Championship 2019-20: Weeks 22-23
Sun 5 Jan – 14:01: Boro v Spurs (FA Cup)
Sat 11 Jan – 15:00: Boro v Derby
Tue 14 Jan – 20:05: Spurs v Boro (FA Cup Replay)
Nothing probably epitomised the change in fortune of Boro’s season than the sight of Rudy Gestede’s face after scoring his first goal in a Boro shirt for nearly two years – plus the joy of his team-mates who must have known what it meant to him. Indeed, Dael Fry almost looked quite emotional as they celebrated, with Ashley Fletcher also having something of a proud look on his face and the effervescent Marcus Tavernier simply ecstatic with joy for the big Benin striker, whose time at the club has been blighted by injuries and failure. Clearly the team spirit amongst the players is evident and that is an important ingredient for any team hoping to achieve something.
Another factor in Boro’s revival is that Jonathan Woodgate and his coaching team appear to be starting to get the best out of what players they have at their disposal in a limited strength squad. Whether it be young players suddenly finding themselves in the first team picture in Djed Spence, Hayden Coulson or Aynsley Pears, those who have lacked form and confidence like Ashley Fletcher or George Saville and even the older players who had lost their places such as Adam Clayton and now Rudy Gestede. Perhaps Woodgate has been underestimated as a man-manager and it’s clear that the players are prepared to give him their all on the pitch.
Of course, the major factor for any successful team is self-belief and confidence, which began to return with every successive victory that was chalked up – indeed, the upturn may have come sooner if it hadn’t been for some crucial sending-offs that scuppered promising displays. Ten games ago, Boro were two-nil up and cruising against Hull until Marvin Johnson saw red eight minutes before half time – the ten men were eventually pegged back and were lucky to escape with a point. It was the same at Swansea, after Marcus Tavernier had equalised just before the hour mark and it looked like only one team was going to go onto win – and it wasn’t the Welsh one in white. However, a few minutes after that goal Browne’s stupid lunging tackle on the halfway line saw him sent to the stands and he was followed not long after by McNair for another less than clever challenge in front of the dugouts – the Swans then struck twice to send Boro home with nothing. Unbelievably, if Boro had have won those two and picked up those five extra points, Jonathan Woodgate’s team would now be only three points outside the play-offs with 20 games remaining!
Nevertheless, that festive bonanza of twelve points to end the bleak mid winter have totally reshaped the landscape of what was looking like it would be a long toil in the even bleaker valleys of the drop zone. Instead, Boro have now almost scrambled onto the higher planes of mid-table and the foothills of the play-offs are now almost in reach. It’s certainly been some journey this season and I’m not sure whether anyone associated with the club were overly keen on taking such a scenic route to a possible play-off place. OK, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves as there’s still a long way to go before that becomes a serious proposition. Still, the renewed optimism is palpable and it may be that we’ll start to see evidence of FOMO on Teesside. FOMO, in case you’ve missed out on that particular acronym, is the latest social media induced anxiety, which rather appropriately is pronounced ‘foamo’ and stands for ‘Fear of missing out.’
Although, for the football world, FOMO has been the driving force behind the inflationary transfer window for many a year and we are once again preparing to peer though another one in a serious Playschool manner. Boro have wasted little time (and thankfully little money) in getting their first January signings with the capture of Manchester City’s young winger Patrick Roberts – OK, the 22-year old has only ever had one appearance off the bench for the Sky Blues following a £12m transfer from Fulham and had spent most of his last three years out on loan. He had a successful spell at Celtic, scoring 15 goals in 55 appearances but hasn’t done anything of note in the last 18 months with unsuccessful loan spells at Girona in Spain and just three appearances for Norwich this season.
If Woodgate and Keane can get him back on track then he may be a good signing but he’s probably another player who is looking to reboot his career to rediscover some form and match fitness. Also just hot off the press arriving from City on loan is the six-foot-one German-born young forward Lukas Nmecha – he spent last season on loan at Preston, scoring 4 goals in 38 appearances and has spent this season at Wolfsburg but got few opportunities to play. The 21-year old is described as a pacy two-footed forward with a good first touch, who can either play as a centre-forward or out wide and likes to run at defenders – though it’s possible that paragraph on Wikipedia was written by his agent . Interestingly, he scored for England U20s against Germany in 2018 but switched sides in 2019 when he came on as sub for Germany’s U21s when they beat England 2-1. He sounds like a favourite for the Anglo-Germanic dual-nationals out there – albeit a confusing one!
January could be an important transfer window for Boro and it’s possible we’ll see a few strategic exits that could raise funds to help the bolstering of a rather thin squad that looks like it can’t take many more injuries or suspensions. I’d expect the club to make some defensive signings now Ayala has joined the injured, and with no sign of either Shotton or Friend returning, Woodgate is only one more injury or suspension short of a centre-back crisis. Whether we’ll see any experienced players arriving is another matter but that may depend on sales. The latest news on Randolph is that Boro have rejected West Ham’s opening bid as too low, but with Aston Villa also now in the market for a keeper after losing Tom Heaton for the season with a knee injury, it at least could start a bidding war for his services. A thoughtful Woodgate sounded somewhat vague on the future of both Randolph and Britt after simply saying “I’d like to think that they’ll both stay.”
