Championship 2018-19: Week 20
Sat 15 Dec – 15:00: QPR v Boro
Life in the Premier League nursery, or the Championship as others prefer to call it, is starting to see a few supporters growing tired of the swings and roundabouts in the promotion playground. Many on Teesside have urged that manager Tony Pulis needs to show more adventure in order to be able to climb the table and put the club in the frame for an automatic slot – though it seems many hadn’t anticipated he was about to try out the slide instead. The highs and lows being experienced are starting to look like an unnecessary wobble, with many puzzled supporters still attempting to See what the manager Saw, as the weight of expectation shifts to and fro.
Pulis claims that Boro’s ups and downs in front of goal are mainly down to not being clinical enough and re-iterated last week “I’ve said before, we just need a little bit more quality at the top end of the pitch, so when we get those opportunities and chances, which we do create, we can put them away.” This is possibly an over-simplification of the problems facing Boro in their inability to trouble opposition keepers often enough.
Although even small children in the Family Enclosure at the Riverside can see that our ponderous midfield are perhaps culpable in not providing enough opportunities for the strikers. Even the junior branch of the Red Faction are now reluctant to sing that the wheels on the Boro bus go round and round out of fear that at some point they may also come off. Anticipating such a disaster is all part of their Teesside DNA but surely children should be protected from such vividly-imagined trauma.
Perhaps they could instead innocently remind the boss of what needs to change by singing him a little nursery rhyme as he wanders up and down in his technical area: See Saw why can’t we score, Since Tony has been our new master, The team won’t put their chances away, Unless we can move the ball faster. OK perhaps not the words he might remember from his formative old school days but at least he may be spared a rendition of ‘Three blind mice’ in relation to the shooting prowess of his often preferred midfield trio – while it’s probably not enough to just see how they run, the farmer’s wife may opt against using her club-shop Boro carving knife in case it also proves to be unhelpfully blunt.
Nevertheless, despite Boro’s failure to build on their untypical early-season start, it’s more than likely that Steve Gibson won’t be preparing to throw his toys out his retro Bulkhaul pram any time soon and contemplate whether it’s time to back a different horse on the managerial merry-go-round. After two points from the last three games was a lot less than many had hoped for, it’s probably only regarded as slump territory by those who are suffering from premature over-extrapolation.
Although in many ways the recent dip was largely self inflicted with Pulis opting for major personnel and tactical changes for the trip to Preston instead of building on the momentum of two straight wins either side of the international break. The moment a manager makes the call to rest key players and mix up the organisation on the pitch, he always risks a bit of a knock for taking his eye off the ball and thinking beyond the next game.
Boro went into the game against an in-form Villa somewhat on the back foot after that disjointed performance seeped into the subconscious of the group and meant they didn’t start like a team confident of rising to the challenge. In the end they were second best all over the pitch and uncharacteristic errors from Randolph left Boro deservedly well beaten.
However, the visit of Blackburn offered a chance to get a reaction but after a promising opening ten minutes, Rovers started to pass it around between the Boro lines, which then saw Besic’s untimely interest in the fabric of Bradley Dack’s shirt that consequently left the team a man and a goal down. From that point it was never going to be an easy task but at least the players regrouped and showed that they could raise the intensity of their game. Boro recovered and ultimately showed more application than they had in the previous two games to make and earn a point.
We’ve seen this failure to push on and build on previous wins before but it’s been normally ameliorated by the equal failure of our promotion rivals to capitalise on these stumbles. Unfortunately, leaders Norwich added back-to-back victories to their point at Hull to make it 8 wins from the last 9. Leeds have finally stopped staggering along the road to promotion, arm-in-arm with Boro as they both appeared still drunk on their August points binge and have now returned four consecutive wins since that start. It has left Tony Pulis and his squad suddenly out of the automatic promotion picture as they drop to sixth place and six points behind the top two.
The task ahead for the Boro manager is clear and it appears he’s decided to shuffle through his squad in the hope of finding a trump card that will do the trick in his quest for goals. The aborted recall of Ashley Fletcher, following the dismissal of Besic, is being pencilled in for another reboot this weekend. It seems Pulis is keen to give those on the fringes a chance to prove they still have a role to play – though they must first presumably impress enough to deserve an opportunity. Whether anyone will ultimately keep the shirt they are being temporarily being loaned is uncertain – despite two vital goals, Marcus Tavernier seems to have disappeared just as quickly as he surprisingly appeared.
