It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Ok, so it’s not Christmas, but it’s almost the footballing equivalent – the fixtures are out. Yeah, I know the Premier League released theirs already but who cares, right?
We all know the Football League is where it’s at, more specifically the Championship for us. Some may say that Wednesday’s fixture release might bring home the reality of where we’re at, yet we were all resigned to it weeks before relegation was confirmed, so it’s no shock. Also, we only spent one campaign out of the weird and wonderful second tier, so it kind of feels like coming home after a short, miserable holiday.
Out with the old, in with the new.
For all the glamour and financial gains the Premier League has to offer, it lacks a certain romance, a genuine touch. Just seems so superficial with its commercialistic image, players having their own emoji’s. Give me a break.
The Championship however, whilst rapidly moving further away from the leagues below in terms of quality, still manages to retain the down to earth, more modest feel.
Having said all that though, as a Middlesbrough supporter, I know like many others that we want to be back in among the country’s elite. If only to make the big boys seem human once in a while by sticking it to them, something we failed miserably with last season.
Yes, last season. Now the 2017/18 fixtures are out we can now officially consign it to the past. No longer current, although for most, including myself, it’d already been mentally moved on from a long time ago.
So, looking at what the super computer has thrown up, how does it look?
Well to me it all looks very exciting. Discounting the obvious mouth-watering back to back games with Leeds and Sunderland for a moment, just seeing the regularly featured midweek fixtures is enough to get me all giddy inside.
It may be a long, arduous slog, a 46 game marathon if you will, but it’s relentlessly enjoyable too. No sooner have you played on a Saturday, you’re riding the wave of victory (hopefully) to the next game just 72hrs later. If you’ve been beaten you soon have a game to put it right, you can’t sulk for too long!
That was the thing in the Premier League; it seemed like an eternity between match days, especially because we were losing most weeks too.
Don’t get caught up in the hypothetical’s
Now many a Boro fan would say, quite understandably, that August for us looks pretty decent on paper. But for now, paper is all we have. Ok, Wolves were poor last season. Sheffield United and Burton at home should be six points in the bag. Away at the City Ground to face Notts Forest doesn’t seem as challenging as it has done in years gone by. Round the month off with what should be a straightforward victory at home to likely mid table dwellers Preston and bang, that’s at least 13 points right there isn’t it? Maybe 15 for a 100% start, no?
Yet it’s all hypothetical at the moment. It’s based on a number of factors ranging from the size of club we’re up against, their recent history, our current squad and the huge budget that will hopefully have been used wisely this summer. We know enough about this league now to know that nothing is a given.
I’m aware that exercising caution isn’t very appealing, and that positivity and optimism is what we’re wanting, but it does help to keep ourselves grounded just a tad. However, all things considered, it does look like a favourable start. Sooner begin with that sequence of games than the ones we have in November and February.
The aforementioned clashes with our Wearside neighbours and the Monk-less Leeds, along with old Arry’s Birmingham and perennial bottlers Derby makes November seem a very difficult month indeed. As for February, well, it’s fair to say it’ll be a testing few weeks.
Norwich, Cardiff and Sunderland away, with home games against Jaap Stam’s Reading and Hull, managed by the wonderfully named Leonard Slutsky, all have the potential to leave us as flat as pancake. But the truth is nobody knows what’s going to happen. Right now it’s all just conjecture.
I even saw earlier our whole league campaign played out using the most recent results in the corresponding fixtures. Good grief. Can’t quite remember what the exact outcome was, but naturally it all turned out ok and we practically sailed to promotion. That’s that then, no need to worry.
Walk in the park it won’t be
Listen, I know it’s all a bit of fun, helps pass the time through what is essentially a frustratingly slow period. I realise that I’m probably sounding like a stick in the mud, that perhaps I should lighten up a little, and the truth is I am feeling confident, but also under no illusions too. Until we’ve played 10-12 games and the table starts to take shape, I’m not predicting anything.
We’ve still got a full pre-season of preparation under a new management team, friendlies and a summer recruitment drive to come before the big kick off. Much will depend on how all that goes. The same goes for a fair few other teams in the league too, so drawing any conclusions from the fixtures at this point is futile in all honesty.
Of course, there are teams we can pinpoint right now where the chances of maximum points are greater. The likes of Burton, Bolton, Millwall, Sheffield United and Bristol City offer ample opportunities to notch vital wins, but after that the league looks incredibly tight. There are as many as 14 teams in my opinion that can lay claim to a legitimate chance of promotion, be it automatically or via the play offs. It’s not going to be a walk in the park.
It’s dangerous to think we’ll be dominating from the off, that we should wipe the floor with whatever is put before us. The Championship is an unpredictable, unforgiving division. Any sense of entitlement, any feeling we’ve a divine right to walk the league, could well come back to bite us.
But we are rightly favourites, we’re the scalp they’ll all want
It hasn’t helped too that Steve Gibson’s words have been seized upon, twisted and used to create an expectation bigger than that of last season’s quote of ‘having a go’. It doesn’t help when the nations press, as well as local too, often misreport the chairman’s BBC Tees interview. But it’s important to remember the context of what he said, let’s not lose sight of that.
I do want to make one thing clear though. I am indeed feeling optimistic, excited, and confident that we can go back up at the first time of asking. In no way am I trying to downplay our chances, I’m just asking that we be realistic, level headed if you like, and remember we’ve no right to walk it. Whilst we’re the favourites with many a bookie, it does mean we’re there to be shot at too. We’ll be the scalp that teams in the league will want to claim. Managers will bring their teams to the Riverside and set up to frustrate, we know all this from our most recent Championship campaign.
I’m sure fellow fans will think I’m being overly cautious, I probably am, but having supported my beloved Boro for nearly 30 years I know all too well the pitfalls of over-confidence. We don’t do things the easy way, that’s why I just can’t see us steamrollering our way to the title.
Though I’m not saying Ipswich away on the last day won’t be a promotion party, oh it will. Just don’t expect us to have wrapped promotion up come 3rd of March when Leeds roll into town, despite how wonderful that would be.
Up the Boro!