Back to the Future

I’m an Exams Officer in a high school,  and today was pre-results day for A-Levels. We get the results a day before the students do so that we can print everything off, gauge how we are performing as a school and prepare to dole out congratulatory high-fives and toughen our shoulders to be cried upon, depending on the outcome. Days like these are always busy and require a lot of preparation, so it isn’t until now that I’ve had time to talk about…

Middlesbrough 3-3 Notts County (won 4-3 pens) (Fletcher 2, Mahmutovic)

What a to-do, huh? On three occasions the Magpies scored before we pegged them back, and each time I was prepared to give up… It’s only the Carabao, the League’s what matters, right? And then I looked at that side, so few of the regular starters involved and Boro instead relying on players they had discovered down the back of the sofa i.e. Academy youngsters. As the match progressed the lads involved got younger and younger. A milestone was reached when Pulis introduced Nathan Wood, at 16 years and 75 days the youngest Boro player ever to turn out for the first team, like the new Fabregas except from the posh end of Teesside rather than Barcelona. No one else born in 2002 had played in the English professional league before this lad – hell he’s even younger than my dilettante son, who would no doubt declare ‘I’ll do it in a bit!’ if I ordered him to break any such record, before turning back to the hypnotic xBox screen.

As it was, Boro prevailed after a messy and largely graceless encounter that made up for the lack of style with character and determination. Other teenagers involved were Marcus Tavernier (a brief flurry of appearances while Monk was in charge, and then on loan to MK Dons for a spell), Djed Spence and Stephen Walker (not from Criminal Minds), which made Harrison Chapman at the ripe old age of 20 look like a veritable greybeard. Well, he’s got a beard… There were also substantial appearances for recent signings Paddy McNair and goalkeeper Andy Lonergan, while forgotten man Marvin Johnson was on from the start, and Luxembourger Enes Mahmutovic featured at right-back and found the net. Our two other strikes came courtesy of Ashley Fletcher, on the long, long road back from what must have been an annus horribilis in 2017/18 and looking sharp.

So that’s all good. Boro avoided a potential embarrassment, handed debuts to some very youthful performers and live to fight another day… But, the make-up of the side fielded by TP raises rightful questions about the depth available to him. It’s nothing unusual to rest your first teamers for a match of lesser importance, yet if the only alternatives were those we watched remove their nappies and take to the pitch last night then the absence of any quality players beyond the first eleven is frightening. If there’s an injury crisis, and hey! We’re Boro – players will get injured, then these are the guys we’ll be looking towards, and while overcoming Notts County is one thing putting these kids on the line against opposition of a similar level to ourselves sounds like it can only have one outcome.

The club remains quiet on the prospect of any further incoming players, but it seems impossible to imagine the current situation being allowed to last. We won last night. Great. But the message sent upstairs in the shape of the ‘back-up’ team should send shivers down the spine of Bausor and the suits, and may very well get phones ringing.

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Martin Odegaard and the Sub-Silly Season

The football season has started in earnest, with fixtures coming thick and fast and a Carabao Cup tie with Notts County taking place tonight. This should be an opportunity to start players who might not normally get 90 minutes of action on a regular basis, but the squad ranks appear thin right now and fiddling with the formation may not be a luxury that’s available to Mr Pulis.

Boro’s lack of action during the transfer window has been interpreted into varying levels of concern. The glass half-full pundits think this is the perfect opportunity to use the team’ youngsters, amidst a climate of inflated prices, clubs that see a moneyed MFC coming and raise their prices to unacceptable levels, the whole false economy of investing in the squad to bolster a promotion charge that could never happen. We’ve been there before and it hasn’t always ended well – Boro more or less absorbed Garry Monk’s splurge in 2017, but think back to the players Gordon Strachan drafted in and the resulting number of years during which his successors had funds denied to them because of those same albatrosses… Then there’s the half-empty Brigade. The team doesn’t have enough quality players. Pulis is correct – we are around five bodies short of a side ready to go up. If we don’t address this and soon, then we may face the prospect of a visibly frustrated manager jumping ship because Boro do not match his ambitions for the side.

