JUST as thoughts turn to the summer shake-up, the PFA have published a handy bargain basement shopping list.
At their annual penguin-suited back-slapping beano and beard-fest, the professionals in each division have voted for the best of their peers and their toughest opponents over the course of the campaign. And the players have handily even arranged them by position.
For a prudent club looking to cherry-pick cheap talent from the lower tiers that’s practically a catalogue. The only thing missing is a price guide.
But forget the glossy sexy football big brand product at the front. We can’t even dream of anyone in the Premier League team. Those days are long gone.
Any Boro fans who think we still we have a Harrods loyalty card are deluding themselves. We aren’t quite at the food bank yet but the gap is now massive and even a competitively resourced Championship club like Boro are strictly high street value brand.
Even the bottom shelf of the top flight is well out of reach now. Even if we could afford the fee (we can’t) the wages even for a journeyman bench-warmer are prohibitive. We can’t even afford Sunderland players!
And we probably won’t even be buying anyone from the Championship line-up either. Wise up – they are all well out of our belt-tightened austerity price range now too. Most of the coveted players in the Championship select XI are Premier League bound – either because their team has won promotion or because the big boys are already in advanced contract footsie.
Leicester trio Kaspar Schmeichel, Wes Morgan and Danny Drinkwater would walk into the Boro side as would Burnley men Danny Ings, Jason Shackell and Kieran Trippier.
But they will be in the top flight next term so, even if they were realistic targets last summer – and Boro had a nibble at Ings – are now unattainable. For Boro anyway. Although some established Premier League side may be lining up a summer hijack.
Derby duo Craig Bryson and Will Hughes may make it up through the play-offs. But even if they don’t they will no doubt be nailed down to new contracts as their clubs beef up for another crack and to fend off the vultures, or they will snapped up by top six rivals with more cash or those that come down as a bulwark against culture shock.
Boro could probably afford left-back Aaron Cresswell from cash-strapped Ipswich but if he was up for grabs there would other, richer suitors. Even if he didn’t go to the Premier League there are clubs in the Championship – or joining soon – that could out-bid and out-pay Boro.
And Ross McCormack? That boat has gone. Boro were teased and strung along during a behind-the-scenes Elland Road power struggle last August while his agent neatly played both ends off against the middle.
Steve Gibson was ready to max out the credit card and sanction a £2.5m package back then. But McCormack has rattled in 25 goals this term in a poor side, has attracted Premier League interest (he snubbed Cardiff on deadline day but was set for West Ham had time not run out) and his price-tag and wage demands have probably doubled.
So Boro will be flicking through the pages towards the back and looking down.
Aitor Karanka will be casting his data-based scouting net far and wide across Europe this term looking for technically adept unpolished diamonds while fledgling link-ups with Atletico Madrid and an informal relationship with Jose Mourinho could also bear fruit.
But Boro are also keen to bring in a new hard core of physically and mentally strong used to the demands of the English game and who are fit for purpose in Karanka’s high pressing, high-intensity 4-2-3-1 formation.
They want players who are hungry for success, who will sit nicely in the squeezed wage profile and will who have a Moneyball resale value a few years down the line. That means more signings like Mustapha Carayol, a £200,000 buy from Bristol Rovers and £100,000 bargain George Friend from Doncaster,
At a push there may be a few strategic well-wadded dips into League One in the manner of the £1m paid out for Albert Adomah and the £1.5m invested in Lee Tomlin.
Which is not a bad thing. The last batch of big-money signings – Scott McDonald, Stephen McManus, Kris Boyd et al – didn’t exactly set the world on fire did they? And worse, they became a massive financial bind on the club for years.
In contrast the more humble incomers have been among the better performers this term and have offered a hint of optimism for next season. And good value for money, which is vitally important. Under Financial Fair Play the total outlay – fees and wages – is strictly limited so clubs like Boro have to get more bang for their buck if they are to succeed..
And there are some good players down there. There is a very good record of players who make the PFA League One team of the year stepping up a level. Or two.
The team is worth looking at in detail. If not by us certainly by Gill Gill and his crack team of Wyscout analysts. It is picked by their peers, blokes who play against them week in week out and who know exactly how good they are, how consistent they are and how good they can be.
A quick glance show some promise. Experienced shot-stopper Carl Ikeme we know. He kept five clean sheets here on loan three years ago now and still has a fan club.
At the back the XI includes right-back Sam Ricketts who won the Championship play-offs with Hull and played at Bolton before he moved to Wolves last season and Harry Maguire of Sheffield United, an England Under21 international who is in the divisional team for the second year running.
The midfield has a couple of starlets who have been at bigger clubs as kids but now finding their feet – Brentford’s Adam Forshaw, once of Everton and Geordie Ben Pringle who was at Derby – plus a couple who have been about a bit like former St Etienne man Bakary Sako.
And up front – where Boro are lacking most and where the bits of the jigsaw are hardest to get to fit – the team features Britt Assombalonga of Peterborough United who has rattled in 30 so far this season (a lot of them playing just in front of Lee Tomlin) to get top flight clubs sniffing around and Callum Wilson of Coventry City who has bagged 20.
They have got to be worth weighing up. I’d be staggered if Boro haven’t watched them all a dozen times this season and if there isn’t a massive data-base on them, specialist reports on every possible attribute and psychometric profiles too. After all, the League One PFA team has proved fertile ground for future stars in recent years.
Last year’s team included three who were a key part of Bournemouth’s play-off push (Simon Francis, Matt Ritchie and Charlie Daniels) while Luke Murphy made a lucrative move from Crewe to Leeds to play second fiddle to McCormack.
The year before the XI included Blackburn goal machine Jordan Rhodes, then at Huddersfield, and perennial Boro-botherer Steve Quinn who moved up from Sheffield United to Hull.
In 2010-11, the League One team included Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Southampton, both now hot properties in the Premier League, plus defender Gordon Greer of Brighton and then Peterborough man Craig Mackail-Smith, now also a Seagull, both of whom we’d probably be keen on but can’t afford.
The year before that, 2009-10, the League One team would have provided equally rich pickings: Wes Hoolahan (Norwich) Grant Holt (then Norwich, now at Villa but on loan from Wigan), Robert Snodgrass (Leeds), Rickie Lambert (Southampton and England) and, er, goal-getting midfield man Nicky Bailey and marauding full-back Frazer Richardson, both of Charlton.
There is raw talent there waiting to be polished and improved at well-run clubs with a perceptive manager looking to build a team. That could be Boro’s best way of short-circuiting the restrictions of Financial Fair Play. It is the most effective way forward.
Shopping from the lower shelf is the only viable way of rebuilding on a budget.