Middlesbrough 2 Wigan Athletic 3: McClaren heads for sun under a black cloud
Monday 23 January 2006
It is there where the players responsible for a quite pitiful first-half performance against Wigan Athletic are indulging in a week of warm-weather training and team bonding, leaving behind the deepening gloom engulfing Teesside for the bright skies of Marbella.
Where Steve McClaren talked about an opportunity to "clear heads" and "stick together", his club's latest European sojourn could have been better timed. Birmingham City's impressive 5-0 victory against fellow strugglers Portsmouth saw the Blues move to within three points of fourth-bottom Middlesbrough on Saturday. A fight for survival looms.
Even McClaren's players were questioning the merits of a potential PR disaster as they departed yesterday and it was an uncomfortable squad which waved goodbye to mounting pressure and increasing criticism, no doubt fearing a backlash upon their return.
"Hopefully, we can enjoy it out there and come back ready for the next game," said Stewart Downing, barely able to disguise his scepticism. "I know it's a break and the manager thinks we need it, so we have to go. I think the lads are a bit disappointed because we just want to stay and play games. It might be sunny and warm but we won't be playing any games and that's what we want."
Downing's first start since the end of August offered McClaren a rare chink of light on a day when Middlesbrough's various weaknesses were laid brutally bare. Cheering the left-winger's every touch, an otherwise disconsolate Riverside Stadium crowd was grateful for small mercies after woeful defending had allowed Jason Roberts and David Thompson, making his Wigan debut, to give the visitors a fully deserved 2-0 lead within half an hour.
Downing, who later insisted this summer's World Cup finals are furthest from his thoughts, delivered the two corners from which Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Aiyegbeni Yakubu brought Middlesbrough level. However, Neil Mellor's winner 50 seconds from time guaranteed Wigan a sixth Premiership away win this season.
Like Downing, the on-loan Liverpool striker has battled back from a career-threatening knee injury and Mellor admitted: "Days like that have been a long time coming. It's just a great feeling to get back. I have missed football so much and the last year has been extremely hard for me."
Goals: Roberts (2) 0-1; Thompson (29) 0-2; Hasselbaink (56) 1-2; Yakubu (66) 2-2; Mellor (90) 2-3.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Jones; Bates (Johnson, 31), Riggott (Ehiogu, 27), Southgate, Pogatetz; Parnaby, Parlour, Cattermole, Downing; Yakubu, Viduka (Hasselbaink, 46). Substitutes not used: Schwarzer (gk), Doriva.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Pollitt; Chimbonda, Henchoz, Scharner, Baines; Teale, Bullard, Kavanagh, Thompson (Johansson, 90); Roberts, Mellor. Substitutes not used: Filan (gk), Jackson, Francis, Skoko.
Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).
Booked: Wigan Scharner, Thompson.
Man of the match: Thompson.
Attendance: 27, 208.
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