TTU Season Preview 2012-13: A Change in Philosophy at Middlesbrough
Having kicked off this year’s season preview with a rather downbeat post on the state of affairs at Blackburn, we take a more positive turn today as former Smog Blog supremo Mike Baker assesses Middlesbrough’s largely brand new squad.
Typical. Until April 2012 I ran a small Middlesbrough blog, which was going well until boredom — both with what I was watching and events ‘off the field’ — put paid to progress and I killed it.
Sure enough, Boro are now belying traditional, summer-long siestas with one of their most interesting transfer stories in recent history. But then, that’s Boro for you. You expect to lose against that team sitting above you in the table and bang in form, only to catch a famous victory. Some middle order side turns up holding three points practically gift-wrapped with ribbons; a deadly dull 1-1 ensues.
But more about last season in a bit. We’ve had exciting times in the transfer market before. Gordon Strachan’s beckoning of talent from the SPL in 2010 made us brief favourites for promotion, but it was the falsest of dawns and an opening day loss to Ipswich didn’t so much ruin the party as set it on fire before discovering a loophole in your insurance policy that reveals you weren’t covered for the damage. Tony Mowbray’s had the impossible job of steadying Steve Gibson’s tilting ship, whilst attempting a love-in with the supporters that hasn’t yet turned into vastly improved attendances. We’re getting there, but slowly, with the glacial grind of appreciating it’s a long haul task.
As for the summer, it’s as though Mogga has turned to his old record collection from the early eighties and picked Edwyn Collins’s advice to ‘rip it up and start again’ as the club’s mission. Nine players have either been released or given away. Barry Robson’s ‘doing a Beckham’ in Vancouver. Homegrown Jonathans Franks and Grounds have been shipped to Hartlepool and Oldham respectively. Six more have simply left at the end of their contracts. Justin Hoyte, Southgate’s ideal replacement for Luke Young several years ago, turned out to be a poor man’s Glen Johnson and never convinced the hardcore. His competitor for the right-back role, Tony McMahon, was more favoured for being from the north-east, yet I struggle to remember what he did beyond some memorable free-kicks. Bart Ogbeche and Malaury Martin were both acquired to make up the numbers. Their numbers have now come up. Danny Coyne, once a cult figure because he wasn’t Brad Jones, has been handed his cards when it became clear Mogga preferred bringing goalies in on loan to cover injuries to Jason Steele rather than use him.
The saddest story by some distance is that of Matthew Bates. Mogga handed him the captain’s armband and, for a time, he seemed to tick all the boxes as a potential update of the role played by the manager back in his playing days. But there’s a reason why this 25-year old has made just over 100 leagues appearances in his career. Unfortunately, he is to injuries what his former girlfriend, Chanelle Hayes, was to pap-courting publicity opportunities. The knee injury he suffered in March was his fifth, exacerbating an almost certainly chronic condition that could end his playing days.
An obvious example of learning one’s lesson perhaps isn’t to replace your injury prone centre back with an equally treatment table friendly defender, but that’s just what Boro have done. Jonathan Woodgate needs no introduction, not least to the Riverside, where he once played for fourteen months and when I say ‘played’, I of course mean shared time between the pitch and extensive physiotherapy. We hope to find a wiser Woody than during his last stay, when he notoriously burned banknotes in bars before the locals, and there’s little doubt he’s sadder for failing to live up to his enormous potential. Eight England caps for one of the country’s most cultured defenders say it all really.
The capture of Woodgate has overshadowed the six further signings made by Mogga. He may be our biggest name, but he might not be the key acquisition, as Boro went for midfielder Grant Leadbitter. Released by Ipswich after three seasons, the 26 year old brings more than 200 appearances within the top two divisions to bear and could be critical to a midfield light on experience. Former Boro player Stuart Parnaby is another free signing, like Leadbitter calling on a legacy of Premiership football and an astute capture given he can’t be any worse than what we had previously. Emmanuel Ledesma, the Argentinean attacking midfielder who most recently turned out for Walsall, is seen as a potential replacement for the part-time Merouane Zemmama, whilst Christian Burgess pads out the ranks. A product of Arsenal’s Academy, Burgess’s arrival comes with a refreshing lack of expectations after the underwhelming returns from previous Emirates youngsters, Hoyte and Jeremie Aliadiere.
Real money has been spent on George Friend, the defender from relegated Doncaster who it is hoped will challenge Joe Bennett at left-back (Bennett is talented, but last season showed signs of the complacency that may accelerate his career more slowly than expected). Mustapha Carayol, the Gambian left winger who had a fine 2011-12 season with Bristol Rovers, has been added in the last couple of days. His signing suggests a real intent to give the side some attacking width, something we have sorely lacked for years, whilst Dutch international Romeo Castelen’s trial offers the mouth-watering prospect of both flanks being covered. An unlikely further source of talent has been tapped with former Boro legend, Juninho, sending Brazilian players to Teesside for try-outs.
A New Philosophy
All this transfer activity makes Boro look, more than ever, like a Championship team. Woodgate aside, the few remaining ‘stars’ who might normally expect to be playing in the top flight have been jettisoned. The multi-million pound fees we waved around — often enough to our own embarrassment — are a thing of the past. Even talk of promotion, which was bandied regularly in previous summers to encourage season ticket waverers, has been curiously muted. The impression is of a club that has reverted to its pre-1994 guise — perennially cash-strapped, envious of those big guns up the A1 and relying on the blend of good management and a fine squad to produce occasional tilts for the top.
