Last on MOTD: At least it couldn’t go to penalties

PAUL Ince and Gareth Southgate have both had their fair share of penalty misery down the years. Southgate ended up in a Pizza Hut advert after failing in a shoot-out against Germany at Euro 96. Ince escaped a similar fate after missing against Argentina at France 98, largely because a large part of the nation seemed to have decided that David Beckham was Satan.

Both men have a lot more in common than a famous penalty miss, though. Ince and Southgate are good mates, having played together for England and for Middlesbrough. Both are relatively new to management, at the helm of clubs whose natural position is in the middle of the Premier League – but who only need one good or bad season for all that to change.

Southgate was a surprise choice for the Middlesbrough job when Steve McClaren left for England to watch his reputation nosedive faster than Northern Rock. Two-and-a-bit years on, though, Southgate is still there. He looked as if he might be on the verge of something special this season when he won the manager of the month award for August.

The next six games, though, brought five defeats. And his penalty jinx returned, too. Stewart Downing has missed two out of two this season. Southgate, though, decided to stick with him as the club’s regular penalty taker. Downing, like Southgate before him, is an England international. You might want to place your bets now as to how England’s 2010 World Cup adventure will end.

Ince had to start his managerial career right at the bottom. It’s two years ago this week since he took charge of a Macclesfield side seven points adrift of Boston at the bottom of League Two. His first game in charge of the Silkmen saw them concede two goals in the last seven minutes to lose 3-2 at home to Mansfield.

An auspicious start, it was not. But Macc survived, Ince prospered (via a season at MK Dons), and it’s Boston and Mansfield who have since both slipped into the non-league vortex.

Ince is still finding his feet as a Premier League manager. Blackburn have had a couple of tonkings this season, while the manager has had to deal with constant speculation about Roque Santa Cruz’s future. (Yes, he’s a good striker. But the way some people go on about him, you would think he was Pele, Cruyff, Maradona and Gerd Muller rolled into one. He’s scored two goals this season. Control yourselves.)

Middlesbrough suffered a thrashing of their own at home to Chelsea last weekend, leading Southgate to admit that he had picked too many in experienced players. Not that he has much experience to call on: Boro are the only club in the Premier League without a single player born in the 1970s.

Southgate, though, did have the tough-tackling Emanuel Pogatetz back after suspension. The aim was to tighten up in defence when they visited Ewood Park. As a result, Blackburn versus Middlesbrough was never going to be a game to sell many Setanta subscriptions.

Last night’s final match: Blackburn 1 Middlesbrough 1
Commentator: Alistair Mann

The biggest crowd I ever played sport in front was during a school PE lesson, when I was about 14. We were due to do cross country – something which would always result in a flurry of sicknotes making their way to Mr Rhodes’ office.

On this particular day, I would guess about half of the boys in our year mysteriously developed groin strains, sore knees, heavy colds, bad backs and thrumble nose on the day of the lesson.

But then something weird happened – something I had never seen before, and would never seen again during my at school. The weather got so bad, that the teachers decided it was too wet to do cross country.

So those of us who had been too stupid to come up with sicknotes switched to the sports hall to play basketball. And all the boys who had pulled out through injury and illness sat around the sides at watched us. I haven’t played in front such a crowd since.

Last night’s game at Ewood Park – which I attended – was played in the wettest weather I have seen since that day. The rain was horizontal – and it was so heavy, I thought I was on a caravan holiday in North Wales.

The game took a long time to warm up. Middlesbrough were content, initially, to soak up Blackburn’s attacks, ensure they didn’t concede and try to strike on the counter attack. They were unlucky not to succeed in the first half, as Jeremie Aliadiere hit the bar and Tuncay had the ball in the net with a spectacular overhead kick, only for the goal to be wrongly ruled out for offside.

At the other end, Santa Cruz hit the post, and Boro defender Andrew Taylor punched a cross off Brett Emerton’s head without the referee spotting it.

Then, with 15 minutes left, Afonso Alves – a striker who had looked, up to that point, as if he had turned up on the pitch by mistake – suddenly remembered what he was supposed to be doing out there. He took on Gary O’Neil’s pass and fired past Paul Robinson to give Boro the lead.

The winner? No. Boro had conceded in the last minute of a game three times this season. Last night, they left it until 30 seconds from the end of stoppage time before allowing substitute Benni McCarthy to head in his first goal since February from Emerton’s corner. 1-1.

Ah well, at least league matches don’t go to penalties.

The equaliser marked McCarthy’s big comeback. He reported for pre-season training out of shape, and Ince has yet to give him a start this season as the striker builds up his fitness. There are signs it is working.

“I said when I first came to the club that if we get a fit and hungey Benni McCarthy, then he will always be in my team,” Ince said afterwards.

“He’s getting there. He’s had a couple of games with South Africa, and he’s looking sharper.”

And McCarthy has another strength – he’s a decent penalty taker. His last two goals were both spot-kicks, scored against Bolton back in February. And you can’t beat someone who can score with a penalty, can you?

Gubbometer

1. Blackburn: 4
2. Wigan: 3 (Capello difference: +2)
3. Middlesbrough: 3 (Capello difference: +1)
4. Capello: 2
5=. Bolton: 2
5=. West Brom: 2
7. West Ham: 1 (Capello difference: +1)
8=. Fulham: 1
8=. Hull: 1
8=. Sunderland: 1
11=. Gubba: 0
11=. Arsenal: 0
11=. Aston Villa: 0
11=. Chelsea: 0
11=. Everton: 0
11=. Liverpool: 0
11=. Manchester City: 0
11=. Manchester United: 0
11=. Newcastle: 0
11=. Portsmouth: 0
11=. Stoke: 0
11=. Tottenham: 0

(NB: Teams level on points will be separated by Gubba difference: the number of times a team is last on Match of the Day with Tony Gubba commentating. If they are still level, they will be separated by Capello difference: the number of times a team is last on MOTD with Fabio Capello present.)

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