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A missed opportunity: Reviewing Middlesbrough’s relegation woes

Martyn Cooke



When the final whistle sounded at Stamford Bridge on Monday evening the reaction of the two sets of players on the field could not have been more contrasting.

Whilst Antonio Conte and his Chelsea squad celebrated safe in the knowledge that the Premier League title had been all but secured, Middlesbrough’s players sank to the floor or shuffled down the tunnel with their heads down and shoulders slumped.

Goals from Diego Costa, Marcus Alonso and Nemanja Matic had put the final nails into Boro’s top-flight coffin and confirmed their relegation to The Championship.

Hamstrung by caution and a lack of ambition

There is no shame in a newly promoted team suffering relegation, but there is a definitive feeling that Middlesbrough have failed to make a significant contribution to the Premier League this season. They have come and gone without incident or achievement, leaving the top-flight quietly through the rear stage exit without any fuss or fight.

This season has been a missed opportunity for the club. After spending seven years in The Championship rebuilding and striving to earn their chance to compete with the elite of English football you cannot help but feel that they have fluffed their lines and blown their shot at the big time.

Throughout the campaign Middlesbrough have appeared imbalanced and hamstrung by a cautious approach and, arguably, negative attitude. The team were blunt, lacked creativity or inventiveness and certainly lacked the willingness to take their destiny by the scruff of the neck and play on the front foot. They may have the best defensive record in the bottom half of the table but they have found the back of the net just 26 times in their 36 league games.

In short, Boro simply did not attack their great opportunity.

Much of the blame will be directed towards Aitor Karanka. The Spaniard did a remarkable job lifting the club from the lower echelons of The Championship and guiding them to promotion but was left ruthlessly exposed in the top-flight by his lack of attacking ambition.

In Alvaro Negredo he had a proven goal scorer whilst the creative talents of players such as Adama Traore and Gaston Ramirez were primed to provide the ammunition. However, Karanka was cautious and his approach appeared to have sucked all of the creativity, enthusiasm and imagination out of the Middlesbrough squad by the time he departed in mid-March.

His temporary replacement, Steve Agnew, never looked like he possessed the experience or knowledge to turn around the clubs fortunes.

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A missed opportunity

In truth, Middlesbrough’s relegation has been a long, draw-out process. By the turn of the year the trajectory of the club was only heading in one direction and at no point have they looked capable of pulling themselves away from trouble.

It all feels a little underwhelming and predictable.

No one would have expected Boro to have travelled to Stamford Bridge and beat the champions-elect in their own back yard but the poor level of their performance suggested that the players had all but given up hope. Chelsea oozed class and they could easily have scored four or five goals.

Middlesbrough supporters will feel rightly aggrieved that their club has not made the most of their opportunity in the Premier League – they never really “had a go”. After waiting seven years for their return to the top flight they suffered immediate relegation due to a cautious approach and lack of ambition. The challenge is now to try and navigate an immediate return.

Middlesbrough have truly missed their big opportunity and supporters will be hoping that they do not need to wait another seven years before they have their next crack at the top flight.

Featured Image: All Rights Reserved Mark Fletcher (Mark Fletcher)

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.


Will Middlesbrough’s transfer failings lead to a missed promotion opportunity?

A Middlesbrough side tipped for promotion at the beginning of the campaign has fallen victim to a managerial reshuffle and a transient transfer policy, writes Paul Ahdal.



Photo: Reuters

When I occasionally stray into some form of mild criticism of how Middlesbrough is run, I’m subjected to dismissive responses along the lines of “who are you to tell Steve Gibson how to run a business?”

The problem with this response is that a) Steve Gibson’s success was with Bulkhaul and b) that success hasn’t always been transferred to his running of the Boro.

I was left reflecting on these points as a third transfer window slammed shut on Wednesday evening.

Boro are onto their third different manager in successive windows and once again the deck has been shuffled to suit the new man in charge.

Given the transfer turnover and subsequent turmoil is it any wonder we’re yet to see a settled Boro side since the early part of 2016/17 season?

In that time, players have come and gone to suit the radically different tactical thoughts of each new man at the helm.

Performances and results have suffered and a team tipped for promotion would now be delighted to simply make the play-offs.

Players who were mainstays of the Garry Monk regime have been moved on and, for a team that has struggled to score, the decisions taken since, by Tony Pulis, are somewhat baffling.

Cyrus Christie had shown himself to be a good attacking full back at this level and was excellent in the early part of the season before his form dipped to match the team’s league position.

Meanwhile, Martin Braithwaite, heir apparent to the troublesome creative midfielder position, has been shipped out on loan to French first division outfit Bordeaux.