The truth as always is somewhere betwixt those bodies of opinion. And all this is being played out against a background of the transfer window having shut, except it isn’t really. The opportunity to make signings continues in Europe until 31 August, and Championship clubs can use this same period to draft in free agents and loanees. You can go on Transfermarkt and look at the players who are currently without a contract – Samir Nasri may be a total arse but he’d do well at this level. Bakary Sako – available! We could bring Robert Huth back. Boro need a right-back and Glen Johnson is looking for somewhere to play. At some point Jack Rodwell has to make good on his potential, right? Er, right?

More likely, Boro will make use of the existing bloated Premiership rosters to ‘swoop’ for players who are unregistered, unable to play for their parent clubs, and available on loan. You can pick your own targets here – the Evertonians we were linked with no doubt continue to be of interest, and as before I would dribble all over my pastrami butties about the prospect of Yannick Bolasie in a 32Red shirt. It gets sillier still, however, with the emerging rumour we are looking to secure a deal for Real Madrid’s young winger, Martin Odegaard. The Norwegian, who seems to have been 19 years old forever, has returned to the Bernabeu following a successful 18-month stint with Heerenveen, and it’s possible we could gain his services for the season. How cool is that? Odegaard ticks just about every box imaginable, would provide a readymade replacement for Adama Traore, and is even an established international for his country.

So is there anything in it, or is it the usual mindless speculation loaded to mess with our heads and tickle our fevered dreams? How ruinous is this gossip, given the majority of fans would no doubt love to have a potentially future world class attacker on the books, so when we don’t get him and recruit someone less exciting instead it’s a bit of a climb-down? And of course, there are the player’s wages to take into account. According to FMdB, Odegaard earns more than £80,000 per week to bum around Real Madrid B. It must be lovely to be able to toss cash around so lavishly, but Boro can’t pay anything like that kind of salary and considerations like these will no doubt form a realistic barrier to any negotiations.

In the meantime there’s the County of the Notts variety to take in, the little matter of a League Cup game. The Mags have been in League Two for several years, finishing fifth at the end of last season, and with a squad broadly to match. When thinking about them I can’t get our losing playoff encounter in 1991 out of my head, County managed at the time by a certain N Warnock and on their way to what was the final season of the old Division One. To most people though, all that is ancient history. They haven’t come close to gaining such lofty heights again, and have occupied the bottom two rungs of the league ladder since 1995. Glancing through the squad I can see precious little in terms of Boro associations, though they still find playing time for Jon Stead, the striker of antiquity who was once perma-linked with a move to the Riverside. Almost certainly a hat-trick hero this evening, helped along by assists from the lesser known Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nathan Thomas, their 23 year old forward who despite hailing from Ingleby Barwick earned his spurs with the youth ranks at Newcastle and Sunderland before embarking on a journeyman career around the lower leagues.

43 more to go…

I should really stop weekend drinking. Yesterday was pretty much written off thanks to body destroying experiments with alcohol. As Danny Glover was wont to say, I am too old for this shit. Anyway…

Middlesbrough 1 – 0 Birmingham (Assombalonga)

Boro returned to the top of the table with a confident and straightforward victory over Birmingham and the Monkman, but they could and should have won by more.

That about sums it up I feel, about as forgettable a gathering of three points as you will ever see, with the visitors threatening sporadically and getting Craig Gardner sent off for the sort of medieval challenge on Jonny Howson that might have been all right back in the day but tends to be frowned upon now. Speaking of the midfielder, Howson – a doubt after Tuesday but evidently not seriously affected – was a clear man of the match, laying on a Total Football pass for Britt’s goal and playing with verve throughout, indeed showing much of the zest that was missing elsewhere. Assombalonga took his chance really well, a very nice curled effort that confounded Connall Trueman in the Brum goal. From then however, he became more like Miss-ombalonga, wasting a slew of chances that ought to have put this one out of sight. Howson had a good opportunity, while a Downing free-kick that appeared to wrong foot just about everyone rebounded off the post.

Birmingham have become quite the whipping boys for us in recent seasons, and while they played with more purpose here than during our win at St Andrew’s in March, the suggestion is that this could well be another year of toil for Monk’s men. In reality both sides are depleted, the visitors under a transfer embargo and Boro suffering one of their own making. Afterwards TP reasserted that the level of performance we produced cannot go on forever without reinforcements, and that was underlined by witnessing our threadbare bench and the lack of quality substitutes available. Jordan Hugill was unavailable through injury, which meant another cameo for Ashley Fletcher and a further opportunity to look forward to seeing the West Ham loanee make his debut.

