Newcastle and Middlesbrough entered the Championship from the wrong direction yet still boasted two of the most talented squads in the history of the division. With Newcastle’s off-field dramas threatening to do serious damage, many expected Middlesbrough, with their more settled structure, to prosper.
Newcastle were always likely to lose the likes of Owen and Duff, but with Ameobi hitting the kind of form he hasn’t found for years and the transfer deadline approaching without the departure of Nolan or Taylor, they may have ridden one storm even without a permanent manager. They play Leicester on Monday and few would bet against a home win and a return to the top of the table for the Barcodes.
Things appear pretty rosy for Boro too.
Two away wins, third in the table, Adam Johnson one of the stand-out stars of the league so far and until Nicky Maynard’s double at the weekend, they were yet to concede a league goal.
But watching Gareth Southgate’s flustered post-match interview on the BBC’s refreshingly enjoyable Football League programme, you have to wonder if trouble is lurking around the corner already for the beleagured Boro boss.
This week he lost Tuncay and, perhaps more pertinently, Robert Huth to Stoke. Immediately, Boro’s clean white league sheets were dirtied by Bristol City. Southgate, himself once a first class centre back, must have been fuming with the direct nature of Nicky Maynard’s late winner. Even Maynard himself looked surprised by the freedom the Boro defence offered.
Of course, this may just be a blip and Boro are not the first team and won’t be the last to be undone by the in-form Maynard this season. But let’s take a closer look at Boro’s results so far. Against Sheffield United on the opening evening they were largely lacklustre, although it must be said that the Blades are masters of defending away from home: last season they shipped just 17 in 23. Nevertheless, Boro fans would have been worried by their almost total lack of threat that evening.
Next came two comfortable away wins, the first against a Swansea side struggling to come to terms with the loss of their brilliant manager and a number of key players, and the second against Scunthorpe, a League One side just a few months ago. In short, the results were good, but Boro would have expected to take six points from those games.
A 2-0 home win against Doncaster was also fine but again, with all respect to Donny, the odds on 2-0 would have been rather short and with the quality and resources Boro have, all three of those wins should have been achieved whoever was in charge. Since then, they’ve been knocked out of the Cup by Forest and beaten in their first serious test since their game with Sheffield United.
I’m a big believer that tables mean nothing until at least 10 games in. By that time, all clubs have had a chance to play a variety of teams from up and down the table. Boro’s position bears that belief out. Even though they are third, their only really impressive result was away at Swansea, a team clearly at the start of a major transition.
As Southgate struggled to contain his fury on Saturday he almost looked disturbed by the number of microphones shoved under his chin. He may have the most supportive Chairman in the country in his corner, but he is still under enormous pressure. If he thought the spotlight would be a little dimmer in the Championship, Saturday’s defeat will have set him right.
When the league resumes after the bothersome international break, Boro face a slowly improving Ipswich, the unpredictably dangerous Sheffield Wednesday and the impressive West Brom within a single week. After those three games we should have a clearer picture of Southgate’s ability to keep Boro in that top three – and of the likelihood of him lasting the season at the Riverside.