Seeds of optimism among the ashes
SO, after weeks of delaying the inevitable, that is finally that. There will be no late push for the play-offs, no uplifting trip to Wembley, no dramatic promotion to the Premier League. Middlesbrough will spend a second season in the Championship, and after a campaign that, in its own way, has been every bit as depressing and demoralising as the one that preceded it, they have no cause for complaint about their fate. In truth, their play-off dream has been dying a painfully slow death for a number of months now, but it was fitting that the final nail was applied to the coffin at the Hawthorns, the home of the side that finished one place below them last season. While West Brom, like Newcastle, have made light work of reclaiming a Premier League place, Middlesbrough have continued to slip backwards at an alarming speed. Is the current side worse than the one that was relegated on the final day of last season Undoubtedly. Given the departure of Tuncay Sanli, Robert Huth and Adam Johnson, it is also significantly inferior to the team that started the current campaign. Is the club in a better financial position, given the savage cuts to the wage bill that have been inflicted in the last 12 months Probably, although it is fanciful to imagine there will be massive expenditure this summer even if a number of senior players depart. Is there any cause for optimism ahead of a season that will arguably be Middlesbrough's most important for more than two decades, given the lack of another parachute payment if promotion is not achieved That is the question that will be exercising supporters, players and management during a pivotal summer. I'm not frustrated about the fact we're not going up, said a prickly Gordon Strachan, after goals from Simon Cox and Roman Bednar left Boro seven points behind sixth-placed Swansea City with just two games of the season to play. We've not been good enough to go up this season. There's lots of work to do this summer, and we need to do lots of strengthening. That doesn't necessarily mean I have to sign lots of players, we just need to strengthen. That might mean strengthening the players we've got, or it might mean bringing people in. Either way, major improvements are necessary if Boro are to improve on a season that has seen them claim just one win from the 13 matches they have played against the seven sides currently above them in the table. An inquest into what has gone wrong could take weeks, and the starting point for the decline could go back as far as the FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Cardiff City, the ill-advised arrival of Afonso Alves, or even the decision to appoint Gareth Southgate as Steve Mc- Claren's successor, despite a lack of previous managerial experience. Ultimately, though, one date stands out. When Steve Gibson decided to sack Southgate on October 20, 2009, he effectively drew a line through the current campaign. The statistics have become well worn Boro were in fourth position when Southgate was sacked and trailed joint-leaders Newcastle and West Brom by just a point, a position they have never come close to recapturing since and a debate still rages about whether the Teessiders would have claimed a play-off place had Gibson not swung the axe. We were fourth in the table when I arrived, but we were also two points away from tenth, said Strachan on Saturday night. It's not as clear cut as it might look. We were two points away from tenth then, and I think we're probably round about that area now. So in one sense, nothing has changed. Yet while Boro's proximity to mid-table has remained unaltered, everything else at the club changed irrevocably the moment Strachan was confirmed as Southgate's successor. The playing personnel were shuffled constantly, with Strachan clearly not rating a host of players he inherited and opting to bring in a cabal of tried-and-tested Scottish Premier League players during the January transfer window. Boro's playing style did not suit the Scot's footballing ethos, and a side that had been designed by Southgate to adopt a quick-passing, counter-attacking methodology was suddenly told to transform itself into a unit of hardworking, safety-first foot soldiers. Rip it up and start again' was the aim; fine if you have a pre-season programme in which to get your new instructions and ideas across but hopeless if you're trying to enact change in a league as relentless and competitive as the Championship. Boro claimed nine points from Strachan's first 13 matches in charge, a dreadful return that ultimately explains why they will eventually fall five or six points short of a play-off place. It would be wrong to blame the Scot for such a wretched spell, as he clearly needed time to assess and alter a squad that had major defects. Instead, the blame must fall squarely on the Middlesbrough hierarchy. If Southgate was going to go, he should have gone last summer. By October, it was much too late to make a change. There are lots of reasons why we are where we are and Middlesbrough are not, said West Brom boss Roberto Di Matteo. The expectations are always high when you come down from the Premier League, and I think my players have handled that well. But they changed their manager halfway through the season, and it is never easy when that happens. I think maybe it had an effect. It did, and by the time Strachan had started to assemble something approximating the core of a squad to take forward, it was already too late to mount a credible promotion push. For all that they were comprehensively outplayed on Saturday Boro did not record a single shot on target all game and were grateful for goalkeeper Brad Jones, who made six impressive saves to keep the deficit down it is worth remembering that the defeat ended an eight-game unbeaten run. Had Strachan been able to generate that kind of form from the start of his reign, it is doubtful Boro would be as low as they are in the table. Therefore, despite Saturday's surrender, there are reasons for cautious optimism as the summer draws near. In Barry Robson and Scott McDonald, Boro have signed two players who will be among the leading figures in the league next season. Strachan has already made his side much harder to beat, and has pledged to do all he can to keep David Wheater at the Riverside. With Jeremie Aliadiere, Emanuel Pogatetz and Chris Riggott all set to leave as their contracts expire, there will be money for limited rebuilding once the transfer window reopens. But Saturday showed how far there still is to go. For large chunks of the game, it looked as though West Brom were in a different league to the side that accompanied them into the Championship last May. Now, come August, they will be.
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