Boro Stories | The Monk Experiment
Updated: Feb 12, 2021
When the final whistle blew at Anfield at the end of the last game of the 2016/17 season, Boro knew they were at a bit of a crossroads. Steve Agnew had been handed the reigns for the last 11 games of the campaign, to try and salvage a team that had become rudderless and divided under Aitor Karanka. Agnew, for all his efforts, was unable to halt the slide. In fact, you could argue he accelerated it. It was pretty clear Agnew’s position was not going to be made permanent, and Steve Gibson was left with a decision to make. Would he look for an immediate return to the top flight? Would he look at ‘consolidating’ or regrouping before launching another promotion assault? It was unlikely the chairman would be happy another seven-year wait.
Unusually for Gibson, who has a tendency from staying away from big public announcements, came out shortly after the relegation dust had settled and gave a fair assessment of Boro’s Premier League campaign, current situation, and future ambitions. “We thought at the time we were making the right ones (decisions), but we haven’t fulfilled our objective and that tells us we have made mistakes. We can talk about that season forever. We now need to look ahead to next season. Fans want me to deliver rather than talk about me potentially delivering. We have to move on and start planning and get fired-up for next season.”
Then came the much-misquoted claim…“The only place I want to be is in the Premier League. We want to smash the league. We want to go up as Champions.” Before finishing with a message to the supporters…“We’re going to give it our best shot next season.”
The man Gibson chose would go on to have the second-highest win percentage of any full-time Boro manager (second only to Karanka)…but would have just the second-shortest tenure of any full-time manager in Middlesbrough’s history.
Garry Monk had just overseen a massive drop in form whilst in charge of Leeds United that saw the club lose an 11-point cushion in the play-off places, only to lose out on the final day of the 2016/17 season. With the club set to activate a one-year extension to his contract, a breakdown between Monk and Andrea Radrizzani (who had only just taken over at Elland Road) about the future direction of the club led to Monk’s resignation. Two weeks later, he was appointed as manager of Middlesbrough.
Early on, Monk became the bookies’ favourite and Gibson’s preferred choice, who believed he had the correct temperament to deal with a modern-day dressing room (maybe having a slight dig at Aitor Karanka). Monk was under no illusion as to what was expected of him once he came through the doors at Rockliffe Park. “There’s no denying the ambition is to get back to the Premier League this season.” Also admitting that Gibson’s influence was a big factor in his decision to come to Boro, “One of the tick-boxes in terms of working with Steve (Gibson) and this club is they have the track record of stability and calmness. Of course, there’s still the demand to achieve and that’s the bit I put on myself anyway, but that stability that clarity and that process attracted me to Middlesbrough.”
Garry Monk was hired with only one aim in mind. Getting Boro promoted. “We want to smash the league” became the campaign slogan for the Monk/Gibson regime. And Gibson, true to form, provided his new manager with the financial backing put his manifesto into practice.
Boro broke their transfer fee record for striker Britt Assombalonga, who was joined in attack by Martin Braithwaite and Ashley Fletcher. Darren Randolph, Jonny Howson, Cyrus Christie, Marvin Johnson and Ryan Shotton all arrived from West Ham United, Norwich City, Derby County, Oxford United and Birmingham City respectively. An estimated £40m was spent on ensuring Boro’s immediate return to the Premier League.
New signings were needed. Despite the ‘core’ of Boro’s promotion-winning team still being at the club, all but two of the players brought in at the start the 2016/17 season remained once the transfer window closed in August 2017. Only Fábio and Traoré would complete the whole season at The Riverside after being purchased with the Premier League war chest. Monk also hoped to keep Boro’s prized asset, Ben Gibson, at the club. “You want your most important players, and the chairman is very strong on that. We don’t have to sell anyone. It’s a stable club financially and it’s a great place to go and work.”
