In2views: Steve Vickers

The latest in a series of profiles and interviews, Orginal Fat Bob gives his personal view on the life and career of a footballing guest, before sitting down for a chat and asking a few questions. Our Diasboro special guest this week is Steve Vickers.

1. The Overview – the man and his career

Steve Vickers was born in 1967, but still looks fit enough to play football today. He cycles many miles with his neighbour, another former Boro player, David Hodgson and is another of the ex Boro players who acts as a match-day host and ambassador at the Riverside Stadium. His height of 6ft 1in would probably mean he wouldn’t be a member of a Tony Pulis team, but in the heady days of the Robson era, he was an integral part of the team surrounded by the world class superstars that the team contained at the time of his playing career.

Steve Vickers, Middlesbrough  (Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)Steve Vickers joined Boro on 3 December 1993 from Tranmere Rovers for £700,000 and made his debut the next day in a 0-0 draw at Bristol City

I see Steve on most match days and we were once near neighbours in Marton, Captain Cooks birthplace, just outside Middlesbrough. He rented a house from Mark Proctor for a while, although we have both since moved away from that location. He made nearly 600 appearances in the Football League and the Premier League, the majority of which were for Tranmere Rovers and Middlesbrough. Whilst with the Boro, he was a member of the team that played in the 1997 FA Cup Final, which I remember well after flying back from Argentina to be there and then returning the next day.

He was born in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, and played non-league football for local club Spennymoor United. He then began his professional career at Tranmere Rovers, where he came to the attention of the Boro as a no-nonsense and classy defender in England’s lower league. When he joined Boro in 1993 he went on to win the club’s Player of the Year Award for the 1993–94 season. After playing for us, and being a great servant to the club, he was loaned to Crystal Palace in 2001, then to Birmingham City later that year.

This deal was then made permanent for £400,000, and he helped Birmingham gain promotion to the Premier League in the 2001–02 season. He scored his only goal for the club that season, against Stockport County. He retired from playing at the end of an injury-plagued 2002–03 season, which included a knee operation before the start of the season, a broken rib in his first game back and a badly-gashed ankle following a two-footed challenge from Everton’s Wayne Rooney which resulted in Rooney’s first senior red card.

Steve Vickers 1 - cropSteve’s 259 appearances at Boro spanned 9 seasons, including 6 in the Premier League, and was part of the Riverside revolution under Bryan Robson

Steve Vickers is like all the ex-players that I meet at the club and share many things in common: A pleasing and warm personality, a desire to talk to the fans and a willingness to let us at Diasboro know of their personal experiences at the Boro.

2. The Interview – a quick chat

OFB: What year did you join Boro as a professional footballer?

SV: 1993

OFB: Who was your favourite Boro player and others that you have played with?

SV: For me, Juninho, will go down as an all-time great for Middlesbrough, but I was lucky to play with a lot of world class players.

OFB: Who were the best and worst trainers in the team?

SV: The best trainers were the ones who also played week in week out like your Mustoes and Flemings and possibly me, but the worst trainers were some of the foreign lads who weren’t keen on the British weather.

OFB: When did the team travel for away games, how did they get there, by bus or by train?

SV: We would travel on a Friday before the game usually by coach but sometimes fly to certain games that were at the end of the country like Southampton.

OFB: How many players usually travelled and did the Directors travel with you?

SV: About 15 or so players and coaching staff would travel, but Directors would travel separately to the game.

OFB: Did you have nice hotels or was it just bed and breakfast?

SV: No, we stayed in some very nice hotels.

OFB: Who did you room with for away matches?

SV: My room-mate at the time was Robbie Mustoe.

OFB: Who was the joker in the team?

SV: Nigel Pearson was one, but the biggest was of course Gazza.

OFB: Can you tell us any amusing anecdotes or pranks that were played?

SV: Well the obvious one for Gazza of course, was when he took the team coach from the training ground to put a bet on, only to bring it back with a giant gouge in the side of it. A costly trip if I remember rightly!

OFB: Whose boots did you clean as an apprentice and who cleaned yours?

SV: I was never an apprentice as such, but classed as a young professional at my first club Tranmere Rovers, so I ended up cleaning every player’s boots along with another young professional called Daryl Grierson a goalkeeper from Blackpool along with picking up kit and cleaning the dressing rooms and showers, as for who cleaned my boots I can’t remember.

OFB: Did you try and emulate your style of play, on any individual player who played in your position?

Hansen and Lawro - cropSteve studied the Liverpool defensive duo of Hansen and Lawro in the hope of learning how to avoid “shocking defending” as one of them might say

SV: I used to enjoy watching how Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson played the game at Liverpool, but I wouldn’t say I tried to emulate them but maybe watch and try and learn how to manage different situations in the game as they did.

OFB: What was your most memorable game, your own individual performance and best experience with the fans?

SV: Three major cup finals were the most memorable, along with beating Liverpool at home in the league cup probably because I scored as well and the fans that night were the loudest I’ve ever heard at the Riverside.

OFB: What was your worst game or experience and why?

SV: Any time you score an own goal or the game you are relegated are the worst experiences you can have as a player.

OFB: Is there a game that you wished you had played in, either for Boro, or another team?

SV: Probably the World Cup final for Brazil 1970 what a team that was!

OFB: Who was in your opinion the Boro manager that had the greatest influence on your career and why?

SV: I only played under one, that was Bryan Robson.

OFB: Which opposing team and which player did you fear playing against?

SV: I never feared playing against anyone, but you must be able to adapt to different players you are playing against.

OFB: Which opposing team and which player did you like playing against?

SV: Any player you knew you were getting the better of.

OFB: Who is your favourite Boro player of all time and why?

SV: Juninho, because I had the pleasure of playing in the same team.

OFB: Who is your current favourite Boro player and why?

SV: Jonny Howson has great energy and puts in a lot of effort every time he plays.

OFB: If you could be a fly on the wall, is there any dressing room you would wish to eavesdrop on?

SV: Manchester United, to see if Jose Mourinho is as miserable as he usually looks.

OFB: Do you have any regrets in your career, or missed opportunities?

SV: I wish I’d been good enough to represent my country as do a lot of players.

OFB: Do you still follow the Boro and their results?

SV: I still work at the club on match days in corporate hospitality.

OFB: Whereabouts in the Country do you live these days and what do you do?

SV: I live near Richmond North Yorkshire and I am a director in a property investment company called “Investicity” and also work for “Solaire” heating products.

OFB: Whom have you made a lifelong friend through football?

SV: Robbie Mustoe and Curtis Fleming would be two of the closest friends I’ve made in football but I also have a lot of very good friends as well.

OFB: Finally, if you hadn’t had a professional career as a footballer, what do you think you would have done as a career?

SV: As I didn’t join a professional team till I was 17, I was going to join the RAF before that, but football was always going to come first.

OFB: A huge thank you Steve, for taking the time to talk to Diasboro and our readers.

If you wish to leave a comment about OFB’s latest In2views article with David Hodgson please return to the Week 13 discussion page


Boro 2 – 0 Wigan

Middlesbrough Wigan Athletic
Hugill 38′ (pen)
On target
On target

Hugill brace Penalises Latic’s

Redcar Red reports on the victory over Wigan…

Travel sick Wigan arrived at the Riverside buoyed by the hope that toothless Boro as Rotherham found out may be an easy ride and a way to end a streak of away defeats. At the back Tony Pulis had a headache with Ryan Shotton out mid to long term and Paddy McNair failing to impress in the RB role. Ironically that may have eased another selection conundrum with Danny Batth having earned all the plaudits last time out and with the other Dani now free from suspension. Would TP go with three at the back and play Fry and Friend out wide or will he pick two from four for a CB pairing? Wigan had a fair few missing in action with Captain Morsy suspended along with Dunkley both out and Will definitely wouldn’t be on fire this weekend after suffering an injury whilst away with Saville and McNair on International duty.

It was predicted that Wigan would probably come with an ultra-cautious approach after taking a few hammerings of late and who could blame them after a better than anticipated start to the season raised false hopes. Their Championship shine has tarnished somewhat of late and with new owners on board this week there was heightened awareness that too many defeats could start a chain of events that the Latic’s players and coaches alike may not enjoy. Their new owner’s moniker International Entertainment Corporation (IEC) would tend to indicate that drab and dreary negativity is not what they have in mind.

Wigan had let in eight goals in their last three games whilst Boro are chasing records having only conceded eight goals all season. The sharp end for Boro however has been the problem and somewhat blunt all season but more so recently with our Virgin Strikers failing to score at the Riverside since mid-September. Many Boro fans were wondering if TP might start with some adventurous youth to remedy that malaise or if he would stick with the much tried and by now very testing usual suspects in the desperate hope that the law of averages would intervene soon.

As it was TP went with Hugill up front supported by Braithwaite and Downing while Dael Fry continued at RB. Danny Batth retained his spot alongside Flint with Ayala having to be content with a place on the bench. Just before the game commenced there was an impeccably observed minutes silence from all four sides of the Riverside but the most poignant moment perhaps was when the game had actually kicked off and the veterans and flag bearers were still making their way off the sidelines towards the NW corner. The fans in the North and North West ignored the game, remained standing applauding the heroes until they reached the NW tunnel.

The game itself had got off to a fairly inauspicious start with both sides seemingly content to hold on to what they had which didn’t bode well for those who were about to sit through 90 minutes of magnolia football. The game did settle down after ten minutes or so as Boro started to enjoy some penetration down the flanks, putting in a few crosses in towards Hugill who managed to get his head to a most of them but none seriously troubled Walton in the Wigan goal.

Downing was now enjoying success down the right hand side with Dael getting up supporting and putting crosses in and George wearing the seemingly now obligatory Boro Captains mask doing the same down the left flank. Our Captain Marvel seems to be suffering the after effects of a forearm smash at Stoke but Ben Gibson’s former fashion accessory was discarded into Randolph’s net after just fifteen minutes.

A ball played over the top to Braithwaite saw the Danish International bring the ball down with aplomb, dart forward one on one with the keeper with the defender breathing over his shoulder but he hit his shot into the side netting in what should have been a goal but at least the intent was there as Boro now started to apply some serious pressure.

Probing balls and crosses started to pepper the Wigan 18 yard box and Hugill again had a chance just after the 20 minute mark but his header went wide across the face of the goal. Jordan’s next encounter was a clash with former Darlo player Dan Burns who caught the Boro striker full in the mouth leaving him on his backside but for good reason this time as he seemed to be spitting blood literally. Despite Boro having most of the possession now our play didn’t seemed very joined up and was more of a hopeful variety than cleverly worked moves. Indeed Wigan still had a few opportunities themselves that thankfully Dael Fry was alert to after George had marshalled a ball to safety but it somehow ricocheted off the turf and his heel to allow Windass to fire in a low cross but Dael nipped in clearing the danger with a perfectly timed tackle literally nicking the ball from the Strikers toes inside the six yard box.

Play then swung up the other end and a Boro corner saw chaos in the Wigan box as it somehow stayed out despite the best efforts of Fry and Batth. Boro should have been two up by now and the warning signs were there as Wigan’s best chance saw a glancing header invitingly sail across the face of the Boro goal with nobody in a blue shirt alert enough to knock it in. A few minutes later Friend went down the left flank beating two defenders in his gangly unconvincingly but effective stride with the luck of the ball running for him, cutting inside only to be upended by Kipre and Ref England blew for a Penalty. Downing and Hugill were engaged in a conversation with the West Ham loanee winning the opportunity to open his Championship account for Boro with the spot kick. He blasted the ball straight down the middle as Walton despairingly dived to his right to put Boro one nil up and ease nerves.

