Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday & Ghosts of Christmases Past

by | Dec 24, 2017

For all the madness that we have seen in terms of the hiring and firing of football managers in recent years, precious little criticism has been levelled at Middlesbrough. Steve Gibson, owner of the club for almost a quarter of a century, has even been considered a model football club owner in some circles, having overseen its move to a new stadium, its first major trophy and even the final of a European competition. As such, the decision on the part of the club to fire manager Garry Monk yesterday evening after a win in the Championship at Sheffield Wednesday in the afternoon seems all the more perplexing. Middlesbrough have been a club under relatively stable stewardship for the last twenty-four years.

Monk leaves Middlesbrough in ninth place in the table, three points off a place in the play-offs. His first thirteen league games in charge of the club following relegation from the Premier League at the end of last season and a subsequent expensive reassembly, but form has picked up since then with six wins from their next ten games. It might not be the sort of form that those who sanctioned the spending of all that money last summer would have  hoped for – consistency has been Middlesbrough’s ultimate achilles heel so far this season – but it’s far from a bad situation. After all, going into the Christmas break Middlesbrough are by some distance the most highly-placed of the three clubs relegated from the Premier League, and one we might have expected that Gibson would by now be plenty familiar with the vagaries of a division in which no club, it often feels, can take very much for granted.

Monk’s six months in charge of Middlesbrough will come to be remembered for inconsistency and under-achievement, and for promises that, with the benefit of hindsight, now look rather rash. The sheer amount of money raised from just the one season back in the Premier League last season meant that Boro could spend £50m on new players last summer, with Steve Gibson making the promise that the club would “smash” the Championship this time around. His predecessor, Aitor Karanka, had managed the club into and out of ther Premier League with a tactical system based on the fact that you can’t lose any football matches if you don’t concede any goals. It’s seldom a viewpoint that works in the modern game. Karanka made it work in pipping Brighton & Hove Albion to automatic promotion at the end of the 2015/16 season, but it such caution was comprehensively found out in the Premier League last season. Such simplism didn’t fly at that rarefied atttitude and Middlesbrough were relegated without so much as a whimper following one of the most pallid seasons that any club has experienced in the top flight.

Monk, it would appear, inherited a team that seemed to be labouring without much of a cohesive identity, but he didn’t exactly endear himself to supporters with his consistent failure to pick the popular defender George Friend, and the aforementioned lack of clarity of purpose coupled with a failure to fully break out of the defensive straitjacket into which the previous manager had put the team seem to have been enough to persuade Gibson that six months was as long as Monk needed. The timing, however, is probably what raises more eyebrows than most. Sacking a manager after win is certainly unusual, and for Steve Gibson, normally noted for a degree of relative patience with misfiring managers, to replace somebody after just six months certainly seems out of character. More than anything else, though, what stands out about this appointment is the decision to get rid of Garry Monk at this particular time.

On the one hand, yesterday’s win at Hillsborough marked the beginning of the annual fixture list Christmas pile-up, that gloriously chaotic time of the year when matches are crammed together in a manner not otherwise seen throughout the course of the season. Including yesterday, Middlesbrough play four matches in ten days over the Christmas and New Year periods before things return to some semblance of normality with the Third Round of the FA Cup on the weekend of the sixth of January. Boro won their first match of the festive period yesterday, and wins in their remaining three matches against Bolton Wanderers, Aston Villa and Preston North End would likely see the team rise again into the Championship’s play-off places. It’s difficult to say for sure one way or the other, but the decision to replace Monk just as this hectic period is about to get under way feels like a decision possibly inspired by a sense of panic at the idea that this season is slipping away from the club. But even if we consider the position at the Riverside Stadium with the best will in the world, does it really make sense to replace a manager just as this period is starting rather than, depending on results, when the dust has settled at the end of it?

There are also those who might suggest that there is a degree of moral bankruptcy in a club firing its manager a couple of days before Christmas, but the truth of the matter is that, in terms of football clubs sacking their managers over the festive period, the shark was jumped more than forty years ago by their opponents. When the Sheffield Wednesday forward Derek Dooley clattered into the Preston North End goalkeeper George Thomson during a match at Deepdale on Valentine’s Day 1953, few would have guessed at the sequence of events that would come to follow it. Having already suffered a double fracture of his leg, a small wound on Dooley’s leg became infected with gangrene, leading to the leg having to be amputated. The man who lost his leg for football would go on to manager Sheffield Wednesday, losing his job on Christmas Eve 1973, a decision that is still recalled by those with cause to consider what has long been thought of as English professional football’s most callous ever sackings.

Understandably embittered by the club’s decision, Dooley would end up working as a very successful commercial manager at local rivals Sheffield United, eventually rising to become a director of the club and, in 1999, its chairman. He wouldn’t set foot inside Hillsborough again until 1992. The case of Derek Dooley is something of an outlier, but the truth of the matter is that Garry Monk can’t even claim to have been the victim of the harshest sacking of the last seven days. News that the Sevilla head coach Eduardo Berizzo was facing surgery for prostate cancer made international headlines after his team came from three goals down to draw with Liverpool in the Champions League last month. Berizzo returned from surgery with a goalless draw at Levante on the fifteenth of December, but at the end of last week the Sevilla directors took the decision to relieve Berizzo of his duties following a loss against Real Sociedad the previous Wednesday evening Sevilla are, at the time of writing, in fifth place in the Liga table. It may or may not be any consolation to Garry Monk, but if he believes that he has been spectacularly ill-treated, he may wish to consider the case of Eduardo Berizzo.

Monk wasn’t the only casualty of yesterday’s match at Hillsborough, either. The timing of the departure of Carlos Carvalhal will be unlikely to raise as many eyebrows as that of Monk, though. He had, after all, been in his position for a couple of years, veritably aoens in the increasingly unstable world of football club management. Carvalhal definitely had his chances and the decision reached between him and the club after yesterday’s match has, at least on the official record, been “mutually agreed”, but the timing of the decision to go down a different path comes at a similarly inconvenient juncture of the season as it would for any other club.  Sheffield Wednesday have spent fairly lavishly themselves over the last couple of seasons or so, but the promised land of the Premier League seems as far away as it otherwise has in recent years. They now find themselves requiring a new man to try and rescue a season that is starting to look like something of a dead loss.

It’s not, of course, a race to the bottom in terms of how badly a football club can treat a member of its staff, and if Middlesbrough’s season doesn’t ignite with the arrival of a new manager then the club might just have to accept that it probably didn’t give Monk the amount of time that he deserved in order to get itself back on track towards a return to the Premier League. What we take away from all of this more than anything else, however, is the suspicion that being in the Football League Championship, so near yet so far from the promised land of the Premier League, has a tendency to warp the priorities and expectations of all those who come into contact with it. Steve Gibson is normal a paragon of patience in terms of his handling of managers, to the extent to which that the timing of this one has already had some Boro supporters scratching their heads and wondering whether there might have been going on behind the scenes at the club of which they weren’t previously aware. Last night’s events at both Middlesbrough Sheffield Wednesday may be a last throw of the dice for both clubs for this season. The culture that led to the dismissal of both at this time, however, doesn’t look like its going anywhere.

Photo credit: John Lord for Wikimedia Commons.