An accusation one could not level at the NPower Championship, is that it is predictable. Whilst last season’s top two, in Newcastle and West Brom, were streets ahead of the field, the reminder of the division was a topsy-turvy mix of teams doing the opposite of what was expected of them. Blackpool, considered relegation certainties, were promoted via the play-offs. At the other end of the scale, Roy Keane’s Ipswich Town, to give them their proper title, failed to win any of their first 14 games, coming a lowly 15th. This was after we were subjected to a summer of countless synopsis’ of the Tractor’ Boys prospects claiming Keane knows “what it takes to get teams out of this league”. He almost did, but not into the league expected. Even with all the potential pitfalls, Middlesbrough seem to stand above the rest in my eyes in the race to the Promised Land.
Gordon Strachan did not arrive on Teesside with in an ideal manner last fall. There was a lot of sympathy for the dethroned Gareth Southgate, who was fired with the club in second in the division. Observers seemed to ignore the fact it was Southgate’s incompetence that saw Middlesbrough relegated in May 2009. Be it his overly cautious nature (Boro scored 28 goals in 38 Premier League games), his ill-advised signings (Mido and £12.7 million Alfonso Alves to name but two), a persistence with out of form players (Stewart Downing, Jermaine Aliadiere), or the refusal to give exciting young players a chance (Adam Johnson spent the majority of 2008/09 clicking his heels on the bench), the former England man was not up to the task. So the fiery Scot, as he is so affectionly known, took the helm, but not to universal approval.
The laid-back nature of the Southgate regime was in stark contrast to the militay approach enforced by Strachan. He cut short the players’ holidays this summer in order to bring his squad on a boot camp in La Manga to prepare for the season ahead. His immediate attempts to stamp his authority on Boro’ were met with cries of despair, which seeped onto the pitch in his early games in charge. With the side winning just three of the former Celtic manager’s 14 games in charge, it was obvious the changeover had not gone as smoothly as anticipated.
By early 2010, Boro seemed resigned to another year of the Championship. It almost seemed many of their games were rehearsals for the main show; if this was the case, the opening night certainly did not go to plan, with a 3-1 home reverse to Ipswich. Many disgruntled fans vented their frustrations at full-time, whilst others just left before the final whistle. Though on a day when there were four debutants, perhaps it will be to their benefit that such a defeat will eliminate any hint of complacency that may be in any of the new recruits. The Old Firm contingent that now resides on Teesside have been tagged as questionable signings by many. 56-year old Strachan reasons that these players are used to winning games and trophies, which is invaluable experience at any level. Also up in Scotland, Celtic and Rangers are considered major scalps by their contemporaries. Every team wants a piece of them. Boro may consider themselves as such a giant having been an established Premier League club for almost a decade, but another stagnate season and they will become part of the furniture in the second tier.
So it is imperative they go up this season. Former Aberdeen schemer Strachan has moulded his roster into a hard-working, honest outfit, rather than panache and inspiration being the hallmarks of the squad. David Wheater and Stephen McManus will form a stable barrier in defence, with Kevin Thomson adding bite in the middle of the park. The onus will be on Barry Robson to crave out the chances for a front two that enjoyed prolific spells in the SPL. Scott McDonald is a busy presence alongside the more stationary Kris Boyd. We only seem to be alerted to what Boyd can’t do rather than appreciate the fact the chap scored more goals than Henrik Larsson managed in less games in the SPL. A quiet afternoon on Saturday should not deter the Scottish striker; generous Championship defences beware.
The Riverside is certainly not the cauldron that Ibrox and Celtic Park can be on occasion. Whilst during the derby games and on big European nights, the stadiums are alive with colour, constant singing and during the derby games a fair amount of venom in the air. But go to either arena on a Saturday during the season for a run of the mill fixture, it’s almost like entering a parallel universe. When St. Johnstone are making their third trip in a month to Glasgow, one soon sees the other side of the coin. On my sole trip to Paradise, a punter in front of us, so disgusted with what he had witnessed during the preceding 35 minutes turned around to inform anyone who cared to listen he was off to the pub. So the Old Firm old boys know what it’s like to perform in front of sparse and disinterested crowds.
The exclusion of Mido, Mario Emnes and Didier Digard from Strachan’s 25-man squad for the season is more evidence of the former Coventry player-manager’s intent to fight their way out of the league. He has referred to the Championship as a test of character, rather than ability. Judging by this trio’s time on Teesside, they have an abundance of neither. It is also another indicator that this is now his Strachan’s squad. The fact that these three players cost £13 million combined is irrelevant; they do not fit what Strachan is building towards, and the club will be lucky to receive a tenth of their outlay for any potential suitors for these flops.
So with a deep squad, a manager with a point to prove and the backing of a long-suffering chairman in Steve Gibson, all signs point toward a Premier League return. There are plenty of potential rivals in an open league, but the flaws in the likes of Nottingham Forest, QPR and Leicester see are more plentiful and glaringly obvious then those on Teesside. Adding to this, the three relegated sides looked like Championship sides for the majority of last season, and will slide back in almost unnoticed. Should Boro go up, Strachan will have to rebuild again in order to maintain top-flight status. The thought of it will have his strawberry blonde locks turn to grey.