GARETH Southgate last night slammed suggestions that Middlesbrough have “lacked fight” during their relegation battle.

Boro go into Monday night’s Tyne-Tees derby with Newcastle three points adrift of safety, having won just two of their last 23 league matches.

In a number of those games, the Teessiders have struggled to match their opponents physically, and critics have consequently accused the club’s players of lacking bottle.

Last weekend’s 2-0 defeat to Manchester United was a case in point, with Boro failing to ruffle the reigning champions despite home advantage.

Southgate is aware that his players have been accused of being too soft, but as he prepares to enter the pressurecooker environment of a packed St James’ Park, the Boro boss has strongly refuted any suggestion that his squad lacks heart.

“Sometimes, I read comments about people lacking fight and I’m not sure whether the people making the comments have been at the same game,” he said.

“It annoys me when people talk about a lack of fight in teams. People said that about us last week against Manchester United, but you have to be able to get close to a team to fight them.

“And even then, what does fighting them actually mean?

It doesn’t mean that you’re going to win the game.

“If you want to go and fight the likes of (Paul) Scholes and (Ryan) Giggs, go ahead and fight them. It won’t mean you’ll win the game.

“If you’re going to get fired into them, you’ll have to get very close, and that’ll probably just mean they’ll pop the ball off to someone in a better position.”

While Middlesbrough’s players will have to match Newcastle physically on Monday night, Southgate insists it is just as important they win the psychological battle against their relegationthreatened rivals.

The Boro boss will urge his players to show courage in two days time, but that will not mean flying into each and every challenge on offer.

As Joey Barton proved on Sunday, heavy tackles are not necessarily courageous.

Sometimes, having the nerve to hold on to the ball and pass it is the most courageous act of all.

“When I was younger, I possibly thought that winning a fight was an important part of football,” said Southgate. “It isn’t.

“You have to have courage, but that often means courage to take the ball and make the right decisions under pressure.

It’s often more courageous to play good football than it is to fly into an unnecessary challenge.

“You have to be prepared to stick your head in where it hurts, make tackles and lay your body on the line, but you also have to go and play. If you want to be a top player, you have to be able to do all of those things.”

Emanuel Pogatetz is one player who is certainly not afraid to put his head where it hurts, but the Boro skipper has been reluctantly ruled out of the final three matches of the season.

While fellow defender Andrew Taylor is fit to return against the Magpies, Pogatetz’s knee injury will require summer surgery and the centre-half will not be risked against Newcastle, Aston Villa or West Ham.

“His absence has been a blow,” said Southgate. “Statistically, he’s been our best defender for the last three years.

“We’ve been without him for quite a long period this season and, as captain as well, it’s been a disappointment for us.

“We hoped he would come back, but we also knew he was having problems with his knee. We were trying to avoid an operation if we could, but it looks as though that’s the scenario we’ve got now.”

■ Having signed a new threeyear contract this week, Boro goalkeeper Jason Steele has been called up to England’s Under-19 squad for this summer’s UEFA Elite Round Tournament.

But David Knight is on the look out for a new club after failing to earn a long-term deal at the Riverside Stadium.

The 22-year-old goalkeeper has been on a monthly contract, but he will not be handed a more secure deal on Teesside.

With Ross Turnbull also no nearer to agreeing new terms and his existing deal up for renewal, Boro could be forced to look for a new goalkeeper.