I can envisage a long dark summer of the soul as we lick our wounds, explore what went wrong and wish the club well in putting it right. It’s a big topic, a season that started promisingly turning slowly to toss and no one seeming to have any answers, no good ones at any rate. At the same time we’ve seen Hull City – who began the campaign in total disarray – somehow transform into one of the division’s form teams. How did that happen, and more importantly how did we miss that trick?
Today though, I’d like to spend a bit of time discussing that blight of old Boro sides – mercenary footballers. I honestly thought we’d seen the last of them, the likes of Alen Boksic and Mido, but perhaps they just went elsewhere with the side spending years in the second tier, unable to attract such luminaries and instead having to depend on honest pros who made up for their lack of talent with graft. It turns out however that we had one of these lurking in the wings for over a year – step forward Gaston Ramirez, the midfielder who has developed into this season’s pantomime villain.
While willing at all turns to put a boot into the club when it does something stupid, which happens more often than I’d like it to, I am at heart a dedicated Boro fan and I devote far more love and attention to them than they deserve. It hurts me therefore when we acquire mercenaries – you know the type, so-called stars who are evidently here for a pay day and pick on sides like mine for their services because more often than not we’re desperate enough to take a chance on them. I mentioned Boksic because he was obviously in it for the money, but in a way there was something honest about him – he clearly didn’t give a monkey’s about us and didn’t try on any of those ingratiating, badge kissing shenanigans that just rub you up the wrong way. Mido, on the other hand, was a villain, someone who might as well have turned up wearing a skull and crossbones for the sheer act of piracy that amounted to his relationship with the Riverside.
And yet Gaston is worse, and the player he reminds me of most is Christian Ziege, the old goat herder who we picked up when his career had hit the skids at AC Milan, and once rehabilitated he couldn’t leave quickly enough. Ramirez came with the same sort of baggage. Signed by Southampton when they went up in 2012, the Uruguayan represented a considerable outlay at £12 million and over the subsequent years his appearances and relevance dwindled. Unloved, out of form, seemingly going nowhere, Aitor Karanka took a chance on him as Boro aimed for promotion in 2015/16. Ramirez repaid the favour with a rebirth of sorts, inspiring wins and forging the kind of link between midfield and attack that was always fragile and lacking in AK’s line-ups. Back in the Premiership at last, we took Ramirez on a permanent deal, viewing him as a critical part of our difficult first season back in the big time. At first it all went okay. Boro didn’t find victories easy to come by, but we were above the drop zone and looked set to stay in the division. Then the January transfer window came. Leicester were sniffing around as they scrabbled desperately for inspiration and his head was turned. The move was refused, but the player’s love affair with his current club had apparently died. Forget the manager who’d worked hard to rehabilitate his career. Ramirez wanted out. What followed were the classic mercenary tactics – niggling ‘injuries’, anonymous showings, the side in free-fall as its one natural attacking spark blinked out.
It all culminated in his effort on Saturday, the sort of scurrilous anti-performance that couldn’t have been any worse had he started flicking vees at the fans as he trudged off to the showers. There’s a decent argument for suggesting he did it deliberately, that obvious dive followed by his clumsy challenge, both perpetrated to bait disciplinary action. At the very least they were the kind of lazy, non-committal offences of a man who no longer showed the slightest amount of care as the players around him, his teammates, were collapsing to a Bournemouth team that pounced to take advantage of Boro’s shortcomings. It was cynical and sickening to witness. Ramirez must know that despite a second half of the season that has meandered to nothing he’s still an important part of the line-up. Without him, there’s just not a lot to us. Downing? Forget it. Traore? Still a lot more bluster than end product. This game, taking place as Boro were losing their deposit on the last chance saloon, nevertheless represented an opportunity to produce some dying spark of resistance. We might go down but we’d at least offer a fight. Instead it was a capitulation.
Despite my words above, I can stomach the occasional mercenary footballer if they’re willing to add something to the cause. Fabrizio Ravanelli – he scored goals. Players like that are a necessary evil and a product of modern times. They know the Premiership is cash-rich and there’s always money to earn, teams that are willing to put up with a half-assed effort because they’re talented enough to make something happen, also the top drawer skill level is so lacking elsewhere that they add that little, indefinable extra, that moment of magic you can really dine out on – ‘I’ve never seen a Boro player try that before!’ The ability of players who wear our shirt is generally quite prosaic. We specialise in workmanlike sides, stiff in defence and tough to break down, but usually unflashy. So to get the little touches of genius from a journeyman footballer with some pizzazz can be quite thrilling.
But now I’m put off. Totally disgruntled. Give me ten Adam Claytons but no more of this nonsense. I’m so angry. Ramirez knew what we’d done for him and in return how much we relied on his ability, and he’s let us down in an insidious and horrific way. Going down is bad enough but the infamy within the ranks – for no better reason than he fancied a move elsewhere – has really soured this Premiership year.
Please Steve Agnew, for all the ideas fizzing around your little bald noggin, please don’t let him near our first team again.