Middlesbrough’s Original Line in Self-Destruction
With the amount of extra money that will be flowing into the Premier League this summer, we might have expected that the clamour to break into the top twenty would have been greater than ever, this season. At the top of the table, Burnley are making a reasonable job of pulling clear of the pack. It’s by no means certain that they will cross the finishing line first, but with a seven point lead over those below them it would be something of surprise to not see their return, come the end of the season.
Below them, however, the scrap for the other automatic promotion place is starting to resemble a war of insecurities. Hull City have picked precisely the wrong time of year to start shedding that winning habit, and any seasoned Championship watcher will be fully aware of the fact that Brighton and Hove Albion are as capable of firing blanks against any opposition as they are of putting teams to the sword. It is, however, the case of the other team fighting to win automatic promotion, however, that is providing the most curious tale of self-combustion at the moment at the top of this division.
When a first minute goal from Cristhian Stuani proved to be enough to guide Middlesbrough past Sheffield Wednesday and to the top of the Championship table on the Bank Holiday Monday after Christmas, the club’s supporters may have felt entitled to a wry smile at the travails of their neighbours at Newcastle and Sunderland and perhaps even at the idle daydream of being the north-east of England’s sole representative in the Premier League next season. With a miserly defence ensuring that opposing teams were finding Boro the most difficult team to break down in the entire division, starting the new year at the top of the table lent the impression that the club was on target for a return to the Premier League for the first time since 2009.
Two and a half months on, however, Middlesbrough have dropped to second place in the Championship table and still have Hull City and Brighton & Hove Albion hot on their heels. On the pitch, March has been a pretty disastrous month for the club with three defeats from the four games they’ve played including losses against relegation candidates Rotherham United and Charlton Athletic, but even these losses pall in comparison with the news coming from The Riverside Stadium at the end of last week and over the weekend regarding the position of manager Aitor Karanka at the club at present, a breakdown in his relationship with the players so severe that Karanka didn’t take training on Saturday, didn’t travel to London for yesterday’s match against Charlton Athletic, and is now involved with the club’s owner, Steve Gibson, concerning whether he will be returning to the club at all following a breakdown in talks with club officials on Friday evening.
It is believed that the source of much of the discord that is currently enveloping the club has come about as a result of its dealings in the transfer window in January. Karanka is understood to have wanted to strengthen his squad by signing Ross McCormack from Fulham, only to end up with Jordan Rhodes from Blackburn Rovers instead. This – when we factor in the potential aggravation of fact that Rhodes is the nephew of assistant manager Steve Agnew – fuelled tensions behind the scenes at the club, particularly when Karanka was unable to find much of a use for Rhodes in his preferred starting eleven. Rhodes had, prior to last weekend, started just four games for the club since arriving at the club and had scored just one goal for Middlesbrough.
Matters have been further complicated by an apparent falling out between Karanka and winger Stewart Downing. Football clubs being football clubs, the exact nature of this breakdown will, if it ever does, only likely make its way into the public domain according to the agenda of whomever it is that leaks it, but at least a part of it is believed to be related to Karanka’s criticism of the team following underwhelming recent performances. What is known is that a meeting held at the end of last week ended with the manager leaving, not taking a training session on Saturday, and not being present at The Valley yesterday afternoon for the team’s two-nil defeat against Charlton Athletic, a performance which, if anything, seemed to bear out Karanka’s recent criticisms of the team. Both Jordan Rhodes and Stewart Downing were both selected to play in this match, to no apparently appreciable effect, and both players were replaced with sixteen minutes to play.
Meetings will be held this week which should make Karanka’s position either within or away from the club clearer. Yet something about this particular story doesn’t quite hold together. If there’s one thing that can be said without too much doubt about Middlesbrough’s owner Steve Gibson, it’s that he doesn’t conform to the trigger-happy stereotype so familiar within the world of professional football, when it comes to managerial appointments. For a club chairman with a fuse that is known to be long with his managers – Middlesbrough have only had six permanent managers over the course of the last twenty-six years – to have him involved in whatever has been going wrong behind the scenes at the club perhaps tells a story in itself.
If there’s one thing that Middlesbrough don’t have at this time of season, though, it’s time. On Friday night the club has one of its most important matches of the season when it entertains Hull City at The Riverside Stadium. At the time of writing, Boro are in second place in the Football League Championship. They’re two points ahead of Hull City, but Hull have a home match against a Nottingham Forest team that sacked its manager just yesterday at the The KC Stadium tomorrow night, whilst fourth placed Brighton & Hove Albion are also at home at the same time against a Reading side now playing the remainder of the season for professional pride following their FA Cup elimination last Friday night. By Friday night, Middlesbrough could well be in fourth place in the table and needing a win to prevent Hull taking advantage of Boro’s current structural vulnerability to open up a sizable gap, with less than ten games of the season left to play.
Few people would suggest that any club should have promotion from a division like the Championship anything like sewn up at this stage of the season, but with a minimum of £97m going to each Premier League club next season – and an average amount of £120m per club to be earned – it should go without saying that it will be in the best interests of all at the club to put whatever disagreements have come to light over the last few weeks behind them and focus on the task at hand. Recent form isn’t on Middlesbrough’s side, and if the normally long-tempered Steve Gibson were lose his rag because the club that he has tended with distinction for almost a quarter of a century missed out on a return to the Premier League at the end of this of all seasons on account of a handful of bruised egos, there would be very few who didn’t feel some degree of sympathy for him.
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