The supporters were excited and optimistic for the season ahead with the new direction the club seemed to be heading in. But…Boro fans can be a fickle bunch once adversity sets in. And for a chairman with a reputation for patience, supporting his managers both verbally and financially, Gibson’s decision to part ways with a manager at the half-way point of a season seems a little puzzling. Yet, things are not always what they appear on the surface…as would be made public sometime later.
The expected ‘steamrollering’ of the league never really began, and Monk guided the team to just four wins from the opening 13 matches. Boro’s season was fairly stop-start, and the club was wading in mid-table waters by October. Monk came out on the offensive and declared that the team needed to match Gibson’s ‘smash-it’ passion. When asked whether the chairman’s ‘promise’ was a millstone, Monk responded, “Not at all. It’s passion, and that’s exactly what we all must show. Myself, more than anyone, understands the criticism we have received…and rightly so in some respects.” That seemed to work, as Boro would go on to achieve maximum points in their next three games against Reading, Hull City and Sunderland, which propelled the club into the play-off positions.
Boro could not capitalise on that run and more defeats followed. The most expensively-assembled squad in the Division began edging further away from Gibson’s pre-season ambitions, and the pressure was starting to mount. Boro were 12 points behind the automatic promotion places and the defeat at Bristol City at the start of December was repeatedly branded “unacceptable” by Monk in his post-match interviews. Victory in the next match, at home to Ipswich Town, relieved some of the pressure, however, defeat at Millwall the following weekend had the doubters circling once more. The display was described as “schoolboy” by the manager, and some Boro fans had made up their minds. A survey by The Northern Echo newspaper found 81% of those who responded had lost faith in Garry Monk as manager of Middlesbrough.
Prior to the Ipswich match, Gibson’s reputation for refusing to sway to public opinion seemed to be holding firm. Monk came out and acknowledged the concerns of the supporters and the stuttering season. “I’ve always seen this club as a place where unity is important. That doesn’t give you a divine right to anything, but it was a big part of the appeal for coming here. From day one, the internal support has been second to none.” Monk insisted that recent events had in no-way strained the relationship between the manager and the chairman, “I’ve spoken to him (Gibson)…we’re all determined to put it right. There are no excuses from us. We have to get ourselves to those high-standards consistently, starting as soon as possible.”
Monk would not really get the chance to put that right, and just a week after the defeat at Millwall, Boro were looking for a new manager.
Eyebrows were raised because the decision was made shortly after a victory, but as with Gareth Southgate, that decision was likely made prior to that. The 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough was described as “The best away display of the season”. The team did mount a spirited comeback in the second half, but that did not distract from another woeful first 45-minutes. Gibson phoned Monk after the match, with the manager expecting the call to be congratulatory in nature. Instead, it ended with Monk being told he was being released from his long-term contract.
It would seem understandable if Boro were languishing in the lower half of the table, but that win left Boro just three points shy of the play-offs with half of the season still to play. Even if some fans were ready to accept this was a transitionary season, even the most hard-nosed Boro fans may have thought the decision strange. It clearly took Monk by surprise who had announced that meetings had been taking place not long before about future transfer plans.
Word at the time was that Monk was sacked because the club believed they could attract Tony Pulis to the club to replace him. Sources from the Independent newspaper claimed that Gibson felt the Boro squad, comprised of players who succeeded under Aitor Karanka’s management and tactical approach, would be more suited to a pragmatic style of football rather than the one Monk had been aiming towards. Which is why Tony Pulis became the number one choice and was appointed just three days after Monk’s departure.
The more ‘pragmatic’ approach aimed for under Pulis actually yielded more goals in the league (37, compared to the 30 scored under Monk) and saw some of the most un-Pulis football expected. With Braithwaite allowed to leave on loan in January, and Assombalonga’s inconsistent performances, players that had been somewhat side-lined by Monk were given a new lease of life under the new regime. Patrick Bamford, Daniel Ayala and Adama Traoré would go on to score 23 goals between them in the 2016/17 season, with all-but-one coming under Pulis.