As always it’s refreshing to watch a Pulis post-match conference. His insistence on standing throughout gives the impression of a caged animal, and his answers are to my mind straight and honest. Rumours have started to circulate that he’s thinking of leaving, frustrated by our lack of business, but hopefully that’s all they are despite his feelings not only being understandable but shared among the majority of supporters.

I suspect a busy week of arranging loan deals will be happening behind the scenes before our visit to Ashton Gate on Saturday, a tie that will undoubtedly be more challenging than our last two home games. Bristol City has the makings of being a barometer to mark where this side truly stands – genuine contenders, or flat-track bullies? Another question surrounds the future of Martin Braithwaite, almost certainly slumming it in the English second tier and a possible target for European clubs. You’d hope that the cupboard has been more or less swept bare and that a resource like the Danish forward is essential, and it’s thoughts like these that tease at more than a player’s destination being on the line.

And so a fine win, and as ever it’s delightful to celebrate a strong start and a league position we would want to hold on to, but the caveats that go with those elements are serious and will need addressing.

The Monkish Monsignor

With all that transfer caper out of the way and Boro ready to get back to action in command of a slimline group of players, we welcome Birmingham City to the Riverside tomorrow and a certain Mr G Monk.

The Monk was asked in his pre-match press conference about any hard feelings concerning his short spell at the Riverside, and the highlights are covered in this Gazette article. I was going to copy and paste any interesting, divisive comments, but in time-honoured form there was nothing worth mentioning. You might hope that one day, an ex-manager would just let rip, if for no other reason then it’s good for the LOLs – they were wrong to sack me – WRONG! No one fires the Monk and gets away with it and now they’re gonna pay! Pay! With bitter blood! etc.

Nothing of the sort, obviously, nor a mention of GM’s clear failings at Boro, so an absence of any kind of genuine reflection. I didn’t bother updating these pages when Garry was in charge, mainly I suspect because I forgot and couldn’t be arsed, but looking back it would have been a fascinating period to cover. What I chiefly recall is the dashed hope, the Monk spending his summer prior to the season in marked contrast to this one by spending heavily on the squad, stuffing our ranks with forwards as he looked to resolve the goal-shy issues that helped to get us relegated. What he actually did was buy a lot of strikers and then not know how to use them effectively. At all. Ashley Fletcher looked out of his depth. Britt didn’t appear to be worth breaking the club transfer record to recruit. The Monk had little clear idea how to deploy Martin Braithwaite. Players like Downing and Bamford, both clearly surplus to requirements, emerged as better than the players he’d signed so he needed to accommodate them also, and the whole thing became a real mess as his shift in focus from defensive solidity led to the trickle of goals we conceded increasing to a gush.

It reminded me of the largely disastrous Gordon Strachan experiment, one the club quickly moved to halt as the Monk was given his marching orders for an early Christmas present and Boro appointed someone who can do the job with a degree of competence. Hopefully, unlike Trashcan the fallout from Garry’s tenure won’t be more than half a decade bumming around mid-table before making another brief return to the top flight. At least on this occasion, as has clearly been shown, we have assets that can be sold and the money ultimately recycled into squad building. That, on paper, is the idea at least.

For their part, Birmingham are under a transfer embargo and their window was largely an effort to nail players to the floor in order to hold on to what they have. This isn’t the Monk’s fault (their previous permanent manager was Harry Redknapp, so draw your own conclusions) – he was only installed in March and has done a decent job since then, gaining credit for hauling his team away from the threat of relegation. Boro supporters who demand to have their memories pricked with middling former players will delight to see Lukas Jutkiewicz turning out for the opposition. ‘The Juke’ was a piece in Tony Mowbray’s jigsaw, or further evidence that Mogga couldn’t sign a decent striker if his life depended on it as he scored 15 (fifteen) in 71 before Aitor put him – and us – out of his misery. Betwixt ourselves and Birmingham, he was part of Sean Dyche’s Burnley, where his record of zero goals in 35 appearances must stand as a kind of record. A poor man’s Emile Heskey, and that’s saying something. Hat trick tomorrow, I reckon.

