Does the wind of change also need a Category One storm?

The wind of change is blowing through the Riverside and there are hopes that with the help of the club’s Premier League windfall Garry Monk is building a team to blow away the Championship this season. After last season’s punt on projects, Boro supporters have been pleased to see the arrival of tried and tested players though the door at Hurworth – though they would I imagine also quite like to see some of our brighter prospects from the the much hailed Category One academy storm their way into contention for starting places. When Garry Monk arrived at the club he stated he wanted to give a clear pathway for young players to make the transition into the Boro first-team squad. The recent pre-season friendlies have given opportunities for some of Boro’s promising young players to shine and impress the new boss with the likes Dael Fry and Harry Chapman, fresh from England duty at the FIFA under-20 World Cup squad in South Korea, notably hoping to catch the eye.

Last season Dael Fry was on loan at Rotherham but ended up only making a dozen appearances after slipping down the pecking order – clearly he has the attributes and potential to become a more than decent centre-back but he needs a run of games at a high level to make that leap forward. The question is whether he’ll get enough opportunities at Boro this season, otherwise surely another loan spell is required. Though it becomes increasingly hard for the player to imagine his future remains at club if he is then expected to break through in the Premier League next season instead.

Harry Chapman (or is it now the more trendy Harri as in Harrison) is another lively winger who has impressed at the academy and went out on loan last season to Sheffield United but also had his season cut short at the Blades to only a dozen appearances due to injury. Again he’s at a stage in his career as he approaches his twentieth birthday where he needs to start playing week-in week-out if he is to reach his potential. The worry is if he stays at Boro this season he’ll be in the queue behind some expensive purchases and loan players from top PL clubs.

Should the players stay and fight for a place in the hope that the can take their chance and impress the new manager? Or should they go on loan until January with the objective of building their reputations and look to break into the Boro team for the second half of the season?

Connor Ripley will have noted the arrival of Darren Randolph from West Ham on the basis that he’s moving to get first-team football to secure his place in the Republic of Ireland’s squad ahead of next year’s World Cup – plus the club have paid West Ham £5m and offered the keeper £27k a week, which looks a little pricey to risk a splinter injury on a Championship bench. He will I imagine view that piece of business as a signal that now is not his time to occupy the Boro number one shirt – perhaps he’ll be given the role of second-choice keeper as he gazes mischievously from the bench while wondering if Randolph is only one rash sliding challenge away on a wet and windy afternoon in South Yorkshire from handing him the gloves.

Perhaps a lesser known youngster who impressed in parts against Rochdale was Marcus Tavernier – he’s a pacey left-sided player who has also played at left-back – with many of our protesting lefties marching out of the exit door, he may see the possibility of breaking though into the first-team this term. He must know Garry Monk is looking for dynamic players and it seems Downing didn’t meet that requirement and Gaston’s agent has admitted his client’s future probably lies elsewhere, even if the player himself is trying his best to give the impression he’s a model professional – though they certainly threw away the mould for that particular model some time ago.

Another young talent who replaced starter Adama for the last quarter-of-an-hour at Rochdale was lively Finnish prospect Mikael Soisalo, who joined the Boro academy in January from Tampere. It appears he’s quite well regarded at the club and even managed to score in the previous friendly at Mansfield. It’s possible he may force himself into the squad and it looks like Monk is certainly having a good look at him ahead of the start of the season. A lot may depend on whether the Boro cheque book has a few more unused stubs left in it – perhaps when it comes down to hard choices the hot prospects of the likes of Liverpool may get the nod over our own molten steel variants.

The adage that if you’re good enough then you’re old enough is quite often trotted out – but we seem to err on the side of caution these days at Boro when it comes to academy players. They almost have to be better than some of the ‘projects’ that the club have thrown millions at of late before they will even be considered. One wonders if Adama had been from our own academy whether he would be entertaining the prospect of his third loan spell at somewhere like Preston or Sheffield United until he’d worked on his crossing a bit more.

Ben Gibson wasn’t by any means an overnight success, but grew into the player he now is over time and is possibly on the verge of swelling the club’s coffers by around £30m should he decide to move on to bigger things. Incidentally, he had to leave the field yesterday with what looked like a broken nose, though at least the incident seems to have shown a novel way to tone down the Ramsdens advertising hoarding by liberally covering the white band with blood – whether this will inspire commercially sensitive fashion-conscious supporters to punch themselves in the nose as they de-sponsor their replica shirts is too early to say.

Sometimes perhaps we expect more from our own home-grown prospects and seemingly leave room in the squad for average journey-man-like players just because they were bought with Euros. Though the flip-side to that argument is perhaps we imagine our home-grown players to be better than they actually are. It’s hard to think of any of the recent fringe academy players who have gone on to impress elsewhere. Maybe you actually need a group of players who break into the team together that will spur each other on and be inspired by the shared journey. It’s a long time since the days where many in the first XI consisted of our best young talent – Downing, Morrison, Cattermole, Wheater, Bates, Johnson et al seemed to inspire perhaps less gifted players to rise to the challenge as the likes of Taylor, Davies and others performed above themselves in their company.

Let’s also not forget how having a core of players who have come through the ranks would effect the dynamic of the dressing room and create a strong team spirit, which may give you that extra five percent on the pitch when it matters. The recruitment process last season left a lot to be desired as a disparate bunch of projects failed to gel into anything either collectively or individually – they’re are now being shipped out and are leaving berths to be filled. It’s to Monk’s credit that he’s taking a serious look at what talent he’s got coming through – this season may be an opportunity to bring several through as it will no doubt be harder next year to make the leap if Boro hopefully gain promotion.

Whether our squad is built from the outside or the inside may not matter to many if we ‘smash the league’ but there is something more satisfying and it instills a sense of pride when you see the core of a team that had ‘made in Teesside’ stamped through it.

Class and status mean a great deal – Monk is grasping this

In going for what seems to be the correct combination of character and talent, the new Boro manager is already winning Simon Fallaha over

My favourite Aitor Karanka signing was David Nugent. Not, it must be said, because there’s any concrete statistical evidence to prove it: it’s doubtful that Nugent, or Nuge, made more runs, completed more passes, won more aerial duels and made more tackles than any other Boro player in 2015-16. His goals per game ratio definitely wasn’t the highest either. But he was the shot in the arm that a team looking to overcome the tag of nearly men needed. Being born with the ability to score and create is one thing, knowing just where and when to pop up, on and off the pitch, to raise everyone’s spirits immeasurably within a matter of minutes or a split second is another. There are few moments in 2015-16 that match the gloom-to-boom of Nuge’s late, late winner against Hull, his crucial assist away at Bolton, and his heart-warming post-promotion celebration weeks later. Like so many players before him, Nuge had no reason to see Middlesbrough FC as anything more than a job, but he never acted like he was passing through or using the club. He was neither a badge-kisser nor egotistical, just a hired gun who called the right shots at the right place at the right time by being as true to himself as a player as a character as you could hope for. One liked him. One wanted to hang out with him. One even wanted to be him. His skills were deceptively modest and imminently relatable, the kind that an everyman could aspire to replicate.

It is why I remember and regard Nugent more fondly than Alvaro Negredo, Mark Viduka and Fabrizio Ravanelli, regardless of their superior technique, pedigree and goal tallies: a “we’re too good for this” feel uncomfortably lings over the famous Italian, Aussie and Spaniard. It is also why, looking back, Jordan Rhodes’ short Boro career is looked upon with disappointment, because behind Rhodes’ staggering goal record rested a genuine persona of dignified humility. Rhodes was a more crucial part of the team than Karanka cared to appreciate because he was always human, always real. He was never too good for the club.

Nugent, and Rhodes, are the kind of players and characters that I am convinced Garry Alan Monk has his eye on as he settles into the Boro hotseat in the early days of this new era for Boro. People who, like Monk himself, may not be as local as Tony Mowbray or David Wheater, but will respect the difficulty and relish the prospect of a promotion challenge in the Championship while also inspiring and unifying communal spirit. Now, I would never claim to object, even today, to the presence of Negredo, Viduka and Ravanelli, or the team building of Karanka. At their best, regardless of how often that came, their skills and his teams really were something to behold, the finishing savoured, the solidity and passing admired. But alas, they were reflective of how, to borrow the words of Boro fan Chris Bartley, Boro’s soul was being eroded, little by little.

To use an example, the progressive elements and relentlessly positive statistics of AKBoro – which convinced me to plead for patience back then – were not enough, in many eyes, to cast a shadow over an eventually punishing legacy of sterility and narcissism. We’ve been there repeatedly: a few world class players thrown into a team of mediocrities, signing past-their-best stars with a “one final pay cheque” vibe to them, bringing in big names from Scotland on inflated wages, or insisting that all individuals subvert themselves to the manager’s collective: all, despite varying and even indelible degrees of success, without a thought to future or eventual consequences. Bryan Robson, Steve McClaren, Gordon Strachan, Aitor Karanka, you name them: we’ve often aimed high, and we’ve regularly been badly burned.

