Cup runs a needless distraction? Not for me.

Now, I’m going to nail my colours to the mast from the off – I’m a huge lover of domestic cup competitions. I don’t see them as distractions, a waste of time or pointless.
All throughout my life as a Boro fan there’s been countless moments of joy, and anguish of course, with many a cup run. The buzz of the one-off scenario, well almost if you allow for potential replays, is something that gets me excited. Yes we all know the league is the bread and butter, and depending on your teams circumstances it could be the priority, however there’s nothing like a good cup run.

 
After last night’s victory at Aston Villa in the League Cup, or Carabao Cup to give its full, god awful title, it’s got me dreaming of another potential cup story. Of course, we could end up meeting Manchester United away and get smashed in the 4th round, cup run over, but a win could see us reach the quarter finals. At that point it’s really a case of anything could happen, you really can dream then.

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Thumbs for another cup run? Yes please.

But do we need a cup run? Is it a worthwhile distraction for us? Well as mentioned previously I’m clearly all for them, no matter what the circumstance, but with us undoubtedly chasing promotion I do understand the concern some may have at its potential side-effects.

 
After spending seven long years in the Championship before finally going up in 2015/16, what we want to avoid is another lengthy period in the second tier. Ideally we want out of what surely is one of the toughest leagues around as soon as possible, so anything that could jeopardise that should be pushed to one side, no? All those types of arguments are absolutely valid; you’d be well within your rights to suggest that the lack of distraction would be of benefit to a romp towards promotion. I’m not going to be so pig-headed as to not try and see it from the other angle; however it doesn’t mean I’ll ever agree with it. I just won’t, simple as that.

 
There’s something magical about those mid-week games, under the lights against a team from the division above, or indeed us being the team that’s favourites against a plucky underdog. It’s a chance for either us or the opposition to test itself in a one-off scenario, with the prize being the next step on the ladder to Wembley. Fair enough, the natural order of things generally means the big boys take their place in the latter stages, however there’s plenty of examples where that’s simply not been the case. Middlesbrough have been one of the shining example of this over the years.

 
Some of my greatest times as a Boro fan have come in cup competitions – lots of them in fact. If you discount the European adventures, which were quite simply on another scale altogether, the domestic cup competitions have created so many glorious memories. Without them my life as a Boro fan wouldn’t have been half as interesting.

 
Given I was born in late 1984 my recollection of the ZDS Cup Final against Chelsea, a familiar foe over the years, is rather limited. The story of the final itself is brought to life by my father, who attended the game with my older brother. Even from the pictures and tales of the day I get goose bumps. The sense of occasion, the chance of silverwear, to potentially lift a trophy at one of the greatest stadiums in the world, as a fan to be in with a chance of witnessing something like that is a feeling like no other.

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Bernie Slaven in action against Chelsea, 1990 ZDS Cup Final.

I have very vague memories of the 1991/92 Rumbelow’s Cup run (back in the days when the sponsor’s didn’t sound so ridiculous), the semi-final second leg at Old Trafford. Going into the game level after a stalemate in the Ayresome Park tie, it was a tough ask to come away from Manchester with a win, but how close was it? Looking back now at the various YouTube clips I find the memories come flooding back.

 

 
The crowd behind the goal when Slaven equalises, the euphoria (limbs, scenes or whatever modern-day description you’d use), it just looked unreal. But for a youthful Ryan Giggs winner and Peter Schmeichal pulling off some wonderful saves, we could’ve gone through. Just imagine the scenes had we won? They were amazing enough in defeat. You’d be hard pressed to capture that emotion and feeling in a routine 2-0 win in the league. Of course, winning each week in the league helps towards the end goal, promotion, where the party really is something special.

 

Brighton at home in 2016 tells you all need to know about that, but it’s the culmination of a long season. Cup games, well they have that excitement and unbridled joy in most games, especially in the latter rounds when you really sense there could be a chance of glory.

 

Yes, I know, in the early rounds cup competitions are awash with half empty stadiums and weakened teams, depending on the fixture and its significance to the teams involved, but it doesn’t take long before the smell of Wembley reaches the nostrils.
The journey to glory is a quicker one, massive highs in among a season where you could be trundling along in mid table. Or it could be running alongside what’s shaping up to be a successful league campaign, with your form in the league benefitting from the confidence attained from cup progression. Just look at the aforementioned 1991/92 season, as well as the 1997/98 season. Both ended in promotion, but both also featured lengthy cup runs.

 

The 97/98 season saw Boro reach the final of the Coca Cola Cup (getting worse but yet still not hilariously named), only to lose to bloody Chelsea. All the same though, you can’t tell me the joy of the cup run had an adverse effect on the players, if anything it boosted their confidence. Momentum was surely gained from it.

 
You can point to the season prior obviously, where we were relegated, controversially after reaching both the FA Cup Final and the League Cup final. However, without the farcical ‘three points’ debacle, we’d have stayed up and maybe kicked on to greater things, yet it wasn’t to be. If only we’d fielded a team at Blackburn that day, but that’s another story.

 

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Ravenelli celebrates as Boro take the lead, but heartache was just round the corner.