In the meantime, as the team continues to lick its wounds over the lack of signings, MFC has issued a further refund to Riverside Live subscribers. This is for those poor buggers, like me, who try to retain a connection with the club via their paid for streaming service, only to find that for the second match in a row it was unavailable for much of it, essentially the first half when everything happened. While I appreciate the opportunity to claw some money back, I am stunned that a service not without its prior history of gaffes, failures and cock-ups is actually getting worse, despite having an entire summer to put it right. Imagine Sky TV being as bad as this, let alone the almost 100% reliable BBC. There’s the possibility of a cheap shot comparing this to the club’s half-assed performance during the transfer window, but I would like to think I’m above that.

Deadline Day Doo-Dah

So we come to it at last, the deadline day for transfers (though not really, with loan deals still on the table until the end of the month, but you know, whatever). I like the 5.00 pm finish line, because stopping up until 11.00 only to go to bed and then finding out the next morning we’d squeezed out a signing that just hasn’t been announced until afterwards wasn’t much fun.

With all the hype happening, the various Chrome tabs open with their scrolling feeds, ‘expert’ opinions (quite frankly, the day when I need Sam Allardyce’s thoughts on anything is pretty much time to call it quits), and so on, I thought I would leave reporting on any of it until the dust settled. A good thing too, as the big news of the day was that there wasn’t in fact any news. Rumours abounded, but in the end the only player movement – beyond those that even the news starved official club website won’t reveal to us – involving Boro was Connor Ripley’s season-long sentence to Accrington Stanley.

By all accounts, we came close with Mo Besic. The player wanted to come and Everton were keen to sell, so a price worth £6 million was thrashed out and personal terms with the Bosnian agreed, only for the deal to fall flat because of the fee demanded by his agent. Boro, you will recall, have been very public about their unwillingness to be held to ransom by players’ agents, and it appears that’s exactly what was going on and we refused to give in. It seems as good a reason as any to walk away, particularly as everyone involves is well aware that Besic will be a Boro player before too long anyway because of the loan market… Ignoring that we are about as well stacked in central midfield as any team, and this is not an area upon which we needed to focus, but oh well.

Further Evertonians on their way to Teesside were right winger Yannick Bolasie and right-back Cuco Martina. The latter is a Dutchman who plays internationally for and captains Curacao (me neither). Bolasie is a Congolese international, despite being born in France and spending the vast majority of his football career in England (with a small break when he turned out for Maltese side Floriana). You guessed it, the Toffees had made so many additions to the squad that the need to offload some of their lesser required talent was paramount. The amount they spent topped the £80 million mark, with the likes of Yerry Mina and Lucas Digne not coming cheap, though both were steals compared with the ‘really saw you coming’ ransom they threw in Watford’s direction for Keith Richarlison. Scouse wags took the time to mock up a badge that blended both clubs’ crests to reflect the traffic of their players coming over here, but as it happens (and gaps in the side suggest both Martina and Bolasie could stroll into our starting eleven) nothing took place.

All of which seems like a crying shame, given our sheer need for bodies and now a reliance on the loan window to correct the situation. I should give credit to the club for not bowing to public pressure in paying the exorbitant fees demanded by agents, and it isn’t as though Boro haven’t cocked up on many transfer deadline days before now – Ricketts… Shawky… Alves… flipping Lee Miller – so perhaps, unless you’re certain, you should just leave it.

You would think that with a profit of more than £30 million showing on Boro’s transfer balance following the summer dealings that we are in a pretty strong negotiating position, so that’s something. And, as suggested, with Premiership clubs having stuffed their ranks with fresh meat they will be looking at the loan market every bit as fervently as we are… All the same it feels like a bit of a failure, masked by a strong start in the league that reveals nothing after only two games played. I can understand fans being disappointed, yet equally there’s a ‘watch this space’ feel to everything with further business certain to follow.