A few minutes later a 40 yard Besic ball picked out Braithwaite who again took the ball down with ease, darted towards the by line, cut it back across Walton’s goal forcing the Keeper to push the ball up and out where it fell to Hugill who calmly chested it down to hit a right footed volley to put us two nil up and you could feel the pressure lift around the Riverside to the extent that the pressure change was probably the reason for the torrential downpour which was to come in the second half.

The half time whistle went to cheers and applause especially for Hugill who looked like the real deal, holding up play, battling and now scoring as well as coming close by getting into position on a few occasions.

No changes from either manager at half time and the second half got under way with an immediate Wigan attack putting us on the back foot. Worryingly this was to be the trend for the rest of the game. Most of us were hoping for a goal-fest and a boost to our GD but we sat back, defended deep and invited Latic pressure. A rare breakout saw Hugill chasing a Clayton ball, charging in towards the Wigan goalmouth but caught in two minds he took a first touch and the ball was swept away to safety by the second defender coming across to cover and the chance was gone.

There wasn’t much from a Boro perspective to comment on proceedings on the pitch at this stage. The heavens had opened up, Besic had a mazy run through to the edge of the Wigan box and seemed to have run out of ideas and just gave up allowing Kipre to stick a leg in to clear. He repeated a similar behavioural pattern a bit later when he was again on the edge of the box running towards the by line and again just seemed to give up once a challenge was imminent. It was a shame because Mo did have some sublime moments in the game not forgetting his brilliant ball up to Braithwaite for our second.

Aden Flint managed to get himself booked for kicking the ball away much to the annoyance of the Scouse Sean Dyche, Paul Cook who was apoplectic with rage as his side sought to get back in the game. Flint had been commanding in the air but had a few wobbles playing the ball on the ground including a pass back to Randolph in the first half putting him under pressure needlessly. I’m sure those weaknesses will not have gone unnoticed by the coaching staff and Dani Ayala.

Danny Batth then took one for the team as he blocked a free kick and somehow remained upright. It was noticeable during the game that Batth’s headed clearances seemed to have a degree of precision in finding a Boro player on quite a few occasions instead of just a random cleared header. He also seemed to have a velvet gauntlet in dealing with opponents instead of blatantly manhandling them, a complete contrast in style to both Ayala and Flint.

With just over twenty minutes remaining Hugill tried to block a clearance by closing down Kipre but came off worse as the two collided and although hobbled on was soon replaced by Britt. Callum McManaman of in your face (or rather TP’s face) Sunderland celebration fame came on for the Latics and livened up proceedings by starting to turn the screw. He made a difference for the Latics by putting in some dangerous balls and kept both Downing and Fry on their mettle as we sat back in the trenches of our own making.

Lewis Wing entered the fray with fifteen minutes remaining for Braithwaite who was less imposing than he had been in the first half but in all honesty it could equally have been Howson or Besic to make way. We were sitting too deep and although defending well we didn’t have an outlet and the lack of a bit of pace on the bench and the futility of Gestede and Assombalonga sat there crossed my mind. To me Tavernier would have been the ideal sub to stretch the opposition and give our under siege defence some relief.

Wing injected some additional fight and made a few decent tackles and supported Britt on a break receiving the ball on the edge of the box and got off a shot much to Britt’s annoyance who wanted a return ball for himself. Saville came on for Besic with six minutes of normal time left and had a daisy cutter shot himself which was the most work Walton had to do all second half. News was filtering through of other results where Norwich in particular were losing, then drawing, then winning, then drawing, then losing again as the North stand tempted fate by a “we are top of the League chant” and as the final result from Carrow Road filtered through after our game had ended it was indeed a premature chant.

We won two nil; it was an unconvincing start, a decent bit of pressure followed and two welcome goals and all in all a happy ending to the first half. The second half is best forgotten about and was worryingly similar to the Rotherham game. Despite winning it still didn’t feel like any corners have been turned and yet incredibly we are second in the division. MOM is a difficult one as there were no stand outs, Clayts was his usual influential self, Fry was excellent in saving our blushes twice early on and put in a solid display at RB, Friend was flying down the wing without the safety of his mask and Downing was taking on defenders. All OK but nothing great or outstanding so for his two goals and all round efforts it goes to Jordan Hugill and let’s hope it’s the start of things to come and his injury isn’t too serious.

If you wish to leave a comment about Redcar Red’s match report please return to the Week 13 discussion page

Pulis looks to keep promotion on the menu as stakes raised

Championship 2018-19: Week 13

Sat 10 Nov – 15:00: Boro v Wigan

Werdermouth looks ahead to the week before another international break…

Tony Pulis announced last week that he’s hoping to emulate his achievements at Stoke with Boro and wants to build something that will last on Teesside – other than a presumably a goal drought. The Boro manager believes he’s on track after sorting out the team defensively and now is looking to add goals (note the plural). Pulis cited his time at the Potteries as the model for how he plans to progress and claimed: “It took us a year to sort everything out and then the second year, we got a team together which we felt would score goals.” The good news for Boro followers is that Tony Pulis has nearly been on Teesside for a year now and we’ll soon be into that second year phase where those seldom seen things he mentioned should apparently begin to flow.

Nevertheless, the warning that the Boro manager made is that “Trying to maintain that togetherness and mentality where you need to be on it week in, week out, over a long period of time, can be difficult.” He added: “What happens is complacency, you get used to playing against the big sides, you get used to getting served steak and chips every night. And it becomes a bit bland and not as tasty as it was when you are only getting it once a week.” OK, getting spoilt with a rich diet may apply to the Premier League but when it comes to bland offerings, much may depend on the quality of the meat being sourced by those in charge of doing the shopping at the cash and carry. Boro appear to be making a meal of promotion lately and another unpalatable goalless affair at the Riverside dining club on Saturday will certainly feel like a kick in the tenderloins for many growing tired of the house speciality.

Goals from Boro players have perhaps become a bit like the steak the Boro manager got so used to eating every day – rare! Though despite having chances regularly served on a plate, it seems our strikers have strangely opted for the butter knife as they lack that cutting edge when it comes to tucking in. The beef of many supporters is that they’ve been forced into a less than satisfying vegan diet as Boro seemingly can’t score for Tofu. Indeed, some of the less than red-blooded observers at the Riverside may even be starting to fear for their safety after food critic William Sitwell was sacked as editor of Waitrose magazine for saying he’d like to print a feature on “killing vegans, one by one”– though those still with the strength will hope their carefully clutched Parmo can shield them from the the meat-eater massacre planned by the Eton hack.

Talking of a Boro striker who Tony Pulis feels is spending too much time on his rump, Jordan Hugill got mixed reviews from his manager after it didn’t sit well with him that he appeared to be spending too much time pursuing a career in amateur dramatics. Pulis complained that the West Ham loanee was prone to falling to the ground without good reason and declared rather ominously: “I’ve had a chat with Jordan” – I suspect it wasn’t of the small talk variety either as he explained: “I thought Jordan went down far, far too easily a couple of times today. I don’t want that as a manager. That’s not right. We’ve sorted that out after the game. I don’t like all that nonsense. That’s got to stop, and he’ll know that now.” Hugill should have realised that under Pulis that real men don’t behave like a vegan fainting in a breeze.

Although, Pulis did praise Hugill for his overall performance declaring: “I thought he worked really tirelessly up front. He gave us a great platform to play off.” In addition, the Boro manager believes he’s finally starting to return to match-fitness after his arrival in the summer and called for supporters to show some patience after explaining: “The big thing with Jordan that people have to recognise is he was signed by West Ham and never really played a game from that point onwards.” OK, not exactly the best supporting evidence to put forward his credentials – though Pulis also added: “The kid’s had half a season not playing because he wasn’t selected, and then missed the full pre-season because he’s injured so he’s never been as fit as he was at Preston when he was scoring goals.” However, Hugill was never that prolific at Deepdale and his best haul was just 12 goals in 44 appearances in 2016-17 – it’s possible the main reason West Ham paid £10m might have something to do with the fact the manager at the time, David Moyes, was also the former Preston boss.

Nevertheless, Hugill has gone in one week from being third choice to first after proving he is probably the best option for holding the ball and bringing others into play. After persevering with Britt Assombalonga, Pulis seems to have concluded it may not be possible to teach an old dog new tricks and has perhaps decided he can no longer wait to see if he can adapt to the kind of role that he demands from his front men – especially if his failure to convert chances has become a bone of contention to chew over.

It’s possible another contender for the striker role, Rudy Gestede, may have found himself in the doghouse after seemingly questioning what his manager was asking of him against Palace. Whether that was just frustration on the night or simply confusion is not clear – though Gestede no longer looks like the favourite to become top dog under Tony Pulis unless he can turn his physicality into something more potent. Perhaps we’ll see the contenders in and out until one of them starts to look the part or it may be that the plan is to unleash someone new in January. It’s often said every dog has his day but it seems the pedigree of our strikers has been brought into question as they continue to lack teeth.

While Boro’s forwards may be feeling somewhat hounded, they may have been interested to read the story this week of one dog of when it came to shooting certainly knows how to hit the target. When Sonny Gilligan of New Mexico was getting ready to go hunting he put his three dogs, Charlie, Scooter and Cowboy into the back of his pickup truck and then got into the driver’s seat. The next thing he remembered was getting shot in the chest and thought he was under attack from a sniper – despite bleeding heavily he managed to roll out of the truck and call 911. When police arrived they discovered that the shooter was actually his pet Rottweiler, Charlie, who had ‘accidentally’ pulled the trigger of a loaded hunting rifle in the back of the truck that was unfortunately positioned pointing at the driver’s seat.

Thankfully, Mr Gilligan survived but it was a close call as he needed CPR to keep him alive when arriving at the hospital. He said Charlie was a loving dog and didn’t mean to pull the trigger – though Charlie has yet to give his side of the story and some suggestions that he’s been planning revenge after a disagreement over his favourite ball appear unfounded. However, it does raise the question of what should be now classed as a dangerous breed if dogs start arming themselves – just how safe is poodle with pistol or a cocky spaniel with a shotgun? Indeed, should the Second Amendment apply to man’s best friend and should good dogs be armed to keep us safe from bad dogs? The debate has started in America but I suspect anyone who has the good sense to place a loaded gun next to three lively dogs may be testing Darwin’s patience to the limit.

As to whether the patience of the Riverside faithful will be further tested on Saturday before the latest international break once more occupies our untwiddled thumbs, will surely depend on Boro getting back to winning ways against Wigan. The Lactics have become something of a yo-yo club after being relegated, promoted, relegated and once again promoted from League One last season. Wigan ended an eight-year spell in the Premier League when they made the drop in 2012-13 under Roberto Martinez. It was a bitter sweet season as they also became the first club to lift the FA Cup and be relegated after a shock win over Manchester City – something Boro had attempted and failed back in 1997 after that three-point deduction.

Following the loss of their top-flight status, Wigan entered a period of instability with their rapid turnover of managers starting when Martinez’s successor, Owen Coyle, was dismissed after less then six months and replaced by Uwe Rösler. The German took the club to the Play-offs and nearly made the FA Cup final again but lost in the semi’s on penalties against Arsenal. However, Rösler’s rise was short-lived, he got the hook the following November after the club dropped into the relegation zone and was replaced by Malky Mackay. With relegation still looming, Mackay was also sacked after just five months and former captain Gary Caldwell was installed, but to no avail. Caldwell brought them straight back up but a poor start to the following Championship season saw him ejected in October and replaced by Manchester United reserve coach, Warren Joyce, who couldn’t improve matters and subsequently left in March with Wigan once more heading back to League One. After winning League Two with Portsmouth, Paul Cook became the latest man charged with reviving the club’s fortunes and he brought them straight back up to the Championship last season and is currently still in charge.

