Middlesbrough: New Season; Same Old Problems
When we started The Two Unfortunates back in 2009, one of our formative influences was Mike Baker, purveyor of Smog Blog, a site devoted to all things Middlesbrough FC. Like Teesside’s favourite delicacy, the parmo, Mike would plunge you into a gooey concoction of overspending, unlikely UEFA Cup appearances and Scottish imports, served with a huge dollop of world weariness. Four years on, we’re glad to say that he has renewed his occasional need to get things off his chest by penning a reaction piece to Boro’s underwhelming start to the season, one augmented since by League Cup defeat at the hands of Accrington Stanley. He can be followed on twitter here.
One League game in and this already has the makings of being a very long season for Middlesbrough. Leicester City came to the Riverside, looked second best in the first half and then transformed themselves after the interval, all thanks to a rollicking from Nigel Pearson and the timely appearance of David Nugent, the sort of striker who always finds the net when he faces us i.e. he’s been written off; we were once interested in signing him.
Losing to the Foxes has the doom merchants resurfacing in numbers. We’re doomed! Doo-oomed! Tony Mowbray’s a crap manager who needs to be sacked. The chairman’s lost interest and should be ousted by a passing oil magnate. The squad’s too thin. We’ve failed to replace the players who’ve left. Many of the same complaints we heard during Boro’s terrible post-Christmas slump and with added bite because it seems things haven’t moved on one iota. That season opener turned out to be a perfect microcosm of the previous campaign – brisk and imperious early doors; tailing off horrendously later.
There’s something cruel about supporting a club that used to spend money with reckless ease, only to find those days are in the past. I don’t expect that sentence to provoke tears from fans of traditional have-not outfits, yet it’s a difficult thing coming to terms with MFC’s frugality. Articles that contrast our current fortunes with the successful promotion bid in 1997-98 (the last time we were in the second tier) only highlight the fact we’re talking about almost entirely different set-ups. Back then, Boro threw money at the problem of relegation. When Bryan Robson needed a striker, heck why get one when three will do? None of the incoming trio – Marco Branca, Alun Armstrong, Hamilton Ricard – was a free transfer or deals done on the cheap. Each was the subject of a seven-figure sum sailing out of Teesside, but that was Boro in the throes of the sickeningly trite Riverside Revolution. Going down simply wasn’t part of the plan and the club did what it had to in order to make our Division One stay a brief one, an instance of ‘Just Visiting’ within this Monopoly game attitude to making football work.
Middlesbrough circa 2013 is more like the club I grew up supporting, before Steve Gibson’s open chequebook policy and long stays in the Premiership were normal service. That, incidentally, was a side that beat Leicester 6-0 at home, though in fairness such results were an aberration, designed I’m sure to attach the team, limpet-like, to the hearts and minds of certain young people who were visiting Ayresome Park for the first time and had to be persuaded to return. What we’re seeing is a set-up determined to pay no more than it can afford, living within its means, sticking rigidly to its own, rigorously applied version of Financial Fair Play. Nothing wrong with that, obviously, but the effect jars with those who became supporters during the Loadsamoney years, a long period stretching from 1994 through to relegation in 2009. That’s long enough to take in an entire generation, not to mention soaking up the Stayaways who were perhaps persuaded to latch on to a club that was finally showing some ambition after years and years of counting the pennies. Good times they were, perhaps not always in terms of results but because of the players we were capable of signing. Imagine watching an international match and having your eye caught by that composed and silky winger, knowing he’d be good for your team, and then he signs! That was what it was like to support Boro, a surreal and heady period for those of us weaned on lower league, ‘never heard of him’ arrivals and suddenly cheering on players who were actual stars. Put it another way. The prospect of getting World Cup Panini stickers of our team’s players had been a dim and distant one; then it became routine, expected even.
And now that’s gone, a chapter closed for good, or perhaps until we one day get promoted again. I don’t think it’s easy for many fans to square with that reality, though even those with little regard for the maths must be able to deduce that squandering millions on players doesn’t compute with a half-empty stadium. There’s an argument for suggesting that we spend money and the people will return, only we’ve tried that (in 2010, when Gordon Strachan was given a ‘war chest’ and ploughed it into the Scottish economy) and when it didn’t come off, the seats soon emptied. That brief flirtation with largesse had a real sting in the tail; we’ve only just seen the backs of Scott McDonald, Nicky Bailey, Kevin Thomson and Stephen McManus, remnants of Strachan’s failed buying policy who were collectively taking home the best part of £100,000 per week in wages and hamstringing our attempts to add to the squad in any meaningful way. Tony Mowbray’s been in charge since October 2010. Every signing he’s made has needed to keep his successor’s high rollers in mind, hence the succession of incomings from the bargain basement. He simply hasn’t had the money to do better.
‘Mogga’ was given the benefit of the doubt by the silent majority whilst trying to free the club of its heavy wage commitments, but fans’ patience will soon wear thin if the departees aren’t covered shortly. The manager has gone on record to express his frustration over Boro’s lack of activity in the transfer market. Ten players have gone and we’ve welcomed three. All are arguable improvements over those they have replaced, but there’s a worrying skinniness to the squad that came into sharp focus at the weekend when Pearson could call Nugent from the bench and we had no such game-changer available. Behind the scenes, Mowbray has developed a minor reputation for wheeling and dealing, ferreting out canny signings for very little outlay, whilst the club’s scouting network has been developed from virtually nothing into a pan-European operation. Former players, like Croatia’s Alen Bokšić, are courted for their connections within their countries for untapped talent. And yet very little has happened. Players who were supposed to be joining ended up elsewhere, the pull of a cut-price MFC offering low risk, short-term contracts not what it once was. In England, the most recent target is Albert Adomah, the winger with freshly relegated Bristol City. Already the subject of interest from Wigan, Adomah’s price has risen to seven figures and Boro are falling into the trap of meeting it as the demand for fresh blood mounts. The player may be worth that kind of outlay, yet it’s doubtless he’d eat up a fair amount of Mogga’s budget at a time when multiple bodies are required.
As the transfer window starts to close and the pendulum swings in favour of clubs that can call the shots, Boro will no doubt get their men, or at least some warm bodies that give us a few variations. But there are four more league matches before the end of August, including a tricky tie at the DW Stadium, and we’ll need to see some improvement. Hints that this is a side determined to put the first half of 2013 behind it are critical. Failing that, one that can put in a full shift for ninety minutes would be nice.