Middlesbrough and the Road to Hell
To put it mildly, it’s been a calamitous 2013 so far for Middlesbrough Football Club. Here, Mike Baker, a pioneer with his outstanding but sadly now defunct Smog Blog and a contributor to our series of posts previewing the season back in August, assesses a decline that the Roman Empire itself would have been proud of.
Middlesbrough are well used to running out of form after Christmas. We’re famous for it, gifting points to opponents as though coming late to the season of goodwill and making up for it with abandon, or as has often been the case, via a piece of our left-back’s anatomy to deflect a random shot into the net.
But this season’s wretchedness takes some beating. We seem to have found new depths of crap since January, taking seven points from a possible 42 and tumbling decisively out of the playoff picture. The Ra-Ras (local lingo for those who still defend the club) claim there’s still a chance of reversing the run of defeats and finishing in the top six, but the sagging shoulders of the players and our manager’s baleful, resigned comments tell it how it is. Our campaign’s over. Everyone just wants the torture to end.
Where it went wrong and what the answers are have occupied pub banter, messageboards and phone-ins, with a depressing lack of accord. No one knows. And that feeling seems to extend to the corridors of power within the Riverside itself, which has taken on the upbeat sunniness of a Radiohead album crossed with Eastenders as enjoyed by somebody on benefits who’s checking out the government’s plans for public spending.
The reality is that this is a club still in transition, continuing its long retreat from the big spending years that preceded our relegation in 2009. Tony Mowbray has presided over a drop in the annual wage bill from £30 million to £16 million. Each player sold has been replaced with a freebie or someone from the lower leagues. And the bottom hasn’t yet been reached.
The summer will find four relatively high earners — Stephen McManus, Nicky Bailey, Julio Arca and Kieron Dyer — out of contract. Dyer (who’s on a pay-as-you-play contract) aside, they’re all players from a richer time. Their departures will save something like £60,000 from the weekly spend on salaries, and if Mowbray can find buyers for fellow high rollers like Scott McDonald and Marvin Emnes he’ll ship them out quicker than you can say ‘Ow man, how can you miss from there like’. The aim is to start again, assembling a side that won’t break the bank and as a group is bigger than the sum of its parts. At the moment, owner Steve Gibson is plugging £800,000 of his own money each month into the club to keep it running, and that’s clearly something that can’t happen forever.
Longer term, Boro want to emulate Swansea City, though happily not starting from where everyone’s second Premiership team begun their rise. The order is for good football played by lads who won’t cost the earth to recruit and overseen by a settled administration. Sounds great, right? There is an obvious flaw in the plan, which is no doubt that everyone outside the moneyed elite wants their team to ‘do a Swansea’ and if that’s the case then we’re right back to a level playing field, but at least it’s good to know there is some thinking about the future going on.
Squaring this vision with the horrible present has led to increasing disillusionment from the supporters. Mowbray, whose tenure started to almost universal approval, has since seen his halo slip. When we’re watching our side lose games, not even to daft last minute chokers but as a consequence of playing negatively and without any real purpose, it’s difficult to buy into the plan. Calls for the previously untouchable Mogga to go are on the increase. Tinkering with the team selection. Insisting on Barca-tastic short passing games with little penetration. Morale naturally on the floor. Post-match comments showing little anger; more a submissive shrug. The list of reasons for getting rid mount and as we continue losing to teams from the Championship’s lower reaches, his defenders thin out a little more.
It’s fortunate his biggest apologist remains the Chairman, an increasingly remote figure who seems to have called time on his largesse. Ending the years of reckless spending is of course prudent. Not only does he have to in the current climate of Fair Play, the list of individuals who earned millions for wearing our shirt without passion or even mild interest is an embarrassing footnote to the years of spending whatever was needed to keep us in the top flight. But the cost to fans raised within such a climate is telling.
Gibson refuses to answer critics wanting to know what happened to the £2.5-4 million recouped from Joe Bennett’s sale to Aston Villa, mainly because he doesn’t have to. The reasons are obvious and pointed out every time The Football League Show’s cameras focus on those rows and rows of empty Riverside seats. Still, it’s easy to see why people are upset, comparing our long stay in the second tier with Gibson’s naked ambition to return to the top in 1997/98.
That, of course, was a very different time. In 1997, despite our unplanned relegation and the laughing stock debacle of doing so with a side containing the most exciting player in the country (that’s Juninho, not Steve Vickers, in case you need to ask), the ‘Riverside Revolution’ was still in full swing. The average punter couldn’t access the ground because of season ticket holders and extra stands were being installed to meet demand.