However, it was announced this week that after 23 years as owner, Dave Whelan is poised to sell the club this week to a Hong Kong based consortium that is in the casino business – the Whelan family’s contribution to the club was marked at the weekend by a round of applause in the 23rd minute at the DW Stadium in the match against Leeds. No doubt the new owners will soon gamble on getting back into the Premier League and are probably already contemplating another new manager. It’s the end of an era as another locally-owned club becomes the latest plaything for a wealthy foreign owner to raise their profile. Of course, there’s always a chance that they’ve got themselves another Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha – though the much-missed Leicester owner was surely the exception rather than the rule.

Paul Cook’s side currently sit five points above the relegation zone but have struggled away from home – losing 7 of their 8 games on the road and have conceded ten in their last three trips. In fact they sound like ideal opponents for a Boro side struggling to score at the Riverside – just like Rotherham were a few weeks earlier. OK, you may recall that the Millers managed to grind out a nil-nil as Tony Pulis’s team put in a less than fine performance. The Boro manager will surely see this as an opportunity to get three points and may be a little more adventurous with his starting XI – well at least with his bench anyway.

Critics of Tony Pulis see the recent run of Riverside results as an indication that he is too cautious to win automatic promotion. They claim his methodology of making his teams first and foremost hard to beat is fine if you’re in the business of avoiding relegation, where every point achieved counts for much more if those around you predominantly lose. It makes sense in those circumstance and if you look at the current bottom seven clubs in the Premier League, they have only managed a combined 18 points from a possible 105. However, a point at home when going for promotion is normally regarded as two points dropped – though it’s still a surprise that Boro are only two points from the top after drawing five, losing one and winning just two of their last eight games. It perhaps says more about the lack of quality in the Championship this season, with the worry that those wins were against bottom club Ipswich and a Sheffield Wednesday side in free-fall after losing their last four games while conceding 12.

We all know that Tony Pulis has a penchant for big players and the summer saw him adding height to his Boro side. However, Ruud Gullit claimed this week it’s never been a better time to be a small player and clubs like Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea have actively sought them out. He argues the instruction to referees to penalise overly-physical challenges has meant smaller, more technical players now prove to be more effective in the opponents box against slower bigger defenders who can’t risk challenges. The trend for many clubs towards smaller more agile midfielders and forwards is changing the game and making it harder for teams who mainly rely on big physical players.

Does the blueprint of what a pure Pulis team should be need to change if Boro do indeed gain promotion or even hope to be a top Championship side. Whilst having some big players is useful in defending crosses or getting on the end them in the opposition box, the argument is that a successful team needs to have a balance between physicality, agility and speed. Solid and dependable experienced players may provide the base but the enthusiasm of youth may be what is needed to surprise the opposition. Many observers believe that Boro’s somewhat one-dimensional play-book has already proven to be lacking guile but looking to find the perfect big centre-forward won’t necessarily be the answer to that problem. Tony Pulis thinks at the moment “finishing has been our Achilles heel” – but he is wily enough to understand that his long-term future and a chance to build something on Teesside will ultimately be determined by results and keeping his chairman happy. He said recently: “I think I’ve got a really good chairman here – I just need the results now.” Let’s hope it starts this week against Wigan.

Stoke 0 – 0 Boro

Stoke City Boro
On target
On target

Goalless in the Potteries

Redcar Red reports on the stalemate at Stoke…

Boro’s tea-time trip to the Potteries had a bit of extra edge with the return of Tony Pulis to the club where he spent nearly ten years as the Manager who last guided them to the Premiership. Boro’s resolute defiance against Palace mid-week I’m sure will have resonated with Gary Rowett on what his side have to do to try and get one over TP. Creativity and the lack of it seems to be something that his Stoke side have been criticised for lately. It’s also something that has been levelled at TP’s Boro side this season as blank sheets became the norm for his strike force in October.

Stoke had conceded just two goals in their last five games so low scoring Boro on paper were unlikely to cause much consternation for Jack Butland. Like Boro their defence is the foundation that Rowett is building his side upon and again like Boro they have been in for some stick for being too slow in getting the ball out from the back to attack with any tempo. On Wednesday night it has been much debated on social media that perhaps TP’s solution to the lack of goals and creativity was staring at him out on the pitch. After such a strong case it will be interesting to see who makes the starting eleven and who makes the bench considering that Ayala is suspended for this one and both McQueen and Shotton are out injured so there should be at least two spare seats on the subs bench and with it a feasible reasoning for inclusion of our young talent.

As we had hoped there were indeed two seats reserved on the bench for Tav and Wing. Batth was filling in for Ayala and Fry covered the RB slot with McNair on the Bench. TP received a warm welcome from the home fans as expected as the two sides assembled for the minutes silence just before Kick Off on a very windy (is it ever not windy at the Bet365?) evening.

The game started at a “testing” tempo with both sides resolute, keeping their powder dry in the opening ten minutes with nothing of any major note happening. Maybe it was the timing of the match or it simply being selected for TV but the ground seemed sparsely populated despite the claimed 24,500 crowd and if it wasn’t for the wind cutting in from the exposed corners there wouldn’t have been any atmosphere at all. On fifteen minutes Afobe had a chance but was superbly marshalled by Batth and his effort didn’t trouble Randolph. At the other end Hugill was battling alone and making things difficult for Shawcross which the duel saw plenty of pushing and shoving but more of which I’ll come to later.

Stoke had most of the possession and were pushing Boro but we didn’t look seriously troubled. The back line of Friend, Flint, Batth and Fry dealt with everything hurled into the box from a few Stoke free kicks and corners. Being honest at this stage it was so predictable I think I could have written the match report last week as both sides didn’t look like scoring and as a contest it must have been pretty dry to watch for any neutrals. The Hugill/Shawcross battle saw Hugill get the better of him on a break only to be fouled which meant Shawcross entered the Ref’s book. Up until this point challenges on Hugill seemed to be fair in the eyes of the officials despite one high attempt, yet if a Boro player so much as breathed on Afobe or Berahino the Ref Rob Jones immediately blew. My bias is obvious but I did get a feeling that tonight’s Ref wasn’t as even-handed as he perhaps could and should have been when it came to Strikers being manhandled. Perhaps Hugill’s recent history had caught up with him like the boy who cried Wolf.

Four minutes after booking Shawcross, Rob Jones then blew for a foul in Boro’s favour after a scrappy battle which continued in the heat of the moment with Clayts sliding in on Etebo. Despite play already stopped for the earlier infringement, Jones decided to book Clayts for his lunging challenge for which the ante had been upped in the earlier scrap for the free kick. Arguably Clayts should have kept a cooler head but the Ref should have been stronger and quicker in my mind in blowing for the original foul. So the yellow card count was now 1-1 and things were back level again. That spark however fired a bit of life into Boro with Braithwaite hitting a dipping shot over Butland but it was directly at him and was easily collected out of the air. Downing then cut inside and fired a shot from outside the box which again required Butland to be alert in dealing with it.

Shawcross was then guilty of a “svelte” block on Howson as he ran into the Stoke box but the Ref bottled the decision as it was either a foul and a sending off for Shawcross for a second yellow or a booking for Howson for simulation. Had it been at the other end, I think we would have seen a second yellow and it occurred to me that Ayala wasn’t playing tonight and maybe that was a disguised blessing of sorts. For the silly yellow card, Clayts then made amends of sorts with the most entertaining bit of skill on the night, he dummied a ball cleared out of the Stoke defence, made a faux attempt to play the ball, let it drop, shielded it, spun around leaving his opponent dizzy and chasing his shadow putting Boro back on the attack.

Two minutes after Boro’s purple patch, Berahino was put through, fired a shot that fortunately was anticipated with a wonderful reflex reaction again from Batth in blocking the attempt to keep Randolph safe. Next up was Dael Fry to head away an Edwards cross destined to find Afobe as the half was closing in on the forty-five minute mark. One minute of added time drained away as the sides went in for the break with both Managers probably comfortable with their defences.

There was a lot of passing and grafting in the first half but little real quality on show. Besic had a few moments but nothing spectacular except for an over-hit ball, which rankled the away fans huddled in the opposite corner. Braithwaite also saw plenty of the ball but never really looked like he knew what he was going to do next with it.

The sides recommenced the second half with the same individuals as had finished the first half. A moment of genius or madness depending upon your half-full or half-empty perspective came from Mo when he played a 30 yard ball back to Randolph who unable to handle it had the presence of mind to head it clear for a throw in. Moments later Batth again saved the day to the point where TP will be hard pushed to find a reason to drop him after Ayala has sat this one out serving his one game suspension.

The game went into a slightly more entertaining phase as both sides attacked and left some openings at the other end but in truth it was looking very unlikely that either would score any time soon. Afobe was irked at the linesman on the far side as he flagged him offside when he felt he had sprung the trap. That was as about as riveting as the game had become as it entered the last thirty minutes. TP clearly thought the same and hooked the disappointing Dane for Tavernier.

A cutting incisive ball through to Hugill saw him charge past Shawcross, who couldn’t foul him for fear of a sending off, for a one-on-one with Butland. Jordan went for the keepers near post and the tightest angle to which the spreading Butland was equal to it and with it went the best chance of the night.

Tav was covering the left side but his pace was now a different challenge for Stoke to deal with. Five minutes after Tav had come on it was Lewis Wing’s turn to take to the Championship stage after almost a two month absence. Surprisingly it was Downing who came off with Howson going wide right and Wing playing just behind Hugill. A hustle in the Stoke box saw Wing scrapping and although he lost his tussle the ball broke from the hassled Stoke defender to Howson who was Jonny on the spot (well edge on the six yard box anyway) but Butland made his second close range save this time courtesy of his outstretched legs. Those two opportunities could have won it for Boro and were the best chances of the night but it wasn’t to be.

The most interesting aspect of the game for me came when we were repelling Stokes late desperation to clinch a winner. A cleared ball out found Hugill who held the ball up then laid it off for Wing who played a ball out to Tav to run onto, which was the move of the night in terms of no slow predictable passing, just a series of quick intuitive gut instincts which would have been perfect for those of us to yell from the rooftops to TP “see we told you” but excitement got the better of Tav and he lashed his shot high, wide and handsome. Whilst it didn’t come off, allied to the Palace game, there does seem to be an understanding, awareness and appreciation between the trinity.

That breakaway may have factored into Rowett’s thinking so much so that he made a triple last ditch substitution with boo-boy McLean, Crouch and Bojan coming on for the last ten minutes. Almost immediately Stoke hoofed balls towards Crouch but Batth, Randolph and Flint were unfazed and cleared everything thrown at them. A bloody and battered George was planned to make an exit after being on the receiving end of a forearm smash with Saville and then McNair stripped to replace him but our Captain wasn’t giving up any time soon and indicated his determination to carry on right until the end.

The final few minutes saw a Corner for Boro from which we failed to capitalise on with a poorly hit lofted ball easily dealt with by Butland. It ended 0-0, which wasn’t exactly the surprise result of the weekend and kept Boro in third spot at least until Leeds play on Sunday. MOM was between Friend, Clayts and Batth for me but it has to be Batth who was making his first Boro Championship appearance. He was cool as a cucumber all evening and can rightly consider himself harshly treated if Ayala reclaims his place on the basis of this evening’s performance.

If only we can sort out the sharp end of this side but how many times have we said that. I do feel however that there is something between Hugill, Wing and Tavernier if given the chance and persevered with. Fast, crisp and different qualities between the three of them, Hugill may not be the 25 goal a season Striker we want but his bustling disruptive style seems a good foil for the other two.

