• Bailey Williams

Southgate and the Gradual Decline: The Road to Relegation

Gareth Southgate’s managerial honours list reads thus: fourth at the 2018 FIFA World Cup and third at the 2019 UEFA Nations League with England, a 2016 Toulon Tournament triumph with the England U21s, and a Premier League Manager of the Month award from August 2008. The latter, sitting a tad out of place in his trophy cabinet, came during his fateful tenure as Middlesbrough boss. Nonetheless, Southgate has repeatedly called his first two seasons at Boro his greatest achievement in management.

Promoted from within after the departure of Steve McClaren, 35-year-old Southgate hadn’t even finished his coaching badges upon assuming the top job, which caused no small measure of public upset. He was holidaying in America, recovering from the giddy run to the 2006 UEFA Cup Final, when he got the call from chairman Steve Gibson. “I was thinking I’d be playing another season,” he told Ali Brownlee at the end of his first campaign in charge, “it really put my life into a spin.”

Gareth Southgate was a certified Boro hero, a model professional who had become the first Middlesbrough skipper to lift major silverware. He was never going to pass up this opportunity. But even with all his talents, Southgate would be humbled by the scale of his task. A new era was dawning at the club, and Southgate would oversee a transitional period that was going to define Middlesbrough’s trajectory for the coming decades.

The Boro side of 2003-06 was truly special, and fans of the club in the aftermath of the Eindhoven final faced the sobering reality that, with no European football for 2006/07, it would be difficult to stop Boro’s best players leaving, and to bring in replacements. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was followed out the door by Doriva, Joseph-Désiré Job, and Franck Queudrue. The squad that remained had a lot of experience but lacked that youthful exuberance.

Goalkeeping stalwart Mark Schwarzer was 33, as were Ugo Ehiogu and Ray Parlour, while Gaizka Mendieta, George Boateng, and Mark Viduka were all over 30. The Boro hierarchy were nevertheless bullish about the squad’s potential before Southgate’s appointment, with chief executive Keith Lamb saying that “qualification for the Champions League remains our ultimate target.”

A minor rebuild was in order, and the defence was first priority. The versatile Julio Arca arrived from Sunderland, and late-window deals saw Robert Huth and Jonathan Woodgate join the ranks. Seemingly as an afterthought, Jason Euell was bought for £300,000 from Charlton to shore up the attacking options.

Southgate’s maiden season in management was, discounting many ‘typical Boro moments’, an overachievement. Middlesbrough ended the season in 12th, with a respectable 46 points, two places higher than McClaren’s final campaign. By this metric, Southgate, the complete novice managing in the most competitive league in the world, had pushed Boro incrementally forward.

Southgate’s defensive additions of Huth, Arca, and Woodgate were successes, and he got the best out of Viduka, who bagged 19 goals in all competitions, and Yakubu, who got 16. On top of this, Southgate’s faith in the Boro academy was paying dividends.

Lee Cattermole, James Morrison, and Andrew Davies all featured in the squad, with a slew of promising players waiting in the wings. David Wheater, then a youth player, noted that Southgate “was so calm and collected”, adding that “it was weird to start calling him gaffer.” Matthew Bates, also a few years from a starting place, recalls that Southgate “commanded respect […] he was great. He made some tough decisions with players he was friends with”.

Stories have since emerged about the transition Southgate took from being ‘one of the lads’ to being the boss, and though he was well-respected by most of his squad, his naivety had ill consequences. Parlour and Mendieta were frozen out of the squad and personally alienated by Southgate, and these were just the first. Though many players flourished with Southgate’s earnest backing, just as many remained quietly unconvinced.

Boro’s 2006/07 season was blighted not only by backroom disquiet, which also made a casualty of coach Steve Round, but by sheer inconsistency, symptomatic of the team’s troubled transition. You simply couldn’t guess which Boro would turn up on match day – the one which beat leaders Chelsea 2-1 in the second game of the season, or the one that would lose away to all three of that season’s promoted sides.

