Gaffer Gareth Earns Political Point At Villa
HE MAY not realise it but Gareth Southgate scored a major political victory at Aston Villa. A point away at one of the top six is always good. To achieve it with a radical tactical shake-up better still.
But perhaps more importantly, as far as the Chickenrun chattering classes are concerned, he achieved it against the man he has been measured against since the day he was appointed.
In a kind of intense soccer Celebdaq, gaffer Gareth has been critically examined alongside both Martin O'Neill and Tony Mowbray with the fortunes on the ground of each fluctuating wildly by the week. Mogga's stock is hypothetical as while he can call on a long term sentimental hardcore local support from the Holgate nostalgists he is now working in what is literally a different league. Any comparision is entirely theoretical.
O'Neill's presence a reality though and far more troublesome. The boss who had talks with Boro before both parties failed to agree terms - he wanted to bring his own staff and work long distance flexitime, the club wanted continuity and a 24/7 commitment - has dramatically transformed a side that last season was down with the dead men and on a par with Boro, if mot behind. Now they are chasing a Champions League spot having spent about the same. The only key transfers in at Villa are Petrov and Sutton, players moved by personal loyalty and who may just as well have followed the boss to the Riverside.
From day one, or week one certainly, Martin O'Neill has been used as a stick to beat Southgate with; sometimes by people who genuinely supported the Irish candidate and believe the club have missed a trick in failing to accomodate him, and sometimes by those habitual 'typical Boro' pessimists continually looking for any weapon that comes to hand to express an inate frustration born of long years of failure. In that first week Boro collapsed away at Reading to let slip an early two goal lead and lose 3-2 and days later Villa comfortably beat the new boys 2-1 and eyebrows were raised, notes made and knives sharpened.
Defeat at Villa Park last Saturday would have spelt trouble. It would have underlined that early impression of many that the club should have bent over backwards to get O'Neill and without doubt it would also have strengthened the position of those who would measure the manager by the one that got away. As one regular poster on here put it, it would have been a Jim Bowen moment, a case of "let's see what you could have won".
But Southgate has clawed back some of his stock and gained some credibility with the display at Villa. He out-thought O'Neill and the shape he opted for - one his rival used so successfully at Leicester and Celtic - frustrated in-form Villa and helped Boro build a platform for a display that earned a useful point, kept a good running, and provided a storming second half performance that pointed to a more optimistic future than early season results suggested.
Of course, there is still a long way to go. Villa, and O'Neill, are still sitting pretty at the top while Boro are precariously placed just above the relegation dog-fight and far from secure and still struggling to create. But in getting a result - and from a shrewd tactical move and a slice of overdue luck - Southgate has earned political breathing space and shored up his position.