If you wish to leave a comment about Redcar Red’s match report please return to the Week 12 discussion page


Cup: Boro 1 – 0 Palace

Middlesbrough Crystal Palace
Wing 45’+3  
On target
On target

Wing Wizard’s Magic stakes a claim

Redcar Red reports on Boro’s win over Palace in the EFL Cup…

Tonight brought a reunion for TP with one of his former clubs whose parting of the ways wasn’t particularly amicable. By now the acrimony I’m sure has long since faded away almost like home goals at the Riverside, a distant memory.

Both clubs at present have an aversion to scoring goals it would seem. Only 5 clubs have scored fewer goals than Boro in the Championship and 4 of them are in the bottom 6 the other being QPR. Palace have not won since they beat WBA in the last round of the Caribou Cup losing three and drawing against Arsenal 2-2 at the Weekend but with both their goals coming from the Penalty spot which may be a deciding factor again tonight should it end equal on the night.

The last time these two sides met in the League Cup was in 2011 at Selhurst Park when Palace won 2-1 but there have been many changes with both clubs since then so no store can be put on that night. Likewise the last time we met which was in the Premiership the season before last and we had a “Friendless” AK tactical meltdown that day when Patrick van Aanholt scored the day’s solitary goal to lift the Eagles out of the relegation zone.

Onto tonight’s fixture and significant changes were expected by both managers pre kick off and the Boro side was a bit of a hybrid with seven changes containing the likes of Leadbitter, Batth and of course Wing and Tavernier but also saw the inclusion of Ayala, Braithwaite and Hugill. Ayala is facing a suspension for the trip to Stoke so it probably made sense giving him a run out. Allegedly a spell had been cast which had spread through the bowels of Rockliffe and prevented TP utilising some players who may otherwise have got a game or a place on the bench at least. Roy Hodgson meanwhile went one better and made eight changes to his Eagles side which included the likes of Townsend, Ayew, Souare, Schlupp and ex-Boro target Puncheon.

A solemn minutes silence was impeccably held in remembrance of the weekend’s Leicester City tragedy heralded by the whistle of tonight’s Ref Paul Tierney.

Dark mist encircling from the Tees shrouded the chilly Riverside on Hallows eve as Boro kicked off with a 433 line up at the unusual hour of 8.00pm. We started on the front foot with George Fiend charging up towards the Palace goal and we actually recorded a shot at the end of a Boo-tiful move. McNair then fizzed a ball into Braithwaite at the far post, chested it down but his touch was just too much to finish off the move. Lewis Wing was keen not to be outdone as he then signalled his intent in setting up another Boro attack. Tavernier then broke and played it into Braithwaite who fired a shot across the face of the Palace goal causing consternation for Keeper Guaita dressed all in slime green.

A Townsend corner was headed clear, Braithwaite cleverly held the ball up on the half way line allowing his team-mates a chance to break out and he picking out Wing on the right flank with a spellbound cross field ball. Lewis fired a shot in at Guaita from outside the box which was spilled out to George Fiend, who took on two defenders but the move eventually went out for a goal kick. Three minutes later George broke into the box again this time taking on four defenders but fell literally at the last hurdle courtesy of a Palace body check.

The opening quarter of an hour saw some of the best Boro football that the Riverside had graced all season. The pace dipped a little as Palace tried a little bit of possession football in and around their own half.

A blood-curdling challenge involving McQueen and Schlupp saw the Boro player howl in agony as his leg seemingly got stuck and his knee gave way. It didn’t look good as he was stretchered off with Saville replacing him. With Shotton seemingly out for a while it now looks like McQueen could be out for some time leaving Boro well short of two wing backs. The game restarted with Boro giving the ball away allowing Schlupp to get a half shot away which was easily smothered by Dimi.

A period of patient Boro possession saw the ball lose out to Palace but with Boro regaining possession immediately, McNair lobbed a high ball up to Hugill who shielded the ball from several yellow shirts with Wing nipping in to collect and play a through ball to Tav who ran into the Palace box but his shot was unfortunately blocked. A minute later a long ball hoofed up field by the Eagles was headed down to Schlupp central on the edge of the 18 yard box but again Dimi was equal to the threat.

A brilliant cleared ball up from Dimi found Hugill who held the ball up again then laid it off to Saville who fed George flying down the left who then fired it into the Palace cauldron which just eluded Tav’s head but Hugill was waiting behind who volleyed just wide. With five minutes remaining Tav and Hugill harried and chased down the Palace defence with Hugill forcing Guaita into giving away a sloppy throw in from which Braithwaite received the cross but headed wide with what was at best a half chance.

Palace seemed very slow in their build up play and looked half-hearted compared to Boro. As they dwelled on the ball again Saville intercepted a poor pass releasing Hugill, charging through on the right but as he closed down on goal his shot went well wayward. Another Boro break quickly followed this time with Tav bursting forward leaving three players for dead and a cheeky toe poke pass out to Hugill saw the Marsked magician fire a shot across Guaita’s goal. Just as the game entered time added on for McQueen’s injury a desperate double tackle by Batth and Ayala came off I think Townsend’s shin for a Boro Goal kick.

Dimi hit the ball downfield which was battled for by Hugill and Braithwaite who found Tav on the right side of midfield who played it into the path of the marauding Lewis Wing charging through like a banshee 25 yards out and unleashed an Adam Reach style thunderbolt leaving Guaita no chance to make it 1-0 to Boro in front of the Red Faction. The whistle went shortly after the restart and what a difference tonight’s performance was from the last few weeks. McNair looked confident and comfortable, Hugill scared the living daylights out of the Palace CB’s and Tav was full of spirit along with George Fiend terrorising on the left and Lewis Wing who just had to do the inevitable ending a fang-tastic first half!

The sides came out for the second half just as they went in as Palace started the second half proceedings. The first shot in anger was from Meyer who was set up by Ayew in the Boro box who played it back out from the penalty spot to the German but his shot was very Claytonesque fortunately. A low cross into the box was then cleared out by Batth as Boro looked resolute at the back. A free kick won by Hugill in the middle of the park was played out to McNair who floated in a troubling ball that bounced as if possessed creating a mischievous few seconds of panic for Guaita. A Palace corner was cleared by Boro and went aimlessly up to Guaita who panicked again along with Souare as Hugill and Tavernier closed them down winning another forfeited throw in 18 yards out.

That signalled the end of Jordan’s evening as Rudy Gestede was sent on to replace him on 55 minutes presumably to keep him fresh for Saturday after an impressive showing tonight. Palace were desperately pushing for the equaliser but Boro were defending in numbers and crucially having an outlet in Tavernier. A Championship-style tackle from Saville on 60 minutes set Wing up who rushed his shot but the Ref brought play back for a free kick in any case deeming the Northern Irish Internationals tackle too devilish for his liking.

The best chance for the Eagles so far in the game was cleared by Ayala and as Townsend returned the ball back into the Boro box once again Ayala cleared it for a Corner to the away side. Fletcher then came on for Braithwaite with an eye on Saturday presumably and Milivojevic on for Ayew. Almost immediately after the restart George Fiend scored after a hair-raising melee in the Palace box which Tierney somehow saw a free kick in the middle of it to rule it out.

A suspect corner was then awarded to Palace with McNair adjudged to have let the ball cross the byline by a hairs-breadth. Palace were now seriously upping their intensity in the search for an equaliser with twenty minutes to go. As much as Palace probed and passed Dimi hadn’t had an awful lot to do as we looked very organised defensively.

Tavernier ghosted the ball down his touchline straight out of defence to set up a series of bagatelle shots involving Wing, Gestede and in the end Saville who blasted over. McNair was then forearm smashed by Puncheon but fortunately Paddy got back on his feet as Palace were now becoming more physical. Palace were now playing trick or treat, knocking on Dimi’s goal. Meyer had a chance but badly scuffed his shot. Another swinging cross came in but this time was cleared for a corner by Fletcher arriving back into his own box just in time. A Tavernier cross well worked between himself and Lewis Wing saw Fletcher head a looping ball over the Palace crossbar onto the roof of the net in front of the North Stand.

Pape Souare then limped off as Sam Woods came on for the Left Back with 12 minutes of normal time remaining. Hodgson shuffled things with Woods going into a CB role and Palace were now throwing everything at Boro as they upped the pressure for a spell after the substitution. Ayala made one of his strong (or reckless) challenged from behind which had hearts in Boro mouths but then as if by magic George cleared, phew! A shot was then fired in from Meyer hit the side netting as Boro were now effectively camped in their own half hanging on to that solitary Lewis Wing goal.

Roy Hodgson threw his last sub on in an effort to try and prise open the Boro rear guard. Five minutes were left and Boro were now clinging on and Fletcher finding himself deployed as a defender. A frightening Townsend long-range shot was dealt with by Dimi diving across his goal to palm away to safety. A Boro break saw Tav fly down the left flank with Wing and Gestede screaming for it but he held onto it not fancying his chances of a clean cross and drew the inevitable foul taking the sting out of the game momentarily.

A great block saw a claim for a penalty from the yellow shirts for handball in a packed Boro box. Palace still kept passing the ball around relentlessly trying to unpick a Boro wall of Red Shirts determined not to give them the key to the gates and yet another ball spun in to go just wide of Dimi’s upright. Injury time and yet another uninvited wicked ball came in dealt with this time by George Fiend who was there to put it out for a corner which when it arrived was headed clear by Gestede and then relief, Tierney blew his whistle to put us into the quarter finals of the Cup as spellbound applause instead of boos broke out around the Riverside.

The game was one of two halves; the first half saw us get at the opposition with pace and tenacity. The second saw us sit tight and defend in numbers defiantly. Statistically we had nine shots to Palaces eight with only one of ours on target but it counted and showed the value of Lewis Wing in breaking deadlocks.

MOM is difficult as there were many in Red who merited it. Wing is the obvious one as he scored the winner but for me Tav was the threat, the one wizard that worried Palace when he got on the ball, and the one who provided an outlet. Ayala was great, George Fiend was immense and arguably equally deserves MOM, Batth was solid and dependable and McNair looked a different player to the one of late so fair play to him. Hugill was a real handful and caused problems and when he came on Fletcher showed a new side to his game in getting back defending as did Saville and Gestede in the closing stages to add height at the corners. Braithwaite looked class in the first half and Dimi rolled back the years near the end and I suspect wickedly enjoyed himself. The only negative was the injury to McQueen which looked like a long term one sadly.

As we all hoped for TP now has a massive selection headache for Stoke but perhaps the best news was saved until last when we were drawn at home to Burton in the next round of the Cup. I suspect that the Riverside may be less of a mausoleum that night and that there may be just a little more than 12,000 for that one!

If you wish to leave a comment about Redcar Red’s match report please return to the Week 12 discussion page


Tony Pulis in search of the lost art of the goal scorer

Championship 2018-19: Week 12

Wed 31 Oct – 19:45: Boro v Crystal Palace (EFL Cup)
Sat 03 Nov – 17:30: Stoke v Boro

Werdermouth looks ahead to week where Tony Pulis faces his former clubs…

There was an extra spring in the steps of many arriving at the Riverside on Saturday as they anticipated that the nights would shortly be drawing in and they’d soon be able to look forward to leaving the ground in the comfort of gloom instead of evening sunshine. Although, before the clocks were once again turned back, some on Teesside were left wondering if the club had already inadvertently wound them all the way back to 2010 as the football being served up took on the rather uninspiring quality regularly served up by the Strachan era. With no Boro player now troubling the scorer in four Riverside outings, captain George Friend lead by example and showed his goal-shy team-mates just how to find the back of the net.

