NEXT WEEK it will be a year since Ayresome hero Tony Mowbray was axed.
It was a sad but inevitable exit after a large contingent of the travelling Tees army at Barnsley turned on him for the first time in numbers and volume during and after a chaotic 3-2 defeat at rock bottom Barnsley. The sound of booing sharpened the mind of a stony faced Steve Gibson watching at Oakwell with Boro’s high command. By the Monday evening he was gone, a significant departure that opened the door to a seismic change as Gibson opted for Boro’s first foreign boss and a cultural revolution.
In the Gazette next week we’ll be looking in more detail at Mogga’s impact, achievements and legacy at his boyhood club. To refresh your memory, to set the scene, to give you a head start in the agenda setting debates looming and to offer you something to chew over as the international break stretches on and on, here’s “another chance to see” the blog bit I did in the emotive aftermath of the exit of a man who remains a club icon and who in time will be seen to have been an important factor in rebuilding a broken club.
MOGGA’S EXIT: SAD BUT NO SURPRISE
MOST supporters will have been saddened but not surprised at the departure of Tony Mowbray. The manager was axed last night by chairman Steve Gibson who feared Boro were drifting towards relegation danger in a season that was supposed to be one of upward trajectory.
His exit – exclusively broken by the Gazette on-line – now may salvage a strangely shrinking season and should also protect a thoroughly deserved reputation as a club legend that was quickly becoming tarnished.
Large sections of the crowd had declared against the boss and there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Mogga going now will prevent the agony of seeing him roasted for weeks and months by a hostile and divided crowd before leaving with his reputation in tatters. For that we should be grateful.
The sound of booing and chanting at Barnsley aimed directly at the lunar leader who helped drive Bruce Rioch’s side from the abyss to the top flight should hurt anyone with the slightest emotional investment in Ayresome Park or who fell under the dark shadow of the liquidation crisis.
Barnsley Chopped: Mogga under fire at Oakwell
Mogga was the inspirational figure on the pitch as that Boro shaped an unlikely football fairytale and climbed from the brink back to the top flight and then on to Wembley for the first time – although he was denied the chance to play – during an important period that galvanised the crowd, rebuilt the foundations of the club and under-pinned what was to become the Riverside Revolution.
It should also hurt anyone idealistic enough to reject route one hoofball pragmatism and yearn for a platonic football played with principles and striving for a utopia of quick passing football on the deck and a fluid expansive, attacking outlook.
That may be hard to achieve on a Championship budget but it is a laudable aspiration that many claim to share.
His exit should also sting those of proud parochial perspective who value a set-up that speaks with a Teesside accent and is staffed by people who share our DNA, who know the central role Boro play in shaping our identity, our pride and passion, people who understand that the club is the cultural glue that holds the town together.
Again, that may seem naïve and rose-tinted but those intangibles are an important part of how many people set out their relationship with the club.
And after three years of pain in the wake of Gordon Strachan’s ill-fated and vastly expensive Great Jockification it seems almost perverse to swing the axe now, just as the manager who dealt with the debris and worked on a shoestring was starting to see his own team take shape.
So there was much to admire in Tony Mowbray, a man for who the Boro job seemed a dug-out destiny. But sentiment can’t shield even an icon from the harsh realities of a results-driven business.
“Tony, Tony Mowbray (clap, clap)”
And the results have been poor. No-one would deny that. Least of all Mogga himself who has been tortured in recent weeks over his failure to deliver victory, especially in games the team have dominated for long spells.
In the past year the all important indicators – crowd figures, revenue and points return – have been on the slide. The pressure on the gaffer has built steadily while results shrunk meekly through a stuttering 2013. We all know the damning statistics that swung the narrative against Mogga. The second half slump of last term turned into a stuttering start to the new campaign despite a major summer investment and overhaul in personnel.
And gates drifted slowly downwards too as frustrated fans failed to be inspired by a team that teased and hinted and promised but could not deliver, showing flashes of attacking intent and creative cameos but hampered by a fatal fragility at the back.
Like most fans, Steve Gibson has been agonising in recent weeks over the strange lack of spark this season and scratching his head as to what to do about it.
It was a tough call because at times it really seemed Mogga’s new look side were going to click. They played crisp football going forward that carved teams open almost at will and created a flurry of chances and they actually scored goals. Lots of goals.
But at the back they over-played it. They tried high-risk touches in dangerous areas, did elaborate drag-backs in the box, got caught dawdling looking for a deft out-ball when in truth a quick hoof into Row Z would have been far more effective.
Getting the blend right is always the difficult bit. And the blend hasn’t been quite right.
There is a widespread belief that the team as it stands is less than the sum of its parts.
There is also a feeling that it is too cautious, too meek, and that they too often set out nervously to stifle and counter the opposition no matter how limited when a more assertive and attacking approach may have paid dividends.
The failure to turn domination into victory and the habitual nervous implosion under pressure had led to an alarming evaporation of the refreshing hope and optimism that the initial arrival of Mowbray had prompted.
That slump in morale was reflected in the Riverside crowd. Not just in the tetchy atmosphere and increasingly obvious hostility towards the manager but numbers shrunk by the month and a new low for the once vibrant ground was recorded for the visit of Yeovil. That figure rather than the 4-1 win was probably the important figure that day.
Under the new Financial Fair Play regulations clubs spending is severely restricted and gate income is king. It funds the wage bill. It pays for signings.
Attendance now directly determines transfer spending and if Boro are to have any ambition of competing with the top half-dozen clubs who have post-Premier League parachute payments then they need crowds to be considerably higher.
With thousands drifting away declaring their opposition to Mogga and frustrated at results, there was mounting pressure on him. And with a spreading crisis of faith beyond the Riverside hardcore there looked little prospect of reversing that.
Something had to be done. And Steve Gibson has done it. He counts Tony Mowbray as a good friend and a hero of 1986 – but the chairman is also a ruthless businessman.
We must hope that those who cited Mowbray as their reason for turning their backs now return. And we must hope that whoever replaces him as manager, the crowd unite behind him and the club and rebuild a sense of unity and belief.
The season is far from over. And whoever comes in will benefit greatly from the largely unseen and under-appreciated work that Mowbray has done behind the scenes in three very difficult years. He restored a sense of unity and direction after a disastrous few years and set about reshaping the club.
He was the first manager under Steve Gibson not to have a hefty transfer kitty – in fact his main financial pressure was to sell. Against a background of financial belt tightening and the parachute payments running out he turned the club around and rebuilt on the hoof but still managed to first avoid the drop with a team that had look doomed.
Then, with a combination of loans, free transfers and inherited players he would not have chosen, he managed twice to get into good positions before fading from the play-off picture.
He has balanced the books, trimmed the squad of over-paid flops and rebuilt a backroom infrastructure of scouting, medical science and conditioning that had fallen into disrepair and was patient as the club restructured and prepared for Financial Fair Play.
And he has brought in the core of a decent side. It is just a couple of defenders and maybe a striker short of being able to challenge and won’t take much tweaking. A new eye, a new voice and some reorganisation and it is not far short.
He may not have been a Jack Charlton figure – but he may turn out to be a Stan Anderson, a man who did a lot of groundwork and shaped the basis of a good squad, a manager who built a strong platform for a future boss to work on.
If Boro go on to success he deserves some credit. Even if they don’t he deserves thanks and appreciation for getting us through a difficult few years unscathed.
And he deserves respect.