We’ve finally gone. Thought I was already over it, but…

Well, that hurt. It hurt a lot in fact.

For anyone who read my last piece http://thefootballfaithful.com/forget-hope-thats-gone-lets-look-forward-championship/ – you could be forgiven for thinking that I’d mourned already, that with me accepting our fate and making peace with it that last night’s confirmation would barely bring a flicker of emotion. I’ll be honest, I thought I’d dealt with it entirely, turns out I hadn’t.

Watching us hopelessly outclassed at the hands of champions-elect Chelsea I felt a strange sense of detachment as to what was going on during the 90 minutes. That was probably down to my feelings prior to kick off that we had zero chance of any sort of escape, but come the final whistle, well I realised that perhaps I hadn’t completely grieved for what has been a truly awful season.

Once referee Craig Pawson brought an end to proceedings it finally sunk in. The emotions flowed, I’ll admit I shed a tear or two; in fact I’m welling up now just writing this. It hurt, it still hurts today, and it will no doubt hurt for a long while.

You’re probably confused, let’s face it; I’ve been prepared for this for weeks now, looking forward to the Championship, being positive, why now am I feeling so low? I knew it was coming right? Well yes, I did know it was coming but I’d not had that moment where it was final, finished, dead. There was no capital ‘R’ next to our name, no physical evidence that we’d gone, just acceptance. Last night however brought that moment.

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Finally, the ‘R’ arrived next to our name. But as well relegation could it also represent relief?

The league table has made for grim viewing for some time now, but last night was as grim as it gets. Bolded in red with that ‘R’ finally making its appearance, our club was now officially relegated. I sat there, misty eyed, casting my mind back to Christhian Stuani gleefully tapping in from close range, fans going wild, pitch invasions, Leo waving the Boro flag whilst hanging out of his sunroof. I got goosebumps (or duck skin if you’re Jelle Vossen) just thinking about it. Then Ben Gibson appeared on screen, I was back in the moment. Bang, back to reality.

In an interview that I can only describe as first class, the skipper came out clearly raw with emotion and proceeded to give as honest an account as possible. Refusing to use excuses or shirk responsibility, he spoke like a true leader, like a fan, like a passionate and proud Teessider, which is what he is; you could see the pain and hurt in his eyes. He spoke for us all; we all feel what he feels. Knowing that he’s most likely going to be on his way this summer made it all the more heart-breaking.

After all, player, captain he might be, he’s also a fan. It felt like one of us in front of that camera getting asked questions he probably didn’t feel like answering, yet like the true hero he is he fronted up, he put himself out there. I sat there, almost in awe of how someone so close and connected to the club could come out so soon and hold it together. Inside though there’ll be doubt he was crumbling inside, and whilst we could all crumble and shed a few tears, he had to keep it in, suck it up. That right there is the true definition of a hero.

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Ben Gibson came out after the game to speak to the press. 

I’ll admit, I crumbled, I reached for the tissues. I wasn’t sobbing, I’ll save that for when we go straight back up, I look forward to sobbing tears of joy. But there were tears nonetheless. I’m only glad I was sat on my own at this point, the missus clearly realising what was coming disappeared off to bed with 20 minutes of the game to go, a wise move. Not sure she’d have enjoyed consoling a 32yr old grown man over the fact his team had just gone down.

Those who know me well won’t be surprised by the above admission; in fact they’ll probably be surprised I wasn’t calling them asking for some comfort in my hour of need! Thankfully for them, they were spared that nightmare.

I guess where I’m going with all this is, despite all the talk beforehand, the ‘come on let’s look forward to the Championship’ stuff, is that even when you know it’s coming, it’s not until it actually happens that it really hits home.

We may only spend one season back in the Championship, we can only hope for that, but I remember the 7 years prior to this season that we spent longing for the glory days to come back. Now we’re back down there again are we going to have to suffer a similar period of depression? Are we going to endure promising starts, only for them to fade so achingly away? Will we end up with a Strachan type appointment that, on the face of it seems great, but when the reality hits home it’s actually bloody terrible?

It’s the uncertainty that I can’t stand now. This time last year I was looking forward to a sustained period of relative success. We’d survive this season, go on to consolidate the next and then after, who knows? Yet it hasn’t turned out that way, we’ve gone on a rollercoaster ride, except it hasn’t been a long and windy one with incident aplenty. There’s barely been anything of note, no redeeming features of a season seemingly wasted. If the last year was a rollercoaster ride it’d be Oblivion; a climb to the top, hang around for a little while up there, and then come crashing down.

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This ride provides enjoyment – Boro’s own Oblivion has been far from enjoyable.

But Boro’s season is in stark contrast to the thrill and enjoyment of a theme park. It’s been average at best, downright awful at worst. The last few weeks have felt like a funeral procession, yet there’s been no burial, until now. I didn’t think we could top the dullness of Southgate’s class of 08/09, but we have, and then some.

But now, we need to move on.

To do that, what we all need is a statement from the club, for Steve Gibson to come out and give us some clarity. I think that once that happens, once we know where we’re heading from this (other than down a league obviously), then we can finally put this season to bed, box it away and forget it ever happened.

We need a message that everything is going to be ok, that this is just a mere blip in the long and eventful history of this great club. We need to be assured that everything will be done to get us back up at the first attempt, an understanding that anything other could spell years in the footballing wilderness. The fans’ frustrations, questions, anger needs to be addressed by the club, acknowledged by the powers that be. Only then can we begin to move forward and forgive all concerned for what has been a massive waste of an opportunity.

You hope that the message comes soon, it just has to. It’s the least we as fans deserve after what has been such an emotionally draining time. No doubt the chairman is hurting badly too, he’s quite possibly the biggest Boro fan out there, but we need to hear his words and feel his anguish. Only then will we all begin the healing process.

I still stand by my previous thoughts, but with the benefit of hindsight perhaps I hadn’t already mourned and grieved as stated, clearly not given what emotions I’ve gone through this last 24hrs almost. I do, however, stick by the reasons to look forward though.

A potential new manager (has to be a new manager), new players, fresh start – all this brings excitement and anticipation of what might lie ahead. We’ll have new grounds to visit next season, ones we haven’t been to in a while also. There’ll be game after game. The Championship is always on the go, midweek fixtures aplenty, more home games. It’s a wonder why he ever wanted to get promoted in the first place?!

Those kinds of thoughts are what’s keeping me positive today. Despite the depression and sadness felt at relegation I’m consoling myself with those thoughts on Championship football. Oh, and this too…

Cheers to @DanJForrest for such a light-hearted view on what is currently a painful and heartbreaking process. Certainly brought a smile to my face last night.

And on that note, I’ll be watching this on repeat until pre-season starts.

Daft bets, painful defeats and that sinking feeling – I do love supporting The Boro.

After the euphoria of Brighton at The Riverside and the celebrations that ensued, you could forgive fans for getting carried away somewhat. We’d been promoted after 7 years of Championship football and, barring the AK years and the all too rare highs under Mogga, we’d made it out of what is quite possibly one of the most bonkers leagues around after some barren times.

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Boro’s players celebrate finally escaping the Championship.

Buoyed on by Leicester’s absolutely absurd achievement of winning the Premier League I found myself jumping on the most popular of bandwagons; placing daft bets on your team and where they may finish.

I made two bets, both rather ambitious at the time, extremely farcical now. One had us down for a top 6 finish, the other a top 4 finish as part of a 4 fold with the other 3 being teams from the other 3 divisions being promoted. Whilst the odds were ridiculous (especially the 4 fold), I dared to dream, driven on by Steve Gibson’s words of “we’ve got to have a go”.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I was under no illusions regarding my bets. I knew bet365 had made the easiest tenner they were likely to make that day, but I didn’t care too much, it was all part of the fun of us being back in the big time. I’d grown tired of placing bets on us to win handsomely at Rotherham only for us to lose terribly, uttering the often spoken words ‘typical Boro’. This was a whole new ball game.

Now though, I open my betting app to find that the bets I made are still unsettled but have no cash out value whatsoever, not really too much of surprise considering their hilarity. But every time I see them it takes me back to May and that sense of joy that I’d not felt for such a long time with Boro. It’s a sobering thought as it’s in stark contrast to my emotions now.
Not since our last season in the Premier League under England’s current manager (who’d have thought that?) have I felt such lows. Gareth Southgate’s class of 2008/09 were possibly the biggest sleepwalkers to have entered a field of play, quite literally meandering towards relegation without any danger of waking up. Sadly this season has thrown up a scenario all too similar.