What price that Britt Assombalonga will be tasked with repeating his wonder goal against Blackburn? Perhaps his subsequent fluffed lines will be held against him but surely the name of the game for strikers is confidence – another goal for Britt may restore his self-belief if not a large chunk of his value in the January window. Although in terms of making Boro a sustainable attacking force, we should perhaps remember what happened in the Premier League and simply ignore wonder goals as an anomaly with goal-of-the-season contenders by Stuani and Gaston Ramirez were the exception rather than the rule. You could argue that if you need an amazing strike to score then something is probably going wrong – though at the risk of being proved wrong, I’m prepared to suffer a few more strikes like the one witnessed against Blackburn.
So, after facing one of their favourite sons at the Riverside in Tony Mowbray, Boro head to Loftus Road on Saturday to be hosted by the man who led them to their first magnificent major trophy. Steve McClaren appears to be back on another roller-coaster ride after being installed as the Hoops manager in mid-May to replace Ian Holloway. The move to the capital made it his tenth managerial appointment since his first post as a number one was presented to him by Steve Gibson.
Although before McClaren could start planning his summer business, he was awaiting a decision on QPR’s appeal regarding the £42m fine imposed on the club for breaching Financial Fair Play rules in their promotion campaign in 2013-14. In the end, an agreement was reached in July where the club would pay £20m (£17m fine plus £3m legal costs) over a ten-year period and convert £22m owed in loans to the owners into equity. In addition, they also accepted a transfer ban for the January 2019 window. All of which means essentially just an annual £2m payment that is not included in overall permitted spending – hardly much of a handicap or deterrent for those looking at possibly emulating their over-indulgence in a bid for the top tier.
Nevertheless, McClaren was given no money to spend in the summer and instead brought in 8 players on free transfers and acquired 3 more on loan. QPR’s start was in stark contrast to that of Boro’s as our former manager presided over four straight defeats with an unlucky 13 goals conceded in the process – including that 7-1 thrashing at West Brom. The goals may have been raining down but Steve wasn’t contemplating reaching for his brolly just yet and his team recovered to what is regarded as promotion-winning form with 20 points from the next 30. Unfortunately, the recent form of the Hoops appears to have dipped again as despite scoring 10 in their last six games, they have only won once after conceding 12.
McClaren can perhaps at least console himself this week that his position as the country’s most notorious brolly brandisher since Mary Poppins was recruited by the Bulgarians to see off a dissident has finally been usurped by Theresa May. As the media desperately searched for a metaphor to demonstrate the deluge of criticism she was facing, the PM was snapped looking miserable whilst holding an umbrella in the pouring rain. If Mrs May had been a devoted football follower like her predecessor, she would have known that those in charge should never risk curse of been photographed under an umbrella.
However, this metaphor was soon superseded after Theresa May was filmed trapped in the back of her ministerial car as the driver struggled to unlock the door while Angela Merkel waited patiently on the red carpet to greet her in Berlin. The Guardian helpfully reminded us that Michael Gove had said in the referendum campaign that the UK remaining in the EU would be “like being held hostage in the back of a car” – as it seems is leaving the EU too.
Although, staying clear of football altogether is perhaps the best advice to the country’s leaders after a gammon-faced David Cameron scored a spectacular own-goal when his football fan fakery was exposed when he forgot which claret-shirted team he supported and became a Hammer instead of a Villain. Perhaps only Tony Blair gained political capital with regard to football with his unfeasibly long game of head tennis with Kevin Keegan, which became one of the most iconic political photo opportunities ever staged. The stunt enthralled the country so much that Blair was forced to produce a dodgy dossier and invade Iraq just to be viewed as a normal politician again.
Keegan of course had form on such matters, some may even unfortunately remember the bizarre photo-op when he was persuaded along with Emlyn Hughes to kiss the newly elected prime minister Margaret Thatcher on the steps of Downing Street ahead of the 1980 European Championships. As Mrs Thatcher stood there posing with the squad in a rather prim dress holding a football, Hughes apparently quipped “I bet you wish you could grab hold of Arthur Scargill’s balls like that” – in stark contrast to her look of bemusement, roars of laughter ensued from the players.
Though Keegan was seemingly quite fond of prime ministers as he also presented Thatcher’s less exciting grey successor John Major with a black and white Newcastle shirt to presumably compliment his monochrome manner. Perhaps if Theresa May intends to make one more desperate bid for popularity then it may be time for her to don the Gareth Southgate waistcoat of likability – though let’s hope we don’t eventually see Jacob Rees-Mogg being ushered into office by street urchins doffing their Tony Pulis style caps in deference.