In the meantime, the wider world of the Premiership window threw out some giggles, notably at Manchester United who, despite already being covered  in central defence, decided they needed an extra body and then found their efforts to sign various players resulting in failure, doors slammed in their faces, being used as a bargaining tool in certain ageing Uruguayans leveraging the prospect of a transfer in negotiating a fat new contract. The trend of clubs unveiling the arrival of new players via professionally developed videos continues also. I especially like the one linked above, in which West Ham announce the signing of Lucas Perez from Arsenal, via the gimmick of Premiership Fantasy Football and some funky beats. Oh, for the days when Boro signed people on permanent contracts for real money, and the club would dash out a grainy video of Keith Lamb stumbling over his words at the press conference, Bryan Robson looking like he needs a pint confused and the glamorous overseas signing trying to work out why this doesn’t look a lot like Liverpool…

Blunted Blades

Yes yes, I know, back after another year’s absence and without a demand from anybody for an update, let alone a pitchfork raised in anger. Seriously, is an angry mob beyond you these days? Anyway…

Middlesbrough 3 – 0 Sheffield United (Braithwaite, Flint, Downing)

My memories of home matches against the Blades are not very often happy ones, so it was a real pleasure to see us win here with some ease. It was made better as it took place against a background of players leaving and rumoured incomings, meaning that Boro are nothing like a confirmed and settled squad yet, indeed this may still be the case until the end of August when the loan window closes.

TP went with a back three and watched his midfield – now bloated with numbers – dominate possession and all the attacking intent. It was encouraging to see Lewis Wing (before last season playing for Shildon in the Northern League) make the starting line-up and cause all manner of problems, not least his corner in the seventh minute that, via Dael Fry’s head, was poked into the net by Martin Braithwaite. The Danish forward, last year considered surplus by the manager, has now scored two in two. Another set-piece goal, a further corner courtesy of Wing, and Aden Flint headed home for our second. Stewie Downing got our third from a Ryan Shotton cross after 25 minutes, and that was just about that. It was the least the veteran winger deserved after a fine display, but then there was very little to criticise overall. A much sturdier effort from the defence when it was needed, notably from Adan Clayton who was back to the ball winning elan he showed during the Karanka days, while the side’s attacking intent was more or less complete on the half-hour mark.

As for United, with 65 minutes left to ease themselves back into the game they instead came away with little except for fouls and bookings. The appropriately named Chris Basham was lucky to stay on the pitch after his effort to remove parts of Braithwaite’s body, while Leon Clarke – who I believe was whispered for a rumoured move here over the summer – failed to score, but gave Darren Randolph some work to do.

It’s nothing unusual to see Boro make a strong start to the season, but this – coupled with the ever so slightly spawned draw against Millwall – is very encouraging stuff. There are clear signs that we are getting in Pulis exactly what Sir Steve thought he was paying for i.e. a vastly experienced manager who can read games and opposition teams without the need for bulky dossiers, and this with the task of team building to be completed. The squad ranks look relatively thin, yet TP has looked in the short term at least to our youth ranks for added numbers, which appears to be paying off. It’s admirable that he responded to the lack of full-backs by not fielding any – arguably, only Friend (moved to the back three) and Shotton (right wing-back) were playing out of their preferred positions, and neither looked in any trouble.

Elsewhere, the transfer we all knew had been on the cards for some time was confirmed when Adama Traore’s move to Wolves was announced. The tricky winger went for a club record £18 million, which was his minimum fee release clause, and I’m sure leaves with our best wishes. Some thoughts here. We sold Traore for more than double the amount he cost, which is a good thing though I do wonder how much we regret letting Albert Adomah depart for Villa as part of that initial deal. My suspicion is that Albert would have been lost at the higher level, but then it wasn’t a great deal better with Adama who impressed fitfully, all speed on the ball and dribbling at terrified defences and yet giving them a free pass each time thanks to some awful crosses or just running into traffic. His best spell came under Pulis, according to the pundits good for working with nothing apart from high tower, long ball players, and yet somehow capable of improving Traore to such an extent that he became the main source of our finest attacking play last season. Clearly he’s too good for this level and I hope he will get the opportunity to thrill Wolves supporters just as he did us in the past.

