BORO’S decision to let Barry Robson go has been met with some raised eyebrows.
The battling Scot has been probably Boro’s second most important player over the past 12 months (after fellow Titian terrier and midfield linchpin Nicky Bailey) and a key component of the steady – if currently stuttering – momentum of the Mogganaut.
He consistently offers determination, experience, drive, steel and goals in midfield and displays exactly the fierce will to win needed to win games in an attritional grind of a division. So why have Boro not put up a fight to keep him at the Riverside?
Robson has been a massive player over the past 12 months. He is combative, industrious and radiates an intense will to win just this side of scary. The shark-eyed schemer adds relentless drive and bite and an attacking instinct to an otherwise mono-paced and conservative midfield unit and has contributed a string of important goals.
He has scored eight in 26 starts so far this term including a rocket to seal a vital last gasp win on Boxing Day against fellow play-off hopefuls Hull – voted Boro’s best strike of 2011 in a twitter straw poll – and the cracking low angled strike in the first FA Cup derby clash away at Sunderland.
We’ll over-look the dropped blob soon after that conceded the leveller at the Stadium of Light and also the flurry of yellow cards spread liberally in his furious stomping, snarling wake as a neccessary by-product of his robust approach to the game.
There is no doubt that Robson has been a vital ingredient in the mix as Tony Mowbray has turned a relegation bound shell of a side into play-off contenders in just over a year.
And, equally, there is every reason to believe that, even at 33, he has the legs, energy and motivation to command a place in the engine room next season too, certainly if Boro remain in the Championship.
So why have Boro agreed to let him leave for semi-retirement in the relative football backwater of Canadian MSL side Vancouver Whitecaps?
It’s the economy, stupid! Robson is one of Boro’s top paid players. Releasing him eases the financial binds on Mogga’s wrists a touch.
Boro had an option to extend his current deal for a further year but have decided not to exercise it and instead Robson has signed a pre-contract deal for two years in Vancouver. You can’t blame him for that: it will be a wonderful lifestyle for his family, he has managed to get a pay-rise and he has secured a two year deal which would have been unlikely in England and a non-starter in Scotland.
In an ideal world Boro may well have wanted to trigger that extension clause and keep Robson for at least the extra year on his existing terms.
But it is not an ideal world. Far from it. Boro remain a club with an acute awareness of the need to balance the books. It may slip out of supporters’ consciousness between transfer windows but the message from the club over the prudent recent past has been consistent. The unchallenged exit of Robson is a stark reminder of that.
The financial wallpaper to Tony Mowbray’s tenure has been radical wage-cutting, squad-trimming and an age of austerity and rummaging through the bargain bin. Yes, Boro spent £1.5m on Lukas Jutkiewicz in January but that was money squirrelled away in August and funded by summer departures and even then the deal took some massaging to complete. Not much has fundamentally changed.
That deal may have prompted some to believe that the financial strait-jacket had been eased off and that Boro could tentatively edge back towards the shopoholic excesses of the past. No chance.
While the wage bill is now said to be ‘under control’ there is still very little wriggle room – hence the need to shuffle Stephen McManus – experienced, physical, imposing and very useful defensive cover even if no long part of the first choice pairing at the back – out on loan and help ease the exit of Tarmo Kink in a mutual termination specifically in order to free up funds to finance the “wow factor” loans expected to arrive soon.
And that prevailing economic climate is the most pertinent factor in the exit of Robson.
It’s nothing personal. It is just a case of bad timing. Robbo represents the tail end of a millstone blip in the wages curve that helped bring Boro to the brink of financial meltdown and which the club have been anxiously addressing over the past two years.
He arrived for £1.5m as Gordon Strachan was throwing money around in the last hurrah of ‘big spending Boro’ in an ill-fated and short-sighted Jockification of the club. The £10m splurge on the Strachanovite revolution involved investing heavily in top flight fees and wages for the clutch of his chosen players that were intended to bridge the cross-border culture gap and fired by an Old Firm winning habit, carry Boro into the Premier League.
It was a strategy costed on the basis of Boro being promoted. Chris Killen and Willo Flood came in on relatively little money and Andy Halliday as next to nothing as one for the future but Robson, Scott McDonald, Kris Boyd, Kevin Thomson all signed well padded deals that had one eye on the Premier League. They arrived on top flight wages the club can’t realistically afford to carry anymore.
Any and every opportunity to unload one of those big earners must be grabbed.
Again, it is nothing personal. In an ideal world a flush club could comfortably afford a striker scoring one in three on £30k a week. Ish. In this division they can’t. Or an injury-dogged midfielder watching most games from the stand on on £15k or so. They remain on-going financial problems that the club need to manage, either by making sure they are delivering on the pitch or by somehow moving them on as they did with Boyd.
