PLANET Boro is buzzing with excited talk of star signings and a delicious tingle of expectation.
Boro are haggling and trying to arrange an ambitious – and very expensive – Riverside return for parmo-powered play-maker Stewart Downing. And they are also keen on luring last season’s Championship 27-goal Golden Boot winner Daryl Murphy from Ipswich.
Neither is a shoo-in but those two targets show that Boro have raised the bar significantly when it comes to the perceived cost and quality of recruitment this summer.
That has sent the grapevine into overdrive with fantasy wish-lists (David Villa and Rickie Lambert rippled through the rumoursphere last week) and Boro fans are distorting the highly erratic betting markets with a flurry of ‘daft quids’ on the club to sign a series of players. It feels like Boro are gearing up to really give it another crack this season.
After three years of austerity and book-balancing, Steve Gibson relaxed the purse strings a little last summer and allowed Aitor Karanka to make some solid permanent signings and bring in a couple of impressive loans from top flight clubs.
The result was a dramatic improvement in results and performances and Boro finished 21 points and eight places better off over the year. But they ended heartbroken with empty-handed frustration at Wembley. The team fell short by a gap that was agonisingly small – five points: A game here, a goal there, a post, a cruel decision elsewhere.
And driven Gibson is determined to bridge that small gap his time. The chairman is ready to sanction some serious spending this summer. It could get exciting.
We’ve already seen some of the surface signs of that activity with the move for experienced Championship defender Alex Baptiste.
And that’s how I’m going pop them in at Boro says our prodigal playmaker
That and a move for Downing that is being played out in public – Middlesbrough is really just a big village, everyone knows someone who knows someone who is related to someone and most people seem to have spoken to a close family member or seen a screen grab of a text revealing details of the deal said to come straight from the horse’s mouth. The mechanics of the move appear to be almost transparent.
But there is plenty of spadework happening beneath the surface too. Away from the public gaze Gibson, Karanka and Neil Bausor are beavering away on a series of targets and are confident of landing several of them. A couple seem to be coming to the boil and could progress quite quickly.
Karanka is a year wiser in a tough division and he knows exactly who he wants this summer – and from off the record briefings it is clear chairman Gibson is prepared to go all out to get them.
The players the club want have almost all had extensive experience in the Championship and would add depth and quality to what is already a solid framework.
The club post-mortem decided – as did most fans – that it was a lack of goals that cost Boro promotion. The back line was the best in the division last season and just needs a bit of fine-tuning. It is another open secret that Tomas Kalas – on holiday after his Czech Republic Under-21 Euros outing – is pretty much mentally a Boro player already although the red tape has not yet been tied up while Baptiste adds depth and competition there.
But it is at the other end Boro were lacking and the Hurworth hierarchy want to change the skill-set at the sharp end and bring in more pace, power and creativity where it matters.
And that is where all the behind the scenes effort is going and where the bulk of the available transfer kitty will be allocated. Boro want to add the nous to find a killer pass to unlock defences and they want the power to punch past parked buses. To that end Boro are ready to rebuild the entire front end of the team.
Reading between the lines, Boro are currently courting three front men – if we assume Murphy is a target – and will be hoping to get at least two of them.
Boro lacked a penalty box presence last term and in game after game a frustrating flurry of chances went begging. They need a player who can bully defences when needed, who can give them an option of a more direct approach when needed but anyone who comes in also needs the energy, technical ability and work ethic to fit in Karanka’s system.
Last term Boro’s strikers were maybe too similar and all did their best work deeper, outside the box, linking up neatly but 30 yards out with the final push often faltering on tactical barbed wire strung out along the edge of the box. Boro need to bring in players that can get through, over or around that.
They are also looking at two creative midfielders. Former England man Downing is clearly one. He is ear-marked for the No 10 role and a superb season cutting his teeth in that position at West Ham last year suggests he has the close control, exquisite touch and the vision to play a killer pass. It is mouthwatering to think of the holes a fired-up prodigal playmaker could rip through defences in this division.
