huth, Hoyte, O’Neil (Walker 72), Adam Johnson, Arca, Downing (King 23), Sanli, Emnes. Subs (not used): Turnbull, Taylor, Shawky, McMahon, Grounds.
Goal: Tuncay 14.
ASTON VILLA: Friedel, Milner, Davies, Cuellar, Shorey, Ashley Young (Reo-Coker 70), Petrov, Barry, Agbonlahor, Carew, Heskey. Subs (not used): Guzan, Sidwell, Delfouneso, Knight, Gardner, Clark.
Booked: Milner, Barry.
Goal: Carew 57.
Attendance: 27,261 Referee: Mike Riley (Yorkshire).