THE LOAN window opens on Saturday. A week later Boro resume Championship combat at home to Ipswich. At some point between those two markers, Tony Mowbray must resolve the strange case of Scott McDonald.
He must either be moved on by some creative number-crunching that makes him a more attractive proposition to prospective employers or some compromise deal must be brokered that offers peace with honour and a return to the first team fold.
The current state of internal exile can not continue. We are not in a financial position to play games of brinkmanship with the top paid player.
We are not in a footballing position to overlook the services of a player who has proved he can score in the Championship.
And when a fledgling side is taking its first awkward steps amid some nervous muttering about shape and quality we can not afford the diversion of a political row backstage.
McDonald was never the most popular with the fans. He dropped far too deep, he missed too many easy chances and he was a feisty figure who liked a moan. It was suggested that he was finding it far harder to flourish in the Championship than against the like sof Dunfirmline. Far from being our striking saviour at times he took some terrace vitriol his goal-stats and relentless running did not warrant and the summer consensus among fans seemed to be that he had to be shipped out, and not just for economic reasons .
But he is about to get a major boost in standing with the internal opposition – including many who last term were denouncing him with relish – because as long as the sticky situation is allowed to fester, McDonald will be a handy stick to beat the manager and the club with after every shot-shy display and defeat.
The Aussie is the most prolific striker on Boro’s books, the best paid player in the squad and, barring injury, has been a first team fixture since Mowbray arrived.
And for all his weaknesses he has delivered: 27 goals in 82 starts and seven substitute outings over three seasons: that’s one goal every three, not bad in a team in transition, and one that have struggled to score for long spells .
In context, Marvin Emnes has scored 26 in 84 starts and 23 games from the bench while he has been at Boro (although in fairness, many of those have been from the wing). Ishmael Miller has got 26 in 67 starts and 71 as sub over five years. And Lukas Jutkiewicz has 21 in 80 games and 10 sub appearances in his Championship career.
McDonald has scored more in fewer games than anyone else on the books and is arguably the best – or at least most efficient – striker at the club since the halycon days of the Premier League. You have to go back to Viduka and Yakubu to find a striker with a one in three strike rate over the course of a season.
Yet, after playing and scoring in pre-season he has been left fully fit and brooding on the Rockcliffe naughty step since the campaign started in earnest.
Tony Mowbray insists there is “no Scott McDonald situation” and that it is down to the player to earn his place in the team. He says he is not being selected because others have earned a chance ahead of him. Publicly at least, the door remains open… “yes, the exit door” you may be tempted to add. Certainly, that is the perception.
But the door must remain open slightly. There has be a chink of light. Anything can happen in football and rarely does any manager or player burn their bridges publicly. Whatever the coded exchange of fire there is always a way back. It may take a massive injury crisis or, who knows, a complete change in direction, but football is primarily about expediency and results. There is always the possibility or reconciliation.
But unless it happens quickly Scott McDonald remains sat in the departure lounge. And to be fair, he’s getting quite comfortable there. Boro have tried and failed to move him on during the summer, a tough task given his prohibitive top flight wages and stubbornly second shelf performances and pedigree.
There were some suggestions of lucrative interest from Qatar but even if the tales were more than agent prompted media space-fillers he is not ready for the semi-retirement of the sandpit. And the stories have the advantage of allowing McDonald to shot down any notion that he is purely motivated by money.
There were recurring whispers of a beat-the-deadline return to Celtic that never materialised. He got a big wage rise to come here and no longer fits in their pay-scale even if there had been some substance to it.
Now, whatever the public line is, he has been banished into internal exile. He has yet to feature on a team-sheet this term despite the team’s still stuttering strike-force.
He never even made the 18 at Barnsley when there were no strikers on the bench, as strong a signal as the gaffer could possibly send. He was out of the reckoning. And with new signings coming in most fans were happy with that.
That position was fine so long as there was still a possibility of selling him – we didn’t want him injured – but with the sales window slammed shut and blunt Boro drawing a blank at Millwall the problem has been thrown into sharp focus.
Boro are currently still without Jutkiewicz (although he is back in full training) while Ishmael Miller is lacking sharpness after a fallow year at Nottingham Forest, Curtis Main is being eased in with cameos from the bench and Emmanuel Ledesma has at times struggled with the big step up from League One.
And for all the tweaking, Boro still lack a cutting edge. The manager and the players said as much after Millwall. In fact, Boro have yet to score in open play from inside the box this term. While the top scorer has been airbrushed out of the squad
And as long as McDonald remains in internal exile and as long as the team struggle to make the new attacking outlook count, he will be a festering political sore.
So why has Scott McDonald been left out in the cold?
The reasons could be footballing, financial or personal.
In footballing terms it may well just be a bold statement of intent from Mowbray. He has brought in his own players and has set out a new style and McDonald simply doesn’t fit.
