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Aug 14, 2006

Southgate out to prove doubters wrong

Middlesbrough embark on a new era this season following Steve McClaren's departure for Soho Square. Stepping into his boots, in somewhat dubious circumstances, is Gareth Southgate.

Despite not having the necessary coaching badges or any experience away from the playing side of the game, Southgate has been handed the job of taking the club forward - but he does not face an easy task.

Middlesbrough will hope that the vast experience Southgate has gained in playing for Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Boro and England stands him in good stead. He will certainly start the job with the utmost respect from the players after being club captain and an inspiration at the back.

The Teessiders masked their shortcomings in the Premiership last term by making it to the UEFA Cup final, though the 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Seville in Eindhoven helped shatter the illusion that all was well at the Riverside Stadium. The European run was enough to secure the England job for McClaren, but Southgate must face the wreckage left behind.

With Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink released and Franck Queudrue - such an important player for the club over the past four years - sold to Fulham, two of the more experienced faces have gone from the squad. So far only Julio Arca has arrived as a replacement for Queudrue.

Much will rest on the shoulders of Stewart Downing and Yakubu. Downing missed most of the last campaign through injury but recovered to take his place in England's World Cup squad. Now he must start to realise his potential fully by finding consistency both in his general performance and his crossing.

If he gets the latter right then Yakubu will once more break into double figures in Premiership goals. The Nigerian has plundered 42 Premiership goals in the last three seasons, only Thierry Henry and Ruud van Nistelrooy scored more in that time. But even though he netted 13 in the league for Boro last term he failed to hit top gear.

With Mark Viduka beginning to look ledden-footed, Malcolm Christie far from clear of his long-running injury nightmare and Massimo Maccarone no more than a bit-part player, Yakubu's role looks increasingly important.

If there uncertainties up front, then there are even great concerns at the back after Boro finished with the fourth worst defensive record last season.

With Southgate, who remains their best defender, concentrating on coaching and only retaining his registration for emergency purposes there is a gaping hole in the centre of the defence. Chris Riggott may have grown in the side last season but without the experience of Southgate alongside him he may find it tough.

The summer-long hunt for Chelsea's Robert Huth came to an abrupt halt following an injury he picked up on international duty with Germany at the World Cup finals. Southgate has turned his attentions to Manchester City's Sylvain Distin, but the French defender - like Huth - is prone to errors and doesn't appear to be an obvious solution.

There appears to be a question mark in most areas for Boro - but they can rely on a crop of young players which would be the envy of most of their Premiership rivals.

Against Fulham at the end of last term, with players rested for the UEFA Cup, Boro put out a team made up almost entirely of Academy graduates from the local area. Although they lost the game, the teenage stars won many plaudits for the way they equipped themselves.

Chairman Steve Gibson has backed every manager during his tenure with a sizeable transfer warchest. Southgate will need the same if Boro are not going to be looking anxiously over their shoulders this season as, however good their youths are, the clubs needs some new faces to freshen up the squad.

Southgate has promised to bring some excitement back to the Riverside after a more pragmatic period under McClaren. Although Downing will be able to provide that down the left flank, there will need to be something a little extra than the likes of Fabio Rochembach, a player who has always flattered to deceive, to transform this set of players into a team of entertainers.

Southgate has already spoken of his desire to bring in a right-sided midfielder, seemingly indicating he does not have confidence in 20-year-old James Morrison who played for much of last season and started the UEFA Cup final. It would bring balance to the midfield and that, coupled with new blood at the back, could make a difference to Boro's season.

Blackburn's Brett Emerton is the player Southgate wants to fill the role, but again the Australian World Cup player has hardly set the Premiership alight and has always struggled for consistency.

It promises to be at least one season of transition for Middlesbrough, but just how painful that will be will depend on exactly who arrives before the transfer window closes - along with how quickly Southgate adapts to life in the dugout.

After two seasons of European football came to an abrupt halt in Holland, those with rose tinted specs will hope for a return in 2007/08. But this squad has become dysfunctional and it's more likely there will be a repeat of the season ticket hurling fan than the glory of a cup final.


  • Any thoughts on this article? Feel free to email Dale Johnson