Which is what makes MonksBoro, which, to me, looks like a back-to-basics ModestBoro, so refreshing. Free of the effective but machinic stranglehold that grips not only teams of Karanka’s ilk but frankly a great deal of top-level football – see Jose Boreinho’s United – I sense greater liberty in Boro’s squad, the kind that is to be expected with a fresh start. The manner of his early signings – at the time of writing, Cyrus Christie, Jonny Howson and Martin Braithwaite – suggests that this is a man who likes the seasoned and dependable with a touch of the unpredictable, the sort of character-and-talent combination key to promotion.

If an equally seasoned and dependable forward, be it Britt Assombalonga or someone else, joins, we will then have four proven Championship forwards, along with George Miller, in our ranks, a fine blend of flair, instinct and usefulness. At least as long as Patrick Bamford regains his confidence and Cristhian Stuani, if he stays, is allowed to be the poacher we all know he can be. Perhaps playing Rudy Gestede alongside him will help?

What we learnt, the hard way, from Orta and Karanka, is while it is right to look for players with more skill (Negredo) and pace (Adama Traore) once you aspire to greater things, you have to be sure you’re signing the right kind of character. You would have thought we’d learned this from Strachan, Moaner McDonald and Bully Bailey – as I once illustrated, on-pitch statistics can be irrelevant in the greater scheme of things.

Our latest set of new names may not excite to the extent Negredo and Victor Valdes did, but what they lack in obvious glamour, they may well make up for in commitment and integration. These are prominent virtues of a successful start.

That said, I have two reservations. One is that we must accept that this is a serious period of transition. At the time of writing, the spine of Dani Ayala, Ben Gibson, George Friend, Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton, all of whom have been at the club for at least three years, is still with us – and three years should be the optimum period for any footballing spine to prosper. Some of those names, if they stick around, are young and hungry enough to continue thriving, but at least a couple are not the Championship force they once were or seemed. It might be time for Adlene Guedioura to earn his corn.

Secondly, this “modesty” is both an asset and a weakness. Do we wear our roots, our failings, like some kind of badge of honour? If we find it hard to accept the ugliness in the PL, are we forever destined to be the beggars and the banquet, the water drinkers among the wine lovers, grateful for the scraps from off the top table?

Once a manager plays with the big boys, or even competes to play with the big boys, he is bound to deal with strong characters who will not be so submissive to his whim. Sooner or later, as Karanka found out, not everyone will want to play to the manager’s tune. People will outgrow him. Trust once gained from the chairman will be trust lost before he knows it.

Unless, that is, he can grow with his characters rather than force them to conform. Can we trust in Monk to do so? It’s too early to say, but for now it certainly does appear that Monk is, without signing or being a local boy, as close to the essence of what Boro is about as we could hope for. He could be our managerial David Nugent, a man who is accustomed to and knows how to be promoted from the Championship.

Yeah, I think I’m already a fan.

Monk gets ready to change the names on back of Boro shirts

Boro supporters are holding their breath as they await the rush of fresh air to arrive through the transfer window to add life to their recovering club. However, Garry Monk has already had a busy June ahead of the official opening of the transfer window and has now presumably completed his assessment of his inherited Boro squad in order to determine whether they match up to his requirements. His initial view on the players when he was unveiled as Boro boss was that the quality of the squad was a factor in attracting him to the post and that there existed a good core to succeed in securing promotion – though it seems now the heat is on for the task at hand, that core appears to be melting away faster than the barely credible lump of butter that Aitor Karanka often placed in his mouth before one of his bizarre press conferences in the forlorn hope it would remain intact.

Perhaps Monk has simply discovered what most of us had long since concluded – Boro didn’t acquire much in the way of Premier League quality players for their top-flight adventure. He appears to be content to stick with what remains of our hardened Championship players who have been around a few years and become attached to the club. Instead he has decided to offload the various projects Victor Orta collected as he randomly threw darts at the reams of printouts of alphabetically sorted FIFA Pro player lists that were pinned to his office wall – however was Boro’s fate intertwined with skewed body-mechanics of the former head of recruitment as yet another player starting with ‘de’ was chosen by the dart of destiny – surely it couldn’t have been chance? Or was it merely the ghost in the machine resulting from the lesser known ‘De Vinci’ computer virus as the club fell foul to some niche ransomware planted by a rogue super-agent.

Fischer has already been hooked and sold to Mainz – it’s reported we got our money back on a player who simply vanished following an early season injury as Karanka and then Agnew couldn’t find a position to suit the lively midfielder. The much maligned Barragan was apparently offered a lifeline by the new boss but he threw it back at his chest – it was meant to be in his face but throwing was never the full-back’s strongest attribute – so back to Spain he goes hopefully before Real Betis do due diligence and get round to viewing his best bits on YouTube. Gaston Ramirez seems to have had one foot permanently in the exit door but it appears finding a club has not been easy for the talented but unpredictable Uruguayan – I almost expect him to pick up a knee injury in pre-season that keeps him at the club beyond the deadline and we then see him sheepishly run out at the Riverside in mid-October and scores a brilliant winner to start a run in the team before handing in a transfer request in December as Newcastle show interest.

As always the ones who Monk would probably like to keep seem to have other options – whilst de Roon was not the £11m player he was billed as, he was never-the-less a player who improved over the season and showed signs of achieving his potential. He may find the prospect of an unlikely move to Man Utd will increase his profile but it won’t aid his World Cup ambitions as he takes up one of those rather comfy bench seats and nods off at the theatre of dreams – perhaps he’ll regard a move to Everton as a considerably better prospect at attracting the attention of his national coach rather than hoping someone from the Dutch team remembers to occasionally catch the Channel Five Championship highlights once in a while.

There have been noises that Monk is the latest coach in a long line of optimists who believe they can harness the physical attributes possessed by Adama Traore into something resembling a player that can integrate with any of the other ten around him. It is often said that some players get a nose bleed when they get into the box – though our speedy enigma appears to have a full-blown haemorrhage within sight of goal like a mountaineer attempting a quicker than advisable summit ascent without oxygen – Oedema Traore is probably more descriptively accurate than Adama in these circumstances.

Perhaps the new Boro boss has had an insight on what it is that is required? Though I believe FIFA still frowns upon brain implants of any description, whether biological or inanimate chips – even pavlovian electro-shock experiments are regarded as a step too far for the pen pushers that control the game. Perhaps, like all those before him, he just sees the lightening pace and becomes besotted like a love-sick mark sending over their bank details to an online beauty on a dating app to a girl that just does not exist in reality. Maybe Boro should just pass him on to the next club who will offer them a tidy profit on their investment before ‘the Adama scam’ becomes part of the Oxford dictionary in the same way as Ponzi scheme did. Though I imagine Monk will be keen to at least give himself three months to be seen with the bottled-blond trophy winger by his side as he soaks up the pace-envy stares from other managers – it gives a whole new meaning to ‘pulling a fast one’.

There were no doubt I imagine a couple of tricky conversations during June – as Stewart Downing was invited into the new gaffer’s office he may have been anticipating the offer of the captaincy to marry with his perceived status as club spokesman… “I’d offer you a seat Stewart but I’ve taken the precaution of not having any extra ones in my office – anyway, I’d like to make you a a rather delicate proposition” Monk began rather humorously – “It’s OK boss, I know what you’re probably thinking, Grant’s getting on now and not guaranteed a start, George hasn’t been the player he was last season and Ben is likely off to a big club – You must have concluded I’m the kind of senior player you’ll need in the dressing room to keep everyone on their toes and…” Monk interjected “Sorry Stewart you’ve misunderstood – I just wanted to let you know that you’re not in my plans and should look for a new club”. A somewhat crest-fallen Downing looked around the sparsely furnished office and decided throwing a paper-clip would probably not represent the fullness of his disgust and simply left in a disgruntled manner muttering that he’s still got two years on his contract and he’ll talk to Mr Gibson about his options.