In that context Robson represents decent value for money at round about £15k a week. Give or take. It’s a lot of money but he has an impact on most of the games he plays. He has been effective, consistent and is a driving force in midfield plus he chips in with goals – but he is out of contract and that represents a golden opportunity to make a wages saving and recycle that into the budget elsewhere in an unbalanced team.
Talking about what players earn is always guess work and back of fag packet stuff, but it is safe to assume that Robson is among the best paid at Boro (although nowhere near the bloated Midoesque wages of the past) – and crucially, right up near the top end of the pay scale for Championship midfielders. That makes him expensive – and expendable.
The bottom line is that if Boro are not promoted then, even if they really wanted too, they could not realistically extend his current deal for another year while if – and it remains an elephant sized if – they go up then Mowbray will embark on extensive renovations and put down foundations for the future. It is hard to see Robson, who will turn 34 over the course of the campaign, being seen as a viable part of any revamp in the Premier League.
And if Boro remain in the Championship those wages can be directed elsewhere as part of a more far-reaching revamp. Robson will have known that. Mowbray is extremely honest and honourable in his dealing with the players and there will have been no attempts to string him along with talk of looking at the situation in the summer. And in the same spirit of openness, Mowbray will have no problem with his player signing a pre-contract with another club, nor fears that he will not perform. There can be no question of Robson’s focus or commitment wavering. I don’t think he does half-hearted.
Arguably the impending exit has already helped the club tie up Rolls Rhys Williams – a far more important piece of the long term Boro rebuilding project – on an improved and extended new deal. The redistribution of a slice of Robson’s project wage may well have decisively swung the balance on Williams new four and a half year deal.
And there will be more down-sizing and redistribution of wages as the club continue their restructure in the summer. This is a division where outside a handful of marquee players at a handful of clubs still burdened with the legacy of a top flight wage bill, player contracts average ‘just’ a few thousand quid a week now.
The Championship is packed with players who would improve Boro in every department, who would add athleticism, height, pace, width, guile and tenacity. Every shade of the skill-set needed in the comprehensive coaches’ palette is out there. And at a wage far below the top end of Boro’s uneven pay-scale.
In almost every game we see electric performances against Boro. In every game we see players who would walk into the current team Check out the players who we list in the “sign him on” box in the match graphic, who could do a fantastic job here – Jay Rodriguez of Burnley, Matt Phillips at Blackpool, Kazenga LuaLau of Brighton, Billy Sharp at Doncaster, Lewis McGugan at Forest, Adam Federici at Reading, Wilfried Zaha at Palace and Sammy Clingan at Coventry are among recent nominees – and who are all on a fraction of the toxic wages the club have been burdened with.
Getting to a team made up of those players, who we may want but can’t afford while we are still whacked up to the max, from the one we have one made up of players who we may not want but who no-one else can afford, is the biggest obstacle to Mowbray’s ability to shape his own team playing his game to his vision.
The departure of Robson will be part of a major attack on that restrictive differential.
He is just one of several in the current squad who will find their current lucrative deals ending very soon who can expect any new offers to be massively downsized.
Take Justin Hoyte. He has his critics – or #haters in twitterspeak – and it is true he is no Ashley Cole but he has a nice first touch, a turn of pace and an ability to over-lap that has enabled Boro to utilise a wing-backs system to effect.
He is a perfectly adequate Championship full back – but he is on Premier League money. He signed to replace Luke Young for £3m from mighty Arsenal. He had Champions League experience. He will not have come cheap. He probably came on close to £20k a week and possibly had built in annual pay rises in the deal.
Again, he is certainly among Boro’s top paid players. Think of a number. It is not totally inconceivable that some weeks he is paid ten times what the opposition full-back is on. Yet it would be easy to compile a lost of prospective possible replacements. He is out of contract in the summer and has next to no chance of being offered even a third of what he is on now. Either here or elsewhere.
Fellow right-back Tony McMahon is in a similar position. His current deal was signed when he was a Premier League player. Admittedly a fringe player but he had been a regular in the squad and had played in the UEFA Cup. He will have been on a decent wedge. Probably around the £10k mark. Give or take. Certainly he will be among the best paid in his position in the Championship. He too is out of contract in the summer.
The boss may want him to stay – but not on the same money.
Both of those may well be made new offers but if they are to stay they may need to “do an Arca” and take a substantial pay cut that brings them down from the stratospheric salaries of the top flight to the harsh – ha! – realities of this division.
Then there is the thorny problem of Matthew Bates, a problem that both parties have agreed to defer until the summer when Boro know what division they will be in, what players they can move on and what is in the kitty for wage adjustments before they make an offer for the skipper.
So the issues raised by Robson’s move will be revisited in spades over the summer when once again the pressing need will be on the need to move on players earning wages out of synch with the economic realities of the Championship.
Robson’s skill-set will be missed – but he and the others who are ushered through the out door can be replaced. Hopefully with better. It’s not like we are Barcelona.
And the movement will give Mogga the financial freedom to re-engineer his side properly for the first time, to give him the tactical flexibility to play his philosophy football.