After such a promising summer riding the crest of that promotion wave we’d made some quality signings, there was quiet optimism that we’d be more than just making up the numbers. I remember hearing of Alvaro Negredo’s signing and the smile on my face, the type that makes you look slightly crazy, swept across my face. “Wow” I thought, this is like signing Ravanelli all over again. Maybe not quite, but after years of the likes of Caleb Folan, Alex Nimely (remember him), Dave Kitson, Kris Boyd…I could go on but I’m choosing not to, a signing like Negredo really set the pulses racing.

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Álvaro Negredo arrived and hit the ground running against Stoke on the opening day.

 

After a relatively average, but commendable start, early signs of what was in store came in games against Watford and Crystal Palace, at home, at the place where we needed to make it a fortress. If ever defeats were needed to wake a team up, they were the kind indeed. And for a while it worked, starting with a great draw at Arsenal, should’ve won in fact. Pride restored I started to believe we were going to be ok. After all, we don’t concede many, we’re always in the game – you know the drill. Fast forward to the end of January though and it was quickly becoming a slow motion car crash.

I have to say, I loved AK, still do. My mates would probably tell you it was a slightly unhealthy amount, but all the same, he was a hero. But here was this hero, my hero, losing it week in week out with barbs aimed at fans, players, the board even – his tenure had hit rocky rides before but this was different. There was something almost self-destructive about his behaviour. I was gutted. Not only were we playing some awful stuff (barring perhaps Everton and West Ham at home), now AK was publicly acting up. There was an air of inevitability about where it was going, and it wasn’t going the way I wanted it.

AK had been a breath of fresh air. Our first foreign manager injecting a touch of Spanish flair (well, not so much on the field as some would say, but off it definitely). I was taken in by him. His passion and straight talking style (bit like Jose Mourinho – he was his assistant you know) really appealed to me, especially after the dour demeanour of Tony Mowbray. Harsh as I liked the bloke, he’s a club legend; however his interviews would’ve gone down a treat with insomniacs.

In short, Karanka was something new, a massive departure from the norm at Boro. We’d dared to take that step into the unknown and appoint a foreign manager, and I was looking forward to the ride.

That ride has been a real rollercoaster, lots of highs sprinkled with some lows, namely the Wembley defeat against Norwich. The massive high was of course promotion last season, something which cemented AK’s legend status in my eyes, but how things have changed though since then. The wheels well and truly came off on his reign and he was gone.

I remember being sat at my desk at work, staring at my Middlesbrough calendar, there was Karanka giving out instructions on the touchline. Whilst for a lot of people his departure was expected, I always thought he’d turn it around and guide us to success. Blind faith you might think, it probably was, but I so wanted him to do it after what he’d achieved for us up to that point. It wasn’t to be though, I had to move on. Christ, it was like losing a girlfriend, I do get too attached.

For a brief period of time there was some excitement among the fans, along with some trepidation too, surrounding who would become the next man to walk through the doors at The Riverside. I even allowed myself to get a little giddy, it’s a weird feeling, in a state of flux not knowing what’s going to happen next, and some of the names thrown up were big hitters.
Guus Hiddink, Claudio Ranieri, Roberto Mancini, Harry Redknapp, all great names in the world of football. Of course, the pesky bookies do like to offer fans the chance to lose some money, you’ll always get someone lumping on a long shot (like me). But it’s always an interesting time. Yeah, there were the usual names; I mean how does Alan Curbishley get a mention every time? I think some bookmakers just listed a who’s who of ex Boro players – Mark Viduka anyone?

Rather underwhelming though was the decision made by Steve Gibson, the decision to promote from within. No disrespect to Steve Agnew, but he wasn’t the sexy name many fans imagined. That said, a sexy name alone isn’t going to give you half a chance of staying up, unless your names Marco Silva. Ok, so it’s probably more to do with his coaching skills than anything else, but proof that Premier League experience isn’t always needed when appointing a manager to get you out of the mire. Anyway, I digress.

Agnew it was, and still is. Bookies are still running markets on the next manager position even though Gibson has signalled his intention to have the former No.2 around for more than just the rest of the season. No matter what my thoughts (I actually like Agnew and feel he’s a good coach), I decided to forget everything else and be fully supportive of the new man.

Have things got any better? Not really. Ok, we may have scored a few goals, but we’ve picked up two points from a possible 12, disastrous. The ‘week of destiny’ ended with a frustrating 0-0 result at home to perennial away day losers Burnley. I’m not even willing to go over the Hull game, not sure my fragile state of mind can take reliving that nightmare. To say I was upset after that loss would be an understatement. If I had a dog…well you know the rest.

Destined for the drop then? I feel almost resigned to it. I’m at a low ebb for the first time since Mowbray went. They were terrible times, but this is just painful to watch. With seven games to go our Premier League funeral procession is moving agonisingly slow. Can we not just hand in our membership, take the parachute payments and land back in the Championship already?

However, I’m also free of the sense of dread. Accepting our fate has allowed me to look forward to a game for the first time in what feels like an eternity. Arsenal up next, they don’t get any easier. They’ll be wanting to make amends for that embarrassing capitulation against Crystal Palace. In relative terms, The Gooners are in more turmoil than us, lunging from one disappointing performance to another. Fans split over the manager (sound familiar?), on course to finish outside the top 4 for the first time since the invention of the wheel, it’s all doom and gloom down in North London, unless you’re a Spurs fan of course.

I wouldn’t put it past Boro to hand Wenger’s men a battering, a performance to end all performances, there’s always hope.

That’s the thing though, hope, it’s what kills you. We win on Monday next week and we’re back to counting point’s totals and comparing our rivals run in with ours. I’m not sure I can psyche myself up for that, it’s simply exhausting. Then again, since when has supporting Middlesbrough been anything other than tiring?

Oh sod it! Come on Boro, get us the points on Monday and let us dare to dream once more. I might even place a daft quid on survival. Not a fiver mind, I’ve thrown too much away already.

Aitor Karanka – A breath of fresh air turned stale?

The timing could’ve been better, that said, so could the league position given the right results.

That was a huge issue it has to be said, but one I don’t think would’ve been enough to see Aitor Karanka leave. Yes, the results have been bad, lets face it, it’s hardly been a joy to watch. But there was always this impression that he was building for the long term, and that despite our league position, things would improve and his plans would come to fruition. Yet it wasn’t just the league form that was the issue.

Boro’s PR team must’ve been in meltdown this last couple of months. Karanka is clearly a ‘heart on his sleeve’ type of guy, and why not? Nothing wrong with a bit of fight and passion, nobody would begrudge him of that. However, what is ill advised is the public calling out of the Club’s hierarchy over their lack of support, or at least that’s what Karanka felt anyway. Not only that, but the true definition of a popularity own goal is to be seen to criticise your own club’s fans. Now I’ve been a huge supporter of Aitor, and still now I’m feeling utterly dejected at his departure, but certain comments made by him did lead me to think he was, at worst, out of order. Or, at best, a tad misguided.

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Karanka smiling: Unfortunately there hadn’t been enough of that of late. (Pic: Evening Gazette)

 

One thing I feel certain didn’t help his cause was the language barrier. Of course, he spoke decent English, could communicate effectively with the press, his players etc. But perhaps there were certain terms or phrases, reactions even, that could be put down to cultural differences between where he was and where he’d come from. He’d often sound harsh, blunt, however my general feeling was that he always meant well with what he was saying, that he didn’t set out to offend or upset. To refer back to his fan/board comments, I genuinely felt he bore no malice, but was saying certain things out of a mixture of frustration/emotion, coupled with the fact that some of what he said may have been lost in translation.

Sadly, he leaves us is in a position not envied by anyone, well other than perhaps Sunderland (they’re 3 points worse off, anything is better than their current plight). Results have been poor, dire in fact looking at the performances. Being organised and resolute are two great qualities to keep you in the Premier League, but not without creativity and the all important ability to stick the ball in the back of the net. We can pass and keep possession all day long (sometimes it’s felt like that), but that’s not enough. I’ve always said that the way we started the season, the set up, was going to keep us up. However, that was with goals, albeit only small amounts, but enough to keep us ticking over and picking up points. Since the turn of the year though we’ve scored only twice in the league and scored a big fat zero in the ‘wins’ column.

