Back to winning ways… finally

In my wildest dreams I hoped we would use the Hull City match to put all our recent troubles behind us and steamroll the opposition. I’m convinced this side has it within itself to overwhelm anybody and I still think that match will come before too long, one of those ‘What ever were you worrying about?’ instances, but looking back perhaps this wasn’t the occasion for that. For all their own problems, Hull aren’t anyone’s idea of a poor outfit and the time we travelled to the KC and received a 3-0 pasting is the one league game this season when I genuinely thought we’d been outclassed. Here we threatened to be undone again, but that didn’t happen and while the late, late winner from David Nugent had a definite touch of fortune about it, we’ve been done ourselves enough times and perhaps had that little rub of the green coming to us.

The first half was a frustrating pain in the arse. Everything that clicks about Boro – defensive solidity, controlling midfield – and all those elements that make us so irritating – passes going astray when it matters, advances into enemy territory ending in nothing, toothless up front – were entirely in evidence, like a season in microcosm. Anyone wanting to know why we aren’t guiding this division by the hand need only watch those 45 minutes to get it. Like us, the Tigers were set out to soak up our attacks and I was impressed especially by Huddlestone’s mopping up (is it only me who thinks his talents are wasted at this level?), but they didn’t have to break sweat very often as Jordan Rhodes once again worked his exercise in futility playing our lone gunman. I get the impression with our striker that it’s just a matter of time. The goals will come. No seriously they will; god knows what that price tag does to a bloke’s mentality, not to mention the difficulties intrinsic in ploughing the lonely furrow in attack for a side not noted for its boundless goal scoring sprees. For now it isn’t quite clicking. Chances are few. When they do come the opposition defence knows enough to man-mark him effectively, which makes every opportunity a snatched effort taken on split-second instinct and that can make him look daft.

Elsewhere, I can’t be the only one who recoils in horror when it’s revealed Albert Adomah will be starting on the left wing. Once he was moved to the left in order to accommodate Downing his game improved immeasurably and he worked a lot better with Nsue than he ever could with Friend. Cristhian Stuani is one of those players you wish could rediscover his form from earlier in the season, when he made everything look easy and not laboured, quite the opposite of what he was doing here. Gaston Ramirez has been our brightest spark through a difficult period for the team and there’s an audible gasp whenever he picks up the ball in promising positions, but his tendency to try and do everything himself just leads to him being dispossessed – is this just a case of trying to ingrain himself effectively within the line-up? And sorry, but I’m less convinced of Grant Leadbitter by the match. If it was up to me I’d give Adam Forshaw a run instead, but I don’t want that to happen and then for it not to work and to be told off by Aitor Karanka for suggesting I have an opinion on how the team might play better.

Hull had their moments and certainly had the better of the much of the second half. Sexy Steve Bruce‘s assertion that his was the superior team is questionable, but they did have more clear chances and until the closing stages had been in the ascendancy. There’s always a sense of fortune about winning it in the way we did, however you could equally put it down to good use of a fine and talented bench, and the way Nugent has proved on various occasions that he always has this dangerous side to his game. It was a brilliant and cathartic late winner. Imagine the game petering out into a 0-0 draw, the more questions than answers this would impose and being second solely on goal difference. Instead, with all teams at the top having played the same number of matches we’re two points clear of Brighton, a slim four behind Burnley, and the rest of the season looks a whole lot better.

Kiss and Make Up

Phew! So it turned out to be nothing after all, one of those ‘hot beverage acting as a vessel for some adverse weather’ type situations. According to Aitor Karanka, what happened at Middlesbrough over the last few days amounted to very little, an instance that allowed him to hear ‘a lot of stupid things that I was laughing about at home.’ What a relief. A few days’ gardening leave was what it amounted to, dropping his club pass on the way into work and going home to pick it up and then forgetting where he was for a little while before the stadium called to tell him he’s clearly knackered, have a weekend off, we’ll field the calls, people will understand, what’s a day or two with your feet up, right?

So you watch his interview, getting this nagging itch that suggests you’re seeing the very tip of a massive iceberg, and you think ‘Go on then love, we’ll let you have this one; just don’t do it again,’ because the only really important thing is that Aitor’s back in charge, there’s an opportunity to steady the ship for a critical run of games and this is the best way of getting the promotion dream back on its feet. I don’t know about you, but I was deliriously happy when I first learned that the matter had been resolved and Karanka was being reinstated with immediate effect, a swift end to all that speculation and doom-mongering. It felt like we’d won something, as opposed to what we had actually received, which was a return to the status quo. Even the strongest minded Aitor-phobe must agree this is the best way to end 2015/16. A new manager would have fared little better, walking into a club set up entirely for the outgoing boss and trying to turn around all that dipping morale and seething resentment. Let’s say Steve Gibson went for the ultimate winning coach and somehow landed Jose Mourinho until May – you think it would have been any better? There are so many similarities between the two gaffers, how might it have been different?

