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Are Middlesbrough capable of making an immediate return to the Premier League next season?

Martyn Cooke



Whilst there is an overriding sense of disappointment around Teeside regarding Middlesbrough’s relegation from the Premier League the club remains in a strong position to challenge for an immediate return to the top flight. With the core nucleus of the squad expected to remain, a new manager expected to arrive in the summer, and a £47,000,000 parachute payment helping to fund new signings, the future is not looking so bleak for The Boro.

Where did it all go wrong?

This season represents a missed opportunity for Middlesbrough who, after seven years of working towards a return to the top flight, were left ruing a cautious approach and lack of goals that ultimately resulted in relegation. There is little doubt that Aitor Karanka did a fantastic job by guiding the Teeside club from the lower echelons of The Championship to promotion to the Premier League and yet he quickly became unstuck over the course of the season.

The Spaniard applied a cautious, defensive-minded and, some might say, negative attitude towards matches that resulted in a team with a solid defensive record but an inability to create goal scoring opportunities. His approach stifled creativity and you sense that supporters would have been much more willing to accept relegation if their side had ‘given it a go’. Karanka was dismissed too late in the season and his replacement, Steve Agnew, simply did not possess the skills, knowledge or experience to halt Middlesbrough’s slide towards the relegation trap door.

Is their squad capable of securing promotion next season?

Yes – although there will need to be some tweaking in terms of playing personnel.

The big positive for Middlesbrough is that the core nucleus of the squad that achieved promotion last year should remain intact. Brad Guzan, Victor Valdes and Ben Gibson will all likely depart during the summer whilst Calum Chambers and Alvaro Negredo will return to their parents clubs when their loan deals expire. However, this should still leave a group of players that possess the necessary experience and quality to navigate their way towards the contest for promotion in the upper reaches of The Championship next season.

A solution to their goal scoring problems could well already exist within the club with Jordan Rhodes set to return after spending the second half of the season on loan at Sheffield Wednesday, whilst Patrick Bamford and Rudy Gestede were given limited opportunities to shine in the Premier League despite their proven qualities in front of goal. A couple of reconciliations and new additions should see Middlesbrough emerge as one of the favourites for promotion.

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 Who will be in charge?

Steve Agnew has stepped into the breach left by the departure of Aitor Karanka on a temporary basis and despite chairman Steve Gibson initially indicating his respect and admiration for the 51-year-old it would be a huge surprise if a new manager did not arrive in the summer. Agnew has won just one of his ten games in charge and the club undoubtedly need a new face in the dugout to implement a fresh approach. Nigel Pearson, Garry Monk, David Wagner and Alan Pardew have all been suggested at possible candidates.


This season has been somewhat underwhelming for Middlesbrough and the cautious approach adopted by former manager Aitor Karanka has undoubtedly left supporters thinking that greater success would have been achieved had a more positive attitude been applied. After seven years of building towards a return to the top flight The Teeside club have offered very little towards the interest and entertainment of the Premier League over the last nine months. The Spaniard’s approach stifled creativity and a lack of goals ultimately resulted in relegation, despite a relatively solid defensive record.

Whilst Steve Agnew may have overseen the final few months of the campaign, with little joy, the 51-year-old is unlikely to be handed the managerial post on a permanent basis in the summer. The positive for Middlesbrough is that the arrival of a new manager and the addition of a couple new signings to an already experience nucleus of players should leave them in a strong position to challenge for promotion from The Championship next season. A handful of key personnel may depart during the transfer window but Steve Gibson will make significant funds available to invest in the rebuilding of a squad capable of making an immediate return to the Premier League.

Featured Image: All Rights Reserved John Holland (John Holland)

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.


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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Brighton and Hove Albion

Five FA Cup third round ties to look forward to

Jake Jackman



FA Cup

The FA Cup third round is one of the most anticipated weekends of the footballing calendar and the draw was made for this season’s competition on Monday night.

It was an intriguing draw with four of five fixtures that stand out as great matches and there will be a lot of options for the television companies.

Arsenal are the current holders of the competition and they will be looking to retain their trophy.

However, Manchester City look to be the best team in the country and they remain in the hunt for the quadruple. Based on their current form, they are the overwhelming favourites to win the FA Cup.

Here are five third round ties to look forward to…

Liverpool vs Everton

This was the mouthwatering tie of the round, as the two Merseyside clubs meet at Anfield. They face each other in the Premier League this weekend and this draw means that the bragging rights will be up for grabs again in a month’s time.

Jurgen Klopp will be looking to win his first trophy of his Liverpool career and this competition could offer his best chance in doing that. Meanwhile, Sam Allardyce will want to win his first major honour as a manager and has his best chance with Everton.

There is a lot to play for in this match and it will make for a great spectacle for the neutral.

Brighton and Hove Albion vs Crystal Palace

Although it is one of the weirder rivalries in English football, these two clubs have a storied history and this tie will be one to watch out for.

They have met once already this season as the two sides finished goalless at the Amex Stadium. However, there was crowd trouble and the local police won’t have been pleased when they were drawn to face each other again in the FA Cup.

This will be a physical affair and a loss for either team would be have a damaging effect on their morale ahead of what is likely a relegation fight for both clubs.

Tottenham vs AFC Wimbledon

This will be a great occasion for the League One club as they get the opportunity to play at Wembley against Tottenham.

Their climb up the pyramid has been a story that has caught the attention of the country and this match will serve as the latest landmark in their ascent. They famously won the FA Cup in the 1988 season in their earlier guise and the supporters will be delighted to be back at the national stadium.

For Spurs, there is a lot of pressure on Mauricio Pochettino to win a trophy and another failure in the FA Cup will be a disappointment.

Fleetwood Town or Hereford United vs Leicester City

There will be a lot of neutrals hoping that Hereford United manage to make it to the third round, due to their history in the competition.

They famously beat Newcastle United in the 1972 competition in what was one of the biggest shocks of all-time. It is a rare occurrence for a non-league team to beat top-flight opposition and Ronnie Radford’s goal is replayed countless times every year.

They competed well in their first match against Fleetwood Town and earned a credible draw.

Leicester City are recent winners of the Premier League and it would be a great spectacle if it is to be Hereford that make the third round.

Middlesbrough vs Sunderland

Sunderland fans would have been hoping to avoid a local derby against Newcastle United and they managed to do that, but they are set to face another North East in Middlesbrough.

They are both in the Championship now and struggling to bounce back from relegation during the 2016/17 season. The Black Cats are hoping that Chris Coleman will be the manager to rebuild the club, but it is a tough ask.

Neither team will really want to be in the competition, but they won’t want to be knocked out by a rival. This should be a fiercely contested affair at the Riverside Stadium.

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