Whether Downing’s expected exit is mainly a political move is open to conjecture since although his form didn’t reach he heights he’d shown at West Ham he was by no means the worst performing attacking midfielder last season. He may have been regarded by Monk in a similar vein to how Fergie eventually viewed the likes of Ince, Beckham and Roy Keane as they wrongly imagined their status at the club was untouchable and became too strong an influence for the comfort of the manager. I’m sure no manager wants the shadow of a player around the dressing room who feels he’s got special status – Downing was purported to be at the club at Steve Gibson’s request and if the player knows that then he may feel he has equal status to the manager in terms of being ‘appointed’ when it comes to any disagreement. It’s likely Monk will have been uneasy at the rumours that emerged last season on the role Downing played in Karanka’s demise, which seem to have been given credence when his special friend pointed the finger in his direction following the final whistle of the Man Utd game and followed up with some chosen words in the press conference. It appears to be a wise move on Monk’s behalf – especially on top of having the chairman’s nephew in the dressing room too. So logically it’s a situation best addressed from a position of strength for any new manager as he will not be questioned before a ball is kicked.

It’s still possible Ben Gibson will make a big money move before the deadline closes – Boro would surely be looking at obtaining at least £30m before they would consider a deal and the player himself wouldn’t entertain a move to a lower-PL club as he wouldn’t necessarily see that as an improvement on captaining his home-town club. It may well be that he would prefer to give it a go at Boro and be instrumental in gaining promotion – it’s surely in the Gibson blood not to give in so easily.

Boro appear to be in the market for a completely new XI now that Monk has got up to speed with his squad – it’s looking like a goalkeeper will be earmarked as the new number one since it seems Ripley lacks experience and Dimi lacks youth and hasn’t really played much football in the last year. Players in all back four positions look also likely to be acquired with the possibility that full-back Chris Gunter from Reading may be close to a deal with Boro – he’s a bit like Fabio in terms of being able to play both sides so gives some flexibility and cover. Another move looking close is central midfielder Jonny Howson from Norwich who has been regarded as a more attacking option than what we have – though in terms of goals he’s generally notched only 4-5 goals a season in his career so it doesn’t sound a massive attacking injection on paper. Where that leaves Leadbitter, Clayton and Forshaw in the pecking order is unclear at this stage but he may be the de Roon replacement.

Though it’s probably in attack where the work is needed and it’s never an easy task acquiring proven quality for the Championship as rivals are reluctant to sell and normally lower-level PL sides have a better chance of picking off the best talent and offering the best deals. The proposed move for Britt Assombalonga from a reluctant seller has been further complicated by a £8m bid from Burnley – no doubt the player himself would opt for a chance in the top-tier sooner rather than later.

So given all the proposed exits and the steady accumulation of cash (including the £10m from the Rhodes deal) to add to the extremely generous parachute payments and the £20-30m profit on last season, Boro are cash rich and it won’t be lack of financial clout that prevent the club from achieving their targets. Sometimes it just takes the first major deal to create the momentum for others to follow – but usually the most sought after players have options and Boro will seldom be first in the queue for real quality players. Let’s also not forget that the mainstay of our last two campaigns in the Championship were loan deals from the top PL teams, where very good players often struggle to get a game. Though unless Boro throw their cash around early it may well be a waiting game as clubs and players try to finesse their options.

Many supporters are feeling a little concerned that Monk has embarked upon a major overhaul rather than a tweaking the squad – it essentially means Boro are building a new team that will need to gel quickly and create a solid dressing room spirit. On the face of it it doesn’t sound like the textbook approach for a newly relegated club but the shortcomings of last season still exist and many of the players remaining were fringe players brought in as projects. They were perhaps unlikely to settle down in the second tier to fight for the club knowing at the back of their minds they would be surplus to requirement if Boro were promoted again – better to have good Championship players ready to play and achieve their dream than individuals thinking their careers have gone backwards.

The new Boro manager has made his mind up on what he thinks he needs and the club have the resources – now comes the tricky bit of putting all the theory into practice! However, such is the incongruent nature of the summer transfer market, it means Monk will still need to have a decent team ready to play long before it closes. The risk is that players who have been told they are not in the boss’s plans may be needed to fill in and other positions are a bit lightweight – dropping points in the first five or six games may prove costly in the end so the club need to be ready come kick-off.  Plus a bad start is not what is required for a new manager – even if smashing the league was not the chairman’s ultimate wish.

Monk’s appointment greeted with almost universal joy

On Monday, we finally saw the long-anticipated unveiling of Garry Monk as the new Boro manager – though not in the more recent position of head coach I would guess since he referred to himself as being in management. It had appeared from the outside to be a rather protracted process where several candidates had been supposedly interviewed and asked to prepare detailed plans for the purpose of taking the club forward – though perhaps they were only being lined up as a plan B in case the Monk deal hit a snag. It sounds like he had been identified as the right man quite a while ago but there had been problems with his contractual position at Leeds United that had caused the delay rather than Boro being unable to make a decision – whilst Monk had decided not to extend his contract with the Elland Road club under it’s new ownership, it’s quite possible he may have still been theoretically employed by them until his existing contract expired at the end of June – which I imagine would have been quite late to install a new man at Boro given the need to make preparations for the coming season.

Though it’s hard to tell how much of the news about Pearson, Agnew or other candidates was just exaggerated rumour to fill the void or even news management to deflect attention from the task of securing the main man. The fact that Monk had quickly become odds-on favourite to head to Boro after walking out on Leeds, together with stories in the media from those closely connected to the Yorkshire club must have had some credence – perhaps Boro had long since been fishing for Monk or perhaps he had even been poached and then handed on a plate to Steve Gibson after Orta was installed as Director of Football – at some point perhaps the bones will be picked out of that particular dish.

Though at Monday’s press conference Monk played a straight bat (as we say in football) over anything regarding Leeds and simply explained that he had intended to continue at Elland Road but it became apparent that the new structure at Leeds didn’t suit him, which was no doubt code for the fact he wouldn’t work under Orta as Director of Football – though I can possibly think of one out-of-work manager who would probably find it ‘amazing’ to be given the chance.

Anyway, enough of the chase, what sealed it for our new man was that Steve Gibson’s passion, desire and determination for the club was there to see. It was this  determination that Monk shares and he wants to be challenged as a manager, which in his words meant this was going to be both a fantastic challenge for him and Middlesbrough – so it became very clear for Monk when speaking to Gibson that Boro was going to be the right club for him.

In fact the new Boro manager said that as soon as he spoke to Middlesbrough it was was clear it was the right opportunity for him – it ticked all the right boxes. Though what those boxes are (or tick-boxes as Monk referred to them in an almost involuntary way) wasn’t really determined in the press conference even though they were mentioned quite often – only once did we see inside one particular box and it revealed that he thought  Boro have a good talented squad with a core of players who know the Championship. I presume that is now a memory much fresher in the players minds than the one regarding the Premier League, which will no doubt be buried so deep that it will only be reachable for a hypnotherapist with eyeballs larger than those of David Moyes with severe hyperthyroidism.

So what is the Challenge?

Monk is not phased by Steve Gibson’s declaration of wanting to smash the league and is comfortable with working under pressure, as that is what he says he likes and is happy in having that ambition. Though he agrees that the ambition and objective is to gain promotion in his first season – but Monk did try to manage expectations somewhat by saying he’d like to make that in his first year but with the recognition of how difficult the league is. He gave the example that last season only one of the three relegated clubs made it back up (personally I’ve forgotten which one), which shows how difficult and competitive the Championship is – in fact he also made the point that it took 80 points to even gain a play-off place last season and his Leeds team finished seventh on 75 points, which under normal circumstances would have been enough for sixth spot. Though you could argue for a team in sixth place to gather 80 points it may also indicate the league as a whole was less competitive otherwise they would not have found it so easy to register so many points – but Monk is confident with the challenge ahead as he thinks Boro are equipped, ready and determined to bounce back at the first attempt.

The new Boro manager thinks the key is the opportunity and understanding of what the club wants to do and how we as a club are going to go about it – it’s the clarity of that which appeals to him most and he believes the club has a lot of good strong foundations – though perhaps he was pushing the foundation analogy envelope too far on his first day as one would have been enough.

When asked about what his style of football is, Monk preferred not to put forward a label but simply said that he’d  leave his style and philosophy for others to describe (which no doubt many will be happy to oblige) as the important thing is to win games and that is the purpose of how he trains himself, his staff, players and club – on top of that sits his footballing philosophy and he believes the key is to get the crowd engaged and the players engaged. All of which sounds refreshingly pragmatic and in contrast to being too attached to any particular methodology or dogma – though he’d probably be rubbish at advertising something like shampoo (though perhaps slightly better than Steve Agnew getting the wash and go gig) if he hasn’t got any of those meaningless pseudo-science buzz-words to hand in order to make himself sound cutting edge.

Though the issue of who will form the manager’s coaching team is still undecided and Neil Bausor said that the club will be discussing with Monk about his support staff in the coming days – the Boro Chief Executive also responded to a question on whether Steve Agnew has a role by saying how the club hold him in the ‘utmost respect’ and will discuss his future in the coming days – that sounded like a phrase that normally precedes ‘we wish him well in his future employment’ as someone is thanked and waved goodbye. Though it’s odd that if he was not part of the club’s plans he should have left already – perhaps Monk is still being persuaded of his merits but the danger is that it would put somewhat of a brake on a fresh start.