 

I remember being at Wembley for the League Cup final against Leicester, a wide eyed 12-yr-old looking up at the decrepit old stadium in all its glory thinking “this is way better than anything I’ve ever experienced”. Ok, come full time, after Emile Heskey’s heartbreaking intervention (ball was still out by the way), I probably didn’t feel as positive as I had done before the game. However, once the dust had settled and my emotions were in check, the enormity of the occasion hit home once more. I think as an adult, cup games still allow for that boyish enthusiasm and excitement, a hope that something special could happen.
In 2004 something special did happen. Cardiff.
I wasn’t there unfortunately, I had to make do with the living room with my parents, but we whipped up our own atmosphere as daft as it sounds, it was fun. Not something you’d be able to recreate for a league game away at Burton on a Tuesday night if watching from your sofa that’s for sure.

 

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Juninho, pretty much mirroring my reactions as we finally claimed a major trophy.

 

The range of emotions we went through that day are hard to describe. As usual, it wasn’t a straightforward display, despite the opening five minutes suggesting it might be pretty routine. Yet, when the final whistle went, when we’d finally won a major trophy, beating Bolton in the Carling Cup (its best name by far), myself and my folks jumped up and down like a kid would if he’d just been promised an ice cream – total joy. We’d finally tasted victory in a major final, wow. This is what it was all about. I think anyone who’s been a fan long enough to count that day as a significant one in their Boro-supporting lives should always back a cup run. Why wouldn’t you want the chance to experience that again? Why would you be ok with potentially missing out on something on the scale of that afternoon in Cardiff? Madness.

 
In recent seasons we’ve had away days at Manchester City, Liverpool, United – all very memorable. The wins at both Manchester clubs were high points in Aitor Karanka’s reign, a sign of how far he brought us. The Liverpool defeat, whilst still a defeat, was the perfect example of why cup competitions are worthwhile. It had everything, resulting in a ridiculously, yet thrilling, penalty shootout that seemed to last for hours. We wouldn’t have had that had we not bothered to show up at home against Preston in the round before. Same goes for the away tie at Barnsley prior to the City victory in the FA Cup.

 

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Adam Reach, running to the away support after netting for Boro at Anfield, before the penalty shoot out craziness took hold.

 

To bring us back to the present day though, the win last night at Villa might well be the pre-cursor to a memorable trip to Wembley to play Tottenham. A chance to banish the hoodoo early on before we go back there for the real thing in the final, who knows?

 

Whoever we get in the draw, to me it doesn’t matter, I’ll be championing the need for us to take it seriously, not thinking “oh well, it’s perhaps time we bowed out now”. No way.

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Traore’s red was a setback, but Monk’s Boro show their inner steel.

Hands up who saw that coming?

Saturday left us all drooling over Adama Traore’s wizardry, rightly so. However, Tuesday night at Villa Park left us all open mouthed as after just four (yes FOUR) minutes he’s heading for the changing room, given his marching orders.

I’ll admit, when I was constantly refreshing my Twitter feed for updates I did a double take, and then proceeded to swear profusely. I mean Adama, what the hell? I know you’ve enjoyed the headlines this past few days mate, but that’s no way to keep it going. But just before I was about to launch into full tirade mode, my missus looking completely disinterested, I saw the clip of the challenge on Sky Sports News. Tirade mode was engaged, although the focus of my ire switched from the player to the referee.

Never a red – including Lansbury’s too

Now, we can all say he shouldn’t have made the challenge. It was early on, why go diving in like that? Fair enough, it seemed a fairly innocuous area of the pitch, hardly critical, so why fly in? Youthful exuberance and a desire to impress resulted in a late attempt to block the ball, taking his man out without getting said ball. We’ve seen those types of challenges time and time again, and whether it gave the ref a decision to make or not, the fact is he made the wrong one. It was a booking most definitely, and a stern word from the ref was certainly required, but a red? No chance.

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Traore can count himself rather unfortunate following his fouth-minute dismissal

In fact, for anyone possibly thinking I’m slightly biased here, I’ll also state that Henri Lansbury’s dismissal was also a joke. Reckless though it was, it was hardly a red card offence either. No wonder Steve Bruce was foaming, although I’m sure without that unhelpful intervention from the ref he’d have still been raging. His sides profligacy in front of goal was plain to see, even their own striker, Scott Hogan, was preventing them from scoring, getting in the way of a teammate’s effort.

But if I can just touch upon Traore’s sending off briefly once more, I think it’s important not to get on the lad’s back. I saw some quite frankly ridiculous comments on Tuesday night, how he’d let his teammate’s down etc, but like manager Garry Monk has since said, he would expect anyone of his team to have made similar efforts to intercept a ball like that. Traore was unlucky, simple as that. If anything he ought to be praised for showing the sort of desire and will to help his team out, not be derided for the consequences of which he had no control over.

I mean, come on, only the other day people were losing their heads over his quality, now some are choosing to write him off as some sort of headless chicken. Talk about building him up to knock him down.

The Karanka steel but with an attacking twist

As it happened, the sending off only served to galvanise the team, almost seeing them revert to a Karanka-esque outfit, grinding out a point where one might have seemed unlikely. Only with Monk it appeared to come with the added bonus of some sort of attacking threat. You feel with Britt Assombalonga up top you’ve always got a chance, and he almost got on the score sheet for the second game in a row with a header that went close in the first half, as well as an effort late on well saved by Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal. He’s mobile, strong and knows where the net is. For all Alvaro Negredo’s hold up play last season, he lacked movement and pace. Although, through no fault of his own, he had no support so constantly looked isolated, something Assombalonga doesn’t have to deal with fortunately.

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Assombalonga, seen here getting the better of James Chester, worked tirelessly up top.

The way we were set up after Traore’s departure was basically 4-4-1, the two banks of four doing exactly what were asked of them, frustrating, hustling and harrying the opposition. But we still looked like we had a chance going forward.