Most amazingly, though, was the fact that Pulis was able to get the best (if not 100% of the time) out of Traoré. A player stifled by Karanka’s micro-management flourished under one of the most pragmatic football managers English football has ever seen. Like Uwe Fuchs and Marco Branca before, Traoré became somewhat of a cult figure in the latter months of the promotion push and almost helped Boro over the line. With a playoff position secured, Aston Villa did a ‘Pontus Kåmark’ and marked Traoré out of the two games, stifling his influence, and Villa would head to Wembley with a 1-0 aggregate win.
But what of Monk? Just three months after being dismissed by Gibson, Monk was appointed as Birmingham City’s new manager and a rumour of a legal dispute between the club and Monk’s backroom team surfaced. Reportedly, there was a clause in their contracts that prevented them working alongside Monk for a fellow Championship team until the end of the season. Boro claimed that their appointments gave Monk and Birmingham a ‘competitive advantage’. Boro sought damages and the removal of the staff members in question until the end of the season, but a settlement between the two clubs was understood to have been reached.
It would not be until the summer of 2019 when revelations emerged as to why Monk may have really been shown the door, with an alleged breaching of a contract through the passing of confidential information relating to transfer targets, thus allowing Monk’s agent, James Featherstone, to profit from transfer dealings.
Boro’s hierarchy were already concerned about Monk’s relationship with Featherstone, with suggestions the closeness of that relationship was behind Gibson’s decision to part company with Monk in December 2017. In July 2019, a legal letter was sent to the pair by the club accusing them of deceiving the club in their transfer dealings. Monk was contractually obliged to ‘protect the business interests’ of the club in any transfer dealings, but the club believed this contract had been breached. Investigations regarding the signings of Cyrus Christie, Ashley Fletcher, Marvin Johnson and Ryan Shotton were underway.
It was claimed that Featherstone was acting for Derby County when Christie made his move from Pride Park to The Riverside. It appeared Featherstone contacted Derby shortly after Monk had made it clear he wanted to sign the full-back. Boro believed Monk should not have shared confidential information about potential transfer targets as a duty to the club. Derby informed Middlesbrough that Featherstone had contacted them saying that for a 5% fee he could secure Christie’s transfer. Also, it emerged that Featherstone advised Derby to hold out for more than the £1.75m that Boro valued Christie at. A £2.25m deal was eventually agreed, with more than £100,000 being paid to Featherstone for his part in the negotiations. Boro were unhappy with Featherstone’s actions but were seemingly content with the explanation that Featherstone was ‘on retainer’ at Derby to help sell players. However, concerns were raised further when Featherstone allegedly asked to be included in the deal that brought Ryan Shotton from Birmingham City to Boro, despite not being affiliated with the player at all.
The signing of Ashley Fletcher then came under the microscope. Whilst Monk was in charge at Leeds United, a deal was in place to bring Fletcher to Elland Road on loan from West Ham United with an option to buy for £3m. Monk, however, refused to sanction any loan deal. Fletcher would then be brought to Boro by Monk for £6.5m. Boro claimed they had evidence that Featherstone contacted West Ham without the club’s knowledge, also contacting Fletcher’s father suggesting he become involved in any potential dealings.
Middlesbrough argued that they took a £3.5m hit on the transfer and that both Monk and Featherstone had ‘conspired to harm the club unlawfully’ by failing to inform club officials of player’s valuations, and therefore allowing the club to pay inflated fees. Investigations were hampered, but also raised further suspicions, by the fact that the company laptop used by Monk had been wiped after being dismissed by Gibson.
At the time of writing, there has still been no public conclusion to allegations that were brought forward by the club in 2019. If true, it certainly goes a long way to explaining why Monk was shown the door so early on.
Even taking into account the inconsistent start to the season, Gibson’s reputation for patience and understanding did not appear to match the decisions that were made in December 2017. Whatever the actual reasons, it is fair to say that the ‘Monk Experiment’ failed and Boro are still suffering the consequences of that three years later.