Building a squad

The first job of any new manager is to decide on who stays and who leaves and what players are required in order to make a squad capable of achieving the objective. It’s early days for the new manager and he’ll be awaiting the return of his players from their summer hols with interest – plus no doubt he’ll be made aware of who has shown an interest in leaving the club.

Monk said that he’s still in the process of assessing the players and he’s looking forward to meeting them. The aim is to discuss the situation with the squad over the next few weeks and once he’s had a chance to work with the players he’ll be able to assess how they fit into his plans and decide what type of players will be needed in terms of new additions – he’s excited to be working with the players as they have a lot of talent but they have had a big disappointment last season – but it would be the failure to respond that disappointment that would be the real disappointment. He says the key is to refocus and have the confidence to respond to the next challenge.

Monk is aware that Boro are in a healthy financial situation (possibly one of his ‘tick-boxes’) and he will have more than a decent budget made available to him. Though quite wisely he proclaimed ‘It’s not about how much money you spend it’s about how well you spend what you’ve got’ – that’s a message perhaps others at the club would do well to remember. The Boro manager is clear that when it come to recruitment the central issue is ‘only to do things that are going to help the group we’ve got’ – which I take to mean not bringing in players that will upset the dressing room or undermine the principles of the group as a whole. Monk certainly sounds like he knows the importance of having a unified group with the whole club pulling in the same direction – something that was allowed to slip last season as the club seemingly broke into factions.

Monk sees his first objective as getting his squad fit for purpose and spoke of how there are certain principles that he follows that are key to helping this group and the club – he wants to help the players get back their confidence so that they can enjoy the challenge ahead and believes there are a lot of things in place that are really good at the club that are going to help everything tie in together – though he forgot to mention the excellent training facilities, which I  had thought was a contractual obligation for anyone employed at Boro.

Monk is also prepared to give youth a chance by bringing them into the first team environment but they need to deserve that chance and prove that they’re good enough and develop into a first team player – there will always be a pathway for young players into the first team squad, he declared.

So phase one of Monk’s blueprint has begun and his aim is ‘to get the squad to the point where we’re happy with it and have all the players in place that will be needed’. So it’s going to be a busy few weeks ahead before the season starts – though from his first press conference it looks like he’s a man who means business and knows how to handle the job ahead. The players will soon return and he’ll soon be finding out who are up for the challenge and which players look capable of achieving the goal set by the chairman.

The following table shows the current squad, with those in red now having left the club, those in yellow have had interest from other clubs and could leave – though it’s likely more will fall under that category once they return from their break. From what I can see of those remaining or likely to remain it looks like our core may have somewhat melted and there definitely looks like some strong additions are needed – particularly in attack which looks weak. Another keeper will probably be required and with regard to the defence a lot may depend on whether Gibson stays and Ayala can stay fit – so I suspect more additions in that department will likely be sought.

Player Mins Games Starts Sub Subbed Goals
GOALKEEPERS
Víctor Valdés 2520 28 28
Brad Guzan 900 10 10
Dimi Konstantopoulos 0
DEFENDERS
Ben Gibson 3420 38 38 1
Barragán 2196 26 26 3
Calum Chambers 2160 24 24 1
George Friend 1960 24 20 4
Fábio 1849 24 21 3 5
Bernardo Espinosa 975 11 10 1 1
Daniel Ayala 917 14 11 3 2 1
James Husband 59 1 1 1
Alex Baptiste 0
Dael Fry 0
MIDFIELDERS
Adam Clayton 2806 34 32 2 4
Marten de Roon 2777 33 32 1 5 4
Adam Forshaw 2700 34 30 4 9
Grant Leadbitter 707 13 7 6 3 1
Adlène Guédioura 135 5 5
Julien De Sart 0
FORWARDS
Stewart Downing 2212 30 24 6 4 1
Gastón Ramírez 1550 24 20 4 14 2
Adama Traoré 1537 27 16 11 7
Christian Stuani 1359 23 16 7 12 4
Viktor Fischer 436 13 6 7 5
GOAL SCORERS
Álvaro Negredo 2880 36 33 3 13 9
Rudy Gestede 524 16 4 12 3 1
Patrick Bamford 281 8 2 6 1

Just for comparison, here’s what out last promotion winning squad looked like with the players that got us to the promised land. Those who are no longer at the club are shown in red, while those who were either loaned out or didn’t play a league game last season are shown in yellow. Perhaps there are still enough of those who know what it takes to get promoted that are currently still with us but it’s quite conceivable that Boro will be left with only a handful with that useful experience come the first game.

Player Mins Games Starts Sub Subbed Goals
GOALKEEPERS
Dimi Konstantopoulos 4140 46 46
DEFENDERS
George Friend 3427 40 39 1 2 1
Emilio N’Sue 3282 40 37 3 5 3
Daniel Ayala 3010 35 34 1 2 2
Ben Gibson 2840 33 32 1 1 1
Tomáš Kalas 1787 26 19 7 2
Amorebieta 1032 13 11 2
Ritchie De Laet 846 10 9 1
Dael Fry 630 7 7
Bruno Zuculini 301 5 3 2
MIDFIELDERS
Adam Clayton 3700 43 41 2 4 1
Grant Leadbitter 3449 41 39 2 9 4
Adam Forshaw 1025 29 9 20 2 2
Jack Stephens 11 1 1
Julien De Sart 2 2 2
FORWARDS
Stewart Downing 3570 45 40 5 12 3
Albert Adomah 3233 43 36 7 11 6
Christian Stuani 1868 36 20 16 11 7
Gastón Ramírez 1295 18 15 3 12 7
Carlos de Pena 242 6 3 3 3
Adam Reach 227 4 3 1 2 1
Yanic Wildschut 46 1 1 1
GOAL SCORERS
David Nugent 2265 38 24 14 7 8
Diego Fabbrini 1259 22 14 8 12 4
Jordan Rhodes 1161 18 13 5 9 6
Kike García 840 19 10 9 9 4
Kike Sola 51 2 1 1 1

Is it time to put your new shirt on Monk heading to Boro?

As Boro launch their new broad-band shirt for next season, there are strong rumours traveling along my suspect bandwidth that Garry Monk is about to take over at the Riverside.  If the stories are true – and until there’s an official announcement – then it’s probably best not to head off to the bookies to put the money you’ve set aside for your new Boro shirt (in the currency of your choice) on the former Leeds boss.

The source of this story appears to come from Radio Yorkshire football reporter Derek Clark, who has revealed Monk has agreed to join the Riverside club along with James Beattie as his number two, and a deal is expected to be announced in the coming days.

Whether this is just a case of Radio Ga Ga rather than Radio Yorkshire it’s not possible to say at this stage – but the rumour is gaining currency faster than cashier at Ramsdens who’s feeling the benefit of seeing their mobile advertising hoardings running around on the big screen while viewers try to concentrate on football.

We’ll keep you updated with further developments or quietly slink into the shadows when Agnew is unveiled on Monday…

Sunday Morning Papers

The Sun have followed our lead and are reporting that Monk and Beattie have been lined up to take charge at Middlesbrough.

Though the BBC is reporting that the highly authoritative source of insider football information, The Croydon Advertiser, has declared Monk is no longer in the running for the Palace job and is now odds on to replace Silva at Hull City – so what do you say to that Radio Yorkshire?

Many Sunday papers have decided to waste some ink on the story that a keen Fabrizio Ravenelli is in the running to become Boro boss – well if you read on it reveals that the former ‘Boro favourite’ has asked Steve Gibson to give him a call. After a bit of coaching at Juventus, Rav’s managerial record is impressive – if only for the fact he was sacked from his only job a few months into the season at French Ligue 1 club AC Ajaccio after his fifth consecutive defeat – clearly he must be top of the Boro chairman’s phone-back list.

Nothing in the Gazette or Echo as of yet…

Official Club News

Still no sign of an announcement by the club and apparently no press conference planned for Monday – though I’ve checked the club website and all I found was…

JOBS: Final Opportunity To Apply For Matchday Roles At The Riverside

It may or may not be significant that the job of Head Coach was not on this page – at least any new manager will be able to hold aloft a shirt should the white smoke be spotted over Middlesbrough – though several false alarms have now been attributed to cooling towers.

Boro must make the right appointments at the Riverside

I read online in one local morning paper that Boro are in pole position to acquire the services of Garry Monk from other clubs because “Middlesbrough are stronger contenders because of the greater stability at the Riverside”. What? Has the word stability suddenly take on a whole new meaning – perhaps they meant stab-ability of in-the-back variety?

