While Liverpool languish in the Premier League’s relegation zone, one division down the Championship has its own big hitter floundering in the bottom three. Scarlet stripped, based in a working class northern area and having travelled to finals in Europe this century, the similarities are far from limited.
However, where Liverpool have suffered strife at the hands of tyrannical owners, Middlesbrough’s decline has been of an entirely different means and whilst Roy Hodgson has vowed to fight to resurrect the Merseyside club, Gordon Strachan consigned his contract to the bin and exited stage left last Monday.
As a Norwich City fan, I was given the chance to witness the turmoil of managerless Middlesbrough first hand when they came to Carrow Road on Saturday, with Boro having the chance to scotch any potential calls for a crisis by putting forward a compelling argument on the pitch. However, the case for the defence was grim.
Norwich, riding high as they are, were hardly on sparkling form but nonetheless restricted a blunt Boro side to next to nothing in front of goal, their only real opportunity presented to Scott McDonald who slid his shot wide in injury-time. That miss condemned Boro to a 1-0 defeat and the ignominy of the relegation zone. All this despite being the Championship’s biggest summer spenders and having a chairman the envy of many a club. The halcyon days of the UEFA Cup final in 2006 seem light years away now. So just how has it gone so wrong for Boro?
Trace the steps back to the Gareth Southgate era. After a steady couple of seasons in management, Southgate staked his managerial name on the high-profile signings of Afonso Alves and Mido. The fact he now works as a pundit for ITV should tell you how that worked out. The £18m splashed on those two, plus the risk-laden purchases of Digard, Emnes and Hoyte paved the way for a group of largely unproven players at Premier League level.
Southgate was a nice enough chap for everyone to wish him success but there was a grim inevitability about Boro’s drop from the Premier League. The fraught tension of the home games of a team under pressure never seemed to be in attendance at the Riverside. The air of resignation over relegation that seemed to be upon fans and players long before they finally dropped meant that no-one was shock when their condemnation was confirmed. Even on the day itself, the club was overshadowed by Mike Ashley’s travelling circus up the road and Phil Brown’s woozy Brian Wilson impersonation.
One of the reasons for the general malaise of that season was that Southgate, despite poor results, was never under any threat of the sack. His legendarily patient chairman Steve Gibson was adamant his man be given time, which made it all the more surprising when Gibson brought out the guillotine – for the first time in nineteen years – to dispense with Southgate just thirteen games in to the new season, with his team fourth.
Boro needed a change, and in it came with the waspish, fast-quipping Strachan, bringing with him five Old Firm players in January and then two more in the summer, along with a number of other big name purchases. But if that was meant to be an advertisement as to the worth of Scottish football it went down like a lead balloon; Kevin Thomson is perpetually injured, Stephen McManus out of form and Kris Boyd on Saturday showed more resemblance to a Sunday league footballer nursing a hangover than some of the Middlesbrough strikers of old.
Strachan sharpened his blade and landed on it last week, since when Boro have lost twice more. And so again Boro look for change, this time looking perilously over their shoulders. Of course there’s no shortage of candidates these days for a team with money to spend. However, surely the post is one made in the mould of Tony Mowbray.
Local lad and appearance maker of over 300 games for the club, as well as being a man who is in need of a reputation revitalisation after his last decision to follow Strachan ended in disaster at Celtic, the chance to lift his struggling home town club is one Mowbray will surely not turn down.
The sadistic that revelled in the locals’ vexation on Question Time in Middlesbrough Town Hall on Thursday need not look too far to see the same sense of discontent at the style of play at the Riverside. Mowbray ought to help soothe this, and Middlesbrough’s weekend performance – all diligent passes and artistic midfield play – suggests they are a side that could benefit from Mowbray’s aesthetic approach, particularly if he can make Boyd and Leroy Lita the potent forces they once were. Then there’s the fact that he would take over an almost surrogate Scottish club, which with his extensive knowledge north of the border, would be no bad thing.
But the problem remains for the fans that they long to be in a position they so long took for granted; back under the blanket of top level mid-table security. Those who claim Boro, a side with only one major trophy to their name in their history, punched above their weight by being there in the first instance miss the point. In this age of Premier League indulgence, every year spent dining at the high table means greater wealth and greater expectations. Boro, with eleven years uninterrupted, are right to feel they should be there again.
That’s where Mowbray ought to come in, with one promotion from the Championship to his name already. It might take a while to set the wheels in motion but it’s the right job at the right time for the (potential) boss and the appointment to get the fans through the turnstiles.
And if he can force Kris Boyd past a stroll, it’ll be a good enough start.