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Jul 31, 2006

From head boy to school rebel

Gareth Southgate makes an unlikely rebel. Captaining every team he played for, he always seemed more like the head boy of the class. But Middlesbrough broke Premiership rules and antagonised the League Managers' Association by appointing the unqualified Southgate as manager.

The rebel without a badge reverted to type on Saturday, going out of his way to praise referee Trevor Kettle after his questionable handling of a pre-season friendly against Sheffield Wednesday. It was more in keeping with his nice guy image.

If disproving the maxim that nice guys come last is an early aim, then his initial decisions have displayed the toughness Premiership management requires.

Pensioning off two of his contemporaries, Doriva and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, was a measure of distancing himself from former team-mates; indeed, the Dutchman was particularly prominent in the group of senior players Southgate felt deserved credit for resuscitating Middlesbrough's season last year.

His release, however, is an assurance to Middlesbrough's many youngsters that, unlike under Steve McClaren's regime, their experienced team-mates will not be put on a pedestal. Elders, yes; betters, not necessarily.

Chairman Steve Gibson has displayed his own faith in the raw; his habit of giving five-year contracts to untried managers is unique. There are parallels with McClaren's appointment that go beyond inexperience. On both occasions, Terry Venables was first choice.

Five years ago, McClaren arrived with the stated intention of developing a young team before, after faltering results, reverting to Boro's tried-and-tested formula of importing ageing foreigners. Southgate's initial transfer targets, of which more later, have their best years ahead of them, but there is no guarantee he will not react to setbacks by following suit.

But the initial vibes have been positive. Aware that Teesside was bored by much of the football played in McClaren's reign - though two four-goal comebacks in the UEFA Cup briefly gave him the reputation of a latter-day Kevin Keegan, plenty at the Riverside over the last five seasons would beg to differ - Southgate has spoken of a more entertaining style of play. The recruitment of overlapping full-back Julio Arca and the search for a right winger suggest a more progressive variant of 4-4-2 will be preferred.

However, playing 4-5-1 in his first pre-season friendly, as Southgate did at Rangers, is hardly a statement of attacking intent. Instead, it suggested he is a disciple of McClaren.

Since then, he has returned to 4-4-2, and Hasselbaink's departure should have resolved his striking conundrum, though there are shortcomings to Southgate's solution. Mark Viduka was at his happiest alongside Charlton's summer signing last year whereas Yakubu flourished when operating alone in attack; as a partnership, therefore, they have much to prove.

After two seasons spent almost exclusively on the treatment table, Malcolm Christie is finally fit again as an alternative but the other back-up striker provides a reminder that Southgate's room for manoeuvre is restricted by some of McClaren's costlier buys. Both Massimo Maccarone, the £8.5 million misfit in attack, and midfielder Fabio Rochemback remain.

With Arca a direct replacement for Franck Queudrue, there are duel goals for Middlesbrough's new manager; a centre-half and a right winger.

It is a compliment to Robert Huth that he was seen as Southgate's successor by the recently-retired centre-back himself; whether the powerful, if awkward, German has the quiet consistency and invaluable authority that Southgate possessed remains to be seen.

Sylvain Distin, who matured into the captaincy at Manchester City, is a closer comparison but, despite the Chelsea defender's injury problems, Huth appears the first choice.

Providing balance in a midfield where the threat of Stewart Downing on the left wing is not matched by his counterparts on the right seems another objective; indeed McClaren often preferred his right-sided player to be capable of doubling up as third central midfielder, as Gaizka Mendieta, Ray Parlour and Rochemback frequently did.

Steed Malbranque's pay demands appear to have scuppered his transfer, and he is now banished to Fulham reserves.

With James Milner and Brett Emerton apparently the options being considered, Southgate's early moves suggests that judgment of players in the transfer market, an Achilles heel of many a manager, is a strength.

Looking to bridge the gap between Middlesbrough's precocious youngsters and a large contingent of thirty-somethings, McClaren had intended to sign three players aged between 25 and 28 this summer before England claimed his attention instead. Arca meets those criteria, but Southgate's next two signings could be joining the sizeable youthful contingent headed by Yakubu, officially still only 23.

Without the distraction of European football, the immediate target is to beat McClaren's final Premiership finish of 14th. For Southgate, the objective has to be stamp his authority on team and club and to prove his accession from McClaren is not merely the bland leading the bland.

It will be instructive how much Southgate, seemingly the continuity candidate, changes. With the security of a five-year contract, the Southgate evolution has time to run its course. The alternative is to be more radical.

Revolutions are not normally the preserve of the mild-mannered, but football management can do strange things. Even to the class head boy.

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