Championship 2019-20: Weeks 26-27
Sat 1 Feb – 15:00: Boro v Blackburn
Sat 8 Feb – 15:00: Brentford v Boro
Tue 11 Feb – 19:45: Wigan v Boro
As the January transfer window circus gets ready to head out of town, all that is left are the usual bunch of sad clowns kicking their heels in oversized shoes after failing to persuade desperate clubs that their client’s wage demands were reasonable and the elephant in the room is now wondering why he’s been going round in circles again. Reports that Boro are attempting some death-defying signings without the aid of the safety net that was parachute payments have probably made even the most daring of accountants unable to look.
Still, cries for the jugglers in the recruitment department to be sacked remain unheeded as the Riverside ringmaster tries to get in on the act by introducing his amazing escapologist nephew, who is attempting to free himself from the claret and blue chains that bind him to Sean Dyche. While very few onlookers are left holding their breath, the latest rumours suggest rather than signing our own Harry Houdini, Boro may be welcoming the French-born defender Harold Moukoudi instead – though from Saint-Etienne rather than from from the Cirque du Soleil. OK, it could still be the result of a Googling autocorrect error that got out of hand.
Talking of chains, apparently first-time buyers Boro are being held in one as they hope to gain the signature of Leicester’s Croatian £13m stopper Filip Benkovic, who can seemingly go out loan to get some game-time and test his dodgy knee that has restricted him to just a handful of appearances in the last 12 months – though the cunning Foxes first want to sign a replacement as cover. From a typical Boro perspective it looks like an accident waiting to happen or indeed repeated as news that one January signing has already been sidelined by injury for two months. The exciting and energetic Patrick Roberts looks unlikely to pull on a Boro shirt until April after doing his hamstring (to give it the full medical diagnosis) against Birmingham and will now have little impact on Boro’s fortunes this season.
It seems as the deadline approaches the ambulance chasers at the Boro recruitment ward are being linked with another injury prone player to replace Roberts. Jordan Jones of Rangers is being suggested he will imminently move to Teesside, where he would return to the club he supports and was released by the academy in 2006. A knee injury has restricted Jones to just five appearances this season and it seems the three-games-a-week Championship will more than test his recovery.
Another player now being heavily linked to join Boro is bad boy Ravel Morrison, who at 26 has already been at ten clubs but hasn’t really played that much football in the last five years with just 34 games at five different clubs – 18 of which were down Mexico way for a club in Guadalajara. As a youngster there was no doubting his talent but his attitude has seemingly not made him many friends. From Manchester to London, Birmingham to Wales, Italy to Mexico and Sweden to Sheffield, it seems next stop is Teesside if the players less than cryptic Tweet yesterday of the Boro badge is any indication.
It’s fair to say with all that travelling he comes with plenty of baggage, including some serious off-field problems in his late teens and early twenties, which show being convicted of witness intimidation, several charges of assault (which were later dropped) and being fined by the FA for posting homophobic threats on Twitter. Lazio’s footballing director said of Morrison: “He has undoubted quality and is world class, as well as being a little mad” – while Big Sam described him as “The biggest waste of talent he has worked with.” A career blighted by problems, attitude and injuries, which you could say will add insult to injury to the mix if he does indeed join Boro. Perhaps not the role model our young squad need but possibly a cautionary tale for those who think they have already made it.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Woodgate may be hoping he won’t need to contemplate looking for his old boots under the stairs as defensive options for February could involve variations of a back one and a rush goalie. Though there’s still no news on progress of the Billy Ashcroft style conversion of Rudy Gestede into that towering presence at the back. At least it sounds like Dael Fry has recovered and hopefully he will be sufficiently fit to withstand the busy schedule of 11 games in the next seven weeks.
The Championship it appears has been designed to literally test a squad to destruction and is one that seemingly ignores the pace and rigours of modern football. This is no longer a world dominated by goal poachers and agricultural defenders but now requires players to press, sprint, overlap and cover with high intensity until they have left everything on the pitch – including surely their prospects of a long career. With the season now punctuated by four two-week international breaks, where a significant number of second-tier players at all levels don’t even get a break, it’s meant the need to further squeeze the calendar to fit in 46 league fixtures and two cup competitions – that’s normally a minimum of 50 games for each club with only 35 weekends available. It’s a war of attrition and tiredness has become the great leveller as once again the better teams at the top with more internationals lose their edge as others randomly play catch up.
