The Two Unfortunates Health Checks: Middlesbrough
For the latest in our Health Checks series of posts, we welcome back TTU stalwart, Mike Baker, author of a consistently excellent series of posts over the years and for whom Middlesbrough Football Club are his particular obsession. Mike is on Twitter at @mikeb196
Since going down in 2009 Middlesbrough have returned to the top flight once, a single sorry season that exposed us as lacking the quality needed to preserve our status. The Premiership years now seem to have taken place a lifetime ago. Whilst it’s possible to go into every campaign seeing ourselves as favourites for promotion, the regular pattern is for early promise and optimism to give way to poor runs of form that have us fluttering gently out of the race for the top two places.
The reasons for this are varied, but just as managers and players come and go the Chairman, Steve Gibson, remains in place since he first took sole control back in the mid-1990s. Renowned initially for spending heavily to achieve success, he used to be held up as the model owner, a local boy made good who invested significant sums of money to put Boro on the map. In recent years that gloss has rubbed away. The raw ambition Gibson once showed has gone. What truly irks the supporters is an opaque attitude from the top, a lack of explanation for when things start to go wrong. There’s no dialogue, more a sense of ‘this is my club; you’re welcome to support it, but don’t ever question my motivations’, which inevitably grinds with fans from a poor part of the world who are paying through the nose for the privilege. Gibson once talked about needing the supporters to show ‘blind faith’ in him, yet the goodwill is without a doubt reducing. The non-existent dialogue, the near-paranoid control of information coming out of the Riverside, and a Chairman who clearly doesn’t take criticism on the chin are growing issues.
The Past Five Years
Just over five years ago, Boro handed the manager’s job for the first time to an overseas appointment, drafting in the man with the Bond villain name, Aitor Karanka. The former Real Madrid player and Assistant Manager arrived with about as fine a pedigree as it got, with his heritage at Spain’s biggest club assuaging some doubts over the fact we were his first foray into club management. A personal friend of Jose Mourinho’s, his arrival created an instant link with Chelsea that would propel their rent-a-youngster players in our direction, but more importantly was the new direction he represented. Under previous manager, Tony Mowbray, austerity was the order of the day, dwindling Riverside crowds watching sides based on diminishing returns as Mogga tried to divest the club of the expensive follies Gordon Strachan had drafted during his brief and destructive tenure. It was clear Karanka would not be here if the club wasn’t prepared to back him, which became increasingly the case as he guided Boro towards the promotion places.
By the 2014/15 season, the Basque manager had steadied the ship and was given access to Boro’s resources in the transfer market, spending seven figure sums freely. Loanees, notably from Chelsea, became commonplace. This was the year in which Patrick Bamford made a name for himself as he scored 19 goals across all competitions, by our standards a revelatory total. The team spent most of the campaign in the table’s upper echelons, finishing fourth. We lost to Norwich in the playoff final. Elsewhere Boro saw off the threat of Manchester City in the FA Cup, and were only stopped from progressing in the League Cup by Liverpool, the sides contesting a 2-2 draw at Anfield before we finally fell short in the penalty shootout that produced a nerve-jangling 14-13 result.
After some years of second tier football it now seemed clear that Boro were upwardly mobile once again. This was underlined when they finally returned to the Premiership the following season, claiming second place after being almost always in the top two since December. The money continued to flow. We found the £5.5 million required to return a prodigal son in the shape of Stewart Downing to the Riverside. As a side Boro continued to play to our traditional strengths of defensive tightness, conceding eight goals at home all season, though we were the lowest scorers of any team in the Championship’s top six. Less savoury was the moment when Karanka walked out of the club following a heated squad meeting in March as things threatened to unravel. A clutch of senior players, including Downing, opposed the manager and had a high enough reputation to split the dressing room. Ultimately Gibson was able to persuade Karanka to return and the team regrouped to complete its job of gaining promotion. A special effort was made to depict Boro as a single-minded organisation that contained no cracks, but the manager’s credibility was damaged, potentially irreparably so.