That hasn’t been good enough, clearly. We’ve slipped down the table, under the dreaded dotted line, now finding ourselves looking up. As always, the manager starts to take the brunt of the blame, and understandably so (although I do think a lot of the stick coming his way has been unfair, and bordered on disrespectful at times given his achievements with us). The players though, well they seemed to have slipped under the radar somewhat. Yes, every fan has their favourite whipping boy, that one player who, if left out, would miraculously help improve the teams fortunes. But in general, the team as a whole have managed to get off pretty much scot-free. A manager can work on the training ground with them all week, get them well drilled with the tactics, make sure they all know their roles, but once they cross that white line it’s down to them.

It’s obvious that some of the players just haven’t been at their best often enough. Whether it’s confidence in themselves at an all time low, or the confidence in their boss lacking, what’s clear to see is that some have looked a shadow of their best far too often. The reluctance to drive forward and be positive can’t all be down to Karanka, there has to be players on the pitch willing to take risks. Sadly, other than Ben Gibson, nobody has really looked like driving the team on, and there’s only so much he can do playing from his position. You can’t tell me that Karanka has been instructing his players to become completely dismissive of their attacking instincts? That said, it’s obvious the Head Coach has a way of playing, and that doesn’t seem to be a way that gets bums off their seats, well at least in the way desired anyhow.

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Head in hands: Picture says it all, players simply haven’t been good enough.

It was often levelled at him last season that his teams were workmanlike at best, not pleasing on the eye but got the job done. To my mind, I couldn’t have cared less. He was getting the job done, despite the ‘lost weekend’ and the games leading up to it. That game away at Charlton, to my mind, showed just how important he was. The team was rudderless, without the Captain of the ship they sunk among the dodgy seas that was The Valley. Since that weekend though, despite the reconciliation with his players, the club and the resulting promotion, Karanka has cut a divisive figure ever since. Slowly but surely a steady split was formed, fans starting to get at one another, despite being promoted.

Some fans would’ve had him gone pre-season if truth be told. After all, he had walked during that week in March, albeit temporarily, but that alone was enough for people to cite a lack of ‘bottle’ and accuse him of petulance. I, along with what I felt was the majority, was in the ‘AK in’ camp if you like. He’d delivered the Holy Grail, how could you not want this guy to take us forward. OK, can’t deny I was a little bemused at the antics last season, that sort of thing shouldn’t happen at a club like ours, yet it was all sorted out and he’d achieved what was expected of him. Job done. He was the man to guide us through our first season back in the Premier League, and I genuinely felt the tactics employed by him would see us through what was likely (and proved) to be a tough season. Rather naively perhaps, I’d seen us play teams like Man City, United and Liverpool in the cup, and each of those games we acquitted ourselves well. Play like that each week and we’ll be fine.

So I thought anyway. As I’ve said, up till the turn of the year we were on course to stay in this league. Doing enough to get by, we appeared to be finding our feet at this level. Since the beginning of 2017 though it’s as if we’ve slipped on one almighty banana skin and just can’t get back up. Despite believing that Karanka would see the season out and see us safe, my belief was waning, although I still wanted him to stay. I believed he deserved the season to keep us up given he was the one to get us there. I guess we’ll never know now quite what would’ve happened. I guess we’ll never know what exactly has been happening behind the scenes.

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A look of resignation swept across Karanka’s face following the Stoke debacle.

 

You’ll hear stories. You’ll get ‘sources’ quoting various theories, but we’ll never truly know what happened. Of course, there was differences in opinions between Aitor and some of his players. There was always going to be when the ones not playing felt they should be. Happens at every club. We know that Aitor was unhappy with the lack of quality coming in throughout January’s Transfer Window. He’d said as much to the press like we know, so you can only imagine what was said in the private conversations he had. One things for certain, he’s a passionate man and sometimes things can boil over, perhaps he’s boiled over one to many times for Steve Gibson’s liking.

The Downing/Bamford ‘fighters’ comments to the press after the City defeat in the Cup probably pushed things to almost breaking point. He wasn’t lead into that answer, he openly offered up his thoughts when questioned on their absences. You can’t help but feel he could’ve worded it differently. Then again, if that’s how he genuinely felt then why should he have done? He’s ballsy enough to tell it like it is. However, sometimes it’s knowing when to be diplomatic and, on this occasion, tact and diplomacy certainly weren’t on display.

The official line from the Club is that it was a mutual thing. I have no reason to believe otherwise, although perhaps certain things were put to him that he just couldn’t get on-board with. With that in mind, a parting of the ways it had to be it seems. As always, we trust Gibson implicitly with the next appointment, he rarely gets it wrong. He’s got a big decision to make, but you just know that it’ll be made calmly and rationally.

For now we have a game on Sunday to look forward to. Manchester United at home, they don’t get any easier. Steve Agnew will no doubt do his best to rally the players, however if we have a stormer and come away with the 3 points, I’m not quite sure how I’ll feel.

Thanks for the memories, Aitor. There have been so many happy ones, but to me the obvious one is last seasons promotion of course. You made a grown man cry that day, and I’m not ashamed to say you brought a tear to my eye today too.

Adios, Aitor. Muchas gracias.

 

 

 

From record-breaker to heartbreak, Neil Cox – Boro’s ‘Million Pound man’.

I’ll be honest, there were many great suggestions as to who I should choose to write about for my piece on the lesser spoken about ex Boro men. This is my first of what I hope becomes a regular feature on the blog. Now among all the players put to me, one stood out for a couple of reasons. First of all, his historic transfer, and secondly this…

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Neil Cox signing his contract in the presence of Viv Anderson & Bryan Robson (Picture courtesy of Evening Gazette)

The picture alone swayed me. The fashion, the decor in that room. If anyone ever wanted a pic to personify the early to mid 90’s, that would be it. Viv’s waistcoat & tie combo! Truly brilliant.

Anyway, I’m not a cross between Laurence Llewellyn Bowen and Gok Wan, the choice of wallpaper and clothing can be debated another day. No, I’m more interested in the player holding the pen thankfully.

Neil Cox signed for Middlesbrough in the summer of 1994, a time for excitement and promise. Bryan Robson’s revolution was in full swing with Cox’s signing being the standout addition due to the price tag. Boro paid £1m, a transfer record for the club, so the pressure was on from the off – not that Cox ever showed such concern for that. His confident demeanour and performances that season belied his age, just 23 at the time. A promising full back, he’d made the breakthrough at Aston Villa after they’d plucked him from Scunthorpe where he’d started out. At the age of just 19 Villa paid a little under £400,000, a sizeable sum for a young player cutting his teeth in the lower leagues in the early 90’s. He’d appeared 17 times, alongside another promising player in Richard Hall (later of Southampton and West Ham), the two being subject of a joint bid from Spurs, but Cox joined Villa.

“Richard moved to Southampton and then Villa came in with bid of around £350,000 for me plus 2,000 claret seats which are used in the away end at Glanford Park to this day!” 

He went on to make over 50 appearances in just under 3 and half years at the club, being part of the 1994 League Cup winning squad (making a late appearance) that beat Manchester United 3-1. They also finished runners up to United in the league that season too. He’d appeared on 6 occasions for the England u21’s during his time at Villa and signs were there of a potential future England right back. That being said, Gary Neville would eventually go on to make that position his own, with Cox ultimately failing to make the step up and achieve full international honours.

Boro were getting a player with a good pedigree, and getting him to drop down a league too represented great business. He was looking for somewhere to get regular first team football, never quite nailing down a spot at Aston Villa. There was no doubt that the presence of Bryan Robson played a huge role, as it did with the signings of Nigel Pearson and Clayton Blackmore that Summer, both also seen as significant additions. Cox has since said of his transfer to Boro – “Bryan Robson was a hero of mine growing up so to have been signed by him was amazing. We got on really well and I still speak to him even now”.

Cox more than played his part that season, grabbing an early goal in a pre-season friendly at home to Hearts. A smart finish, managing to dink the ball over the onrushing keeper. A sign of things to come as he showed he could be pretty effective going forward as well as performing his defensive duties well. Although cleverly dinked finishes weren’t about to become a regular thing, he had shown enough however to indicate that record outlay might just be a sound piece of business.