Granted, at times we rode our luck, and once again we had Darren Randolph (fast becoming a fan favourite) to thank for some quality keeping, but we held our own. It may not have been pretty at times, it generally never is when you go down to 10 men, but it was great to see Monk’s Boro have the same fighting qualities that Karanka’s did before him. Of course, we have the core of that Karanka side still with us, but it’s clear to see they’re given excellent direction by the manager. He deserves praise too for last night, managing the game perfectly.

Monk’s perfect game management

I think most would’ve expected us to wilt eventually, succumb to the onslaught from Villa, but it never came. For all the bluster and efforts in getting forward, the threat on Boro’s goal was nowhere near what it ought to have been. A side with quality right through it failed to capitalise on the chance they had, none more comically so than Conor Hourihane’s effort being blocked by teammate Hogan. The moans from the crowd grew louder with each passing wasted effort or failed attack.

Boro can take great credit in how they handled the situation thrust upon them. They wouldn’t have legislated for that sort of setback before the game had even reached its fifth minute. It’s testament to the warriors on the pitch, the likes of Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter, recently returning as Captain on the field, as well as the home-grown centre back partnership of Dael Fry and Ben Gibson. The tireless work put in by Assombalonga up top, there was a massive effort put in by all last night.

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Ben Gibson, alongside fellow homegrown hero Dael Fry, were magnificent once again.

Even when the game was evened up, when perhaps you think we might be able to then take the game to Villa, by then it was perhaps too late. The mind-set was one of protection, keep a clean sheet and maybe nick one if the chance presents itself. Though Lansbury’s red card cancelled out their advantage, they were still in the ascendancy, the home team with the weight of expectation on their shoulders. Monk’s charges did well to keep them out, frustrating the crowd.

If last night told us anything, it told us that despite the attacking talent brought in, despite us smashing our transfer record for a big name goal getter, we’ve still got that inner steel we’ve all become accustomed to this past few seasons. Without wanting to harp on about Karanka too much, I did fear with his departure what might become of that solid backbone.

I needn’t have worried. We’re in good hands with Monk.

Read nothing into our start – this season has a long, long way to go.

Right then, five games in how are we all feeling?

Underwhelmed? Likely.

Disappointed? Maybe.

Concerned? Possibly.

The sense that ‘smashing the league’ (*shudder*) couldn’t be any further away right now?

Well if you answer yes to that last one then you’re most likely thinking rationally. Yes we all know what Steve Gibson said, and whilst we shouldn’t always get carried away with statements such as that, it’s understandable that it has raised expectations. Let’s face it, they didn’t really need raising given how high they would’ve be already, what with a us being one of three relegated sides going back into the Championship along with our pockets stuffed full of Premier League cash.

But whatever Gibson’s motive was for using those now well used words, whether he actually believed we could ‘smash the league’, there’s no doubting they were well intentioned.

Realigning of thoughts

However, it would be great if people could perhaps move on from what he said, especially as so many fans out there continually choose to use his words out of context. But anyway, they’re out there now, currently being used as stick to beat the Club, players and manager by some fans less than impressed with our start back to life in the second tier.

Even Garry Monk has dismissed the idea that ‘smashing the league’ is possible. Perhaps not quite on collision course with his boss, but maybe being more cautious in his approach and reigning in the expectations of all concerned. After all, he’s the one that’s expected to deliver the goods, so he’ll be doing his best to realign our thoughts as fans.

If anyone is sat there thinking that us walking our way through this division is pretty far from reality, they’d be right. As mentioned further up, you’re thinking rationally. Not saying the Chairman’s words were ill advised, he was quite obviously trying to stir up some positive vibes after what was a damp squib of a season. However, he’ll have known the size of the task when it comes to escaping this division. We ALL know the size of the task. Seven long years prior to last season tells you all you need to know, and it’s only gone and got tougher.

A quick glance at the league tells you that there are no ways of knowing just how a season is going to pan out at this level.

Aston Villa, seemingly on a long run of never ending disappointment, were many people’s tips for promotion last season – look how that worked out. Pundits haven’t learnt their lesson it would seem and tipped them once more – look where they are presently. Of course, it’s early doors, the table is only in its embryonic form, lots of time to change yet, and it will, but Villa are a classic example of why we should exercise a little caution.

Bouncebackability – should never be a given

We were given the title of favourites this season by many, understandably so you’d think. Recently relegated sides are rarely classed as anything else, even though only seven out of the last 33 sides to fall through the Premier League trap door have made it back up immediately. Newcastle were the latest, in fact they’ve done it twice, but last season’s promotion was hardly as plain sailing as the one they previously achieved in 2009/10 (they finished 23 points clear of 3rd place on 102 points).

With that damning stat, is it really that understandable that we be looked at as promotion favourites? Despite the statistics it’s hard to label us anything but given the squad we have, plus the recent additions made to it, however it’s worth remembering that it’s a relatively small list of teams who had the bouncebackabillity. It should be used as constant reminder that nothing is a given in this league.

Bonkers

As you glance once more at the current league table there’s the likes of Norwich languishing in the bottom three. Fulham, another pre-season tip for promotion, sit in the mediocrity of mid table along with last season’s Play-Off losers Reading and perennial bottlers Derby.

Further down there’s Sheffield Wednesday, who’ve achieved top six finishes the past two seasons. Old ‘Arry’s Birmingham are down there, as well as our unfortunate neighbours Sunderland too.

Big teams right this minute whose position is apparently at odds with their reputation – we’re not the only ones.