Boro are trying to establish an template based on ball retention, slick passing and patient probing allied with quick breaks forward at pace down the flanks to cut open defences. As an adjunct to that they want to utilise a powerful, physical presence in and around the penalty box to hold up the ball while a speedy midfield buzz around looking to exploit the spaces created. That’s the plan.
And in truth, McDonald doesn’t fit either of those roles. He drops very deep – for long spells last term he was a de facto midfielder – and does not have the pace to break into the box from such withdrawn positions and often attacks would shift down a gear when he got the ball to carry it forward. Nor doe he have the physique to mix it with Land of the Giants defences that are the norm every other week in the Championship.
In that context McDonald wasn’t a shoo-in for the team not matter what the political impasse. In footballing terms he really doesn’t fit the new mould. Mowbray has long pencilled in Emnes and Jutkiewicz as his front pairing if he starts two up front with Ledesma and Miller their under-studies and Main as an alternative while if he switches to a three pronged Plan B, Carayol and Reach or Park have the right skill set to get a start either side of either Emnes or a targetman.
And if he has made a decision on footballing grounds, why would the boss change it so soon? Managers do not share the fans’ emotional kneejerk response to performances. Four wins out of six playing the new way, long spells that suggest a new style is emerging and plenty of goals shared around the team are emphatic reasons to stay the course.
In that context then, Mconald is well down the pecking order. And if it wasn’t for his wages it wouldn’t even be an issue. But for those shackles he would have slipped off the radar to reappear at Kilmarnock or Motherwell to general apathy. File under Aliadiere. Flood.
Ah yes, his wages. That thorny subject. While being the top earner – when in the team he is believed to be earning the thick end of £30k a week – could be a compelling argument that he must play no matter what, finances could equally be a reason why he should not.
Football wages are complex structures with layers of bonuses piled on top of the basic package. It may be that with appearance fees, win bonuses, goal bonuses and top ups triggered by Boro being in a certain position in the league, putting McDonald on the team sheet could cost more than the wages of several of the summer signings combined.
That’s not his fault of course. You can’t blame him for accepting the crazy wages handed out by the former management and endorsed by the club’s top brass, then convinced the Strachanovite project was a sure-fire short cut to the Premiership where such largesse could easily be offset. Boro thought the odds were stacked in their favour in the gamble.
Yet neither can you blame the club for trying to change tack and repair the damage. After the unsuccessful Strachan splurge applying rigorous cost control and cutting down bonus payments to a minimum makes sense, especially when they are being paid to player the manager has decided does not have a future in the squad.
It has happened before: Gaizka Mendieta was side-lined and frozen out and wasn’t even given a squad number in his final year. He dug his heels in as the club trying to flog him off behind the scenes and – even though the evidence of the previous season was that ‘his legs had gone’ – he became an icon in his absence, a political prisoner poster boy for the anti-Southgate, anti-Lamb opposition. Ray Parlour, Massimo Maccarone, Chris Riggott, were all ghostly presences at Hurworth, still clocking in diligently after slipping out of favour until their generous contracts ran down. And, as they say on the compilation albums, many many more.
And of course, there could also be personal reasons why McDonald has been edged out. That is seen as the key ingredient in the complex cocktail by the rumour mill, not least because Mowbray flogged McDonald at Celtic without too much hand-wringing.
Scott McDonald is a spiky character and would be the first to admit he likes a bit of a moan. He’s good at it. Alongside seething Scot Barry Robson the abrasive Aussie formed a powerful axis of aural angst on the pitch, often berating team-mates, himself and the bench at the slightest prompting and several times he stomped off in frustration shouting and pointing angrily at being substituted.
You can see him maybe feeling isolated at the exit of his Old Firm oppo, certainly voicing dissent at being told he wasn’t going to be a regular starter, probably being antagonistic over attempts to sell him. You can certainly see him making his feelings public, both to the manager, and perhaps in a more damaging and toxic way, to team-mates.
Again, that’s not his fault. That short-fuse is part and parcel of the snarling critical character we were told is key to his will to win and if he is to be part of the team then that needs to be managed carefully and channelled.
We’ve had plenty of stroppy strikers before and if they are in the team and scoring you can live with it: if they are not, and if their simmering threatens to disrupt an embryonic team spirit, or if a personality clash with the boss becomes a distraction you can see why they are put in semi-detached seclusion. Ask Bernie Slaven. He’s been there.
Whatever the reasons, they must be addressed swiftly. We can’t afford this to spill over into the next game and poison the potential of the season.
If McDonald is still here then and still not in the squad the club must come clean and explain exactly why. If they leave a vacuum on this, it will swiftly be filled with dark whispers, rumour, speculation and mischief making – and that has the potential to poison a season of potential.
**THIS is a Gulag vs In-da-Stiffz remix of this week’s Big Picture column