Whether Boro can still catch up is another matter, that fleeting moment of possibility appears to have passed after those Manager-of-the-Month performances of December have not quite been repeated in January. After not tasting victory since that New Year’s Day win at Preston, Woodgate will probably need to explain to his son Carter that he probably doesn’t need to find any more space on the top of his wardrobe for another one just yet. He could possibly take time to introduce him to the folklore and the curse that often accompanies the award – though that could lead to some nightmares when the young lad sees it emitting an eerie kryptonic green glow in his bedroom at night.
Sadly, a twelve-point gap to sixth place is now looking insurmountable in the remaining 17 games and all but the pathological optimists on Teesside have probably given up hope of reaching the play-offs. To put the task in context, it probably requires 40 points from the remaining 17 games and few teams have ever achieved that in the recent history of the Championship. In case any doubt the veracity of that claim, I’m contractually obliged to throw in a table to prove the point that shows the most points that clubs have achieved since Boro were relegated ten years ago – note: other arbitrary statistically interpretations are available.
|Most points gained in the last 17 games since 2009/10|
|After 29 games||After 46 games||Points gained|
|Season||Team||Position||Points||Position||Points||last 17 games|
Boro have been added to the table not out of anticipation but for the simple purpose of demonstrating the contrast in points and position that the other teams had both at this stage and after 46 games. Woodgate’s team currently have 12 points fewer than any team that has managed such a total. Nevertheless, if we were to see Boro ever join that table for real and make around 40 points to reach the play-offs then they’re going to have to come from a very long way back to emulate just a handful of clubs. Teams who can achieve such a sustained run of form appear to be already in contention with a third of the season remaining and probably weren’t relying on makeshift defences or bedding in too many young players and loanees. It’s perhaps even more of a challenge for an injury hit squad that has to now play 11 games in seven weeks. OK, it’s not impossible to make that amount of points but highly improbable a team currently in 17th is going to shoot up the table.
There’s probably an obvious reason why Boro are not closer to the play-offs and that is down to inconsistency and not having the ability to win games when not playing well – or indeed even when playing well. It should be noted that Aston Villa overcame an 11 point deficit with just 12 games to go last season to make the play-offs. They won 10 on the spin of their last 12 games and only lost their final game against Champions Norwich after resting some key players like Jack Grealish once a top-six place was already secured. Boro have already used up all their space for bad runs and would need to win four of their next five games, repeat that twice more and then end with a win and a draw! I don’t think even Ray Winstone would have the nerve to offer any odds on that.
This is the puzzling backdrop to why Boro are keen on adding more high-profile loan signings to what should be geared towards preparing for a better start next season. Try before you buy deals would be a more sensible approach rather than giving pitch time to any players who are not likely to be available or affordable for Boro next term. OK, Woodgate will want to finish as high as possible this season but it shouldn’t be at the expense of limiting his resources to acquire better players in the summer.
At the moment the club are pondering whether they can afford to offer deals to players like Howson and Ayala – though Woodgate sounded confident the former would sign a new contract. Following Marcus Tavernier committing himself to Boro until June 2023, the head coach also seemed to indicate both Djed Spence and Aynsley Pears were also very close to following suit. With Hayden Coulson already on board, together with Dael Fry, Lewis Wing and Ashley Fletcher, it will give Woodgate a good young core of players to build his team around and it will be important that they all get as many games under their belt this season as possible.
Of course, attracting players to Teesside has never been easy and most targets that reach the media before they sign usually never end up happening. Boro have to almost operate in stealth mode to avoid getting gazumped or players hijacked on route to Hurworth. Perhaps the bid for Ben Gibson was the equivalent of the proverbial ‘dead cat on the table’ that is essentially a distraction so Boro can work on their real targets without too much media attention.
OK, avoiding the media pack’s gaze can be difficult and often requires those involved to operate covertly. Boro could possibly learn from the latest takeover at Newcastle, where Mike Ashley is said to be furious that news of the deal has leaked into the media before it has been agreed. It’s not yet clear how the media twigged that the consortium involved were planning on buying the famous black-and-white shirted club as the whole deal had operated under an impenetrable codename. OK, perhaps ‘Project Zebra’ was barely enough to fool some of the working-lunch tabloid journos but at least they opted against adding the word ‘Crossing’ at the end.
Nevertheless, now that the people behind takeover have been outed, there is unease that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is one of them. You may recall it was reported he was recently behind the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, whose body was then gruesomely chopped up and disposed of. Indeed, the charge sheet doesn’t stop there and you could easily add a whole list of crimes and human rights abuses from extra-judicial killings, financing a proxy war in Yemen, persecution of LGBT people in his own country and much more.
