Thursday 21 September 2017

Goodbye and good riddance to side who never landed a blow

Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing. Photo: Getty Images
Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing. Photo: Getty Images

Luke Edwards

Middlesbrough will not be missed. Given their lack of adventure and ambition, you may not even remember they have been in the Premier League at all.

For the supposedly most exciting league in the world, their relegation will be a relief.

It is difficult to remember a team making less of an impact after promotion. They have barely caused a ripple, first under head coach Aitor Karanka and now his replacement Steve Agnew.

They are a failed experiment in containment, a team who tried to grind out results, but left their supporters grinding their teeth in frustration.

Having laboured for seven years to get back into the top flight, when they finally got there they were neither bold nor brave, and they will drop back into the Championship with a barely audible whimper.

Teessiders are a defiant, proud bunch, but their team have surrendered timidly. Boro have scored fewest goals, won fewest matches and had fewest shots in the Premier League. Even local rivals Sunderland, who have been in turmoil since July, have made more of an impression, even if it was for largely the wrong reasons.

Irrelevance

Middlesbrough have been an irrelevance, and that should sting. They have beaten nobody of note, the highlights being a stalemate at Arsenal and two draws against Manchester City. Even their run to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup came via victories over lower league opponents.

Yet, their season-long stay in the Premier League has not been an entirely futile exercise in damage limitation. For all the frustration, the regret at what might have been if only they had thrown off the defensive shackles, they leave the top flight in good health.

Their story is one of nothing ventured, but not quite nothing gained, because they return to the second tier in excellent shape to come straight back up again.

Few chairmen are wiser than Steve Gibson, and while he would obviously much rather have avoided an immediate return to the second tier, he took a calculated gamble. He has, a little like Burnley did two years ago, worked out that you sometimes need to take a step back to make sure a leap forward takes you to solid ground.

Crucially, Middlesbrough have kept the core of the squad who got them promoted. Stewart Downing (pictured), Grant Leadbitter, Fabio da Silva, Daniel Ayala, Adam Clayton and Adam Forshaw are excellent players at Championship level.

Even their signings in January, which caused so much frustration for Karanka and eventually led to the disintegration of his relationship with his players, were clever in the sense that they should all impress next season.

Patrick Bamford scored 19 goals the last time he played in the Championship for Middlesbrough, on loan from Chelsea. Rudy Gestede is proven at that level, while former Watford midfielder Adlene Guedioura should excel. They were deals that under-whelmed at the time, but make sense if, like Gibson, you needed to take a long-term view. They were signings that also offered an insurance policy in the event of relegation.

Financially, Boro will be in decent fettle, particularly compared to clubs such as Sunderland, Hull, Swansea or Crystal Palace, who could yet join them in the drop. The squad should be easily trimmed and wages, in the main, remain at Championship level.

Once they have found buyers for goalkeeper Víctor Valdés and Marten de Roon and sent Álvaro Negredo back to Valencia after his loan move, they will have room to make new signings to strengthen for a promotion push, thanks to parachute payments of roughly £40 million a year.

Ben Gibson may well also leave, but the England centre-back would raise in excess of £20m. His uncle will allow that money to be reinvested in the playing squad.

It is not quite relegation by design, but it is one that has been thought about and prepared for, which means the head coach/manager's role will hold wide appeal in the summer, and there will be plenty of interest in replacing Agnew.

Boro should be able to cope with relegation far better than most. They should recover quickly. The new manager will inherit a good squad and will have money to spend. You cannot ask for much more stepping into a new dugout.

Telegraph.co.uk

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