• David Tooth

Missed Opportunity: A Chance At The Big Time

On Saturday 7th May 2016, Middlesbrough secured their return to the Premier League following a seven-year absence. Jubilant scenes from both fans and players signalled the promise of a new era for the club. One year and one day later, the club’s immediate return to the league they had fought so hard to escape was confirmed.

The 2016/17 season remains a case of a missed opportunity to propel the club back to where so many people believed it belonged. That ‘new era’ soon became a nightmare. The club still feels the effects to this day.

With a head coach riding high on a wave of popularity following the promotion (Charlton-gate temporarily forgotten about), fans returning to The Riverside and the influx of TV money that came with promotion to the Premier League, some fans dared to dream. Others looked to Leicester City’s impossible heroics as aspiration. Most would have been delighted with mid-table. Karanka himself admitted that a 17th place finish would be a success.

The mood on Teesside as the season approached was one of naïve optimism rather than impending doom, which makes what unfolded so much more agonising.

The club dove deep into the transfer market. Marten De Roon was signed from Atalanta. Defenders Antonio Barragán, Bernardo Espinosa and Fábio arrived from Valencia, Sporting Gijón and Cardiff City respectively. Viktor Fischer, once a rising star linked with a host of top European clubs, arrived from Ajax and their famed academy.

The recruitment continued throughout the summer and fans were left wide eyed with the arrival of World Cup winning goalkeeper, Victor Valdés and loan-signing Álvaro Negredo.

Looking closer to home, Callum Chambers joined on loan from Arsenal while Brad Guzan and the mercurial, unproven talents of Adama Traoré arrived from Aston Villa before the summer window closed.

The new arrivals were warmly welcomed, but maybe one of the first mistakes made was the speed at which the promotion winning squad was essentially discarded. Albert Adomah, Emilio Nsue, David Nugent and Jordan Rhodes departed before the end of January making just 16 appearances between them.

Two of the stalwarts from the promotion season, Daniel Ayala and Grant Leadbitter, had injury-hampered seasons and formerly ever-present keeper Dimi Konstantopoulos did not see a minute of league action all season.

In fact, from that promotion-winning squad, only Ben Gibson, Adam Clayton and Adam Forshaw made 30 or more starts (with Gibson being an ever-present). This was somewhat surprising considering how little Forshaw played in the Championship, but became a Premier League mainstay.

New signings were necessary for a Premier League campaign, but some of the Championship-era players could have progressed and flourished if given the proper opportunity. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, though. In their season preview, FourFourTwo Magazine identified a possible issue for Boro’s season and said that “changing too much too soon could disrupt what makes Boro tick.”

On the opening day, Boro held their own against Stoke City and deservedly took the lead thanks to Negredo’s debut goal. Although some set-piece brilliance from Xherdan Shaqiri somewhat spoiled the party, that disappointment was forgotten about a week later as the first victory was secured.

The Tees-Wear victory over Sunderland featured goals from Cristhian Stuani; one spectacular and one a brilliantly worked team goal. A largely forgettable 0-0 draw at The Hawthorns meant Boro ended August undefeated and in 6th position. The outlook seemed positive, but as seemed to be the case with Boro in the Premier League, a winless run was not too far away.

The harsh reality hit in September with consecutive defeats to Crystal Palace, Everton and Tottenham. Losing to teams challenging for Europe brought no shame, but the manner of the defeats raised concerns. Despite some players quickly finding their feet, Adam Forshaw in particular, the team as a whole was struggling to adapt. Goals were conceded too easily, and comebacks never looked like they would materialise.

There was the thought that Boro were not giving it a real go. Tensions boiled over on the pitch during the home loss to Spurs, with Clayton and Valdés having an angry, heated exchange. Although Gibson saw the positives from it by passing it off as ”players showing they care.” Karanka admitted that he did not want to see that happening in public. We were seeing cracks that would ultimately derail the season.

Boro went on to win three more games before Christmas, against Bournemouth, Hull City and Swansea City. Positive away results against Arsenal and Manchester City delighted the travelling faithful, but it was draws and defeats against the likes of Watford, Burnley, Southampton and West Brom that caused concern. These were games Boro really had to win to have hope of ensuring a second season in the top flight.

After beating Swansea 3-0 at The Riverside in December, Boro would go 16 games without a win, and pick up just 6 points along the way. The hard truth of the Premier League bites hard and it was tough to take for a team that had looked so solid a league below.

Repeated calls to play two strikers were resisted by Karanka, who stubbornly stuck to the 4-2-3-1 formation that had proved successful in the Championship. In the Premier League, the system left Negredo isolated, and the more creative players in the team somewhat censured.

Players often alluded to Karanka’s meticulous pre-match planning, 80-page opponent dossiers, video presentations and individual tutorials, but his unwillingness to stray from those, even slightly, was perhaps a contributing factor to his downfall. ‘Karankanaccio’ had worked in the Championship with the idea to “build the house up from the floor.” It led to a club-record 9 clean sheets in a row and league-low 31 goals conceded. FourFourTwo hit the nail on the head by saying “…Boro could become toothless. Plans B and C are needed for when Karanka’s cagey style falters.”