If anyone has emerged as the hero then it’s Sir Steve, doing all he can to smooth over the issues that are obviously present and acting fast to give his team the best chance to end the season successfully. As usual, the chairman was a figure of calm amidst a sea of fevered speculation and concern – how many club owners can you picture trying to foist the job onto someone else in a panic-stricken bid to rescue our listing campaign? I hope it works, that the brief glimpse of our last ten matches being identikit versions of the Charlton encounter as the team slides down the Championship pole was enough to hit a reset button and restore some semblance of order. Brighton won last night and our fragile grip on the automatic promotion places has been wrested away, but it isn’t too late and restoring Aitor could work as a springboard to beating Hull on Friday, which obviously we have to do, the more emphatically the better.

The vast majority of supporters – 94% of them, according to a recent Gazette poll – are happy he’s back and therefore think we’re better off with him than facing an uncertain future without. That matters. But so does that nagging itch, the comments from a certain B Slaven pointing out that very clear things weren’t right…

It’s evidently clear, from the outside looking in that AK’s dictatorship style of management is wearing thin on certain players. Discipline is essential in any business, but dictatorship is on a different level. I’m personally not a fan of it and would rebel in this environment. Certain fans cherry pick certain players to criticise without knowing the ins and outs.

And so the die has been cast and Karanka – hopefully, behind the scenes a more conciliatory presence than the iron willed disciplinarian we’re led to believe he is – is back in charge, back to save our season. We can only hope it all works out.

Bunch of Fannies

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.

Karankagate and all that

It’s unusual to start a blog when the season is three quarters done, and yet it’s also totally appropriate given the recent situation regarding our manager, Aitor Karanka.

As we now know, Boro will take to the field this afternoon against Charlton Athletic led not by Aitor but instead our Assistant Head Coach, Steve Agnew. Karanka is – where? In the stadium? At home? Back in Spain, perhaps, or possibly watching the game with his old friend and mentor Jose Mourinho, the pair ruminating on how impossibly wide the gulf is between where they stood back in August and now.

In any event, Aggers taking charge today – as he did during yesterday’s training session – is all we actually know. The club has remained predictably tight lipped about what else has gone on, though everyone understands the tipping point was Friday’s crisis meeting between the manager and his players, one that ended with the former storming out, apparently declaring he didn’t want to coach them any longer. The tensions have been building for some time, it seems. Aitor hasn’t taken training since the defeat at Rotherham; his press conference on Thursday illuminated further his concerns on the ‘desire’ of certain players to achieve this season’s aim of promotion.

I can’t think of a single occasion when the breakdown between manager and players has led to a successful reconciliation. Of course it’s possible that this is exactly what will happen, that people will look a bit harder at themselves and realise there’s the potential for everyone to pull together as one, but in my experience that isn’t how it works and the overwhelmingly likely outcome is the end of the Aitor Aegis and closing 2015/16 with someone else in charge. Which feels like a damn shame, when you think of what the bloke has achieved so far and that the current Boro side is now almost entirely his team, one built in the image he wishes to project.

Who’s to blame appears to come down to your own perception of the head coach. Neil Maddison’s comments on Karanka’s shortcomings as a man manager were really interesting. It’s clear that Aitor is no Jurgen Klopp. Not for him the hugs, the sense of fellowship and camaraderie – where he’s concerned players have always been staff who require managing, with little of the ‘human touch’ involved, and that’s fine generally, though not for everyone and not necessarily with this squad considering the variety of personalities. You think of the flashpoint involving Albert Adomah, and earlier the clash with Craig Hignett that drove the latter out of the club. You consider his willingness to criticise players in public, notably Stewart Downing, which over time has emerged as a managerial no-no after the example of Sir Alex Ferguson doing all his dressing downs behind closed doors and remaining tight lipped for the media. He’s even happy to have a go at the fans, as his comments after the loss to Blackburn testify.

Against that is his record as the man in charge, the upturn in our fortunes since his start in November 2013. We’ve been transformed from a side at the wrong end of the Championship to a genuine promotion contender and that’s largely down to his work, especially his efforts to establish a stingy defence that remains the bedrock of our success. That’s no mean feat. As always with Boro, you have to factor in the Chairman’s investment, which is reaching 1990s style heights with the expensive captures of Downing and Jordan Rhodes leading the re-opened chequebook policy. But still you look at that defence, which still relies on cheap, free and on-loan signings, and you can tell that our upturn has only partially depended on money.

Personally, I really like the guy. I haVE no hesitation in simply going with the #InKarankaWeTrust tag on Twitter because that’s how I feel. However you choose to look at it Aitor’s been good for us. We’ve had seven years in the second tier and it now feels as though we can dream of going up again, and he’s made that happen. Sure we’ve wobbled after Christmas, but everyone else has undergone or is currently experiencing periods of doubt. Rotherham aside, we look like a team that’s emerging from our own dark night of the soul to push once again. It’s all to play for. Boro are second, with two matches in hand on Burnley, so while the situation remains tense we’re in charge of our own destiny on the pitch.

It could very well end in happy tears, but under whom remains a very serious question. The first clue will emerge today when Agnew names his side to take on the Addicks. A line-up and formation that’s close to the Karanka philosophy will suggest that Aggers sees himself as simply holding the reins. Anything different, intimating a fundamental shift in policy, and we may very well have seen the last of a very fine, if humanly flawed young manager.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to rebuilding this blog again and hope to see some of you return as readers… please?