Middlesbrough and Recession

Posted by on Mar 6, 2011 in Uncategorized | One Comment
Analyzing the fortunes of Middlesbrough in the light of the financial crisis is perhaps moot. My two excursions to Teesside to date were in 2005 and 2007, supposedly peak years for Britain economically; but the pavements of Linthorpe Road were far from glazed over with gold.

By contrast, however, Middlesbrough Football & Athletic Co. (1986) Ltd. did seem immune to the urban blight of their hinterland. Steve Gibson, an archetypal saccharine daddy, brought much success to the Cleveland club in the Blair years and was certainly not short in stumping up cash. A first wave of recruits including Juninho, the Merse, Gazza and Ravanelli were followed by a second squadron from the pages of Hello during Steve McLaren’s spell in charge – Mark Viduka, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Gaixka Mendieta and Boudewijn Zenden: luxury items that helped engineer a first ever major trophy when the League Cup was captured in 2004 and a thrilling run to the UEFA Cup final.

But with twenty teams living beyond their means to maintain residency in the Premier League’s promised land, Boro were one who would quickly realise the futility of trying to keep pace. Credit was extended to Gareth Southgate on occasion – most notably for the purchase of Alfonso Alves, but as fellow Unfortunate and steward of the frankly incomparable SmogBlog pointed out in a heartfelt missive back in the Autumn, the spending was being reined in all the while.

The received wisdom holds that Southgate’s perhaps hastily appointed successor, wee Gordon Strachan, was given a pot of cash to squander on a bunch of dodgy Scotsmen and although it’s true that many of these signings have proved to be poor ones; the continued sales of prize assets all the while led to a modest net spend: Brad Jones, Adam Johnson and David Wheater are just three of the latest shuffled on to balance the books as a first wave of rebuilding failed to catch fire.

The ex-Celtic boss seemed congenitally unable to abandon 4-4-2 as the Teessiders suffered a nightmare start to the season, completely failing to live up to their billing as favourites. An injury to spendy recruit Kevin Thomson didn’t help at all, nor did the lackadaisical displays of former Braveheart Kris Boyd, nor did the sometimes ridiculous contract lengths offered to underperforming players such as Didier Digard and Scott McDonald.

Enter club hero and all round decent man, Tony Mowbray – a more flexible tactician than Strachan, albeit one occasionally too obsessed with keeping the ball on the floor in his time at West Bromwich Albion. In the abovementioned post, Mike bemoaned Southgate’s naive attempts to mould Boro into a mini-Arsenal – would Mowbray suffer from the same delusions when perhaps a few rolled up sleeves, thunder and blood were required?

There has been gradual improvement, with a fine win chalked up over Millwall and a very unlucky failure to scoop three points at home to Nottingham Forest, but yesterday’s 5-2 mauling at Reading is difficult to apply a gloss to.

Beset by injuries and absences including Thomson, McDonald, club captain Matthew Bates, Andrew Davies and Stephen McManus, the visitors fielded an inexperienced line up – no more evident in defence – and it showed. Seb Hines and Jonathan Grounds, returning from a loan spell at Hibs in January were no match for Shane Long, the division’s most in form striker. Equally, Tony McMahon looked well off the pace at right back against Hal Robson-Kanu, himself making a rare start. In goal, Connor Ripley, almost unfeasibly the son of youthful ex-Boro hero and now lawyer Stuart Ripley, took up the gloves after an injury to Jason Steele, himself only 20 years young.

In midfield, Marvin Emnes, a refugee from the big money days, was as “hopelessly lightweight” as Mike has promised on the right, despite a few flicks; and ditto, Marouane Zemmama on the opposite flank, generally a player who adds much needed craft to the mix and who was instrumental in the win at the Den but here, too keen to argue with the referee and, dare I say it, “hopelessly flyweight”.

The slim Barry Robson (a poor man’s David Platt), Andrew Taylor (back from being lent to Watford) and Nicky Bailey failed to pull up trees as Mikele Leigertwood bestrode the central areas; Boro seemingly uneasy with the numerous changes wrought on the XI. Up front, Leroy Lita can be happy with his afternoon, latching on to a rebound to score after Taylor’s fizzing drive was kept out by Alex McCarthy – not so Boyd who looked  uninterested after being introduced for Zemmama at the break.

If Jeff Beck were in attendance and needed something to sing about, it would surely be to salute the performance of 20 year old Joe Bennett at left back. It was almost as if Jimmy Kà©bà© had been served notice of the kid’s invulnerability, because he rarely looked to take him on. The Rochdale born Bennett recently signed a new contract to keep him by the Riverside until 2015, a shrewd bit of business on Gibson and Mowbray’s part.

So, and as Mike has argued, there has been slow recovery from Middlesbrough and they remain in a less parlous position than another vaunted squad, Sheffield United. I’d expect them to stay clear of danger, even if this performance provided no evidence for this (we should avoid judging any club on one 90 minutes alone). Rebuilding a team for a second time in the space of six months is not a task for the uneasy and Boro just need to concentrate on developing a coherent style and assessing which players they want to remain come August – Mowbray is probably the man to oversee this process.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

1 Comment

  1. Mike
    March 11, 2011

    Ah sorry – I meant to reply to this days ago and clean forgot. Some mate, huh?

    Terrific post, and after Reading there has been a slew of rumours that MFC is going into administration. In fairness, these stories have been doing the rounds since the powers that be refused to keep blindly bankrolling each daft, multi-million pound deal, but they grew after Saturday when the perception was that we really did have no cash to get ourselves out of the injury-fuelled rut we're in.

    The Wages of Fear article I put on Smog Blog started as quite a different animal, before it grew clearer that the money isn't there not because the owner doesn't have it, but because he doesn't want to throw good money after bad. An entirely fair reaction as far as I'm concerned. The aim now seems to be to make the club able to run within its means, as far as possible, as well as emerging with a team that's built along more modest lines, which for the likes of me – left with a bad taste in my mouth at the sense that we basically bought all our modest success – is far more credible than the MFC of the early noughties.


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