Championship 2019-20: Weeks 30-31
Mon 2 Mar – 19:45: Boro v Forest
Sat 7 Mar – 15:00: Charlton v Boro
Sat 14 Mar – 15:00: Boro v Swansea
As the amateur dramatics of another Boro season take on some of the similarities of an ancient Greek tragedy (and possibly even a comedy) many on Teesside are seriously beginning to wonder if those in charge are showing signs of having already lost the plot. Perhaps now is a good time for an intervention of Deus ex machina (god from the machine), a technique introduced in Greek theatre whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and unlikely occurrence to bring the tale to a happy ending – which in Boro’s case would involve the unexpected case of winning a game. Incidentally, Deus ex machina was something like the VAR of its day, where the action is halted by the appearance of an unforeseen character or through the intervention of a god – with the god literally arriving on stage by means of a machine such as a crane.
Whether or not Boro’s season will be saved by some form of unexpected divine intervention remains to be seen but it’s unlikely that we’ll see an exasperated Steve Gibson being lowered from the director’s box by an overhead crane at half-time to unveil a new manager. Though many of the lapsed faithful on Teesside now believe that only the emergence of white smoke over Hurworth and the appointment of a new man to pontificate on team matters will save the club from the cardinal sin of relegation. Others are still awaiting the sight of more acrid black smoke in a pre-match ritual that signals Jonthan Woodgate has finally seen sense by setting fire to his jinxed manager-of-the-month award in a desperate bid to demonstrate to his players the curse of being unable to win has been lifted.
No doubt as the sacrificial molten lump of offending perspex burns impressively at the centre of the Riverside pitch, the message of renewal could be further reinforced by staging an impromptu performance that takes its inspiration from another Greek legacy and the worthy sentiments of the Olympic movement’s pursuit of excellence that it embodies. In an act of homage to the traditional ceremony that heralds the lighting of the Olympic flame, eleven vested virgins from the Boro squad slowly move forward from the centre-circle. They then solemnly light their makeshift torches of rolled-up matchday programmes from that all-consuming infernal flame, before one by one quickly heading off down the tunnel holding their symbolic torches aloft to hopefully ignite the embers their less than glowing season and extinguish any prospects of relegation.
However, the prospects that Boro will set the Championship alight in the remaining eleven games is looking bleak and it seems even Adam Clayton may have now given up hope of reaching the play-offs. Perhaps the well-inked Boro midfielder has already taken precautions and left a suitable space on his torso for his League One Runners-up 2020-21 tattoo to celebrate ending his Boro career on a less ambitious high. Although, Jonathan Woodgate will be hoping his Boro career doesn’t end on a low as he plots ending the campaign at the dizzy heights of 21st place in the table.
Talking of those who are in danger of getting their fingers burnt, Steve Gibson has increasingly come under fire for appointing an inexperienced head coach and he must be hoping Jonathan Woodgate can find a way out of the current predicament. He’s reportedly reluctant to abandon the apparent three-year strategy of developing a sustainable team through the promotion of young players and finding a like-minded alternative for Woodgate who could rescue the season would not be an easy matter. Another option would seem to involve bringing in a more senior coach to assist Woodgate – though again that would publicly totally undermine his head coach and make his position as one of being in charge in name only. It subsequently must mean the temptation to procrastinate and do nothing is an attractive one, which possibly increases the risk that League One is where the club are heading.
Although, given Boro’s status as the Championship’s lowest scorers, it’s surprising that Robbie Keane’s position hasn’t come under more scrutiny. Perhaps we could still see him as the first sacrifice with a more experienced ‘attacking coach’ brought in to replace him. Boro have only managed two attempts on target in five hours of football and you have to wonder what it is exactly he has got the forwards to visualise? Maybe they’ve just ended up in a complete meditative state of bliss and can now only envisage nothingness – much like the those who turn up at the Riverside.
OK, Keane may point to what he’s had to work with and the problems of our strikers profligacy started well before he joined Boro. Indeed, there appears to have been an issue at Boro in scoring goals for many a season, which does make it a brave decision for any manager on Teesside to contemplate developing a team that will blow away the opposition – especially on a budget as the best strikers seldom come cheap or even the not so good ones come to mention it.
