YES says Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson
HE has rightly been lauded as one of the best chairmen in the game, but after his weakwilled decision to sack Gareth Southgate on Tuesday evening, Steve Gibson has lost a great deal of his lustre.
At a crucial stage in Middlesbrough’s history, the previously rock-steady chairman lost his nerve.
He panicked in the face of a handful of defeats and some mutterings of discontent from the Riverside faithful. As a result, he also lost his hard-earned reputation for loyalty.
As recently as this summer, Gibson was stating: “We will not have a scapegoat at this football club. It will not be Gareth Southgate. He’s a good man, an intelligent man, and is capable of being a top manager.”
So having decided to stick with Southgate in the wake of last season’s relegation, what has changed?
Well, the former Boro boss has established the best away record in the whole of the Championship thanks to victories over Swansea, Scunthorpe, Sheffield Wednesday and Reading.
He has moved his side to within one point of the top of the table after a comfortable 2-0 home victory over Derby County.
And, under instruction from above, he has trimmed Middlesbrough’s wage bill and overall debt to a level that is sustainable given the parachute payments that accompany relegation from the Premier League.
If that is grounds for dismissal, it is hard to imagine any manager in the Championship being comfortable in their position this morning.
If Southgate was deemed the right man for the job in the summer – and he obviously was – then he remains the right man for the job now.
By performing an abrupt U-turn two months into the campaign, Gibson and chief executive Keith Lamb have admitted they got their original decision wrong, and threaten to inflict even greater damage in an attempt to repair it.
In the face of considerable adversity following last season’s demotion, Southgate forged a strong team spirit that could have been crucial in the weeks and months that lie ahead.
Whether that team spirit will endure under Gordon Strachan remains to be seen, but Middlesbrough’s players were as shocked and surprised as anyone when they learned of Southgate’s dismissal and were certainly not agitating for his removal.
The one place where Gibson’s actions will go down well, of course, is among a sizeable proportion of the Middlesbrough fans.
By citing falling attendances as a justification for Tuesday’s decision, the Boro chairman has gambled on a change of manager making an instant impact on the size of the gate.
Initially, it will. But this Middlesbrough side will not win the Championship at a canter, and further defeats will soon see attendances fall back to somewhere close to their current level.
As a result, it is hard to see what Gibson wants. He wants Middlesbrough to ‘cut their cloth accordingly’, yet demands promotion.
In short, he wants the best of both worlds, and Southgate has paid a high price for being unable to satisfy contrasting demands.
NO says Chief Football Writer Paul Fraser
THE Riverside Stadium was an eerie place on Tuesday night.
There was an air of inevitability about the impending departure of Gareth Southgate from the moment you arrived at the ground hours before kick-off.
But after winning 2-0 to climb to within a point of the Championship’s automatic promotion places, the end of Southgate’s Riverside reign appeared to be a subject that would have to be placed on hold.
But having witnessed fewer than 17,500 supporters – half of the stadium’s capacity – turn out to witness the visit of Derby, chairman Steve Gibson was given the justification he needed to act. A move he had been deliberating over for weeks.
The only question mark was over the timing of the sacking.
Gibson will now feel he should have taken the step in May, when Middlesbrough relinquished topflight status for the first time in 11 seasons.
Fast-forward to the past five days.
Having been allowed to lead the players back from Saturday’s defeat to Watford with a victory over Derby, Southgate should not have been given the freedom to walk upstairs and describe the relief he felt at ending a three-match winless run at home before returning to the boardroom to be handed his P45.
It not only embarrassed the morning newspapers that were covering the story, something Gibson would not care about in the slightest, but it also added to the humiliation being felt by Southgate this morning.
That aside, however, there is a method to Gibson’s madness. While his claim he “already had a strategy for Gareth’s replacement” might surprise a few, it clearly explains a lot.
Gibson felt his pre-season demands for an immediate Premier League return were in serious doubt under the existing management structure.
Had Southgate remained, he is likely to have always been just two matches from the sack under a chairman who had clearly lost confidence in him.
Having seen 6,000 fans drop off the gate receipts under Southgate since the opening day draw with Sheffield United in August, the financial implications of low attendances could not be overlooked either.
In simple terms, if you take £20 as the average price for a ticket and take a drop of 6,000 in match tickets as the figure to work with, Middlesbrough would be losing £120,000-agame.
And with numbers continuing to decline under the former boss, Gibson could ill-afford for that trend to gather momentum with 16 home matches remaining in the Championship this season – he could stand to lose more than £2m.
It is true that life in the Championship is not as attractive to the paying public as Premier League football.
Gibson, however, must feel bringing in Gordon Strachan, or whoever else, will at least bring some hope back to the club’s disaffected supporters.
It will only be then that Gibson will know whether he has made the correct decision. At the moment, Middlesbrough’s biggest and most powerful supporter must be satisfied that he has.