With head of recruitment, Adrian Bevington, leaving the club last month it could mean a change in direction or possibly there was simply no real role for him given Boro’s lack of funds. Whether Boro are looking to target a different profile of player after the summer arrivals have so far failed to make the grade is uncertain – perhaps they could take inspiration for their recruitment policy from the latest planned advertisement from those who now run the country. Dominic Cummins has published in his blog that he aims to encourage “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to apply for jobs in government – though many on Teesside could be forgiven for thinking that was Boro’s policy of the last few years for recruiting their players. The Downing Street strategist also added that he didn’t want to employ “confident public school bluffers” – not sure who he had in mind but presumably they were already over-represented in that department in the senior positions.
Moving quickly along from the world of politics that has often been unkindly (though possibly accurately) described as “show business for ugly people.” Anyway, it’s Boro who are now sitting much prettier in the Championship after that hectic but handsomely productive festive programme. However, January suddenly becomes a lot more languid with just a Cup tie and three league fixtures to fill out the month with not a midweek game in sight to punctuate the winter weekends.
Sunday sees Boro join the third round of the FA Cup with a high-profile televised home tie against a top Premier League team. Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham (as they’ve obligatorily been renamed) arrive on Teesside to waft a bit a glamour around the Riverside that neither Barnsley, Stoke or Huddersfield simply had the smell of. Most will be expecting that many of the big names will be rested for this game and no doubt Spurs will also make changes too. Although, with so few games in January for Boro, they may as well give it good go and maybe impress a few armchair neutrals. The real danger will be attracting unwanted attention from the January shoppers looking to boost their squads – maybe we could get a few extra millions by selecting Randolph or Britt but equally we could lose a few millions if they fluff their lines. A Gestede hat-trick will no doubt be followed with club statements saying he’s not for sale at any price before reluctantly relenting after a £5m bid from Villa to resign their former player.
When the third round draw was made, there were probably very few compos mentis Boro supporters that would contemplate their club would be in the fourth round hat. Now I suspect after the last four wins and news that Harry Kane is injured and the distinct possibility of others being rested for Spurs next game against Liverpool, Boro may fancy an upset. Indeed, you may be surprised to hear that Boro have won as many league games as Tottenham this season, with both clubs registering eight a piece. Spurs have been looking shaky in defence of late and have conceded first in their last four games, of which only one was won.
Mourinho’s latest squeeze are not at their best and in truth the Special One hasn’t looked that special in recent years with his odd bullying behaviour no longer seen as charming or effective after getting sacked by Chelsea for losing 9 of his opening 16 games. It was also marked by that infamous incident with the club’s female doctor, who he demoted for running onto the pitch to treat a prostrate Eden Hazard. The BBC reported that Eva Carneiro had claimed at a tribunal that Mourinho had shouted at her in Portugese “filha da puta” which translates as “daughter of a whore” – Dr Carneiro eventually settled with the club for constructive dismissal after turning down their original offer of £1.2m compensation. Mourinho then became Man Utd manager after seemingly being Sir Alex’s chosen one but he failed to revive their fortunes with the fans upset by the dour football he served up. He was sacked shortly before Christmas in 2018 after winning just 7 of his opening 17 games with him and his staff received just under £20m for their inconvenience.
Boro will hopefully try to continue in the Championship where they left off as they welcome Derby to the Riverside six days after their Cup exploits – although their opponents will presumably now be known as Wayne Rooney’s Rams after he somehow agreed to join Frank Lampard’s former club to inspire them to avoid relegation to League One – though I suspect the original deal was sold to him as firing the club to promotion to the Premier League when it was agreed back in August. Rooney has joined as player-coach on an 18 month contract – though I’m not sure if Mel Morris now plans to sell the training ground back to himself to fund his wages.
Derby, you may recall, lost out to Villa in the play-off final last season and after Frank Lampard departed for Chelsea appointed the former Dutch international Phillip Cocu as manager. Cocu played 101 times for The Netherlands and went on to become assistant manager for his country before leaving to take charge as caretaker manager at PSV. He subsequently stepped back to an under-19 role at the club before returning as first-team manager, which saw him lift the Eredivisie title in 2015 and defend it the following year.
However, Cocu has so far failed to inspire his new club to Championship success and a 2-1 Rooney-inspired win over Barnsley saw them join Boro on 33 points. It was the Ram’s second win in a week after also beating Charlton by the same score – though they’d failed to win any of their previous seven games in a run that had seen them slide down the table towards the relegation zone. Boro will hope it was a temporary return to form and that the presence of Wazza won’t prove to be the driving force for those around him at the Riverside.
So as the Boro faithful enter January in an uncharacteristic positive mood and start projecting a collective spirit of all pulling in the same direction, the question for many supporters now out of their cynical comfort zone, is how long it will last? For the moment most are feeling pleasantly surprised after the festive cheer and are still humming the Wizzard chorus of “I wish it could be Christmas every day” – while simultaneously getting twitchy as they prepare to pack away the decorations and inwardly anticipate the inevitable slump!