Since relegation we have endured many instances of Boro cocking up their return to the top flight. There was our first season in the Championship, where we retained our young manager and expected him to do the job within a climate of selling off the best players, then sacking him when we grew aghast over some middling results. 2010/11 saw some heavy spending in a concerted effort to drive for promotion, only we handed the money to the wrong manager who blew it on busted flushes, which set us back for years. Two seasons later, a side assembled from freebies, bargains and loanees over-achieved in reaching the division’s upper echelons before being found out and running completely out of steam.
Sad times all, and I want to make it clear that I’m not recounting them in an effort to build a case against anyone – it’s far too easy with the benefit of hindsight to point out things that went wrong. What I am trying to do, I guess, is put the current mess into some sort of context, because really what’s going on at the Riverside right now is the mother of all cock-ups. What club apart from Boro could be sailing towards the Premiership, each match an easy three points in the bank, only to knacker themselves thanks to internal issues and frustrations coming to the boil? Honestly, before Christmas you would have had us nailed on to go up. It looked like a formality, easy-easy-easy, as though the fixtures were just minor inconveniences to get out of the way on our serene march back.
How we’ve got from there to here, from going to the likes of Hillsborough and striding out with three points through to getting tonked at the Valley, against a team in utter disarray and a club at war with the supporters, will take some unpicking. I wouldn’t like to be the bloke who has to do it. I’ve taken a day since watching the match, in mounting horror, to gather my thoughts because it was one of those shocking moments, a bit like losing in the quarter final of the FA Cup to Cardiff in 2008, which left me bereft of a coherent response. I can do knee-jerk reactions as well as anyone else, but that’s what would have been on this page yesterday and the situation needs more careful thinking than that.
What I think we were all hoping for was a roaring performance from the side, an effort to show everyone what they are capable of… And I suppose we got exactly that. It amounted to very little in the end. Some decent showings. Adam Clayton battled like he cared. Nsue was lively. Ramirez at times played as though he was involved in an altogether classier affair than those around him. But then we started hitting problems. Dael Fry was a consequence of unfortunate selection; it should have been Kalas in there. Adomah did a lot of running to little effect and Leadbitter’s telling lack of authority made leaving Forshaw on the bench a crying aberration. It was in attack where the issues really told, the presence in the starting line-up of Downing and Rhodes and their subbing off as a consequence of sheer ineffectuality later in the game. Whilst a lot of money has been spent elsewhere on players, these two have stood out as the biggest statements of our ambition this term. In joining us, Downing dropped a division beneath his natural level. Rhodes is as close to a guarantee of goals as it can possibly get. Both were poor, very, very poor, indeed this match was like a microcosm of their entire term. I’m not sure what Downing’s on, whether he thinks that by his sheer presence there’ll be some benefit, because his actual contribution has not been anywhere close to what we expect. As for Lord Jordan, it’s still early days and yet the technique just doesn’t seem to be there – have we got a talent-free lookalike by mistake?
Karanka apologists have been busy pointing out that neither player was in fact the manager’s choice. He didn’t want Stew and preferred Ross McCormack as our new striker, which suggests neither was the right fit for the system he’s been trying to instil, and arguably that’s been proved over the course of the season. But leaving aside the work they’ve put in for us, they’re both Rolls Royce investments with proven track records. You could argue that if they don’t ‘fit the system’ then the system needs changing in order to accommodate them. Signing someone to complement Rhodes’s skills in attack would have helped; even cursory research indicates he’s deadly as part of a front two. And you only need to review what made Downing click at West Ham and Aston Villa to capture him at his best for us. Otherwise you are essentially square pegging them both, which it looks like what the manager has been doing. A case of ‘my way or the highway’ without any element of amending the make-up of the side in order to help them thrive. And then you wonder whether last week’s spat was down to a player of Downing’s calibre and importance to the club deciding that he’s had enough.
The more I think about Aitor the stronger the impression I’m getting of him being Jose Mourinho Mk 2. Alienating players who don’t meet his specific requirements… Building enemies over two years, which then translates into poor results and dressing rooms being lost… A bit too happy to lay into people in public… There’s still a strong perception that Jose is a genius of a manager, and he does in truth have a long CV of trophies to back up such a claim, but that doesn’t come without its drawbacks and the debacle at Chelsea this season has kind of said it all. Are we heading the same way with his acolyte in charge?
All this is naturally spit-balling, trying to lay down some coherent thoughts after a sorry few days that are threatening to derail what was a highly promising campaign. It may yet turn out that all this is down to pressure and that a clearing of the air resolves everything, but who knows? It’s such a mess. We’ll know more shortly, with Steve Gibson spending his Monday in meetings with Karanka to sketch out a way forward. I’d like to think the foundations for a successful end to the season will be laid, though it’s hard to get any other impression than it already being over basically though self-implosion, and if that’s true then what future does the current Head Coach truly have?
Some added notes:
- I liked the initial Charlton protest, the beach balls on the pitch thing and the funereal procession beforehand. I liked the whistles – which all seemed to be sounded when Boro were making inroads into their half – far less.
- Leo Percovich’s donning of Karanka’s training top was telling. I enjoyed his show of support; at least he cared. Some people might feel less kindly about it, however.
- As the opening salvoes were sounded at the Valley the news broke that Nottingham Forest had sacked Dougie Freedman MD. What a basket case of a club Forest are turning into – a sad moment, and as with watching the Charlton protests a time to keep things in perspective.