Managing the Saints has been a devil of a job for Stuart Gray, but at the Riverside yesterday the young man who started his football career playing under Brian Clough managed to savour his second taste of success in the Premiership. Three second half goals – two from James Beattie either side of a Marian Pahars penalty – earned a victory which doubled Southampton's points total for the season and hauled them off the foot of the table.
In doing so, they rudely interrupted the revived fortunes of the managerial rookie who spurned their advances in the summer. It was a fifth point-less afternoon for Steve McClaren after inspiring Middlesbrough to two wins and a draw. For Gray, it was just the strike action he needed. His players had hit the target only twice in their opening five league matches.
The shock presumably rendered Gray speechless. He sent his head coach, Mick Wadsworth, to face the press. "It's good that we're getting our strikers scoring," Wadsworth said and with good reason. Had Pahars not recovered from a stomach upset before kick-off, South-ampton would have lined up without a player who had made a goalscoring mark in the Premiership this season.
As it was, "the Latvian Michael Owen" took his place in attack supported by Kevin Davies, who has yet to score this year, and by Beattie, who had just a single league goal to his name since the turn of the year. Beattie did not take long to show why he had endured such a barren time, contriving to shoot in a backward direction from the left edge of the Middlesbrough penalty area in the third minute.
Middlesbrough were without Paul Ince, said to be suffering from a complaint of a viral nature, as distinct from a contractual one. In the absence of their captain, there was a lack of direction to Boro's play from the start, although Mark Wilson fleetingly showed the way with a piercing through ball that had Paul Jones racing to the edge of his area to hack clear from the charging Brian Deane.
Both sides, in fact, failed to gain a grip in midfield. It took 34 minutes for a move of any real precision to materialise, Curtis Fleming feeding the ball to the right edge of the Southampton area and Jonathan Greening clipping a neat cross to Allan Johnston, whose downward header produced a fine, diving save from Jones. A minute later, Southampton ought to have taken the lead. Pahars put Beattie clean through the middle, but with only Mark Schwarzer to beat the young Lancastrian scooped his shot over the Australian's crossbar. It was a woeful miss.
Gray, however, was not the only frustrated figure on the touchline. McClaren was so incensed with his side's stumbling attempts to string together passes he slammed down a water bottle as he raged at his players. On the field, neither team exactly showed much bottle and in the early stages of the second-half, Boro old boy Stuart Ripley raised the loudest cheer of the afternoon as he replaced the injured Rory Delap.
Not until the hour mark did the players, let alone the crowd, stir from their stupor. Johnston jinked past Wayne Bridge on the right and crossed into the goalmouth for Colin Cooper, whose powerful header crashed against the crossbar. Alen Boksic hooked the rebound wide and six minutes later Middlesbrough were behind. Bridge broke wide on the right and crossed low into the middle, where Beattie atoned for his first-half howler with a confident side-footed finish.
The points looked to be in the Saints' bag in the 72nd minute when Pahars scored from the penalty spot after being tripped while attempting to twist past Fleming. Within two minutes, though, their lead was halved. Szilard Nemeth, one of three replacements introduced by McClaren in the 69th minute, was felled by Jones and Boksic stepped up to convert his second penalty of the week.
Gray was still biting his nails when Beattie struck for a second time. With four minutes remaining, Ripley fed the ball across to the Blackburn old boy from the right and the sinner-turned-Saint cracked a first-time shot past Schwarzer from 20 yards. It was a textbook finish to a match without method.
Boksic pen 75
Beattie 66, 86, Pahars pen 73
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 36,142Reuse content