IS IT TIME for some tough decisions at cash-strapped Boro? With January looming and the smoke signals from Hurworth suggesting there is very little in the transfer kitty, Boro may well be forced to sell before they can buy.
Will the top brass bite the bullet and cash in some of the very few prizes assets to recruit the firepower desperately needed if we are to avoid the drop? And if so, who?
Quizzed about the glaring need for reinforcements on January 1st beleaguered boss Gareth Southgate revealed that while he is mentally drawing up his Fantasy Football team, watching players and writing his wish list complete with Argos catalogue page and item numbers for Santa (the source of the leak about Ronaldinho?), he is realistic enough to know that he is actually going to get socks, some smellies and a pair of cuff-links in his stocking. Or maybe Paul Dickov if he has been really good.
Southgate will have chilled the hearts of many supporters when he warned the Gazette that any players coming in may not arrive until the final week of the transfer window and that shot-shy Boro could have to trudge on with what they have got – a relegation haunted squad that has been found woefully inadequate – until February. Early bids are rarely successful he said, even when you have done the spade work before the window opens, as rivals teams don’t want to let good players go. Even if they are willing to sell it is usually at an initially inflated price but if you hold your nerve and keep a poker face then the level of resistance and the price starts to fall as the window starts to close.
We know that Boro do not have the cash to launch a fully funded recruitment drive. As revealed last week, the most recently published financial results reported a ÃÂ£13m loss in the year that ended with the UEFA Cup final. Since then all the signs have been that Boro are heading at full steam towards “a team Teesside can afford” with squad numbers being reduced, wage bills being trimmed, Keith Lamb outlining a more austere era of lower cost bases and lower expectations, and even long term senior staff like Graham Fordy being axed as part of what was described as a ‘corporate structural review.’
Now the boss has taken to using the time worn phraseology that rings alarm bells about not being able to compete with the big boys and having to ‘cut our cloth’ , a mantra that should have been translated into latin and inscribed on the new badge.
Perhaps more interestingly and potentially more revealing the boss also threw in for the first time that Boro may have to sell before they could buy or pursue some more colourful purchasing strategies. He admitted he wanted to make wholesale changes and told the Gazette:
Ã¢ÂÂYou want to try to change every aspect as much as you can but we are competing with the big boys in the transfer market and we will have to be more creative. I have some idea of what I have got and we will have to be creative, but we might have to raise some money. I am comfortable with that. I know we have not got a lot to play with. ThatÃ¢ÂÂs why I’m bringing younger players through.Ã¢Â?
The heavily weighted words there that should trigger the alarms are “raise some money” and “creative”. That screams out that he may have to sell before he can buy the striker he needs to save our top flight status, or possibly use current established players as bait to land new faces, as sweetener to persuade their clubs to sell or swap.
Which begs the question: which Boro players would raise any substantial fees or be enticing enough to tempt clubs into trading? Sadly, the quickly realisable assets are very few, an indictment of Boro’s scouting and purchasing policies in recent years. There are no fringe players who Boro can cash in, no journeymen pros in the stiffs who can “do a job” for another Premiership or solvent Championship club for a few million, no bench-warmers that are coveted by middle-ranking clubs looking to plug gaps of their own. Most of them – Nemeth, Job, Maccarone, Parnaby – left on free transfers as part of the squad trimming and weren’t replaced.
And most of the youngsters will raise very little or are indispensable – David Wheater is out of contract in the Summer, Andrew Taylor is the first choice left back, all bar one of the rest are bit part players who are very unlikely to attract suitors – and besides, the publicly stated policy of the club is that the Academy production line is the future of the club.
Which leaves Southgate having to face up to some big decisions. The only realistic assets that will raise big money quickly are Stewart Downing, Jonathan Woodgate and Adam Johnson – dare he bite the bullet and take the political risks inherent in selling the most high profile current players or the hottest young prospect to fund a move for a marksman?
Who else would raise big money and fast? At a glance you may get:
Schwarzer – ÃÂ£250,000 – out of contract and out of form … and would need replacing.
Luke Young ÃÂ£2m – money back fairly easily … but would need replacing.
Chris Riggott – ÃÂ£1.5m with a good wind behind him.
Andrew Taylor – ÃÂ£2m to the right buyer… but would need replacing.
Rochemback – hard to see an English side taking the chance and his wages rule out Portugal.
George Boateng – age and wages probably rule out profitable sale.
Julio Arca – ÃÂ£2.5m – easy to sell … not so easy to replace for that money.
Mido – unsellable while crocked.
Lee Dong Gook – unsellable for a fee.
Gary O’Neill – inconceivable the boss would sell his best buy.
