Boro set to tempt back Venables with the gift of youth

Gibson consults players over new manager as academy offers hope after final anguish
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The Independent Online

For Steve Gibson, Stewart Downing and the rest of Middlesbrough's Uefa Cup final party, it was the morning after the nightmare before. Their European dream having come to an end somewhere in a south-eastern corner of Holland the previous evening, the chairman, the left-winger and the rest of the players and officials entered the departures hall at Eindhoven Airport to find Sevillianos dancing on tables, boisterously celebrating their team's success down the road in the Philips Stadion.

Wounds were still fresh from the severe beating administered by Sevilla some 14 hours previously - at 4-0, the heaviest defeat inflicted upon any British club in a European final.

Still, the respectful applause as the Boro players headed for their gate did have a mildly soothing effect. The same could have been said of the headline on the day-old copy of L'Equipe left behind at the coffee bar. "Le miracle Middlesbrough," it proclaimed. Back in 1995, when Ruud Gullit was asked if he would be interested in signing for Middlesbrough, he sniffily said that he'd never heard of the place, let alone the club. On Wednesday they were playing for a European trophy in the stadium that was once home to Gullit as a PSV player.

The "small town in Europe" that the Boro faithful sing about is now on the European football map. In the cold light of Thursday morning, though, the reality was already dawning that a manager was urgently needed to make sure it stays there. For next season at least, Middlesbrough and their Riverside Stadium will not be a staging post for European club competition.

After all of the euphoria of getting to Eindhoven, the fact is Steve McClaren's successor will inherit a squad that finished 14th in the Premiership in the season just ended. That squad include two key players who will be out of contract in June - George Boateng and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink - and other senior players undecided about their future on Teesside. A replacement for McClaren is required with the utmost of haste and Gibson, the chairman who has taken Middlesbrough from near-extinction to the brink of a European trophy, is not idling on the starting blocks.

He has already spoken to Alan Curbishley, Martin O'Neill and Terry Venables, the latter emerging as the leading contender. As mentioned in these pages a week ago, Gibson's intention for Gareth Southgate to play a major role in the club's future (probably still as a player next season but as a coach and possibly a manager in the years beyond) would make Venables an obvious choice. The Middlesbrough captain has never tired of singing the coaching praises of his old England manager.

Venables has also worked at Boro before, helping to save the club from relegation on a short-term contract in 2001, and would probably be more inclined than any other new man to accede to Gibson's wish for the present backroom structure to remain as untouched as possible.

Gibson wants the smoothest of transitions. Hence his rallying call to the defeated playing troops in the dressing room in Eindhoven. "The chairman came in and spoke to us about the new manager coming to the club, and new players," Downing reflected.

"He was quite open about it. He said he would speak to the senior players and the rest of the lads and get their views. He's going to see what the lads think, and see who they want. It's very good, because you won't get many chairmen doing that.

"I'm not really bothered who the new manager is, as long as he's the right man for the job, to take this club on to the next level. That's all I'm worried about. This club will go on and we hope the new manager can take us on to that next level - to the Champions' League."

For Downing, of course, another level is already beckoning. Last Monday he was named in England's 23-man (or 22-man and a boy) World Cup squad. The three crosses that yielded the last three goals in Middlesbrough's 4-3 semi-final turn-around against Steaua Bucharest probably clinched his place, but in the final on Wednesday he got a taster of how difficult it might be to make an impression in Germany: with an evening spent almost entirely on the back foot against the robust, attacking Sevilla right-back, Daniel Alves - a Brazilian not deemed good enough for his national squad.

"I knew before the game that he was going to be a tough opponent, that he was a good player going forward," Downing said. "I felt he got away with a lot of off the ball things, but there is no point in moaning about it. If I get a chance in the World Cup, I'll be up against foreign lads who are technically very good, very strong and very quick, so I'll have to get used to it.

"It was a good experience for me personally to have a test like that. It was good experience for the other young lads who were involved too. It was disappointing to lose the final like that but Sevilla were a great team. We can be proud of ourselves. We've got a lot of young players. If you look at the squad, we had lads of 17, 18, 19. I think I have to say I'm a senior player now."

At 21, Downing happens to be two years above the average age of the Middlesbrough XI that played at Fulham last Sunday. Boro's academy has become the Oxbridge of English football under the direction of Dave Parnaby, who was a fine central defender with Gateshead when his days as a player were restricted by his teaching commitments, and whose England schools' team of 1995 included one Michael Owen.

Parnaby's academy is the gem that Middlesbrough's next manager will inherit. Its graduates include Parnaby's son, Stuart, Middlesbrough's right-back in Eindhoven and an England Under-21 international.

"Dave Parnaby's the one who's brought us all through," Downing acknowledged. "If it wasn't for him, and for Ron Bone, the head of recruitment at the academy, myself and the other young lads would not have been in Eindhoven, playing in a Uefa Cup final."

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