Looking further up and easy to see why this league is as bonkers as everyone knows it is. I mean, come on, who had Cardiff and Ipswich to be sat in the top two? Cardiff having won all five games, Ipswich had a 100% record until the weekend’s loss at home to Fulham, its crazy.

The apparent shambles that is Leeds United haven’t quite matched our expectations, they’re actually doing alright. Victor Orta and his puppet, ahem, I mean manager, Thomas Christiansen are currently up the backsides of the top two. Not really what we’d envisaged after rather hilariously seeing their former boss arrive at The Riverside.

I refused to get into the baiting of Leeds fans in pre-season for this very reason. Banter or not, there was no way I was joining in the giving of stick, mainly because I didn’t want to have it thrown back at me by some of the terrible supporters they have. I know, I know, we have our own too who are just as infuriatingly mindless at times, but I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of any bile heading from West Yorkshire. It’s started already, and I’m just glad to stay out of it.

Anyway, I digress.

We find ourselves sat in 9th, seven points from five games. Not exactly the stuff of dreams, but hardly the stuff of nightmares either. As a start it’s been bang average. To me though, keeping in touch with the top six, being in around those spots throughout the season is the most important thing. We’ve no divine right to be demanding top two domination, as much as it would be nice. The important thing is that we’re never out of the race.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be aiming for automatic promotion, of course that should be the aim, but as long as we’re never far away we’ve always got a chance. Nobodies running away with this league, there’s too many teams that can consider themselves in with a good chance of promotion.

Still in first gear, but just wait till we click

To focus on our start a little more, it’s been a bit up and down in all fairness. Away day blues, but yet our home form continues to be our strong point (at this level). Whilst we may have drawn on Saturday, we kept another clean sheet. If it hadn’t have been for Dani Ayala’s gift on the opening day then we would’ve been looking at another there too.

The defeat at Nottingham Forest was perhaps unfortunate too. But for an off day by the former Forest man Britt Assombalonga we could’ve been out of sight. A questionable penalty gave them one of their two goals on the day, so we’re not generous at the back that’s for sure.

Once Monk has figured out his midfield conundrum and perhaps added some spice in the form of Jota, or whoever else, we might be then looking at a team that’ll start to look dangerous. We have some serious options up front and clear signs of partnerships forming with the likes of Assombalonga, unlikely regular Rudy Gestede, as well as the return to form of Patrick Bamford who now looks more like his old self. Their contributions in the home wins against Burton and Sheffield United were there for all to see.

Let’s not forget also, Martin Braithwaite will make a return soon too. We’ve an embarrassment of riches.

I know many will sit here reading this thinking;

“Where’s the analysis of the games?”

“What about the lacklustre start overall?”

Fair enough, for some the start might be totally unacceptable, but I don’t feel any impending senses of doom. In fact, I find it hard to seriously analyse any game this early on. We’ve a new boss with some new players bedding in. The squad has still got some minor surgery to be performed in certain areas, so this first few league games don’t really worry me too much. Had we lost all five then yes, fair enough, I’d be rather concerned. However, as it happens, we’re sat in a half decent position and we haven’t even got out of first gear yet. Imagine what’ll happen when we do click – frightening really.

 

There’s a lot of change to come before the season really gets going. I don’t anticipate that Cardiff and Ipswich are going to run away with the league, I don’t see them making the play offs in all honesty. Much the same way that I don’t expect that Fulham, Wednesday’s and Norwich to be kicking around Championship’s lower reaches come May either.

I’m reading nothing into our start. Its early days so no need for panic, and if you’re thinking of doing so then please don’t – this season has a long, long way to go.

Keep the faith.

UTB

Rudy Gestede: From Zero to…well no longer a Zero.

It’s been somewhat of a turnaround in fortunes for Rudy Gestede. Whilst unbelievable might be exaggerating things a tad, it’s definitely a surprising turn of events to see the Benin international being the focus of such positive attention right now.

Talk of a transfer away from Middlesbrough just a few weeks back would’ve been met with almost a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders at best. At worst it would’ve been warmly received.  Hardly the most popular of purchases the club has ever made, his arrival in last season’s January Transfer Window left most fans feeling rather underwhelmed.

What did he offer? Definitely not excitement

His £6m move from Aston Villa was perceived by some fans to signal a lack of ambition, almost in preparation for relegation. Whether that was actually the case or not, well who knows? You’d imagine that Steve Gibson wouldn’t allow such thinking to creep in, but whatever the motive, it’s fair to say he wasn’t the most exciting of arrivals.

After talk of Jese from PSG, Gerard Deulofeu and Bojan, the club ended up signing Gestede, returning hero Patrick Bamford and Watford’s Adlene Guedioura (less said about that one the better). A frustrating window for all concerned, not least for Aitor Karanka, and we all know what happened there.

What was more frustrating still for the supporters was that Gestede’s former strike partner, Jordan Rhodes, was sold on to Sheffield Wednesday without the pair ever having a chance to team up like they did in their days at Blackburn together. With Gestede being less than prolific throughout his career, his time at Ewood Park was actually pretty fruitful. His partnership with Rhodes saw him being the ideal foil, the 2014/15 ended with them having scored over 40 goals between them, Gestede outscoring his partner in crime by the one goal.

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In more prolific times: Rhodes & Gestede had quite the partnership at Blackburn

With Rhodes leaving The Riverside it left many a fan scratching their heads, mainly because of his own goal scoring record, but also due to the obvious connection both he had Gestede had. Why wouldn’t Karanka experiment? Apart from his penchant for one up top, Rhodes was clearly out of favour and was shipped out. That left Gestede along with Negredo fighting for the one striker spot – only going to be one winner there then.

