With Neil Warnock newly installed as Middlesbrough boss, attention will now fully turn to next season.
Warnock had already been planning for the 20/21 campaign prior to his confirmed full-time appointment, working closely with the recruitment team to identify potential incoming’s, as well looking at the current squad and who he may deem dispensable.
There’s no doubting that players need to be moved on, not only to help break the malaise, but also to free up much needed money to reinvest in what is a seriously depleted and unbalanced squad.
However, there are also players that Warnock can look to build a team around. The likes of George Saville, Marcus Tavernier and Ashley Fletcher and have vastly improved, alongside veteran midfielder Jonny Howson and young centre back Dael Fry. A spine of the team is potentially there, it’s just about who can be the meat to add to the bare bones.
We’ve also seen the emergence of youth in Djed Spence, Hayden Coulson and Aynsley Pears, all three laying valid claims to be included again regularly next season.
But beyond the aforementioned there isn’t a lot left, especially when you factor in those such as Paddy McNair and Britt Assombalonga, the two most saleable assets, along with perhaps Fry if Warnock decides to cash in there. Money makes the world go round, and for Boro that needs to happen given the Club’s gone from standing still to now being stuck in reverse.
They need a cash injection to bring in fresh blood.
And, with the 19/20 season dragging on for as long as it has, the pre-season preparations for the next one have to be crammed into just six and a half weeks before we start all over again on the 12th September.
So who could Warnock turn to?
There’s already been talk of Ben Gibson on a season long loan deal, with the former Boro man seemingly out of favour at Burnley having spent the last few months training at Rockliffe.
Recent links with Charlton keeper Dillion Phillps have surfaced, along with apparent interest in Wigan striker Kieffer Moore too, but they’ll command decent transfer fees.
Not that Boro will be totally hamstrung in that sense, however a quick gander at the free agent market throws up some interesting finds.
No, not Edinson Cavani, Willian or Pedro, perhaps if we’d stayed in the Premier League then who knows? But let’s not go there…
Anyway, I’ve been looking through a few more realistic targets, and whilst there’s a number of usual suspects, there are also a few less obvious that could well be worth a punt.
I’ve decided to focus on these, and they’ll make up a 1-11 in free agents that you can see below.
Sinan Bolat (Goalkeeper, 31)
Turkish stopper Sinan Bolat is now a free agent having last played for Belgian top flight side, Royal Antwerp.
He made 27 appearances during the 19/20 campaign, keeping five clean sheets in a team that finished 4th in the Pro League before the pandemic brought a premature end to the campaign. He appeared in every game leading up to Antwerp’s run to the Belgian Cup Final, however he missed out on the showpiece event due to declining a new deal.
The former Standard Liege man (131 appearances), has also taken stints in FC Porto, where he was perennially loaned out throughout his time there to the likes of Club Brugge, Galatasaray and Nacional.
He also has 12 caps for Turkey, and has been a regular squad member for the last couple of years after originally making his debut under Guus Hiddink back in 2011.
Could be a cheaper option than the obvious ‘go-to’ on the free agent list in Joe Hart. And, after spells in Portugal and Belgium, he could well be tempted by a new challenge in England.
Timo Becker (Central Defender, 23)
Released by Schalke in Germany this summer, the big, strapping German may be the sort of player to whet Warnock’s appetite. A youth player in Gelsenkirchen he was originally released in 2013 and played for fourth tier German outfit RW Essen, before his boyhood club resigned him.
Mainly a centre-back, he’s also played at right-back, but given his stature you can’t imagine he’d be as effective there (unless he was signing for a Tony Pulis side!)
He played 12 games for the senior side during last season, including the Quarter-Final defeat to Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal.
His chances of a new deal seem slim to none with manager David Wagner having an embarrassment of riches at the back, the likes of Ozan Kabak, Matija Nastasic and Benjamin Stambouli all ahead of him.