Although it seems there was no pleasing some moaners on the terraces as they insisted on making the minor quibble that it was at the wrong end. Friend argued after the game that Derby’s Waghorn would have put it away if he hadn’t have pounced instead – it was presumably too good a chance to turn down. Nevertheless, an over-polite Derby eventually returned the favour as their 18-year old right-back Jayden Bogle clinically slotted the ball into the net to ‘earn’ Boro a vital if undeserved point to leave the Teesside crowd once more extolling the benefits of youth – with no doubt Tony Pulis giving knowing looks in the direction of the opposition bench as he felt vindicated for sticking with men.

Frank Lampard may have shown his inexperience by selecting way too many young players that naively played without fear. Surely it’s far better to have men on the pitch who are hardened enough to understand football is a game best played without the exuberance of wanting to see joy in the eyes of those who pay to watch. Indeed, Boro saw out the game to the backing track of their manager barking “don’t foul” on loop from the dugout – thus instructing his players to resist the urge of giving away a needless free-kick on the edge of the box, which he believed they so desperately wanted to do.

Sadly the home support had to witness yet another poor display from the men in red and many have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of their manager’s tactics. In term of team selection, Tony Pulis appears to have painted himself into a corner and then taken pleasure at watching it dry as his choices put in insipid displays. The Boro manager has also recently glossed over his team’s failure to score at the Riverside by instead meticulously counting crosses as proof of their creativity. Although for the Boro faithful getting curled up in their matchday seats, counting crosses has become an alternative for counting sheep for those struggling to keep their heavier and heavier eyelids open as they drift off to the ovine entertainment on the pitch.

Tony Pulis may have become the master of the blank verse as he can see no rhyme or reason why his side are not the free-scoring outfit that they’re supposed to be. OK, the players may not exactly be looking like poetry in motion at the moment, but it turns out our artists on the pitch are up with the best with an average of 25 crosses per game. A Statistical straw to clutch at perhaps, since it fails to inform us whether they either refrain from avoiding the first defender’s thigh or carelessly escape the attentions of a Boro forward wandering lonely as a cloud into the box. Although to continue the verse of Wordsworth, any shots on goal tend to be ones “That float on high o’er vales and hills” as the Boro players later explain the adrenaline kicked in “When all at once I saw a crowd”.

The blame, according to Pulis, lies seemingly with our broad-brush strikers, who even the best police artists would struggle to produce an identikit image that few would ultimately recognise as the culprit charged with putting the ball in the back of the net. Indeed, some strikers at the club look like they were painted by Pablo Picasso himself given the random nature at which the ball bounces of their cubist heads. While ‘Rudy Gestede and his dodecahedron head’ may become a terrace chant for the geometry wing of the Red Faction, many Boro followers will be hoping the golden ration of chances to those being converted by the Vitruvian Man that is Britt Assombalonga will somehow improve and lead to a renaissance in his form. Though it’s doubtful if even the genius of da Vinci would be able to square the circle of discovering a Boro striker who will regularly find the net.

Indeed, the sketchy performances of the £15m man have often given the appearance of him having twice as many legs as he can reasonably be expected to cope with, while frequently cutting a forlorn figure as he simultaneously holds his arms out in both exasperation and apology. There are few signs that Assombalonga will return any time soon to getting those divine proportion of goals under Tony Pulis, which he had once enjoyed at Forest. It may seem simplistic, but playing to somebody’s weaknesses is probably not the optimal way to get the best out of them – though perhaps his strengths were over-stated in a bid to justify the price-tag. However, no matter which way you try to orientate the once-hailed missing piece of the promotion jigsaw, it’s clear to many observers that he doesn’t fit into the picture of what a Tony Pulis striker is expected to be – the problem for the Boro manager is that none of the other options appear to either.

Since his arrival on a season loan from the Hammers, Jordan Hugill has quickly established himself as third choice under Pulis after proving to be little more than a blunt instrument. While the Middlesbrough-born strike could have expected to be taken to the hearts of his home-town crowd, it’s likely we’ll perhaps soon be hearing the modified famous chant: “he’s one of our own, we got him on loan, thank god he’s one we don’t own” as it looks like a bullet dodged in an increasing list of misfiring strikers who’ve arrived on expensive contracts – including fellow Hammer Ashley Fletcher, who has become a rather pricey option for the development squad since his £7m move. Although, it hasn’t been limited to just strikers, with the loan of midfielder George Saville also soon to be converted in a permanent £7m deal. He’s just the latest in a series of offers made by the club that were just “too good to refuse” and have now started to look like they were possibly done in haste.

It is perhaps one of the biggest criticisms of the club that they have thrown a lot of money at players, especially strikers, most of whom haven’t convinced that it was remotely well spent. There would be little change from £50m on the eye-watering balance sheets when totting up the current fees paid for Assombalonga, Braithwaite, Gestede, Fletcher and Hugill. If having a first touch that is often your last was rated so highly then it could perhaps explain some of those inflated prices Boro paid. It should at least question the validity of believing that the market never lies – though perhaps it merely exposes the truth of buyers not really knowing what the value of something is. In fact, some may be beginning to wonder if the recruitment department would have been better off sticking five pins into a random list of League One strikers – it would have possibly provided the club with a more potent group of players, for probably a fraction of the cost and wages. Not that I would advocate that Neil Bausor rushes out to buy some pins before the January window opens – unless of course some of the donkeys planned for a clear-out are still missing their tails.

It’s possible we’re being too critical of Tony Pulis and he’s simply paying the price of raised expectations following a freak set of results in August that saw the makeshift team exceed their potential. In their Riverside bow, Boro were quick out of the blocks against current leaders Sheffield United and blew them away inside 25 minutes, thanks to two well-delivered Lewis Wing corners that were converted – although for the purposes of balance, others from him were reported as not being so well executed. In the next home game, against a then struggling Birmingham side, Tony Pulis’s team were less impressive with a 1-0 victory that saw only 2 shots on target – in fact despite the Blues being reduced to ten men for the last ten minutes, Boro were hanging on to the three points and were glad to hear the final whistle.

After Tony Pulis’s side continued their winning run with a textbook away victory at Bristol City, where although the Robins had enjoyed twice as much possession, Boro defended well and were two-up after half-an-hour thanks to a Braithwaite spot-kick and a Assombalonga headed goal – the game was then ‘managed’ and despite a few scares held their early lead. The following home game against West Brom saw that last-gasp hand-controlled winner by Ayala – with Boro having only 38 per cent possession and squandering a number of chances in similar fashion to what we’ve seen more recently.

Sometimes the result papers over the cracks and both of those single-goal home victories could easily have been the usual blanks. If we add to that Boro were woeful for 70 minutes in their opener at Millwall, it may in fact be a little rose-tinted to start thinking Boro’s form has appreciably dipped since August. In truth, the main difference is perhaps Boro lost their intensity and began to start games more slowly. The arrival of new players didn’t add much to the party as only Besic has consistently broke into the starting eleven – though it could be argued he’s not exactly a ‘new’ player given he was here last season. The main complaint is that the promising performances by academy graduates in August have not been built on – even Dael Fry saw his starts limited as Tony Pulis reverted to a conventional back four to accommodate Martin Braithwaite.

The uninspiring shades of magnolia that are the summer recruits of Saville, McQueen, McNair, Batth, and Hugill have all been left to blend together inoffensively on the bench, which has left no room for the up-and-coming Wing, Tavernier or Chapman to further impress. It’s well documented that most of those signings were probably not the manager’s first choices and the fact is that they have in the space of a few weeks become little more than bed-blockers to exciting young talent developed at the club. Whilst it’s perfectly reasonable to bring in squad players who can cover for injury and suspensions, having low-impact squad players on your bench essential means the manager has little hope of giving the opposition anything to worry about or indeed lift an increasingly deflated crowd.

Many will be hoping the January window will see better quality players arrive and some much needed pace, guile and clinical finishing – though all of those previously mentioned bench-warmers are either permanent or season-long loans. Will that mean moving on players who are currently getting picked for the first team instead? Pulis doesn’t like a big squad, he’s overlooked Wing, Tavernier and others but hasn’t seemingly placed much faith in most of the summer recruits. Maybe he feels his core group is good enough but with a dysfunctional sharp end and essentially make-shift wing-backs it’s not quite the team in his image he would want.

Like many in the game, Tony Pulis is perhaps finding that building a solid team from the back is the less difficult part. We discovered under previous Boro managers that simply trying to bolt on better attacking players is not as easy as it may sound. The way the team functions as a unit often determines how it operates in both defence and attack – if you lean too much in one direction it will ultimately adversely effect the other. At present, the balance doesn’t seem to be right and it may well be it’s not at the points where the team visibly appears to fail as to where the problems may lie.

For all the neat play and decent performances from players such as Downing, Howson, Besic or Clayton – none of them have got much in the way of goals or assists. The same goes for Friend and Shotton – are they effective as wing-backs if they don’t provide assists? It may even be that their manager has them on a tight leash that prevents them from becoming less predictable to the opposition. Derby’s youngsters gave us a lesson on free-flowing attacking football – though it apparently comes at the expense of being less solid at the back. The question for Boro is whether it’s time to take more risks in a bid to be more potent – though I feel we’ve been here before and that was why Steve Gibson brought in Garry Monk and let him have free reign of his cheque book. I suspect we will be sticking to the world according to Tony Pulis for now and probably the foreseeable future.

This week sees games against two of Tony Pulis’s former clubs, with Crystal Palace first up in the Caraboa Cup on Wednesday. The Boro manager would probably ‘love it’ if his side knocked the Eagles out of the competition but he’s unlikely to go all Kevin Keegan on us at the pre-match press conference since it’s still likely to be reserve-style fixture between teams resting their key players for the league games at the weekend. Post-Pulis, Palace are still struggling to score goals in the Premier League and if those on Teesside were feeling underwhelmed at not seeing the net bulge at the Riverside, then spare a thought for our visitors, who only witnessed their first goal at home this season after they converted a penalty against Arsenal at the weekend. They’ve managed just 7 goals all season despite having the talents of Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend at their disposal – though a certain Jason Puncheon came on as sub and he may well get a start at the Riverside to receive the warm welcome he declined in the loan window.

It’s widely expected that we’ll see the usual ten or eleven changes, with all those on the fringes of the First XI getting the benefit of a start. They will be perhaps joined by club captain Grant Leadbitter, Ashley Fletcher, plus some of the academy boys such as Lewis Wing and Marcus Tavernier. A place in the quarter-finals is up for grabs for the winners, so we may see stronger benches than usual – many Boro followers will be looking to see if any youngsters impress enough to be seen again in a Boro shirt this season.

The trip to Stoke on Saturday has been chosen as the early-evening televised game and it’s hard to see why other than the Pulis factor –  though not to be confused with the X-Factor later in the evening where struggling performers regurgitate their usual hard-luck stories in a bid for public sympathy. Stoke have been defensively quite tight in recent weeks and have only conceded twice in their last four games, which included the three in-form sides of Sheffield United, Norwich and Birmingham. After an indifferent start to the season that saw the Potters win just once in their opening seven fixtures, Gary Rowett’s side have slowly moved up the table and are now just five points outside the play-offs.

Tony Pulis will most likely get a good reception from the home crowd, which will make a nice change given the boos he’s been getting used to lately. It’s a game he will not want to lose and if both sides keep it tight then it’s got all the makings of another TV classic nil-nil encounter of the strictly not watching variety. With Leeds not playing until Sunday and Sheffield United away at Forest, then I am as ever contractually obliged to say Boro can go top if they win!