The thought was that the ex-Cardiff man would possibly be an impact sub, introduced into a game when the need for a goal was paramount, punt it forward and he’d win the headers. Yet Karanka didn’t play this way, saying so himself when he intimated the crowd had swayed his players into going off plan and lumping the ball forward. But if Gestede wasn’t there for that purpose, what exactly did he offer?

Summer of change, but he still remains

He did manage two goals before the end of last season. He pulled one back with a close range finish in the 3-1 home defeat to Manchester United, as well as bicycle kick effort in the victory at home to Oxford in the FA Cup. But his impact was limited.

Good in the air, he won most of the balls he fought for (71% of aerial duels in fact), but his all round play suggested that without playing to his strengths there wasn’t much else he had to offer. Come the inevitable summer changes, with a new manager coming in, surely he’d be on his way, especially if a decent offer came in?

As it happens, he stuck around. Despite incomings in the attacking department, Britt Assombalonga, Martin Braithwaite and Ashley Fletcher arriving for big money, any talk of him leaving failed to surface. He was the name on most fans’ lips when asked who’d be the one to go from the attacking options we had, yet it was Christhian Stuani who headed out (assuming you saw him as a striker). What did Monk see in Gestede? Or was it that nobody wanted a less than prolific striker, likely to be on a decent wage with Boro probably demanding a few quid should he be sold?

From jeers to cheers

Well judging by his start to this season it’s clear that there is a little more in his locker than just the ability to jump high and beat his opponent in the air. Starting the opener at Wolves on the bench, the 28-yr-old appeared to settling into what many thought would go on to be a familiar role, appearing late on when a goal is needed. So it proved at Molineux, where he came on for the final 10 minutes, yet he failed to have the desired impact.

When news of Braithwaite’s training ground injury circulated you’d have been forgiven for thinking that it was a done deal that fellow new boy Fletcher would be taking his place, however as the line-up was named for the home game against Sheffield United, Gestede’s name appeared on the team sheet. Cue the fans groans.

But groans turned to chants of “Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!” when he opened the scoring, getting the only goal in a 1-0 win. Whilst it was with his head, showing his prowess in that area of the pitch, his all round play was a pleasant surprise for many. Sticking with a front three, Monk asked his stand-in striker to play a role no doubt unfamiliar to the former Villa man, drifting wide and interchanging with fellow front men Assombalonga and Bamford.

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Gestede celebrates with his teammates following his goal against Sheffield United.

But for the width of a post he’d have notched a second, a towering header almost making it 2-0, in a first half display full of running and endeavour.

Having made himself a nuisance, he left the pitch not long after the hour mark, being replaced by loan man Lewis Baker, receiving warm applause, his name chanted once more. He’d taken his chance, and with a game coming up against Burton Albion just days later his inclusion was surely a foregone conclusion.

Developing an understanding

Albeit against inferior opposition, he once again impressed, setting up Assombalonga for the first of his two goals on the night, as well as inadvertently providing an assist for the second as his shot rebounded to his strike partner to tuck away. The signs were there that a decent understanding was developing, and so it proved this weekend gone at the City Ground.

Despite defeat, they linked up well again, Gestede twice putting in the Assombalonga for chances on goal with clever flick-ons, only for them to be wasted. But it was clear that he had made an impact on the team, managing to complete 90 minutes for Boro for only the second time in a league game.

He’s given Monk a bit of a headache it has to be said, and in terms of the fans he’s given them one too. A shake of the head in surprise at how well he’s done has led many a fan, including myself, to perhaps reassess their opinion on the burly front man.

Elevated standing gives Monk a selection headache

Only this week a bid from Leeds for around the £6m was made, but that was rejected outright by the club. You only have to go back a few weeks and most would’ve snapped your hand off. I’ll be honest, for that kind of money I’d have driven him there myself, but I’m prepared to admit that I’ve actually been forced to rethink my views on just how useful he could be for us this season – at least for now.

You have to think that when Braithwaite returns from injury that he’d be looking to get straight back into the team, but would that be harsh on Gestede if he carries on the form that’s seen him elevate his standing among supporters? It’s testament to both player and manager that he now appears as a serious option up front from the off.

Obviously Monk will make his own mind up, but there’s no doubting he’s given his manager a decision to make.

If you’re thinking of judging a player before they sign, please think twice.

In light of the ongoing rumours surrounding Birmingham City’s Ryan Shotton and his reported move to Middlesbrough,  I couldn’t help but feel disappointed at the many comments made on social media. It led me to make the points below.

 

Before I get to my point I want to make it clear that I would in no way insinuate that fans can’t have an opinion on a player, at the end of the day football is all about opinions and without them the sport would be a poorer place.

Often, though, those opinions can overstep the mark and actually become rather unfair and quite frankly obnoxious. It’s this version of an ‘opinion’ that I take issue with.

Take for instance a player who’s reported to be a target for a football club. He might not be the most glamourous name, or have had the most glittering of careers to date. His transfer fee, if small, might provoke a reaction claiming a lack of ambition. If there’s a few quid being spent on the player it might mean he’s perceived to be overvalued and the club is being ripped off. Cue the negative comments.

“Oh he’s absolute sh*te that guy”

“What the f*ck are we signing him for?”

“Where’s the ambition signing some like that?”

“How much? What a waste!”

You get the gist.