A player in his early twenties still, he could well be a useful addition and one that could continue to be developed under the stewardship of Warnock.
Georgi Milanov (Attacking Midfielder, 28)
A Bulgarian International, Georgi Milanov is an attack minded player, able to play right across midfield in advanced positions.
With 43 caps for his country (two goals, five assists), his pedigree is pretty good when you also take a closer look at his domestic career.
His most recent football was played at Hungarian side Fehérvár, where he helped them to second-placed finish and a run to the semi-finals of the league cup. Making 28 appearances in total, he notched three goals and assisted a further nine. However, he only completed 90 minute on four occasions, and featured just once as an unused sub following the resumption of the league in June. He did, however, win the domestic cup with them in 2019.
His earlier career saw him start out in his homeland with Litex Lovech, totting up 122 games. The 29 goals and 18 assists in that time prompted interest from CSKA Moscow, who eventually paid £3.2m for him in 2013.
He left Lovech having won two Bulgarian Championships, as well as two Footballer of The Year awards.
In Russia he featured in the Champions League on 25 occasions, as well as picking up two league titles and a Russian Super Cup.
Whilst not having played in the most difficult of leagues during his career, he still boasts an impressive medal haul, as well as proving to be effective in the final third. In the midst of his peak years, he could well be worth a shout, especially given his versatility across the top end of the park.
Rick Dekker (Defensive Midfielder, 25)
The former Feynoord youth academy product joined his most recent side, PEC Zwolle, in 2014 having picked up an U19 Championship title.
Primarily a defensive minded midfielder, he made 102 appearances for the Eredivisie side, and but for a ruptured cruciate ligament injury that ruled him out for a full 12 months, he would’ve likely made more.
With the Dutch League abandoned in April due to the pandemic, he left at the expiry of his contract in June having played 17 times, the last being in February.
He left with a Dutch Super Cup medal, having been part of the squad that beat Ajax 1-0 back in 2015.
He would perhaps represent a bit of a left-field choice, yet his relative young years mean his peak is still to come and could yet be moulded into a very good midfield enforcer under Warnock. He certainly has the pedigree given his career beginnings.
Ogenyi Onazi (Central Midfielder, 27)
Released by Denizilspor of Turkey this summer after a short stint (he joined on a six month loan deal in January), the Nigerian International is currently a free agent. The Turkish club have apparently got an option to extend his stay for a further year, but at present no deal appears to be in the offing.
His pro career began at Lazio after being plucked from his homeland at 18. He featured 110 times in all competitions for the Serie A side, the highlight for him coming in the Coppa Italia Final in 2013 when they beat fierce rivals Roma, 1-0.
He also scored the winner in a 3-2 victory over Napoli to help clinch Champions League Football for the Stadio Olimpico side.
Reported interest from Tottenham and Southampton never went beyond just that, and eventually he moved on to Turkish Super Lig side Trabzonspor. Unfortunately his time there was hugely disrupted by injuries, a ruptured achilles tendon saw him miss almost a year of action.
Yet, when injury free he was generally a regular starter, and but for his long lay off he would’ve likely played alongside former Boro man and fellow compatriot John Obi Mikel, a player whom he claimed to have helped convince to join him in Turkey.
He’s also had a very successful international career to date, playing 52 times for The Super Eagles, and featuring heavily in their 2013 African Nations Cup triumph.
Another player with a good pedigree, and whilst wages could prove a stumbling block with pay packets at Lazio and those in Turkey not likely to be on the low side, the lack of transfer fee and links to John Obi Mikel could help see him become the next Nigerian on Teesside.
Robert Mak (Left Winger, 29)
A former Manchester City youth academy graduate, he won the FA Youth Cup in a side that featured former City and Bolton midfielder Vladimir Weiss.
After leaving Manchester in 2010, he joined Bundesliga side Nurnberg. His 80 appearances yielded eight goals and seven assists, but that was just a pre-cursor to what would go on to be arguably his most successful period in his career.