Boro 1 – 1 Derby

Middlesbrough Derby County
Bogle 84′ (og) Friend
19′ (og)
On target
On target

Randolph rescues outclassed Boro

Redcar Red reports on the draw against Derby…

This match pitched joint top Boro with the media darlings “Frank Lampard’s Derby”. Boro have been spluttering lately and look anything but a coherent Promotion chasing side yet somehow they have clung to an automatic promotion spot mainly due to the ineptness of the others rather than their own form and belief. Belief was the key word for today’s clash and Derby had it by the bucketful after resounding successes over the Baggies and the Blades and came to the Riverside looking to make it a treble of “B” scalps in a little over a week.

Boro had won nine out of their previous eleven home games against the Rams but last year’s 3-0 loss is still fresh in Boro supporter’s memory. This time around Derby seem to be in fine free flowing goal scoring form while Boro in contrast couldn’t score if their lives depended on it at the Riverside. The painful display against Rotherham on Tuesday night just topped a series of confused insipid displays with the Manager’s tactics being called into question for the first time since his arrival. TP was yet again uttering how his side need to be more clinical in the final third, well with nigh on £40M worth of striking “talent” at his disposal the fans were a little more direct on Tuesday night signing off with a chorus of boos. TP’s tenure is now at a questionable hurdle for the first time since taking over the reins from Garry Monk and Derby are either the worst side to face under such circumstances or the best depending upon your outlook.

Shotton would definitely be missing for Boro as would Bryson for the Rams along with George Evans and Joe Ledley. Boro fans were mostly interested in how many CB’s would be playing and how many benched as oppose to the final selected eleven. TP restored Dael Fry at the expense of Braithwaite who swapped seats on the bench with the youngster which was just as well as Fry made two crucial clearance headers in the opening five minutes to prevent Derby taking an early lead. Maybe it was the weather but Boro started in slow motion, almost frozen as they chased the shadows of the Derby youngsters. McNair had continued as he had for Northern Ireland recently and against Rotherham on Tuesday night looking completely ill at ease in the RB role. He stood off his man, giving them time and space repeatedly and it was only going to be a matter of time before the totally dominant Rams punished us down that flank.

Another foray down our weak right flank saw another cross fired into Marriott who fortunately headed wide just after those two Fry headers and with less than ten minutes gone we could and perhaps should have been three nil down as we were clinging on rather than defending doggedly. Derby are notoriously quick and precise on the offensive but equally notorious for being edgy, nervous, desperate and porous at the back. Considering that this is both well known and often debated it was a surprise to see TP’s tactics completely implode in the opening spell. We were so far off the pace that had it not been for Randolph we could have been four of five goals behind in the opening quarter hour.

Boro’s opening spell was as tactically impoverished as I can remember for a very long time. It seemed as though no pre-planning or scouting had taken place and Derby’s game plan was a complete surprise to the Boro dug out. After Tuesday night the home fans were starting to boo and jeer, negative, jittery back passes borne out of the hopelessness of the way the side had been set up and the glaring repeated weakness of shoehorning McNair into a role that he has shown he isn’t comfortable with. Everything about Boro was wrong, the nervous Derby defence were under no pressure from the isolated slow and lumbering Assombalonga. Apart from Randolph, Boro were very poor in every department.

The positive was that at least we were being entertained by the Derby kids who simply tortured us over every blade of grass by quick, incisive, slick passing movements. It was like watching a squash ball ping around the Easter Island giant statues. After Wilson had an effort palmed over by Randolph and a free kick that went just over the inevitable and long overdue the opening goal came on 19 minutes after McNair made a hash of escorting the ball out harmlessly and pinged the ball back to Downing who couldn’t control it and the cross came in from Malone evading all three CB’s to find Waghorn who with the help of Friend’s close attentions somehow managed to get the ball over the line.

At this point had the contest been in a boxing ring the towel would have been thrown in to save the pugilist from a pulverising. Undeservedly and against the run of play a misjudged back pass at the Derby defence allowed Besic throw who slipped the ball across to Britt who seemed to be wearing clown shoes instead of football boots as he delayed deploying a shot past Carson. The chance was gone and with it any hope we may have had to avoid a total humiliation. The only other effort of merit was a Downing ball played into Flint who seemed to get under the ball which is now his default heading position and Carson was never worried.

Derby had enjoyed something like 80% of the possession at this stage and the only surprise in that stats was that Boro then by default must have had 20 per cent possession at some point unless that included the absent ball boys taking an eternity to retrieve the ball apart from the lad in the NW corner who showed more reflexes than TP’s “Men”. The brief moments when we had the ball we looked shocked and frightened made worse by Besic trying the most ridiculous back heel just outside his own box gifting Derby another opportunity as if they needed it. It will be interesting to see if the same rule of being dropped applies to the big money stars as it does to the Boro lads?

Belatedly TP realised that if he didn’t change something and quickly then the afternoon could turn out to be his Waterloo. Home Boos had resurfaced as the fans saw a disjointed team lacking any belief or the wherewithal to clear their heads. Fry was shuffled out to RB and McNair pushed further forward to form the right side of the midfield as we switched to a back four. Derby weren’t finished as they hit the post after more heroics from Randolph saved our blushes. Almost immediately we looked better balanced, more stable and McNair looked more comfortable removed from the firing line of playing RB.

In an effort to make up for his aberration moments earlier Besic was now trying to drive his team-mates forward but his dazzling dribbles tended to be in isolation and on his own unique wavelength. In the dying moments of the half a scrambled clearance from a Boro corner almost netted an equaliser just before the break.

The half time was going to be an interesting one because the reality is that whatever game plan and tactics that had been scouted and worked on needed ripping up and set on fire to ensure they could never be accidentally uncovered and redeployed in the future. The policy of picking the big signings and loanees rather than abilities and variety meant that TP had little in his locker to change things other than the same old same old.

The second half restarted with no changes from either manager which wasn’t surprising from a Derby perspective but borderline hilarious from a Boro one given the total failure of the first half at every level. Boro looked a little less distressed and exposed with Fry behind McNair but our “style” of football was to hump it high which meant that things inevitably came straight back at us as Britt could neither jump nor control or hold onto the ball. Indeed it was a comical attempt to control a wide ball near the corner flag where his left leg seemingly tackled his right leg to conspire to turn a rare attack into a goal kick. This was rightly just about the last contribution from Britt as he was hooked at the next opportunity for Rudy Gestede along with Besic for Saville. The Besic switch was a bizarre one, a player who could be unpredictable but maybe unlock the Derby defence for a steady defensive Championship midfielder who quickly attracted the attention of the fans for passing backwards, not spotting opening and generally slowing things down, losing possession and putting us under pressure.

Just a few minutes previous to all this in fact after only five minutes of the half, the hapless Paddy McNair had been replaced by Braithwaite. Downing was now switched to the right in front of Fry with Braithwaite operating on the left and big Rudy up front. Derby looked to be entering a control and containment mode while Boro just looked desperate and lacking any game plan other than hoof clearances up field. Hoof passes up field in the hope that Rudy wins something and at least in bypassed the Derby youngsters in the middle of the park who put simply had been impossible to live with from a Boro perspective.

George Friend had a one two moment and found himself in nosebleed territory and unfortunately as is usually the case with George the chance came to nothing. With 25 minutes left Nugent came on for the Rams to a warm generous applause from the Home support as Boro were looking a little more composed but still had yet to register a single shot at Carson. What wouldn’t we have given for a Nugent type Striker to come on in place of those we find ourselves at the club!

It didn’t take long for Nugent to register a shot or for Wilson to test the effervescent Randolph again with a free kick for a foul on the ex Boro Striker. In stark contrast Friend fired a low ball across the box for Gestede to have a carbon copy of Britt’s miss against Rotherham in the same spot in the same goalmouth. A minute later a pin perfect cross to Gestede’s head saw him glance his header wide of an open goal. An earlier challenge with Waghorn had left Rudy limping for the rest of the game which may have hindered his agility.

The contest should have been wrapped up again by Nugent who fortunately must have been wearing his Typical Boro boots as Randolph somehow managed to smother the danger yet again. Another hoofed ball saw Ayala flick on his header to Flint who once again failed to get any accuracy on his header. As the clock was running down and most of us had resigned ourselves to another defeat along with yet another Riverside game without a Boro goal another high ball came in which was headed on to loop into the Derby box beyond the hampered Gestede and Bogle could have left it but somehow got a shin or at least some part of his lower leg to send it past the sprawling Carson to level it at 1-1. Embarrassed smiles and laughter momentarily broke out in the North Stand before the celebrations. The remaining few minutes including injury time saw the game more open than it had been all afternoon with Boro even having the temerity to nick another while Derby cleared their heads. It finished with the Boro somehow avoiding a hammering and fluking a draw in the end.

Any relief from today’s draw must be short-lived. A pattern is developing and Boro despite the best efforts of others not to leave them behind are slipping. We are 17th in the form table for the last 6 home games, for the last 4 home games the reading is even worse seeing us in 22nd spot.

There was an obvious MOM, Darren Randolph was incredible and single-handedly saved TP and half a dozen of his team mates from a deserved savage outpouring on the final whistle. Excuses about missed chances and so many crosses wear very thin when it is blindingly obvious what the problem is or at least in part. Recruitment have brought in players that are no better than what was already at the club and indeed poorer in many instances. The fact that they are getting a place in the starting line-up and on the bench does nobody any favours. Where we are in the table has much to be admired but where we could be had our buying/loaning and selling and selection been more astute could be a legacy that we rue for decades to come if not admitted and addressed.

Today the youth of Derby tore us apart and humiliated static, staid footballers who could not live with them let alone cope. We have endured four games now without a Riverside Boro goal apart from Bogle getting TP out of a hole of his own making today. Three points from a possible twelve; this isn’t survival form let alone promotion.

If you wish to leave a comment about Redcar Red’s match report please return to the Week 11 discussion page

Boro 0 – 0 Rotherham

Middlesbrough Rotherham
On target
On target

Blank Boro ground down

Redcar Red reports on the stalemate against Rotherham…

The Millers travelled up to Teesside more through hope than expectation today. Rotherham had amassed the grand total of null points from their travels this season to date so whatever their selection was going to be it was considered unlikely to trouble Boro who were dauntingly at the opposite end of the table. Their Manager Paul Warne pre game had described tonight’s match as a “free hit” in a nothing to lose mind-set presumably intended to reduce fears and remove any unrealistic expectations. Boro fans of course had the “Typical Boro” fear for a game that should be a nailed on three points but could typically end up a banana skin.

The most recent connections between the two sides was Dael Fry having spent some time on loan down there as had Grant apparently earlier on in his career and Ledesma who now plies his trade in real New York Stadiums across the pond. The Boro team news was eagerly awaited as we wondered whether TP would rest a few, stick with five or switch to four at the back and who would be making way for Braithwaite? As it turned out TP switched to a back four again, meaning Dael Fry missed out again. The same ineffective set up that was disastrous against Forest then reversed against Sheffield Wednesday after an admission of getting things wrong previously had been reintroduced.

The absence of Shotton saw McNair at RB and Braithwaite introduced at the expense of a CB. The opening moments of the game saw a few forays from the Millers especially down McNair’s side which may have been coincidence or a deliberate ploy to exploit the reshuffle at the back. Paddy looked uncomfortable and far from assured and struggled to make any impact in an attacking sense. Ayala and Flint were solid but there was nothing else in terms of building from the back without Fry being there. George and Stewy were Boro’s main attacking threat or in reality only attacking threat in a very poor and disjointed first half.

