From Eindhoven to… Accrington? Which Way Next For Middlesbrough?
The footballing authorities and broadcasting companies may be striving to ensure the Championship season will restart at some point in June but for Middlesbrough supporters the season can’t end soon enough. Currently sitting in 19th place and two points above the bottom three, it has been one of the worst campaigns in living memory. If and when the season does resume Jonathan Woodgate will find himself trying to avoid becoming only the third manager in Boro’s 144-year history to take the team down into the third tier of English football. But whilst the former Boro defender has played a prominent part in the worst season in thirty years, the club’s problems run deeper than who sits in the dugout.
There is a sense that Boro have been operating in an almost permanent state of flux since being relegated from the Premier League in 2017. In the three years since Aitor Karanka was sacked, Steve Gibson has appointed four managers – the same number he appointed in his first fifteen years as chairman. Issues with player recruitment are compounded by each incoming manager holding fundamentally opposing ideas of how they want their team to play, as well as being wildly different in terms of character and personality. Factor in Garry Monk and Tony Pulis spending around £70m on transfer fees whilst selling off the club’s better players to try and balance the books and it isn’t hard to see why the club find are struggling at the wrong end of the second division.
It was during his first few days in the job that Tony Pulis stated his brief wasn’t only to build a team fit to challenge for promotion but to assess the damage caused by two complete overhauls to the management and coaching staff in less than a year. After a promising start in which he transformed to confidence and consistency of Adama Traore en route to cementing a place in the top six, the team’s ultra-cautious approach to the play off games with Aston Villa – Boro failed to register a shot on target in either leg – meant he was already on the back foot with supporters just a few months into the job.
A positive start to the following campaign offered hope but as results dropped off and the football became borderline unwatchable, Pulis’ frequent comments in the media, regularly talking down the qualities of his players whilst talking up his own, started to feel like a Redknappian act of self-preservation. Criticising the transfer record of previous managers whilst “assessing all aspects of the club” were a convenient pretext as it became evident that he was not the man to return the club to the Premier League. By the time he left, the only things in place were an unbalanced playing squad and a skeleton coaching staff.
It was during the second half of the Pulis era that Jonathan Woodgate was first spotted patrolling the technical area, pointing at things whilst wearing a gilet. His first press conference as manager was a breath of fresh air as he talked of wanting his team to play attacking, expansive football, the polar opposite to the football played under Pulis. He stated his commitment to promoting the younger players that were “definitely ready” to step up, leading people to cautiously recall the halcyon days of 1986-88, when Boro emerged from liquidation to win back-to-back promotions with a small group of largely local players. Quite how he was going to implement these ideas, and turn a Tony Pulis squad of centre backs and central midfielders into a free-flowing team of entertainers, nobody could really say. But it sounded good.
This bold new philosophy lasted until Boro were thumped 4-1 at home to Garry Monk’s Sheffield Wednesday at the end of September. It is to Woodgate’s credit that he managed to tighten up the team defensively in the period immediately after but Boro didn’t win another game for two months. A run of four straight wins over Christmas brought Woodgate a Manager of the Month award but with the January transfer window about to open and Woodgate hoping to strengthen his squad, his job was further complicated as Adrian Bevington became the second head of recruitment to leave the club in little over two years. The subsequent run of awful form since then has put Boro back into the thick of the relegation fight.
Despite there being little money left to spend Woodgate has been able to bring in nine new players. None of them have scored a goal and none have reached double figures in terms of starts. He has given a league debut to fifteen players. His team have won 9 from 37 and are the lowest scoring side in the division, failing to score in 12 games and scoring only 18 in 19 at home. The 1-0 win at Charlton in the final game before the season was suspended was the first since New Year’s Day. Boro have dropped 14 points from winning positions and conceded a goal in the final 20 minutes of a game on 16 separate occasions.
Football is decided on fine details and statistics of this nature will inevitably lead to questions being asked about coaching and organisation, fitness and concentration. Whilst the structural issues within the club have undoubtedly made his job harder, there are weaknesses in the team that Woodgate should be able to address without needing to spend millions of pounds in the transfer market. The team may lack quality in key areas but this squad does not feel like a third division squad. There has been no sign of sustained improvement under Woodgate. The coaching team lacks experience and there is no discernible style of play. His preference for a back three despite not having the personnel to play such a system means it is difficult to remember the last time Boro lined up without a midfielder playing in defence.
It is not unreasonable to have expected more from the Woodgate but the current team seems to reflect not just the manager but the general state of the club. It is difficult to see any kind of cohesive structure governing how the club functions, or how the team should play. The lack of forward planning around managerial appointments has badly damaged the team. The recruitment staff have overseen a period of extraordinary spending but had very little in return. The chairman recently stated that the club’s best days are still to come but the feeling is that the club appears to be caught in a cycle of mistakes made off the pitch being compounded by those made on it.
It may be difficult for supporters to see a way forward but the club must put a plan in place. It is imperative they avoid relegation and use the summer months to reorganise and restructure because Middlesbrough, not just as a football club but as a town, cannot afford to go down again.