Both players were only signed in the summer, the Danish international for £9 million, and have since moved on from Teesside after less than a six month stay.

Braithwaite may have been inconsistent, but he was perhaps the only player of his kind in the Boro squad – one with the skill to unlock a tight defence.

Bearing in mind it was his first season in English football and he suffered with injuries early on, his contribution of six  goals and two assists showed signs of promise.

In the same vein, Christie still sits joint top of the Boro assist charts, with four.

For Pulis to seemingly make his mind up and discard both so early into his reign is wasteful and speaks volumes of the brand of football that he has in mind for the club.

On the subject of waste, who within the Boro hierarchy approved the transfers of Ashley Fletcher and Adlene Guedioura during Monk’s tenure?

Fletcher had never been a first team regular at higher than League One level. He was signed for big money by Championship standards, has never been given a run in the team and has now suffered the ultimate indignity, being loaned to Sunderland!

Did Boro really spend £6.5 million on a player who might fulfill his limited potential, or did they simply sign a player who was available in the hope that he would fit in somewhere in the first XI?

The club also forked out £3.5 million on a player who never came good, in Guedioura.

The Algerian midfielder made a handful of starts, was snubbed by every manager he played under and eventually had his contract cancelled. Not good business.

The issue here seems to be that players are signed based on the whim of whichever manager is in charge. It is important to back the manager but not at the cost of the club.

Boro need a management structure responsible for identifying and signing players with a long-term vision in mind, not simply at the behest of the newly arrived head coach, thus curtailing the current transfer turnover.

That way, supporters might start seeing the team play with some consistency and the prospect of promotion back to the Premier League may become a more realistic one.

Who am I to tell Steve Gibson about business?

I may lack certain business credentials, but one thing I do know is that the Boro owner wouldn’t tolerate a newly appointed director sacking key staff at Bulkhaul and replacing them with his own picks.

Why tolerate it at his football club?

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Hartlepool United: Time to save the Pools from extinction



Hartlepool United
Photo: Reuters

Chaos often brings camaraderie in the football world.  The news that Hartlepool United, in existence for over 100 years, are in serious financial trouble has once again united fans of several clubs, who have rallied to the cause in supporting the drive to raise the cash to resurrect the club from its deathbed.

As a Boro fan, this is particularly pertinent given the role that Hartlepool played in resuscitating my team in 1986. Boro fans have launched efforts to each donate £19.86 to Hartlepool’s cause and drum up support for supporters to attend the Pools’ home game against Wrexham on Saturday whilst Boro are away against Queens Park Rangers.

Whilst supporter solidarity is heartening at these times, I am once again left asking why? Why are clubs allowed to be so poorly run by the FA? Why in a game awash with money, where almost every Premier League side receives £100 million per season, can a club potentially go bust?

Why is it the fans, who pour money into clubs up and down the every week, who are the ones expected to pay for the bail out (minus a few honourable exceptions, such as Danny Graham)?

The Hartlepool fans are attempting to raise £200k to keep the club going until new owners can be found.  The fact that this sum, which would be considered paltry to every Premier League and the majority of Championship clubs, can potentially send a club to extinction, is symptomatic of the greed exhibited by those at the top of the football pyramid.

My own club, Middlesbrough, earned almost £200 million (~ £105 million prize money and £85 million parachute payments) as a result of one season in the sun of the Premier League. Why can’t Chairman Steve Gibson, who was on the Boro board in 1986, donate the 0.1% required to keep Hartlepool going?

Things are only going to get worse.  The top six of the Premier League are not content with trousering more cash than everyone else. No, they want an even bigger slice of the pie from foreign TV rights. This greed is to the detriment of the game.

Clubs like Hartlepool are the lifeblood of football. Tottenham, one of the aforementioned six that are attempting to steal ever more from the rest, owe the development of two of their biggest stars to football league clubs.

Dele Alli was brought through the system at Milton Keynes Dons, while Harry Kane cut his teeth with loan spells at the likes of Leyton Orient and Millwall.

Of the current England squad, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Jesse Lingard and John Stones, to name just a few, all benefitted from playing time in the Football League – playing time that otherwise not have received in the Premier League.

The great Brian Clough started his managerial career at Hartlepool. If we are ever to see an English manager emulate Cloughie and win the Champions League, it is likely that their formative years will be spent in the lower part of the football pyramid.

All that the big teams achieve with any extra cash is either unscrupulous owners taking millions out of the club and/or more money squandered on players and agents.

We aren’t getting a better standard of football or player. Virgil Van Dijk may be the most expensive defender in the world, but he is not a better defender than Mats Hummels, Leonardo Bonucci or Gerard Pique.