Injuries and fatigue took a severe toll on Southgate’s tactical set-up, particularly after frenetic FA Cup matches, with every game going to a replay. Despite high-scoring games, including a 5-1 hammering of Bolton and a 4-3 cup match with Hull, Boro’s attacking acquisitions Euell and Lee Dong-Gook did not add anything to the squad. Neither would score a league goal for Boro. When perennial goal-getters Viduka and Yakubu left the club in the summer of 2007, it was not part of Southgate’s plan. The clash between recruitment and a vision for the club’s future continued to be a focus into the off-season.

That summer the squad transition continued with the permanent signing of Woodgate from Real Madrid for £7 million as well as the shrewd purchase of full back from Charlton. Undoubtedly the best transfer to come out of this era of transfer dealings was the free transfer of Tuncay Şanlı, an attacker who combined hard graft with a liking for silky, exotic finishes.

The forward line was further bolstered with the signing of bit-part Arsenal forward Jérémie Aliadiére. He would be joined by Mido from North London neighbours Spurs.

The centre of the pitch was strengthened with the late arrival of Gary O’Neill from Portsmouth for £5m and Mido’s Egyptian teammate Mohamed Shawky.

Space in the squad was created with the release of injury-prone striker Malcolm Christie as well as the sale of popular young player James Morrison to West Bromwich Albion.

The major departure of that summer was Yakubu to Everton for £11.75m that came on the eve of the transfer window closing. With the departure of the Nigerian and the summer release of Mark Viduka, the fabled four strikers that were used successfully during the run to the UEFA Cup final were no longer at the club.

The first half of the season was another stop-start affair. The defence in particular was besieged by fitness worries, while at the other end of the pitch attacking players misfired.

Along with injuries to several Boro centre backs, September’s Tees-Wear Derby left Arca, Mido, and Tuncay all sidelined. Academy striker Tom Craddock started against Manchester City simply because Southgate had no senior forwards.

This run was softened by the emergence of Wheater into the first-team fold, a goal-of-the-season equalizer from Young versus Tottenham, and the heroics of Tuncay, who scored three in three in December. After beating Portsmouth away, Boro sat in an uncomfortable 14th. A big January transfer window beckoned, encapsulating the challenges of Southgate’s Middlesbrough.

The encouraging form of young defenders, including Wheater, Jonathan Grounds, and Bates, prompted Boro to sell the high-earning Woodgate to Spurs, mere months after his £7 million signing and only for a marginal profit. Davies also had his Southampton loan move made permanent. These funds, adjoining with leftover transfer profits, were pooled to make a marquee signing.

Afonso Alves was the man tasked with scoring the goals that would improve Boro’s fortunes. The Brazilian forward scored prolifically at Heerenveen and it was hoped his incredible record would transfer to the Premier League.

Alves’ transfer was heralded by a Riverside carnival, was a statement of intent from Gibson, Lamb, and the recruitment team; Southgate himself supposedly had no input on his signing and has since disavowed it completely. “I wanted Brett Emerton and we could have had him for £750,000. That was one where I was told we had no money,” Southgate told Sky Sports, “but then years later we bought a £12 million striker.”

Alves did not halt a disappointing run of league form, and, despite debuting in a home win over Fulham, went anonymous for weeks. His struggles were compounded by defensive problems, as Boro conceded a hat-trick to Liverpool’s Fernando Torres even after Tuncay had put Middlesbrough in front on 10 minutes. Nonetheless, Boro had squeaked into the FA Cup quarter-final, where they would face Cardiff, but any good feeling surrounding the run was about to be dashed.

Portsmouth, West Brom, and Barnsley awaited in the semi-finals – surely it was Boro’s to lose?

Perhaps the writing was on the wall for Middlesbrough, who lost to struggling Reading 1-0 the week before. The Championship outfit were not overawed by their opponents, taking the lead early through Peter Whittingham and Roger Johnson doubling it soon after. Boro’s performance was viscerally bad, bereft of confidence or cohesion, marking the darkest day of Southgate’s managerial career thus far.