This issue overshadowed Boro’s efforts to survive a first season of Premiership football. Karanka by now was on a short leash. Increasingly the manager was using his press interactions to complain about the lack of squad investment. By the January transfer window, which laid bare in Boro’s paltry goal haul exactly where the issues were, the club’s activities were patently insufficient. Bamford returned, and Boro also offered a top flight lifeline to Aston Villa’s beanpole striker, Rudy Gestede. The main issue was in finding a route through to these players. In the Championship Boro could realistically hold a one goal lead, score and then shut the gate, but the Premier League was altogether tougher. In the second half of the promotion season the side had been inspired by the on-loan presence of Gaston Ramirez, a Uruguayan attacking midfielder from Southampton who was capable of forging the link with our attack with ease. Now signed permanently, Ramirez signalled his intention to move to Leicester and pretty much downed tools when the club refused to accede to him. This was fatal. As the thin goal supply trickled away to nothing, Boro slid down the table. Karanka was sacked and the club gave Steve Agnew the caretaker manager’s job. A disastrous decision. Boro were relegated with a whimper, a wasteful and unedifying effort after spending the previous seven years trying to get promoted.
Gibson at least aimed to make a quick return. Garry Monk arrived after some reputable work done at Swansea and Leeds. The new manager was handed a lot of money for transfers and spent it with abandon. The broad aim was to increase our attacking potential, realised by investing heavily in strikers and forward-thinking midfielders. This sounded exactly right, the only caveat being that such a rash of new arrivals could lead to a disorganised mess, no or little sense of strategy behind the signings, which is of course what happened. The motivation behind some apparent over-spending on certain players is up to individual readers to determine, suffice it to say here that by December Gibson had had enough as Boro were muddling around mid-table. Tony Pulis was available after being handed his cards by West Brom, and the decision was made to sack Monk and entrust the future to a prosaic and highly experienced boss.
Over the following season and a half Pulis demonstrated everything good and bad about his management. Defensive stability was restored. Boro’s reputation for conceding few goals returned. The majority of the manager’s signings ignored our crying need for a cohesive attacking effort and relied instead on protecting narrow leads and foraying on the counter. The most common additions were in central midfield, a raft of players equipped with the ability to break up attacks rather than spark those of their own. Altogether Pulis had us playing like a team trying to survive rather than charging towards promotion. Fifth and seventh placed finishes were the end product of stuttering efforts, the feeling being that Boro were settling back into Championship life. As the parachute payments from that season in the Premier League dried up, Pulis’s contract ended, the manager along with Downing – by now an expensive albatross – leaving with little fanfare and the future more uncertain than ever.
The Current Situation at the Riverside
With a decent squad that’s crying out for attacking options, we’re more or less in the same position as we were five years ago, the difference being that we need a new manager who will define the next few years. This is an opportunity to appoint someone who can address those yawning gaps in the team, ideally an upwardly mobile figure who has cut his teeth elsewhere and is ready for a challenge that will build towards a genuine promotion tilt. Though potential figures are not in short supply, it seems a little uninspiring that we have instead gone with Jonathan Woodgate.
In fairness to Woody no one yet knows what sort of manager he will be. He’s called for the things we want to see, for slick attacking football, as though he has unearthed this philosophy as any sort of hitherto unearthed revelation. It’s very reminiscent of the time the club turned to Gareth Southgate, promoting him as the natural and positive next step in his career. What became clear in hindsight was that Gareth had been given the job to oversee a gradual reduction in the club’s financial outlay, and the Woodman’s elevation seems to be an underpinning of the same philosophy. The Premier League standard players who were still here under Pulis – Downing, Mikel, Braithwaite – have gone, no doubt resulting in a considerable saving on the wage bill. To date, we have signed a couple of players – West Ham youngster Marcus Browne; Marc Bola from Blackpool – for minimum cost, and while more have been promised the impression is of a streamlined squad that no longer stands out from its peers.
