McClaren losing sleep as Boro's season turns into nightmare

The Middlesbrough manager seeks a cure for the malaise ahead of an awkward FA Cup replay and relegation scrap. Jason Mellor reports
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The Independent Online

The insomnia is understandable, its cure somewhat less straightforward. If Middlesbrough's humiliation at Highbury was nightmare inducing, Steve McClaren has not slept long enough to succumb: "I'm normally a very good sleeper, but I've been waking up early."

The Boro manager said: "I hope the players are sleeping better than I am. I'm getting little sleep, wondering day and night where we can improve. Every defeat hurts; you might think it doesn't, but just ask my family. Ask the dog."

After 10 games without victory, culminating in shipping seven goals at Arsenal, it appears the McClaren family pooch is not the only wounded animal.

A heavy Premiership away defeat is no way to prepare for an FA Cup replay, but then Nuneaton Borough, who will fancy their chances at the Riverside tonight, did concede three goals at Redditch on Saturday. The mood of the Nationwide Conference North side lightened as they learned of events in north London, as a patched-up Middlesbrough, desperately lacking in experience and leadership, was ruthlessly dismantled.

McClaren's spin-laden assertion in the immediate aftermath that his youngsters would benefit from the experience had, upon reflection, been replaced by a view more couched in reality at his Monday press conference. "Of course it hurt, it was a humbling, embarrassing experience and we've got to bounce back against Nuneaton. There were lots of reasons for it, but no excuses."

The regular ability of Sven Goran Eriksson to point the shotgun towards his foot has at least taken some of the unwanted glare off the domestic travails of his England lieutenant: "I've absolutely no comment whatsoever on that," McClaren added.

Considering Saturday's capitulation which left his side a place above the relegation zone, it is little surprise he has attempted to avoid the outside world.

McClaren said: "I've buried my head, I didn't read a newspaper or watch TV. I'm trying to sort things out, I've got enough problems here so I'm not in an ideal position to comment."

In the unlikely scenario of the Swede paying the ultimate price for his latest indiscretion, McClaren is no longer the certainty to succeed he was almost two years ago after leading Middlesbrough to the first major trophy in their history.

He said: "Every coach goes through this kind of spell, it's how you come out of it at the other end. I've had the questions and the speculation before and had great success.

"Pressure? There's none whatsoever. This is what I get paid for, this is when I earn my money. We've never been this low, the situation hurts, but we've got the characters to get us out of it."

In his four-and-a-half-year reign, McClaren has never been accused of being unable to talk the talk, and his well-chosen words make a renaissance sound easy.

Yet it is a lengthy malaise he attempts to address. Qualification for the Uefa Cup last season largely glossed over Middlesbrough mustering only nine Premiership victories in 2005.

Gareth Southgate, never one to indulge in hyperbole, recently hinted at unrest in the camp. Injuries to George Boateng, Ray Parlour, Gaizka Mendieta and Stewart Downing at various points this season have laid bare a squad that is not as quality-laden as McClaren might suggest.

The dissatisfaction of the club hierarchy at the apathy of supporters, especially in knock-out competitions, has hardly bolstered the manager's potential spending power, with Keith Lamb, the chief executive, issuing a warning that Teesside will eventually end up with the side its resources can afford.

Stuttgart await next month in the last 32 of the Uefa Cup, but with confidence being eroded by the week, a side that at best this season has been Jekyll and Hyde is two bad results away from nothing more than a relegation scrap.

McClaren said: "I've got a lot of hard work to get through in the the next couple of weeks before the deadline because this squad needs improving. How many new players? Two or three."

Before Highbury, being held to a 1-1 draw by Nuneaton was the season's nadir. However, defeat tonight at the Riverside, where admission prices have been slashed to ensure the hosts are not outnumbered by 5,000 travelling fans, would be mind-numbing.

McClaren admits that the campaign has reached a crossroads: "We've got a big period coming up where every game is significant. This game is tougher now than it seemed on Friday simply because of the confidence factor.

"We've great respect for Nuneaton, we know what they're going to give and we know anything can happen, we've got to make sure it doesn't. There are better days ahead, we've got to get through this storm with no panic measures."

For the sake of McClaren's sleep patterns, not to mention his dog, let's hope so.

Wounded Middlesbrough

* BORO'S INJURIES Gareth Southgate (ankle) George Boateng (ankle), Frank Queudrue (knee), Tommy McMahon (shoulder), Jason Kennedy (back), David Knight (hip),

Stewart Downing (knee), Ray Parlour (knee),

Malcolm Christie (foot), Szilard Nemeth (groin).

* NEXT FIVE FIXTURES

FA Cup: Nuneaton (h) today

Premiership: Wigan (h) 21 Jan

Sunderland (a) 31 Jan

Aston Villa (h) 4 Feb

Chelsea (h) 11 Feb

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