Top stars such as Lionel Messi, Neymar and Robert Lewandowski chose not to play in the Premier League. The likes of Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho head to Spain when they approach their peak.

At one time, Boro signed Paul Merson, an England international, when the club were relegated to the Championship. Last summer they spent £14 million on Britt Assombalonga, a player who has never featured in the top flight of English football.

The £70 million of so called ‘solidarity’ payments paid by the Premier League to the rest of English football show anything but solidarity. It is nothing more than a token gesture, a handing over of loose change.

Rather than rushing to stick their snouts in the trough, it time that the top clubs recognise the role of lower league clubs in developing both on and off the field talent by giving them a fairer proportion of the TV riches.

So I encourage you all to give to the Pools plight. However, I also say don’t buy that season ticket, don’t but that shirt, don’t buy that sky sports subscription. That is the only way the greed at the top of the game can be stopped.

Perhaps only then will the powers that be listen and we’ll finally see the end of fans rattling buckets to bail out once proud but now crippled clubs. There is enough money in the game for everyone. There is enough money in the game to give £200k to Hartlepool United.

If you wish to donate to Hartlepool United’s cause, you can do so using the following link:

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Five New Year’s Resolutions for Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough



Photo: Reuters

Is there anything more cringe worthy than a football cliché? But clichés are clichés for a reason and the New Year’s Day clash between Middlesbrough and Preston was truly a game of two halves.

Boro were fortunate to be only 2-1 down at half time after being played off the park by the home team, only for a change of formation and some inspired substitutions to help turn the game on its head.

In truth, Preston still deserved something from the game and will have left Deepdale wondering how they lost a match in which they registered twenty shots, almost three times as many as the visitors.

Given how terrible 2017 was, anyone with a Boro allegiance will have been happy to pick up the win regardless of the circumstances, although the performance still leaves a number of questions for Tony Pulis to answer.

So swiftly onto another cliché, the New Year’s Resolution list…

Favoured Formation

Garry Monk tried almost every formation possible during his disastrous days as Boro manager. As a result, the players often seemed unsure as to what role they were expected to play and displays were disjointed. Pulis’s experiment with 4-3-3 at Preston backfired as the Lilywhites ran amok in the first 45 minutes.

However, Boro looked much more solid when reverting to the 4-2-3-1 which gained them promotion during their last Championship campaign. The majority of the squad had this system ingrained into their consciousness in the Aitor Karanka days; reverting back to it may be the way forward for Pulis and in doing so it could also cure another big Boro curse…

Contain the Crosses

Boro have been the Championship’s Dracula this season, with teams simply putting in a cross to the back post to drive a stake through the heart of the club’s defence. It was hoped that a manager as defensively minded as Pulis would put paid to that tactic, yet Villa and Preston have plundered three goals using that simplest of strategies.

Will Pulis opt for a tactical tweak that looks to prevent the cross being put in, or will it be a question of adjusting the positional play so that balls into the Boro box are once again blasted away by the foreheads of Ben Gibson and Daniel Ayala?

Siphoning the squad

“It’s a big squad so there are players there I need time to look at and assess”, said Pulis shortly after the 1-0 reverse to Aston Villa. With the transfer window open though, time is in short supply. A number of players have been tested by Pulis in the Villa and PNE games, so the FA cup derby against Sunderland looks like a final audition for some.

Adam Clayton and Adam Forshaw were starring in the Premier League early last season but haven’t had a look-in under Pulis. Britt Assombalonga has been subbed in the last two games.

Promising youngsters Fry and Tavernier, one of the only bright spots of Monk’s reign, are yet to feature for a manager who stated during his time as Stoke boss that he would rather spend the academy budget on a squad player. Expect the January sales to start soon at the Riverside.

Backroom boys

Normally when a new manager arrives he comes with an entourage of coaches, scouts and analysts. Initially Pulis was the only person to replace Monk and his team, although a goalkeeping coach and his long serving assistant Dave Kemp have since been announced.

Monk had to do without an assistant manager thanks to Boro’s very own Lord Lucan, Steve Agnew, who has now surfaced at Villa, but can Pulis really manage this team with just his two additions plus Jonathan Woodgate for support?

The length of Pulis’s deal has not been disclosed by the club, so perhaps an agreement is only in place until the end of the season which makes Steve Gibson reluctant to cough up for support staff. If that is the case, then questions over the lack of vision at the club will arise again, particularly if Boro are looking for their fifth manager in two seasons come summer 2018.

There are plenty of posers for Pulis to ponder. With pressure on to get the results desperately needed to keep Boro in pursuit of promotion and the clock already ticking on the January transfer window, we can expect plenty of activity on and off the pitch in the coming weeks. It certainly promises to be anything but that word so frequently associated with Pulis, dull!

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