Gibson finds it is not a popularity contest
ONE is revered by his club's supporters, respected for his love of his home town, and universally regarded as one of the best chairmen in the game. The other is reviled by his club's fans, ridiculed for his lack of understanding with regard to history and emotional attachment, and regularly held up as an example of how not to run a football club. Yet while Steve Gibson will have woken this morning to survey a league table showing Middlesbrough in the bottom half of the Championship, Mike Ashley can cast his eye over the same table and savour the ten-point gap that separates his Newcastle side from the rest of the division. Few, if any, Newcastle fans would be unwilling to swap one for the other, but as Gibson reflects on a run that has seen Boro win just one of their last nine matches, the charismatic chairman must shoulder his share of responsibility for a season that has begun to implode. In changing his manager at a crucial juncture, Gibson did one of the few things that even Ashley shied away from, despite the intense pressure to replace Chris Hughton with Alan Shearer in the early months of the campaign. It looked a bad move at the time. Today, it increasingly appears a misjudgement of disastrous proportions. One day, I woke up and thought, I'm not happy about that', said Gibson, when asked to justify his decision to sack Southgate in an interview over the weekend. I'm not happy about that and I'm not happy about that'. My faith had gone. It is unlikely to have been restored by the two months that have followed under the management of Gordon Strachan. Eight matches have brought just five points. Gibson dismissed Southgate for failing to produce promotion form', but since the former England international was forced out of the Riverside in October, Middlesbrough have played like a side destined for the bottom three rather than an outfit headed for the Premier League. Yesterday's performance at St James' Park was hardly without merit things might have been markedly different had Boro been awarded a penalty when the ball struck Steven Taylor's hand in the 33rd minute but like a number that had preceded it, it exposed major weaknesses in the Teessiders' make-up. This is not Strachan's team, but then again it is not Southgate's either. Instead, it is a bodge-job, a cobbledtogether amalgam of Southgate-era players Strachan has been lumbered with, and loan signings which are the best the Scotsman can muster given the closed transfer window and the financial outlay that has already been committed to the permanent addition of Sean St Ledger. In many ways, it is the worst of both worlds, but that is what happens when you dismiss a manager during the course of a campaign. Newcastle supporters, mindful of the mess that followed the September departures of Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit and Sir Bobby Robson, will attest to that. So Strachan must soldier on, hoping that his loan players find their feet, and the rest of his squad rediscover the form and cohesion that was apparent in patches under Southgate. To this point, and in the Boro boss' defence, we are still only two months in, his journey has been a futile one. Chris Hughton's voyage, on the other hand, could hardly have been more productive. Quietly, unassumingly, but undeniably effectively, the Newcastle manager has moulded a team that already exudes the aura of champions. How has he done it Through stability, patience and consistency of approach and selection, attitudes that have been anathema to Newcastle in the past, but which have drawn a line under the chaos that characterised last season and enabled the Magpies to stabilise and rebuild. At times, Ashley has not helped the process. The anger that accompanied the recent renaming announcement was an unnecessary distraction from events on the pitch, and the chants of Get out of our club' that reverberated around St James' yesterday confirmed the owner's continued pariah status in the eyes of the fans. Yet in one crucial respect, Ashley has been integral to Newcastle's success. When Shearer's name was on everybody's lips in the first six weeks of the season, Ashley opted to keep Hughton in his job. Maybe it was prescience Maybe it was sheer pig-headed obstinacy Either way, it has helped Newcastle's efforts no end. Secure in his position, Hughton has been able to engender a sense of unity and spirit that has made the Magpies the hardest team to beat in the division. The players respect him, having worked alongside him during a difficult pre-season period and appreciated his willingness to share authority with the senior members of the squad. Strachan, understandably, can call on no such bond. Because he has been with his players from the start of the season, Hughton has also been able to avoid the kind of wholesale restructuring that Strachan has deemed necessary. Yes, loan players have been signed. But they have been assimilated gradually and were chosen with half-an-eye on the players already in the squad. As a result, Marlon Harewood, the scorer of yesterday's opener, has been afforded time to grow into his role, while Danny Simpson was signed to plug one of the few obvious gaps in Newcastle's starting XI. It is hardly a coincidence that yesterday's victors played like a team, while their opponents resembled a collection of individuals. It may be that Gordon's influence is too late, admitted Gibson yesterday. It may, on the other hand, be that Middlesbrough's season was hamstrung from the minute the Scotsman was appointed.
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