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Neil Cox in action for Boro during the 1994/95 season.

He would go on to make 40 league appearances that season, a mainstay in the best defence in the old Division One that only conceded 40 goals. A successful campaign, capped by winning the title in what was Boro’s final season at Ayresome Park

 “I was also fortunate enough to have played in the final game at Ayresome Park, when we beat Luton 2-1 to reach the Premiership”. Cox missed a first half penalty, a tame effort, but luckily it didn’t have any negative effects on the outcome.

“The gaffer had spent a lot of money on new players so we were under serious pressure to achieve, which thankfully we did and it was a great occasion to have been a part of.”

He also made it into the Division One Team of the Year, great recognition of his efforts that season, joining teammates Jamie Pollock, John Hendrie and Jan Aage Fjortoft. His marauding runs down the right side, often offering himself up as an option in the final third, hadn’t gone unappreciated by the Boro faithful. He managed to get on the scoresheet, but only the once, the goal coming in the 3-1 home win over Swindon. Coming in from the right he bundled home a cross from John Hendrie. The goal displaying just how much of a nuisance he could be in the oppositions penalty area. He was developing into a very useful outlet on the right, and with Boro making the step up they would need as much help in the final third as possible. They would also need his bite and tenacity. He often enjoyed a duel with the oppositions wide man, never shying away from a tackle, liking to get in the face of the opposition

In a brand new state of the art stadium Boro were back in the big time and Cox had kept his place at right back. Bryan Robson opted for only some minor tinkering of the squad, rather than a major overhaul, making just the odd signing or two. Nick Barmby and Juninho (remember him?) the two standout purchases added to what was essentially the squad that had got Boro promoted. Despite the attacking additions it was testament to Cox and his peers at the back that the defence won their fair share of plaudits, having the 10th best defensive record in the league. They only conceded 50 goals that season, couple that with finishing 12th, it represented a more than respectable return to the top table of English football. Cox, like the season before, got forward and provided a threat down the right, as well helping to create chances and contribute to the goals scored. He also doubled his goal tally from the 94/95 season.

The first of his two goals was a poachers finish, the likes of which Hendrie and Fjortoft would’ve been proud of, tapping in from Barmby’s square pass in the home victory against Liverpool. Arriving in the box from the right-hand side and showing a willingness to get involved optimised what he was all about. Just rewards for getting in the box and gambling. It wasn’t his only contribution that day. It was his cross, woefully cleared by the Liverpool defence, that fell to Barmby who smashed home expertly. On his day, Cox could make his mark on a game.

His other goal that season involved a clever piece of trickery against West Ham United. After the ball fell to him following a deflected shot by Juninho, Cox knocked the ball one side of Michael Hughes, running round the other, and coolly slotting the ball in the far corner of the goal from a tight angle. Another display of what he was capable of going forward, it was wonder he didn’t add his name to the scoresheet more often. Having said that, if he had done we might’ve seen more of his goal celebration repertoire. His choice against The Hammers winning him the rare (thankfully) ‘Best Goal Celebration’ gong at the clubs end of season awards night. Picking the award up, a tad embarrassed as well as merry, he explained the thinking behind imitating a jockey galloping on a horse (skip to 1:18 on the video below (or just watch the whole thing, its Boro gold) – courtesy of Middlesbrough FC Video Vault’s YouTube channel).

Hardly a classic I’m sure you’d agree, and definitely not a patch on the old ‘shirt over the head’ routine that Fabrizio Ravanelli had made his own over the years. Cox was soon about to see ‘The White Feather’s’ goal celebration close up as the Italian signed in the summer of 1996. Their paths would later cross in that topsy turvy, rollercoaster ride of a season.

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Despite the best efforts of Cox and his teammates, Boro were relegated in the 96/97 season.

Evidently, the 1996/97 campaign was a disappointment for the whole squad, despite the appearance in two cup finals and the scintillating football on offer at times, Boro were relegated. However, one player who perhaps felt it more than most was Cox. After another solid season for the full back, the pain felt come the FA Cup final against Chelsea was probably more than just emotional. Already lacking fitness for the final, he somehow ended up in a scuffle with Ravanelli. The story goes that Cox was giving an interview to the Daily Star in which he was asked as to what his starting 11 would be. Crazy really, can you imagine that happening now? A player giving his opinions to the press on who should and shouldn’t start in a cup final, or any game for that matter? Absolute madness. Indeed it was madness when the following day Ravanelli had seen the headlines.

“I did an interview on the pre-match press day as a favour to a mate and I left Rav out of the starting XI because, like me, he was struggling to be fit and we couldn’t afford to gamble,” Cox says. “On the Saturday, it was all over the back page: ‘Cox – Rav should miss out’. So while we were having the photos taken for the suits and sunglasses, he decided to spit and throw a punch. I dived in, fists flying. I wasn’t slagging him off. I was right. That’s why it got nasty. We had a scuffle.”

So whilst he perhaps had the best of intentions in his interview, the ensuing headlines and natural, if perhaps overblown, reaction from the Ravanelli did little help to the preparation for what was already going to be a difficult game. Emotions were already running high given the controversial deduction of 3 points relegating Boro, this just added further turmoil to a tumultuous season. Not only that, against a tough Chelsea team the last thing they needed was such unrest prior to the game. As it happened Boro lost, Cox failing to make the squad due to injury. He later admitted this was his biggest career regret, not having made an FA Cup final appearance.

It was the journey home from that cup final where Cox received a call from a former Boro manager, Colin Todd, who was in charge at Bolton Wanderers.

“On the train home from the Cup final I got a phone call from Colin Todd and I just thought I`d go down there for a chat, and that was it, I was looking to go and play abroad if I could, that was what I really fancied. I got down to Bolton and Colin spoke really highly of the football club and they were moving to The Reebok Stadium and I just signed a three year contract then and there really. Colin sold the area and the football club to me straight away”

And that was it, Cox’s time at The Boro was over. He was sold for £1.5m, a decent bit of a business for relegated Boro, inevitably trying to claw some money back in the wake of their fall through the Premier League trap door. Of course, bigger numbers were made from the sales of Juninho, Ravanelli and later Emerson, but the money from Cox represented a good return, making a profit on their one-time record buy.

You have to feel that Cox would be disappointed at how it all ended. Naturally, with the club being relegated, he probably felt it was the right time to go. He will have still no doubt harboured international ambitions, perhaps feeling that he’d more than held his own at Premier League level. A drop down to Division One probably wasn’t the course he wanted his career to take. He might’ve been one of the players who could’ve stayed on, but you can’t fault him for taking the move to Bolton. A club on a similar path to what Boro were on 3 years previously, it was exciting times for them what with having secured promotion and a box-fresh stadium lying in wait.Cruelly for Cox, Bolton were relegated in his first season, losing out on goal difference. They later went on to reach the play off final the following season, defeated by a Watford side he would eventually join 6 months later.

After 6 years at Vicarage Road, the last of which he was banished to the youth team to train, he left in 2005 for a short spell at Cardiff City, spending a season in the Welsh capital before being released. Snapped up by Crewe, he turned out for the Gresty Road outfit for a further two seasons before finally retiring at end of the 2007/08 campaign at the age of 36.

He did temporarily come out of retirement, playing 4 games for non-league Leek Town. He had took on the managers role in 2010 and put his boots back on due to an injury crisis. His management career was short-lived however, citing personal reasons he left in 2011.

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Cox is currently Assistant Manager at League One outfit AFC Wimbledon (Picture – Get West London)

He’s now at AFC Wimbledon, having joined them in 2012 as assistant manager. His long time friend Neal Ardley took up the managers position, with Ardley appointing Cox as his assistant following his appointment. They’re currently enjoying League One football following last seasons promotion via the play offs

You would have to say that Middlesbrough fans love a swashbuckling, attack minded full back. Over the years there’s been few; Frank Queudrue, Christian Ziege, Dean Gordon, Luke Young, Curtis Fleming liked a foray forward. More recently, George Friend, Emilio Nsue and now this season we have Fabio. Neil Cox certainly fitted that mould too, and whilst he’ll always be remembered for the price tag naturally, he should also be remembered for his ability.