Transfer window hyperbole is always a blast. Here’s how Wolves announced their capture of Traore:

And here’s a lovely tribute, in the form of a limerick, penned by myself:

There once was a winger from Spain
Whose crossing could cause us great pain,
But his close control pleased us,
His pace, well ‘Sweet Jesus!’
And now he’ll terrorise top teams again.

The things you get up to when stuck in traffic, right?

With Boro target Martyn Waghorn getting lost on the road up to Teesside and signing for Derby instead (not that arsed, if I’m honest), these are no doubt going to be a couple of days when keeping Spy Sports News and the gossip feed of your choice on constant rotation are a must. A lot of players linked, but how many of them are seriously on the radar as opposed to paper talk/agent’s banter remains to be seen. The transfer window is its usual frantic self with Chelsea paying god knows how much for a keeper with an even less pronounceable name than the one they’re losing to Real Madrid, while Spurs’s interest in Jack Grealish is welcome news to anyone who doesn’t wish to have their defences tortured by his talent and that slappable face.

*UPDATE* We’ve signed West Ham striker and Boro fan, Jordan Hugill, on loan. You can stick that up your Waghorns, Frank Lampard! Having barely featured for the Hammers since his £10 million move to the London in January, he was very good for Preston beforehand (generally against us, I should add), so it sounds like a good deal – might not score for us, but won’t score against us. Let’s hope there are more incoming players before the deadline closes, preferably men who can play in a wide position. And Mo Besic. Obviously.

The Outgoing Column

With Boro down and pretty much out, players’ futures are being discussed in some earnest. We already know about a few players who will definitely not be here next season. They are:

Brad Guzan
My work colleague said if there’s one thing American soccer players can do well then it’s keep goal. Clearly that’s true in Brad Friedel’s case, mostly the same for Tim Howard and Kasey Keller was around for a long time, but my buddy had obviously never watched Guzan, who continued the proud tradition of Boro GK’s who are named Brad being awful. He’s going to Atlanta United in the MLS and I can’t see many Teessiders shedding a tear, indeed I would imagine a lobby emerging for the merits of using Dimi in our pointless last final two matches. Victor Valdes will almost certainly leave, with Pep Guardiola making a case for linking back up with his old Barca mate at City, but nothing on that yet.

Calum Chambers
The on-loan defender emerged as a competent force during his year here, a return to his Southampton form after mixed fortunes with Arsenal. He’s made it clear he’s on the books for a limited time only and is determined to break into Wenger’s line, now expanded to three (to accommodate him?). I’m a bit sad about this one; his partnership with Ben Gibson was good and it looks as though both will do one.

Alvaro Negredo
Another loanee whose time at the Riverside is about to end, and with his wages hitting six figures per week it’s impossible to picture him being re-signed for a year of running riot at Championship defences, an environment in which you’d expect him to thrive. I’ve mixed feelings. At his best the Beast was virtually unplayable, but when the cameras were away or the opposition not very glamorous he tended to vanish. Considering his salary that’s a bit unforgivable.

In the meantime, as the identity over Boro’s new manager remains a big question mark, let’s look at some of the leading candidates, which will likely end in a couple of days when the club makes an announcement. Or I get fed up. Or both.

Manager 1 – Steve McClaren

mcclarensThe most successful Boro manager during the post-liquidation period, McClaren over five years won the League Cup, made the UEFA Cup final and achieved some fine league finishes. A period of uninterrupted and not very often jeapordised Premiership football turned out to be no mean feat, but few people would welcome him back.

Experience – in management since 2001 and one of England’s most highly rated coaches beforehand, McClaren has had a hit and miss career. His time at the Riverside was a success with caveats. England was a disaster, Twente very good, Wolfsburg awful, Derby okay but Newcastle a free spending mess.

MFC connection – five years in charge and a well known admirer of Steve Gibson, almost as though he’s touting for employment.

Why we want him – vastly experienced, knows the club and showed at his first spell with Derby that he can handle the Championship.

Why he can eff off – negative and sometimes incomprehensible tactics, only really achieved anything at Boro after spending millions, which he might not get the chance to repeat this time around, made eyes at ‘bigger clubs’ while managing us, clearly in it for Steve McClaren and nothing more, carpet fixation, an unnecessary step backwards.

Rating: 4/10 – one who for Boro is where he belongs, firmly in the past.