Middlesbrough chief Jonathan Woodgate faces crucial decisions in survival bid

WHEN injury-ravaged Middlesbrough’s Championship season went south at the end of autumn, Jonathan Woodgate turned to youth. In truth, he had little option, but it worked a treat.

Middlesbrough's Djed Spence: Can he shine again? Picture: PA

Woodgate’s squad options increased in the New Year, with the paradox being that results nosedived alarmingly again.

Sometimes, football has no rhyme or reason and that was shown as Boro – despite being replenished by the return of several senior players who were unavailable towards the end of last year – plumbed the depths in a 10-match winless league streak from New Year’s Day to March 7.

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It was the second time that the Teessiders’ run without a Championship victory this season had stretched into double-figures.

On the way back: Middlesbrough's Patrick Roberts. Picture: PA

So just what does Boro’s rookie head coach do now when the second tier resumes and the heat is nothing to do with the temperatures of summer?

A shaft of light arrived by way of Boro’s precious win at relegation rivals Charlton in their final game before football’s hiatus – with the return to the fray of No 10 Patrick Roberts and central defender Dael Fry giving Woodgate two further options in key positions between now and July 22, hopefully.

As someone who has gone ‘like for like’ and matched up with teams this season and shown his predilection for changing formations, sometimes several times in a match, it will be fascinating to see what Woodgate does in nine matches which will be critical to both the club’s future and potentially his own.

Stick to a back four and opt for experience or plumb for a three-man defence with wing-backs and utilise the pace of vibrant duo Hayden Coulson and Djed Spence, which came up trumps during a dazzling December?

Middlesbrough manager Jonathan Woodgate: Key decisions. Picture: PA

Or continue to match up with others and show flexibility? Decisions, decisions.

One decision that has already been made is the fact that Daniel Ayala has played his last game in the red of Middlesbrough.

Out of contract at the end of this month and unwilling to sign a new deal, Ayala’s conduct and attitude has further disappointed the club’s hierarchy in marked contrast to the exemplary behaviour of other players whose deals expire shortly.

Chief among that number is Jonathan Howson, a model professional who has been outstanding in several positions for Boro this term. The likes of captain George Friend and midfield pivot Adam Clayton are also figures that Woodgate will lean upon in the run home.

Middlesbrough's Dael Fry: Back in the fray. Picture: PA

Granted, Ayala was one of the stand-out centre-backs in the Championship during the club’s renaissance under Aitor Karanka and at his best is a commanding defensive leader who would walk into most second-tier line-ups when fit and focused. Let alone one in a relegation fight.

But if there is one thing Boro do not need in their predicament, it is players who are not totally committed to the cause. It is about team and not self, after all.

Boro and their well-respected chairman, Steve Gibson, know that better than most and it is why their decision to quickly move on from the Ayala situation is the right one.

Teams in relegation bother do not need unnecessary side-shows or passengers.

As for the Teessiders’ run-in, some will draw comfort but the sages will add a note of caution.

It features no games against sides presently in the top six, but appointments against play-off aspirants Millwall, Bristol City and Cardiff speak for themselves.

Character examinations will also arrive in dual dates at fellow strugglers Stoke on June 27 and Hull five days later. Both games will not be for the faint-hearted.

Should Boro require a template to follow, events at The Valley on March 7 when Woodgate’s side displayed togetherness, organisation and nerve to chisel out a vital victory and move out of the relegation zone should provide it.

That, more than anything, showcased a group of players who were behind their manager and playing for each other as they produced a response of substance after desperate February episodes against fellow strugglers Luton and Barnsley and – to a lesser extent – Wigan.

Before Stoke and Hull, Boro resume against visiting Swansea on Saturday lunchtime. The fact that they have not won a league game at the Riverside in this embryonic decade is something that will rankle with Woodgate along with players and fans.

For their last home victory, you have to go back to a Boxing Day win over Huddersfield Town.

Reacquainting themselves with the exhilaration of a home win – even accounting for the fact that supporters will be absent – will be a significant one for a Boro side who were cruelly denied victory late on in their last Riverside engagement against high-flying Nottingham Forest.

A spirited performance, albeit in a losing cause, against a classy Leeds United side in their previous outing on Teesside was also heartening.

But the longer their run goes without a home success, the more it becomes a millstone and emboldens visitors.

Woodgate will know that. As a lifelong supporter, he will also be aware that Boro’s last game of 2019-20 is at Sheffield Wednesday, with Hillsborough being a venue where the club have been relegated on the final day of a campaign twice before in 1988-89 and 1992-93.

Well versed in club history, and a supporter, the Teessider will also be aware that Boro have played just two seasons in the third tier since the mid-Sixties – in 1966-7 and 1986-7.

A proud man, Woodgate will not want to be associated with another black mark.

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