Credits: Official website of Scunthorpe United, FourFourTwo, soccerbase.com, Evening Gazette, Getty Images & Middlesbrough FC Video Vault YouTube channel.

Reality bites – Boro are in a relegation scrap and it’s not going to be pretty -but let’s stay positive.

Some would say we were from day one, and I’d be inclined to agree. This season was never about mid table aspirations, taking the league by storm or any other fanciful ideas like that. It was to be about survival, and if finishing 17th on goal difference was the end result then it would be job done, albeit a little stressful for those suffering with nerves. Saying that, when do Boro ever seem to make light work of anything?

Now we’ve lost games this season, plenty of them. Defeats at home to Watford and Palace, as well as the late loss at Burnley were particularly hard to take considering they were the sort of games we were looking to take points from. The tepid stalemate at home to Leicester now looks even poorer than on first glance given their alarming form and recent sacking of last years hero Claudio Ranieri. Yes, they won on Monday night against Liverpool, but up till that point they’ve been nothing short of ordinary. That all said, it’s our latest defeat that appears to have blown up the Twittersphere, with calls of Aitor Karanka to be sacked in some corners. Even suggestions on his potential replacement, preposterous really. Now, I don’t advocate that opinion, but fans are worried and with every right to be too.

I sat, or should I say slumped, into my chair at home after hearing the final whistle go at Selhurst Park. Billed as the cliched ‘Six Pointer’ it was a game we couldn’t really afford to lose, yet we did and in such limp fashion too. Crystal Palace haven’t exactly set the world alight since ‘Big Sam’ took over, they’ve barely started the fire. Losing 4-0 at home to Sunderland indicates just how bad they’ve been, so with that in mind I expected us to have a go and threaten a defence which was clearly low on confidence. The absence of Traore from the off baffled me, as did Bamford’s exclusion once more (thought he might have a point to prove at Palace perhaps?). I’ve never been a real critic of Karanka, however Traore’s late inclusion (much like AK’s penchant for late substitutions) frustrated the hell out of me and is my one big criticism of AK – his slowness to react at times. As for Bamford, I can only assume he’s nowhere near match fitness standards to be considered. Either way, those decisions caused some head scratching. In reality, we didn’t have a go and slipped to a defeat so demoralising that even I (the ever positive one) felt dejection like never before this season.

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Patrick van Aanholt compounding Boro’s misery with his goal on Saturday.

The gap that had been our buffer, the positive to point towards had now evaporated. Up till Monday evening we were a point ahead of the bottom of 3, now we’re only clear on goal difference. Supporters of AK, such as myself, will now claim to be proved right and that goal difference is helping us, however we can’t rely on it. The psychological affects of being outside of the bottom 3 at this state are huge for fans, but in reality we’re teetering so close to it that we may as well be in it. On form we deserve to be where we are, there’s no sugar-coating that. The lack of goals being conceded by us has been much heralded this season, and rightly so, but it’s the lack of goals at the other end which brings things into sharp focus. 19 league goals just isn’t good enough. The supply isn’t there, and without it we’re only going one way – down.

Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka

Karanka looking like most Boro fans feel right now.

However, I’m utterly convinced that we’ve got enough to turn things around. We’ve shown in the past, admittedly in the Championship, that when results are required we are more than capable of grinding them out. It’s that mentality, that ability that’s going to get us over the line. Think Hull at home, QPR away, Reading at home, Bolton away and the obvious one – Brighton at home. When 3 points were badly needed, or the draw at least in the case of Brighton, we got it. We dug in and we out-fought our opponents. OK, so those teams aren’t even in the same league (literally) as the likes of Arsenal, Man Utd, City, Liverpool, Chelsea (you get the picture) – but we’ve shown this season that we can compete with them. Liverpool aside, we’ve not suffered any heavy defeats at the hands of those teams, all of which we face before the seasons end.

After that, there are teams we are more than capable of beating. Burnley, Sunderland at home, Hull and Swansea away, no reason why they can’t be maximum points. They’re no better than us, and toe-toe, we’ve got enough fight in the ranks to come out of those with the desired results. Talking of fight, one man epitomises that – Grant Leadbitter.

I fully expected him to play a part against Palace at the weekend, after his all action display in the cup, albeit against Oxford. Yet he stayed on the bench, alongside Adam Clayton, another tough man in midfield. With those two coming into the fold, perhaps at the expense of Adam Forshaw who is need of a rest it seems, and then a change of shape to perhaps 4-1-4-1, we’d have some real bite in the centre of the park. Let’s face it, we’re never going to win games playing fancy, free flowing football, but we can win games by getting at the opposition and bullying teams. We’ve done it before and we can do it again. Hopefully George Friend returns this weekend seeing Fabio move to right back in Antonio Barragan’s absence. We’d have full backs then who love to bomb forward, with Fabio being as good a player in a Boro shirt I’ve seen this season, save for perhaps Ben Gibson. If Calum Chambers returns then that’s another plus too, he’s been excellent this season. His inclusion over Dani Ayala proof that AK does make some very good decisions. Ayala was a nailed on starter at the beginning of the season, but now finds himself as back up. Credit to AK for getting that one right.

There’s lots to be positive about – we’ve not been in the bottom 3 all season. OK, we’re now only out of it on GD as I’ve already touched upon, but at the start of the season surely all we wanted was to be in with a shout of survival at this stage, and we’re more than in with one. We’re not likely to be on the wrong end of a thrashing, thus meaning we’re always in the game. We’ve just got to be more positive going forward. Not to be forgotten, but we’re also in the quarter finals of the FA Cup too. I don’t think our current situation is as bad as some may have it looking. We’re not cut adrift, we’re in the mix and that’s all we could’ve asked for. Any fan that thought this season was going to be pretty was seriously misinformed.

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I’m confident that before the seasons out, we’ll all be looking more like this.

To touch upon the many calls, because there are many, on social media etc for Karanka’s head, I say this;

Karanka, having got us to the Premier League, surely deserves the chance to keep us there. Thankfully, we have a chairman who is loyal to his managers. It’s that loyalty that’ll be keeping him from pressing the panic button like so many others owners around the country have before now. Steve Gibson will see the work AK has put in up to this point and, despite his probable worries and frustrations, allow him to see this season through and hopefully his decision will be vindicated come Anfield at full time. I believe it will, and I believe many others do too. Having spent many a year watching Championship football, the pain of the Strachan era, the frustrating anti-climax of the Mowbray years, I’m thankful for the work of AK and his team. Don’t forget, it’s not just AK, it’s his staff and the well put together backroom teams that would be broken up in the event of the Head Coach being sacked. There’s a plan, a vision that’s in place, and I want to see it come to fruition. The work done so far has brought thousands of Boro fans joy, don’t let the tough times this season cloud your views on his and his teams capabilities.

Fans may tire of AK’s repeated calls for us to remember where we’ve come from in the last 3 years or so. Given our current form I can understand why it wears a little thin, after all, past achievements shouldn’t be used as a tool to excuse current failings. I’m in no way stating we should be happy with current form because of where we’ve come from, but I’m saying we should use some perspective. We should exercise caution before calling for the bosses head. We have to show AK the same loyalty that Gibson is showing him. Let’s face it, he’s helped us from the dire mediocrity of the lower reaches of the Championship, that alone should grant him enough loyalty in the bank to see this season out.

When all is said and done, only what Boro do will determine where we are come the end of the season. So, with that in mind, lets focus on Boro and Boro only. Forget the others, they can do what they like, win lose or draw it’s what we do. Let’s leave managerial changes to one side, lets forget what’s gone before during this season and unite behind the team AND the the boss. Boro fans are the best in the country when they’re together and pulling in the same direction. Whatever your views, your hopes, only one thing matters – that Boro survive and take their place once more at English football’s top table.

It’s going to be tough, an emotional roller-coaster ride, but that’s what we’re good at aren’t we?

UTB!

Jordan Rhodes – was he really treated unfairly?

They say there’s only two things certain in life – death and taxes. Well I’ll add another to that – Jordan Rhodes getting on the scoresheet if he ever comes up against The Boro during the rest of his career. He’ll no doubt bag one at The Riverside, ironically given none of his 6 goals for Boro came there. There’s no doubting that for Rhodes his time at Boro will be one of mixed emotions. His vital goals and the promotion they helped deliver will offer fond memories for him, however the bench warming half a season of Premiership viewing will no doubt have massively tinged his thoughts with sadness.