It was the almost perfect partnership of a free spending owner and a public that couldn’t get enough, a shared dream that everyone appeared to be buying into. The intervening years have soured that ideal relationship. Gibson realised during the Steve McClaren era (2001-2006) that his model of plugging endless millions into the project would lead ultimately to ruin, ushering in the more modest, cost cutting period that started with the appointment of ‘wet behind the ears’ Gareth Southgate, whilst regular attendances comparatively dropped to below the 30,000 mark. The results are a footballing concern approaching sustainability, one that’s too sure footed to go the way of Leeds or Portsmouth, but subsequently ending our Premier League status and many of the supporters.
It’s now more or less inevitable that we’ll have at least five seasons in the second division, something that seemed impossible when we first went down. Whilst getting rid of the real high rollers was an obvious and logical step following relegation, some of the other decisions were outright errors. The biggest was replacing Southgate with Gordon Strachan. I’m no apologist for old Big Nose and note that he’s still to manage another club, which to me says it all about his relative merits, but compared to Strachan his was an altogether happier time.
The ‘wee man’ was charged with overseeing promotion and given the money to make it so. He spent happily enough, but here the rails came off as his old time tactics, seeing anyone from the Academy as an enemy and his sad inability to recognise full-backs or wingers as useful elements in squad building undid him.
Strachan’s brusque, offhand attitude to his job might have been okay had he got the results, but he didn’t and, after a sequence of post-match interviews that demonstrated his refusal to engage with the locale, people started to hate him. In the end, he did the decent thing and walked away, and then he did the really, really decent thing and left without taking any compensation, and somehow the train crash he made of the Middlesbrough job led to management of the Scottish national side. We all breathed again, relieved that he’d only stuck around for a year. But the ripples from that disastrous period are still being felt, not least by Mowbray, who found he’d been saddled with high earners like Kevin Thomson, Kris Boyd and the inexplicably crap Tarmo Kink, all on the kind of lavish spends that blocked his ability to change the squad.
I feel nothing but sorry for Mogga, the Saltburn lad who has tried to turn every team he’s managed into one that plays the game properly whilst disarming the press and fans with an honest approach that has increasingly little place with the modern, ‘say nothing of substance’ game managers play with the media. He’s been handed a job that, to say the least, is tricky. I think I’d have to go back to the mid-1980s to find a Boro coach who had less to spend than our present gaffer, and that was back during the dark days of bankruptcy. Whilst methodically letting go of players who’ve reached the end of their lucrative contracts (making them practically unsellable in the interim), Mowbray has saved us from the relegation threatened under Strachan and led us to seventh in 2012. The current season started even better, Boro looking like legitimate candidates for automatic promotion at Christmas.
Since then, however, our form has nosedived, turning us into the worst side within any English professional division in 2013 and close to scoring another low — the poorest run of any team in the history of the Championship. There have been injuries, but even when we were playing well it was amidst a climate of regular crocks (we employ Jonathan Woodgate, after all) and Mogga can call on a fully fit side currently, which didn’t stop us from losing to a desperately awful Wolves team at the weekend. Certain players have gone from being supermen to a Clark Kent who’s given up his special powers for the love of an Earth girl (Rhys Williams); others simply haven’t turned up for work in months (Emnes, Bailey). The manager’s canny eye for a bargain has kept the numbers up, but when our backs have been against the wall, what has become apparent is that the likes of George Friend, Mustapha Carayol and Emmanuel Ledesma really are just lower league players who haven’t the class to provide answers. You get what you pay for.
There’s a real though unlikely prospect of us becoming candidates for the drop if we don’t pick up the odd point from here or there; more likely is finishing in mid-table and a feeling of utter weariness from everyone connected with the club. Boro fans calling for a change in manager are no doubt casting envious eyes at Sunderland, but Mogga should be safe from any real danger and will be given the opportunity to make sweeping changes in the summer. With more contracts due to expire and everyone save a hardcore of locally reared players effectively up for sale, Mowbray will — and indeed should — have his chance to finally bottom out the squad and start again, effectively building the side he wants to see. It could be amazing; we all know what he achieved in taking West Brom up in 2008. But if the poor results bleed into the new season, there could well be another change, and with memories of Strachan recurring, we realise it could go either way.