Championship 2018-19: Week 7
Sat 15 Sep – 15:00: Norwich v Boro
Following a rather hectic August with eight league and cup fixtures packed into the opening few weeks all the fun and excitement ground to a halt while the League of Nations gathered to prevent a domestic fixture being played in anger. A time to reflect perhaps on whether all the right bodies managed to arrive in all the right places through the various random windows with seemingly random deadlines to buy, borrow and even pretend to borrow before buying – or indeed refuse to buy when all you wanted to do was borrow. At least the sight of Boro sitting tight at the top of the Championship with Leeds has prevented many asking the pertinent question of why Boro failed to re-invest a greater chunk of their £40m plus transfer gains on adding much-needed individual flair to a functional team.
A post-transfer deadline Tony Pulis has dutifully batted away criticism on the recruitment front and has frequently been supportive of his chairman’s spending. Interestingly, following the defeat in the play-offs against Aston Villa, Pulis declared “I know what we need and I know what’s necessary. I won’t waste Steve’s (Gibson) money – he’s spent an awful lot of money”. OK spending and wasting are two different things entirely, so it’s possible he may have been directing that comment at previous purchases. Though it’s a familiar theme that the Boro manager often refers to Steve Gibson as having spent £50m of his money last season on players. What he overlooks is that the club also raised over £40m in player sales to leave an estimated net spend of around £5-8m. Should we read anything into this spinning of spending or has the club decided a process of belt tightening is needed in order to improve the bank balance?
If the reason for failing to land high-profile targets is put down to the club prioritising getting value from the market then it may well be a sensible approach to running a football club. Though let’s not pretend the manager had to sell before he could buy this season due to the need of recouping a large portion of the £50m that Monk spent. The sales of Ben Gibson and Traore came as no surprise to many, the club also received an acceptable offer for Bamford and even the sale of Braithwaite was sanctioned too. The question will remain for some whether or not at some point the Boro manager will be given those banked funds to spend at a later date – though he should definitely not waste them.
Before wandering minds return to the long domestic Championship race ahead, those preoccupied with international events may still be contemplating how a group of three teams constitutes a ‘League’ in any meaningful way – it’s even barely a group and just one more than a tie. OK, the Champions League has been getting away with that particular misnomer for a couple of decades now, as the accepted definition of league is described as a group of teams who play each other over a specific period of time. So playing just two of the other eleven teams in your league doesn’t tick that pedantic box that also regards the baseball World Series as a local affair. The whole exercise was supposed to prevent meaningless international friendlies but having groups of three teams has now left England without a ‘competitive’ midweek fixture as Croatia play Spain – resulting in the arrangement of a meaningless friendly against the Swiss instead. It may be too soon to raise a sheepish hand and claim to have spotted a structural flaw in UEFA’s cunning plan – especially as many are still getting over being patronised by TV presenters telling viewers it’s all too complicated to explain how the tournament works. Some are instead forced to Google ‘how does the Nations League work’ – though in truth few even care. They just want the break to end.
The summer recruitment has seen the Boro squad probably reshaped out of necessity rather than design, though it remains to be seen who will become important components of the Tony Pulis heavy-duty functional machine as the season progresses. Aden Flint has already established himself as Ben Gibson’s replacement and looks set to form a central back-three with Fry and Ayala. Danny Batth arrived late under the radar from Wolves to offer further defensive back-up, plus with Friend and Shotton both capable of playing in a central three, it should offer enough cover. Southampton youngster Sam McQueen has also moved to Teesside on loan in the hope of gaining regular football and looks like cover for left wing-back or possibly a left midfield option – though his first-team outings last season amounted to less than 180 minutes spread over seven games so he may still not be match-fit. While Paddy McNair arrived from Sunderland as a central midfielder, he appears to be now being pencilled in as possible right wing-back cover after being overlooked in favour of both Mo Besic and Lewis Wing. With Howson and Clayton both being in excellent form, it may be a waiting game for McNair to stake his claim. Leadbitter has probably now dropped to understudy for Clayton and will probably get few opportunities this term.
Less clear is what will happen in the forward positions, Boro appear to have no stand-out striker with Britt working hard but not looking clinical enough to spearhead a promotion push. The arrival of Jordan Hugill on loan from West Ham is probably going to provide Assombalonga’s with his main competition for a start but the Boro-born striker still looks a little rusty and more of a nuisance than a threat. Whether a fit-again Rudy Gestede will be given a chance to impress up front is hard to say but Pulis seems to quite like having the big target man leading the line. It’s also doubtful if Ashley Fletcher can become anything more than a peripheral figure and he probably only remained at the Riverside because other targets didn’t arrive. At least Martin Braithwaite remains and had looked our most committed forward until he asked for a move to Spain. As it turned out, the interest in the Dane wasn’t matched by any serious numbers being offered by potential buyers and Pulis expects the player will now get his head down and work hard for the team – at least until the January window opens.
