There have been some seminal moments in the recent history of Middlesbrough Football Club. Who can forget the entertaining side produced by Bryan Robson featuring the White Feather Fabrizio Ravenelli, disco dancing Brazilian midfielder Emerson and the little maestro who conducted the Riverside Orchestra Juninho? Then there was Steve McLaren’s side of Southgate, Schwarzer, Zenden and the second coming of Juninho who lifted the club’s first ever major domestic trophy in 2004 beating Bolton in the Final of the Carling Cup. There was the dramatic run all the way to the final of the 2005/06 UEFA Cup Final which featured unforgettable matches against FC Basel and Steaua Bucharest.
On a more negative note, twenty-five years ago the club was on the brink of going out of business and literally ten minutes away from extinction when local businessman Steve Gibson saved the club with the help of a consortium. In those dark times, new heroes were formed as youngsters battled for nothing more than pride in the shirt. Manager Bruce Rioch gave debuts to players who were to go on to become club legends. Youngsters like Gary Pallister, Colin Cooper and Tony Mowbray all made their first appearances in the red of the Boro in difficult circumstances and it is the latter who will oversee what I believe will be the next major event in the history of the Teesside club.
Returning to his first club as manager in October 2010, Tony Mowbray was always facing an uphill task to restore the club to the top-tier of English Football and this summer he will find his club at a crossroads. Which way he turns could depend on whether Boro return to playing in Premier League or remain anchored in the dull and dark waters of the Championship. The doomed spell of his predecessor Gordon Strachan has left a top-heavy wage bill loaded with players who are only highly rated in their own heads. On the face of it, signings like Justin Hoyte, Stephen McManus, Scott McDonald and Barry Robson should have seen the club strolling through the Championship following their relegation from the Premier League in 2009 but therein lies the issues.
Players did stroll, there was no effort, no passion and poor results followed that led to the exit of former Celtic boss Strachan. However, many of the high earners are out of contract this summer and will free up a little cash from an exhaustive wage bill whilst the club will be desperate to see the backs of others who have sponged millions from a club who in all honesty cannot afford to let them do so. In doing so, Mowbray could find himself in an ideal situation for a new manager. He knows he has one of the best academies in Britain and one that has churned out a whole host of current Premier League players and in my opinion and experience of the Boro academy will continue to do so. Whilst the club has relied on players who value the pound over the pride of the shirt in recent history,
Mowbray can build a team around a spine of young players who will play with passion for the shirt. Whilst this is a general football blog, I never hide from the fact that I am a long-term Newcastle United fan and can only compare the situation on Teesside to the one Newcastle found themselves in during the early 90s. In similarly dark times on Tyneside, a new core to the team was built around the likes of Steve Howey, Robbie Elliott, Steve Watson and Lee Clark, all of whom went on to successful careers in the Premier League. There are talented youngsters at the Riverside Stadium and Mowbray can use this to his advantage and along with some shrewd signings he can restore the fan’s belief in their club.
However, I will send a warning to the Boro fans. Whenever a young side is put together there will be mistakes, it’s all part of the learning process for the players in their development as young footballers. The situation at St James’ Park in the early 90s saw a massive lull before the good times came along. Near relegation to the oblivion that was the then Third Division would have been disastrous but with patience and belief those players grew and grew. Boro have what could potentially be an outstanding spine for their team. The likes of Jason Steele, Luke Williams, Matthew Bates, Adam Reach, Curtis Main and Andrew Halliday all have the potential to form the basis of a Boro side for years to come and under the careful watch of Mowbray can develop both as individuals and as a team. Although I’m not naïve enough to believe they will do it alone. Only yesterday Mowbray spoke of a need to bring in some “diamonds”.
Whilst the days of extravagant fees lashed out for the likes of Ravenelli and Emerson are long gone, there are some genuinely talented players around for decent fees. The club have already shown they can find players from the lower leagues who can perform at a higher level. The aforementioned Curtis Main came in from Blue Square Premier side Darlington and has impressed massively so there are hidden gems out there. Quite simply Boro need players who will fight for the shirt and need the support to get behind them, not money grabbers happy to take maximum pay for minimum effort.
There has been unnecessary criticism over their performance this season but they have improved on their showing last season, which should be seen as a positive and not focus on the fact they narrowly missed out on a play-off place. However, Tony Mowbray now has a near blank page to put together a Boro team that he wants to see, playing the style of football he demands of his teams and most of all one that will match the passion and commitment shown by Mowbray and his fellow team mates in those dark days of the mid to late 1980s.