It is a source of anguish amongst Boro fans and another ‘what if?’ that Stuani was preferred as a winger, despite his qualities as a striker. 64 goals in 92 games since returning to Spain’s La Liga with Girona, and rumoured interest from Barcelona, only push the knife in further when contemplating what could have been.

Additionally, the scarce opportunities for the attacking players signed in the summer also baffled many. Viktor Fischer looked impressive and promising but was limited to just six starts. Fellow wide man Adama Traoré may have been a tad ‘unpolished’ at that time, and his final product was often lacking, but offered something explosive and completely different. Calls from the stands to introduce him from the bench to change the game usually fell on deaf ears.

When Traoré played, he was often ordered to switch flanks at half-time to be close enough to Karanka to receive constant instruction. That micro-management often stifled any improvisational instincts. It was Karanka stamping his authority. He knew best.

Results didn’t improve and the question increasingly became a ‘when’ and not ‘if’ Karanka would be relieved of his duties. And in March 2017, the passionate, yet divisive Spaniard’s three-and-a-half-year tenure as Boro’s head coach came to an unceremonious end.

The Basque coach’s ‘fiery’ attitude was evident as far back as 2014. Disagreements between the pair led to Craig Hignett walking out and leaving his post as an assistant. An argument with Albert Adomah early in the 2015/16 season caused the winger to hand in a transfer request. When Steve Agnew, Hignett’s replacement as assistant, briefly considered Steve Bruce’s offer to join him at Aston Villa it led to Agnew not being consulted as much by Karanka. Any hint that your loyalty was anything less than completely unwavering was almost seen as a betrayal.

Aitor Karanka had become so autocratic that any form of compromise was a potential weakness. And it was becoming more and more evident that the training ground bust-up that followed Boro’s 1-0 at Rotherham United and led to him walking away from Rockliffe Park was not a surprising one-off.

Some fans look back and believe, given how the season eventually turned out, that Karanka should have been given the chance to finish the season. Some believe that he should have gone earlier in the season, pointing to Leicester City’s decision to replace Claudio Ranieri with Craig Shakespeare and halting their own slide down the table. Whereas some maintain his position became untenable following the infamous ‘Lost Weekend’ the previous year.

The season was unravelling and the overly cautious approach to games made it feel like Boro were playing with the handbrake on. The stats do not lie either. Middlesbrough averaged just over 2 shots on target per game in 2016/17, leading to just 27 goals.

Karanka took exception to the fans urging the team forward during Boro’s 3-1 home defeat to West Ham in January, seemingly laying the blame at their door for the failure to mount a comeback. “The atmosphere was awful today. The fans demanded a lot of the players. We do not know how to play in that way. We didn’t create one chance and the team was broken on the pitch.”

The club’s recruitment team was next. Desperately needing reinforcements in the January window, transfers for Robert Snodgrass, Bojan and Jesé Rodríguez never materialised. “We need to improve the team, and the club knew a month-and-a-half ago the players (we wanted)...I don’t know (why we missed out on top targets), it’s not my job, I am the coach.”

Patrick Bamford, Rudy Gestede and Adlène Guedioura arrived that month, but would start just six times between them and make little impact before the season concluded.

Anger was then directed at those working beside him. Following the defeat at Crystal Palace, Karanka openly criticised the physio team over the handling of George Friend’s fitness. “The doctor told me one hour before that he was fit. When I arrived, George was not there, and they told me he had a problem with his knee. It was a communication issue for sure.”

Karanka then turned on his own squad. Rumours of dissension between the head coach and some senior players arose, with players wanting to adopt a more attacking approach. Karanka had reportedly become disillusioned with Álvaro Negredo, under-performing playmaker Gastón Ramírez and when Ben Gibson said in an interview… “We might have a very good defensive record, but it’s hard to defend for as long as we defend sometimes”, the public questioning of his overly defensive tactics was not met favourably.

The final straw was when both Stewart Downing and Patrick Bamford were dropped from the squad for the FA Cup Quarter Final with Man City. His reason was that he needed “18 fighters”. The decision to throw his own players ‘under the bus’ did not sit well with many in the squad, and the writing was on the wall.

Steve Gibson stepped in and brought an end to one of the most turbulent periods in the club’s recent history. The chairman maintained that it was a joint decision as the club was not really “evolving”, adamant that it had nothing to do with the Downing situation. “I would not get involved. I would not undermine the authority of a first team coach.”

Games were running out for Boro to change the outcome of the season and needed to decide who took the club forward. Both Nigel Pearson and Claudio Ranieri were linked with the job, but Steve Gibson came out saying “No, we’re going with Steve Agnew. I trust him, and the players at this club trust him and like him.” Gibson said Agnew could be “the glue to unify us completely.”