He joined PAOK of Greece in 2014, and over two separate stints (he returned on loan in 2017) he racked up 117 games in all competitions, with 33 goals and 14 assists to his name. He won the Greek Cup too, and his form attracted the attention of Russian giants, Zenit St. Petersburg.
A £3m bid was enough to tempt PAOK to sell, and whilst his time in Russia wasn’t as fruitful personally, he still managed to notch up 72 appearances in all competitions, 18 of which came in the Europa League. His haul of 14 goals and 13 assists is far from shabby, and neither his is medal collection either with two league titles and two cup wins ensuring it wasn’t too cold a stay in Russia!
In January of this year he left for Turkey on loan, with Konyaspor rescuing the winger from what would most likely have become obscurity, the Zenit coach indicating they had too many foreign players in the squad with only six permitted to play at any one time.
Sadly, his time in Turkey was short, and not so sweet. Like many, Mak expressed his concerns at the countries lack of worry with regards to the pandemic, and whilst the league would continue, Mak wouldn’t and he agreed to terminate his short deal.
Given Boro’s lack of pace and creativity for some time, the Slovakian international could offer both those qualities. He’s also got a keen eye for goal, and currently has 12 goals in 58 games for his country.
Sebastien Polter (Striker, 29)
You may have already heard of this strapping German striker, and that’s likely down to his time at QPR between 2015-17 (unless you follow the youth leagues in Germany too!)
The 6ft 4in striker has definitely got something of the ‘Peter Crouch’ about him, with him being clever on the ball, as well as having a keen eye for an assist or two. Of course though, being a striker it’s all about the goals.
His time at Loftus Road wasn’t prolific by any stretch, a modest return of 11 goals in 56 games reflects that, but it’s time at Union Berlin that has proved the most productive for the former Germany youth international.
Over two spells in Berlin (the first was a loan move from Mainz prior to his stint in England), he’s racked up 46 goals in 104 games, along with 16 assists too. Though they mostly came in the second tier of German football, the league is of a relative high standard, perhaps not too far off the Championship in England.
He does, however, have a cloud over his character with Union Berlin having banished him from the first team for the remainder of the 19/20 season following the pandemic.
Club President Dirk Zingler said, following Polter’s refusal to waive his wages throughout the pandemic;
“It is one of the fundamental values of 1. FC Union Berlin that we, as Unioner, form a solid, tight-knit community in which we stand up for each other and for our club.
“Sebastian, the only player in the first-team squad, coaching and backroom team, does not do this, unfortunately”.
Whatever the circumstances, it does point to him being a possible individual rather than a team player, although it would be unfair to judge on that basis alone. Yet, managing such a character has been a challenge Warnock has enjoyed in the past, what with him getting the best from the enigmatic Adel Taraabt during his time in charge of QPR.
Plus, given the players height and ability to unsettle defences, he does appear to be a classic Warnock-type forward.
And there it is, my left-field, less obvious and perhaps ‘out there’ choices. Along with those I also identified some more closer to home options that you may be more familiar with;
Joe Hart (Goalkeeper, 33)
David Stockdale (Goalkeeper, 34)
James Chester (Central Defender, 31)
Eric Lichaj (Right-Back, 31)
Morgan Fox (Left-Back, 26)
Adil Rami (Central Defender, 35)
Kevin Stewart (Defensive Midfielder, 26)
John Obi Mikel (Defensive Midfielder, 33)
Jon Toral (Attacking Midfielder, 25)
Marcus Maddison (Attacking Midfielder, 26)
Jordan Ibe (Attacking Midfielder/Winger, 24)
Aaron Lennon (Winger, 33)
Dunca Watmore (Attacking Midfielder/Winger, 26)
Lyle Taylor (Striker, 30)
Max Kruse (Striker, 32)
Would any of these tickle your fancy?