THE REAL Strachanovite Revolution starts here. The single-minded gaffer has stamped his authority and philosophy on those that survived his Year Zero approach to the squad and has entered phase two of his radical rebuild of a tattered and demoralised club.
In January he brought in his own men, schooled in his methods and exacting standards of industry and application and ready to act as dressing room evangelists. He also used a revolving door rejig to bring in enough stop-gaps to get through the season. Now he is looking to complete the engineering of a team strong enough – physically and mentally – to secure promotion.
And already – with the transfer window open barely a week – the spine of his new side is visible. Look:
From what we have in place so far – assuming that the McManus deal, largely agreed by all parties barring some tinkering with the structure and timetable of the payments, goes through – this is how the team may well shape up. Feel free to tell me I’m a doyle, that team will get slaughtered and that I’ve forgotten Josh Walker.
The positions in brackets are the areas I believe remain unresolved – both full backs and both flanks aren’t nailed down by a long way – but the spine is firmly in place. And that is a good position to be at this stage of the season. We are usually still agonising about flaws in the spine on deadline day.
A recruitment drive that started months ago has quickly paid dividends as Strachan has got some key men in early. With the arrival of Kris Boyd to play up front alongside ex-Old Firm rival goal machine Scott McDonald he has a hand-picked front pairing of players he knows, trusts and firmly believes that given the right service will score the goals Boro have been so sorely lacking in recent years.
Strachan has reshaped the heart of the engine room with his main Barry Robson played in the position where he can most influence games and a driven, creative, energetic midfielder already proven in this league and with an eye for goals.
And at the back McManus and Wheater showed enough last trem to suggest they can be among the best central defensive pairings in the division, combining physical strength, height, a bit of nous and a willingness to put in a tackle.
Of the unresolved positions, the least worry is at right back. Tony McMahon was his prefered choice last year before injury but Justin Hoyte hinted towards the end of term that the grip of terror on his heart had eased a bit as he put in some good displays while Rhys Williams could yet make that slot his own. Any of those would do.
Left back remains a problem position. Jonathan Grounds can play there as can Andrew Taylor but you get the impression that neither is a fully paid up Strachanista and while Hoyte has filled in he was far from convincing. It could be that Hoyte and/or Taylor are eased out to fund a hand-picked man that ticks a lot more of the boss’s boxes.
Right wing is also a problem, but a different one. Gary O’Neil could easily make that position his own and if fully fit and motivated he may be an outstanding performer on the flank and a key factor in a successful promotion push. But O’Neil is a saleable asset, he is on Premier League money and has a string of admirers at clubs in the lower half of the top flight. Bolton, Blackburn, Birmingham… anyone that begins with ‘B’ basically … plus Fulham may all be tempted to make him a big time benchwarmer and it would be hard to see the club resisting the chance to cut the wage bill and fund some surgery elsewhere if the right offer came in.
If he were to go then ideally he would be replaced with a specialist more fitting the new austerity wage profile – Driver was mentioned earlier in the close season but that interest seems to have cooled somewhat – although Willo Flood or Jonathan Franks could fill in and do a more than respectable job.
I’ve put brackets on the left flank too, if only because Halliday is an unknown quantity. It is a big step up from Livingstone to the Championship (although Graham Dorrans managed it) and Strachan’s position seems to be that he is one with potential rather than a shoo-in starter. That could mean him competing for the position with Flood although again, ideally you want to see a seasoned specialist there if possible.
With a couple of tweaks that seems a strong enough starting line up and there is plenty of strength in depth. Assuming that the current interest in striker Gary Hooper and defender Craig Dawson is pursued – and we understand the club remain determined and confident on both, although the former could depend on unloading one of the current strikers first – and Rhys Williams bounces back quickly and Jason Steele steps up as second choice shot-stopper there could be a strong and versatile bench.
As well as the ones on the team sheet there are also Arca, Franks and Luke Williams and Lee Miller who featured last season who may be battling for a place.
The next looming pressing problem will be shipping out those who do not chime with the Strachan philosophy. Failed project Marvin Emnes has had trials in Germany and must be considered surplus to requirements while semi-detached Didier Digard has his agents working overtime in France looking for an exit strategy. Given the restorative properties of the Gallic air he remained fit and did well on loan back home last term so we have reason to be assume he will be offered sanctuary somewhere.
Mido’s people have also been busy with the fax – Lech Posnan and Brescia are among clubs who say they’ve been approached to stage a gig on the heavyweight Egyptian’s European roadshow – but short of using a low level loader it may be harder to move him on given his wages, his ‘challenging’ persona and a CV that boasts an enviable goal-a-club-a-year record since his star waned at Boro. We may need to take a big hit on wages and/or find a club not connected to the internet if we are to get rid of him.
Some people, mainly the deranged and the drunk, insist that if he could only get his head straight he would tear this division apart. Hmmmmm. I trust these eternal optimists are all engaged again after six messy divorces and a string of messy custody battles. Let’s be honest, he’s not going to change. We need to get rid… although if he does stay I would pay good money to watch when it all goes off with Strachan. And it will.
There are a few others who the club would no doubt sell given half a chance. Leroy Lita is on big money but is not a guaranteed starter – and I think it is fair to say he isn’t totally in tune with the Strachanovite ideals or mentality – and so must be regarded as effectively up for grabs if the club get an offer. He has a good goals record at this level (in fact, the best Championship strike rate of anyone at the club) so may attract some interest although any deal may take a bit of massaging to make the numbers add up.
Julio Arca must be in the same category too. He has two years left on Premier League money and while he got a lot of pitch time last season you can’t have a crazy situation where one of your biggest wage earners isn’t a first team fixture.
And Hoyte may be another on any secret list headed “will sell if get decent offer.” He will be on relatively big money having signed his deal when Boro were in the Premier League club having been lured from Arsenal, is not a sure-fire starter and is in a position where the club have plenty of adequate cover. Ditto Andrew Taylor. Apart from the Arsenal bit obviously. Whether the offers will come in is another matter.