Many Boro fans look at his time spent on the bench with total bewilderment, often venting their frustrations in the stand or on social media, wondering just what he had to do to get a game. After all, he was the name on everyone’s lips whenever the description of a ‘goal-machine’ was required. When Boro spent that initial £9m (rising to £11m after promotion) he was seen as the guy who would fire us up, and in many ways he was.

Who could forget his equalising goal at MK Dons in the dying moments? A vital goal against Burnley in the 1-1 draw at Turf Moor anyone? But, and perhaps most memorably, it’s his two goal salvo away at Bolton that will live long in the memory of any Boro fan. The unbridled joy I felt that day, and the sight of the travelling fans bouncing around in the away end of the Macron (not quite the Reebok is it?), is something I’ll never forget. We finally had a striker who was going to get us goals, not only that, goals at vital times popping up where players before him hadn’t. “Great, we’ve cracked it at last” I thought, and upon promotion I couldn’t wait to see Rhodes have a good, some would say overdue also, crack at the Premier League. However, we now know that it wasn’t to be.

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The standout game for Jordan Rhodes last season, away at Bolton.

There had been talk from when he first signed that Rhodes needed a strike partner, someone to feed off. Everyone pointed to his partnership with Rudy Gestede at Blackburn in the 2014/15 season as proof of that, but it was also obvious that Aitor Karanka didn’t favour such a system, much preferring a lone front man. How would Rhodes fit in then? Surely he’d find a way. Answer is – he simply didn’t. Despite starting 13 games last season after signing, there was always the growing sense that he just wasn’t fancied by Karanka. In the games he made sub appearances in it was often late on, around the 70-75 minute mark, not long enough really to make any impact. Although he did in that game at MK Dons of course.

That said, 13 starts out of 18 appearances (5 off the bench) in total doesn’t exactly point to someone not being given a chance. He played his part in a promotion winning team, doing exactly what was asked of him. But it was what was to come that really got the critics of Karanka incensed.

In the Summer, when preparations for Boro’s first season back in the top flight were taking place, there’ll have been talk of trying to make us hard to beat, even harder than last season. Karanka will have known from the off that he needed a forward who could plough the lone furrow, hold up the ball and bring others in to play. That man wasn’t Jordan Rhodes. Sentiment is something in short supply these days in football, and arguably it can be seen as a quality to not be hamstrung by it. The Boro boss can hardly be described as sentimental, and so it proved when he made the decision to sign Alvaro Negredo. It will have at been at that point that he knew Rhodes’ chances of starting games had been significantly reduced. Karanka was looking at certain ways to gain any kind of advantage possible in games, knowing full well we’d be seeing less of the ball than we had been used to in the Championship. The Head Coach will have made a cold, calculated decision that despite all Rhodes had done to help us achieve promotion, that wasn’t going to mean a thing come Stoke at home on 13th August.

And so it’s proved. Rhodes started 2 games whilst making a further 4 appearances as a sub. The two starts, away at West Ham and Southampton, brought displays full of desire and commitment, but little else. Critics will point to the fact that it’s hard to get any sort of form going if not given the run of games, but it was obvious that he didn’t fit the system. A system that, to all intents and purposes, was working rather well with Negredo as the focal point. Rhodes struggled to make himself at home in a formation that often left him isolated, frustrated at the lack of support. Whilst we see Negredo venting his frustrations from time to time, he does have a lot more success at ball retention and bringing others in to play. This is what Karanka wants. Testament to the decision made by the Boro boss is that fact the club find themselves in a relatively decent position, 15th in the table, two points clear of the bottom three with a goal difference worth an extra point almost. His plan is working so far.

It’s been argued that Rhodes wasn’t a signing made by the manager, but by the board. It’s a point of view that carried some weight given his lack of game time, however Steve Gibson has never interfered to such an extent before, so chances are that wouldn’t have been the case. Given how Karanka has been the past couple of weeks too, you’d find it difficult to imagine him standing for any overruling in the transfer market.

In the modern football world a player might sign a 4 and a half year deal (in Rhodes’ case), however he may only be required for a fraction of that. The security of that long deal giving the club a decent chance of making their money back should they decide to sell. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it was under similar circumstances Rhodes was signed. He did what was asked of him last season and now he’s surplus to requirements. It’s a cruel way of looking at it and Rhodes must understandably feel deeply unhappy about his lack of chances, but often the top managers display a degree of ruthlessness when it comes to team selection, or the dispensing of players’ services. Think Juan Mata at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho. A popular player among fans, however he didn’t fit Mourinho’s system so he let him go.

Jordan Rhodes will have known he had mountain to climb when Negredo signed. Aitor Karanka will have no doubt told him exactly what he wanted from a front man, and no doubt he will have also explained to Rhodes that he didn’t fit the bill. To Rhodes’ credit it didn’t stop him from pursuing his Premier League dream, but all the while knowing full well he probably wouldn’t oust Negredo. It’s the measure of the man that he didn’t complain, getting his head down and getting on with it. Impressive stuff, especially given how soul-destroying it must have been for him.

Come the end of the January transfer window he got his move, but even that nearly went wrong for him. Late paperwork almost seeing his move to Sheffield Wednesday collapse. A cruel blow it would’ve been knowing what the alternative for him was. Thankfully for Rhodes he signed on loan with The Owls, though the words ‘with a few to a permanent move’ have never been needed less. A loan it had to be to circumvent the deadline issues, but it’s as sure as night and day that he’ll be a permanent Wednesday man come the Summer. £10m is great price, although a fair one too given what he represents at Championship level. Should Wednesday be promoted he’ll have once again made his inevitable contribution and paid his transfer fee back and then some.

For many Boro fans, they’ll forever stay frustrated, angry even, at Rhodes lack of opportunity. Never knowing whether he would’ve cut it in the Premier League, at least not for the time being anyhow. They will, though, remember his massive contribution to promotion last season. It will be those goals and performances they remember fondly, and rightly so. It’s precisely why a lot of Boro fans calling for his inclusion have been so vocal about their displeasure at his constant omission. But as I touched on earlier, football is a sentiment free zone at times and it’s in short supply when the ideas of a Head Coach don’t align with the abilities, or lack of, in certain members of his squad. It’s often been forgotten this season that David Nugent had also missed out. You could argue his contribution last season was just as important as Rhodes’ was. It’s also a valid argument that Nugent would’ve fitted Karanka’s system a lot easier than perhaps Rhodes would too, but the clamour for his inclusion just wasn’t there. Food for thought perhaps?

Whatever your thoughts, it’s hard not to feel for Jordan Rhodes. His time may come again, but for the now it’s back to the Championship. Back on the goal trail too soon enough I would imagine. He’s now tasked with helping Sheffield Wednesday go one further than last season. They’ll be hoping he has the same impact he had with Boro.

Was he really treated unfairly as some would suggest, or was it just a case of him being incredibly unlucky? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

It’s a been a funny old week.

“A week is a long time in politics” was a phrase coined by ex Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He wasn’t wrong, and you can suspect a fair bit of politics has been at play this week on Teesside.

Since the soul destroying defeat at home to West Ham things haven’t exactly been calm, and it’s the leader himself whose comments have far from endeared himself to his constituents. Seemingly pressing the nuclear button, Aitor Karanka took the massively risky step of criticising his own supporters, a move not usually considered if you’re wanting to stay ahead in the opinion polls.

Karanka took issue with the supporters chants of “attack, attack, attack” and the apparent encouragement of the long ball, something which the Boro boss was quick to point out wasn’t in keeping with the his players instructions and long held beliefs. The style of football that had been successful in getting promotion was not a policy about to be abandoned any time soon, despite the final 10 minutes seeing the players perhaps swayed by the fans, at least in Karanka’s eyes. “I was really upset with the last 10 minutes” he said. “We didn’t play in the way we have to play, in the way we know how to play and it was because the atmosphere was awful today”.

Words not warmly received by the Boro faithful it has to be said, and for the dissenters, the rebel back benchers,  it was seen as an opportunity to try and oust the leader. Now, even for the most ardent of supporter, it was proving quite difficult to defend AK’s apparent unprovoked criticism. Even when he’d had time to sit back and think about things perhaps more clearly, his Tweet hardly rowed back on his previous comments.

