NAIL YOUR colours to the mast. Put your money where your mouth is. Read the runes, study the form, monitor the transfer market, consult the metrics of a wage curve spreadsheet, impose wishful thinking and little bit learning on the fixture list, go with that funny feeling in your waters or get a pin-sticking infant to pick at random.
Any method you use to predict the Championship could be better than following the bookies odds in the most erratic division division in European football
Last term, of the top 15 favourites with the expert odds compilers ONE got promoted. One got relegated. And one was Boro! Draw your own conclusions from that. That and the still smarting thought that after the great £10m summer spending spree and Great Strachanovite Jockification Boro were red hot favourites to walk the league. And we all know what happened then.
Last season’s Oddschecker prices looked like this:
Leicester City 7/1
Nottingham Forest 12/1
Sheffield Wednesday 22/1
Bristol City 66/1
Crystal Palace 80/1
Champions Cardiff looked a reasonable bet (if you weighed up the money they were spending against the turmoil of trashing the clubs history and identity and colours for a marketing device) but second placed Hull were 33/1 and play-off winners Palace – who had finished 17th the season before – were a 80/1 long shot. A lot of daft quid “delusional”,”foam-fingered ra-ras” cashed in big style. And good for them. Wild eyed optimism in fans deserves to be rewarded once in a while.
But we can’t draw too many lessons. Especially from how the bookies size it up. One angst ridden Holgate veteran berated me unsolicited in the milk aisle in Asda because Bournemouth – BLOODY BOURNEMOUTH! – were better priced than us for promotion!
The one thing we know from the last few seasons is that every team, every game, every week is in a permanent chaotic state of coupon busting flux. It is a crazy division that should have “fine margins” as its official motto. We know that it is not quality, excitement or magic that will decide the promotion and play-off places but boring functional consistency and grinding out results when you are not playing well, preferably in the second half. It is a division that is impossible to call.
But call it we must. It is in your nature and cultural DNA as a football supporter to make sweeping pre-season statements. And its in my job description. So, shrug off the weight of despondency and apathy and focus on the campaign to come.and make some tentative predictions. If you want to look at this season’s title odds here they are.
For my part, I don’t share the widespread sense of impending doom. Yes, the sluggish recruitment drive has been frustrating and is far from ideal. But few other teams have spent much money in what has been a cautious summer and a stagnant market in the shadow of the impending Financial Fairplay limitations. And the relegated team have their internal destructive dynamic to deal with. And in QPR’s case, Joey Barton too.
And the signing Boro have made have been exactly the kind of solid additions needed. Not fringe players and bodies to make up the numbers but physically and mentally strong first teamers. A few more of those – and there is a month to go.
As it stands Boro have a good first XI when fit and a decent if not spectacular bench, That can be said for most Championship sides. The key could be keeping the most important players fit and they have taken action in that by recruiting specialist fitness and conditioning coaches with a reputation for shrewd management of recovery and rehabilitation. It is about marginal gains. Fine margins. Professionalism. Of course, the proff is in the pudding and many of the more cynical won’t believe it until they see Boro turn out the same side on the spin through a solid run of victories.
I understand fans’ fears and frustrations – but I don’t understand the Apocalyptic vision of imminent implosion and a relegation battle. There is nothing to fear in a division of flawed teams packed with inconsistent players. We have seen year after year that whatever the bookies and pundits predictions – and supporters’ fears – the Championship is an attritional scrum in which any team can flourish and succeed. No one gave Burnley, Swansea, Blackpool or Palace a chance in August.
Boro need a good start and a spark to ignite the passions of a simmering crowd and burn off the cloud of negativity. They need to find a shape that works, some consistency, some self belief and some momentum. And I think they can do it. They have a point to prove. As does the manager. He needs to be confident and assertive in his selections of squad and system. And he needs to be lucky. He needs to get off to a winning start to head of incipient dissent and get the ground and team buzzing.
Yes, I am by nature an optimist, Or at least, not a pessimist. And certainly not a miserabilist. I don’t believe every other team is a mighty force to be feared, a legion of crack players far better than our own puny weaklings. They are limited too.
If Boro are organised, motivated and – crucially – if the club is united then the play-offs are possible. I know they are fairly big ‘ifs’. Of course they are. It is the nature of the beast. So sod it, I’m tipping Boro to be up there and challenging. Put me down for a late surge to finish sixth. Or seventh.
That is not because I am filled with unbridled enthusiasm. I’m not. Some of the prevailing pessimism has seeped in by osmosis. But I do think come September 2nd when the window shuts Boro will have stronger team that they do now. A stronger team than they had last year. And that is the key. Stronger, more experienced and with a few of the flaws ironed out. And that’s all you can do on a budget.
We may not quite make it; let’s face it, as well as the parachute powered big boys there are maybe 10 teams with the same capacity, ambition, resources and targets as Boro and if will be a battle to get past them. But I think we can finish strongly, tick a lot of boxes and make serious progress ready for the next Great Leap Forward. That Groundhog Day tape loop existence on the teasing edge of ambition is the natural state for a team like Boro now. There is always next year. Unless we throw a double six this time. Who knows? Not me, that’s for sure..
But there are some things I would like to see:
The emergence of a hero: I want to go to matches believing there is a creative player who can be a genuine match-winner, who can spread a bit of magic and inspire hope and optimism with pace or trickery or zest or something. Muzzy, come on down.
A trademark celebration: After years of shot-shy sitter squandary it would be electrifying to see a player go on red hot streak, to foster hero worship, chanting and an instantly recognisable bi-weekly victory dance.
A miserly defence: how good would it be to put together a run of clinical clean sheets. Four, five, six shut-outs on the spin. More. Several times. Let’s build a reputation for a water-tight defence, home and away.
A new kop culture: Iet’s put the post-Premiership relegation hangover aside, stop feeling sorry for ourselves and find a new proud defiance, either spreading from the new South Stand noisy seats and the Red Faction or fostered in the new Twe12th Man bar in the North Stand. Or at away games. Or from the West Stand. Wave your tartan blankets. Let’s start to enjoy games unconditionally again.
A new generation of beaming fans: the club have been brave in creating the new family zone and invested a lot of time and money in it. They have taken a big hit financially as family groups have moved from other more expensive areas to take advantage of ridiculously cheap prices. Face paint, jugglers, art, mascots, Play Stations and popcorn may not be everyone’s idea of matchday culture but it is all geared towards nurturing the next generation of life long loyalists. We need them. Encourage them. Indulge them. Wink. Ruffle their hair when you pass them. It would be nice to make the Guardian’s family friendly list next season.
A new unity: We’ll get nowhere as a club so long as we are divided amongst ourselves, fan v fan, fan v manager and owner… yes, there is a symbiotic thing and we need the team to deliver on the pitch to provide a spark. And the club to actively try to engage with fans in and honest and transparent way too. But we also need fans to drop the default cynicism and meet the club halfway.
That’s what I want, think and believe. And hope. And wish. But it’s that time of the year. Who knows, Marvin might have his head on. Now its over to you….