Though in terms of creativity or pace, Boro don’t appear to have much at their disposal and are now over-reliant on Stewart Downing continuing with his good start to the season as he rolls back the proverbial years. The other main option appears to be George Saville, who the club will pay a substantial fee of around £7m in January to make the move permanent. Millwall manager Neil Harris described it as a “ridiculous offer” that was too good to turn down for a player they paid only £350,000 for 12 months earlier. Boro fans will be hoping the former Chelsea academy graduate will justify the price-tag but that kind of figure has become the club’s standard punt price in recent seasons. Although, he was the Lion’s joint-top scorer last season with 10 goals in 44 games, a 1-in-4 ratio, which he also repeated the season before at Wolves with 5 goals in 19 appearances. I suspect a similar return for Boro will make him a fans favourite, though much will depend on where he slots in or whether he quickly adjusts to life on Teesside.
Despite some new arrivals, Tony Pulis will have ultimately been disappointed he couldn’t recruit the wide players he had desired this summer. A last gasp loan deal for Albert Adomah fell through when the former Boro favourite insisted on making the deal permanent in January – which was unsurprising given some of the names his brother had called his Villa manager Steve Bruce on social media. Whether the club had previously targeted the right players is debatable but the criteria appeared to be based on those who had previously worked with the Boro manager at Palace and had only recently recovered from long-term injuries. Though it seems Yannick Bolasie and Jason Puncheon also had something else in common – neither of them wanted to move to the North-East. Not exactly a minor detail when profiling new recruits and perhaps best not left until the last question of the interview. Once Bolasie had done the maths and discovered Birmingham was much nearer to London he opted for Villa and left Pulis waiting for a courtesy call to inform him of his decision – perhaps he eventually sent a SMS with a sad-face Emoji followed by a thumbs down one.
With Jason Puncheon also opting to stay in London to fight for his place in Palace’s Caraboa Cup squad, it will mean he’ll not be carrying out his community service on Teesside. It will come as an obvious disappointment to those in need of litter being picked up and will no doubt also leave a local group building dry-stone walls a man light. Pulis had rated his former player quite highly and once said “Punch could be anything he wanted to be, he has got the tools to be a top player” – though in hindsight it’s perhaps an unfortunate nickname for someone ending up in court on an assault charge. Sadly, the Palace winger’s decision to stay put has robbed the Riverside faithful of seeing him link up with the big man Gestede in what could have become the Punch and Rudy show as they demonstrated to their team-mates “that’s the way to do it”. Teesside could have benefited from a bit of traditional 16th century knockabout theatre orchestrated by the veteran puppet-master Pulis. If I recall correctly, historians believe Mr Punch was based on a character called ‘Pulisinella’, who was the manifestation of the Lord of Misrule and a mythological Trickster figure. Folklore claim this figure “exhibited a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and used it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behaviour” – or in other words, ‘Old School’.
Though when it comes to persuading footballers to join your club, it may be for some that their priority is not what happens on the pitch but instead the potential for enjoying the lifestyle and being on the guest list of different kinds of clubs altogether. Perhaps for those on comfortable contracts, who are not quite destined for Champions League clubs or a career of winning titles and medals, the need for self-affirmation by displaying their ‘achievements’ is instead confined to simply showing off their wealth and minor celebrity status. It was not too long ago that owning a Ford Escort XR3i with alloy wheels was the status symbol of choice for young footballers to show they had arrived. However, with more money now raining down on wealth-soaked players it has meant they now need more impressive cars, even more extravagant haircuts, sharper suits and less space being left on their bodies for under-achieving flesh-coloured skin. The echo chamber that this nouveau riche elite find themselves in demands they have the right to reverberate their wealth loud and proud to distinguish them from those cast adrift in the austere normal world outside their cosseted bubble.
Of course, not all footballers fall into this trap of an ostentatious lifestyle but the pressures to conform to the required image may have made many make ill-conceived impulsive decisions. Peter Crouch revealed this week why he once gave up his brand new Aston Martin after only a week. The Stoke striker recalled of how after signing for Liverpool and playing for England he finally thought he’d made it, so decided to ditch his Renault Megane for a top-of-the-range flashy sports car. The eventual decision to part with his trophy car and take a hefty financial hit wasn’t because of the daily struggle to get his six-foot-seven frame in and out of it. Rather it was down to one day arriving at a set of traffic lights, wearing his shades, trying to look cool with his arm resting out of the open window as the car stereo thumped out electronic dance music. As Crouch proudly turned to the side to look at the car standing alongside him, he saw that the driver giving him a look of sheer disgust was none other than Roy Keane, who then sped off from the lights leaving him feeling the smallest he’s ever felt. Crouch said after glancing at himself in the car mirror, he suddenly realised it was not him and sold the car a few days later.
Still he can perhaps console himself that even people more powerful than the former Manchester United captain, have been recently seeking to emulate his style. It was generally assumed when it came to robotic dancing few could match Peter Crouch’s famous goal celebration – however, Prime Minister Theresa May showed us last week that while she may not have all the Brexit moves or can pull the right shapes to impress Brussels, her hopefully unchoreographed efforts in South Africa have proved she can indeed dance like no one wished they were watching. Not content with wowing the school children of Cape Town with her ‘Maybot’ rendition, she continued where she left off with another ‘impromptu’ robo-bop with a group of scouts in Nairobi.