From the stories that are continuing to leak into the press as we are swamped with revelations it’s painting a picture of a club where the foundations are looking extremely shaky to say the least – even Theresa May would struggle to utter the words ‘Strong and Stable’ within earshot of the Riverside at the moment in the fear of being drown out by howls of derision or ironic laughter. Rarely have we seen so many mistakes made in one season and we can only hope that the substance of the rumours finding their way out have been properly addressed ahead of any impending appointments.

As those at the club appear to have been playing a childish party game of pass-the-parcel, where when the music stops the person left holding the suspect package is the new villain, who then presumably winks takes off a layer of paper (to no doubt be used later to cover another emerging crack) to reveal more fun and games to come. Then as the music resumes (possibly the theme tune to Benny Hill) the game continues as everyone looks around nervously in the hope that their secret will not come out too. So far we’ve seen quite a number of villains revealed – from Karanka, Downing, Gaston, various Spanish coaches, Valdes and, I don’t believe it, another Victor in the form of Orta. Though in a divided camp, with opinion still divided among the supporters, one man’s villain is another man’s hero or vice-versa – as fault is becoming a fluid fact or even fake news.

The latest defendant, Victor Orta arrived at Boro in December 2015 as Head of Recruitment – which perhaps was not as grand a title as he previously enjoyed where he was used to being called Technical Director in Spain, including at Elche who had been newly promoted to La Liga – incidentally six months before he joined Boro, they became the first team in the history of the Spanish Primera División to be demoted to the second tier under new regulations by the Spanish football league limiting excess debt and economic mismanagement. It would be interesting to know how that was explained in his interview where the purpose of his appointment was ultimately to make money on deals – but the club only reported “Orta has recently left Elche and the opportunity came through Boro’s network of contacts in Spain”.

What was also interesting to note about the career-conscious Orta is that he was a qualified coach and had also taught himself Italian in order to increase his contacts in Serie A. So Boro had appointed an ambitious man who previously had enjoyed a position tantamount to overseeing how the playing side of a club was shaped and he was also a coach – if ever someone appeared unlikely to stay content in his corner at ‘head of recruitment’ then I suspect the god of hindsight allowed himself a self-satisfied chuckle.

So here’s the funny bit – Aitor was so surprised and sceptical that Orta would come to Boro – having assumed he’d be so in-demand he was surely destined for a Champions League side. However, looking now at his career trajectory Seville, Zenit St Petersburg, Elche, Boro and soon probably Leeds – it appears less than upward in mobility. Though apparently he did turn down Juventus where they wanted him to oversee recruitment for the Qatar league – apparently it did also possibly involve being in charge of the photocopier though.

Karanka was a big fan and he even pulled out his favourite adjective to describe him “He [Orta] thinks the best step to come to the Premier League is through us so we are lucky, he is an amazing person.” But the Gazette were perhaps a little more heady: Once talks began it became clear that Orta was excited – as Karanka had been – by Gibson’s “project” for the club, the determined atmosphere and the culture of excellence around the club.

So what has happened to that ‘culture of excellence’? Right now it seems the club are failing in all departments and are currently in the process of having a massive clear-out and what appears on the outside to have instead been created is an excellent culture of distrust and in-fighting.

Why did this happen? It appeared the formal internal club structure has somewhat disintegrated and was instead replaced by an informal Spanish one based on patronage – with a counter power-base emerging among the home-grown and marginalised elements who were left disgruntled by this new powerful clique. Victor Orta apparently assumed the role of Karanka’s right-hand man – though given the rather sinister reports of him talking about ‘his players’ and receiving instructions from the departed boss by text – perhaps left-hand man would be more appropriate. Also why did some players seemingly hold more allegiance to Orta and Karanka rather than to the club that paid their more than substantial wages? Was Boro sold to them as just a vehicle for up-and-coming players?

Incidentally, other than control freakery, I can’t think of why Karanka was still motivated to influence matters after his departure and instruct Orta to visit the off-limits Boro dressing room, but one wonders if the fact that the game in question was against Jose Mourinho’s Man Utd and if I recall the game ended with the Special One spoiling for an argument against some players.

Presumably the club gave Orta the go ahead to recruit a new coaching team that we now hear answered to him and one which conducted business by speaking Spanish on the training ground – Though given his contacts did nobody at the club expect the Spanish requisition? As for the use of thumbs and screws – well, it seemingly created a growing clique who thumbed their noses at club language etiquette as those on the outside were left feeling screwed and ignored on the periphery as the the tortuous slide to relegation of a divided camp began.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that official positions and actual de facto positions are not the same – Craig Hignett was supposed to be the number two at Boro but in reality he was three or four at best behind Leo and Cachada when it came to influence. Likewise it seems Orta usurped Steve Agnew and became Karanka’s number two as the role of assistant became closer to that of helper.

The problem appears to be whether the club can decide who a manager chooses to be their right-hand man. Whilst I understand why the club would want to have some control within the coaching setup, the head coach will also usually want someone who they know will be their representative and not the club’s.

Also power like nature abhors a vacuum – did Victor Orta just fill the space available to him given that Boro have no Director of Football who would normally undertake such duties and did he and Karanka form an alliance within the so-called recruitment team to work towards their preferred agenda? A club can create structures to act as checks and balances but did they serve only to slow decisions down rather than ensure the correct ones were made. Perhaps they had unrealistic ambitions to what was possible in terms of attracting players – but Orta’s remit at his time of appointment was to replicate his record of spotting and signing young talent in order to get Boro ahead of the game and to make the club a healthy profit on future re-sales. Perhaps this is why the club signed as many projects as they appeared to have done since his arrival – and perhaps this is why they overlooked the need for tried and tested players. It could even be that his renumeration was related to profit on future deals – if so then hopefully Boro had a claw-back clause for losses too!

You could question if Orta went rogue then why wasn’t he shown the door earlier? Or was it just one minor transgression that upset too many people and was he essentially operating under the remit he was given but ultimately failed to deliver? It is maybe a symptom of employing up-and-coming ambitious people who want to position themselves for the next step in their careers. At the heart of the problem seems to be the absence of an experienced individual at the club who can test that the balance of the decisions being made are fit for purpose of the club’s short and medium term objectives. There is little point in learning lessons after the event if nothing is put in place to keep the whole show on track during the actual season. Whilst Gibson’s patient arms length approach with his head coaches is admirable – it perhaps is not always what is needed.

As Boro rush ahead to appoint a new head coach, it looks like at least two of the shortlist are quite inexperienced – Monk is only 38 and Agnew has no experience of transfer dealings. It would appear to me to be a good idea to install a Director of Football who the club knows and who also knows the club, that will be fair in assisting the head coach with ensuring recruitment serves both him and the club – someone like Tony Mowbray I’d imagine who has a lot of integrity and a decent record on recruitment too (other famous sons are available).

One wonders whether we’ll all be discussing a similar state of affairs if the prospective interview of Nigel Pearson turns out to place him in the hot seat – We know Karanka was a bit on the prickly side but Big Nige is not someone who’ll necessarily create a workplace of peace and harmony. The club have an opportunity to regroup and will have some of the best resources available at their disposal – the question is whether they are ready to make the right decisions and do they at this moment know what went wrong and why?

Apart from relegation – where does this now leave us?

Forever Dormo has put his thoughts together to assess where relegation has left the club following our disappointing season in the Premier League.

The table doesn’t lie. We might have been unlucky in this incident (failure to be given a penalty at Anfield, unfortunate to concede one against Man City at home etc), but that is not the reason for our relegation this season.  We were simply not good enough, not well enough led, and on balance the results over the season reflect that.

Defence: We have been for much of the season, and until the game was almost up, fairly solid at the back.  That is partly due to being spectacularly unadventurous further upfield.  Of course the defence had been a mark of quality in the club over the past two seasons in the Championship and proved adequate early on in the Premier League season but, with injuries, and as shackles were removed when the team was up against it in the last couple of months and there was a pressing need to take more risks, the defence became more porous.  Of course other Premier League teams had, by then, more opportunity to see the weaknesses and take advantage.

Fabio has generally be good(ish), Friend has had his season disrupted by injury  after struggling to come to terms with the division at the start of the season, then improving before injury, then struggling again when brought back, but he always tries and is easily good enough in the Championship where, if uninjured, he should be one of the better players next season.  Ayala is to fitness what I am to ballet dancing and I am not convinced he is a Premier League player but again, if we could see him regularly, he will also be a very good Championship player next season.  Chambers has been good and might be a better centre half than a full back, but he will already be back in London as we speak, probably wanting a chat with Mr Wenger about his prospects next year.  Ben Gibson, apart from a couple of wobbly games, has been our most consistent performer.  He is clearly a leader on the field,  a very competent Premier League player and I think could easily fit into one of the top teams. He will improve further.  He can hold his head up high and be proud of his achievements this season and few Boro fans would begrudge him if he moved away to fulfill his England ambitions.

