SO WHO will Boro be measured against this season? What is the yardstick of acceptable success? Above the soap opera side at Sid James’? Higher than serial Spurs seconds signing Sunderland? Closing the gap on the Man City side we spanked 8-1 on the final day? “Doing an Everton”? “Doing a Blackburn”? Or just one place above the newly promoted cannon fodder ?
Ironically, while the top and bottom of the table have become increasingly, boring predictable, the mid-table makeweights have been thrown wildly around in a spittle-flecked mosh-pit of mediocrity for the best part of a decade. Everton have flirted with relegation and touched the Champions League and no-one would bet against them being dragged back into the scrum this term. Bolton have soared to the cusp of the big time only to be sucked back down among the dead men. Villa, Spurs and Newcastle have vacillated wildly between being just outside the bottom six and just outside the top six in a series of false dawns. And Boro have been enmeshed in the flux too, going from highest ever Prem position and UEFA Cup qualification to a string of turgid water-treading terms that have tested the mettle of even the most ardent foam hander.
Throughout that rocky ride we have set subliminal pre-season targets, usually based on whichever of our peers raised eyebrows and their profile in the previous campaign by a temporary elevation. Given the turbulence in the table it is hard to quantify the target in terms of position and points. Far easier to simply pick a well performing peer that you expect to finish above and make that the mark.
There was time not long ago when Charlton were the model. Only two years ago we were having serious angst-ridden arguments over whether we could emulate Bolton. And elsewhere, hard as it may seem to believe now, as Steve McClaren’s side won the Carling Cup, finished seventh and swept erratically through Europe, we were the benchmark as others hoped their also-rans could ‘do a Boro’.
Maybe it is a reflection of the downsizing of our collective ambitions that most Boro fans will not see next season as being a serious challenge to match Aston Villa, Everton and Spurs, who two or three years ago we were marginally in front of despite their financial advantages. Nor even, for most, will it be about catching Manchester City and Portsmouth who back then we were well ahead of on and off the pitch.
No, this season will be about where we finish in relation to Newcastle and Sunderland, West Ham, Wigan and Blackburn. Pick any one of that group – Premier League Division Three – if you want to be more exacting in your benchmark this campaign.
The local angle is about more than just parochial pride but a reflection of the current status quo. Newcastle finished in 12th, one point and one place above Boro with Sunderland two places and three points behind. Newcastle have failed to strengthen and are hampered by a dysfunctional football management structure, a volatile boss and an owner who wears the shirt but appears keen to sell up. Sunderland – a glorified Championship side last term – have beefed up considerably and signed a string of players that have had their advocates among the Riverside crowd in recent years. The ÃÂ£50m plus they have spent in the past 14 months should show on the pitch this time round.
After staying up with the help of their briefs West Ham splashed out on a casualty ward full of perma-crocked ex-Magpies last term and were expected to be big players but faded into a dull grey anonymity in mid-table and need to improve dramatically or they could slip back to their natural status as yo-yo club this time while Wigan pulled off a great escape last term and have revamped their squad but still have Titus Bramble at the heart of their defence while so are far from safe and Blackburn, last term’s surprise package, have to bounce back from the departure of Mark Hughes and David Bentley and consolidate under top flight rookie Paul Ince while burdened with expectation and the haunted by the example of neighbours Bolton in how far it is possible to fall back in one traumatic season.
That the Premiership is now stratified so markedly is recognised by the bookies. The big firms that dominant the market know there is little attraction in betting on the top or bottom of the table and have now broken the division down into de facto mini-leagues. Most of their ante-post fixed odds coupons have “divisional betting” sections that break the league into distinct groups to make it interesting and attract the punters.
Going by the Corals coupon (it is the bookies at the Corra that I use but all the big boys have similar set-ups and prices) Boro are 7/2 to win ‘Group C’ with Blackburn (12/5), West Ham (12/5) just ahead and Sunderland (4/1) and Wigan (5/1) a bit adrift. They have promoted Newcastle to Group B alongside Everton, Villa, City and Pompey but have them trailing the best of the rest by some way.
It is hard to argue with that. Likewise in a section that pairs teams head-to-head in betting as to who will finsh higher (Man v Chelsea, Arsenal v Liverpool, Stoke v Hull etc) they have Boro at evens against Rovers as slight favourites at 8/11. Again, hard to argue. So Blackburn and Incey then as the team we need to beat. A more reassuring thought than being seen as squaring up against Mogga.