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NORTHERN EXPOSURE: Championship will make or break Boro but Southgate needs to bolster to bounce bac
Published : 12 May 2009 10:47:05
Welcome to Sportsmail online's latest weekly column - Northern Exposure. The Daily Mail's North-East football reporter, Colin Young (right), will provide expert analysis and a behind-the-scenes insight into the affairs of a footballing heartland. Don't miss it , every week on Tuesdays. And then there were six. Two games to go, six points each at stake and West Brom, Middlesbrough, Hull City, Newcastle United, Sunderland and Portsmouth are now in the fight for their Barclays Premier League lives. If West Brom and Middlesbrough cannot beat Liverpool and Aston Villa on Saturday, they are as good as down. Even then, with their crippling goal differences, victories for both sides may not be enough. West Brom are at Blackburn for the final game and Boro travel to West Ham, who could still be chasing a Europa League place. Like Boro boss Gareth Southgate, Hull's Phil Brown faces a former club at the weekend as the Tigers look to end their run of eight games without a win at Bolton where he will encounter a restless crowd, and toothless opponents who have drawn their last three and scored one. Presumably, just like Southgate, he will get few favours. If the Tigers can unexpectedly win that one they are likely to face a far-from-full-strength Manchester United in what could be their final top-flight game. If the title is sewn up, and with Rome next on the calendar, Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to give his Carling Cup kids a run-out - a side, it must be said, which will still be good enough to beat Hull. Newcastle moved out of the bottom three for the first time in two months with Alan Shearer's first win since taking charge and the club's first home win in 2009. Seventh-placed Fulham are still pursuing a European place, their final-day opponents Aston Villa have already achieved that goal but may still be in with a shout of fifth. The game with the most at stake is Sunderland's visit to Portsmouth which is actually on Monday night, two days after their rivals have played their penultimate matches. Portsmouth are out of it if they win, but even victory for Sunderland may not be enough. And they play Chelsea at home on the last day. Portsmouth are at Wigan. It is impossible to guess the outcome, but Middlesbrough and their supporters must now face up to the reality that they are returning to the Championship. It will be the making or the breaking of their manager and the club. Southgate maintains his chairman's support, just as Bryan Robson did when he took the club down in 1997. The financial difficulties which have, to an extent, tied Southgate's hands are not of his making, although his record in the transfer market has been mixed, and large amounts have been squandered by him, Gibson and chief executive Keith Lamb in the last year. Key areas of the squad have been neglected, and at what cost? Stewart Downing will leave, no matter what the future holds for the club, with Liverpool and Tottenham certain to fight for his signature and hand over around £10million. Moving Afonso Alves on for anything close to the £12m paid would have been difficult enough without him picking up an injuiry last night, even though Benfica are apparently interested. But then, if any player owes Southgate it is the Brazil international, who may find the Championship as much to his liking as the Dutch and Swedish leagues where he scored for fun. Tuncay Sanli deserves to play Premier League football, as the sublime turn which brought the opening goal against Newcastle demonstrated. Chelsea have monitored his progress since his arrival in England and he would thrive at any club with European ambitions next season. Robert Huth doesn't strike me as a man who will stick around, and his departure would lessen the wage bill, which is close to the manageable rate which will sustain any time in the Football League. Blocking Gary O'Neil's move south is also unlikely. Southgate knows he has the basis of a promising young squad and he can make David Wheater a figurehead, rather than sacrifice him too, and see if former Academy players like Matthew Bates, Tony McMahon, Andrew Taylor, Josh Walker and Adam Johnson in particular can thrive in the Championship. He knows they will swim more than they sink, but this squad has been lacking experience all season and additions over the age of 30 are required in all departments and must be top of the club scouts' list. Three years ago this month, Gareth Southgate led Middlesbrough out in Eindhoven for the UEFA Cup final, just days after West Ham had knocked them out of the FA Cup in the semi-finals. They were thrashed 4-0 by Juande Ramos' Sevilla and within two months Southgate was manager. He was told it would be tough and he has faced more difficulties and injuries than some managers face in a decade. And he has faced them with the honesty and intelligence which makes him one of football's good guys. Most football fans, and Middlesbrough fans, want to see him succeed, he is after all one of the few English managers around, and no one wants to see him suffer. But Southgate knows mistakes have been made, and he knows they must be addressed for the future. It is ironic that he is on the verge of gaining the pro-licence which officially allows him to manage in the Premier League, and he now faces a season in the second tier. Middlesbrough will have six coaches with the qualification which caused so much consternation when he was appointed, yet since Steve Harrison's departure they have lacked a strong leader among the staff who might have guided Southgate through the troubled waters of this season. One major worry for Middlesbrough of course is how many season ticket holders they will lose if they do go down. The club have always led the way in sensible and more affordable ticket pricing, and the cuts for next season were announced before most of their Premier League rivals, and perhaps with Championship football in mind. But with the whole country gripped by financial constraints, relegation could not have come at a worse time for a town hardly renowned for its thriving economy, and even with the best marketing in the world, thousands are certain to abandon the club as they look to cut costs and personal expenditure. Southgate and Gibson will meet and assess just where it has gone wrong over the last three years. The answers they come up with over the coming weeks and months will determine just how many fans will go the distance with them.