To capitulate at home to a lower-league side so late in the competition, to fruitlessly labour for seventy minutes against a team playing 36-year-old Hasselbaink up top– it was a hammer blow. Southgate was stunned by Boro’s timid surrender: “Whether we froze, or the occasion was too much, I don't know.” The fault-lines that Boro sat atop had their first major tremor that day. It was clear that Boro lacked not only technical ability, but character, determination and leadership.

Southgate steadied the ship with a procession of draws and close wins, as Tuncay sealed three points against the infamously dire Derby County, and Alves finally came good by scoring a brace in an entertaining 2-2 draw with Manchester United.

Come the final three games of the season, Boro, were 14th, not mathematically safe and about to suffer a defeat to Sunderland, which added further pressure to the squad. A tough season would come to an unfittingly positive conclusion, as Southgate secured Boro’s survival by defeating Portsmouth 2-0 at the Riverside. Goals from Tuncay and Chris Riggott, recalled from loan due to limited defensive options, had restored some morale to an embittered Middlesbrough side. Still, not even the most optimistic Boro fan could have predicted what happened next.

In the final match of the season against Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Manchester City. Captain Richard Dunne conceded a penalty and was sent off early on, sending the Citizens into a tailspin of epic proportions.

Downing scored from the spot. Alves added another and the second half brought a torrent of goals – Downing reached a brace, and Alves bettered him with a hat-trick. Fabio Rochemback scored a stunning free kick, with Aliadière and Adam Johnson also on target.

An Elano consolation goal left the score at 8-1 – the most famed Boro result of recent times. This was the first time all season that Southgate’s side had scored more than twice in a game. Boro finished the season in 13th place, down one position from last year.

Again, this placing flattered to deceive. Southgate had been battling relegation for the majority of his two seasons in charge, while the talk had been about building towards Champions League qualification.

2007/08 had been the same story of bad luck with injuries, patchy signings, backroom unrest (which this season prematurely ended Boateng’s captaincy), and inconsistent form. It was a step backwards from 2006/07, far greater than the minor placing difference suggests. Though Southgate was improving as a manager, being especially lauded for countering Manchester United in the 2-2 draw, the structural problems at the club, and simple bad fortune, were undoing all progress. His more experienced players sensed Southgate’s trepidation. “For me as a player who had played for so many different managers, you could easily see it”, Mido said, “He wasn’t ready”.

The 2008 summer transfer window was a sign of the troubling year to come. Mark Schwarzer left the club for Fulham, and quality was drained further with the sales of Boateng, Rochemback, and Cattermole, three midfield linchpins. Disgruntled Mendieta was released, alongside the eager but underwhelming Lee Dong-Gook.

Reinforcements were, despite the exodus, relatively sparse. Boro paid large sums to sign Marvin Emnes, a nippy winger, and battling midfielder Didier Digard, leaving the recruitment team unwilling to invest further.

The absence of a goalkeeper to replace Schwarzer was hand-waved by Southgate as an opportunity for Brad Jones and Ross Turnbull, neither of whom could match the quality of the Australian, to compete for the gloves. Full back Young was bought by Aston Villa at the last moment, so Boro panicked and had to act quickly signing Arsenal’s Justin Hoyte.

The season started well, however, with Southgate earning the August Manager of the Month award, as Boro beat Spurs and Stoke 2-1. The jinx accompanying the accolade was the last thing Southgate’s paper-thin squad needed, as they endured another start-of-season dip that included a 5-0 battering by Chelsea.

Suspensions and injuries set in, prolonging the malaise. Though things began to look up in November thanks to wins over Manchester City and Aston Villa, Middlesbrough were actually staring down the barrel of one of the worst runs in its history.

Years of challenges at the club culminated here, as Southgate encountered selection headache after selection headache amidst shake-ups of midfield and defence. The heroics of Tuncay were not enough to make up for disorganised defending, with any combination of Wheater, Hoyte, or Andrew Taylor missing from one match to the next.

Alves’ inability to gel with the team was worsened by low confidence, missing an open goal in the Villa win and then going goalless in the league until January. The club were soon hovering above the relegation places, and Southgate was struggling to inspire confidence in his depleted squad.