The prospect of such a person owning their club seems not to be an issue for most Newcastle supporters, with a poll showing 80 percent in favour – especially after the group indicated that they planned to make £200m available for transfers and possibly re-instate Rafa as manager. The Northern Echo reported that Michael Martin, from the Newcastle fanzine True Faith, said “The lure of a strengthened squad and the chance of a place in Europe means many fans would look beyond the issues surrounding human rights. If the Saudis took over at Newcastle, I seriously doubt there would be any local outcry… They would be welcomed not so much with open arms but with an unparalleled euphoria.” It’s also possible that the threat of the ‘bone saw’ may encourage the likes of Andy Carrol to stay fit.
All of which tells us that in the world of football today it’s only money that talks and nothing else seems to matter. Newcastle fans merely see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as their lottery ticket to becoming the next Manchester City. As to how he will pass the Premier League’s ‘Fit and Proper Person’ test will be interesting. I can imagine the meeting where the suits weigh up the evidence… “OK, on the downside he’s responsible for the murder of quite a few people, oppressed the population and is financing a brutal war – though on the plus side he’s got a personal fortune of $17bn and his extended family is worth over $2 trillion. Sounds like just the kind of man we’re looking to attract.” You may as well abolish the test if this deal goes through as what would somebody have to do to fail?
Owning a football club has become a way for very rich dubious people to add a veneer of respectability to their image. 15 of the 20 clubs in the Premier League are already owned by billionaires, even half-a-dozen of the Championship clubs are owned by billionaires. Steve Gibson with his personal fortune estimated at $263m is now one of the ‘poorest’ owners in the top two divisions – with only Millwall’s owners listed as worth less. I suspect the pressure to water down FFP rules will grow as the power of the wealthy usually exceeds the will of those who regulate.
Anyway, back to the actual football and Boro resume their business on the pitch this Saturday as they welcome a couple of local heroes back to Teesside with former manager Tony Mowbray and the head coach’s brother-in-law Stewart Downing. Downing claimed this week that him moving was the best for everyone and especially his friend Jonathan Woodgate. Though while he says he loving life at Blackburn under Mogga, he announced that he won’t celebrate if he scores – well I’m not sure given his less than prolific strike-rate (average of two goals per season at Boro and just one so far at Blackburn) he should spurn the opportunity to do a knee slide towards the Red Faction and turn his back and point to his name. Still, I hope he doesn’t include OGs in that statement as he will surely get to hear “there’s only one Stewy Downing” if he does. After winning their last two games, including 5-0 against Garry Monk’s Owls, Rovers are now just 4 points off the play-offs in tenth place. Woodgate will be hoping that only one of the Teesside-born former-central-defender-turned-gaffer is left smiling come five-o-clock – and preferably the current one.
The following weekend sees Boro make the trip to Brentford to take on a Thomas Frank’s side that are currently occupying a play-off place in fifth spot. Their 1-0 defeat at the hands of Forest ended a run of six-successive victories at Griffin Park, including wins over Fulham and Swansea – plus that 7-0 thrashing of Luton. It will not be an easy task for Boro to come away with three points as not only have the Bees conceded the fewest number of goals in the Championship, they are also the fourth highest scorers and subsequently have the best goal-difference.
Next up is the first midweek game of the month as Boro are once again on their travels as they head to Wigan. Paul Cook’s side are currently in the relegation zone. Their win over Birmingham on New Year’s Day ended a run of 13 games without victory and they picked up another three points last time out against Sheffield Wednesday. The Lactics are currently nine points behind Boro and four from safety and it’s a game Woodgate will want to win to put an even healthier distance between the clubs. The reverse fixture back in August saw Woodgate achieve his first win as Boro head coach with a narrow 1-0 victory thanks to a first-half headed goal from Britt Assombalonga – perhaps the DR Congo striker will hope to repeat the task if he’s back from injury.
So as rumours come and go and targets become no longer of interest, it’s difficult to predict how the squad will look come 23:00 on Friday evening. If past experiences are anything to go by then probably not much different as last-minute hitches and changes of mind mean business wasn’t able to be completed. As I type this sentence, there’s still no sign of Ben Gibson, Harold Moukoudi is still heading to Teesside to be toughen up, Ravel Morrison hasn’t as yet unravelled, Leicester have signed a replacement to unblock Filip Benkovic, Jordan Jones is possibly still on his Jack, the lad from Shrewsbury who looked good on TV against Liverpool is still being linked with everyone and apparently Boro are in for 20-year old wonder-kid from Argentina. Still no offers for Gestede and Villa have yet to panic and offer £10m for Britt…