THE PHRASE I hear most often at this time of year is: “Well, that’ll be you finished now until August isn’t it?” Er, no. Same number of pages, Planet Boro continues to spin, the same insatiable appetite for news – but no matches. This is our busy time.
Anyway, I haven’t forgotten you but I have had a few days off. To keep you turning over until the movement starts, here’s my broad assessment of yet another transitional season.
THE SEASON finished on a high at Yeovil, in a flurry of goals and with teasing hints of promise. And for this we are happy.
Four good goals, the fans holding a sun-kissed party and signs of a potent partnership emerging up front are reasons to be cheerful. But please, let’s not kid ourselves that 2013-14 has been a memorable or classic campaign. It hasn’t.
It has been a frustrating, dislocated year and with a significant break in narrative and club culture part way through. And on the pitch it has been a long slog with long spells of soul-sapping turgid low-key football and failure whenever expectations started to rise, especially at home.
The players have flattered to deceive and very few have managed a full season of consistent praiseworthy performances. That some dramatically improved in the second half of the season only underlined how erratic and error-strewn they had been before. The Championship: it is what it is.
Yes, there has been a marked, steady and impressive upturn under Aitor Karanka and in a solid finish Boro have taken big scalps like Burnley, Derby and Brighton, all teams who finished in the top six. And there are sure signs that a framework is now in place that will underpin a more concerted push for the play-offs next term.
And we finished with a sun-kissed four goal romp that sent us into the summer with a smile.
But there are no plans for an open-topped bus parade to celebrate 12th place and a final tally eight points short. It has been a frustrating campaign we will all be glad to see the back of.
Boro made a brave late lunge for the line with six wins out of the final eight but after stumbling at home to Nicky Bailey’s relegation haunted Millwall – typical! – and then an empty no-show at Reading they fell just short.
No, actually they fell well short. There is a bit of a low level feel-good buzz about the bits starting to fall into place under ruthless Karanka and we can all see the positives, especially when looking at fictitious league tables starting at the end of October, or in December or at any other arbitrary mark you fancy. But eight points is still a yawning gap.
If you squint a bit you can see the places where those crucial eight points were dropped, depending on your perspective.
With modern football’s short term memory or a view tilted against Karanka you would maybe pick out the Millwall flop when a win would have cut the gap to three points and piled the pressure on the teams just above. Or the still stinging injustice of a blatantly punched late leveller that robbed Boro blind against Nottingham Forest.
Cast your mind back a bit further and you can easily find eight squandered points that should have been in the barren wastelands of the all time club record eight game, 12 hour goal drought that brought a post-Christmas surge to a juddering halt.
Boro dominated but drew a blank in goalless draws against Wigan, lowly Doncaster – in front of 4,000 travelling fans – and again against Leeds and then stumbled at the back and lost in a error peppered game at Watford and then were denied at Wednesday by the goal that never was.
It all started to drift and the fans grew tetchy and doubtful with the quick to judge writing off the new revolution at birth. Meet the new boss…
But if you cast your mind further back and are jaundiced against Tony Mowbray there are lost points thrown around willy-nilly in the chaotic opening that ended with him getting the axe.
Boro were two up at Forest and dominating a pulsating game at the City Ground but shrivelled then fell apart in a flurry of mistakes in the closing stages and were pegged back for a 2-2 draw.
They bossed but lost the lead late on at Wigan too as the Achilles heel of failing to defend set plays cost them once more.
And at home to Bournemouth in a slapstick start they leaked two penalties in the opening 12 minutes, fought back to lead and then threw it away again.Crazy stuff.
Then came the suicidal first half implosion at Barnsley as the defence fell apart and leaked three schoolboy goals and the crowd and the chairman finally turned on the tarnished Holgate hero.
So there are plenty of watershed moments and pivotal periods where you can easily make a case that the season “went wrong” and the prospect of the play-offs was lost.
In fact, the seeds of the stuttering season were sown in the summer. With the millstone big earners that had dogged his planning for two years finally moved on, Mowbray was handed real money for the first time and had the chance to build a team in his image.