Mowbray seems exactly the right person to steer us through these difficult times. A local lad and former team captain who has a great relationship with the fans based on his ‘no bullshit’ approach to answering questions, he wisely stopped trading on his residual popularity in the area shortly after picking up the reins and has gently guided us from the chaos of relegation and Gordon Strachan’s destructive year in charge. His ‘honesty first’ attitude is just fantastic. My personal favourite of his interviews was the time he spoke of trying to get the best out of Kris Boyd, explaining that the manager couldn’t score the goals for him and, ultimately, there was a point when he needed to either do the business or ship out. Boyd shipped, and with him went the scattergun approach to signing players that had made Boro such a mess of disparate talents.
The danger for Mogga is that he could become our new Stan Anderson. Boro’s manager through a long stretch of tedium stretching from the mid-sixties to Jack Charlton taking over in 1973, Anderson was a decent man but didn’t have the winning touch with a club short on cash and frustrating the expectations of supporters. Mowbray can call on a promotion campaign with West Brom as evidence of his abilities, but these are lean times on Teesside. The club’s balance sheet was threatening to turn into a leviathan as Boro overspent for years just to stay in the Premiership. A refinancing mission by Steve Gibson has ended all worries that the club might go the way of Leeds or Portsmouth, and this has been helped by a reorganisation in the wage structure so that we’re now one of the more generous Championship salary payers rather than wildly over the limit.
And a good thing too. A significant drop in attendances (which, in fairness, was dwindling throughout the 2000s) has left us resorting to selling players just to keep the finances looking in reasonable shape. When someone leaves, Boro have filled the gap with cheaper alternatives. David Wheater was replaced with Maximilian Haas. Gary O’Neil’s departure was offset eventually by the arrival of Faris Haroun. Lukas Jutkiewicz was the choice when Leroy Lita was sold to Swansea. The three leavers netted around £8 million cumulatively, whilst Mogga only paid a transfer fee for Jutkiewicz and it’s doubtless that each new face is paid significantly less than those who’ve moved on.
It’s either that or rely on the Academy, which Boro have done with increasing frequency since going down. Sometimes, this has yielded incredibly positive results. When Haas made a negligible impression on the side, Mogga turned to Seb Hines, a young centre back who had been on the books for years and put in a handful of appearances. Suddenly installed as a regular in defence, Hines thrived throughout 2011-12 and has since been rewarded with a new contract. Ditto Rhys Williams, the exciting Australian defender-midfielder who returned from an excruciating eternity of injuries to become one of our most prominent star players. The promotion of Richard Smallwood, Adam Reach and Luke Williams suggests a steady production line of talent, though it doesn’t always work out as the departure of four Academy graduates over the summer attests.
Attempting a Prediction
Where this leaves us is increasingly anyone’s guess. Progress would mean a better end to the campaign than the seventh place we achieved in 2012, though that was actually an improvement on what many fans had expected. Like most, I had 2011-12 chalked as a year of transition and hoped for little better than the top ten, so it was a pleasant turn-up to find us blazing a trail in the first half of the season.
We were particularly effective on the road, which made a dazzling change to Boro’s traditionally shy and retiring performances in opposition venues, but our home record was less impressive. It seemed the side’s pace in attack, with Marvin Emnes and Scott McDonald thriving as the former ripped through defences and laid off for the Aussie, were deadly away from home, when we could sit back and bite on the break. At the Riverside, we demonstrated a weary lack of invention. The gap between Boro’s midfield and strikers too often became a yawning chasm, visiting teams eventually realising they could choke our supply lines with errant ease and guarantee a ridiculously low goalscoring record. As a highly promising 2011 ended, in the New Year Boro lost at the Riverside to Burnley, Reading, Leeds and Cardiff and produced as many draws (three) as wins, including a tedious 0-0 against relegated Doncaster that typified everything wrong with our play on home soil.
The season ended with a whimper and perhaps even unspoken relief that we missed out on the play-offs because we looked so far from ready to challenge for promotion. This year’s ambition will be to try and match a fine away record with similar success at home, though given how the squad’s changing so rapidly it’s impossible to make any kind of call. With all three players to have worn the captain’s armband in 2011-12 (Bates, Robson, McMahon) gone, there’s an implication that the heart has somehow been ripped out of Boro, and nobody would try to argue that the deadwood has been entirely excised. We expect better from Kevin Thomson, who may yet replace Boyd as Strachan’s biggest waste of money, and hope that another year’s experience for Bennett and Jason Steele will improve their maturity. At the time of writing, Zemmama and Stephen McManus remain on the books, but it’s possible both will have moved on before too long. And there is still the strong probability of further signings. Football’s uncertain financial climate means the players are most definitely out there, generally free agents and looking for a new home.
Mogga’s job is to find these men, graft them onto the existing roster, produce a team from them and make all this happen in time for a charge towards the table’s upper echelons. It’s no easy feat, and I suspect many of us sense a fifth year in the second tier may very well be on the cards. That said, when we do eventually return to the top flight (and I think it is a case of ‘when’, and with our current manager), I think we’ll be wiser and better for the lengthy spell of reconstruction that’s taken place at all levels within the club.