Midfield: It is no surprise that our “holding midfielders” were able to perform creditably earlier in the season, but there has been virtually no spark or invention, or attacking intent in the team.  If the club had a team bus, it would have been carefully parked.  Clayton has generally been solid.  Leadbitter is not able to be the dominating holding midfielder in the Premier League that he has been in previous years in the division below, but he might be a good squad player next season in the Championship, where, hopefully, we will not see the need to double or treble-up in defensive midfield. Forshaw seemed better a few months ago than he is now. I had expected him to “come on” this season, even at a higher level.

Attack: Up front we have been shot-shy (and if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win the Lottery, as they say), with Negredo usually forty yards away from his nearest team mate, and left to plough his own lonely furrow.  If he headed the ball down, there was usually nobody near enough to pick the ball up.  Bamford joined us late on, we are told rather unfit and certainly lacking in game-time in the last 18 months.  He might have been started earlier than he was and we know from previous experience that he can cope well and should score goals in the Championship next season, provided he has a supply.

So far as concerns those who might have been expected to supply the bullets for the lonely chap up front, do we really need to say much about Ramirez?  He obviously has some talent (he jolly well should have for the money paid, and the wages he receives) and there have been rare flashes, but they are far outweighed by dummy-spitting petulance and what seemed to the amateur observer a lot like lack of effort.  He didn’t want to be here after January.   He should never wear the shirt again. Downing may well have had his nose put out of joint by AK making it clear he didn’t have faith in the returned Boro Old Faithful, but even after AK left, and although there were some improved performances from him, Downing must himself have felt disappointed by his general showing. De Roon may have more to him than we first saw evidence of, and he scored SOME goals, but his price seems to have been a gross over valuation.  If he stays, he will improve and will be one of the top Championship players next term.

Goalkeeping: Where do we begin?  Without wishing to be repetitive, when we were promoted we clearly had weaknesses which needed strengthening – we had been short of goalscoring threat even in the last two seasons in the Championship where we finished the losing play-off finalists and then automatically promoted. The defensive part of the team was a strength and it was up front we needed to acquire quality. So buying TWO goalkeepers was a “surprising” decision (if I might use a neutral word). Valdes struggled in the first two or three months then improved (which, bearing in mind his pedigree and the fortune in wages paid to him, is the least we could have expected), and more recently he has been injured. He never looked likely to control his box.  He can make some saves which, after all, is what keepers are paid to do.  He appeared to have “communication issues” with his defence. He has had sore ribs for some time.  If there was an FA Cup Final or an international game in which he was expecting to play, he WOULD have been fit.  A convenient diplomatic injury if someone doesn’t want to play.  A lot more was expected of him – a poor return.  Guzan?  An embarrassment: three nutmegged goals against Chelsea and then in the next game against Southampton many of his team’s own supporters were encouraging the ref to send him off with a red card following his giving away a penalty.  Maybe Dimi is past it and would have done no better, but we will never know as he wasn’t given the opportunity to appear in the Premier League after he had been a mainstay in the team which got us there. At least he had the confidence of the men in front of him.  Difficult to fathom, and difficult to challenge if the goalkeeping plan had worked, but it did not.

Management: The management is always under scrutiny if a team struggles. But on the one hand there is a team cheaply assembled, giving it a go but falling short, but then regrouping with a view to making another challenge for promotion the next year, a la Burnley who kept their manager and many of their players.  And on the other hand there is a fairly abject, whimpering, surrender (which more accurately described what we have witnessed this season, especially for the last 5 months).  Karanka was probably very fortunate to have been persuaded to return to the club after his walkout before the Charlton game last year, and his position may have been mortally wounded at the time of that return, with relations poisoned between him and many in the changing room he felt had been disloyal and challenging to him.  What we can say about Karanka is that he was overly negative, inflexible and uncommunicative.  He criticised the club’s higher management, the transfer window activity and therefore the players brought in (such as Bamford) and the supporters, and you always know that when a manager rounds on the supporters, his time is almost up. Things were becoming rather toxic before Karanka left the club, and the situation could not be allowed to fester any longer – I suspect most agree the decision to part was taken far too late.  Steve Agnew was handed the poisoned chalice when there was precious little time for any antidote he could find, to take effect. It was a hospital pass. Players say he is a good coach, but obviously that is different to being a manager, but what we do know is that he has the confidence of Steve Gibson, and that he cares deeply about the club (which might not be said about everybody who has been receiving wages from the club in the last year). Some players in the squad, and backroom staff,  may have had sympathies with Karanka and none with Agnew.  We will soon find out whether Steve Gibson’s confidence extends to a season managing in the Championship.

Recruitment: The infamous recruitment set-up……hardly a success. Too ridiculous for words.  How much money have we thrown away? How many of the players brought in will go out for any serious money?  If brought in, but not played, why were they brought in at all?  Does it help if they speak Spanish?  How can we employ a professional footballer who cannot even take a throw in? I don’t want to go on about it or I will sound obsessive.

Why have we seen so little of Fischer (when doubts were expressed about Downing), and Husband (when we had a full back crisis)?  Was it thought that Gestede and Guedioura were Premier League players or was it hoped that they might be useful (in which case why pay so much) next season in the Championship – and for that matter if one eye was being cast over the possibility of relegation surely someone might have thought Nugent and Jordan Rhodes had the pedigree to contribute something there?  What about de Pena?  Is there some mystery to football club management that we, mere mortals, can never understand? Or is it really smoke and mirrors, the blind leading the blind and only the mega-rich billionaires able to fund anything remotely like Premier League success (the miracle of Leicester City being the staggering exception)?

The Chairman: Steve Gibson is the man at the top, where the Buck stops. He knows that.  He must know why key decisions have been made, which promises have been given, and why things have gone wrong.  At least I hope he does because it will be much easier to remedy the situation if you at least know what the problem is. There is a very big decision to be made in the next few days which may well set the tone for what is to follow. Fingers crossed that he makes the right decision.  He has put a lot of money into the club and I am sure he would like to see the club successful as much, if not more, than the rest of us do.

I don’t have all the answers but I do realise there are some questions shouting for attention.  I do not expect to read in a few months time the results of a “deep and searching inquest” into the reasons things turned out as they did.  I don’t expect to be told any secrets from deep within the boardroom.  It might simply be a case that the club or its manager over-estimated the abilities of some of the players, that we underestimated the scale of the task in attempting to stay up in a league where the gap between that and the Championship is increasing, and  that we were simply too passive rather than trying to seize those few chances we had to win other games (like Leicester City and Man Utd away, Stoke, Palace and Watford at home….).  But I do hope that those IN the boardroom know what has happened, and that they have a plan to put it right, otherwise how do we avoid repetition in the future?

I wish Karanka all the best for the future. Initial anger has subsided.  I am sure he would have wanted to be successful, even if he wasn’t able to deliver.  I hope he can learn from what he knows went wrong.  I hope Agnew will be successful whatever his future holds (actually, especially if he is still with the club…!).  Most of all, I would like to enjoy the football next season, and will still dream of promotion again when the season begins, even if that means ANOTHER nervy Premier League season after that, when wins will almost certainly be much rarer again.  At the end of the day, football is a pass-time, an entertainment. It is not life itself even if, when the results go badly, it can sour the weekend and can affect those who love us. If supporters are continually unhappy they will stay away.  I am committed to attending again for ANOTHER three years. It would be nice to enjoy a promotion and more Premier League football within that 3 year time span. There is always hope…

This was originally a long comment on Redcar Red’s match report but I thought it would make an excellent midweek post to facilitate the continuation of the discussion – Werdermouth.

Eyebrows raised at referee as browbeaten Boro bow out

Champions League tantalisation via the excitement of a Premiership ménage à trois with Arsenal and Man City ensured high stakes for Liverpool but Chambers aside Boro really couldn’t give a stuff. Any away terrace talk was focused on AK’s Sky interview and bookie inspired speculation on the next Boro manager.  So the scene was set for an anxious afternoon in the Kop whilst listening to other scores coming in and a deckchair mind-set for those who “honoured” their purchased away ticket making the trip across the M62.

Who would start and what formation had been a declining topic since the Man City robbery which effectively finished our survival hopes. The only item of discussion would be if Aggers decided to use the game as an opportunity to give game time to loyal squad players or go all Karankesque and put up a closed sign on the Middlesbrough goalmouth. As it was it was a bit of a mixture, when the line-up was announced there were a few raised eyebrows at the omissions of Negredo and de Roon, still no sign of Valdes and Gaston but surprisingly Traore wasn’t even on the bench.