I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see comments of the nature of those above. Whilst we all might have opinions on players we’ve seen, and I’m in no way saying you’re not entitled to form one on what you’ve seen, but it’s that dismissive attitude, writing someone off before they’ve had a chance to kick a ball. I’ll admit it, in the past I’ve slipped into that mind-set.

George Friend cost Middlesbrough the very modest sum of £100k from Doncaster Rovers in 2012 – I couldn’t get my head round it. Didn’t know enough about him, which obviously meant he was total rubbish. His fee apparently meant he was a nothing signing and that we’d end up with a worthless player on our hands – how wrong was I?

Now, I know not all seemingly unfancied signings turn out to be a success like Friend, proving the doubters wrong, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s foolhardy and downright unfair, if truth be told, to write somebody off before they’ve had a chance to pull your club’s jersey on.

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Ryan Shotton’s rumoured transfer to Boro has been met with displeasure by some fans.

I know these days the slightest hint of feeling sorry for a professional footballer is almost a taboo given the obvious lifestyles they’re afforded, often earning more in a week than most might earn in a lifetime (depending on the player and how fortunate you are too). It’s understandable to feel a sort of disconnect towards a players feelings, after all, who cares what they think or how they feel? They’re earning upwards of £20k a week, surely they’re immune to such negative comments?

However, put yourself in the player’s position. Say he’s gone from being a rumoured target to a now concrete one, the deal almost in place, due to sign in a matter of days, hours even – imagine what they think when they venture on to social media, fans of the club they’re about to join tearing them to shreds before they’ve had the chance to put ink on paper? You might scoff and think they’ll likely give zero consideration to what Dave from Redcar thinks, or what John from Yarm might have to say, but I’d hazard a guess that you’d be wrong.

I’m not saying they’ll sit there, crying their eyes out and being on the verge of reconsidering the move, but I bet it’s more than a little off-putting.

You have to consider many things – your club wants him and more often than not the player might not have been even hankering after the move, yet here he is being judged, his ability called into question by a set of fans who could potentially become his new supporters.

He may be moving to a new area, out of his comfort zone, might not even be from this country, and there goes Twitter and Facebook, awash with comments that he’s a ‘donkey’ or might possibly be the worst signing the club’s ever made. Hardly the warmest of welcomes is it?

I know players will tell you it’s part and parcel of football these days, especially in the age of social media, but it doesn’t make it any more palatable. I wince at certain comments, but realise that in reality there’s nothing really that can be done about it, some fans will always step forward with the mindless rubbish.

I look back at some of the comments I may have made in the past and cringe, but I no longer pass judgement on someone until I’ve seen enough of them in my teams’ colours. Whatever went before is forgotten, he wasn’t our man then so it makes no odds to me whether he scored three own goals in a season, or couldn’t hit a barn door for his former club. Our manager has clearly seen something in him to think he’ll be a positive addition to the playing squad, that’s enough for me. You have to feel that he’s in a better position to make that kind of decision than I or any other fan is. I can still form an opinion, however passing judgement and writing them off as a bad purchase just isn’t something you’ll find me doing. I’m not the manager so who am I to decide who should and shouldn’t be signed?

I realise the level headed and sensible among us will always take the same approach, welcoming them player to the club and wishing him well, but I can’t help but feel embarrassment when I come across some of the dross comments from so called experts that support my club too.

I guess it’ll never change and we’ll always have that element of supporter displeasure when a transfer story pops up that might not be to their liking, but if you’re thinking of judging a player before he signs, please think twice.

Who knows, they might actually prove you wrong.

Encouraged and excited – I can’t wait for the season to start.

This time next week we’ll be poring over the Wolves game, hopefully celebrating an excellent three points and feeling encouraged for the season ahead.

As things stand I’m already extremely excited by what I’ve seen. New boss Garry Monk appears to have been a man on a mission, overhauling the squad and weeding out the deadwood. Then again, whilst the likes of Antonio Barragan, Bernardo Espinosa, James Husband and Carlos de Pena may fall into that description, it might be harsh to place Christian Stuani and Viktor Fischer in there too. Both of those leave with a slight tinge of sadness for me.

This season offers promise

Sadness isn’t something I’ve felt too much of this summer though. Aside from that fact I hate pre-season, which makes me cheesed off more than anything else, this pre-season has probably been one of the most promising in years. Ok, last season promised so much but failed to deliver, massively, but you get the feeling that with a new manager and new faces this season could well turn out to be a memorable one.

The 2015/16 season, whilst being a promotion campaign ending in dramatic style at home on that wonderful May afternoon, was tarnished a little by rumours of bust-ups and a manager walkout. In what was meant to be a joyous celebration of returning to the top flight after a seven year exile, you couldn’t help feeling that despite being ecstatic there was always a sense of discontent among fans. Very clearly a split, supporters spent the summer of 2016 not just looking forward to the Premier League, but also debating Aitor Karanka’s position. Maybe not overshadowing the achievement, it definitely cast a cloud or two.

No chance of that this summer though. With Karanka now long gone, along with a raft of his backroom team, a positive vibe has returned on Teesside. Monk’s Boro is starting to take shape quite nicely, with Chairman Steve Gibson once again backing his manager to the hilt. An outlay of around £40m so far would tell you all you need to know about the Clubs’ intentions this season, that’s if we hadn’t been told already by Gibson. His “smash it” quote has been picked apart, analysed and twisted rather unfortunately at times, however the sentiment is one I can definitely get on board with.

Signings aplenty and a local hero staying?