“As a manager, I cannot be any prouder of my players. They gave everything today. We need everyone to support them. #UTB”

Maybe not as harsh and arguably inflammatory as his immediate post match comments, they still conveyed his message consistently in that it was his players he was trying to protect and demand support for. No hint of an apology to the fans he rightly or wrongly upset. The clubs PR department had clearly not had chance to try and sway Karanka and spin his comments more positively. Depending on which side of the fence you reside, you could argue some sections of Boro fans are perhaps a little too touchy, and that they’re unable to take criticism but more than happy to give it at any given moment. There’s the valid argument that fans pay their way and that they’re entitled to vent in whatever way they see fit, but whatever your feelings, there was a sense that Karanka was treading on very thin ground with such remarks.

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Aitor Karanka wasn’t happy with the Boro fans following defeat to West Ham.

That thin ground appeared to have evaporated on Monday night when the joys of social media struck, showing just how quick and easy rumours can suddenly whip up it’s users into a frenzy. The villain, or bearer of good news depending on what camp you’re in, was former Sky Sports anchor Richard Keys. His Tweet sent the rumour mill into overdrive with this;

“Interesting developments at M’boro. Karanka pushed his luck a bit too far it seems”.

Cue masses of tweets from either side of the Karanka divide, many it has to be said coming out in support of the Spaniard and calling for calm, and clarity, as odds were slashed for him to be the next Premier League manager to be axed. Prices as short as 1/4 were being quoted. ‘The bookies are never wrong’ were the thoughts in some quarters, adding Keys’ Tweet to that made for a sense of unease and tension among the Boro fans.  Some ugly exchanges followed, at times it was hard to believe that these were people who supported the same team. There was more infighting than that of the Labour Party. Fans on both sides of the debate trying to get the other to tow their party line.

The longer the night wore on the more convincing it seemed that Karanka could well be on his way out. It wasn’t until the morning after when it was clarified that the Boro boss had in fact been on a scheduled day off, and not walked out or been sacked, that some calm was restored. Some reports stated that Karanka had been asked to apologise to the fans, smooth over the wounds opened up following the West Ham game. Reports also claimed that he had in fact apologised to the club, to Steve Gibson, claiming not to have realised his comments would cause so much apparent offence. That his aim was not to criticise the fans in the way it seemed he had. Either way, there was no official word from the Club, unlike like the pre-Charlton walk out of last season where club statements were made to try and clarify the situation. With that in mind, the feeling was his position was never in doubt. It was business as usual.

At his hotly anticipated press conference on Thursday Karanka was asked if he’d spoken with the chairman. His response “We had an amazing dinner” giving little away as to what might’ve been discussed. He also did little to dampen the flames created by his remarks, standing by what he said he again stated that he demanded support for his players and didn’t regret his words. He also spoke about how the players shared his views saying “They (the players) thought the thing I said to the press was completely right,”.

Of course, this wasn’t the only thing up for discussion at Thursday’s press conference. The small issue of player recruitment was on the agenda, and the cries from fans for fresh blood, was now taking centre stage in the line of questioning. How would Karanka shuffle his cabinet? Not only that, Karanka had problems of a different kind , Gaston Ramirez’s untimely transfer request posing new headaches for the busy boss.

Now the hot topics on media forums were who was going to come in, Ramirez’s potential departure and what the squad needs before the end of the transfer window. Aitor’s supporters point to his ‘pull’ and contacts given Boro’s heavy links with former Madrid man Jese Rodriguez. Names also continually mentioned included Bojan and Robert Snodgrass. However, come Friday evening, Snodgrass’ move to West Ham allowed the twitchy among us to start doubting Karanka’s, and the clubs ability to attract the right players. Bojan talk had gone quiet, with only the fans keeping his name relevant given there was no fresh news to suggest a move. Doubts over Jese surfaced, and with no other names having regularly been mentioned, a quiet sense of panic set in with fans now wondering whether any new faces would arrive. Worse still, if Ramirez moves on, whose going to replace him. If he doesn’t, how is he going to worm his way back into fans’ affections? With all this going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was no game this weekend. There was of course.

An FA Cup tie against League 2 Accrington Stanley offering a welcome distraction, or a frustrating delay, to Premier League football depending on your thinking. The feeling was a win was the only outcome, and that goals were required (yes multiple ones), to boost confidence and get fans feeling positive again. The line-up definitely looked positive. Patrick Bamford getting his first start since his heroes return, as well £6m man Rudy Gestede. Stewart Downing was also back, and it was the local lad who got the winner with 20 minutes to go. A relieved Aitor Karanka watched the divisive Downing crash home a wonderful left foot effort to give him a timely reminder that an attacking answer might already be at the club, and that he can maybe just make the one signing rather than the generally expected two.

Whilst the game didn’t deliver an emphatic scoreline, there was enough to be pleased about, including a clean sheet provided by the returning Dimi, whose now seemingly second choice after Brad Guzan’s summer departure to the USA was announced this week. There’s a more positive feeling following this weeks victory.

We got a win and a clean sheet. Downing was back in the starting 11, alongside the romantics heroes in Bamford and Dimi. We’re now in the last 16 of the FA Cup and can now start thinking about a decent cup run. There’s still a few days left in the transfer window for Boro to pull of a stellar signing or two. Compare these thoughts to those after last week and it’s a stark contrast.

We started the week debating the mangers position and whether he even had one at the Club. We finish it thinking of West Brom on Tuesday, as well as Jim White Day (or Transfer Deadline Day for the sane thinkers among us). Anyone else feel the Karanka furore is now just a distant memory? After all, a week really is a long time in politics (football).

Let’s enjoy Boro’s Premier League return.

A funny statement you might think. Of course we’re enjoying it, back amongst the big boys, sat at the top table of English football. However, it’s increasingly apparent there’s a lot of Boro fans who don’t look to be enjoying it.

It had been a long 7 years out of the top flight, and the initial waves of optimism that come with a fresh start after dropping down a division and the hopes of an immediate return soon wore off. What followed were seasons of frustration, disappointment and total disillusionment. Despite a decent start, Gareth Southgate was sacked early on with crowd levels falling, Gibson aware of fans beginning to lose enthusiasm for a post-Premier League Boro. Attendances dwindled to depressing figures – of the 12,793 (a record low for a league game at The Riverside) who were there on a Tuesday night in October 2013, few will remember it fondly. A 1-1 draw against Huddersfield was the penultimate home game in charge for Club legend Tony Mowbray, although by that stage, his star was on the wane. A series of poor performances, capped by a defeat at Barnsley which sealed his fate, saw ‘Mogga’ sacked. An unfortunate end to what was supposed to be a fairy-tale return for one of the Clubs biggest heroes.

There are really convincing arguments to state that Gordon Strachan’s time in charge was the more depressing period of Boro’s Championship stay. Drab football, with equally drab line-ups, turned many fans off, to the point that there was almost a willingness for Boro to lose (almost), just to see Strachan fired. You could certainly say that in terms of a stretch of time, the longest depressing one was under Strachan. The Scottish invasion, the money spent on sub-standard players who offered nothing other than the fact they simply weren’t up to it. Aside from Barry Robson, and sporadically, Scott McDonald/Steven McManus the rest could be written off as disasters. Who can remember many vital contributions from Kris Boyd, Chris Killen (who?), Lee Miller, Willo Flood and treatment table regular Kevin Thomson? I think Nicky Bailey was the only non-Scottish based transfer to be considered as a marginal success. The rest, well best forgotten about.

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Mcdonald & Boyd came as ‘goal machines’ – it just didn’t work out that way.

 

To be fair to Strachan, he left, ripping his contract up and refusing his pay off. About the only positive thing to come from his ill-fated reign.

Despite all that, for me, Mogga’s final weeks and departure were by far the worst it was ever going to get. For any genuine Boro fan, Mogga’s return was meant to be the start of something beautiful, but it ended very ugly. The pain etched on the face of Mowbray in the final days/weeks just showed you how much it meant to him. The club he loved, HIS club, was under-performing badly, fans starting to turn. It’s got to have hurt him incredibly, and fans, no matter how unhappy at the form, were also hurting too. They were hurting for a hero, a legend, as well as a club they love. I don’t know any fan who was happy to see the end of the Mowbray era. It had to end though, there’s no doubt about that. He’d had us flirting with promotion a couple of times, only for us to fade away in an anti-climactic, almost inevitable ‘typical Boro’ fashion. There was no doubting the hard work put in, the cost-cutting measures he was stifled by as well as the very little cash he had to spend, he deserves a lot of credit for the way he managed in such restraining circumstances. However, it just wasn’t destined to work, and come October 2013 he was gone.