Lee Cattermole – ÃÂ£1m – the energetic rough diamond and mooted future Boro captain is a great prospect, but right now? He may attract Championship interest.
Pogatetz – ÃÂ£2m – would sell, but is a battler when we really need one and cover at left back.
Aliadiere – ÃÂ£2m – would sell, but is brightest spark going forward.
Tuncay – ÃÂ£3-4m – would maybe sell, but wages probably rule out return to obvious buyers in Turkey.
Which leaves who exactly? Stewart Downing has long attracted envious glances from other clubs. Spurs are perennial stalkers and Everton have registered an interest while Manchester City have also had a sniff. Forget the boo boys – Boro and England – and any concerns about a currebt dip in form: if Stewy became available there would be no shortage of takers for a natural left footer who has pace and a pin-point delivery. He may shine on a bigger stage and arguably in career terns it is the right time for him to move on.
There has been talk of the local lad being unhappy at getting a chicken run roasting this term – after all he is the top scorer, the assist king and the first Teessider at the World Cup since Alan Peacock so is a legitimate target. It was denied but stories like that in the national press cause ears to prick up and big clubs will have been running the rule over him. He would be snapped up quickly for ÃÂ£8m and if Boro could contrive a bidding war he could raise significantly more.
That could tempt Boro – especially with Tuncay able to play on the left and young guns Adam Johnston waiting in the wings.
Jonathan Woodgate has had a slow start to the campaign and after missing pre-season has struggled to hit the imperious heights of last season when his weekly excellence made his ÃÂ£7m fee seem a bargain. But last term he had big goals to aim at: proving his fitness, resurrecting his reputation, reclaiming his England place and earning a move away from Madrid after Real decided he had no future there. He achieved all those but it seems this term he has yet to find a new challenge to motivate himself to reach his highest standards.
But without question there would be takers. There will be clubs and managers who believe he can soon be brought up to speed and playing back at his best. And they are probably right. Woody at his best is a class act and his fitness record over the past two seasons is better than John Terry. The demands of two games a week in the Big Four may be beyond him but the second ranked clubs would want him: you could see a bidding war developing between Spurs, Man City, Portsmouth, Everton and Newcastle which could see Boro get their money back.
Again that could tempt Boro, especially as Huth and Pogatetz are fit again and Wheater has been a revelation. With those, Riggott and maybe Matthew Bates available again before the end of the window it could be a position Boro feel they have adequate cover in.
More importantly the pair could prove compelling bargaining chips in ‘creative’ swap deals. Woodgate for Newcastle’s Ameobi and N’Zogbia is not beyond the realms of possibility and bot the valuations and wages would probably stack up. Nor is Downing for Defoe or Keane at Spurs too hard to imagine. I’m sure everyone on Planet Boro could come up with similar deals of equal weight, cost and probability. It may be the best way forward. It may be the only way forward as getting cash for them is no guarantee of being able to invest effectively and if other clubs won’t release the players we need we will have money burning a hole in our pockets as we go down.
The only other viable exit is Johnson. He is wanted badly by Watford, runaway Championship leaders and with one eye on next year’s Premiership pot already, where he made a dramatic impression on loan scoring and making goals in a confident side. With other clubs no doubt having taken note and ready to join the bidding the auction may nudge up to ÃÂ£4-5m… but would that be enough to fund the forward Boro have in mind? And would it send the wrong signals?
Selling to buy can be effective. Bryan Robson reshuffled the pack in 1997 as he cashed in Juninho to Atletico Madrid for ÃÂ£12m and Ravanelli to Marseilles for ÃÂ£5.5. That balanced the books and paid for the high-risk master-stroke that was Paul Merson, the creative force that ensured an instant return to the top flight, and left a bit in the pot to splash out later. That strategy was vindicated by the instant promotion.
But selling can also be the kiss of death. If you sell off your best players and bring in worse ones you are on a slippery slope to struggling with a lower skills base and with fewer assets you have less room for maneovere . In the 1981 post-Wolves spiral of decline Charlie Amer started selling off the brightest and the best in the Great Ayresome Sports Hall Bring and Buy Sale that was the source of the stench of death that enveloped the club in an advanced state self-imposed paralysis and just waiting for the liquidators.
Last week we were looking through the entrails of the club’s history for parallels with the current situation. Those who see echoes of the ill-fated 1981-82 Bobby Murdoch reign will be terrified by the notion of Boro selling off their best home grown talent and their long term prospects just to plug gaps in a self-defeating bout of short-termism.
But desperate times demand desperate measures. Now, Lot One, what am I bid for this locally produced young England international? Shall we start with one Robbie Keane? An Ameobi sir…. one Ameobi at the back to the fat lad in the replica shirt… do I hear a Samaras?