But Boro are also aiming at adding another highly-rated creative midfielder with pace and a quick brain and the attacking instinct to hurt teams too, someone who knows this division and is technically deft enough to play the quick short passes that can dove-tail with a newly reshaped strike-force.
Plus there is also another more solid man pencilled in to replace Dean Whitehead in the engine room to add competition in what is already one of the best central midfield units in the league.
Aitor Karanka keeping his transfer wishlist close to his chest
As with last year, several of those targets would arrive on loan deals from top flight clubs. We know Aitor has contacts which will help. And we know that under him loanees have had game time and developed markedly under his tutelage. That persuades clubs that Boro can be a benefit to their hot prospects more than an extra fee quid in wages.
By the end of the summer Boro aim to be a more varied, faster and potent prospect going forward without compromising their robust core.
Of course, all those deals have to be pushed through and, of course, it all has to be paid for. That will be where many fans will be scratching their heads. Where has the money come from?
And in the case of Downing – and a mooted move for Murphy – why would Boro splash out so much on players over 30 with little resale value?
Downing, who turns 31 next month, would be a massive investment for Boro. He is on a reported £70,000 a week and has two years left on his deal – that is £7.2m worth.
Even if he takes a pay cut and the cost is spread over several years to make it work within the Financial Fair Play rules, it is still a huge commitment and a major gamble by Gibson.
And Murphy is 32, in the last year of his deal, has rarely made double figures in his career and, reports from Ipswich suggest he could cost Boro £4.5m. With next to no resale value that could represent an even bigger gamble.
But goals cost money. And the club top brass will have done their homework on the available and affordable strikers and which will add to the mix most effectively. And if Boro are promoted then suddenly those price tags would start to look like bargains.
In football it is not about cost but about value for money and if high-risk but high-return buys deliver then the Maths of the Day adds up nicely.
If Boro fail to get promoted then the club may be left with a millstone, the manager will be out of contract and will probably judge himself to have failed and Boro may be back to square one.
That is the gamble – but Steve Gibson is prepared to take it. He must have nerves of steel.
Ultimately it is his cash. Yes, Boro made more in revenue last term as Riverside attendances nudged up, they earned a slice of the gate money in away cup ties at Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal plus took the booby prize of the £3m Wembley ticket receipts after Norwich donated their share.
But that is not profit. That just minimised the annual losses, which last year still came to £20m. Boro’s revenue is the lowest of that group of teams that fancy themselves as contenders. They have lower crowds and a far lower ticket take per head than Derby, Ipswich, Forest, Wolves etc. Season ticket income, the revenue from shirts, merchandising and hospitality at the Riverside comes to around £6-7m, relatively low compared to their clutch of rival play-off contenders.
But increased revenues last term and a raising of the FFP ceiling this year as the Football League switches to a three year cycle gives Steve Gibson more leeway this summer. And Boro may spend all that they can muster on transfer fees, wages and money for loan deals. Quality players from big clubs on loan are not always cheap.
There has been a big investment behind the scenes with a level of sports science professionalism and technocratic preparation under ruthless determined Karanka. And we have seen the results of that already in significant progress. And with the basics right, Gibson believes the ingredients are there for a serious challenge. And he is ready to fund it.
The club still has to pay its running costs – wages, tax, rates, utilities, stewarding and the rest – so there isn’t money to burn. That means Boro need to get more bang for their buck on the pitch. Investing heavily in match-winners has to be balanced by shrewder VFM signings, on frees or through loans.
And there may need to be sales too. There is not getting away from that. IN order to square the circle and put cash into key positions there may need to be some juggling. Club chiefs have said George Friend isn’t for sale and won’t want to cash in on any of their crown jewels and won’t want to dismantle a rock solid defence.
But offers for players further up the pitch may be harder to turn down. Especially for players who may find themselves no longer in the starting line-up. Boro won’t be bullied into sales and won’t flog off anyone unless there is a strong business case but they must certainly be ready to consider good offers to balance the books.
He won’t jeopardise the future stability of the club but the chairman – who is already putting £1m a month in – is ready to take a calculated gamble and find the funding to give the team an extra gear. And that is exciting.
It has the makings of a significant summer.
Bring it on.