Championship 2019-20: Weeks 28-29
Sat 15 Feb – 15:00: Boro v Luton
Sat 22 Feb – 15:00: Barnsley v Boro
Wed 26 Feb – 19:45: Boro v Leeds
As the Boro faithful disappointedly await their first victory since New Year’s Day, the good news is that there were no further cases of promotion fever being recorded on Teesside this week. Admittedly, it wasn’t a particular virulent strain and contagion was mainly restricted to the young and those who had failed to wash their hands of the idea that they would end the campaign with a trip to Wembley. Just how the play-off pandemic arrived on Teesside is not clear but it’s well documented that optimism is quite infectious – even despite the local population having built up genetic resistance over several generations.
With rumours that some at the club were openly expressing ambitions of closing the gap on the top six, there was much speculation on the identity of the so-called super-spreader who started them. It’s now believed the source of these contagious Chinese whispers is thought to have frequently visited Rockliffe in early December and may have inadvertently passed on the cohones virus to several players in the Boro squad – many of whom quickly grew a pair and transmitted that infectious confidence to their team-mates. Still, at its peak it not even the EFL men in white coats could restore calm as they further fuelled hysteria by awarding Woodgate their coveted monthly prize.
While ‘Patient Zero’ may sound like the game plan of former manager Tony Pulis or even the marks out of ten some unimpressed supporters gave their new head coach after his first ten games, it does in fact refer to the person who was the origin of an outbreak. Perhaps self-confessed optimist Jonathan Woodgate himself was that Patient Zero when back in November he proclaimed “You never know what is going to happen in football. We could win five on the spin.” It was almost prophetic but since he had also added that “Britt could hit five” and “Ayala might score three” it was not necessarily evidence based – especially as Boro were at the time continuing their descent down the table. Such statements appear to indicate that the new gaffer has clearly been an asymptomatic carrier of the positivity pathogen since he took charge – while that is not necessarily unhealthy in a manager, it won’t make him immune from criticism if he fails to deliver on such lofty aspirations.
Nevertheless, just like the innate enthusiasm of many Boro supporters, the promotion fever has now been contained, which was mainly thanks to those among the faithful who opted for self-quarantine in the comfort of their own homes rather than risk the infectious atmosphere at the Riverside. OK, there may still be one or two sporadic cases for those with low resistance – with perhaps Adam Clayton seemingly most at risk after he was still showing strong symptoms back in mid-January when he declared: “There’s always a team that comes from behind and gets a bit of momentum and makes a late push. Why not us? We’re not going to get carried away and say we’re getting in the play-offs for definite but if we keep the form up and keep playing the way we have been it is there for us. We just have to keep playing well and working hard the way we are and if we can keep this run going for another four or five games, who knows?” Sadly, we all now know that those last five games have yielded just three points and now the talk is once again about avoiding being dragged into the relegation battle.
Talking of self-quarantine, it seems Ben Gibson has placed himself in isolation on Teesside after a training ground bust-up with Sean Dyche following his failure to secure a Burnley exit in January. The 27-year old defender openly questioning whether his future still lies in Lancashire after being given just one league start in 18 months and only a single Carabao Cup outing this season, which was way back in August. The Clarets clarified matters with a brief statement claiming that Gibson made it clear that he wanted to leave the club in January but no offers had met their valuation of the player – which for the player wondering why he hadn’t seen much of the turf at Turf Moor since he arrived would appear to be approaching zero.
This arrangement is apparently temporary and shouldn’t last more than a week – though it could be extended should the collision between a Teesside grudge and a manager famous for insisting every player totally buys into his methods fails to see either backing down. These methods apparently include Dyche demanding crunching tackles in training but doesn’t allow the use of shin pads and everyone must adhere to a regimented dress code, which includes wearing shorts at all times and even rules on the socks a player is allowed to wear. According to former keeper Paul Robinson that is policed by the other players who forward videos of any transgressions they spot to Dyche via the video analysis team, who then makes any offenders spin the wheel of punishment on a Friday to discover their penalty – which appear to be based around humiliation or self-ridicule. Robinson says it was all very English-culture based and designed to create a team ethic – though it may explain why Dyche was overlooked for the Arsenal job recently with their multitude of pampered multinational players as he also has a ban on wearing hats and gloves in training!
Whether as The Clarets most expensive signing, Ben Gibson has got himself caught in the middle of Sean Dyche’s mind games that are possibly designed to demonstrate both his absolute authority and that no player is valued more than another. Dyche’s answer to the question of whether Gibson would play again for Burnley was telling: “We will wait and see what the next step is for us as a club and for him as a player” – in terms of making a name for yourself, it sounds like Burnley was probably the wrong place and the wrong time. Although, not quite the same risk of attempting to live up to your name, which may have pushed the new Chief Executive of BP to crazily declare this week that the world’s fourth largest oil company plans to become carbon neutral – especially when your surname is Looney. While BP’s shareholders may question Bernard Looney’s lucidity, he can at least take comfort that nobody worried about the sobriety of a man called Young Boozer when he served two terms as the State Treasurer of Alabama – though it may have helped that he was 62 when entering office.