We didn’t sign Bolasie or Adomah, we sold Adama and Tav doesn’t even get a sniff of the bench so unless we play with three centre-backs and two wing-backs we have no width, outlets or creativity. Tonight was as predictable as it was horrendous to watch once the team had been announced. I’m not sure what position is McNair’s best but it certainly isn’t as a Right Back let alone a Wing Back even allowing for one good run into the box in the second half. I was at times thinking George was the third CB and we were playing with three at the back after all but George spent most of his time linking up with Stewy on runs down the touchline so that couldn’t have been the case or maybe it was and he just forgot himself. Whatever was supposed to be happening clearly wasn’t as the entire team just looked a totally dysfunctional unit.

Besic who had excelled against Wednesday held onto the ball too long on numerous occasions and missed the killer pass and besides the movement was slow and ponderous at best. Britt was scrapping and Braithwaite provided a few moments including a great spurned chance which was easily saved by Rodak just after Randolph had pulled off a double reflex save seconds earlier at the other end to spare Tony’s blushes. Considering this was top versus bottom there was no indication to the neutral observer who was who, indeed a flurry of successive first half corners from the Millers had us hanging on desperately failing to clear our lines.

We were so poor in the first half that the only consolation was that Rotherham hadn’t earned any points on their travels this season so surely we couldn’t let this one slip? We sent corners and free kicks in from Stewy but they were either too close to Rodak in the Rotherham goal or Flint was underneath them and in the wrong part of the goalmouth to make them count. There was nothing else of note in the first half such was the paucity of the non-event, heaven help anyone who tuned in on the Red Button looking for entertainment. In truth Rotherham looked calm and unruffled controlling large parts of the game with relative ease from a very poor Boro side that lacked any belief or conviction.

The second half didn’t see any personnel changes which was a surprise considering the abysmal first half torture but then again not really as there was nothing on the bench that could really alter what was happening out on the pitch. No pace, no craft and no tempo or speed, just a defensive midfielder, two non-scoring Strikers, two centre-backs and a left-back. The second half started with a Boro attack which we hoped was a sign of things to come but like our hopes for the evening were dashed when Braithwaite was clattered and went down with a head injury. The sight of Hugill warming up had us hoping that the Dane would stagger to his feet but as one wag to my left extolled that even if Braithwaite was left prostrate on the grass and we played on it would be just like playing with Hugill anyway.

As if a warning was needed the first real ooh aah moment was when Manning fired a shot which had Randolph scrambling to see the effort just past his post. Boro did respond by entering a little purple patch which wasn’t exactly convincing but it was the best we were going to get and a low Downing cross into the feet of Assombalonga had poor Britt trying to remember the steps to the hokey cokey but he got them all wrong. As Rodak spilled the ball at his feet six inches from the goal line, Britt was putting his left foot out his right foot out, out, out, out and shake them all about as the ball was cleared. Once again Britt’s requirement to have five or six stonewall chances to convert just one bit us on the backside. That said it would have been rough justice on the Millers who were well deserving of their point and indeed as an away team perhaps felt unlucky not to have nicked all three.

A volley from Downing as the ball was cleared out to him inside the box was hit with his left foot which signalled it was going to miss the target as soon as it left his left boot when his right one would have sent it goalwards. That was the signal for TP to make big changes to radically alter the game and to take control except he took off the struggling McNair (who had actually looked a little better in the second half) and Braithwaite who was dribbling and twisting but most of it was going sideways for the creative pairing of McQueen and Gestede. Downing was now on the right side with McQueen on the left and we then just humped long and high balls up to big Rudy. It was a joy to watch a Managerial masterstroke against such limited opposition. What had been pure dross and dire all night had now just become desperate.

In fairness to Gestede he put himself about and tried to add something but the reality is there were no tactics, shape or strategy and Boro were a busted flush by this point. If anything Rotherham looked the more likely to score with Manning once again testing Randolph from range and Smith then coming closest as TP’s changes had bombed. If it hadn’t been so predictable it may actually have been disappointing but by now we had resigned ourselves to another game with pure sterility in front of (or indeed anywhere near) the opposition goal. With just under ten minutes remaining TP took off Britt and put on Hugill who battled and scrapped and did actually stay on his feet much to our relief. Nothing changed of course as the die had been well cast even before a ball was kicked with TP’s selections and tactics. And so the game petered out to a well deserved draw enabling the visitors to pick up their first point on the road all season as Boro left the pitch to a chorus of boos and jeers.

As regards the Man of the Match award it was probably Lewis Wing or Tav who were sorely missed and didn’t put a foot wrong all evening but seeing as it traditionally goes to someone who played then the only one is Randolph who kept a clean sheet with a brilliant save but whose kicking left a lot to be desired all night.

On the drive home I heard a debate on Tees about playing with three supposedly at the back well if that was the tactic it certainly didn’t look remotely like anything close to it to me and if so then why would you move Fry out to displace Friend across one when Shotton was already an enforced disruption on the opposite flank? Tony tinkered far too much and the failings of the night rest upon his shoulders and his decisions alone despite Britt’s glaring miss. The continual failure to score at home and the poor tactical shuffle which screwed us on the night will be punished on Saturday against much better opponents than tonight. Strange how we can be top of the league yet upon leaving the Stadium feel almost as bad as when Trashcan was here. Patience wore thin tonight and the fans let their feelings be known. You can fool some of the people some of the time but tonight just stunk the Riverside out and left a bitter taste to boot.

If you wish to leave a comment about Redcar Red’s match report please return to the Week 11 discussion page

Tony Pulis looks for a spell at the top to keep ahead of rivals

Championship 2018-19: Week 11

Tue 23 Oct – 19:45: Boro v Rotherham
Sat 27 Oct – 12:30: Boro v Derby

Werdermouth looks ahead to a chance to consolidate at the top of the table…

Just when it had started to seem that the mere mention of having a chance to go top of the league had taken on Macbethian proportions in terms of bringing bad luck, the curse was lifted on Friday after Boro bewitched the Owls as they suffered a less than familiar defeat on home soil. At least we no longer have to contemplate referring to first place in the table as the Scottish position – which may for some conjure up the image of bad Karma with the usual prolonged tantric ascent up the table and another anticlimax.

For some Boro die-hards along for the ride, the idea of an uplifting journey would be getting stuck in slow-moving traffic on the A19 behind a refuse truck while the darkest of leaden skies rhythmically emptied their rain to the accompaniment of their personal compilation of Leonard Cohen’s 20 most depressing dirges. Yes, the mood music on Teesside is starting to show embryonic signs of unexpected optimism breaking out. Cries of Halleluja from the Boro faithful perhaps greeted the final whistle at Hillsborough as Tony Pulis’s team failed to let us down once more. Pre-arthritic knees that had been limbering up at half-time in preparation of being jerked in further disappointed were subsequently creaked back into their youthful position as those watching left with a promotion-hoping spring in their step. Of course, the murmur of wait until Saturday evening when we’ll be knocked back off the top by our rivals kept many from clicking their heels together – even if they were still able to manage such a manoeuvre.

However, the Championship is by definition a league of inconsistency and Boro’s failure not to miss an opportunity was magnified by our rivals as they instead indulged themselves by stealing our trend-setting clothes – Leeds continued their slide down the form table as nearly 8,000 travelling fans saw their day out end in defeat at Tony Mowbray’s Blackburn, West Brom saw their seven-game undefeated run end at Wigan and the Blades failed to cut it as they sheepishly left Derby without any points.

Boro now host two games at the Riverside this week, starting with the visit of Rotherham, who have now failed to win any of their last eight games – indeed, they’ve actually lost all of their six matches on the road this season, scoring just 2 goals and conceding 14. What could possibly go wrong? is a sentence nobody of ‘Typical Boro’ persuasion would thank anyone for asking – though at least we don’t have to add “It’s a chance to go top” since we’ve thankfully ticked that Schrodinger’s box without looking inside it. The Millers were promoted back to the Championship at their first attempt following relegation to League One the previous season. Boro last played the South Yorkshire team back in their 2015-16 promotion-winning season and the corresponding fixture saw Aitor Karanka’s side pick up three points thanks to a solitary Stewart Downing strike – perhaps an omen for the less prolific attacking midfielder. The game on Tuesday will also be Paul Warne’s 100th game in charge of the club in what has been his first managerial appointment since stepping up from being a Miller’s player.

In terms of team formation, the victory over Wednesday saw Tony Pulis revert back to having three central defenders with Dael Fry returning to the fold. The Boro manager had recently preferred to play a more conventional back-four in order to accommodate an extra forward as he looked for ways of improving the goals scored column. Whether he has had a change of heart, or it was simply down to players like Braithwaite and Saville being too tired after their international exertions, is perhaps something we will discover an hour before kick-off. Although the noises coming from the Boro boss seem to indicate that the Danish forward will be back in the team as he rates him as one of the best players in the league. Also likely to continue is Downing, who Pulis called “a proper player” as opposed perhaps to some of those who just seem somewhat inappropriate for the task at hand.

With Besic looking back to his best at Hillsborough and Clayton being his usual self then it would appear the only way to accommodate Braithwaite would be to either lose a central defender or drop Howson – which most realistically would mean the stifling of youth once more. Whatever happens, it will be important to retain the intensity displayed on Friday, which was so conspicuous by its absence before the international break. Apparently Pulis now blames himself for that after confessing to training his players too hard – though given that admission he should maybe also blame himself for failing to have more energetic players on the bench, like Wing and Tavernier.

On Saturday, Boro have once again been selected for TV in the early kick-off against Derby County – in fact the following three weekend fixtures against Stoke, Brentford and Villa are also on the box, which will have those who shelled out for a MFC live-stream season’s pass wondering if they’ll end up not getting their money’s worth. The Rams have been a little erratic under new coach Frank Lampard and have won six but lost four so far as they’ve crept up into the play-off positions. As they sit in fifth, they are currently at the top of a group of nine clubs just separated by three points, with his former Chelsea team-mate John Terry now on the coaching staff of Villa, who occupy the last of that section in 13th spot. Derby’s win over Sheffield United was only their second victory in the last seven outings, which included defeats at Bolton and surprisingly at Boro’s opponents on Tuesday, Rotherham.

In some ways, the Rams are like Boro as they look to bounce back from the disappointment of defeat in the play-off semi-finals last season – but with a new young manager still learning the ropes it could be a harder prospect. Although Boro will be hoping for a much better outcome than the corresponding fixture last season, which saw them crash to a 3-0 defeat thanks to a Matěj Vydra hat-trick. It was a game that Danny Ayala would want to forget after he first gave away a penalty earlier in the second half and then got sent off on the hour mark following a second yellow. The Spanish defender will do well to learn to avoid rash challenges and he was lucky to get away with his forearm smash last Friday too.

Boro followers will be hoping to see their team pick up another six points from these two Riverside games, though performances in recent weeks have been far from spellbinding and as Tony Pulis searches for the magic formula perhaps he could contemplate even more old school methods than normal. As you know, the Boro manager is quite open-minded when it comes to experimenting with different techniques to give him the edge over opponents. He may have possibly been interested to read this week of how a group of practising witches in America have decided to protest at the controversial appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court by placing a hex on him.

Though we learned that modern witches no longer feel compelled to invoke spells by gathering around a yew tree during a full moon but have instead provided details of how to cast their spell on their Facebook page – though it’s not clear if they’ve been friended by Sir Nick Clegg yet after he became the social media organisation’s head of global affairs after a disastrous spell as Liberal Democrat leader made most of his MPs disappear.