In the ninth minute news started to filter through that both City and Arsenal had taken the lead in their respective games. The pressure upped a little bit on the Kop who were also unaccustomed to see their side attacking them in the first half. Boro as predicted had started off with a defence not much further forward than the Kop itself with our midfield only a row or two in front. The nearest early attacking “activity” that Boro offered were a few isolated Gestede pogo style headers that went straight up off his head to nowhere and no one.

A high upfield ball saw Bamford take it down and turn brilliantly only for Milner to “accidentally” get his legs fortuitously entangled with Paddy’s, leading to a Boro free kick 25 yards out which Downing struck only for the wall to do its job. Seconds earlier Gibson had done well to block Wijnaldum in the Boro box.  Defensively Boro were looking very Karanka inspired with a backs to the wall resolute display. Then on 21 minutes Gestede glanced a header through to Forshaw who chipped it over the head of Lovren for Paddy to leave him in his wake but he was hauled back by the big Croat for a nailed on Penalty. As we have learnt this season Officials are seemingly under an unspoken direction to only give advantages and Penalties to the top six and incredibly neither Martin Atkinson or his assistant could see what everyone else could plainly see.

Boro were still under pressure but were now getting themselves a little more into the game with Gestede deflecting a header wide of the far post a minute or so later after the Penalty appeal. So Boro should have had a Penalty and Liverpool down to ten men but elsewhere Arsenal had gone down to ten men but were still 1-0 up and City had made it 2-0 against the Hornets.

The atmosphere inside Anfield was getting decidedly edgy made worse by the news that Arsenal had actually manged to get a second against Everton despite being a man light. As things stood a draw meant that Liverpool wouldn’t be in the Champions League and everyone knew it!  Whistles and jeers greeted Guzan every time he delayed releasing the ball with an inevitable kick that would go straight out of play. Taunts of “Championship you’re having a laugh” was replied with “Champions League you’re having a laugh” by the Boro faithful as news filtered through that City had now gone three up at Watford.

Boro had weathered the storm and were starting to create a little more in midfield and Bamford continued to cause problems in and around the Liverpool box just as Watford had now conceded a fourth to City. Friend danced clumsily into the Liverpool box causing a desperate nervous clearance leading to Boro’s first corner which wasn’t exactly something to talk about as the opportunity was wasted. In the sole minute of added time Firmino put Wijnaldum through in a slick one two (as oppose to Boro’s one, three touches, pause, ponder and pick out a predictable easily read two) and blasted past a suspect Guzan at his near post. Hugely frustrating for Boro who looked to be holding on but huge relief for Liverpool who were now back into the Champions League.

The second half started, the atmosphere still tense with half time analysis concluding what Boro fans already knew, unfashionable sides don’t get Premiership decisions. Then on 50 minutes a 30 yard Coutinho free kick cleared the poorly assembled Boro defensive wall and sailed past Guzan. Can you imagine the outrage and despair had Boro actually gone 1-0 up and Liverpool down to 10 men in the first half? Not that it mattered much to Boro but I’m sure Arsenal will struggle to see the irony in it with game effectively over.

The second goal initiated the pressure relief valve and suddenly the Kop found their voices. Boro’s defensive rearguard had been holed below the waterline and so the need to keep nine men back became irrelevant. Another poor Boro corner kick led to a Liverpool breakaway attack (that means charging forwards with supporting players instead of sideways and backwards) and Lallana putting the game beyond reach with Liverpool’s third. Almost immediately after a speculative Friend long ball saw Gestede flick on to Forshaw who was clean through but Mignolet got a touch. Yet another garbage Boro corner which this time sailed over the box led to another Liverpool breakaway which this time saw Guzan get his fingertips to it.

Thirty minutes to go and City had now gone five up and if Boro weren’t careful a similar scoreline would be replicated at Anfield. A characteristic series of possession sideways and backwards midfield passing saw us play ourselves into trouble, consequently Firmino just had the ball nicked from his toes by Grant on the Penalty spot as Liverpool were now enjoying 70% possession and Boro  devoid of ideas. A once defiant start had now become a sorry site with passes going awry and communication between our midfield and defence looking shaky with Guzan seemingly even more detached from his back four exaggerated with shouts of “shoot” every time a Liverpool player was in possession.

On 72 minutes a characteristic pointless double Boro substitution seen Fabio (who had had another questionable game) come off with Ayala taking his place and Gestede off for the Beast. Chambers moved into Fabio’s position on the right with Ayala slotting alongside Ben and almost immediately scored with a 40 yard cross come lob from the Arsenal loanee which rattled the Liverpool crossbar. With ten to go the pace had dipped and it was all a mere formality then Negredo who had looked understandably forlorn since entering swivelled and dinked a ball through for Forshaw who kept up his shooting accuracy and put his half chance wide.

With seconds remaining Forshaw managed to get another effort on target but like our season his attempt was scuffed with no impetus behind it and so it was to be the final disappointing Premiership effort from Boro. In terms of performances there were some very poor uninspiring ones today from Boro indeed some almost anonymous ones notably Downing and Clayton but on a positive (the only one) Bamford looked comfortable at this level and was easily MOM.

And so Boro now unspectacularly depart this League twelve points adrift of that coveted seventeenth place where the Bottom fourteen sides are effectively decorative collateral damage, pimped just to satisfy the lust of the few where cheating, gamesmanship and unwritten officiating seems to be the norm, roll on the Championship!

Boro relaxed ahead of crucial end-of-season TV encounter

The importance of our final game in the top-flight literally cannot be overestimated – a win will see Boro finish above north-east rivals Sunderland, yet defeat will leave us end a disappointing season second-bottom below near-neighbours Hull – however it’s still possible a draw may be enough to finish in a tantalising nineteenth spot. Though surely the predominant reason our trip to Anfield has been selected for final-day live coverage is no doubt in anticipation of whether Boro can overcome their premiership pygmachophobia (fear of boxes) and net one more elusive goal to avoid becoming the lowest scorers in Premier League history – though it’s not clear if current holder George Graham will present the award after the match.

Nevertheless, I’m sure Steve Agnew will have been busy on the training pitch getting all the players up for this one to make sure they are in the right frame of mind and are ready to give everything (plus VAT) in a 120% performance – surely the newly-introduced innovative marathon badge-kissing sessions will pay off – apparently even Gaston had a Leicester badge sewn onto his kit so that he could join in too. Make no mistake, many of the squad are playing for their future in the 2018 Boro calendar – there’s no room for a flabby performance so the players need to shape up otherwise the best they can hope for is the June slot where nobody ever contemplates looking at a football calendar.

At least our opponents on Sunday have nothing really left to play for – just the consolation of qualifying for meaningless midweek trips to Moldova and beyond and the chance to pocket an extra £25m or so in compensation for wrecking their league aspirations – you’d barely be able to afford the transfer fee of a half-decent centre-half from a relegated club for that kind of money these days. In contrast, Boro have already sealed around £70m in parachute prize money for showing remarkable consistency this season.

In some ways, a badly assembled rather cheap deckchair adorned in this season’s distinctive Boro livery provides the perfect metaphor for this campaign – not really fit for purpose, less than easy on the eye and prone to collapse at any minute with little chance of recovery for those looking to pick themselves back up.

Sadly there doesn’t seem to be a way of putting a positive spin on what has essentially been a shambles of a season. Steve Gibson is currently in the process of overseeing a top to bottom clear-out of those who didn’t execute their duties with anything approaching the standard required. Though how they were all chosen for their crucial positions in the first place is unclear. It appears they were part of the greater Spanification project that came to an explosive end after Boro had carelessly returned to a smouldering Karanka when he failed to go off after the pyrotechnics of Charltongate – instead the former head coach was left with a short fuse and a box of premiership matches to play with as the campaign ultimately turned out to be a damp squib.

Interestingly, club captain Grant Leadbitter spoke to the Independent this week about Chaltongate and spoke of how Steve Agnew was one of the biggest reasons Boro got promoted – it was his calming influence together with few influential players (notably Downing, Woody, Ben, George and Damia Abella) that helped to restore team spirit and get them over the line. It certainly adds to the mystery of the episode and in light of further revelations that rifts were never healed, you wonder in hindsight if the club made the right call in starting a crucial campaign with division in the camp. No doubt promotion had strengthened Karanka’s hand given that it was Steve Gibson who facilitated his return.

He also seemed to suggest in his interview that the language barrier between the coaching staff and players was preventing them from fully understanding the instructions they were being given – which probably resulted in mainly a lot of misunderstood pointing in the direction of the goal. It doesn’t sound ideal and one wonders why this went unaddressed. In the end he thought the team got into the habit of believing they’d done well to lose narrowly in the PL and that ultimately prevented them from having a winning mentality. No doubt it will be something fed into the post-mortem on Boro’s season as the club undergoes change.