However, the question remains is would Ben Gibson be training at Rockliffe if his uncle wasn’t the club owner or indeed would most managers have wanted the distraction ahead of two crucial games against potential relegation rivals. It’s hard to see under what circumstances or indeed at what price the chairman’s nephew can return to Teesside in the summer – a loan move was a possibility if Burnley were prepared to pick up a large chunk of his wages but surely only a permanent exit is on the cards now. How many millions would such a deal cost hard up Boro and would it be the best use of limited resources at this point in time – I suspect the numbers don’t really add up on a permanent return.
Anyway, it’s these next two games against the bottom two clubs that Boro need to concentrate on now and first up are Luton, who are currently ten points behind Boro in 23rd place. The Hatters have the worst defence in the Championship and have conceded 66 goals with 41 of those coming on the road – in fact Graeme Jones’ side have lost their last 11 games on their travels and anything other than a Boro win will be seen as failure by any measure. It was that 3-3 draw in the season opener with the Friday evening televised fixture at Kenilworth Road that heralded the Woodgate era and his desire to play exciting attacking football. Ironically, it was a false impression as Boro only managed another 8 goals in the next three months as they struggled to score and looked suspect defensively as the Liverpool-lite approach didn’t fit the players at the head coach’s disposal. Boro started November sitting in the bottom three and it was only after switching to a more pragmatic back three that results for Woodgate began to improve.
At the end of November, Boro were alarmingly sat in joint-23rd in the table, when they finally ended a run of ten games without a win after beating bottom-club Barnsley by a single Ashley Fletcher goal. It was essentially a must-win game and they now follow-up this weekend’s game against Luton with the return fixture at Oakwell, where the Tykes are still in bottom place. Interestingly, after that defeat at the Riverside in only Gerhard Struber’s second game in charge, the Austrian’s team only lost once more before the year ended, with three wins and three draws. Sadly, like Boro they’ve not repeated their December form and have only picked up four points in 2020. Woodgate will be hoping his team can get back to winning ways in these next two fixtures as failure to do so will leave Boro once more looking over their shoulder at the clubs in the bottom three.
One team who has been looking over their shoulder for several weeks now is Leeds United, who after seemingly looking on course for automatic promotion have seen their once 11 point cushion to third spot completely evaporate and are now just in the automatic places on goal difference. Imploding after a good start has become a regular pattern for the West Yorkshire club and their supporters are increasingly becoming resigned to another season of choking. Perhaps the owners will be contemplating pulling the plug on Marcelo Biesla as they consider the merits of gambling on a new manager bounce to see them over the line. They now look a shadow of the team that cruised to a 4-0 victory over Boro at Elland Road at the end of November and if they continue their downward trajectory it will almost be like facing a team in relegation form. Although, typical Boro decrees that the midweek non-derby will probably see the start of the Leeds revival.
Despite the feeling of being in an almost experimental pre-season mode,Woodgate’s team still need three or four victories to secure their Championship status. The return to a back four has produced similar results to when it was the modus operandi in early season as Boro have likewise looked more easily opened up by the opposition. Tuesdays game at Wigan saw Boro have plenty of possession without much penetration as they passed the ball backwards, sideways and occasionally forwards in neat methodical triangles. Interestingly, Lewis Wing spoke this week of how they’ve been “working on little triangles” in training – perhaps many of the players took this exercise too literally as they appeared to suffer from pythagorean paralysis as the ball travelled opposite over adjacent as the concept of threatening the opposition once more went off on a tangent. Indeed, it seems some of Boro’s players seem to disappear in the Bermuda triangle that exists between midfield and the opposition net. Wing also spoke about playing with Ravel Morrison and hailed his quality by saying “It is nice to know you can wrap a ball into someone’s feet and they will deal with it.” I presume by “deal with it” he actually means control it, which seems to indicate he thinks some of his other team-mates are lacking in that department – no names mentioned but I think they know who they are!
While it’s important that Jonathan Woodgate tries to introduce new methods and ways of playing, he himself has warned about complacency and wants to finish as high as possible in the table. The danger is that the head coach has himself taken his eye off the ball a little as he starts to experiment once more with a back four and rotates his squad and introduces new tactics. The wing-backs of Spence and Coulson had been working well and added pace down the flanks, plus Howson had looked like he’d played in a back three all his career. With the Ben Gibson circus also hanging round the club it’s yet another distraction from preparing for what are probably games it is important that Boro not only don’t lose but should be focused on getting back to winning ways and playing to their strengths – especially as Wigan still have to play the other five teams in the bottom six too. So better no mistakes as we enter the last third of the season, otherwise the recovery may be too late to save the patient!