We all know what happened next…

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Mogga’s homecoming ended in ultimate disappointment.

 

Aitor Karanka picked up the reins and in just under two and a half years has achieved what was asked of him. But for a lacklustre performance at Wembley against Norwich, we would’ve been promoted a year earlier and way ahead of schedule. You may wonder why I’ve rabbited on about the previous managers before him, but that was to remind us all just how far we have come from those mediocre, depressing and, at times, dark days.

I’m not going to lie, I’m a huge Karanka fan. I understand the frustrations that are associated with some of his decisions though, he’s even left me scratching my head from time to time. I’m not writing this with the purpose of getting people to join in any sort of AK ‘love in’, but I’m trying to appeal to the fans who are perhaps feeling unenthusiastic or let down by what they’ve seen so far this season.My message to fans is one of “Look at where we’ve come from”.

After seven years out of the Premier League it’ll take us time to adjust. We still have a relatively young, inexperienced (at this level anyway) manager. Finding our feet, we’re still managing to pick up some fantastic points at some difficult places. Aside from the two Mersyside clubs, we haven’t really been well beaten by anyone. Our defensive record currently stands joint fourth in the league, not bad for a newly promoted team, eh? Yeah, our attacking stats don’t look the greatest, but whilst we’re keeping clean sheets we’re giving ourselves a chance. The goal difference will always play a role in the fight against relegation, and at present ours represents an additional point on the board.

Middlesbrough v Brighton and Hove Albion - Sky Bet Championship

Boro players and Karanka celebrate promotion after draw against Brighton.

I guess what I’m trying to say is – look, lets be positive and lets remember how this could’ve all been different. Who am I to tell anyone how to think? But all I’m asking is that we be realistic, and actually see things for what they are. We’re Middlesbrough Football Club, now of the Premier League, back where we belong. Gone are the days of embarrassingly low attendances, the stadium half empty and us being beaten by Plymouth, Barnsley and the like. We’re now facing Arsenal, Man City, United and Liverpool as equals, not as the second tier opposition in cup ties. We now have a Riverside Stadium bouncing every other week, 30,000+ crowds generating a fantastic atmosphere. The good times are back, the ride is open, hop on and don’t worry about getting off, we’ll be around for some time.

Lets ENJOY our Premier League return.

UTB.

 

Bamford’s second coming.

It’s easy to think that after 3 failed loan spells spreading over 18 long months that Patrick Bamford was a Premier League flop. On the face of it you would be inclined to go with that view given it hasn’t been the emergence of England’s next big hope up front. It’s been a disaster for the lad’s career if truth be told, he’s lost a season and a half, kicking his heels on various benches around the country. He could probably have started a blog rating the comfort of each one, I suspect the ones at Selhurst Park, Carrow Road and Turf Moor don’t feature too highly on any hypothetical list.

For a career that look destined to carry on the upward curve, it’s been more of a depressing downward spiral into the footballing abyss. His stock couldn’t be any lower right now, once the future England star, he’s now deemed worthy of only 10-15mins here and there if you look at his recent appearance record. In fact, he’s only ever appeared, at the earliest, in the final 12 mins of any game Burnley have played this season in the Premier League having never started a game. Of the 13 games he’s been available for selection, he’s only made it off the bench 6 times, with no goals to boot. Damning statistics really. However the lack of goals isn’t surprising given the paltry amount of time he’s been afforded to make an impact.

You could argue he perhaps doesn’t fit the style of play Burnley employ. Or maybe his attitude in training hasn’t been on it, but that would be hard to imagine given Aitor Karanka, a known disciplinarian, managed to get the best out of him back in the 2014/15 season. Adding further doubt on attitude arguments, Karanka has stated often “the door is always open” to Bamford should a return prove likely, words that wouldn’t be spoken if his attitude was questionable.

Burnley is only one part of the story. Last season, the season he was meant to take his obvious talent to the next level, he rocked up at Crystal Palace hot on the heels of a personally successful campaign, having netted 19 goals for a Boro side who came agonisingly close to promotion via the play offs, whilst also receiving the Championship Player of The Year gong. The assumption was that Palace would help develop the player further and he’d realise his potential at the top table. But it wasn’t to be.

He failed to start a Premier League game, with his earliest introduction to proceedings being at half-time against Swansea, his final appearance for Palace. What followed was Bamford exercising an option to terminate the loan after speaking rather publicly about his lack of game time. After describing his experience as “terrible” he incurred the wrath of Alan Pardew who stated “He probably could have handled that better,” he said. “Me and Patrick spoke about it. He knows there were a couple of errors. But that happens with young players. He wants to be a success instantly. But sometimes you need patience. You can get injured, lose form or not get in the team. He’s a young player who was Championship Player of the Year, scoring a lot of goals. Then he found himself not in a team.”

That said, Pardew and Bamford appeared to end things on good terms with the then Palace manager saying “I had absolutely no problem with him, he’s a cracking lad. He will have a great career. Patrick has a great chance, he has natural finishing skills”. He ended his time there having only played 9 games in total, with two starts being in the League Cup. No goals scored either,  but he will have consoled himself with the fact that he wasn’t really given a chance. Another loan move might provide him with the game time he craved, and the goals to boot.

Norwich came calling next. Chasing some extra firepower to help save their seemingly doomed efforts of staying up, Bamford was seen as an alternative to what they already had. Have to say, I kind of felt a weird sense of betrayal at this point given Norwich’s success at our expense the season earlier, but thinking more sensibly it looked a good move for him potentially. He wasn’t a fancied alternative clearly though, making only 7 appearances. He did make 2 Premier League starts, which was an improvement on events at Palace, however he failed to finish either game. Once again, the glaring stat was that of no goals scored. Norwich were also relegated, capping a miserable season for Bamford.

The Summer came and went, and with no opportunities likely at Chelsea he was farmed out again, this time to his ill-fated spell at Burnley (once again, I felt a childish sense of betrayal given Burnley’s rivalry with us last season, but hey ho). Which now leaves us at the present day and the ever increasing likelihood that a permanent move to The Boro will be the next chapter in what has become a career stalled, grinded to a halt in the harshest of fashions. Can Boro unlock the potential within him, the potential hinted at during his stellar season of 14/15?

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Bamford in happier times, scoring the opener against Man City, FA Cup 2015.

You could argue that he’s a busted flush, that he’s on the scrapheap and deemed only a risk at best by anyone wanting to take a chance on him. There’s good arguments to suggest a Championship move would be best, a chance for him to rediscover his mojo and progress naturally back to the Premier League. My opinion is he just needs to be loved. He needs an arm round him, some encouragement. His most successful stint to date has been with Boro under Karanka, a huge admirer of his as I mentioned earlier.

There’s no reason to suggest he can’t get the best of of him again. Critics will point to the easy argument of the stats, 19 games and no goals in the Premier League, but how many players can make a positive impact when your team is chasing the game with 10 or 12 minutes remaining? It’s hard to expect a player, no matter how good, to make such a difference with so little opportunity. Fans of The Boro are seemingly split down the middle (like most subjects discussed at the moment – frustratingly) with regards to whether a deal is worth pursuing. Figures of £4m, £6m and £10m have been bandied about, but the truth is that nobody, other than Chelsea and Boro really know the exact figures.

If a deal worth anything like the £10m mentioned is in fact agreed, I’ll maintain that it’s a bargain. The chances are only half will be upfront, meaning the other half will depend on the degree of success for both the player and the club. So, if a full £10m is eventually paid to Chelsea then you can bet that Boro will be in a lot healthier of a position to the already healthy one we find ourselves in now. If we don’t end up parting with the full amount then we’ve made a relatively small investment on a young English player, and we all know how much they go for generally these days. Everyone’s a winner right?

Whatever happens, a hero will be returning, and we all love a returning hero at The Boro.

Credits go to ESPN FC & soccerbase.com for the statistics.