Analysing the Middlesbrough Revival
The Football League play-offs for 2015 have so far been packed full of incident with that astonishing 5-5 draw between Swindon and Sheffield United the highlight. A vision up, much of the attention has been focused on the East Anglian derbies but the probable favourites for promotion at the time of writing are Middlesbrough, primed for a top flight return after a good few seasons in the wilderness. Here, TTU regular Mike Baker provides his thoughts in advance of the second leg with Brentford.
Middlesbrough go into the home leg of our semi-final playoff on Friday carrying a 2-1 lead. Nobody sees that margin as an insurmountable obstacle for our opponents, Brentford; similarly, every Boro fan is fully aware of their club’s capacity for hitting self-destruct. For all our natural, ingrained pessimism though, it is a strong position to take back to the Riverside, and surely presents an excellent opportunity to make it to Wembley on Bank Holiday Monday.
Many Boro fans weren’t even glints in the milkman’s eye when we were last in the playoffs. That’s because it came at the insipid end of our 1990-1 campaign, which saw us crawl over the line in seventh (that was the year they expanded the top flight to 22 teams, creating an extra promotion place) and set us up for a tie against in-form Notts County that we lost without upsetting anyone’s expectations. Better, much better, came in our previous attempt, when we were in the second ever playoffs back in 1988. The end of season competition was still in a formative state, so there was no Wembley final and it included the team finishing seventeenth in Division One (in pre-Premiership money) and those in third, fourth and fifth places in the division below. After dispatching Bradford City by a 4-1 aggregate, we faced Chelsea in the final, winning 2-0 at home and then letting in a single Gordon Durie strike at Stamford Bridge to effectively swap places with them. I often wonder whatever happened to that plucky London outfit heading for the second tier, less so their frankly horrible supporters.
Our history of contesting the playoffs is slim, tragically so when you consider we are now in our sixth straight season as a Championship outfit. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, but we kind of slipped off the radar for a while, bummed around mid-table, rarely threatening the top or worrying about the bottom. There was a kind of weird serenity to it all. Whilst other sides jostled for promotion and raised anxiety levels, the Riverside became a ‘No Panic’ zone, many matches ending with an indecisive shrug and a baleful, half-hearted ‘same time next time’ attitude amongst the hardcore supporters. The Riverside attendances dropped to third-full levels. Tony Mowbray, whose managerial reign dominated these years, was handed a largely thankless task of selling players with any remaining value, shipping out others whose contracts ended, and attempting to wheel and deal his way to building some sort of workable squad. It couldn’t last forever, and an aimless start to 2013-14 saw him handed his cards, a case of putting him — and us, for that matter — out of his misery as it just hadn’t worked.
More important than the results, Mogga had effectively bottomed out the club, excising us of Gordon Strachan’s expensively assembled, well remunerated and largely useless Scottish imports. Whoever came next had an opportunity to start from scratch, and Boro sidestepped the usual suspects to appoint someone who was unknown to these shores, Aitor Karanka. The Spaniard’s first managerial opportunity followed a stint of serving as Jose Mourinho’s Assistant at Real Madrid, with hopes that some of the Special One’s ‘speciality’ had rubbed off on him. It had. Karanka started by resolving Boro’s big Achilles heel under Mowbray and shored up the defence. An unlikely partnership between Dani Ayala and local lad Ben Gibson developed into a central pairing stingier than a bedroom tax demand. The trickle of loan imports from Mourinho’s Chelsea landed us players like Nigerian international defender Kenneth Omeruo. The goals were harder to come by, but Boro ended the season in a promising twelfth place, taking in some delightful results along the way, like when we visited Turf Moor and beat promotion bound Burnley.
Over the summer, Karanka oversaw a revolving door policy that saw fifteen players leave, decimating the rump of Mowbray’s side, and drafting in almost as many. The scoring problem was addressed with the recruitment of Spanish forward Kike, along with Belgian international Jelle Vossen and Patrick Bamford from Chelsea. The latter two came on loan, a feature of the transfer strategy that completely overhauled the playing personnel. Adam Clayton (plus Adam Forshaw in the January window) added steel to the central midfield unit.
Boro embarked on a run that kept us in the promotion picture for much of the season, only capitulating an automatic place during the nervy last couple of weeks. There were some impressive scalps taken along the way, most notably Manchester City’s in the FA Cup, as a team that many had pegged as transitional (I would have been happy with a top ten finish) turned out to be a serious contender. The whole thing had the whiff of a Football Manager game, signing a stack of ‘unknowns’ who you know will develop into great players and very nearly storming the Championship, possibly because Karanka couldn’t reload without saving when results didn’t go his way.
It hasn’t been perfect. Whilst the defence was solid throughout, finding the back of the net on a regular basis has been problematic, especially our sometimes torturous attempts at scoring from open play. Neither Kike nor Vossen have shown more than glimpses of their obvious potential, though Bamford has been inspired and the team has at times relied on his natural predatory instincts. It seems Patrick is one of those scurrilous winners in the game of life, urbane and intelligent (he turned down Harvard for a career in football) and facing a golden future. For us, it has led to easy and convenient journalistic suggestions that he’s clearly our best player, a loanee who will tittle off back to Chelsea when his term ends, undermining the side, potentially fatally. That ignores the side’s other gems, which include tenacious midfielder Grant Leadbitter, the mazy dribbles of Albert Adomah, a tight defensive unit that hints most clearly at Karanka as Mourinho’s acolyte, and Dimitrios ‘Dimi’ Konstantopoulos. The latter is our starting goalkeeper, a veteran journeyman whose career highlight prior to Middlesbrough was a reputation for keeping clean sheets with Hartlepool. Now 36, Dimi should be looking forward to semi-retirement as the perpetual bench warmer, yet somehow he’s shaken off the challenge of Tomas Mejias, once of Real Madrid, to emerge as the symbol of our renaissance. In reality Dimi’s no world beater; he’s just rock solid and experienced, and those qualities have mattered.
Back to our semi-final against Brentford. The victory at Griffin Park was classic Karanka’s Boro, holding off the Bees’ forays whilst stinging them with counter attacks. Their goal came from a rare keeper’s error, and whilst the match was a nervy affair, possibly due to vested interests, the feeling is that we simply had too much on the night. Back at the Riverside, we can expect an organised, disciplined display, lacking needless adventure but doing everything to preserve that precious lead. It’s the sort of game that suggests poor telly but it’s one we’re made for and, unless something goes horribly wrong our forwards’ roles will be to make nuisances of themselves amongst the Brentford defenders and keep them honest.
I don’t want to predict anything. Boro have promised the world and failed to deliver it too many times for me to see Wembley as anything better than a possibility. One thing, though, seems certain. Whatever our fate this season, we’ve over-achieved and look very much like a team on the rise, and that sense of great things to come was completely missing from previous terms. The club has talked for years about its ambitions. We’re sick of reading articles about Middlesbrough being a Premiership set-up in all but its actual league status. Finally, with the right manager and an assiduously constructed squad, it looks as though that is close to becoming a reality.