Incomings have been a regular occurrence. Quality additions with bundles of Championship experience was exactly what we needed, and it’s exactly what we’ve got.

Johnny Howson, Cyrus Christie and Darren Randolph are all fully versed on life within the league pyramids second tier, as is newly crowned record signing Britt Assombalonga. His £15m arrival from Notts Forest clearly the stand out transfer of the summer, a man who practically guarantees goals, he’s precisely what Boro need to get them back up at the first attempt. Add to that the arrival of Martin Braithwaite from Toulouse and Ashley Fletcher from West Ham, then you’ve potentially got the league’s most frightening striking options, especially with Patrick Bamford and Rudy Gestede already within the ranks.

Not forgetting loan arrival Connor Roberts, a player Monk may well know more about than we do admittedly, yet he comes with a decent pedigree and offers much needed defensive cover – a defence that still, at this minute, includes Ben Gibson.

Seemingly being the prime candidate for most of the leading Premier League clubs’ defender shopping list, it’s actually a nice surprise that he’s still here, ready and waiting to skipper the club on Saturday at Molineux. Even with a broken nose he appeared against Augsberg at home at the weekend in the clubs final pre-season friendly, further enhancing his reputation with the supporters. He just loves to play for The Boro, and you get the feeling that staying beyond the end of the Transfer Window no longer looks unlikely, but now more probable than anything else. What’s not to like about that?

But there have been some issues…

There have of course been the odd one or two things that could’ve potentially detracted from the feel good factor on Teesside right now, a certain South American for starters.

Yes, the last of the Uruguayan trio (who’d of thought that?) Gaston Ramirez has continued to cause a stir. The fact he’s still around at all his rather surprising on the face of it, but when you consider his attitude last season and his no doubt healthy salary, it’s not actually that much of a surprise to see him still knocking around.

He’s featured rather heavily in the pre-season friendlies, Monk clearly going in with a ‘clean slate’ type of approach. That said, the understanding is that Ramirez would be allowed to go, and has been the subject of interest in Europe, but as of yet none of that has actually materialised into a move, much to the annoyance of pretty much every Boro fan out there. There’s a bit of a divide among fans as to how Ramirez ought to be treated, with some seeing fit too boo his inclusion in the squad, whereas others, whilst still uneasy with his presence, are actually willing to consider a team that includes the 26-year-old. That is, of course, if he knuckles down and perhaps offers up some sort of an apology.

Like it or not, Ramirez is probably the clubs best player, at least the best attacking option in terms of creativeness. A fit and firing Gaston would be an asset in this division, proof of that being his performances in the promotion campaign, with many citing him as the catalyst for the teams’ end of season form. That all being said, it’s hard to see any fan shedding a tear if he did leave; it just depends on your persuasion as to how happy you would be to see him go.

The other issue right now is the clubs ongoing spat with The Gazette.

You see, The Gazette had originally reported that record buy Assombalonga arrived for £14m, however that apparently innocent line irked the powers that be at Boro, leading them to make a statement correcting the Gazette, informing the public it was actually £15m. All seems petty; couldn’t a phone call have sorted that? They also took the opportunity to clarify the financial details of Marten De Roon’s deal from the summer previous – very messy and extremely awkward.

The Gazette responded welcoming the clarity, only to follow it up with a statement of their own claiming they’d chased Boro for some time about Steve Agnew’s situation but had got no response from the club. It seemed posturing from both sides had begun.

In an apparently separate argument the paper revealed two of their journalists had been banned, for reasons unbeknownst to them, so for the time being they’d not be interviewing any players or management as a matter of principle.

All very unsavoury it has to be said.

For a few days it dominated social media, almost overshadowing what was meant to be a positive time, new signings and the season upon us an all that. It had died down somewhat and whilst The Gazette continued to stick to their ‘all in this together’ mentality, refusing to interview any Boro playing or coaching staff, at least there was some calm – until today.

The paper announced that one of its reporters Dominic Shaw had been denied media accreditation for the Augsburg game, and that he and fellow journalist Johnathon Taylor were not welcome in a press capacity at The Riverside. They rejected an invitation for one of their other journalists to attend, instead choosing to stay away until a resolution is found.

Unless you’re one of the fortunate who are ‘in the know’ then it’s difficult to really pass judgement on where the blame lies in all this. I think most fans, however, would agree that it’s definitely not ideal on the eve of a new season. It’s not healthy for Middlesbrough and the local media to be falling out in such a way, and whilst we may have poked fun at our North-East rivals in the past for similar incidents, in reality it’s not something that should be happening.

Boro’s fresh look website welcomed

Some have looked at the club and likened the spat to a PR ‘own goal’ given the statements coming from them recently, which is a bit of shame considering that actually the PR and social media arm of the football club has undergone a noticeable improvement.

In the days before we’d begun to make our own signings, other clubs chose to announce their new players in weird and not so wonderful ways. Aston Villa opted for a spoof Whatsapp conversation, whereas Chelsea’s club shop corker and various other clubs were offering their fans lengthy unveiling videos to keep them in suspense. It was all becoming a bit like the ‘Mystery Guest’ round from A Question of Sport, only a lot naffer.

Thankfully Boro’s PR team hadn’t been sucked into that sort of social media silliness, instead opting for a traditional announcement on the clubs website, with player holding a pen, the classic contract signing pose, as they sat beside a beaming Neil Bausor. In fact, the way in which fans had been informed of player arrivals was particularly refreshing.