But the club need to move forward now and offer their supporters hope for the future – perhaps as we speak Boro’s PR department are busy raiding the party political election slogans to offer a conglomerated vision for next season’s smash and grab: A brighter future together for the common good with strong and stable leadership for the many and not the few (Lib/Ukip/Green/Con/Lab) – I believe David Bowie wrote most of his songs by cutting up party manifestos that came though his letterbox and reassembling them till they made some kind of sense.

However, the only real topic of conversation is about who will be the next man in charge. We’ve seen various names thrown around and Pavlovian alarm bells were being rung in the heads of supporters at the mere mention of some – Please no plans for Nigel, I beg your Pardew and Gis a job Giggsy, I can do that. In truth it could be anyone and it seems an announcement will be made on Sunday or possibly Monday – OK in the next two weeks at the latest, promise! In the meantime Aggers may be told to keep calm and carry on.

Anyway, there’s a little matter of another game to get out of the way – Boro haven’t won at Anfield for over 40 years but they will be professional in their approach – which is usually code for ‘Yes I know we have to look like we are trying but is anyone actually bothered anymore?’ – perhaps only Calum Chambers has anything riding on this one as he’ll want to return to an Arsenal side playing Champions League football next season. Though if The Gunners do finish fifth will that signal an announcement from Wenger that he’s stepping down? Indeed will he then be available to mastermind a Boro revival under his tutelage as a final challenge in his career?

I know what you’re thinking – Steve Gibson prefers to give people their first managerial job in football, not their last (though in some recent cases it may have been both). The worry is that with a chairman prone to not seeing something coming and a manager famous for rarely seeing what everyone else did, the club would be taking blind faith to the extreme. Though nothing would surprise me anymore.

So your final chance to make a Premier League prediction – as usual give your line-up, score and scorers – will Boro flip the form book and head to the beach on a high? or will we flop in front of the Kop as Liverpool kick sand in our faces?

 

 

 

The cult of the manager, its contents and discontents

Sometimes looking the part can be more than enough. Simon Fallaha explores managerial image and how it seems the answer to everything… until it all goes belly up

The contrast between the two head coaches during Chelsea’s 3-0 win over Boro at Stamford Bridge was extremely interesting.

Antonio Conte, an Italian legend, the animated magician who crafted a title for the previously faltering Blues in his first season in England. A saviour and hero for his visible passion, confidence and charisma as much as his dedication to the football.

Steve Agnew, the… er… coach. That’s it, really.

No touchline expressions out of the ordinary. No big interviews on detailed dossiers or on how much his family loves the area. No continental appeal. Just a football coach assigned with lifting a free-falling side shorn of all confidence and cohesion.

Many a fan wants their coach to be more than a coach. A figurehead. A symbol of promised, or delivered, progress. A cult figure. Management is as much, if not more, about personality than football in this media-saturated world.

Remember when Tony Mowbray came to manage Boro? It took just one sentence to bowl us over.

“This has always been my club ever since I was a little boy… I can still smell the Bovril at the back of the Holgate end.”

At that stage, and as difficult as the first two months or so were on the pitch, the football didn’t seem to matter as Boro’s identity and eventual belief was restored by one of their own. Eventually, and sadly, Boro freefell, Mogga’s halo slipped, and Aitor Karanka arrived.

And again, albeit in a different way, here was someone with the makings of a cult figure. A protege of Jose Mourinho. A native of the World and European Champions. A player and assistant coach at the one and only Real Madrid. Someone who would build new foundations at Boro and take them to the next level.

Less than a year later, “little Boro” were scoring twice against mighty Liverpool at Anfield, losing only after a marathon of penalties. The fans, players and coaches had done the club proud in a unifying, courageous showing that inspired Boro to continue challenging at the top of the Championship.

But, to paraphrase Eamon Dunphy, there was a consequence: the story of Aitor Karanka and Boro was no longer that of a football coach and team. Tactics and team selection were irrelevant.

Karanka’s transformation from ordinary coach to cult leader was effectively completed that night. And with it came an undeniably joyous and momentous journey, but one where the most dissenting of views about the football and the coach were not welcome, lest they burst the bubble.

The facts from Anfield that night reveal that Boro failed to beat a weakened Liverpool team. The facts of Karanka himself, soon to be initially exposed in an ugly fashion at home to Blackburn, reveal that beneath this likable family man, imperious looking leader and seemingly smart tactician rested a volatile explosiveness, the worst aspects of a control freak who couldn’t handle his big plans being derailed.

To me, at least, the horrible naughty steps, costly hissy fits and not-entirely-explicable omissions could be forgiven, if not forgotten, so long as the momentum and results were the right ones. Which they were, mostly, for two years. But, far too often, it was progress of the most sterile kind, with an emphasis on defence ahead of the attacking principles that Mowbray had worked so hard to restore.

So why, for so long, was this overlooked?

It’s only speculation, but I think the answer is simple: after years in the wilderness, our favourite men in red were being taken seriously. The value of being shown the limelight by someone who’d seen it repeatedly, the pleasure of saturation media coverage for the right reasons before and after big cup ties, the sentiment of being made to feel important with a Real Madrid alumnus in charge… it was too much to resist, despite clear signs that all wasn’t well.

And all really wasn’t well, as early as a 0-0 home draw with Bournemouth in late 2014. There are so many ways in which a result like this could be, and was, rationalised: they were a good Championship side, they were top (and eventually won the league), they were on a long winning run, and it wasn’t as if Boro didn’t have their concrete chances to win, namely Adam Reach hitting the bar. Most of all, we were “only Boro”: nobody expected us to be among the promotion challengers, and we had plenty of time to put things right over the course of the season. So surely we were only being realistic.

The flip side of the argument suggests that no team should settle for a 0-0 draw regardless of the circumstances or the quality of the opposition. And it’s equally reasonable to argue that managing expectations is an easy way for limited coaches turned cult leaders to retain their Messianic status in the eyes of fans, minimising upset when the team doesn’t win, sentiment overlooking reflection. When all is hunky dory, cult leaders will feel like they’ve all the time in the world. When it isn’t… well, March 2016 and January 2017 say it all.

Karanka may argue that despite the overall defensive intent, there were more than enough sublime passes and goals to hint that they could indeed achieve something more with the right time. And that Boro were often just one more chance taken, one more good final ball or one fewer defensive slip away from better results.

He’d be right. To a point. But the trouble with Karanka, and many a cultist, is that he and his teams repeatedly seem on the verge of transcending the very good to the truly brilliant, but they never really make it – the team are too deeply embedded in his personality and ways to make that extra step. If so much goes so well for so long, the cultist may feel he has no need to change, and therefore both he and the club will be less prepared when things do go belly up.

Many a “cult manager”, and Mourinho falls into this trap too, is equivalent to a parent who wants to indulge in the privilege of guiding his child for as long as he possibly can, unwilling to truly accept that the child must grow and learn. Because of that, said manager is danger of becoming increasingly aloof, trapped in a cloud. The once inspirational personality transforms into something more oppressive. Insecurity and neediness come to the fore, the desire to be repeatedly reassured of how “great” he is fatally taking precedence over the club and the players.

It is only when he is very badly burned that he appears to learn his lesson – and even then, the relief is only temporary. At the time, I praised Karanka’s comebacks from unwelcome expulsions, naughty steps, hissy fits and terrible performances as a reward for being patient, as all supporters who love being in line with a cult do. But they were equally torturous and frustrating. Karanka could be perceived as someone who did thoughtless, mean things, then “made up for it” with a giant sentimental gesture that planted our head in the clouds for a while. Hull and QPR at home, and to an extent Bolton away, were the epitome of it, memorable finales drawing a veil over painful turgidity. In other words, he was as much a “hero” for “bouncing back” as a “villain” for digging the hole in the first place.

Criticism of Karanka did seem horribly extreme – if you can’t enjoy winning, and being promoted, then there’s something wrong, isn’t there? – but he made his own bed by seeking the limelight to the extent he did. Like his mentor. When it is clear that preserving image and pride takes priority over the well-being of the club and players, there is no other way for the cultist but out. That is when it dawns upon even the coach’s fans that their one-time could-do-no-wrong hero is, after all, fallible, and that the dissenters might just have had a point after all. That, as the more cynical of us may say, you can fool all of the people, but only some of the time.

A lesson to be learned from Aitor Karanka’s tenure is this – as appealing as basking in the upward mobility of the cult of personality might be, it is our job to retain a level of objective judgement about what could be better. Without, of course, going overboard.