CAN BORO ever make the Great Leap Forward into the top six? Or will the weight of history, the resources at their disposal and the limitations of the potential crowd forever condemn them to bang their heads against the glass ceiling that prevents provincial upstarts from getting to the game’s top table? Worse still, will the force of football gravity pull them back into the abyss?
History – even recent history – is littered with the debris of clubs that got within touching distance only to be whisked away and cast back down into oblivion: Sunderland and Ipswich both broke briefly into the top group only to slip through the trapdoor within two years. Now Boro – UEFA Cup finalists less than 12 months ago – are anxiously looking over their shoulders at the cellar dwellers and hoping results go their way. Is top flight survival the best we can hope for? And does that constitute success?
One thing is certain: Boro are punching above their historical weight. In the all time top flight table Boro rank 20th they are behind Sheffield United, Wolves, Forest, Derby, Bolton, Blackburn, West Brom, Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland. Most supporters who grew up in the pre-Premiership days will know that. And they are just ahead of West Ham, Birmingham, Stoke, Leicester, Southampton and Coventry.
Yet in the all time Premier League table Boro are ranked 13th and are above a lot of those teams that historically have been above them. The modern era has seen Boro make a massive and significant advance of seven places in the pecking order and edge towards the top half.
In a flawed but generally well reasoned “big club” table weighted to give a ranking based on historic trophies and top flight status, Boro are rated 21st. Yet again in the shorter time frame Boro have made a massive improvement. They have won a trophy more recently that 16 of the teams above them. If the weighting system was done over the Premiership lifespan (and as we know football started in 1992) and if it included cup final appearances too then Boro would by in the top eight or possibly even top six.
The Riverside years have constituted a Golden Age without precedent. The wonder team of Wilfie Mannion won nowt. Charlton’s Champions swept to the second division title but stuttered and stagnated in the top flight. But the era driven forward by Steve Gibson has produced a flurry of previously unknown benchmarks: the first major national knockout final appearance, the first FA cup semi, the first final, three Wembley trips in 13 months, the first trophy win, the first campaign in Europe, the first qualification through the league, a UEFA Cup final, nine years out of ten in the top flight and an epoch of expectations raised beyond the wildest dreams of any sane individual that ever frequented Ayresome Park. That is all to be applauded.
But can that be sustained? The growing fear is that it can not. To escape the force of gravity you need momentum greater than the forces holding you back. For years the club undoubtedly had that momentum – the early days of the Riverside Revolution were marked by the wildest optimism imaginable and as the club moved to a plush new home and signed current English internationals, the Brazilian player of the year and a striker straight from scoring in the Champions League final. It seemed anything was possible. The sky was the limit for this Infant Hercules of a club and the success in cups seemed to confirm that.
As time has passed and the cavalier approach was replaced with fear filled scientific professionalism under McClaren the naive zealotry of the crowd has been corroded by reality and replaced by cynicism, defeatism and dreary resignation. And the artificially inflated expectations have become a burden. Now, for many, finishing 13th – Boro’s true historic level – is not good enough. After the peak of a seventh place finish, form in the bread and butter league games has collapsed. In successive season’s Boro have flirted with the relegation battle for long spells and punctuated pedestrian capitulations to the bottom sides with inexplicable successes against the elite to become a byword for inconsistency.
And it is not just down to cash and an inability to compete financially. Boro’s turnover in recent years has been in the top ten. A ÃÂ£50m plus turnover in 2004-05 puts them just outside the kind of figures being posted by Europe’s richest 20 clubs.
It comes down to momentum and there are several signs that that vital force is being lost. The crowd is one indicator, not just its declining size but also the matchday malaise and collapse in atmosphere and evaporation of belief and ambition. Another sign is the signals sent out by the club with ominous warnings that “Teesside will get the club it can afford” and an associated slashing of the wage bill and removal of deadwood (which is not a bad thing) and a failure to solve some glaring weaknesses in the squad in the last two transfer windows (which is).
The failure to invest may be underpinned by prudent financial reasoning – I for one believe clubs should control wages and money spent on transfers and agents’ fees – but it comes with a massive risk attached. Boro are a fragile side as the results when even just two or three first choice players are out illustrate. Without Mark Viduka and Jonathan Woodgate – two player who are no means certain to be here next term – Boro could have been in the bottom three right now and unless that lack of quality is addressed that may be the case next season.
The club have reached a watershed. There needs to be sweeping changes to the squad if it is to compete and that will take investment, and there needs to be a sea-change in the way the club interact with the crowd if they are to galvanise support, reinvigourate the Riverside Revolution and regain that crucial momentum. You need a lot of momentum to escape gravity.