The Club had decided to make the fans aware of the players’ arrivals, posting pictures of them at Rockcliffe, having their medical etc. all before the player had actually signed on the dotted line. Not the usual stuff we’ve been used to, but definitely a welcome change in this era of undisclosed fees and cloak and dagger.

Perspective needed, but much to be positive about

Despite Ramirez sticking around, for now at least, and the ongoing fall out between Boro and The Gazette, there’s definitely plenty for the fans to be positive about. The club has had a decent pre-season, whilst not blowing any teams away; there has been some good results, not least the Augsburg win on Saturday.

It won’t be until a few weeks into the season before we can properly judge the new boys, yet it’s not too early to be excited about what their potential performances could bring. We’re going into the new campaign with more firepower than we’ve had since the days of Viduka, JFH and The Yak. We have a have a bright young manager at the helm in Monk as well as the prospect of keeping local hero Ben Gibson. Not exactly a bad situation to be in.

Whilst that’s the case, it’s important though to remember that this weekend’s game at Wolves won’t define our season, it’s just one out of a gruelling 46 game campaign. Perspective will be needed if we don’t come away with a win, or blow our opponents away in victory. Even a loss, whilst disappointing, should not be treated as a disaster.

However, we can head to the West Midlands at the weekend feeling rejuvenated after the depression of last season. Wolves announced today that the game was officially a sell-out, so the atmosphere will be absolutely electric. I, for one, cannot wait for 3pm on Saturday.

At last football is back, and more importantly The Boro are back.

UTB!

The romance of Sunday League football

Sunday mornings. Now to a lot of people that means waking up with a hangover, breakfast in bed with the papers, a stroll in the park with a loved one walking the dog, or maybe, for the unlucky ones, work. But for thousands of us around the country, Sunday League football is the only thing occupying our minds.

Come rain or shine, wind and hail, snow or sleet, people take to the nearest park to play their beloved game of football in the hope they’ll maybe recreate a moment of magic seen on Match Of The Day the night before. For those who missed MOTD, the tails to be told will be of where they ended up after a night on the town, what they drank, and for the lucky ones, who they pulled.

As cigarettes are lit, shin pads strapped on, deep heat rubbed in, the great atmosphere and banter of a changing room prior to a game against a local pub is hard to match. The mix of teenage and middle-age proves to be, a somehow, perfect combination for a Sunday League team. An 18 year old whizz kid running rings around a 40 odd year old centre half,  just one the sights you can expect during an often entertaining 90 minutes.

The referee, be it a young lad, or in some cases, an enthusiastic OAP, blows his whistle to start what will no doubt be an action packed, if lacking a little in genuine talent, match. Moments of comical defending, even more comical finishing, mixed in with crazy tackling and questionable refereeing decisions give the clichéd one man and his dog plenty to keep them entertained. Ex professionals show their quality, wannabe professionals attempt the sublime, often resulting in the ridiculous, and coaches prowl the touchline trying to make themselves heard.

Half time, more cigarettes are lit, bottles of water consumed, or in some cases, cans of lager, as the coach gives the team talk. Around him are his players, some listening intently, whilst others hold conversations of their own, much to the dismay of the gaffer. Make no mistake, whilst it’s Sunday League not Champions League, you can bet good money that both coaches are desperate to come out on top, if only to justify the constant barrage of abuse they’ve given each other throughout the game.

After an equally entertaining second half, a wonder goal, scrappy effort, or total fluke could be enough to secure the victory required to make that pint back at the pub taste all the better. The ref, who has most likely been counting down the time to an abuse-free rest of his Sunday, blows the full time whistle. Dejected or delighted, the obligatory handshakes follow after another eventful morning’s football. Walking back to the changing room, boots in hand, the players discuss that great chance, the shocking tackle, or the keeper cock-up that’s cost or won them the game. Once in the changing room, the smell of cigarette smoke returns once more, along with the sound of showers, depending how lucky you are.

Back at the pub, key points of the game are chewed over with a pint and a packet of crisps. More talk of controversial refereeing decisions, cracking goals and on-field scuffles. For the keen Sunday League player the result of the game can impact on the remainder of their day, often ruining it following a poor defeat such is the passion they possess within them.

With another Sunday morning of football over, focus then switches to the TV where it’s the professionals turn to live the next 90 minutes of their life on the pitch. Rather amusing is how comparisons are drawn between the game on TV and the game from earlier that morning, and how someone almost always claims they could cut it in the game that they’re watching. Talk tends to centre on who’s the star player, who’s been up to no good, and who’s just signed a new £100,000 a week deal for their team.

It’s widely accepted that the pro’s are living the dream, and that so many amateur footballers would give their right leg (if they didn’t need it) to be in the same position. Being paid handsomely for doing something they love, enjoying all the benefits that come with being a professional footballer often makes us all green with envy. It also causes us to fume at how some of these ‘stars’ abuse their positions and alienate the general public who pay their wages. With this in mind, it leads me to the point I’ve been aiming to put across.

For all the perks, excitement, and pride at being a professional footballer, nothing quite matches the spirit and camaraderie generated from a bunch of lads getting together at a weekend to play on their weather battered pitch. They leave their beds early on a Sunday to play a game they love, often shelling out a few quid each week just to play. With this enthusiasm, commitment and desire to fight for your mates, it makes a mockery of the modern day professional at times. And that’s why, for me, despite the adverse weather, despite the shocking refereeing, and despite the lost lie in following a heavy night on the town, I’ll always love Sunday League football.

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.

karanka smiling

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.

players angry

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.

karanka down

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.