Football FanCast columnist Kris Wilcox assesses Gareth Southgate's transfer market record and commends chairman Steve Gibson's decision to finally replace the popular Middlesbrough manger.
Steve Gibson's reasoning in sacking Gareth Southgate, to the average football fan, was understandable if not certainly correct. He and anyone who understands football, not simply those guilty of listening to Southgate's interviews and thinking 'what a pleasant man' (something large sections of the media were inclined to do), knew he should have got the sack at some point last season, probably before relegation actually happened. Gibson, however, has a reputation for being one of the best chairman's, if not the best chairman, in football. He is tremendously loyal to his managers, normally allowing them to resign rather than be sacked. Bryan Robson left by mutual consent after Boro's yo-yoing up and down the Premier League and Division 1. Terry Venables, who was essentially manager whilst Robson got in a sticky patch in the premier league, was allowed to move on to, in the exact same way as Steve McClaren, what he thought were bigger and better things. Gibson has also been a fantastic financial backer of managers, especially if in recent years you take into account the falling attendances at the Riverside (notably sparked as much by Steve McClaren's boring attempts at football than Gareth's unsuccessful attempts at solving them).
Gibson, I believe, wanted to keep his reputation as the brilliant chairman that he undoubtedly is by keeping Southgate on, first when relegation looked a real possibility and second when the reality of relegation really hit. Gibson hoped, in vain as it turned out, that Southgate would be able to take the football Middlesbrough were playing in the Premier League and demolish a weak looking Championship with it. It really was a vain hope. Yes Middlesbrough lie in fourth just a point off the top of the table, but then again QPR lie in 10th, just four points off and with a more impressive goal difference. Hardly that impressive especially when you think about the squad Middlesbrough possesses. The only squad that comes close in terms of quality is Newcastle and even then I'd pick a team bolstered by a player of Adam Johnson's ability every single time.
So why did it go so spectacularly wrong for Southgate? You could, very fairly, point out that he arrived in management pretty much a Middlesbrough hero, having lead them to their first silverware in the League Cup and a Ufea cup final, but without the necessary experience to do the job. Yet his first few seasons, whilst not reflecting the success of McClaren's era, were really not that bad and it would only have been a particularly critical chairman that went after Southgate's job. However, by the time Southgate left the Premier League having made his first notable blot on the Middlesbrough timeline, that of relegation, he was the League's fifth longest serving manager, behind only Ferguson, Wenger, Benitez and Moyes. Yet what had Southgate achieved in his three years at the helm? Most managers sacked, they believe prematurely, along the lines of Paul Ince and Tony Adams claim they were simply not given time to build their own team. A fair claim. Southgate, however, had no such claim, three years after taking the helm Middlesbrough were far less of a team than when he'd arrived. Why? A series of dreadful transfer market decisions.
In his first season he brought in Julio Arca from Sunderland, Jonathon Woodgate on a season long loan from Real Madrid, Jason Euell from Charlton, Robert Huth from Chelsea and Lee Dong-Gook. Not a bad set of transfers, Arca eventually captained the team, Woodgate we'll talk about later, Huth was a bit injury prone but the fact Boro only lost half a million on him with his later transfer to Stoke doesn't suggest bad business. People always said when Southgate took over, having inherited a very good squad, that his biggest task was to replace himself, it's fair to say he did that. In terms of players that left Franck Queudrue was the only major departure, but an inexplicable one nonetheless given his immense success in English football both at Middlesbrough and after he left.