Another lacklustre January transfer window effectively sealed Boro’s fate, with loaned striker Marlon King the only addition. A 3-0 loss to West Brom pulled Boro into the bottom three, as fitness worries abounded.

The injury list soon included Pogatetz, Josh Walker, and Digard; a beleaguered Southgate now abandoned any semblance of a game plan. The late January draw with Blackburn saw a highly defensive side keep a clean sheet, at the expense of any attacking threat.

When Boro finally ended the 14-game winless league run against Liverpool on 28th February, their two goals were the first they had scored since 10th January, Boro held the dubious distinction of lowest scorers in the top four English leagues. Southgate declared that “confidence is flowing back through the players”. Typically, Boro were swept away 4-0 by Tottenham in the next match, leaving Southgate’s side marooned in 19th.

King’s first goal for Boro spared them the humiliation of losing at home to fellow strugglers Portsmouth, in a 1-1 draw that helped neither’s survival hopes. By this stage, an increasingly jaded Riverside crowd had taken to chanting “we’ve only got one player”, aimed at Tuncay. Southgate was quick to defend his team, branding the chant “disrespectful”, but couldn’t rally them to defy their critics as Middlesbrough lost 1-0 to Stoke and 4-1 to Bolton.

Southgate was rewarded for fielding a riskier attacking formation in the next game against Hull, winning 3-1 and taking Boro level with Newcastle on 30 points, only two behind 17th-placed Sunderland. After losing away to Arsenal, Boro needed a result against Alan Shearer’s Magpies in a relegation grudge match. Newcastle successfully isolated Downing and Tuncay on the way to a 3-1 victory, with Alves, who scored only four league goals all season, forced off injured.

A late equalizer for Aston Villa in the penultimate game meant Boro needed to beat a grizzled West Ham at Upton Park to have any hope of survival; the odds were firmly stacked against a Boro team that had recently set a new club record of 11 consecutive league away losses. “We've got to keep going,” Southgate told BBC Sport.

The composition of his bench that day told the story. Shawky aside, Middlesbrough’s squad depth now consisted of six young players with limited top-flight experience. Neither Rhys Williams nor Joe Bennett had featured for the senior team before.

The match played out as expected. Carlton Cole put the Hammers in front on 33 minutes. Gary O’Neil got Middlesbrough’s final Premier League goal before Junior Stanislas scored cheaply past Jones. Boro were down.

The nature of Southgate’s dismissal, as with many other facets of his tenure, remains perplexing. Boro made a reasonably strong start to Championship life and were 4th in early October when the decision was announced.

Despite the league position, Gibson was unconvinced by the side’s poor home form, which had seen a 5-0 thumping at the hands of West Brom. Despite beating Derby 2-0, the chairman could hold off no longer. It remains one of the great counterfactuals of Boro history – what if the chairman had stayed his hand? What path would Boro have taken?

Southgate, since the 2018 World Cup, has become public property and will be remembered by most for the excellent job he did in Russia. But he will always be part of Boro legend, if not as a manager then as a player. Even still, Southgate was growing into management assuredly and had adapted exceptionally well to being thrown in at the deep end. It is unfortunate that he will be associated with awful transfers made during his time as boss, which makes the fact that he never sanctioned several of them more frustrating.

Middlesbrough could do little right in the market in this period, selling players for less than their worth and buying many at inflated prices. Southgate also suffered dreadful injury misfortune, scuppering the seasons of promising additions like Digard.

Though Southgate is seen as a gamble that didn’t pay off, it is unfair to lay the blame for Boro’s decline squarely at his feet. He had never managed a game of football in his life before becoming a Premier League boss. Fitness woes were exacerbated by drawn-out FA Cup runs, with Southgate refusing to take the competition lightly. As much as he was the boss who oversaw the Cardiff defeat and relegation, he was the same that delivered an unlikely mid-table finish in 2007, that furthered the careers of Cattermole, Wheater, Bates, Morrison, that got the best out of Tuncay, that crushed City 8-1. Southgate, unfortunately, helmed Middlesbrough at a low ebb, and even with no experience, he admirably toiled in a job that any established manager would have struggled with.

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