The problems ran deep. The dressing room was divided. When talking about Middlesbrough’s failures that season, Ben Gibson said “Do I think confidence was the issue? No. We all know it was not a good dressing room. It was broken. There were different agendas in there…there were two big groups and it didn’t come together the way we wanted.” A sentiment reiterated by Dimi, “A lot of players came in when we got promoted. Little groups formed. Something was missing that season. Mistakes were made.”

The divide was seemingly between the British-based players and the Spanish-speaking contingent…many of whom were brought in by Head of Recruitment, Victor Orta. Those rifts left Steve Agnew firefighting, according to Stewart Downing, “this wasn’t his team.” When talking about the club’s relegation and preparations for life back in the Championship, the winger further intimated that it was the recent recruits who were responsible, “there is a core of players who are a good group and a lot of them who have seen this division before.”

Immediately after taking over the reins, Steve Agnew highlighted what he believed would change the team’s fortunes, “it’s obvious to everyone that we need to score a goal and win a game.” Something you feel never really needed saying, but at the time that expectation was seemingly an alien concept.

Agnew’s first task would be to navigate the visit of Manchester United. Downing and Ramírez returned to the starting line-up and both put on promising displays, seemingly benefiting from life without Karanka’s intense micro-management. That would count for nothing, however, as United took the points at The Riverside with a 3-1 win.

Going into April, Agnew remained upbeat. “The fighting spirit is still there…the players are very positive towards the work we’ve got to do.” That optimism, however, never really translated into results.

Any hopes that the change in leadership could lead to a change in fortunes on the pitch were fading by the week. A humiliating 4-2 loss at relegation rivals Hull City was sandwiched between two 0-0 draws against Swansea City and Burnley. Although momentum could have swung in Boro’s favour had Rudy Gestede’s late header landed the other side of the post at the Liberty Stadium. A 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Bournemouth added another devastating nail to the already lowered coffin, and any renaissance to Gaston Ramírez’s floundering Middlesbrough career was effectively over thanks to a first-half red card.

Ramírez, often picked out as a scapegoat, provided the spark to help Middlesbrough over the line in the Championship following his arrival on loan from Southampton. Maybe the relationship should have ended then. Ramírez had a pre-contract agreement with Peñarol, but Middlesbrough tackled the red tape to bring him back permanently. “I always wanted to come back here. At the end of last season, I made it clear that I wanted to sign for Middlesbrough”, the Uruguayan stated in August.

That decision seemed to be vindicated with his early season form, assisting the opening goal of the season, scoring the winner against Hull City and a fantastic solo effort against Bournemouth. However, that good form attracted admirers.

Leicester City wanted to add the Uruguayan to their attack, but the approach was knocked back and led Ramirez to submit a transfer request. His head was turned. The club rejected it and some felt let down by his actions. Boro had given Ramírez a chance to resurrect his career and fought to bring him back to Teesside, and this was how it was repaid.

Boro did give the fans brief respite, beating Sunderland in the Tees-Wear derby at The Riverside thanks Marten De Roon’s early goal, with Agnew coming out afterwards stating “this win gives us renewed hope.”

Boro showed real fight in the game that followed, against Manchester City, taking and re-taking the lead. And things could have been different had Leroy Sane been booked for simulation rather than be awarded a penalty, which Sergio Agüero duly dispatched. The 2-2 draw meant that relegation could be confirmed in the next match at Stamford Bridge.

In the end, there was to be no miracle escape. Chelsea swept Boro aside with ease in a 3-0 win, with Brad Guzan cruelly nutmegged for all three goals. It was a quick and painless death. It was over.

With Victor Valdés missing the last seven games of the season, USA international Guzan was chosen to deputise, rather than promotion hero Dimi. Supporters had been quite vocal over their disappointment that the popular Greek goalkeeper had essentially been forgotten.

Dimi later came out and expressed his disappointment at not being given the opportunity to show his abilities at the top level. The flak was aimed at Brad Guzan. So much so that when he fouled Southampton’s Shane Long in the final home game of the season, sections of the home crowd sarcastically applauded the award of a penalty and began to call for the American to be sent off. Boro’s season had become a joke. Sections of fans were no longer taking it seriously.

Few came out of that season with much credit. Chambers, Clayton, De Roon and Fabio all performed consistently, and Forshaw took his opportunity well. The ever-present Gibson was the stand-out player. It was great to see ‘one of our own’ holding his own against top-class strikers, eventually earning himself a call-up to the England team. It meant that his future would ultimately be away from Teesside, with outside interest inevitable. Negredo deserved praise for managing to net nine league goals despite his role as lone, and often isolated, striker.

Only two of Boro’s 11 summer signings would remain at the club for the 2017/18 season (Traoré and Fábio) and tt further compounded the need for another rebuild as the club chased an immediate return to the top flight.

In the final game of the season, against Liverpool at Anfield, there was no anger directed towards the players, no abuse being hurled. In fact, lines from Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ were heard from the travelling Boro contingent. “Every little thing’s gonna be alright,” echoed around the stadium as the embers went out on the 2016/17 season. It was a collective acceptance that Boro had wasted the chance they had fought so hard for. Typical Boro. It’ll be alright though. We hope…

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