His second summer in charge was to raise a fair few more questions. Jonathon Woodgate was rightly confirmed on a permanent transfer worth £7 million whilst Tuncay Sanli on a free transfer and England full back Luke Young for £2.5 million were undoubtedly very good purchases. More questionable was just about everything else. Up front was the inexplicable decision to get rid of both Mark Viduka and Yakubu to replace them with Jeremy Aliadiere and Mido. As an Arsenal fan I knew well enough that Aliadiere was a decent prospect at best, blessed with pace but unable to stick the ball in and he had proved a disaster on his various loan spells. Mido, even without the benefit of hindsight, looked a gamble given his poor form after securing a permanent move to Spurs and his disciplinary troubles. Hardly replacements for Viduka, one of the most reliable players in the Premier League of the last five years and Yakubu, behind only Theirry Henry in goals scored in the Premier League for the last three seasons. It is little wonder Boro struggled to score goals in their final few seasons in the top flight. Add this to the changes in midfield that saw Middlesbrough bring in Gary O'Neil for £5 million (far too much), in place of James Morrison, a talented young player brought through by the club who had started the 2006 Ufea Cup final for just £1.5 million. Gareth Southgate had started playing football manager with Steve Gibson's football club.
As January approached things got even more ridiculous as Woodgate, bought only that summer for £7 million was immediately shipped off to Spurs for little more than a couple of million profit with no replacement coming in. To this day I cannot understand the reasoning behind this transfer, perhaps Southgate feared Woodgate's injury troubles would return but, then again, if he knew that why did he shell out £7 million on him in the summer. It was not the only failure that January as Southgate, recognising what a mess he'd made of his forward line during the summer, decided to break Middlesbrough's transfer record and bring in perhaps the most overpriced player to ever play in English football, Alfonso Alves. How many times Southgate saw Alves play I don't know but it should have been apparent he did not possess the right characteristics to play in English football as a centre forward. You must be big, strong and powerful, or quick, agile and possess a neat finish. Alves, as it turned out, was somewhere in the middle – the one place you can't be in the top flight and the reason that fellow Eredivisie top scorer Klass Jan Huntellar is not yet in English football. You might also have thought that if Alves really was as good as his stats suggested it would have been Milan, not Middlesbrough, interested in his signature.
For me Southgate's signatures from this point onwards only got worse, not better. Perhaps Marc Schwarzer really did want a new challenge but if I'd have been Boro boss I'd have been wise enough to give my long standing goalkeeper whatever he wanted rather than attempt to switch between two inexperienced goalkeepers, in Jones and Turnbull, in the Premier League. I'd have also reasoned whether allowing George Boateng, a similarly dedicated servant to Middlesbrough football club, leave to another Premier League club was a good idea, especially given how short Boro were in central midfield anyway (Arca having been converted from a left back and being first choice). I won't argue with the signings of Dider Digard and Marvin Emnes as both arrived having been courted by other clubs and with decent reputations, though given Boro's slender midfield and misfiring strike force both were being expected to jump into the slot of first team regular. For the cake of a bit of continuity in an ever changing squad I'd challenge Southgate's decision to sell Luke Young for £6 million and bring in Justin Hoyte for £3 million, yet the deal looked at on its own, given Young's age and Hoyte's potential, doesn't look too bad. The worst transfer of Southgate's reign, however, must be that of Lee Cattermole. If the Woodgate deal baffled me then the Cattermole deal blows me away. Cattermole, like the aforementioned Morrison, was a young lad, even more local than Morrison, and had been brought through by the club. At 17 he was winning man of the match awards against Newcastle for his performance. At 18 he was memorably caught on camera in floods of tears after the team's dire performance against Aston Villa. At 19 he had become the club's youngest ever captain. At 20 he was being sold to Wigan for £3.5 million, having only recently signed a four year deal at Middlesbrough. For me every bit of Lee Cattermole screamed ‘future Boro captain' to me. Indeed every bit of Lee Cattermole would have played his heart out for Middlesbrough until the final touch of his footballing career had it not been for Southgate's incessant need to change the team around.
And that, pretty much, sums up why Gareth Southgate was rightly sacked. A lot is said in football about tactics, formations and man-management and, indeed, it is very important but in the case of many managers, and especially Southgate, a quick look at his transfer record is enough to see exactly why he failed.