The footballing gods have seemingly not been kind to Woodgate in his first season in charge with a series of ill-timed injuries to key players that may have possibly made the difference in avoiding getting dragged back into the relegation mire. Those same gods have also contrived to revive the fortunes of the bottom three clubs as they continue to build momentum for escaping the drop, who incidentally all now sit in the top eight of the six-game form table as Boro languish at the foot with free-falling Hull. Ahead of the Monday evening Riverside clash against Forest, Wigan have continued their winning ways by gaining three points at leaders West Brom to send Woodgate’s team into the bottom three, three points off the bottom and two from safety.
After nine games without a win and three successive defeats without a goal, the situation is getting critical for Boro and the reality of football management means it can’t continue for much longer. If Woodgate fails to win any of these next three crucial games, his tenure must surely become untenable. Anything but victory on Monday will see Boro remain in the relegation zone and another defeat will further erode confidence that the only place the club are heading is League One.
Forest currently sit in fourth place with a chance of finishing in automatic spot looking increasingly unlikely now that Leeds have returned to winning ways. However, Sabri Lamouchi’s side will be keen to consolidate their play-off slot after just one victory in their last four since beating Marco Biesla team, which at the time had taken them to within a point of second but that gap is currently now up to nine. With Boro only winning one of their last six encounters against the Tricky Trees, few will be hopeful that Monday is going to be the start of the revival. However, Woodgate desperately needs to add to that last Riverside victory on Boxing Day against Huddersfield if he is to avoid Steve Gibson’s reluctant intervention.
While Woodgate may escape the consequences of a defeat at Forest, the next game is away at Charlton, who are currently just two points and one place above Boro. At this stage of the season it becomes the proverbial six-pointer and not a game that will likely end well for the head coach if it leaves Boro five points behind his old friend Lee Bowyer’s team – especially as the other club level on points with the Lactics are Stoke and they are at home to Championship whipping boys Hull who seem to gift everyone three points of late. The only cause for hope is that Charlton were thrashed 4-0 by Huddersfield on Saturday but of course they did beat Luton 3-1 in their last home game.
It’s quite easy to imagine Boro not being able to find a way to win a game at the moment as it’s getting harder to see where the goals are coming from – something that has been exacerbated by conceding the first goal in the last ten games. Scraping a lucky 1-0 win is one thing but then needing to score two and then hanging on is another prospect altogether. Woodgate says he wants to see more from his strikers – something which I think he’s not alone in. However, the real problem appears to be the team are not creating decent chances to even give the forwards an opportunity to fluff their lines.
By the time Swansea arrive on Teesside, it could be looking rather grim for both Woodgate and Boro but it’s still a game that provides a good opportunity to gain three points. Steve Cooper’s side have proved to be a bit unpredictable this season and now look to be heading for mid-table obscurity unless they gain some late consistency. The Swans also knocked four past Hull recently but unfortunately they also conceded four against the Tigers too and also lost 3-2 at home to Derby when leading. In truth, Boro would probably have gone on to win in the reverse fixture at the Liberty Stadium but for those red cards received by Browne and McNair. If Boro manage to keep all eleven on the pitch at the Riverside it would help but then again knowing which eleven to select seems to be just as difficult a problem for Woodgate.
Anyway, it’s not impossible that Boro could defeat Forest and also get a result at Charlton but should the bad results continue, in what is essentially a results-based business, then time would surely be over if the chairman didn’t want to entertain fixtures at the likes of Fleetwood, Gillingham, Accrington, Lincoln or Rochdale – all of whom will no doubt be more keen to give everything to beat a relative big name like Middlesbrough than our players would feel motivated for life in the third tier. Dropping to League One would be more than a tragedy (Greek or otherwise), it would put at risk any notion of persuading our better youngsters that their careers remain on Teesside when offers this summer come in from Championship promotion hopefuls or even Premier League strugglers.
There is a mood that even the most patient of Boro followers are not prepared to extend that patience to the prospect of a meek exit out of the wrong end of Championship. There are murmurs on the message boards on possibly getting Tony Pulis back to reprise his relegation-avoidance trick one more time but what then? Some even would like to see the return or Aitor Karanka with his more methodical approach and a promise not to meltdown and fume silently at perceived injustice at the business in transfer window. It would be one of life’s great ironies if defeat at Charlton would herald the return of the Spaniard but perhaps its the kind of contrived plot twist that even Aristotle would approve with his penchant for Deus ex machina – the question is would it provide a happy ending?