It would probably be sensible for Tony Pulis to delegate the preparation of the the potion to members of his staff as some of the ingredients listed may prove difficult for him to inconspicuously gather – especially the graveyard dirt and coffin nails, which would take some explaining if he’s inadvertently snapped at Linthorpe Cemetery on a smart phone by a passing taphophile as they make a headstone rubbing. Also listed as needed for the spell are a black candle, a broken mirror and some revenge oil – though before you start rummaging through your wife’s essential oil collection it’s unlikely she’ll have a flask of it unless you’ve forgot her birthday again.

Thankfully, revenge oil is available online and can even be purchased from Amazon with the sellers declaring “Our Sweet Revenge Oil was created for those who have been harmed to such a degree that simple reversing techniques fail to deliver adequate results” – before adding “We got a little creative with this blend, combining good old fashioned hoodoo herbs with those from ancient magic such as Bdellium and Cypress”. We are also informed that “Cypress is associated to Cyble, Goddess of the natural world who ruled over the dark arts and was invoked for her power to revenge” – before being warned “If you do not fear the karma associated with such spells, then this oil is sure to meet your needs” with the final disclaimer “for external use only” – in case anyone was thinking of swallowing the whole myth.

Incidentally, it’s always useful to read the Amazon customer reviews before deciding on whether to buy or not and some purchasers may possibly be encouraged by the following five-star rating: “It appears the warning I posted a year ago was removed, so I’m posting another one… a different one. Do not use this oil unless you KNOW what you’re doing, otherwise the results can be fatal. I would also suggest NOT using this indoors. Go outside.” – though it sounds like any law enforcement agencies browsing online may want to follow up these claims. You may also be interested to know that customers who purchased revenge oil also purchased ‘Chaos and Confusion Oil’, ‘Deadly Attraction Oil’ and my particular favourite ‘Crown of Success Oil for Victory’, which I’m sure will be on every Championship manager’s wish list. Indeed, a very popular oil with over 100 satisfied customers – though a few dissatisfied ones too with one rather miffed consumer giving it just one star with: “I became bankrupt after using it” and another begrudging three-star review from one woman: “It seemed to work for my husband, not for me. He was offered a job.” It probably just goes to prove that invoking magical spells is not an exact science.

Nevertheless, coaches are continually searching for that extra one or two percent that could make all the difference and in a tight race it could be worth a try for the Boro manager as he attempts to stay ahead of his rivals. As the three witches of Rockliffe, Pulis, Flemming and Woodgate, gather secretly to prepare the potion to see off one of their rivals, we can only hope that they’ve done their homework. As they begin their witches brew, the Boro manager enthusiastically declares “OK lads, I’ve printed out a photo of Frank Lampard and have bought some revenge oil online. Woody, have you got the graveyard dirt and coffin nails?” – “Yes Boss, though I could only get brass screws” replied his trusty lieutenant. “I suppose that will have to do. Curtis, did you get the rainwater from a thunderstorm?” – “Sorry Boss, there hasn’t been any thunder on Teesside this week”, came the disappointing reply. “Bugger, well it says we can also use toilet water instead, so off you pop to the gents Curtis”. The Boro manager then picks up his club pen as he prepares for the next stage. “OK, it says we have to first write out the curse on the back of the photo – I’ll just put ‘Lamps you loser’ to start with and we’ll see how it goes”.

As Flemming returns with some rather unpleasant smelling toilet water, Pulis continues reading the instructions. “Right, we fill half the jar with toilet water and the other half with urine – OK, if one of you lads will do the honours we can then quickly put the lid back on”. He’s met with blank looks from both Curtis and Woody – “OK, I’ll do it my bloody self you pair of wimps, now turn your backs”. They arrange the photo with the jar of urine and continue with the instructions. “Now, Woody break that mirror and arrange some broken pieces around the photo” – “But isn’t that bad luck boss?” he questions – “Surely you don’t believe that nonsense, give it here then.” The Boro manager smashes the mirror and then Flemming hands over the candle – “What… this is a tea light. It’s supposed to be a black candle for Christ’s sake”. Pulis is not impressed but improvises by rubbing a bit of boot polish on it. “So, I’ll just roll the candle in the graveyard dirt, sprinkle the revenge oil, then light the candle and stick it on the lid of the jar and we’re done – the three points are as good as in the bag!” The trio of cackling witches high-five each other and head off for the next training session as Pulis warns that it’s best if none of them mention any of this to Steve Gibson.

So another busy week at Boro will hopefully see them continue their spell at the top of the table as the Championship cauldron comes to the boil. However, the triskaidekaphobics among you will need to avoid looking at the table too carefully until after game 14 on Tuesday – though the omens are looking good for Tony Pulis to hit the magic two points per game measure that will hopefully see many supporters demons being exercised.

Boro’s international men of mystery hoping to regroup

Championship 2018-19: Week 10

Fri 19 Oct – 19:45: Sheffield Wednesday v Boro

Werdermouth looks ahead to the post international break Friday game…

Boro’s harmless globe-trotters returned to Teesside this week as they top the bill on Friday evening and prepare to wow the TV viewers with another display of unbelievable skills and fancy footwork. Although Tony Pulis appears somewhat upset that Boro are playing Wednesday on Friday instead of Saturday and perhaps thinks the concept is far too demanding for many of his players – who gave the distinct impression last time out that they didn’t know what day it was as they failed to turn up against Forest. The Boro manager believes it’s unfair that his club have ten players dashing back from international duty for the early game compared to the Owls solitary player screeching to a halt outside Hillsborough.

Some on Teesside may be surprised to discover that their team is magnet for international players – though others have long suspected our recruitment department probably Google the phrase “current international” and then starts at page 100 to beat the competition to hidden gems. However, with 211 countries affiliated to FIFA, who select players for several teams at various levels, then you’d be surprised if anyone on more than five grand a week wasn’t representing their country in some capacity – after all Theresa May has to do it for just three grand a week and as far as we know hasn’t even got time to get a tattoo of Brexit means Brexit on her back.

Tony Pulis has no doubt spent the last couple of weeks trying to work out how to get Boro back to their early season best. Reports have emerged that he’s pinpointed the problem as being that his strikers simply need to take their chances. Although, it’s still not clear if ‘Boro striker’ is actually a job title or in fact an oxymoron. Few are confident that either Britt Assombalonga, Jordan Hugill, Rudy Gestede or even Ashley Fletcher have what it takes to bang them in on a consistent basis – the fact that their manger has now joined the ranks of the doubters must be of concern to those looking for someone to spearhead the promotion challenge.

Of course, it’s not just down to the strikers and in recent weeks the midfield has not looked overly creative or capable of providing that killer pass – or indeed appeared like hitting the target themselves. The last midfielder who seemed to show an eye for a goal was George Saville and he was promptly rewarded by being retreated to the holding role where he subsequently bombed against Forest. Though to be fair to Saville, everyone bar Downing bombed against Forest as they easily put in the worst performance of the season in front of a disgruntled Riverside crowd.

Talking of explosive midfield talent, Tony Pulis declared this week that he was delighted with Lewis Wing and that: “He’s come on a bomb since going out on loan. The lad has come on a bomb.” I suppose it makes a change from other recently acquired midfielders who cost a bomb and look more like a suspect device than a carefully guided missile. I suspect the former Shildon winger is probably wondering when such praise will manifest itself with a starting berth. Pulis seems to be trying to use him as an example to entice other young players at the club to go out on loan. He cited his loan spell last season as the main reason he’s “pushed on” but it’s hardly encouragement to hear “Lewis has got a long way to go yet, but we’re delighted with him. Given time, he’s got a great chance.” Though with his previous performances this season it’s hard to see why his time hasn’t already come and how long exactly is the way that he needs to go? hopefully not all the way to Villa!

After a shaky start where they lost two and drew one of their opening games, Sheffield Wednesday have only suffered defeat in just one of their last nine games, which was against Forest at the hands of the newly converted Aitor ‘attack is the best form of defence’ Karanka. Under the permanently sad-looking Dutchman Jos Luhukay, the Owls now sit just three points behind Boro in sixth spot and they will be looking to make their manager threaten a smile with another victory. Although this fixture traditionally sees both managers being shown the door following the final whistle after both Garry Monk and Carlos Carvalhal were given early Christmas red cards from their chairman last season. Nevertheless, I suspect you’d get decent odds on the same happening this season if you head to the bookies with the daftest of quids. Boro supporters main worry will be the fear of Adam Reach scoring the inevitable goal against his former club – he has in fact netted twice in the last three games, including that screamer against Leeds. Whether he’ll prove that academy graduates need to got out on permanent loan in order make a career for themselves is perhaps a discussion for another day.

Following that poor performance before the international break, where Tony Pulis compared his players to a “bag of potatoes”, he may be struggling on how to separate those who can Smash the league from the other spuds in the squad – though other table-topping dehydrated instant mashed-potato products are available. Perhaps he just got all the players in circle and said “OK lads get your spuds out” before eliminating individuals with “one potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, more – sorry Wingy you’re the first one out…” Anyway, whatever team we end up with let’s hope Pulis gets them playing out of their skins and Boro’s season doesn’t end up half-baked. But before I leave, I’m contractually obliged to state that if Boro win on Friday night then they can go top of the league, which is often an overly optimistic statement that is sadly usually followed by the phrase ‘another missed opportunity’ – I suspect Tony Pulis will be hoping he won’t have to raid his book of vegetable metaphors come the post-match press conference.

Some history on the Owls

Ken Smith takes brief historic look at Sheffield Wednesday…

As most of you will probably know Sheffield FC is the oldest established club in the World having been founded in 1857 and are still existence although actually playing over the border in Dronfield, Derbyshire. Our opponents tonight, like many clubs, were formed from a meeting with the Wednesday Cricket Club and started life at Bramhall Lane, now of course the home of Sheffield United.

The Wednesday FC were actually the first club to win a match with a ‘golden goal’ in extra time and in semi-darkness against Garrick in the Cromwell Cup match in 1868, except of course it was not known a ‘golden goal’ at the time. They had the distinction also being the first club to appoint a professional player called James Lang in 1876 before professional footballers came into vogue in the ensuing 4 years. In 1882 they severed relations with the Wednesday Cricket Club.

Having lost most of their players to professional clubs The Wednesday FC club went through a barren spell, they decided to turn professional in 1887 and moved to New Grove and eventually to Hillsborough in Owlerton, hence their nickname of The Owls. In the meantime Sheffield United were founded in 1889 and adopted Bramhall Lane as their home. As with all clubs from the same city there began a fierce rivalry between the two clubs. There is even a rumour, unsubstantiated I have to say, that Wednesday fans will not eat bacon because it reminds them of United’s coloured stripes.

The Wednesday FC were promoted to the old First Division in 1900 as Champions, two years before the Boro, and were Champions in 1903 and 1904 before changing their name to Sheffield Wednesday in 1929 when they again became Champions again in two successive seasons. Since then, especially in the 1950s they became known as a yo-yo club, relegated three times but each time gaining promotion in the following season.

Hillsborough has often been a venue for FA Cup Semifinals and notoriously the scene of the greatest sports tragedy in English football history when 94 people lost their lives in the Liverpool v Nottingham Forest match in April 1989. Indeed Boro won their FA Cup Replay against Chesterfield there in 1997. However it hasn’t been a particularly good hunting ground for Boro until recently. Boro went into their last match in the 1988/89 season in 17th position never having been in the bottom three all season, but lost 0-1 at Hillsborough and were relegated. However Boro have won their last two matches there and won 3 of their last 6 there. There has been only one draw there since the Second World War in the 1973/74 season, but only 7 wins and 16 defeats.