All of which has left many wondering if the UK has been left with no alternative but to dance around the world for trade deals as the negotiations on leaving the EU begin to creak even more than the PM’s knees. Of course, it may just be a carefully contrived plan to see off a leadership challenge from Boris Johnson as she tries to outmanoeuvre him in the looking like an idiot stakes – something the electorate apparently give great credence too as a sign of normality. Not to be outdone, it’s rumoured that Jeremy Corbyn and the NEC are planning to form a circle then perform their rendition of the Horah at the up-coming Labour Party conference, possibly in full orthodox Jewish costume, in a bid to once and for all put the whole antisemitism episode behind them.
Whether the replicant PM risks been hunted down by Harrison Ford for her Maybot moves as she denies ever dreaming of electric sheep while running through fields of genetically-modified wheat is perhaps for another blog. Though, we were once again powerfully reminded this week that the opening scenes to the cult movie Blade Runner were inspired by ICI Wilton when the first episode of the docu-soap ‘The Mighty Redcar’ appeared on the small screen. Whereas Ridley Scott’s film portrayed a dystopian future, the story of a struggling town in the North-East brought into stark reality the dystopian present for many of the young people feeling forgotten in the quest to fulfil their modest dreams.
The contrast between the meagre resources available to many on Teesside and those bestowed upon the heroes of their local football team remind us of how great the gulf in wealth has grown over the last few decades. It’s possible both may have even started life on the same streets, though the value given to being able to play a sport well has been driven up by the market in a seemingly unburstable bubble, fuelled by the satellite TV subscriptions of the masses to leave them a world apart. Maybe a little simplistic to compare the few at the very top of their profession to the many left behind, but it puts into context that the game of football has moved on from its working-class roots and has become an elite sport performed by the new elite.
Living your dreams through the eyes of the rich and famous is nothing new, though the cult of celebrity and fame has left many young people to believe their best chance in life is to emulate them. In times past, being good at football or cricket in a working-class town was an escape from a life down the mines or back-breaking toil in the traditional heavy industries. However, the dream being sold now is the same as winning the lottery and it’s not really something that the overwhelming majority can expect will be a realistic outcome. Today, fulfilling an ambition to become a top professional footballer offers wealth beyond imagination but for nearly all who embark on the journey it will end in failure. In his book ‘No Hunger in Paradise’, Michael Calvin claims that of the 1.5 million boys who play organised youth football in England only 180 will make it as a Premier League player – which is a success rate of just 0.012 per cent. In comparison, professor Stephen Nelson has calculated the chances of getting killed by a meteorite at about 0.0004%. So the good news for aspiring young footballers is that you’re 30 times more likely to become a Premier League player than being killed by a meteorite – though the bad news for those banking on winning the lottery is that you’re nearly six times more likely to be killed by a meteorite instead.
Thankfully the odds on Boro’s dream of playing in the Premier League are much more favourable after their unbeaten start to the season with Sky Bet now barely offering 5/2 on promotion for Tony Pulis’s team. Though the pessimists on Teesside looking for value in the market may anticipate a decent return with Boro standing at 200/1 to be relegated. The result at Elland Road was an important measure of the club’s promotion credentials and there was definitely signs of a team in Tony Pulis’s image being on display. Boro looked like an imposing big team compared to Leeds and perhaps not many opposition outfits will deal with our sheer physical presence. A glance through some of the Leeds fan forums showed a distinct lack of irony on display as most were quick to castigate Boro as nothing more than a physical dirty team of giants who wouldn’t let them play their football – at least it demonstrated which supporters were most pleased with the result if not aware of their club history.
Next up is a trip to Carrow Road to play a Norwich team that have only managed one win in their opening six games and have leaked 12 goals – with 9 of those coming against Leeds, Sheffield United and West Brom. The Canaries five points have been picked up against Birmingham, Preston and Ipswich – none of whom have won any of their last five games. Norwich have actually scored as many goals as Boro with both teams firing 9 a piece but the Teessiders have now gone over 500 minutes since Randolph last had to pick the ball out of his net. On paper it looks like Boro will be looking to bank another three points but the Championship is notorious for punishing the complacency of teams who believe they have enough to win.
A hard-fought point at Leeds will count for little if Boro fail to see off less dangerous opposition. Perhaps Boro supporters may be checking the odds on Ayala and Howson scoring on their return to Carrow Road – though others may be more worried about a certain Jordan Rhodes being the first to breach the Boro back line since Tony Pulis made his first half-time team-talk of the season at the Den.
Despite the angst over missed targets who could maybe offer something different and the loss of individual match-winners like Adama and Bamford, the truism that football is a team game is perhaps reflected in Boro’s performance so far this season. Whether it’s sport, business or even politics, successfully working together will normally improve your chances of achieving mutual goals – unless of course you prefer to gamble on individual brilliance and get extremely lucky!