And he did recruit some useful players: Jozsef Varga and Albert Adomah can be considered among the best performers this year while Jacob Butterfield has shown flashes of creativity and Dimi Konstantopoulos has grabbed his chance, although £900,000 Kei Kamara has faded after a good start and remains unproven.
But Mogga fatally failed to bring in the key players he really needed to make his own system work – a shouty pointy battle-scarred centre-back to organise and plug the leaks at the back and a real goal-getter up front to add some teeth and kill off the teams who had been passed into submission.
He needed everything right to get off to the good start that Steve Gibson had demanded.
The previous limp finish meant he was on borrowed time, not least with the fans, many of whom had already decided he was a busted flush and were eager to bring matters to a head should Boro falter.
Being just above the drop zone come the culling month of October and never looking able to stem the tide of goals against finally saw Mogga off.
The toxic atmosphere at Barnsley as a woeful Boro collapsed to trail by three goals at the break with a furious Gibson watching as the travelling fans bayed for blood was the tipping point.
Club icon or not, there was no way back and Mogga was sacked. It was a sad but inevitable outcome in a harsh and unforgiving game.
But it also meant that whoever came in was starting from a low base, with demoralised players, a divided fan-base, little money to reshape an unconvincing squad.
Welcome to Middlesbrough and the traditional starting point.
For most, the season was already written off. For some, the pessimists (or “realists” as they would brand themselves) the priority was now survival. Few envisaged Boro going into the final four fixtures with a fighting chance of maybe just squeezing the top six.
After the brief three-game dug-out cameo of Mark Venus – now put in the limbo of extended gardening leave – Karanka came in and set about systematically rewiring the mentality, the team shape and the style. That’s not an easy job, nor a quick one.
He brought players in on loan before the deadline – Shay Given and Daniel Ayala were to be important factors in tightening the defence – and then in January there were to be further tweaks as Danny Graham and Lee Tomlin came in and Jutkiewicz and Marvin Emnes were farmed out on loan along with some fringe players. There was some ruthless pruning of dead wood.
It was a rejig that gave a better picture of exactly what Karanka wanted in but that was just too slow to take effect to bridge that eight point gap.
So it has been the archetypal season of transition: three managers, two contrasting philosophies, a big turn-over of players and a U-turn in the strategic direction of the club.
The season started with a broad Teesside accent, with a local chairman, manager and captain that had Boro in their DNA and the scent of Bovril on the Holgate in their nostrils.
It started with an overt ambition to play cavalier, expansive attacking football, a Teesside tiki-taka fired by parochial passion and with one eye on a future flowing from the Academy production line. – but it ended with a strong Spanish flavour in the dug-out, a functional tactical outlook starting from high pressing and a rigid rearguard and with Boro looking to build a recruitment model geared towards loans from a strategic network of clubs like Chelsea and Atletico Madrid.
And it has ended on an optimistic note.
The season gone finished with a far brighter outlook than the previous two when after scorching starts built up promotion hopes they fizzled out into recrimination and regrets.
This time we can look back at results since the turn of the year and crack a smile rather than wince and try to forget. Two impressive runs since Christmas and a finish of six wins out of eight tough fixtures isn’t bad. If that can be taken into next season. If.
With six months under his belt, his own players in and a good pre-season, ambitious head coach Karanka is raring to go next term.
And for this we are happy.
****This is “another chance to see” my Big Picture column from last week
MEANWHILE, here’s some stats that illustrate the season of transition. Boro have had three bosses this season. This is how the stats break down over the three reigns.
TONY MOWBRAY P12 W2 D6 L4 F19 A21 Pts 12
MARK VENUS P3 W1 D1 L1 F6 A3 Pts 4
AITOR KARANKA P31 W13 D9 L9 F36 A25 Pts 48
Points per game:
Over a full season of 46 games that would equate to:
Assuming the points return stayed the same over the whole season, under Mowbray Boro would have finished fifth bottom and two points above the relegation zone while under Karanka they would have finished seventh, one point adrift of the play off places.
Goals for per game:
Goals against per game:
DON’T FORGET…. swanky Oscars style awards ceremony on Friday in the Hotel Du Posh on the Embankment. Untypical Boro is up for blog of the year in the prestigious Regional Press Awards. Fingers crossed. I’ll keep you posted.