In the summer of 2006, when Steve McLaren embarked on a career in national management which was singular in its appalling mediocrity, he opened the door for a man who shall, as I proceed to stick my neck out, become one of the greatest English managers in history of football.
At the time, not much was known about Gareth Southgate the manager, but Gareth Southgate the footballer was firmly etched in all English minds as the guy who had THAT penalty against Germany saved in the Euro '96 semi-finals.
Not many could remember the towering defender who was captain of two Premiership clubs, had 57 international caps, and who, playing in his first season for Middlesbrough, had achieved the remarkable feat of going through an entire season as defender without getting a single yellow card.
"Such is life—you play for 15 years and people remember 15 seconds of it," he said.
However, in his third season as manager of The Boro, history promises to be much kinder. There is something new about this team, one which finished 12th last season, 13th the one before that, and has been an almost constant presence in the lower half of the table since the 1999-00 season.
The focus is on the long term, and Southgate has publicly committed himself to Middlesbrough, refusing to use the club as a “stepping stone” in his career. "If I'm here in five years, then brilliant because that means we are doing it right.” But before we start applauding him for his loyalty and commitment, it is important to understand that what this statement implies.
It implies that Southgate believes that his team will, in the next few years, perform on bigger stages, compete for higher positions in the table and win medals and trophies. He is betting on his own managerial acumen to guide and nurture it towards the goals mentioned above.
To put this in perspective, when a Mark Hughes leaves Blackburn (seventh in the league) after five years as manager to move to Manchester City (ninth in the league), it is an admission that he can achieve more with the latter, and that he had probably done all he could with the former (the money, of course, is a factor too).
Like most clubs in the lower half, Middlesbrough has had its own share of financial problems. Club attendances have been low, with stadium utilization being one of the lowest in the league. The squad is decidedly thin, and injuries have had a huge impact on their league and cup fortunes.
For the first game of the 2007-08 season, the club had to do without five of its centre-backs, all injured. In spite of issues related to both finances and fitness, Boro managed to improve their league position, but the highlight of the season was their performances against the Big Four.
Most Boro supporters will remember the 2-2 draw against Manchester United in April and the 2-1 win against Arsenal, which was followed by incredulous message board postings:
“If Boro can play like this against Arsenal, why do they go missing for the other games?” asked a confused supporter. And that is where the problem lies for Southgate and Co. His squad has been found out in the rough and tumble of the league, and the FA cup loss to Cardiff City, after Manchester United and Chelsea had been eliminated, only served to lower morale.
To his credit though, the signings have been astute, indicating the presence of an efficient scouting network, and have brought reinforcements in key areas. The club’s record signing, Afonso Alves fills the role of skilled, tall, strong centre forward who can shoot with both feet.
With six goals in 14 games, and two in the match against Manchester United, he looks like the leader of the line who can productively use the service provided by the excellent Stewart Downing and the fast, hardworking Jérémie Aliadière on the flanks.
Sanli Tuncay looks adept in the second striker role, as he showed in his Euro ’08 performances with Turkey. The summer has seen the promising youngsters Didier Digard and Marvin Emnes join the club.
In addition, the highly prolific Academy keeps producing players of the caliber of David Wheater and Adam Johnson, both of whom will have huge roles to play in the defense and on the wings respectively.
As always, squad depth will be an issue. Defensive cover is sparse, and with the departure of Rochemback, Mendieta, and Boateng, the centre of the midfield could do with some backup. The lack of a clear No. 1 in goal is also a cause for concern. The sale of Lee Cattermole to Wigan Athletic should give Southgate an option to probably bring in one more player.
The overall strategy then, is of building a team which plays high-tempo attacking football, by bringing in a shrewd mix of young talent and experienced performers, while nurturing and promoting the Academy products into the first team, all within the constraints necessitated by the club’s finances.
No wonder then, that when the FA were searching for Steve McLaren’s successor for the position of coach for the English football team, Arsene Wenger felt that the 37-year-old, with only two years of experience as manager of a Premiership football team, was capable of doing the job. As far as recommendations go, this one should top the list.