Championship 2019-20: Weeks 24-25
Fri 17 Jan – 19:45: Fulham v Boro
Tue 21 Jan – 19:45: Boro v Birmingham
As the climate on Teesside continues to show signs of unseasonal warming there are worries that the ancient north-east ice shelf of pessimism may be at risk of total collapse with a danger of severe floods of optimism engulfing the local landscape. While it’s not quite yet an emergency that requires an intervention from Greta Thunberg, it’s still a concern that the future of Teesside’s children could be blighted by overheated aspirations. OK, it’s still only mid January so there’s still time to experience the traditional pleasure of cold reality but thankfully Boro supporters only have five more days to negotiate the risk of disappointment this month. Indeed, it’s time to prepare for two football-free weekends of tending to prematurely awakened globally-warmed gardens while contemplating a suitable morally outraged position on Megxit to fill the void that exists in a post-Brexit world.
Despite no win in the last three games (surely just an anomaly caused by the distorting ripples created by the gravity of the manager of the month award), it’s seems Boro have finally found that winning mentality they lacked earlier in the seson. The club’s change in fortunes saw Jonathan Woodgate collect the prestigious footballing equivalent of the salesman of the month for his team topping the form table for December. After a Ricky Gevais equivalent handed him the expensively cast iconic sculpture, the almost emotional Boro head coach declared in his acceptance speech that “I’m proud, but I’m nothing without my staff…” before quickly adding “…and then of course, the players. It’s always about the players.” Indeed, the players have deserved that acknowledgement but surprisingly there was no mention of the ‘Me Too’ movement that many had expected at such occasions, though that particular movement on Teesside represented those supporters who had agreed among themselves that they wouldn’t return to the Riverside while Woodgate was still in charge.
Though while we were informed that the award is set to take pride of place on top of his son’s wardrobe (no higher praise other than glueing it to the ceiling perhaps), the award has also helped to vindicate Steve Gibson in appointing another young head coach. OK, it won’t necessarily prove to be decisive moment in his managerial career but it does at least mark a change in attitude on Teesside for many who had feared the club were going nowhere fast under the inexperienced gaffer. However, Woodgate is unlikely to dwell on the award and is conscious that he needs to continue winning if he is to keep ahead of the game: “Alright, I’m Manager of the Month now. But that can quickly change” – indeed it often does and no doubt will. If that wasn’t enough, Ashley Fletcher also bagged the ‘Goal of the Month’ award for December for his superb 30-yard volley at the Baggies and Djed Spence made it a hat-trick with the Young Player of the Month award.
More vindication for Steve Gibson arrived on Thursday as Derby County (aka Rooney’s Rams) were charged by the EFL of being in breach of their Financial Fair Play rules. Although, it should be noted that was for the period ending 30th June 2018 – so while the decision will be welcomed by the Boro chairman, it does appear that an 18 month delay in being held to account means it probably won’t deter clubs from gambling on promotion. Gibson’s argument has been that Boro missed out on making the play-offs to Derby in the following season by just one point and they had gained an unfair advantage by overspending beyond what was permitted. Mel Morris had sought to give the appearance of staying within the spending rules by selling the club’s stadium to what was listed as “companies under common ownership” or in layman’s terms simply himself. The stadium sale was rather luckily made just two days before that end of June accounting period and registered a profit of £39.9m to turn a potential three-year loss of £48m into just an £8m one with EFL rules permitting just a loss of £39m – still at least the accountants added 900 grand to the stadium profit to avoid it looking like they were taking the proverbial by picking that controversial figure.
Whether Derby will ultimately face a points deduction this season may depend on when the matter is resolved – The East Midlands club are contesting that they haven’t actually done something against the letter of the rules and it’s likely to be a semantic legal argument over the legitimacy of what constitutes an allowable entity to which something can be sold or whether indeed the price was fair or inflated. Whatever the outcome, it would either seem unfair if it was imposed with less than ten games remaining or of no consequence if it simply placed them lower in mid-table. Philip Cocu’s side are currently like Boro ten points clear of the drop zone with just an outside chance of bridging the 8-point gap to the play-offs. The precedent of Birmingham receiving a nine point deduction may make it uncomfortably close for Rams supporters to contemplate the possibility of relegation. However, sympathy on Teesside will unlikely to be in evidence with that memory of Boro’s relegation caused by our own three-point deduction for faxing a dodgy sick note.
Strangely, there was no sign of Steve Gibson and Mel Morris sharing pleasantries in the directors box at the recent Riverside encounter and perhaps it was just as well given that injury-time strike by Duane Octavious Holmes, which stole a fifth-successive victory from Woodgate’s men. I suspect the Boro chairman would have struggled to avoid the Rebecca Long-Bailey-esque stock countenance of appearing to be forcing a smile while simultaneously sucking a lemon as he shook hands with the Derby owner. Note: other Labour leadership contender facial expressions are available in the event of needing to portray indifference, surprise or even vague understanding in the event of losing – though unlike most of those it seems Boro still have momentum on their side. Incidentally, it appears the main criteria for a new Labour leader is to possess a suitable name that fits in with the famous White Stripes “Seven Nation Army” tune that is used to chant “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!” and on that basis it’s looking good for “Oh Rebecca Long-Bailey!” as the other are either a few syllables short or in Emily Thornberry’s case will probably need to marry Kier Starmer to reduce it to the right number.