From the top, the desire to ‘smash the league’ that was in recent seasons the Chairman’s standard mantra has dried up; indeed things have gone very quiet. That, I think, is telling. As for my feelings, I was arguing for much of the previous term that we needed a clear-out. Get rid of the deadwood, especially the high earners. Scout for young, hungry players from the lower leagues, and find an equally capable manager to restart the dynasty. In other words, what I wanted was broadly what every supporter is after, and that you occasionally get to see be realised with the teams that went up automatically in 2019. Instead we have Woodgate, who is a complete unknown quantity. Maybe it will turn out that we have a rough diamond and everything’s going to be all right, but honestly who knows? It’s the normal pre-season optimism, coupled with the innate pessimism that comes with supporting Boro that grounds my expectations.
Easily Monk’s best signing was Irish international goalkeeper, Darren Randolph, who had to show off his silky skills too often for comfort last season, and the hint we are in for good things might just be borne out by the fact he hasn’t taken the expected step up to a bigger club.
The rest of the squad is a combination of intrepid Academy graduates, Championship professionals and a few players who earn too much to make their places in the team viable. Of the former, Dael Fry has come off the production line of home developed centre-backs to provide an improving asset at the back. Under Pulis, winger Marcus Tavernier offered an injection of attacking zest that seemed to terrify his manager, and we will be hoping for an increased presence from him; the same’s true for Lewis Wing, who until 2017 was playing in the Northern League.
The middle group is a loose assemblage of talent contributed by a string of disappointing managers. Clayton is a relic of the Karanka days. Captain George Friend, a £100,000 capture by Mowbray seven years ago, is our longest serving first team player. Ryan Shotton, Jonny Howson and George Saville are all decent, but nothing special.
Relics of the raw ambition displayed during the Karanka era remain. Rudy Gestede is somehow still a Boro player and on a fat contract. In 2018/19, he made nine appearances and scored zero goals. Either other teams for some reason don’t view him as being worth a punt and are staying away, or Woody has seen something in the Benin striker that has eluded every other watcher and this will be his year.
The Next Five Years
Boro have settled back into their traditional position of being arguably too big for the second tier and not quite up to the standards of the first. Broadly this was our state when Gibson took sole control in 1994, so we have made little progress in the interim, albeit having spent untold millions to drive home the point. As always, downbeat feelings about the team must be measured against the reality that we have a stable Chairman and a solid financial base. Not everyone is in the same boat and for this we should be grateful. All the same, genuine feelings of excitement about the side, that sense of anything being possible when we were busy bringing world class footballers to Teesside, seem like ancient history. Did it really happen?
My personal feeling about Woodgate is that he will keep us loosely on the same footing as that we achieved in 2018/19. A top ten finish would be reasonable if unspectacular, and if it comes with genuine signs of promise that we could go on to produce bigger and better things in the future then I’d be grudgingly happy with that. Boro’s lengthy spell in the Premier League now happened so long ago that no one really expects it anymore, and all this plays out against a background of a club still willing to invest in the squad but no longer doing so at a higher rate than its peers. In short, we’re a run of the mill Championship outfit.
A groundswell of opinion has grown that demands the ejection of Gibson and bringing in a new, high-rolling owner. Even allowing for the remote possibility of passing billionaire Sheikhs who just happen to have an abiding love for parmos and the Transporter Bridge, there’s a ‘be careful what you wish for’ warning that comes with any boardroom changes. Gibson may go, but after that it’s a lottery and beyond everything is the inherent danger of investing more than you can afford because the fanbase simply isn’t there. This is something from which the Chairman has learned hard lessons, the danger of spending millions and charging high prices in a region that is traditionally hit hard in difficult financial times.
Years ago, our then Chief Executive Keith Lamb issued a warning about the region getting the club it can afford. That seems to be more the case now than ever. More than thirty years on, the spectre of the moment Middlesbrough AFC nearly vanished from existence remains a presence on the periphery. Perhaps then, it’s our survival and ability to keep going, even on reduced means, which really counts.