GARETH Southgate seems to have been fielding questions about his future as Middlesbrough manager for so long, that it wouldn’t be a surprise to look through the archives and discover he was taking them while Steve McClaren was still in charge.
Southgate has a very supportive chairman in Steve Gibson, who indicated a couple of weeks ago that he would stick by his manager even if Boro were relegated from the Premier League.
We should find out whether that will happen at some point between now and the end of next month. After today’s capitulation at Bolton, I do not expect Middlesbrough to be a top-flight club next season.
Bolton v Middlesbrough was billed as a vital relegation tussle. It certainly was for Boro, four points adrift of safety with games running out. Wanderers, on the other hand, have been one of those teams on the edge of the battle, like a man watching a fight at a bus stop from the other side of the road – there’s not much chance of him getting involved, unless he’s reckless.
Almost everyone I spoke to about this match beforehand expected a 0-0 draw or – at best – a low-scoring game. Boro’s last visit to the Reebok Stadium, which ended goalless, was a strong contender for the worst Premier League game of 2007/08.
This time? This time, it was a game packed with incident. Most of that incident left Southgate looking thoroughly miserable. It seems a million years since he was Manager of the Month for August.
Bolton have had a tendency this season to start games quickly, then run out of steam. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when they went ahead after eight minutes; Ricardo Gardner whizzing past a leaden-footed Jeremie Aliadiere to whip in a cross for Kevin Davies to finish at the far post.
A sweet moment for Davies. At the age of 32, he thought he was finally going to get his first England call-up a couple of weeks ago when he made Fabio Capello’s long squad for the double header against Slovakia and Ukraine – only to miss the cut.
But even though Capello’s call didn’t come, Davies is have the time of his life at Bolton. He’s had a few ups and downs in his career: FA Cup shocks galore at Chesterfield, two wildly contrasting spells at Southampton and a poor one at Blackburn.
He was scrabbling round for a club when the Saints released him in 2003. Bolton gave him a chance, and Davies has given them arguably the best years of his career in return.
Davies was handed the Bolton captaincy this season. He has responded in the best possible way. Today’s goal against Boro was his 12th of the season, equalling his best-ever Premier League tally.
“Kevin’s one of the most level-headed players that you’ll ever meet,” said Megson. “He’s not a shouter. He’s talkes great sense, and when he talks, people listen.
“His workrate is there. The way he helps other players throughout the 90 minutes is terrific.
“He’s a great leader. Everybody on the playing staff was pleased when he was made captain. He’s got that respect.
“I’m hopeful that Kevin can keep ploughing on. And if the England call doesn’t come up, then there’s nothing more he can do about it.”
Davies has, perhaps, been the difference between the Premier League and the Championship for Bolton. Southgate could have done with him in his team today.
Not that Boro didn’t have their own attacking battler. Tuncay Sanli’s fiery displays in recent weeks have led Middlesbrough fans to chant: “We’ve only got one player.”
And he did seem to play a part in most of Boro’s best moments. Minutes after Afonso Alves had hit the post with a free-kick, it was Tuncay who raced on to fire Matthew Bates’ through pass under Jussi Jaaskelainen. Unfortunately for the Turk, he was just offside.
But Tuncay was involved again when Middlesbrough equalised seven minutes before the break, slotting a measured ball into the path of Gary O’Neil, who struck their first away goal in the Premier League for nearly four months.
When goals are that hard to come by – and Boro have managed just 22 in 31 Premier League games – you’ve got to have a damn good defence. Middlesbrough’s defence was bleeding awful today, and it cost them.
If they had reached half-time at 1-1, Boro might have gathered together enough scraps of self-belief to win the game. But they didn’t. With 90 seconds of the first 45 minutes to play, half-a-dozen red shirts ball-watched as Matt Taylor’s free-kick bounced to Johna Elmander, who set up Gary Cahill to blast home from eight yards.
Tuncay kept battling, going close with two acrobatic volleys. And as Bolton got jittery, Afonso Alves was gifted a chance when Gretar Steinsson under-hit a back-pass. But the Brazilian, a £12.7million signing who has not delivered for Southgate, hit a tame shot which Jaaskelainen blocked.
And then Boro’s defence collapsed as Bolton, for once, finished as they’d started. Twelve minutes from time, Taylor’s free-kick from the right flank sailed over everyone in the box and bounced into the corner of the net. A sickener for Southgate.
Six minutes later, Ricardo Gardner had as much time as any Premier League player could ever expect to take down Taylor’s cross-field pass and wallop in a fourth goal. Southgate sat on the bench, helpless. If 4-1 was harsh on Boro over 90 minutes, they could easily have lost by six in the final 10.
You would need a heart of stone not to feel sorry for Southgate, who always comes across as a fundamentally decent, honest man. He certainly didn’t try to make excuses afterwards.
“I’m embarrassed that we’ve played as we have,” he said. “As manager of the football club, I’ve got to take full responsibility for that.
“Today wasn’t acceptable. To come here and lose 4-1 was a huge disappointment.
“I always felt we would get something at their end of the field, but we shot ourselves in the foot with the goals that we conceded.
“The players know exactly what I think. We’ve got seven games left, and the first thing we’ve got to do is restore some pride.
“While there’s light, there’s always hope. We’re going to have to win next week at home to Hull; there’s no question about that. And one win can turn things around.
“But there are certain things you have to do to win football matches and we didn’t do them today.”
Boro are now five points adrift of safety. It’s hard to see them surviving. And if Southgate were manager of any other club, under any other chairman, it would be impossible to see him surviving either.
But Gibson gave Bryan Robson a chance to take Boro back up to the top flight after relegation in 1997. Southgate can only hope he gets the same opportunity.