Though the pressing issue at the moment is the cost of restoring Big Ben’s clapper before the end of the month in order to ring in the changes. Yes there are further rumours that Ben Gibson may be restored to Boro’s defence before the January transfer window ends – though many on Teesside are concerned that he may be all clapped out after disappearing in Lancashire under Sean Dyche and would prove to be nothing more than an expensive sentimental signing – indeed some on social media are even not bothering with the ‘senti’ bit. Still, Boro surely need to sign at least one central defender in the next few weeks to avoid seeing a back three of central midfielders. Apparently, Shotton is close to fitness but Ayala’s is set to be missing for the next four weeks, which is a minimum of another five games.
At least Boro have signed another keeper after Darren Randolph finally limped out of Hurworth and signed for West Ham. The delay to the least surprising Boro exit for sometime was it seems down to David Moyes having a thing about injured goalkeepers – apparently to lose one is unfortunate, two is careless but three would demonstrate something pathological that lies hiden behind that stare. Still, at least he would probably have got the gig for the next ‘Injury Lawyers for You’ advert… “Have you ever accidentally signed an injured keeper that wasn’t your fault?” Nevertheless, Boro have been quick to replace Randolph with the arrival of a massive six-foot-five Macedonian in the form of Dejan Stojanovic, who the the faithful on the terraces are probably going to need more than just a complimentary free pint to be able to chant his name to that White Stripes classic – though too many and inevitable slurring could cause some to be whisked away by St John’s ambulance staff as possible stroke victims. We can only hope for the sake of the hard-pressed A&E at James Cook that Aynsley Pears continues to show good form between the sticks. Sadly Tomás Mejías will probably be kicking himself for blowing his chances of getting his hands on the number one shirt after his second-minute howler in the Tottenham replay – though it’s possible kicking is not his strongest attribute and he should leave it to others.
Last Tuesday, Boro supporters had what’s often known slightly patronisingly as “a good day out” in the country’s swankiest most expensive stadium that the Spurs board are hoping won’t become ‘White Elephant Lane’ rather than the previous ‘Hart’. It perhaps sums up the hyped nature of football that the team managed by the world’s most successful coach in a billion pound stadium struggled to see off Woodgate’s cobbled together team of those who couldn’t be rested. On another day perhaps Boro could have sneaked into the fourth round but in the end nobody seemed overly keen on risking the chance of three points at Craven Cottage over the increasingly tarnished distraction of the FA Cup. It won’t go down as a particularly memorable encounter but Boro basically did enough over both games to leave their new-found confidence intact and allow themselves to both euphemistically and literally concentrate on the league.
Boro opted to remain in London this week to minimise travelling and have been training at Palace. So it’s a short trip to Fulham for another televised encounter and the opportunity to close the gap on the top six. All Boro can do is try to win every game and see where it takes them but while that notion would have been ridiculed only a few weeks ago, Woodgate’s team now look like they have a chance at beating nearly any team in the Championship. The arrival of Roberts on loan from Man City has added yet another lively direct player to the team, which with the rise of Coulson, Spence, Tavernier and Fletcher has transformed blunt Boro into a dangerous-looking outfit – especially if the promising Nmecha improves his match fitness. Scott Parker’s side are currently sitting in fourth spot and looking at making a swift return to the Premier League. While they recently beat Leeds at Craven Cottage, they have also lost two of their last four at home, including last time out against in-form Reading and also against the Robins. The other plus for Woodgate is that Fulham will be without their main man Mitrović up front as he damaged his ankle last time out – the Serb is the Championship’s leading scorer with 18 goals in 26 appearances. The Boro head coach now has difficult selection issues as up until recently the team has basically selected itself by availability.
Finally, Tuesday sees the rearranged home fixture against Birmingham, which was originally due to take place during the FA Cup fourth round fixtures. Pep Clotet still remains in charge of the Blues but his team have dropped down the table and are now below Boro in 18th place. Last week they recorded only their second victory since the beginning of November after beating bottom club Luton 2-1 – with the other one being surprisingly at in-form team Reading. Boro will be looking for revenge for the 2-1 defeat in the reverse fixture where Woodgate’s team faced 26 attempts on goal from the Blues and only mustered five chances themselves. In fact, Boro almost came away with a point after an 87th minute equaliser from Ayala but sadly conceded a Birmingham winner two minutes later. That was back in early October when the head coach was still persisting with 4-3-3 but Coulson and Friend were injured and Shotton was playing left-back. Clotet will face a much more dynamic Boro team this time and hopefully it will be the team in red peppering the opposition goal.
So that brings the action on the pitch to an end for January but it’s possible it will continue off the pitch as Woodgate looks to reshape his Boro squad before the transfer window closes. The head coach has indicated that he also expects the young first team graduates of Tavernier, Coulson, Spence and Pears all to sign new deals in the coming weeks, which he claims will be like new signings. Clearly there are still some gaps to be filled and there’s still the issue of whether the club will look to cash in Assombalonga to raise more cash for the summer. There’s also the matter of whether Howson and Ayala will sign new deals and it’s also possible clubs will test Boro’s resolve with someone like McNair. While reaching the play-offs may require maintaining the December run all the way to the end of the season, the nucleus of a team capable of promotion is now within Woodgate’s sight and the future is now looking bright rather than the gloomy one anticipated.