Middlesbrough’s season of transition in danger of having worst fears realised

LAST summer, there was a uniform belief in the corridors of power at Middlesbrough that the 2019-20 season would be a transitional one.

A mid-table finish was the likely expectation – although the pessimists were more inclined to contemplate Boro residing in the lower echelons of the mid-regions of the Championship by early May.

The optimists envisaged a bit better. A finish in the top-half of the table, maybe even top ten. As for the play-offs? Forget it.

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That same sense of incredulity also came to the fore when talk focused on the potential for the Teessiders to be stuck in the morass and down among the dead men at the bottom.

UNDER PRESSURE: Middlesbrough boss Jonathan Woodgate. Picture: Tony Johnson

That is what has sadly transpired in what has arguably proved to be the club’s most difficult season in three decades since the ‘nearly relegation’ campaign of 1989-90 when only some final-day heroics against Newcastle United at Ayresome Park spared Boro from the ignominy of just a third-ever season in the third tier in their history.

Should Boro stay up if the season restarts, they can then set about recalibrating their squad.

At the end of this season, seven senior players – Adam Clayton, Jonny Howson, Daniel Ayala, George Friend, Ryan Shotton, Rudy Gestede and Marvin Johnson – see their contracts expire.

Certainly for Jonathan Woodgate, it has represented the ultimate crash-course in management at his hometown club.

PROMISE: Middlesbrough's Hayden Coulson, right, has impressed with his performances this season. Picture: Bradley Collyer/PA

That he is still standing can be viewed as a fair achievement, although in truth, it owes plenty to the unwavering support of Steve Gibson and not too much else.

Most other owners in his position would have called time on Woodgate’s reign and pulled the trigger amid one of two – not one – desperate sequences of form.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, once is misfortune, twice is careless.

A torrid ten-match winless sequence between mid-September and late November when Boro struggled for goals and options and haemorrhaged hope was bad enough.

Middlesborough's Jonny Howson is one of a number of players out of contract at the end of this season. Picture: Tony Johnson.

An identical run without a league victory between New Year’s Day and March 7 – Boro’s last appointment before the coronavirus close-down, a priceless 1-0 victory at Charlton – was even more dispiriting and damning, with a pitiful haul of one point from nine arriving from three dire performances against fellow strugglers Barnsley, Luton and Wigan.

Alongside the patience of Gibson amid testing times, Woodgate can be indebted to the stoicism of most of the Boro faithful.

A tipping point may have arrived when fans turned on the club’s players after the desperate defeat at Oakwell on February 22, but Woodgate – largely due to his status as a Teessider – has escaped their wrath when his predecessor Tony Pulis was castigated for arguably much less last year.

Woodgate may be fortunate to have survived, but in mitigation, the blame for Boro’s ailments this season should also be shared with others with rank-bad decisions during the tenures of Garry Monk – and to a lesser extent, Pulis – playing their part.

Midfielder Adam Clayton is another Boro player out of contract at the end of this season. Picture: Bradley Collyer/PA

The key facet of the malaise over the past few seasons has unquestionably been recruitment.

After some disastrous previous moves in the market which saw Boro recklessly squander their parachute payments following relegation in 2016-17, transfers are now run by a committee compromising of Woodgate and members of the Boro hierarchy, mindful of adhering to Financial Fair Play requirements.

It is fair to say Boro are learning on the job with two of last summer’s arrivals in Marc Bola and Marcus Browne out on loan at League One clubs Blackpool and Oxford United, while the club’s major purchase in the close-season, Charlton Athletic full-back Anfernee Dijksteel, has underwhelmed during an injury-hit season.

Dijksteel and Bola now find themselves usurped in the pecking order by young talents Hayden Coulson and Djed Spence.

It is the flower of youth which has been the major substantive for Woodgate in a troubled season and bought him valuable time.

Coulson’s high-octane performances have ensured that he has emerged on the radar of Premier League clubs, with Spence bursting onto the scene during the club’s December renaissance which was as spectacular as it was surprising.

It arrived after a crushing 4-0 loss at Leeds at the end of November on an afternoon when Boro could – and should – have lost by many more goals and looked a relegation side in waiting.

That awful afternoon proved the darkness before the dawn, with Boro losing just once in their next seven league games and taking 16 points from 21 – with the purple patch incorporating three priceless home victories and outstanding away-day wins at West Brom and Preston.

Those collective feats helped Woodgate scoop the December manager-of-the-month award in the process. Funny old game is the phrase.

It is equally bemusing that Boro, effectively forced to throw youngsters into the fray in December, would see their season again take a turn for the worse at the very time when senior players were returning in late winter and options were more plentiful.

As it stands, Boro’s season’s fate remains very much in the lap of the gods.

Should they stay up, it might well be the making of Woodgate. If relegation is confirmed, the Teessider will be low on friends on home soil.

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