It has been a rollercoaster twelve months for Middlesbrough fans. From the pure ecstasy of promotion to the Premier League, to a seemingly inevitable failed relegation battle. What has gone wrong at the Riverside?
When the final whistle blew on the last day of the 2015/16 Championship season, no club could have been further from a crisis than Middlesbrough. A young and hungry Spanish manager had transformed a relegation-threatened, bargain-budget team into a fearsome group with a reputation for being nigh on impossible to score against.
This team claimed Premier League scalps; both Manchester clubs were out-matched, and it took Liverpool over 13 penalties to claim a win at Anfield.
There was a perfect balance in the squad. The inspired loan signing of Gaston Ramirez supplied creativity and flair, whilst centre midfield bulldogs Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter bullied and elbowed their way across England from London to Leeds.
Speaking as someone who was there on the day, and spent the evening in the town, there was an outpouring of love, a palpable air of belief, and an unshakeable sense of optimism.
If you had told anybody coming out of the Riverside Stadium following the triumphant 1-1 draw with Brighton that, nearly twelve months on, Aitor Karanka would have been sacked, assistant manager Steve Agnew would be in charge, and Boro would be on their joint-longest Premier League winless streak, you would have received a typical Teesside response; yerjokinarnya?
That is, however, the reality.
Optimism and belief have vanished; apathy and resignation have settled in. The Boro faithful have now accepted that relegation looms in the not-too-distant future.
To answer exactly what has gone wrong will take more than one article, but broadly speaking, the reason that the club finds itself in this position is that the exact same mistakes that were made during the club’s last relegation season in 2008/09 have been repeated. In this article, I will focus on what I believe to be the main reason for the club’s current dismal spiral.
That is the transfer dealings which have been, at times, almost nonsensical. The focus in the summer was on ‘future projects’ such as Viktor Fischer and Adama Traore. Despite his skill on the ball, Traore has a scary resemblance to former ‘project’ Marvin Emnes. Then we also signed players who are past their best, such as Alvaro Negredo, who has cut a frustrated, isolated figure up top this year.
Meanwhile, £12.5million was shelled out on marquee signing Marten De Roon, who is an expensive man’s Gary O’Neil, running around a lot without contributing much at either end.
In January, with creative reinforcements desperately needed, £6million was spent on former loan star Patrick Bamford. Why has he since spent the last two months out of the team?
Boro also signed journeyman man-mountain Rudy Gestede, who holds the record for longest time in the Premier League without a victory. Incredulously, a further £3.5million was then spent on Adlene Guedioura, a signing which has proved baffling given his lack of involvement in the team since.
Considering the names being banded about on Teesside in January were that of Bojan, Jese Rodriguez, and Robert Snodgrass, it is understandable that Karanka went public with his frustration at the club’s transfer dealings.
Repeating history’s failings
It is almost the exact same story as the last time Boro were relegated.
Then, fans were concerned by the sales of home-grown talent such as James Morrison and Lee Cattermole, who have both gone on to have successful Premier League careers, for next to nothing.
Solid, quality players such as Luke Young departed for peanuts, whilst cheap European replacements such as Didier Digard and Marvin Emnes were brought in to fill the gaps. Terrifyingly, the burden of goal scoring was placed upon Afonso Alves and Jeremie Aliadiere (it really isn’t difficult to see why that team went down).
The question, then, has to be this; has Steve Gibson truly learnt nothing? It is not possible to survive in the Premier League ‘on the cheap’.
Boro fans now await the summer with a sense of fear. Local hero and perhaps the only bright spark of the entire season, Ben Gibson, looks set to leave. ‘Big names’ such as Alvaro Negredo and Victor Valdes will surely follow, whilst disgruntled Gaston Ramirez is a certain to depart.
On the bright side, the money will be there for Steve Gibson to invest in the squad. All that remains to be seen is if he can be trusted to invest well.
Personally, I am not holding my breath.